The Phoren Hands


The best of the world’s technical talent is here at the biggest film bazaar, spicing up our masala stories with special effects and action. We look at Bollywood’s crossover crew.

Rob Miller
(Sports Action)
Fame claim: Sports action director for The Final Season, Spiderman 3, All You’ve Got, Rebound, Four Minutes, Miracle
India experience: Chak De! India and Lahore

Rob Miller had spent 20 years directing and choreographing action for film and television and staging world sporting events (1996 and 2002 Olympics) when he came to India in 2006 but that didn’t prepare him for the surprises. Day one of the shoot: the Chakde! girls choreographed and performed a dance sequence for Miller and his team. “It was very sweet, and let me know that I was ‘not in Kansas anymore’ (to quote Wizard of Oz). That moment, I knew this was going to be a unique project. After having done several movies with men’s sports teams, the cast performing a dance was definitely not something I had seen before,” he says.
He also hadn’t played hockey for two months in the monsoons before. “We would start warm-up every morning at 6 sharp. It would start pouring about 6.05. And by 6.15, we would be completely soaked, but still having fun. The monsoon just added to the adventure of being in a new culture and location.” The dedication of the girls, most of them actors and not professional hockey players, impressed Miller, but what bowled him over was lead actor Shah Rukh Khan’s first day at the training camp. “I was both amazed at how nervous everyone was to meet him and how quickly he put everyone at ease,” he says. 
Miller also didn’t have too many run-ins with Bollywood’s “unprofessionalism”. “Chakde! was a slight departure from the traditional film. Hiring ReelSports and me as the sports action director (which is a fairly specialised niche even in Hollywood) seemed well accepted. I had to do little explaining as the film’s director Shimit Amin had already sold our expertise to the Yash Raj studios.” Miller’s commendable choreographing of the ice hockey matches in Miracle (Chakde!’s alleged inspiration) - had caught the attention of Amin. Miller justified the decision, going on to win the 2008 Filmfare Award for Best Action. 
Not alien to Bollywood, Miller had seen films like Lagaan, Salaam Namaste and Kabul Express before coming to India. “I saw Dhoom 2 and Don in Australia while working on Chak De!... and recently saw Om Shanti Om, all of which were entertaining,” he adds. As regards, negotiating the daily life in India, he says, “Other than the Chakde! girls giving me a difficult time for my poor pronunciation of some names, laughing at my Hindi attempts on set, and rickshaw drivers never understanding where I was trying to reach, no major communication goof-ups really happened.” Miller was recently back in Mumbai as consultant on another debut director Sanjay Chauhan’s film Lahore on kickboxing. “Bollywood is an exciting place to be and it’s an exciting time to be in India. I am now a champion for India back home,” he says.


Ken Metzker
Fame claim: Chief colourist, Adlabs, films include Lola, The Whisperers, The Forest
India experience: Khakhee, Rang De Basanti, Gandhi My Father, Shivaji, Sarkar Raj

His caller tune -Tera bina zindagi se koi…(Aandhi) — is quite a surprise. Metzker smiles, replying perhaps to a common question, “Though I don’t understand every bit of it, I like the tune.” Song and dance was what attracted Metzker to Hindi cinema a decade ago in Vancouver, when he worked as a colourist. “I’d return home and aimlessly switch channels from the non-English bouquet. I loved the colours and the singing and dancing in the rains. I was quite surprised when during my first monsoon in Mumbai, I didn’t find anyone dancing in the streets.”
After 10 years in the Canadian film industry, Metzker had come to India for a lark “for six months” after spotting an internet advertisement by the Prasad Laboratories for a colourist because “there was no career growth happening back home.” Metzker stayed on for over five years. In November 2004, he married his yoga instructor Komal in traditional Indian pomp and glory, riding an elephant (“a la a Maharajah”) through Mumbai’s busy Powai Road to the local Chinmaya mission’s Shiva temple, where his wedding was held. Now, his citizenship status is ‘a person of Indian origin.’ “Indians are genuinely warm, easy to talk, simple people, unlike the Westerners who are a bit colder,” he says about his new countrymen. In between, Metzker got job offers abroad and went to Poland too. “But I came back. The mangoes here are so good. Then there is my wife. The third is my favourite dish, tandoori crabs,” he laughs. 
A diehard foodie, Metzker uses the imagery of condiments to explain his craft. “For instance, first you make spaghetti with tomato. And then you add pepper, olives, onions and garlic to spice it up. That’s what we do to a film. We spice it up. Give the right colours to enhance the mood of a scene, be it the sepia in a flashback, the dark and shadows in a horror scene or the mellow tone in a romantic scene…” 
From being the lone foreign technician among only eight colourists across India in 2002, Metzker today heads a team of 60 at Adlabs as its chief colourist. “When I was leaving for India, my dad said, ‘Are you crazy?’ Today everybody in the West knows that the Indian film market is the largest, and are heading here. But you have to have a strong stomach to stay in India. Two foreign colourists I know wanted to stay here but the food didn’t agree,” he says.


Charles Darby
(Special Effects)
Fame claim: Emmy award winner, did the special effects for Titanic, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban
India experience: Aladin and Drona

I meet Charles Darby on the sets of Aladin at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios as he queues up for his midday meal along with the rest of the crew. Lunch is parathas, pulao, paneer, chicken curry and salad and Darby digs in with gusto. “The food isn’t much of a surprise. Growing up in UK, one is used to Indian cuisine. It’s the heat now that’s getting to me,” says Darby, who has been in India for nearly a year now and heads the EyeQube Studios Private Limited after co-founding it in association with Eros International in October 2007. 
Darby, an Emmy award winner and a pioneer of digital matter paintings was almost 50-films old when he came to India to do the VFX (visual effects) for Aladin. When Darby got down to the making, he found he needed a bigger set-up, better facilities. Hence he set up EyeQube, which he intends to be ‘a cutting edge VFX platform for other Indian filmmakers.’ “And, if you are setting up your own company, you can’t be coming here for a few months or a year on a project basis,” he says. Darby is now in India for good, though one wonders, how he convinced himself to make the shift after 10 years in Hollywood. “It took me a few months to decide, but I believe in the company I am making. In terms of work it’s no different from starting anything new anywhere.” Darby visited India 18 years ago on a three-month tour with friends. “I was about 20. My first images of India then were the sights of Delhi from the back of a rickshaw at 1 in the night,” he says.
Darby’s presence in Mumbai is good news for the Indian VFX scene. “The talent is there, the resources were lacking, which EyeQube provides. Most of the available local talent is mediocre, but that’s also because they have been working all along with mediocre props. But once you do away with the excuses by giving them the best equipment and a nice place to work, the work has to be top-notch.” With the dollar under recession, Darby predicts India could attract more VFX assignments than studios in UK and abroad by providing qualitative work at a lesser cost.
Though Darby had not watched a single film before he reached Bollywood, he finds greater creative freedom here. “Filmmakers want as much advice as possible, which makes them more open to ideas. The main thing I insist on is more control over the productions we work on. If a filmmaker does not want to follow our proven set of rules in approaching the work, we cannot guarantee quality. That I have a problem with. Life is too short to produce bad work.” Now, that’s one mantra Bollywood should pick up.


Tony Leung Siu Hung
(Action Director)
Fame claim: Action choreographer, Hong Kong; films include Seven Mummies, Bloodmoon, Superfights
India experience: Lahore

Tony Leung’s first day on the sets of Lahore in Hyderabad was eventful. The actor of the day, Mukesh Rishi, had sauntered in and was taking his time with greeting Leung and his team when the action choreographer snapped back, “What are you doing loitering on the sets without your costume when it’s already your shoot time?” 
The reprimand was quite a surprise for the actor not used to such matter-of-fact comments from local technicians. But with Tony around, there was no time to nurse ruffled egos. “The actors were hard working but their pace was often a bit easy. Also, I wish I had more time to practice with them,” says Tony. “As regards, the Indian stuntmen, only a few were veterans, but even they weren’t good at martial arts fighting because I guess there are very few real action flicks made in India. Their talent however suffices for moderate Indian action scenes.” 
Leung enjoys a legendary status as one of Asia’s most respected action choreographers and martial artists and started his career with action sequences choreographed by Jackie Chan. I speak to him over the phone somewhere off Shanghai, where he is shooting one of his many action flicks (he’s starred in over 50 and directed five in a three decades plus career). He is all praise for his first professional Indian outing helmed by debutant director Sanjay Chauhan for Lahore. “Sanjay and his team were very professional and good colleagues. Whoever I met on the set treated my stunt team as well as me with respect. I really appreciate their kindness,” he says. 
Chauhan says he chose Leung when he and his producers were scouting for global technical talent for Lahore. The discipline, adaptability and pace of their team were an eye-opener for him. “Though they cost 15 times the local talent, in just 18 days of shooting they canned more action than what local stuntmen would manage in two months,” says Chauhan. 
Leung and his team of 12, including stuntmen, action directors and choreographers and body doubles, trained local stuntmen and actors for two weeks prior to the shoot. The biggest drawback was communication, he says, “Not all stunt men would understand English. So we mostly communicated in sign or body language. Anyways, in our craft it’s the body that does all the talking.”


Original story published Indian Express (07 JUNE 2008)

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