A contemporary family drama offers rare insight into Australia's Indian community.
Despite holding its World Premiere at the 2011 Dungog Film Festival and travelling to Pusan in October with the Screen Australian contingent (accompanied by heavy-hitters Red Dog, Snowtown and The Hunter), Winston Furlong’s unique father-daughter drama Taj is still awaiting a distribution deal here in Australia.
The long gestation period had a lot to do with Furlong’s determination to realistically portray contemporary Indian society as it exists in Australia. He acknowledges that there was no barometer by which to measure his script’s commercial potential. “No film has ever originated from Australia which had any kind of Indian sensibility or Indian actors in dramatic roles,” he states with conviction. “There have been Chinese, Vietnamese, obviously Aboriginal sensibilities attempted (on-screen) in Australia, but no one has ever attempted to look at Indian sub-culture.”
Pitched to Film Victoria and Screen Australia for funding, first-timer Furlong (he had two experimental shorts to his name) very quickly learnt the harsh realities of film financing. “The first question that they ask is ‘Who’s in it?’”, he tells SCREEN-SPACE, exclusively. “Now, the kind of film I was making, given the Australian (acting) scene, there are no Indian actors that are recognised in any way.” Ultimately, Furlong and his producing partners at Oziinda Films sought private financing, a task made easier thanks to the generous involvement of recognizable actors such as Davini Malcolm, Nicholas Bell and comedian Mark Mitchell.
Also easing the anxieties of those pitch-meetings was the great hook Furlong had in the form of India’s most recognisable landmark made entirely from Denmark’s most famous export. “We wrote to LEGO, hoping to get some sponsorship,” Furlong says, with a laugh, “and they said they were fine for us to do it but they didn’t want to financially back it.” The beautiful centre-piece of the film is the work of US-based constructionist Arthur Guglick, who states somewhat ironically on the LEGO-afficionado website MOCpages.com, “I needed to remember that the model was being built by a precocious teen-ager (with the help of her grandfather who is an architect) so I tried not to use any advanced building techniques.”
Furlong flew Guglick to Australia for the shoot, though dispels any notion it introduced the American to the glamourous side of film-making. “Yes, we got him over,” says Furlong, “but he travelled economy class and he stayed in the spare bedroom of my partner’s house. That’s the world of low-budget films!”
Though frustrated that Taj’s fate is trapped in a void that doesn’t allow for easy marketing angles, Furlong is nevertheless happy to wait for the right screen partner. “There are over 300,000 Indian people living in Australia, so the distributor has to take into account how to get to those people, as well as getting into the arthouse circuit for Western audiences,” he states, wearing his producer’s hat momentarily. “I’m keen to find a distributor who knows how to approach both those markets, because they are very distinct markets.” Furlong seems almost resigned to the reality his film will be self-distributed. “It is looking like an independent distribution model of-sorts,” he says, “though it is a bit piecemeal at the moment.” The film continues to snare prime festival exposure, which will undoubtedly bolster its shelf-life; in April, it will play both the Boston International Film Festival and Northern California’s Tiburon Film Festival.
Furlong is currently in pre-production on his second feature, a more marketplace-friendly Bollywood-inspired musical/comedy called Serena and Her Sisters. But he will continue to fight with a passion for Taj, constantly drawing strength from the reaction of Indian audiences, both here and in their homeland (producer Michelle Rourke screened it for prospective buyers at the recent FRAMES media event in Mumbai). “When it has been shown it to Indian people in India, they have been bowled over,” he says. “They see their own skin colour, their own people up on the screen and they go ‘Wow!’ It is the first time they have seen themselves onscreen in strong roles.”