Two days after Denzel Washington won his Oscar, Ansa Akyea sat chained to a wooden column in a barn in Du Page County. Next to him, wearing a convincing look of misery, shivered Kim Ferguson, in a performance enhanced by the near freezing temperatures of a late March cold snap. In another movie these actors would make a handsome couple. But in this one they played Harper and Alma Morgan, abused sharecroppers kidnapped by a landowner to whom they owe an impossible debt. This villain, Henry Hemmings, and his brother Andrew scheme to hand them over to a more execrable scoundrel named Clarence to pay off their own gambling debts.
As Ferguson's lips quivered, crew members fiddled with the camera, adjusted the chain wrapped around her body, and worried over the lighting. A makeup artist darted in with a Visine dropper and dribbled tears down the actors' cheeks--and again after those had dried.
Long, cold minutes passed until a small, bearded Indian man standing in a darkened corner of the barn spoke up. He'd been quiet most of the afternoon, staring into a video monitor that showed him the same lens view as the camera operator. But he could wait no longer.
"Ready for take," he called out. "Take! Take! Take!"
He fell silent again and continued to peer into the screen. The crew chattered softly. Outside in the pasture, cows lowed. Keith Gruchala, the director of photography, was also anxious. "We only have like 15 minutes to get this shot," he said. "The shot needs to be done before the cows come home."
When action was finally called, Stan Christensen, playing a country preacher, moved into the scene with a hatchet in his hand. A young actress named Melanie Braxton, as Henry's wife Christina, followed. With two blows the chains fell away and the preacher and Christina helped the sharecroppers to their feet. Two small children, a boy and a girl, ran into the scene and clutched the Morgans' legs.
"Harper," said the preacher, "the Lord will be the hope of his people and the strength of the children. You must keep your faith in God! Jesus Christ is our true savior."
"Cut!" called the director and rushed to Christensen. He tried to speak to the actor but, struggling with English, turned to a much younger man at his side and unleashed a lengthy set of instructions in rapid, liquid Malayalam. Naveen Chathappuram listened, nodded, turned to Christensen, took a deep swallow of barn air, and translated.
"Feel," he said, "what you are saying."
The scene was reshot several times, and it was long past 4:30--when the farm's cows were due back in their stalls--before the crew moved upstairs. On just the second day of shooting, the production of Rajiv Anchal's Beyond the Soul was in disarray, behind schedule and moving at a snail's pace. Film stock had not arrived, and there were no storyboards and no definite shooting schedule. Important locations were unavailable and the actors had been given no time to rehearse. The skeleton crew was a mixture of experienced professionals and novices, which wouldn't have been a problem if there'd been more of them and if they hadn't been thrown together at the last minute. On top of it all, Ferguson's four-year-old girl, who plays her daughter in the film, was sleeping in the warm production van and the two sets of keys were locked inside with her. The radio was on and she would not wake up.
Between shots, cast and crew huddled in front of a heater in a plastic tent or wandered about the barnyard muttering into cell phones. The only person who seemed completely at peace was the director. That's because Rajiv Anchal, a popular and respected filmmaker in India, is a devotee of Nava Jyothi Sri Karunakara Guru of Santhigiri Ashram in Pothencode, Kerala. And though the Indian press had been gossiping for nearly a year about this movie, Anchal declined to accept either credit or responsibility. Beyond the Soul was not his project, it was his guru's, and his guru had promised that the film would be made.
"We don't know how it will happen," said Anchal of the monthlong shoot before him. "We don't have that kind of awareness. We just trust our thoughts. And we just believe enough. And we are pushing. We are going ahead. If on the way we meet some kind of coincidences, that process is Guru's guidance."
Much later that night Anchal's faith was rewarded with a pleasing coincidence. The crew had set up in the barn to film Braxton, as Christina, fleeing the wrathful Henry. During camera rehearsals she hurried across the floor, looking fearfully over her shoulder before running up against a wall. A gray-and-white longhaired barn cat watched impassively from a hay bale off camera. But on the first take it leaped into the shot just ahead of her and scampered into the background shadows. Gruchala jumped from the camera stool and rushed over to Anchal at the monitor. "Wasn't it cool?" he exulted. "It was fucking magic, man!"
The director grinned.
Anchal was born in a small village in Kerala, the southern Indian state that enjoys the country's highest literacy rate and a reputation for religious tolerance and diversity. As a young man he went to art school in the state capital, Trivandrum, and after garnering some critical success as a painter and sculptor started working as an art director in the south Indian film industry.
Most movies that come from Kerala differ from the brash Bollywood crowd-pleasers that Westerners associate with the subcontinent. There aren't as many incongruous song-and-dance numbers, actors look more like people than surgically sculpted pinups, and directors are willing to approach serious subjects seriously. While designing sets for some 15 films Anchal kept his eyes open. "I observed so many things from different, various directors," he said. "So I thought, if they are taking a scene, I could take better angle. I was observing all the time."
He directed his first movie in 1986, a children's story that won festival awards but never had a theatrical release. He made his second film in the Tamil language, but it was shelved because of a dispute between the investor and the distributor. But Anchal's 1993 comedy, Butterflies, starring the beefy Mohanlal, was a hit and established his reputation statewide. He followed up the next year with a terrorist actioner called Kashmeeram--another smash. With back-to-back successes, he found himself in a position to make whatever kind of film he pleased.
Anchal's success coincided with the fulfillment of a personal quest that began when he was a 20-year-old art student attending a painting camp held in a forest at a spiritual retreat. There, he says, he met an older man who during a long walk in the woods told him that in his present lifetime Anchal was missing his spiritual guide. In order to follow the path toward enlightenment, Anchal must find him. That day he became a vegetarian, began praying, and began searching for his guru. "I met so many people," he says. "So many gurus. But I didn't like."
Fifteen years later a friend brought Anchal, by then a well-known director, to a place outside Trivandrum where a crowd had gathered to listen to a guru preach. The audience was so large that the man couldn't be seen. Anchal, having no hope of meeting him personally, wanted to leave, but his friend persuaded him to stay. He sat on the ground next to a PA speaker and listened. "His preaching--all my doubts were clearing," said Anchal. "Answers for my personal spiritual questions. He was telling about all the gurus that came here in the world for the betterment of mankind"--Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, and hundreds more. All met tragic ends. "Why? He told me the answer. That is a big, big, big answer, man. If I was talking in my language I would convince you."
Somehow Karunakara Guru seemed familiar to Anchal the first time they met, and the director was certain he'd found his guide. At the height of his commercial success, Anchal moved onto the ashram and began a three-year period of study and reflection during which he made no films.
In 1957 Karunakara Guru established his ashram in a hut thatched with coconut leaves and tapioca sticks, and gradually he began attracting followers. Today the ashram encompasses the village of Pothencode with its ayurvedic hospital and pharmaceutical production facilities, school, printing plant, textile operation, dairy, spice factory, and herb garden. Every day volunteers cook and serve free meals for roughly 600 families of devotees that live there, including Anchal, his wife, and their two young children.
Central to the guru's not uncommonly recondite teachings is the Hindu concept that mankind is currently striving for spiritual liberation in order to emerge from our present era of great suffering and ignorance, Kali yuga, into the next great era, Satya yuga, which will be characterized by pure virtue and wisdom. Only by leading a virtuous life can one correct the sins of past lives, which are manifested in the present as disease and strife.
Correction creates good karma for all and advances humanity's progress toward Satya yuga. Since Krishna showed up some 5,100 years ago, Karunakara Guru calculated, God has sent the planet 2,444 gurus to help us along the way--Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed included. In spite of their efforts, we can't seem to get our act together. But we should arrive in Satya yuga sometime in the next 427,000 years.
In 1999, at the age of 72, Karunakara Guru left his physical form and "merged with the Origin"--says Anchal--after promising his devotees that he would always remain with them. His flock continues to seek his guidance through a female oracle acting as his mouthpiece.
At the ashram, Anchal learned that he should use his talents as a filmmaker to create his own good karma and help mankind down the path. Negative films have the power to create bad karma--the September 11 attacks, he says, resulted from the bad karma created by irresponsibly violent and empty filmmaking. But positive films can be shortcuts down the path to enlightenment, his guru told him--sneak previews of true spiritual visions.
At first Anchal had doubts that even a Keralite audience would take to a film whose primary objective was not to entertain but to enlighten. "Then my guru said, 'Don't worry. You will get the result one day. Wait.'"
Anchal imagined a series of five subjects, each based on a particular vision of Karunakara Guru. In 1997 he released the first, Guru, a 140-minute epic loosely based on the H.G. Wells short story "The Country of the Blind." It stars Mohanlal as a conflicted terrorist who in a dream state falls off a cliff into a secret land populated by a race of blind people who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of sight and persecute anyone who attempts to convince them otherwise. To Anchal this could perfectly illustrate the point that society refuses to abide by the teachings of history's great gurus.
Working with a large budget, he conceived his own elaborate sets, weird costumes, and trippy special effects. Guru was critically acclaimed, and Anchal was disappointed it wasn't a hit. He'd aimed for a national audience, but felt that poor dubbing and his decision to shoot it in Malayalam limited its appeal.
Yet later that year Guru was chosen as India's entry in the Oscars' best foreign film category. Though it didn't win a nomination, he says the honor "charged my battery." In 1998 he filmed Rishivamsam, which attempted to demythologize history's great prophets in order to clarify their true teachings.
It flopped. Hindu fundamentalists, supporters of India's Shiv Sena party, were outraged by Anchal's portrayal of Krishna as a visionary but otherwise ordinary man--which ran contrary to the popular notion of him as a randy superbeing who could satisfy his thousands of wives. Riots erupted outside movie houses. In Trivandrum protesters burned Anchal in effigy, and nervous theater owners across India yanked the film. Though it was later broadcast on television with little uproar, Rishivamsam bankrupted Anchal, and he worried that a reputation as a strictly spiritual filmmaker might alienate the audience he'd cultivated with his early hits. So he did damage control, filming an unremarkable comedy called Pilots, which broke even.
Despite the national reputation Guru established for Anchal, its mediocre showing at the box office made him wonder if his guru's concepts were taken for granted by an Indian audience. Perhaps they'd have more impact on international moviegoers. He traveled to the United States for the first time in 1998 to attend screenings of Guru organized by Keralite expatriates. At one such event in Downers Grove he met Naveen Chathappuram, then a Columbia College film student, who grew up in Kerala before moving to the Chicago suburbs as an adolescent. Chathappuram's parents often brought Malayalam films into the home, and he'd always admired Anchal's work. At the screening he suggested that the director make a movie in America.
"I have a few ideas from my guru," Anchal told him. "And if you are ready, we will start."
Early last March, when Anchal cast Ansa Akyea in the role of Harper Morgan, he told the skeptical actor about his friend the director Mira Nair, and how her first American feature, Mississippi Masala, gave a huge boost to Denzel Washington's career. "He goes, 'Yeah, you're gonna be just like Denzel,'" said Akyea.
While Anchal's decision to break out of the Indian film industry was motivated by his wish to bring his guru's message to America and the world, he initially didn't intend to work with very many Americans. Last summer Indian gossip pages were breathlessly reporting that he was about to make history, casting south Indian leading man Mamooty alongside Bollywood superstar Madhuri Dixit as the leads of the first "Hollywood" movie directed by a Keralite. There were also reports that he was planning to bring over a traditional Keralite folk theater troupe.
Anchal ended up shelving those projects in favor of one requiring a smaller budget. His script for Beyond the Soul focused on an American doctor, a rational man of science, who travels to India to seek a cure for a wealthy patient dying from a gruesome infection of the leg. In Kerala, Dr. Lewis meets a practitioner of ayurveda, the ancient Indian holistic medical system that places equal priority on treating the body, the mind, and the soul. As he overcomes his skepticism he is treated to a series of visions that help him realize that his patient's affliction results from a terrible crime committed in a past life. Sequences of the film would be shot in Kerala and in Chicago.
In the role of Dr. Acharya, the ayurvedic doctor, Anchal cast one of his producers, Antony Thekkek, a San Francisco businessman, amateur actor, and brother of Malayalese professional actor Babu Antony. Thekkek, whose screen name is Thambi Antony, also supplied the entire budget.
His was to be the only Indian character in the film. The rest would be Americans, played by Chicago actors. Last fall Anchal stayed with Chathappuram in his mother's Bolingbrook apartment, casting actors, scouting locations, and looking for deals on rental equipment. Chathappuram had come across Stan Christensen's head shot in a filing cabinet at Columbia College, and invited him to audition for the double role of Dr. Lewis and his previous incarnation, Pastor O'Connor.
To Christensen, a meeting planner who acts on the side, the audition felt strangely like destiny. Anchal was surprised to learn that he'd undergone past-life regression therapy and was a believer. The actor, whose previous credits included only commercials, industrials, and a few independent features, was blown away by the improbability of being cast in the lead role. "I'm just an unknown," he says. "I have actor friends that have been in the business for a long time, and I think they were kind of surprised that I was going to India to do a movie. I did feel like there was a connection with Rajiv in a way. There was a reason that we were going to be working together. I don't know what that reason is now. But, I mean, you never know, there could still be a reason."
Christensen prepared to leave for India in January for three weeks of shooting, but the schedule kept getting moved up. In mid-November he was told to be ready to go in two days. Once there, he stayed for much of the shooting schedule in the oceanside resort where many scenes were being filmed. But the experience wasn't relaxing. Workdays were hot and long, and there were nights toward the end where Christensen had only a few hours' sleep. Aside from television reporters digging for the scoop on Anchal's film, there weren't many people he could talk to.
He said Anchal had four or five associate directors at his beck and call at any given time, but they didn't speak much English. "If they were trying to express something to me but didn't know the word, I was physically moved about. A lot. For instance, when the guy is like, 'Stan, close,' and then he pushes me, it turns out he meant that it was time for [Antony's] close-up. If they wanted me to change position I'd have like three people pulling on me. There would be times where I'd be like 'Stop! Tell me what you want me to do!' So Naveen would be found and he'd come over and explain the situation."
Indian film production is faster paced and less structured than America's. In some ways it's more accommodating to the whims of the director, and regular Indians are more accommodating too. If Anchal suddenly sees a house he'd like to shoot in, the owner is likely to welcome him at no charge and feed the crew in the bargain. "In Indian filmmaking," says Chathappuram, "the director is the man who makes everything. He is there when the script is being written. From the lighting to the camera point of view, whatever the director says it happens there. He has everything, each and every little shot in his mind. And there are like 50 people behind him waiting for him to say a word so they act out what he has in his mind, no questions asked. Here it seems like everyone is independent. They specialize in their own little field."
Anchal says that once he starts shooting a film at home, it doesn't stop until the last scene wraps. That means no days off, and only a few hours' sleep at night for the crew. But the technicians don't complain about the frenetic pace, and they relish the opportunity to work with Anchal. That's why he insisted on flying over a 26-man Indian crew--including a cook to prepare vegetarian meals--for the U.S. scenes. "Without them, I cannot," he said. "I am used to work with my people. They know me."
But he knew he'd need some American help. While searching for equipment, Anchal heard of Billy Nielsen Jr., a third-generation Chicago camera operator whose credits include E.R. and High Fidelity. Though Nielsen does much of his work on big-budget projects, if something smaller piques his interest he'll help out any way he can. "You go in and you do these freebies and you work really hard," he says. "You give back to the film community and the film community gives back to you. Working for a rate that's obnoxiously low--somewhere down the line you'll be compensated for that. I work a lot, and I think it's because of that."
Anchal, Nielsen, and Chathappuram took a meeting at Maggiano's in Schaumburg, and Nielsen was told of Anchal's plans to bring over a crew from India. "I wanted to see how that worked. You have a full east Indian crew working on an American script and you have, for the most part, people who wouldn't understand the American tradition. I wanted to see how that would translate." Though he didn't commit right away, Nielsen eventually offered his services, the use of his own Steadicam, and his connections to help round out the crew.
Shooting was scheduled to begin in the U.S. in late February. Anchal's local producers, Melissa Centazzo and Ranjini Iyer, worried that the crew's airfare would eat nearly half of the meager budget. He told them not to worry. His men would work for free.
An immigration lawyer began arranging the visas but warned them that in the post-September 11 state of alert, it would be difficult. The paperwork crawled through the system, pushing the shooting schedule further and further back. Finally "some woman at the INS saw 26 Indian single men, 24 to 35. She slammed it down on us," said Centazzo. The lawyer appealed to Senator Richard Durbin to no avail.
"They were also suspicious of the fact that we were bringing so many people for such a low-budget film," said Iyer. "They said, 'How can you afford all these people?' And it's hard to explain to them that these guys are willing to do it for next to nothing because they are doing it for Rajiv."
With shooting scheduled to begin in two weeks, Beyond the Soul had no crew. But this wasn't the sort of wrinkle to worry Anchal.
"Here," he says, "everything is organized. Everyone's time is very precious. Any kind of disorganized situation come, the organized people they are all disappointed. People here, they say "Oh my God! Everything is gone!'--disappointed. I am not. We [are] used to that. I say 'Be cool, man.' We are expecting obstacles every day. I came from disorganized place. So when obstacles come I will think about other option."
"See, in our country," explains Chathappuram, "every second, whatever you do, you are faced with challenges and you have to make decisions right away. There is no planning."
The last few years have been lean ones for Chicago filmmakers. Once it was a popular location for out-of-town productions, but the city's grips, electricians, production assistants, stunt coordinators, script supervisors, and camera operators have watched studio and independent producers alike spend their budgets in places where the dollar is stronger and labor is cheaper. Even films set in Chicago are starting to look suspiciously like Toronto or Pittsburgh.
That was the word on the street when Keith Gruchala arrived to meet with Anchal and Chathappuram. Gruchala is a cinematographer with a particular interest in cross-cultural filmmaking. He graduated from film school in Santa Barbara in the late 80s and worked a range of set jobs in Hollywood before taking off for Eastern Europe, where he shot documentaries, commercials, features, and music videos for eight years.
He'd returned to Los Angeles in 1999, but about a year and a half ago he was exploring the idea of working in India. After answering an ad soliciting cinematographers for an Indian film, he received a call from someone who vaguely described a low-budget project still in the planning stages. He sent off a videotape of his work, and after several months passed without his hearing anything back assumed the project had fizzled.
Naveen Chathappuram rediscovered Gruchala's tape while cleaning his bedroom. "Oh yeah, this guy," he said. A year and a half earlier he'd been vetting directors of photography for an Indian producer--a friend of Anchal's--when he talked to Gruchala on the phone. At some point Chathappuram dropped out of that project, put Gruchala's tape aside, and got busy with Beyond the Soul, for which he would serve as Anchal's first assistant director.
In February he and Anchal were still confident their crew would make it, but they admired Gruchala's work and decided to invite him to Chicago just in case. When the crew arrived it might be handy to have him around to advise the Indian director of photography for a few days.
"I was a little bit dubious," said Gruchala, "because they were telling me they had a start date two weeks hence. And I said, 'Well, for a feature I usually want a minimum of four weeks' preparation.' My main qualm was that I don't have time to meet with the director and get to know him. My experience has been that when there's less than that amount of preparation the project is in such disarray that it's not even worth attempting. But Naveen convinced me that everything was in place and all the locations were locked down, that everything was prepared and they had this other crew coming in."
A few days later Gruchala and Anchal met at the Black Beetle and talked for hours. Gruchala happens to believe in reincarnation, and he saw that he and the director shared similar spiritual views. But he wasn't quite ready to commit, so he asked for a day to read the script and think it over. Anchal asked him to ride along to a meeting the following day with the equipment rental company RAH Chicago. According to Gruchala, Anchal was pressured to sign an agreement to hire union workers for the shoot, including a driver to haul the equipment around and a key grip to manage the workers that would set it up and break it down.
Though Gruchala says the terms were good by union standards, he wasn't sure Anchal could afford them. "I felt very much at a disadvantage because I wasn't sure how to advise them, and they just got rushed into it," he says. "In some ways that meeting ended up being how this production was gonna go. They introduced me as the director of photography and these rental guys were recognizing me as the guy they were going to deal with, and I hadn't at that point really agreed to do the project."
That same day the INS denied the Indian crew's visas. "I ended up being scooped up and brought out to Bolingbrook. And I lived with them and on an hourly basis just tried to make this project happen. Which made me end up being the producer and a teacher to Naveen."
Chathappuram's mother was out of town, so he, Anchal, and Gruchala bunked there together. Gruchala began making phone calls, trying to piece together a crew. He enlisted several friends from LA--a gaffer, a boom operator, a makeup artist, and a sound mixer. Gruchala asked a friend in Chicago to design a set for a crucial scene, and through him found an art director. Word got around, and grips, electricians, and camera assistants signed on. Columbia College film students were offered class credit to work as production assistants.
Because no one had hired a production manager, line producer, or location scout, Gruchala says he and Anchal were never able to talk about how they planned to shoot the film. "We didn't really get to do our jobs," he says. "We didn't have time to break down the script. We were trying to see locations and Rajiv was running around getting costumes sewn up. I mean, we were doing everything, because there was just so much to do and we really didn't have all the help to do it."
Dennis de la Mata is a veteran key grip who's helped light sets, push dollies, and lay track on over 32 feature films and TV shows beginning with the The Blues Brothers in 1980. A card-carrying member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, he'd been recommended to Anchal by Billy Nielsen and RAH Chicago. When he first heard about the possibility of working with an Indian crew, he says, "I knew the INS wasn't gonna let that happen. Our economy is weak right now. And I have nothing against anything else, but you know, films are made in this country and we've lost much to other countries. And we're just coming out of the recession, and our government's got to protect our asses a little bit. No slight against anybody else, but the INS did the right thing."
Not that de la Mata himself needed the work. The money he was offered was nothing to him, he says. But when he met the director, Anchal "paid me a huge honor. He says, 'You know in India when we shoot, they give the most respect to the most senior man on the crew. Not the director, but the most senior man.' He looked at me and he said, 'You have the most experience and you're the oldest man. You're the senior man.' And I go, 'But you're the boss.' And he goes, 'But you're the senior man.'"
De la Mata says he looked forward to the opportunity to mentor some of the younger crew members. He has a mantra he learned from his own guru--his army rifle instructor--and likes to invoke when things go wrong. "He'd been training punk kids all his life," says de la Mata. "He'd scare the shit out of them and tell them how important it was to be prepared, because it'll save your life." De la Mata calls it "the seven P's" and it goes like this: "Prior proper planning prevents piss-poor performance."
Many in the cast and crew had a hard time piecing together the elements of the film's plot because Anchal kept the script so close to his vest, but it's a little difficult to follow even after a read through. Essentially, Beyond the Soul contains a story within a story. The past-life visions that Dr. Lewis experiences in India gradually reveal a plot set on an American farm in the 20s, as desperate Henry Hemmings tries to settle his debt to Clarence by kidnapping and handing over the Morgans. When Henry's wife Christina learns of the plot she and Pastor O'Connor attempt to foil it, and all hell breaks loose.
Most of these scenes were scheduled to be shot at Kline Creek Farm in Winfield, Illinois. Owned by the Du Page County Forest Preserve District, Kline Creek is a restored 19th-century working farm with a barn, farmhouse, long dirt roads, and the rustic look Anchal needed to shoot the period scenes in Dr. Lewis's visions. But shooting was limited to Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the only days the farm is closed to the public.
By the second week, park supervisor Keith McClow was frustrated. The production's permit allowed filming on the farm between 7 AM and 8 PM, but the schedule kept changing. McClow wanted to be flexible, but he had only two staff members to help him supervise. One morning he showed up at seven and no one from the production arrived until 11:30. McClow found that most members of the crew, including the small production staff, often didn't know about the changes before he did. "You know, the film is about karma," he said. "We've heard that a couple times when we've asked the question when? where? what? They say, 'Well, it'll all work out. We've got good karma.' Which means, I guess, we're being very nice in accommodating them. Naveen, I think, is the one who's been using that term more."
As Anchal's assistant and interpreter, Chathappuram carried an overwhelming amount of information in his head, including the dates actors were available, the particulars of script continuity, budget details, and his insights into Anchal's vision for the film. What he didn't carry was very much experience. Gruchala recognized that they needed more support personnel, especially to rescue Greg Joyner, who was doing double duty as the production manager and line producer.
The line producer, usually brought on board in the planning stages of a film, is charged with overseeing the financial operations. For that they hired Tom Nicoll, who arrived on the set the third day of shooting. Nicoll, who'd worked on Chicago films and TV shows for four years, mostly as an office production assistant, saw that Chathappuram had too much on his plate. Nicoll called in his friend Vince Terrazzino, nominally to be second assistant director but mainly to carry out many of the tasks Chathappuram wasn't equipped for, such as calling out orders to roll sound and camera, and generally moving things along.
On Terrazzino's first day, the eighth day of shooting, it rained. The production had rented the Naper Settlement, a 19th-century "museum village" in downtown Naperville, where they were filming scenes set in Clarence's hideout. The gambler was to sit at a table surrounded by his thugs, shooting his pistol at whiskey bottles. Henry and Andrew arrive and offer to square their debt by giving him the Morgans.
Two days the previous week had been canceled because of snow, but this day began well. Shots were being set up and taken at a brisk pace, and there was hope of finishing early enough to get some exterior shots of a church in Wayne, Illinois. But early in the afternoon the generator broke down and everything stopped. Lunch hadn't arrived yet so the grips and electricians milled about smoking cigarettes, while Anchal sat placidly in the visitors center, counting his blessings. "I am happy with [Gruchala's] lighting," he said. "He is very keen to make the movie and he is not compromising. And the operating cameraman, his movements are good. We are getting good results. Why should I worry?"
Several hours later it became clear that the rental company was not going to make it through rush hour traffic with a new generator before 5 PM, when the production had to leave the premises. So it was decided to run off the Naper Settlement's power and shoot whatever scenes were possible under minimal lighting conditions. Anchal wanted Clarence's gun smoking at the start of the take, but the prop refused to cooperate, fizzling out before the camera could roll. Take after take, Anchal and Gruchala huddled over the gun, stuffing the barrel with toilet paper and lighting it, then running back behind the camera before the smoke dissipated. Outside the small blacksmith's shed serving as the hideout, Nicoll paced in the rain, biting his thumb as the afternoon slipped away.
A fundamental problem that had been developing since the first day became more apparent: Anchal and Gruchala kept contradicting each other. Gruchala would give Nielsen one set of instructions for framing and camera movement, and Anchal would change it. "You have a director who wants one thing and a DP that wants another," said an actor. "I have a feeling that nobody sat down and said, 'Hey, we're of one like mind here.'"
The problem wasn't just lack of preparation. It was style and language. Anchal kept most of what he wanted in his head. That's not much of an issue in India, where he's used to controlling all aspects of a production. For example, he never uses storyboards, the visual blueprints of the film that keep everyone on the same page. His shots are often planned just before they're taken. And he rarely takes master shots, which encompass an entire scene and give a director more options in the editing room. In his mind he already has the film edited. Many crew members were impressed that he always knew exactly what he wanted. But his difficulties with English and his quiet manner often kept them from knowing what it was.
After the wrap, Anchal, Gruchala, Nicoll, Terrazzino, and Chathappuram sat around a table in the visitors center and tried to hash things out. "I don't know where you are," said Gruchala. "I'm lost."
When McClow, the Kline Creek supervisor, wasn't busy trying to protect the farmhouse's antiques from lumbering crew members, he had the opportunity to observe Anchal's style. "It's been interesting to watch him work with all these loudmouthed Americans who all have their own opinions," he said. "He's kind of a quiet guy, anyway. I don't know anything about films, but even that director of photography seems to have taken charge of some of the setup. I don't know if it's more than what should be, but Rajiv came to me and simply said, '[Gruchala] is very good at what he does.' So apparently he is all right with him taking over in some places."
Not everyone was. Two days after the shoot at Naper Settlement, Beyond the Soul was back at Kline Creek Farm, shooting a complicated scene in which Henry and Andrew Hemmings search for Harper and Alma Morgan on horseback. After discovering them hiding behind a woodpile, Henry savagely kicks Harper and Andrew drags a screaming Alma into the barn. Before getting to the meat of the scene, the crew filmed various shots of Henry, played by part-time actor Scott Anderson, riding around in the late afternoon sunlight shouting Harp-uh! Harp-uh Morgan!
Nielsen wasn't there that day, so Gruchala was doing double duty, setting up the shots and operating the camera. As usual they were behind schedule, and Terrazzino was getting agitated, warning Anchal that they had little time left before they'd have to leave the farm for the day. After filming a wide shot of the beating, Anchal was ready to move on to the last scene, but Gruchala wanted to take another. Anchal disagreed, but the cinematographer begged, then insisted, and the director gave in. Gruchala quickly began setting up a low-angle close-up of Henry's right foot coming down toward the camera on a collision course with Harper.
Meanwhile Terrazzino, who'd been off to the side quietly conferring with producer Iyer, approached Anchal. The director didn't want to be distracted and called for Chathappuram. But Terrazzino persisted. "No," he said. "I want to talk to you. You are the director. Is this the last shot you want to take? Because after this I'm pulling the plug." Iyer came over, and the four of them huddled by a fence and whispered angrily about Gruchala in English and Malayalam. "People are not respecting him," Iyer said to Chathappuram. Gruchala, oblivious, continued to set up his shot, and after a few moments Anchal waved off the others and joined him. "Go for take!" he said. "Take!"
Some local crew members began wondering who was really directing. "Low-budget films are about getting the meat and potatoes," says de la Mata. "You try to get as many good cuts as you can. And if you've got time left over to spoon some gravy on there, that's great. I think Keith's intentions were sometimes honorable and I think sometimes he was also trying to make a reel for himself."
Corner-mouthed muttering gave way to bald scorn and sometimes outright hostility to Gruchala's directions. At times it seemed that he couldn't open his mouth without a sarcastic retort from de la Mata, Nielsen, or Terrazzino.
"My feeling is when I'm hired through the director, I work for the director," says Nielsen. "My job is to give the director what he wants. Well, [Anchal] is the writer, director, and editor. This man is a highly respected person in India as a filmmaker and I respect him just as much as people in India do. I try to give him exactly what he wants. Well, we had a DP trying to do other things. And that makes for problems. I've been in situations where directors are new, they don't know what they're doing, and you help them along. In this situation, Rajiv has made several other movies. I don't think at this point this man needs any help. He knows what he's doing. He's editing in his head where his cuts are, what he needs coverage-wise, and I'm not the person to challenge that."
Several days later, when the production loaded in at Sacred Heart Hospital on the west side, the tension had stretched even Anchal's nerves. With its old-style green-tiled operating rooms, Sacred Heart appeals to location scouts, and it's served as a set for several films and television shows. Beyond the Soul was there to film the climactic present-day scene in which surgeons try to save the life of Lewis's patient Fred, who's also played by Scott Anderson--Henry Hemmings in the past-life sequences.
The crew squeezed into the small surgical ward, mingling with extras in bloodied hospital garb. Conditions were so cramped that for some shots the video monitor had to be placed in the hallway outside. Separated by a pair of swinging doors, Anchal and Chathappuram communicated through a walkie-talkie barely powered by dying batteries. But the director and Gruchala had to run back and forth when they wanted to talk to Nielsen behind the camera or to any of the actors.
During a break, Nielsen and de la Mata griped about Gruchala. "I'm really tired of him," said Nielsen. "He's a pain in the ass, and he's really not very good."
"He is the most inept DP I've ever worked with," said de la Mata.
Back in the hallway, Gruchala and Anchal began bickering over the way the shots were turning out. Gruchala believed that Nielsen wasn't following his directions for camera movement, but he didn't want to go in and talk to him about it. Anchal misunderstood much of what Gruchala was saying and believed he was criticizing the actors. "There's really nothing for me to do," said Gruchala. "Put them where you want to." They filmed a shot of doctors walking toward each other and conferring on Fred's status. After the scene was cut, Anchal looked expectantly at Gruchala.
"That's really not very good," he said.
"What?" Anchal stared at him in disbelief. "What?"
"We don't have time to fix it," said Gruchala. "You have other characters going forward, they're blocking light. I don't have time to fix it."
"You--you," stammered Anchal. "I--I--I--"
"There's nothing I can do about it."
Anchal abruptly rose from the box he was sitting on, stormed into the doctors' lounge, and slammed the door. The crew was stunned silent as Nicoll and Terrazzino rushed in after him. Chathappuram--who always addressed Anchal as chetta, a term of respect meaning "older brother"--ran in and out of the lounge mediating between Anchal and Gruchala back at the end of the hallway. "Be careful when you speak to him," he told Gruchala. After ten minutes Anchal reemerged and grimly directed the final shot of the night without asking Gruchala for input.
When the wrap was called the crew began packing up. But Anchal, Gruchala, Nielsen, Nicoll, and Terrazzino gathered at one end of the surgical ward and argued for almost 45 minutes, every voice but the director's rising into the hallway.
Back on the farm the next day, it seemed like a storm had passed. There was no back talk, everyone was polite and civil, and the set was quiet. The park district had piled a large mound of manure behind the farmhouse, and its aroma wafted over the set on a warm wind. The weather was beautiful and Anchal was full of smiles, joking with art director Laura Cohen that she'd have to do something about the newly budding trees lest they ruin the film's continuity.
Relaxing in the production/mess tent, he explained that he'd lost patience the night before when Gruchala would not clarify what was wrong with the shot. But the problem between Gruchala and Nielsen, he said, was not his problem. "That kind of clash is everywhere," he said. "Every film, different artists, whenever working together, there will be some kind of evil plans. Everybody knows we cannot work with the ego clash." He laughed, remembering what he'd told them. "I said, 'Ego is not a presence. It's an absence of awareness.' Like darkness is not a presence. It is an absence of light."
"If you don't see a temper tantrum at least once, it's not a real movie," agreed Nicoll. People were slowly getting used to each other, and with half the shooting schedule completed, he predicted that personality differences would diminish as the crew pushed toward the end.
Iyer would later say she finally realized that by living together Gruchala and Anchal had developed a working relationship the rest of the crew didn't understand. "Rajiv is a very down-to-earth guy," she said. "He doesn't mind people coming to give him their opinion. So it gives the impression that he is not being assertive. We had a word with him about it--'Maybe you should throw your weight around.' He said he didn't care. 'If they think that way I really cannot help it.'"
"Even though we weren't getting to plan so much at a certain point, we did understand each other really well," Gruchala would reflect. "We had several spiritual conversations about life, the universe, and everything, and connected on a really basic, really strong level about a lot of other things. So I felt like I still knew what he was trying to go for and I knew what he was trying to achieve, and there were times when yeah, I'd step in and just start lining up shots because I knew he wanted me to jump in there and make this happen. They picked up on where Rajiv and I had conflict when we didn't understand each other. And then I was like, 'Are you sure you need this? Or don't you want to try that?' And I was making suggestions and sometimes maybe being overbearing about it and Rajiv brought it to my attention. We talked about it and then we laughed about it. He said to me, 'Keith, I know you are going for the good thing. So you just keep doing it. But it's your language sometimes. You gotta stop saying, "I need this done." You say, "We need this done."'"
Peace reigned over the set for a few days.
In the early weeks of the shoot, Anchal was still searching for a mansion in which to film present-day scenes with Dr. Lewis, his girlfriend Angela, who's a nurse, his wealthy, dying patient Fred, and Fred's dog. Friends of producer Melissa Centazzo agreed to donate their house in Mundelein for a few days. It wasn't much of a mansion, but rather a large gray house somewhat too big for the lot it stood on, in a development of houses not terribly unlike itself. The inside of the home, which belonged to a family of four, was white, bright, and antiseptic and was decorated with a number of photographs of cherubic little girls. One, placed on the toilet tank in the downstairs bathroom, bore a disturbing resemblance to JonBenet Ramsey, and its frame was embossed with the inspirational credo, "Nobody stands alone."
By the time a shoot at that location was scheduled, Chathappuram had forgotten that Anderson, the actor playing Fred and Henry, would be out of town at a wedding. The production was forced to shoot around him. Nielsen also had a prior commitment, but after Gruchala had sat behind the lens for several scenes he suddenly pulled up in front of the house in his Mercedes convertible and took over. "I heard there was a camera problem," Nielsen said.
Anchal and Chathappuram sat in the master bedroom while the crew broke for lunch and planned out some scenes with the dog, an Australian shepherd named Bravo who in the present-day segments turns out to be the reincarnation of Andrew. "That dog is very keen," said Anchal. "He is just like a man." At first Gruchala, large bags under his eyes, sprawled on the bed and didn't say much. But he sprang to life when they hit upon the idea of writing some comic relief into the heavy deathbed scenes. There was a large exercise treadmill in the bedroom, and in lieu of shooting the dying man in his bed, they could film Bravo running on the treadmill.
"God, that could be really funny," said Gruchala. As they sat on the floor with Bravo and his trainer discussing the possibilities, de la Mata returned from lunch in the garage. "OK, what's next?" he said, walking across the bedroom and turning on a television sitting atop a dresser. The Cubs were on and de la Mata wasn't happy that Matt Clement was pitching. "This guy should be given a beating," he said, looking around the room for another opinion. None was given. The crew trickled back from lunch and set up the shot, while the TV remained on, the sound turned down.
Many actors and crew members were attracted to Anchal's film by the possibility of cultural exchange; to see how a filmmaker from another part of the world does it. But as the schedule approached completion, a few wondered if the greater cultural differences were more regional than international. Sound mixer Eugene Thompson was brought on the project by Gruchala from his home in Los Angeles. Tall, skinny, dreadlocked, and jokey, his disposition rivaled Anchal's for amicability. Yet somehow he found himself in a number of altercations with local crew members.
"Man, I just think it's the way they are," he said. "They're used to doing things a certain way. Just like construction-worker-type people. Their attitude is basically pretty pissy. I can't say this doesn't exist in LA ever, but they're not cooperative on the set. We're all a crew, for crying out loud. Every time I say something they act like I'm bugging them. And it's kind of confusing to me because most sets I've been on that's usually not the case."
De la Mata thinks Anchal shouldn't have hired out-of-towners in the first place. "I think that was a mistake. I think they would have gotten better technicians and better equipment. So here you are paying these guys lodging and this and that. You could have hired local people at the same dollar."
Gruchala says some of the locals just weren't able to roll with the punches. "I don't want to dis anybody, but my feeling is that union folks are kind of more the old school and sometimes difficult to deal with. And they're not into fly-by-night, low-budget filmmaking. They're not as committed to the art of film. They're a little more about the industry and making their money and the prestige of it and being respected. I've done this also between Europe and America, and we have a way of doing production here that is organized and efficient but sometimes is devoid of the actual heart and soul of making a movie. There's this professionalism. And I'll tell you, I'll throw fucking professionalism out the window if you make a better movie. If I have to have a little bit of passion and excitement and egos flying around, well OK, I'll deal with that. But I'd rather have that than everybody being professional and ending up with a movie that's totally unpassionate and uninvolved and has no soul."
One week before Beyond the Soul was set to wrap, and after many postponements, a late afternoon shoot was rescheduled along the banks of Timber Lake, just down the bike trail from Kline Creek Farm. A heavy crane had been rented to capture shots of Henry and Andrew and Clarence and his gang riding their horses to and from the farmhouse.
The call time was scheduled for 3 PM. Though the equipment and prop trucks had arrived at one end of the lakeside trail and a group of grips was working with the crane and lighting at the other end, by 5 PM nothing had happened. Anchal, Gruchala, and Laura Cohen sat in the grass at the midpoint of the path, watching the sun set over the lake and waiting for the camera to arrive. Chathappuram paced in front of them. There wasn't another crew member in sight.
Anchal reflected happily on his first American film. "I believe that we achieved," he said. "All kind of obstacles were there. I enjoyed this film. You know why? In India when we start a movie you don't have any holiday in between. So after almost half the film, everybody will be tired. There will be some kind of laziness. That we can see in the film also. Here we cannot work more than ten hours. Every week I get fresh. So that's the great thing."
Beside him, Gruchala sat with his head between his knees. Earlier he'd broken up a pushing match between Eugene Thompson and Nicoll, and he'd just been informed that the crane could not be placed in the position he wanted it because it would get stuck in the mud.
"So the crane has become for me now," he said, "a useless piece of steel."
"Who should I talk to?" asked Chathappuram.
"Man, I don't want to talk to anybody."
"Who should I talk to?"
"There's no one to talk to. Who? Talk to Dennis so he can give disgust? You know what you can do with that crane? Send it back to the parking lot, call the company up and have them tow it back, because if it gets stuck it'll cost like a thousand dollars. But I can't use it."
Anchal thought for moment. "Then you find a way," he said quietly, and turned his attention back to the setting sun. Later that night, after a few shots had finally been taken and the crew broke for dinner, he stayed behind to guard the camera and talked about spreading his guru's ideas.
Anchal is not a proselytizer. He prefers to teach by example. Another blessing, he said, was how the crew had eventually pulled together. "I believe any concept is better not promote through the words--through the life it is better," he said. "I am being my dedication with them so that they can understand my emotions, my sincerism. Slowly they are coming to me--not I am talking to them and giving a class. They know my limitation of communication, language. In every aspect they are cooperating."
Some cast and crew members had in fact achieved transcendence over the frustrations that plagued the production. "My experience was always a race and then a relief," said Cohen, who's done set and prop design in Chicago theater for the last ten years. "I raced to find information in time before rentals, antique stores, and nurseries closed. Shooting schedules would be decided late and we rarely had enough time to discuss the scenes in enough detail. That was part of the fun, the freedom. I rarely worried about disappointing Rajiv--I only worried about disappointing my vision. That sounds really horrible, but I tried to ride my own spontaneity. My mantra was 'bend like the reeds.' Of course, I'm not sure how long I could have put up with holding my ankles with someone other than Rajiv."
Brian Berta, who quit a job to take on the role of Henry's brother Andrew, was one of the first actors cast. He made sure Chathappuram knew that in late April he'd be attending his brother's wedding in Poland. When Berta was informed at the last minute that the lake shoot had been rescheduled for the day he departed he told Anchal he couldn't make it. The director convinced him to stay. Said Berta, "Whenever anything's gone wrong, they're like, 'Oh, now don't worry about it. Karma will take care of it. Everything will be fine.' They really believe it. And to be quite honest, it has proved to be somewhat true. They always get their way. And it's so funny because they piss us all off because of all this disorganization, but they're so nice. He'll say something like, 'I believe that destiny has brought us together. Destiny will take care of us. We are in the hands of good grace.' He'll say something like that and you just feel like an asshole for getting mad at him."
Anchal slept only three hours before his last day with the full crew, which would be spent outside a large, columned, more mansionlike home in Hobart, Indiana. Here they were to shoot Fred being wheeled out the front door and loaded into a waiting ambulance, and also one of the last scenes in the movie, in which Dr. Lewis is informed of the fate of his patient.
Anchal was excited but unsurprised that he'd made it this far. "I told you," he said. "This is not my project. My guru's project. He will not give anything easily. He will make the devotees, you know, very painful. Generally he will give us something good. Before that we should suffer. Because otherwise we cannot understand the value in attaining. If you are not hungry you will never feel the taste of the food." The struggle to make a film was to him a part of something greater. He said, "There is a wonderful concept that will come to the world. Not now. It will take time. I cannot explain properly in this language [but] definitely that will reach to people."
Tomorrow he'd shoot some exterior scenes with just a few crew members, and then he and Chathappuram planned to return to India for editing and scoring. He hoped to be finished by August so he could screen the movie at a festival in New Delhi. They'd be joined later by Gruchala, who was looking to line up work in India, perhaps beginning with a short subject Anchal had in mind. The director was also planning his follow-up to Beyond the Soul, to be filmed in South Africa or maybe here again. This would be a larger-budgeted film based on Karunakara Guru's ideas about karma, genetics, and family planning.
But right now there were shots to plan. After a long, tense exchange between Nielsen and Gruchala about where to position Bravo the dog, action was called, and cast and crew went into motion. Two paramedics wheeled Fred down the front walk on a gurney while Bravo's trainer ran behind the camera, leading the dog by wagging a knitted toy above her head. Nielsen, flanked by two assistants, hunched on the camera dolly and was pushed down the track by a grip. A boom operator ran after them, and Anchal trailed them all. He ran sideways in a crouch, his eyes fixed on the action.
At 11:50 PM the director embraced Anderson and said good-bye to Bravo.
Anchal was forced to rewrite the final scene of the production that morning. The actress who played Fred's nurse's couldn't make it, thanks to another late change in the schedule that conflicted with a play rehearsal. Anchal convinced Gregory Lacey, an actor with a small role as Fred's lawyer, to come to the set, lean against a sports car, and deliver the bad news to Dr. Lewis by cell phone: his patient had died.
Antony Thekkek had come from San Francisco to watch the final days of filming, and he and many of the grips, electricians, and production staff members gathered behind the camera to watch the final take. Vince Terrazzino whispered in Anchal's ear--as director, he had the honor of calling the wrap on the production after the last clean take. The camera began to roll.
"Lewis, you did everything you could," said Fred's lawyer. "Just so you know, the specified beneficiary of the will is the pet dog. Come and see me when you get in." The lawyer snapped his cell phone shut and stared thoughtfully into the distance.
"And we're cut!" shouted Terrazzino. The only thing left to do was to check the camera for any stray bits of flotsam that might have been trapped between the film and the lens, blemishing the picture. First camera assistant Eric Wheeler began to dismantle the front of the camera. The crew waited expectantly.
"The moment is coming," said Anchal. "Great moment is coming. Countdown! Countdown!" Chathappuram began counting backward.
"Ten," he said. "Nine."
"Nine," echoed Anchal.
"Eight," said Chathappuram.
"Eight," repeated Anchal.
Wheeler peered into the camera.
"Three," said Chathappuram. "Two."
"We gotta go again," said Wheeler.
"Again?" said Anchal.
A production assistant screamed "Noooo!" from the back of the crowd. Gruchala peered over Wheeler's shoulder. "Oh my God."
"There's no way," said Nielsen. But there was. A hair had found its way behind the lens. They'd have to take the shot again.
"Yeah, OK," said Anchal. "Go for it." The scene was reshot, and afterward Gruchala said he noticed a shine on Lacey's glasses in the last few seconds of the take. But Anchal dismissed it. He wasn't using the very end of the scene.
"Call it out, Rajiv," said Terrazzino. There was a long pause while Anchal struggled for words.
"He doesn't want anyone to leave," said Chathappuram.
"Yeah," said Anchal. "That's right. Gang. Thanks for everything. And we'll see more projects together. Thanks for everything. I don't know how to say thanks. You know--everything with you--because I wish to join together again and again. More projects. And thanks again. And, if anything I did, uh, around you, or anything I did--"
Chathappuram threw him a line: "Hurt your feelings."
"Yeah, hurt your feelings," continued Anchal. "Please forgive. Uh, thanks again. Uh, wrapped."
The crew burst into laughter and applause, and began loading the trucks, shaking hands, and exchanging business cards. Thekkek and Chathappuram sat at a table in the garage cutting paychecks. As dolly grip Christine Taddeo passed by, Anchal grabbed her by the hands.
"These hands work hard for my film," he said.
"It was a pleasure," she said. "I had fun. It was good."
"You have fun, but you know, God will bless this hand."
"I never forget."
A cooler filled with beer sat on the floor. De la Mata stuffed a couple bottles in his pockets and Keith Gruchala sidled up to him.
"I really appreciate you, Dennis," he said, putting his arm around the key grip. "Because you definitely helped me in a couple of pickles."
De la Mata looked sheepish for a moment. "Yeah, you know," he said. "I'm too old to change."
"No, you kept everything in line, in order."
"I kept pushing," agreed de la Mata.
"I mean, obviously a lot of things couldn't have been helped. We know that."
"Right. And I, uh, you know--ah, whatever," said de la Mata, pulling on his beer.
Gruchala persisted. "The whole starting--"
"Yeah, it started--we started--not enough prep. So basically you're always playing catch-up. I don't know, we did some stuff."
"Yeah, we got some good pictures, Dennis. We did."
"That's what matters, you know. You always want to walk away from the job feeling good. That's really very, very, very important."
"At the end of the day I think we got some good pictures."
"That's all that matters, isn't it?" agreed de la Mata.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.