Alone in her apartment in downtown Los Angeles, USA amid the lockdown, documentary filmmaker Sweta Rai often wondered what it must be like for frontline workers who are “feeling the burden”. That thought in March 2020, when the pandemic was declared, led Rai to create a 70-minute documentary A Pandemic: Away from the Motherland featuring five Indian doctors working in the US, away from their families back in India. Interestingly, the film was shot remotely, with footage recorded from several devices at different locations during the lockdown.
“This pandemic has left everyone helpless but these frontline workers are the real heroes. Their stories needed to be told. When someone lives away from the family, their challenges are different; their emotions are different. But what I learned is that while their families back in India miss them every day, they feel proud of them regardless of what country they are in,” says Rai.
Notably, the film features Dr Ankit Bharat, who was in the news recently for performing USA’s first double-lung transplant surgery on a COVID-19 patient. The other doctors, also treating COVID patients, are Dr Pooja Malhotra (nephrologist), who resumed work after recovering from COVID herself, Dr Uma Madhusudana (internal medicine), Dr Shreedhar Kulkarni (internal medicine), and Dr Shantanu Singh (critical care and pulmonary diseases).
In an exclusive interview with indianexpress.com, Rai, CEO and founder of the LA-based film production company Indo Holly Films, talks about the contribution of these healthcare workers in their fight against a global health crisis.
How has the lockdown experience been for you?
It was overwhelming at first, but once I got the idea of this COVID documentary, I worked 20-21 hours daily, seven days a week, to bring this emotional journey of healthcare workers to the screen.
What prompted you to explore the theme of Indian-origin health workers serving in the US?
My childhood was spent in a small town in Madhya Pradesh and later, I lived in Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad, before moving to Singapore.
I live away from my family and motherland, just as these five doctors whose parents live in India. My mother would call daily to check on me, and they were all so worried when the pandemic began. I was on a work trip to New York, which became the epicentre in the US. If my family was scared and worried for me when I was mostly staying home, what about the healthcare workers? That is when I started researching about these doctors.
How did you come in contact with the doctors?
I knew Dr Bharat from before. I was aware of his accomplishments in the thoracic surgery field, so I started filming with him first. I also interviewed his parents in Meerut on having their son living so far away from them. I watched the Drive of Honour unsung heroes’ parade video of Dr Uma Madhusudana, which became viral, so I contacted her. My mother, Anita Rai read about Dr Pooja Malhotra in an Indian newspaper and told me about her. I met Dr Shreedhar Kulkarni through a friend, and Dr Shantanu Singh after reading one of the articles in which he was featured.
Four of them have never met me in person. Still, they had the faith to allow me to bring their stories forward. With their demanding work hours, I had to reschedule shoots many times or had to wait days for their self-tapes; I kept my calm as I knew a sick COVID patient needed them more than my movie shoot.
You were not allowed to send the camera crew to shoot some of the doctors. How did you manage to capture their stories?
My cinematographer, David Bouza, who has shot 60 Hollywood documentaries so far, and I came up with the idea of guiding the doctors about a mobile app for shooting professional videos. Dr Kulkarni and Dr Singh became pros at the app and self-taped their interviews while I directed them through Skype, Zoom, and WhatsApp video calls. While I shot in different cities in the US, I also shot in five smallest towns of India – all remotely.
Can you share instances that have left a lifelong impact on you?
There are many such incidences, and almost every day of the shoot was an emotional journey for me. I won’t give away the story here. However, I would like to mention that I broke down many times while interviewing them. Since the number of COVID cases is on the rise in India and the US, and with the travel restrictions, all the frontline workers are like warriors who can’t leave the front for their families. No matter which country they are in, they are serving one goal – to protect the human race.
We are witnessing a pandemic, and I got to experience the life of the warriors of this pandemic from their eyes; it is an experience that can’t be expressed in words.
What do you want your audience to take back from the film?
Empathy is what I think the audience will take away from this film. I also want viewers to be grateful for all the moments they get to spend with their families because there is a group of people ‘The Frontline’, which is working day and night away from their family and motherland, so everyone else gets to stay with their family.
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