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With shades of Graham Staines story,Harvey Keitel is in town

Indian director brings together international,Slumdog crew.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Panchgani | Published: April 11, 2011 2:14:57 am

The buzz is all about legendary actor Harvey Keitel,a veteran of films such as Taxi Driver and Reservoir Dogs,appearing for the first time in an Indian film. However,Against Itself,being shot in the picturesque town of Panchgani since February 28 and which is days away from wrapping up here,is a unique production in ways more than one.

Directed by an Indian,it has an international,award-winning crew from cinematographer Baris Ozbicer and editor Paul Tothill to script supervisor Carole Salisbury. The film also brings together the winning Slumdog Millionaire combination of sound editor Resul Pookutty,costume designer Riyazali Merchant,first assistant director Raj Acharya and actor Ayush Khedekar.

What has drawn them all perhaps is the film’s subject of religious intolerance and its parallels,though director Kriti Kanade denies the same,with what happened to Australian missionary Graham Staines. Along with his two sons,Staines had been burnt alive in Orissa by Hindu fanatics who accused him of preaching Christianity.

While Keitel doesn’t play a missionary in Against Itself,he is the “secular” American school principal,Edward Baker,who runs foul of Hindu fanatics despite his love for India.

St Peter’s School at Panchgani has been transformed into ‘Wellington School’ at Chakan for the film. Pookutty says it has been a fascinating challenge to shoot in a functional school,with no rehearsals and rare retakes. There are no hair or make-up artistes and the film has been largely shot using natural light.

Panchgani residents have got used to Ozbicer,the Turkey-born cinematographer who was part of the Golden Bear-winning film Bal at the Berlin Film Festival 2010,wandering the town for the perfect shot.

“There have been no rehearsals and we have been shooting in a school in the midst of examinations with very few retakes. It has been tough and challenging,”says Pookutty.

While all are in awe of the 71-year-old Keitel — who continues to remain in character long after pack-up — 11-year-old Ayush (the young Jamal Malik of Slumdog Millionaire) can’t stop raving about “Harvey uncle’s” wisecracks.

“My role in the film is that of a naughty child,Varun Bapat,who is always being shouted at by the principal,” grins Ayush. Pune boys Cheyann Nongrum and Anand Sabne are playing his friends in the film.

While one of the scenes in the film has a car go up in flames,similar to how Staines died,Kanade says his film is more about the unique relationship between the principal of a boarding school and his pupil. Himself raised in a boarding school where the teachers weren’t sensitive to the needs of children,he calls Against Itself a cathartic experience.

“The film is not based on the life of Staines… Baker (Keitel’s charactor) is not a missionary and after living for 30 years in the country,he is more Indian than you and me. There are Hindu activists who symbolise regional fundamentalism and misinterpret his love for teaching and India. On the other hand,the increasing forces of ruthless globalisation are depicted in the portrayal of a car manufacturer who wants to usurp the land where the boarding school is located. Baker is trying to protect his school. He thinks he is very Indian but is made to feel like an outsider. In such a setting,the film focuses on his relationship with his pupil,who comes from a dysfunctional family,” Kanade says.

Kande,who has also written the script,won the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA) film fund development grant. Along with producer Sanjay Singh,whose film Udaan has collected many awards,he was convinced about getting Keitel for the role. “The actor is a legend and he understood the role perfectly,” says Kanade.

Shot entirely in Panchgani with one court scene at Deccan College in Pune,it also has on board Tothill (nominated by BAFTA for editing award-winning movies like Atonement and Pride and Prejudice) and Salisbury,who is supervising the script for a global audience.

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