Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sikhs in North America: OCEAN OF PEARLS opens the door to a little-known religion

The headline above says "little-known," but TrustMovies cannot be certain this is true. He's speaking for himself here, even though, some 35 years ago, he was a friend of and did business with a young Sikh man in Los Angeles named Said, who was one of the kindest and in many ways most special people he had yet met. Dedicated to service, as are the Sikhs, this fellow had a view of the world that seemed quite wonderful and reassuring.  And -- he always wore a turban.  (Think of Sikhs as the non-Muslim turban-wearers, among other differences.)

I thought of my long-forgotten friend again while watching OCEAN OF PEARLS, the first major Sikh-American produced feature film that has been bouncing around the smaller festival circuit for a couple of years and now lands here in New York City for a theatrical release. I hope you will not take it amiss when I say that the film has the look and feel of decent, mainstream television: nicely photographed, with a lot of smart, thought-provoking talk, and filled with ideas about culture, tradition, modernity, what it means to serve and how best we might accomplish this service.

Directed by Sarab S. Neelam, shown at right, a medical-doctor-turned-filmmaker, the movie admittedly is somewhat autobio-
graphical, and if Mr. Neelam was as good an MD as he proves a first-time filmmaker, then this is a loss to the healing profession. (Ah, but films, too, can heal in their way.)  This one begins with a young surgeon named Amrit (whose specialty is transplants) telling us about his own father, another kind of transplant from Asia to Canada. "Why would someone work so hard to come to a new-world country, just to keep on living in the old one?" And then, "To my father, the turban is an article of faith. To me it means I'd better make damn sure I'm not late for my flight." Why? We quickly find out at the airport, as, due to that turban, our hero is made to wait and wait until security has checked him out thoroughly. Then another event happens that throws everything off course.

In Detroit, where his flight has taken him, Amrit is giving a paper on transplants, but the smart hospital that is hosting the seminar uses it to recruit its top staff.  Soon our young man is a part of that staff, mixing heavily with non-Sikhs and discovering that his turban is becoming even more of a problem. Sikhs use this to cover their hair, which the males do not cut -- ever, it seems.  This is tradition, and it is not taken lightly. But how does his turban/hair impact on the kind of "service" Amrit might be able to provide, were he to move ahead at the hospital, where the Board of Directors is not, post-9/11, turban-friendly?  "You don't need long hair to help people," the young man realizes.  And yet...

Via one of his patients, a woman who needs a liver transplant, we -- and Amrit -- suddenly come up against America's marvelous health insurance system.  The director/co-writer (with V. Prasad) handles all this surprisingly well; as much and as often as we've seen this situation before, it can still produce enormous anger and a sense of injustice.  The way the hospital handles things, though quite believable, is not acceptable to Amrit and provokes the climax of this most interesting movie.  The Sikh girl left behind, and a new one (the hospital's marketing director, shown above, in her own turban) also add to the mix, and both these situations are handled believably, as are those of the various hospital staff members and their viewpoints, and those of Amrit's family back in Canada.

The acting is all it needs to be to carry the movie home. Omid Abtahi makes a fine young doctor, while Heather McComb and Navi Rawat are the smart and attractive women in his life, Ron Canada is the head of the hospital and Brenda Strong the patient that provokes the final decision.  If the movie never breaks out of its TV-level mold, I don't think this is necessary to entertain and inform American audiences. Once its theatrical release is completed, I hope it finds its way onto cable and network TV -- where it should prove a shoo-in for something popular that is also a little different -- and important for Americans to become aware of, and maybe, dare we hope, embrace.  Our country more dedicated to service?  Imagine that!

Ocean of Pearls opens in Manhattan at the BIG CINEMAS.  You can click here to ascertain former and further play-dates. The DVD, too, should be available eventually.

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