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For about a year now, the scriptwriter who gave America an anti-hero it hasn't forgotten (Robert De Niro in Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver) has been on a Bollywood diet. Sixty-three-year-old film-maker Paul Schrader has watched around 130 Hindi films, ticking off Om Shanti Om and Satya, as well as films from the Seventies and Eighties from his must-watch list. The idea, he says, was to "get to Bollywood from Bollywood". Yes, Schrader is coming to B-town with a project that could again —after Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire —strike cinematic gold in Mumbai's dirt and gangster world.
The film is Xtrme City, a bilingual action thriller he will direct. It is set in Mumbai, a city which he says best represents India's "harmonious extremes—serenity and chaos, beauty and squalor, high ideals and ignoble actions." It will be produced by David Weisman (of Oscar-nominated Kiss of the Spider Woman fame) and Indian producers Anubhav Sinha and Mushtaq Sheikh, who has also written the script with Schrader.
The plot revolves around a former US ranger, Curtis Hawkley, who returns to Mumbai after his father-in-law's youngest daughter is kidnapped by an underworld mobster. To save the girl, he takes help from an old friend, Raj Rangan, an ex-Indian Special Forces commando. "It's a variation of the classic Hollywood "fish-out-of-water" storyline. The interesting point in this case is that the water (India) is more important than the fish. The story could have been set elsewhere although I don't know if it would have held as much fascination for me," Schrader said over e-mail.
Schrader's journey to Bollywood began unknowingly, in July last year at the Osian's film festival in Delhi. Osian's had just acquired a collection of vintage Hollywood lobby-cards left by the late Leonard Schrader, Paul's elder brother. "Someone suggested Paul develop a script for Bollywood but he did not particularly like the idea," said Weisman over e-mail. "But after returning to New York, he began researching on Indian film-making traditions and came up with an idea of cross-cultural entertainment, an international thriller with a Bollywood base," he said. Weisman and Schrader returned to India in October last year, where they met Sinha and Sheikh to give shape to the script.
How does a man who has scripted iconic (and brooding) American films like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver fit in the fantasy world of Bollywood? "Well, I've been told Bollywood is changing. Movies no longer need to be two and a half hours long with intermission, they don't have to have song and dance. But in fact I like the notion of song and dance. I think it's a wonderful tradition, one the US sadly lost during the 60s. In this film, I would actually use musical production numbers… The challenge is in merging the two traditions," said Schrader.
That's not the only masala trope you can expect to find in the film. "At the heart of Xtrme City," said Weisman, "is farz — the impact of giving one's word, the burden of obligations from the past, deep emotional debts that must be resolved. The theme of farz, so fundamental to Hindi cinema, works for the Xtrme City storyline in a way that audiences everywhere can readily embrace."
The Xtrme City team insists their interest in another India story has nothing to do with Slumdog Millionaire. "Xtrme City was born of our Delhi trip in July'08, four months before Slumdog premiered in the US. The whole Slumdog phenomenon coincided with much of the stark contrast and chaos surrounding the emergence of "India Rising", a zeitgeist perception that had all of a sudden burst upon the global pop-culture consciousness last year," said Weisman.
Ninety per cent of the film will be shot in Mumbai with a few scenes shot in Dubai and New York. Schrader and Weisman will be in Mumbai this October to finalise the cast. "We will cast an American and an Indian in lead roles and are looking at everybody. We are open to all ideas," said Weisman.
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Ryan Murphy's Eat, Pray, Love based on the life of Elizabeth Gilbert's 2006 travelogue was shot in India recently with Julia Roberts.