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How the boy from Belgrave brought the silver screen to our Golden Mile ; The big interview A film about fun, food and family feuds is going to have...

August 31, 2013


How the boy from Belgrave brought the silver screen to our Golden Mile ; The big interview A film about fun, food and family feuds is going to have its UK premiere in the city next week. Gemma Collins meets its writer and director Amit Gupta

It's a romanticised way of looking at it, a little cheesy, he thinks, but Amit Gupta really is the kid who grew up on Leicester's Golden Mile and went off to make movies.

His parents said do what you want to do, go for it - and that's what he did. He went out and pursued his dream.

Right now, I'm one of only a privileged few outside the industry and international film festivals to have seen Amit's latest film, Jadoo. But next week, the whole of Leicester is invited to view his love letter to the city; a story of fun, food and family feuding.

When I first met the writer-director, almost two years ago, he'd just released his critically-acclaimed, full-length feature film, Resistance, and was profiled as one of Screen International's stars of tomorrow.

Well, tomorrow has arrived - 16 long years in the making - and Amit's next stop is the UK premiere of Jadoo at Leicester's Showcase Cinema on Tuesday.

It will be a red carpet affair, famous faces, posh frocks, camera flashes and suchlike. It will also be the bringing home of a very personal story for the boy from Belgrave.

It's as close to making a home video as possible, with lots of posh professional people, he smiles, sipping his sweet masala chai.

All I set out to do with this film was to create a world and story that feels real to me.

Amit's family opened The Chaat House Restaurant, in Belgrave Road, Leicester, on New Year's Eve, 1976.

They lived above the restaurant for the first couple of years, before moving to a house around the corner in Roberts Road - the backyard of which joined up to the kitchen of the restaurant.

The food in the restaurant was made up of dishes from my mother's side of the family and the business was run by my father, explains Amit.

I spent most of my early childhood there. I usually did my homework sitting at one of the tables, staring out of the window.

I wanted Jadoo to be a love letter to the place where I grew up, a family comedy and, at its heart, a dispute between brothers - the type of which seemed to be everywhere in Belgrave.

The story revolves around two brothers, both wonderful chefs, who fall out catastrophically.

In the heat of the moment, the pair rip up the family recipe book, leaving one brother left with the starters and the other the main courses.

They then set up rival restaurants on opposite sides of Belgrave's Golden Mile.

Neither brother will admit it but they both know they are not entirely successful in the other half of the menu. It takes a daughter - a successful corporate lawyer marrying a man from a very different background - to reunite them.

Jadoo She is planning her marmore riage and is determined they will both cook the wedding banquet.

The idea about a torn family recipe book was fictional, born out of fact, says Amit.

My mother is one of six sisters, all wonderful cooks.

All the sisters were taught to cook by my grandmother, so many of their dishes are virtually identical. Certain dishes, however, are different, sacred almost.

The sisters all know that one of them cooks a particular dish better than the others, so won't attempt to re-create it. They've usually tried and always failed, so feel that perhaps it's something to do with fate.

I didn't want the film to be about problems with a mixed marriage, as I feel we've moved on from that.

What I wanted the film to be was a bit like my favourite masala chai: warm, a little spicy and with one more sugar than I usually take.

It's my first time drinking the rich, warming Asian tea and Bobby's restaurant is more than happy to serve us so early in the morning - the owner, Dharmesh Lakhani, has a cameo in the film and is a good friend of Amit's.

We could have shot it anywhere, it's cheaper to shoot in London, but 95 per cent of Jadoo was filmed on location in Belgrave, he says.

This is my city and coming back here meant a lot to me.

It's nice how Amit still calls Leicester home, even though he moved away more than 20 years ago, and has settled with his wife and two young children in Oxfordshire.

There are many Leicester landmarks and nods to the city in the film. There's a scene in Sharmilee, the food store Shiva Shakti, Indi Kal fashion, the park, the Peepul Centre and Curve. Even the extras are from Leicester.

When we recreated Holi in the park, the whole community turned up. I just loved it, he says.

Pleasingly, the camera captures Kulvinder Ghir's character Jagi reading the Leicester Mercury over breakfast. It's the 'local' after all.

Amit didn't know he wanted to be a writer or director growing up, he says. He just loved films from a very early age.

I was always very emotionally involved. I remember crying at an Indian film called Sholay when I was five and it wasn't even a love story, he laughs.

As a teenager, he devoured every film he could, from the Bollywood classics showing at the Natraj Cinema in Belgrave, to Hollywood blockbusters and more obscure European arthouse films on tape.

My father was an artist turned restaurateur who had run off to Bombay in the 1950s to become a movie star, only to be told he was too short.

His passion for cinema was something he gave to me. He bought one of the first VCRs and every Saturday we'd have a movie night.

My three sisters, brother and I would squeeze around the TV and watch Amitabh Bachchan fight, sing and then die dramatically.

This ritual, of course, was never complete without his mother's food.

You don't realise the effect it's having on you at the time. For me food, family and film have always been inextricably linked.

Amit's father died in 1984, when he was just 11 years old. My aunt came to live with us and help run the restaurant, and her son too, who grew up like my brother, says Amit.

How did I deal without my dad? There was no alternative really. I don't know if it was difficult or not, it was just a fact of life. He was ill and that was the case for a while. Children are very adaptable, they tend to live in the present and get on with it. I missed him, of course.

Amit went to Abbey Primary and, later, Loughborough Grammar School, a privilege largely funded by the family restaurant.

It was important to my parents for me to go to an independent school.

My mum worked so hard to ensure we had the best education and a choice in life. And it was the right decision. The opportunities and support Loughborough provided gave me a real chance. It was hard at the time though, getting off the bus in my uniform in Belgrave in the mid 80s.

I didn't feel isolated - not even being one of only four Asians in a school of 1,000 or more boys. I just wanted to go to the same school as my friends.

Amit passed A-levels in English, French and History and went on to study history at the University of Nottingham, coming home most weekends to get his washing done and pick up a supply of takeaways. My mum bought me a video camera, which was an incredibly expensive treat and I remember filming anything and everything, he says.

Then, during his finals - when he should have been revising - Amit discovered the Shots in the Dark Film Festival.

I got a two-week pass and went to see as many films as possible, he says.

EARLY YEARS: Amit Gupta as a boy, front, with his mum behind and dad (in the brown shirt) in the 1980s, and Lata Mangeshkar, in white, the most famous singer in India who was a regular at the restaurant MAGIC MOMENTS: Amit and the film crew at work on Jadoo and right, Harish Patel cooks up mischief the movie On the last night of the fest, we went along to the 'secret movie' and it was Pulp Fiction. I remember sitting there, the row in front of Quentin Tarantino, and being blown away by it all... I saw some terrible films, too, but now I know how hard it is to make a movie, I'm very careful of criticism. Bitten by the bug, Amit went on to study advanced theatre production at the Central School of Speech and Drama and, while struggling to get anywhere as a director, turned his hand to writing, too.

His first play, Touch, was a winner of the Royal Court Young Writers' Competition in 1988, while his later work, Campaign, was nominated for a 2010 Olivier Award. His award-winning short, Love Story, was deemed an expertly-directed, razor-sharp tale with a twist and played at more than 30 film festivals. Amit was also commissioned to write and direct a play for Leicester Haymarket and completed a residency at Rushey Mead School. I guess if you do well, you garner a belief in your talent. Amit was in Leicester recently talking to a film group at the Phoenix. It's the sort of thing he gets asked to do regularly, all over the country. He also lectures in screen-writing at Oxford Brookes University.

This job is still so far removed from everyday life. You can't teach someone to direct. You grow into it. But any scrap of knowledge is helpful. You wouldn't believe the competition. It's not about luck. You get luckier the more work you put in. Amit landed his first movie deal in 2001 and started developing his on spec script, Johnny Bollywood, alongside producers Duncan Kenworthy (The Eagle, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Andrew Macdonald (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). I learnt a lot about film development. You just can't underestimate experience. The life of a writer or director starts from scratch, you're rarely an overnight success and if you've made 10 films by the end of your career, you've done well.

Amit got his first film commission, D, with his long-term producer and friend, Richard Holmes (Waking Ned). Richard believed in me, we've grown together and worked on a number of projects, including Love Story, Resistance (which starred Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen) and now Jadoo. Don't get me wrong, I feel like I'm always learning, but I don't feel embarrassed to call myself a film director any more - I've made two of my own movies. There's nothing smug or arrogant about Amit. It almost certainly helps his best mate, Rowan Joffe, is a film director, too, and has just made a movie with Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. Every time it gets difficult, we stop and say, 'come on, this is like the ultimate train set, this was our dream and now we're getting to do it'.

And there's no denying Amit is having the time of his life right now. Jadoo made its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February and was one of only three UK narrative features as part of the Official Selection - the other two being Les Miserables and The Look of Love. Since then, he's been gallivanting all over the world, including the New York Indian Film Festival and the Transatlantyk Festival Poznan in Poland. Aside of other confidential festival dates, Jadoo will close San Sebastian at the end of September; not forgetting the UK premiere next week, with an ever-growing list of cinemas across the country screening the movie. I really feel like the foreign festival scene has seen a slice of Britain they didn't know was there. Most British films are quite London-centric.

I think when a lot of people watched Jadoo they were surprised by an Indian-English family they could connect with. Amit wrote Jadoo as a radio play back in 2005. He was commissioned by the BBC and it aired on Radio 4. A lot of people liked it, he admits. It seemed natural to develop it into a film and the best chance of directing something is being the writer, he says. A perfectionist, through and through, he completely rewrote the script, the development of which took many years between other work, and was funded by East Midlands Media.

The production, Amit says, was privately financed - a couple of million pounds' worth - which is standard for an independent film, but hard to find all the same. It's not easy making movies. I realise how privileged I am to be in this position, that people put their trust in me financially and professionally. I get to work with such incredibly, talented people. Such talents include Leicester bornand- bred cameraman, Roger Pratt, one of the world's greatest cinematographers and the Oscar-winning Stephen Warbeck, who composed Jadoo's musical score.

There's even a track by Basement Jaxx's Felix Buxton, Amit's old friend from Loughborough Grammar, plus a few of his Bollywood cinema favourites from Sholay and Qurbani. It's up for the Ghent World Soundtrack of the Year public choice award. A little film like ours - that makes me proud, he smiles. Every director knows casting is a fine balance of the right actor at the right time and in the right place, but Amit's casting director certainly didn't let him down. Harish Patel, of Run Fatboy Run fame, and Kulvinder Ghir, who featured in the comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me and Bend It Like Beckham, play chef brothers, Raja and Jagi; while Amara Kartan, Ray Panthaki, Adeel Akhtar, Tom Mison, Paul Bazely, Hardeep Singh Kohli and Madhur Jaffrey, are just a few of the film's familiar faces.

I'm just glad I got to make this film in Leicester. The people who came here had a great time, drinking masala chai in my mum's restaurant, relaxing and having fun making a movie. Amit even shared his family album with the cast and crew to inspire and infuse an atmosphere of Belgrave and his childhood memories. I've just tried to make it as pure and personal as possible. It would be absolutely amazing if Jadoo received even a slice of the success of Bend It Like Beckham, but I don't have that control. The big movies have so much money to spend on advertising, they will always be noticed. I'm just glad people will get to come to a proper film premiere in Leicester. Jadoo means magic in Hindi and well, it's a kind of miracle to make movies, when the odds are stacked against you in this industry. I just want to carry on making films. I know that doesn't sound very ambitious, but I love what I do. I'm the luckiest guy in the world.

?M: Jadoo is released on Friday. See The Week in the Leicester Mercury on Thursday for our review.


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