Marriages are made in heaven, they say, and there is certainly a lot of destiny involved.
For Narmata Singh Gujral, an actor-director and two-time cancer survivor, the making of her film 5 Weddings was just like a marriage: she had plans, but fate throw in a lot of trials and tribulations along the way.
However, her film is finally ready for its release in UAE theatres this Thursday.
It is officially a Hollywood film, and she had planned to act in it when it was originally conceived back in 2008, but the 10 years since have proven life-changing: she battled cancer, and made two documentaries on cancer. The wedding-focused film evolved during her treatment, and took on a socially conscious element after she had a conversation with India's transgender community while shooting one of her documentaries.
"Initially, I was just going to act with Harbhajan Singh Mann. It was going to be a normal movie with a Punjabi wedding and lot of Bollywood-choreographed dance numbers. That was the plan until I got diagnosed with breast cancer," she tells us.
"Everything went on the backburner. Chemo, and all those 'fun tests'. Then I did One A Minute, a woman's journey through cancer. And I had 5 Weddings up next. And then the blood cancer happened [in 2012], I had another round of tests, with six months of treatment."
She was diagnosed a second time, and back-to-back cancer detection is a tough journey, but she came out stronger by the end of it. In one letter, she wrote: "You have to believe the diagnosis, not the prognosis. Your prognosis is individual and unique to you. So, let's not write the obituary yet."
As part of her transformation process, she started another documentary on cancer called Finding Match, which is yet to be released."It is a documentary-drama on the journey of South Asians through the Middle East and up to India, how there are lot of similarities in our DNA in both regions and the connection with cancer, hence."
Part of her research led her to Dubai where she says she received fantastic hospitality and medical help, and she tells us that the UAE is also close to her heart because she got a great response from this part of the world when she acted in 2007's Americanizing Shelly.
How 5 Weddings changed as a project
In 2013, Gujral then went to Mumbai, where a big switch happened on her 5 Weddings project.
“I was at the Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai doing a shoot, and a crowd gathered outside to get a glimpse of the stars. At nine at night, I announced it was time for pack-up and people asked me, “where are the stars?” And I said there are none, it is a documentary-drama, but people did not understand.
“Then this lady, dressed in a red saree and red lipstick, said, 'it is about cancer, but still, why are there no stars. No one will come and watch so why do it?' And I said, ‘Well there are some stories that need to be told and I am a story-teller.’
“She retorted, ‘I wish somebody told our story’ and I asked, what is your story? She said she is transgender, and how they live in poor conditions, but also grace weddings.” (At many Indian weddings and happy occasions, the blessing of a transgender person is considered lucky).
It was that same night on a flight back home that she realised what she had to do with 5 Weddings: "I spoke to my writers and said: 'we are going to change the subject of the film, and the course'."
The transformation of Gujral throughout her health battles, and in turn of the movie’s course, had an implication on the commercial side of the film. The original investors backed out and Gujral had to self-finance it, with the help of a few others. “I don’t grudge it at all. They came on board for essentially a song-and-dance movie, so if they did not like where it was going, I totally respect that.
“But then our money came down to literally one-tenth of our budget. But at what point do we not tell a story? ... So I pooled in with others. Because our budget was very low, if the film does well, we will get our bonus.”
That would be a just reward for everything that Gujral has gone through to make the film: having to deal with the censor board, and shooting with budgetary constraints. Gujral is a devout Sikh who grew up in America, and she said shooting the film in Chandigarh was a humbling experience.
The movie wrapped up in November 2016, with most of it shot in Chandigarh. Post-production took six months, but Gujral then put the movie on hold for close to two years because she promised to help out Rajkummar Rao get a Screen Actors Guild card, which would help him get more Hollywood roles in the future.
The major share of casting was also done by Gujral. “Both Candy Clark and Bo Derek loved the script and came on board.” Veteran actress Derek has been involved in social activism, but Gujral also saw a connection to the lead actress Nargis Fakhri: “Nargis’ mom is from Czechoslavakia and her dad is a Pakistani. When she shared her mom’s picture the first thing I said was, 'OMG, Bo Derek!'”
When Gujral approached Derek back in the US, she said she did not want to do any movie roles, “but when I told her about Nargis’ mom, she was like, 'script or not, I like this angle' and came on board. I was so humbled.”
There was another hiccup in September, when the censor board told Gujral that 'Hijra', which is used throughout the movie to refer to a transgender person, is an offensive term. She could not reshoot, so instead placed a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that mentions ‘kinnar’, the preferred Hindi term.
Gujral deserves recognition however, considering how she decided to tell an underrepresented community's story, and also because of her patience to bring the story to the big screen despite many personal obstacles. Hopefully the film proves to be well worth the wait.
5 Weddings releases across cinemas in the UAE on Thursday