Baltimore Bombay Baltimore: A Cineaste’s Round Trip Journey

[One of the films Rao viewed at the Charles Theater in 1981 that made a major impression on him was DIVA directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix.  So much so he would assume the persona in a literally 24/7 cosplay through his college days.]

Written by Anil CS Rao.

Baltimore’s mid to late 1970s was a time of great renewal for its cultural and physical infrastructure. I was a student at the Boy’s Latin School of Maryland during this juncture in the Roland Park area of Charm City. Despite the fact my mind was, to a great extent, engulfed in the academics of what the more distinguished set in the BL student body termed as “Our Little Harvard” – I had a passion for cinema – both American and that of Europe and India.  I would make weekly trips to the Greetings & Readings in Towson to purchase journals such as the BFI’s Sight & Sound, Cineaste, American Cinematographer, UC Berkeley’s Film Quarterly and of course Variety.  Those days there was lax enforcement of tobacco and alcohol purchases by minors – i.e., no ID was really required – and this extended to the access to “R” – or worse – “X” rated films as well. Once every year, our Dartmouth-educated History teacher, the (late) Mr. Bill Harper – would take us through “The Block” – to prove to us that, despite what we witnessed, “sex was not a ‘spectator sport.'”

My initial motivation to attend a foreign film screening at Baltimore’s landmark Charles theatre is fogged in memory – but in any case, that experience jolted me out of the bland WASP cultural milieu that I was drowning in at Boy’s Latin. The Charles Theater – BTW – was a favorite “hangout” of Baltimore filmmaker and fellow Boy’s Latin alumnus John Waters. In fact, Mr. Water’s had similar fascinations: the Hippodrome Theater – shut down in 2004 – and the proprietor of Mr. Ray’s Hair Weave – whose television commercials targeted at a primarily African American base customer base – was the ultimate in kitsch humor and Mr. Ray became the de-facto ambassador of the Charm City’s white man’s drawl:

“That’s just the way I talk …”

The Charles Theater literally flew open the door to World Cinema for me, i.e., Fellini, Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Fassbinder, Lina Wertmuller, Nicolas Roeg, Pasolini, Ingmar Bergman, Eric Rohmer, and countless other cinema luminaries from all over the globe. To be thoroughly transparent: Satyajit Ray was the exception – I saw his Devi at a free screening at the Enoch Pratt Public Library courtesy of The Baltimore Film Society.  Like M Night Shyamalan – I had both affluent medical doctor parents and was offered admission into NYU’s Tisch School  upon graduation from BL   But unlike M. Night’s – my parents – especially my late father, desired a doctor – not a movie person. As an aside – filmmaker John Waters went on to NYU Tisch after graduating from BL – but was subsequently ejected after being caught smoking a marijuana joint at the rear of his NYU dormitory building.

I asked my late father if I could attend the School of Visual Arts Film Program to which I gained admission immediately upon graduating from BL – he refused, offering the alternative of remaining at home and studying at a local institution such as UMBC – which I did, in fact, attend for a year before studying Electrical Engineering at Pratt Institute.  By luck, his eldest (also late) brother was the partner of “Bollywood” producer B.R. Chopra – having co-produced all his films from 1949’s Karwat through the Mahabharata television series until 2008’s Bhootnath. On a visit to our house in Towson, a suburb of Baltimore, and around the time I finished my studies and had graduated early in 1980 – he advised me to seek admission at the FTII – the government of India’s film school. A few weeks later – I packed my things to set off to Bombay – literally not knowing what I was getting into. Despite “sponsorship” by a major producer – I would have to wait to apply, as they had shuttered the Institute indefinitely due to the annexing of a significant portion of its student body by the adjacent Osho Ashram.

Around this time -I was in Hyderabad during the shoot of my uncle’s film on location. My uncle introduced me to B.R. Chopra, who asked: “What does he wish to do?”. Cameras had always been a passion since I was a teenager – having saved enough for a Nikon F5 film camera which I purchased from a Baltimore pawn shop after saving my lunch money for months – hence my reply: “Camera. Sir”. Mr. Chopra smiled at me and said those “magic words”: “start tomorrow.”  With respect to the film titled NIKAAH being shot on location at Purani Haweli – the former Nizam of Hyderabad’s palace – Mr. Chopra had his set designer spray it over with a coat of paint to refresh the “original” paint. A few days later, Merchant-Ivory arrived to shoot HEAT and DUST – and ironically, reversed the fresh look by spraying dust back onto the exterior.  The crew left the Hyderabad location after a week to return to headquarters in Bombay (Mumbai) and continue the shoot. I flew to Bombay to rejoin the BR Films crew there at Seth Studios in the Andheri section of Bombay City.  Shanti Das, the set designer (who later became a friend), had reconstructed the front section of the Hyderabad Purani Heveli with that Bombay studio.

Pushing and pulling the camera, loading film reels in the darkroom: aside from these tasks – I spent most of my time standing with my hands folded and puffing on a cigarette. It wasn’t even a matter of being a “gopher.” What’s interesting about the Indian Cinema industry is that there is no “dignity of labor” as there may be in Hollywood, where unions often represent technicians. I realized if I wished to make any forward progress, and given that I had what most Indians would kill for – an American passport – I returned to The States to spend a year at UMBC – whose film program was chaired by the legendary Avant-Garde filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek.

In the end – I never made it as a filmmaker, which may be a good thing. After one semester at UMBC, I really got cold feet and enrolled in the engineering program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York.  Once, at my nephew’s wedding many years later, when I was working as an engineer for CALTRANS – his brother-in-law told the audience at his reception: “My first question to my future potential brother-in-law: What is your intention?”.

This is the question I didn’t ask myself before leaving Baltimore for Bombay.