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Rohit Jagessar

Rohit Jagessar is one happy man. And he has one big reason for it. Just last month, his film "Guiana 1838" picked the Best Feature Film of the Year Award at the third Belize International Film festival. That meant shutting out such competition as Ashutosh Gowarikar's "Swades" and Subhash Ghai's "Kisna." The annual weeklong event showcased films from Belize, the Caribbean, Southern Mexico and Central American regions as well as India, United Kingdom and the rest of the world.

Five months ago, Jagessar's film recorded the highest per screen average in the U.S. on opening weekend. "Guiana 1838" ( also charted as the 17th highest per theater average for all films released in the U.S. over the last 25 years.

"Guiana 1838" tells the story of Indians brought from India to labor on sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and the West Indies amid the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. It stars Kumar Gaurav, Aarti Bathija, Henry Rodney and Neville Williams among other Guyanese, African, British and Indian actors. Here is an interview with director Jagessar:

KHAASBAAT: What inspired you to make "Guiana 1838"?

JAGESSAR: My grandmother. She traveled with her parents from Uttar Pradesh, India, to the Caribbean, British Guiana in 1890. She was just 7 years old when she made the journey aboard a British ship. They were indentured on a sugarcane plantation in British Guiana, now Guyana, in the Caribbean.

The reason the British planters brought laborers from India, China and other countries to far away places such as Guiana, Trinidad, Fiji, Mauritius and Jamaica was because African slavery was abolished on those colonies. The planters wanted to replace slave labor with incoming laborers under a new form of labor system known as indenture contract workers.

However, according to my grandmother, when they arrived on the colony, they were abandoned. During my early years, she would tell me tales of a time when the British planters would work men, women and children in the fields for 12 and 16 hours at a stretch and fed them scraps.

One day, about eight years ago, my son asked me how come we are Indians but not born in India. It struck me that the story of the people who journeyed from India after being promised good jobs and pay by recruiters hired by the British should be told. I began my personal journey through history that day. "Guiana 1838" is a feature film that tells the tale of the people who journeyed from India to British colonies far and wide from India during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

KHAASBAAT: What are your expectations of the film, from the general audience and at film festivals? Is the film being shown in Guyana, India?

JAGESSAR: Right from the inception of making the film, I decided to tell this story as it happened as opposed to thinking box-office and hungama. At the New York premiere, audiences embraced the film so much that they began clapping as the end credits scrolled on screen. This tells me that our audience understanding of the language of cinema is simply fantastic. It was an unbelievable experience for me.

Frankly speaking, upon seeing the final cut of the film, I expected this sort of reaction. When it happened, it was a high I wish all filmmakers could experience at least once. My production partner Dr. Hemant Shah later told me he never experienced anything like it. Initially, I decided not to enter the film at festivals.

Having been embraced by the audience at the New York premiere was more than sufficient an accolade I could ever ask for. Then the U.S. box-office reports was released on the Monday after the New York premiere weekend and the film scored the highest screen average in the U.S., beating out all Hollywood films for the top spot in screen averages.

The e-mails came pouring in from all over the world and never stopped. Film festival organizers, big and small, wanted to show "Guiana 1838" at their festivals. I was humbled by their requests. Finally, I decided to give in and experience what a film festival is like. I opted for the Belize International Film Festival. Soon, I will begin discussions with distributors and exhibitors to release the film in India, Europe, Guyana and the West Indies among other overseas territories.

KHAASBAAT: Why Bunty (Kumar Gaurav) for the lead role? How did he come to your mind? And also Aarti Bathija?

JAGESSAR: Call it destiny or call it my good luck and good fortune. While writing the film, I thought of creating a character and named him Laxman in the film. The story called for this character to be strong-willed and assertive. Instantly, Bunty came to mind. Right through writing the screenplay, I wrote with Bunty in mind as Laxman. Now this was a risk on my part because only after I completed the screenplay I called him and thankfully after reading the screenplay he called me up and said "Rohit let's make this film. Let's tell this important story of what our people endured at the hands of the British to the world. "

I couldn't think of any other actor than Bunty for this important role. He is without a doubt one of the best actors India has produced. I would personally like to see him in more films but he is extremely picky about the movies he signs. No wonder we don't get to see him in many films. He simply refuses to compromise his conviction for good cinema. Regarding Aarti, I met her at an event in New York and immediately signed her. She is the sort of actress whose presence speaks volumes of dialogs. Aarti is extremely talented and enthusiastic about cinema.

KHAASBAAT: Did you expect the film to take seven years to make?

JAGESSAR: No. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think it was going to be easy to make this film. I knew it would challenge me in more ways than one. But I couldn't in my wildest of imagination have thought it would take seven years to complete. It’s a difficult subject. The biggest problem for me was what not to include from this huge canvas of history. There is so much story to tell from this theme.

KHAASBAAT: How do you expect to recover the cost of $1 million?

JAGESSAR: It has already taken in a quarter of a million dollars from three U.S. and Canadian cities and will soon open wider to 50 more U.S. and Canadian cities before playing the oversees circuit. Serving as the U.S. and Canadian distributor myself, I get to keep a large chunk of its box office take. At times, I keep up to 75 percent of the gross revenue. I am presently in discussion to rollout the DVD at 30,000 U.S. and Canadian retail outlets when it comes out later this year. Additionally, a DVD rental program is being negotiated with major U.S. and Canadian chains. Network television, satellite, pay-per-view and airline licensing of the film will commence shortly.

KHAASBAAT: What next for Rohit Jagessar? Another film?

JAGESSAR: Hopefully, each of my upcoming films would be completed in less than seven years. That said, I have in development two sequels to complete the "Guiana 1838" trilogy; a film based on a single day in the life of Tagore; "The Porkknockers" -- a film about a young mid western American girl's journey to the Amazon where she inquisitively followed a trail leading to the Porkknockers, a tribe digging for diamonds in the South American jungle; and a film called " A Little To The Left ", the true story of an Indian man's continuous journey through the communist world even after he was summoned to the White House and warned of consequences by then U.S. President JFK.


Kal Penn, who starred in the 2004 hit “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” is back in North American movie theaters this month.

In "A Lot Like Love," the Indian American portrays the role of “Jeeter,” best friend and business partner of “Oliver,” played by Ashton Kutcher. Directed by Nigel Cole, the romantic comedy is scheduled to hit the screen on April 22.

At present, Penn has several films in the making such as "The Namesake," directed by Mira Nair, Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" and "Man About Town," directed by Mike Binder.


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