There is so much going on with debutante director Sohan Roy's film, besides the actual film, that it's surprising he can keep track of it all. What started off as a passion for a social cause has now morphed into not only a feature film but also a documentary film (see box), a book, a graphic novel, a clothing line, a toy, an online game, a blog and even an ice cream brand.
That's nine different avatars. Which is just as well, because Roy is really — really — obsessed with that number.
Dam999, a 3D film he produced and directed, tells the story of nine central characters who are brought together by fate to a fictional Indian town. There, a massive dam is mired in controversy, having been built on a 999-year-old foundation, and is threatening to burst ahead of its inauguration day set on, you guessed it, 09-09-09.
Roy says the film juxtaposes the characters' inner turmoil and the bulging dam that is threatening to burst and wipe out millions of people.
The film, he adds, was written on a 99-page script, features nine songs and was scheduled for a 91-day shoot. "All the lead characters have a dam in their heart," he continues, just in case you missed the reference. "You will see how love can be lost in nine different ways and that destiny cannot be changed."
Roy speaks quickly, and understandably so — there's a lot of ground to cover. After wrapping up filming last year and having just put the finishing touches in post-production, he is now ready to sell the film. His first stop: the Cannes Film Festival, where he's just successfully sold it to distributors in France and Germany.
"The audience turnout for our screenings were beyond our expectation and included names such as Sony, Warner Bros and we got distribution enquiries from all major regions in the world," he says. "I pray that the movie does well in all circuits.
"We want to get the big Hollywood distributors and I am optimistic someone will take interest.
"Except for the Middle East and India, for which we already have a distributor, we want a major name to push the film."
A marine engineer by trade, Roy came to the UAE in 1997 and started the Sharjah-based Aries Group, which now has 14 marine-related subsidiaries. Five years ago, he decided to do something about his longtime passion for films and enrolled himself in a filmmaking course in Dubai.
"I had to do a project to complete the six-month course, so I decided to set up a television station called Marine Biz TV. It's like National Geographic, but completely dedicated to the maritime industry," he recalls.
The channel, which now broadcasts 24 hours, only cemented his determination to make his own feature film. Then, in 2007, Roy chanced upon an article in his hometown in the south Indian state of Kerala about a 115-year-old British colonial-era dam which was well past its prime, posing a serious threat to the towns that have sprung up beside it.
"The issue haunted me and I began to research it and found that there were about 4,000 similar dams around the world which are literally ticking time bombs," he says. "In 1975, the Banqiao dam burst in China and wiped out 85,000 people. The catastrophes waiting to happen will have a much more devastating effect.
"So after a year of researching, I began writing a script for the movie in the hope that it will help to spread the message but in an interesting and entertaining way."
With no filmmaking credits behind him, Roy anticipated that financial backing for his 3D special effects vision for a movie would be hard to come by, and decided to do it himself — all $10 million (Dh36.72 million) of it.
"It was not easy, because we wanted the best cast and crew and I knew no one would want to finance it," he recalls. "Also Slumdog Millionaire gave India such a bad name that I wanted to show the world we are not all about poverty but also able to create Hollywood-style visual spectacles."
Hollywood is not far away either, claims Roy, who has registered the Dam999 title with the Motion Pictures Association of America, whose members include some of the biggest studios in the US.
For the cast, Roy picked critically acclaimed Indian actors including national-award winners Ashish Vidhyarthi and Rajit Kapur. He also cast a number of foreign actors in Los Angeles to complete the multicultural storyline.
The story as he's envisioned it begins with an Anglo-Indian mariner whose family has stayed on in India after British rule ended. The mariner's father, who is the mayor of a fictional South Indian town, is also the guardian of a nearby dam constructed many years ago. The mayor's plans to reconstruct the dam become a politically sensitive issue and set off a series of unfortunate events, in turn affecting a number of characters who become unwittingly involved, some with tragic results. Meanwhile, the threat of a dam near bursting looms over all their lives.
Filmed in regular 35mm format across India and in Dubai and Fujair-ah, the movie was later rendered into 3D by a studio in South Korea, which also did the special effects.
"A huge part of Avatar was also converted," says Roy. "Despite what others have said, converting 2D to 3D adds a nice element depending on what imagery you use in your film."
Once on the market, Roy's film will be one of two Indian-made, Dubai-funded 3D movies this year, along with the Bollywood horror flick Haunted, produced by a Dubai-based businessman.
Currently on a marketing spree, he is milking the film for all it's worth. He's just finished a documentary titled Dams, the Lethal Water Bombs, and is looking for a publisher for his book and putting the finishing touches to a graphic novel, both based on the film. There are also plans for a fashion line featuring the nine colours that portray the nine mental states of the characters and an ice cream brand with nine flavours. A toy called OctopianBoy, a fictional superhero toy created for the movie, will soon be in production and an online game based on the film is now ready to be launched.
The number nine
"It's been an incredible journey. For a fresher like me who just had a dream to make a major film like this and watch it all come true, it's just been amazing," he says, adding that he is satisfied with how it's all shaped up.
What about his obsession with the number nine, I insisted?
"My parents were Sanskrit scholars and the whole philosophy of the film was based around the Navarasa, the nine mental states that are evoked when we are at certain mental and emotional levels," he attempts to explain.
So does he think his beliefs played a role during the making of the film?
"I am still surprised at how I finished the entire project. Things didn't go [smoothly], but we got to the end at last," he says smiling.
"So I am sure some force was with me."
Dams wins big
Dams: The Lethal Water Bomb, a documentary on the 106-year-old Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala, bagged three awards at the Los Angeles Movie Awards (LAMA) recently.
The 21-minute documentary, produced by Biz TV Network and directed by Sharjah-based Sohan Roy, a naval architect by profession, won awards for excellence, best editing and best visual effects. The film is an offshoot of Dam999.
The documentary tackles the controversy between two states, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, who have a long-running feud over the safety of the dam — while Kerala has been saying it is unsafe, Tamil Nadu claims no such danger from the water reservoir.
Tamil Nadu, which controls the dam, wants to increase the storage level of the dam from the current 136 feet to 142 feet. Kerala opposes this, citing safety concerns for the thickly populated districts downstream.