Sohan Roy arrived in Dubai two decades ago and set up his own marine solutions company in 1998. Image Credit: Supplied picture

If Slumdog Millionaire's dramatic Oscar sweep catapulted Danny Boyle to the top of the hot list in Hollywood in 2009, then DAM999 could be about to make waves among the Indian film industry for naval architect Sohan Roy, whose directorial debut has been shortlisted for Oscar nominations in no fewer than three categories.

In just a few days, on January 24, he will know whether his multilingual film - it features Malayalam, Tamil and English - has joined the ranks of movie classics to be up for Best Picture and Best Original Score and whether he'll need a tuxedo to walk the red carpet. Three of its songs, which Sohan also wrote, are up for nomination in the Original Song category. DAM999 is competing against The Muppets as the only two films from which more than two songs are vying for nominations for Best Original Song.

"I'm thrilled that my movie has made it in the preliminary rounds. It's beyond the imagination of any debut director," the proud 45-year-old says.

"It's definitely a great feeling to be shortlisted for the nominations in the three categories. I'm just waiting for the nominations to be announced.''

The 108-minute film, shot in 2D and 3D, was screened at last month's Dubai International Film Festival and last year's Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews. "It tells the story of nine individuals who come together against the backdrop of a dam that is threatening to give way, and the interplay of their emotions," says Sohan. "In many ways, the dam is the hero of the film. With this movie I want to convey the dangers behind dams, and I have attempted to express it through a love story. It's an emotional thriller, inspired by many real life incidents."

He worked so hard on the script that Sohan managed to attract a stellar cast, including Joshua Fredric Smith (Absolute Evil and The Road to Freedom), Bollywood stars Rajat Kapoor, Ashish Vidyarthi and Tulip Joshi and Malayalam actor Vimala Raman.

The seed of an idea

It's all a long way from where Sohan started when he arrived in Dubai two decades ago as a naval architect. He eventually set up his own marine solutions company, Aries, in 1998. But even though he loved everything about ships and sealife, he also had a passion for films and spent his spare time reading up about film-making. He also earned a diploma in film direction and production from the US, and from writing poetry for fun, he began scribbling down lyrics for songs - two of which appeared in Malayalam movies, Vacation (2005) and KK Road (2007).

"I didn't have a mentor to guide me in filmmaking," he says. "Film festivals and the internet were my guides. Movie making has always been my dream and passion. Four years ago I read an article about the ancient Mullaperiyar dam on the Periyar River, in Idukki district of Kerala, in southern India and immediately decided that if I would be making a film it would be based on a dam."

Constructed in the 1890s to divert water to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, the Mullaperiyar dam and its sluice gates are controlled by Tamil Nadu, in accordance with an agreement signed during the colonial era. The control and safety measures of the dam and the validity and fairness of the lease agreement have been points of dispute between the two states. A number of earthquakes in the dam area in the recent past have also led to fears about the safety of the structure.

"Once I had made up my mind about the subject of the film, I started reading more about dams and found there are more than 4,000 similar out-dated dams in the world," says Sohan. 

Four years in development

Before making DAM999, Sohan cut his directing teeth on a documentary about the dam. It won 21 international awards, which gave him the confidence to go ahead with the big production, while running his marine business.

"Work on the movie started four years back," he says. "The first two years were spent for the research and script development." Working alongside him were screenwriter and author Rob Tobin and consultant Hollywood Director Eric Sherman (After Freedom and Trained to Fight.) At the same time he launched Marine BizTV Network - a global maritime TV channel he founded and was an instant success - and used that to raise 60 per cent of the film's $10 million budget. The rest came from his associates in the maritime industry.

"I was hoping one of the 16 award-winning actors in the movie would get a nomination for an Oscar," says Sohan. "But I never dreamt I would be shortlisted to be nominated for my contributions with regard to the script, lyrics or direction."

The awards and accolades he has received have put "an additional responsibility on me to make better products", he says. "People have started accepting me as a serious filmmaker and the many awards for my documentary and the response to DAM999 has boosted my confidence.''

So has he prepared his speech if his film wins an Oscar? "I have truly not planned anything. I leave it to destiny. Winning the award will be the culmination of my dreams." 

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