Doctor Meets Screen in "Ocean of Pearls"

Doctor and film director Sarab Neelam, M.D., is living proof that medicine is both science and art. And, yes, pain has a flip side. The Indian-born gastroenterologist has moved from operating room to screening room with his debut feature film, Ocean of Pearls, set for a Detroit-area premiere on August 7.

Stunned by a system where physicians were rewarded or penalized based on tests they ordered, Neelam themed the film, which was ten years in the making, around a turban-wearing Sikh doctor's struggles with his heritage and the inequalities of U.S. healthcare. His semi-autobiographical story introduces Amrit Singh, who grips the opposite poles of a modern Western society and his traditional Eastern religious culture. After landing a prestigious position as a transplant surgeon in a Detroit hospital, leaving his family and Indian girlfriend behind in Toronto, Amrit struggles against self-doubt, discrimination, and tough choices in both an unfair medical system and in love.

Neelam's universally appealing story has made the rounds of film fests from coast to coast, was voted Best Feature Film at the 2009 Detroit Windsor International Film Festival, and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

"It's the story of every American and the pressure to assimilate," says Hollywood screenwriter Jim Burnstein (Renaissance Man), who served as executive producer and assisted with the script.

The Sikh POV

"There is so much misunderstanding of what Sikhs are," says Neelam, 48, sitting barefoot in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt on his Troy backyard deck after covering for two doctors one Saturday afternoon. Neelam, who is based at St. John Macomb and Troy Beaumont hospitals and has a private practice in Sterling Heights, has already made a documentary on the subject for teachers and libraries. "We're a peaceful people," he says.

Sikhism, a religion founded in India in the late 15th century, has about 25 million followers worldwide and about half a million in the U.S. An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 live in Metro Detroit, says Neelam, who attends a gurdwara in Plymouth, one of five such places of worship in the area.

Many Sikhs never cut their hair and consider the turban a symbol of their faith and part of their identity. "It's our crown of spirituality. This is part of us," says Neelam.

And while the vast majority — Neelam says 99 percent — of men in the U.S. who wear turbans are Sikhs, many people wrongly assume they are Muslims, a group that's faced a lot of discrimination since 9/11.

That made things particularly bad for Sikhs, says Neelam, who came to Detroit for his residency at Wayne State University in 1984 after finishing medical school in Toronto. He recalls the stares while standing up to stretch his legs on a plane and facing routine stops at the Canadian border on trips to Toronto. Even at work, he was suddenly required to show his photo ID.

Amrit, in turn, is told not to enter a nightclub without removing his turban, and contemplates cutting his hair in an effort to feel accepted.

Neelam says Sikhs have faced discrimination and persecution for years. The film refers to the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, when Neelam's father, then age 10, saw his entire family, with the exception of his grandmother, wiped out.

Even on screen, depictions have been less than starry. "In Indian films, they are usually comic relief. They never get the girl." In Hollywood, he says, Sikh characters "usually have a thick accent. I don’t have a thick accent."

Things are better now, but not enough, says Neelam. Sikhs, who practice "seva" or selfless service, are far from a hostile people. "That's the biggest thing. They'll do community service without asking for a thing."

Today he's proud of what he believes is the first feature film with both a director and lead character (the lead actor is actually Muslim) of Sikh origin. "I hope people realize we have more similarities than differences," he says.

Dream to Reality

After moving to Toronto at age 10, by high school he was making family movies with Super 8 film. "My insides kept telling me I want to make films," says Neelam, who knew his parents felt otherwise. Like both of his brothers, he was destined to be a doctor making a steady income. "Most Indian parents would say, there's no way you're going to be a filmmaker," he says.

But childhood dreams rarely fade out, so within a couple years of moving to Detroit, Neelam discovered Oscar-winning screenwriter Kurt Luedtke (Out of Africa) lived in the area.

"I'm a doctor and I want to make a movie," he told Luedtke, who replied: "Are you crazy?" Neelam: "I’m a little crazy."

Luedtke put him in touch with Burnstein, already an established screenwriter. At their first meeting, Neelam mentioned his desire to make a Middle East epic about the conflict between Arabs and Jews, maybe starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. Burnstein looked at him blankly: "'What are you? Cecil B. DeMille? What else you got?'"

Burnstein, who teaches screenwriting at the University of Michigan, found Neelam's personal story so compelling he even considered pitching a script about a Sikh doctor. "Write what you know," he advised.

Meanwhile, as Neelam focused on his medical career and family life — he and wife Jaspal have twin 15-year-olds and a seven-year-old — he devoured books on film and used vacation time to take film classes around the country.

Eventually, Ocean of Pearls, which took about three years to write, took form. Burnstein brought on former student V. Prasad to polish the script. Neelam, despite having "no connections," got top players in the biz, from casting directors to producer's rep Jeff Dowd (aka "The Dude", the basis for the The Big Lebowski character). Dowd became an executive producer on the film.

Neelam, who shot the film in Michigan while on leave from work in the fall of 2006 used a local crew but wanted a seasoned cast. "I realized actors make or break a film," he says. He went through more than 200 actors before choosing Omid Abtahi, from FX's Over There, as Amrit. Brenda Strong of Desperate Housewives plays a transplant patient, and Navi Rawat from The O.C. and Numb3rs. plays his Indian girlfriend.

The local Sikh community supported the production, offering up its new gurdwara in Plymouth for production and office sets, he says. Many played extras and tied turbans.

Finding investors was the hardest part, says Neelam, who only slightly exceeded his $1 million budget. In addition to his own investment, he did many "dog and pony shows" convincing mostly fellow doctors to support the project, usually offering a film credit and parts as extras.

Dr. Heminder Singh and his wife Raman, who had a speaking part as the Indian girlfriend's mother, believed. Their investment, she says, was more than a financial bet. "We wanted to support his dream."

Neelam credits sheer passion for making his dream a reality. "People will listen if you really believe in something," he says. Plus, "I think Hollywood is tired of blowing up cars and chasing girls… This is a unique story."

Burnstein, who meets hordes of people with big movie dreams who never follow through, is still amazed by Neelam's perseverance. "You may say, 'Sarab, you're crazy.' But he did exactly what he said he was going to do. You can't stop him."

A Sequel?

Neelam's biggest sacrifice has been family time. His youngest son left a plaintive message one day: " 'Dad, when are you coming home? I miss you,' " he recalls. "It gets to you."

Not that Neelam has any plans to quit the biz. His eyes light up as he spills the dozen ideas in his brain, from a children's adventure to a musical set in the Caribbean to a road trip comedy to that Middle East epic. "There are so many darn good stories I want to tell," he says, this time hoping a studio will back the projects.

One thing he knows: "They'll be about a journey in life and finding peace in yourself." And another: "I will have a Sikh character in all my films, just as part of it."

If his film career takes off, he has no interest in leaving medicine – or Michigan. "I would always do medicine as charity. I love medicine. It's fun," says Neelam. Gesturing toward his expansive green lawn, he asks, "Where am I going to get a backyard like this in L.A.?"

Ocean of Pearls opens August 7 at the Landmark Maple Art Theater in Bloomfield Hills. Neelam and lead actor Omid Abtahi will be there to discuss the film. It opens at both the Emagine Canton theater and AMC Forum in Sterling Heights on August 14. Neelam will be at each theater for one night of questions, dates TBD

Ellen Piligian is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. This is her first article for Metromode.


Production stills - photos courtesy Kim Simms

Portraits of Sarab Neelam - Marvin Shaouni

Unless noted, photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D
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