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Taking the plunge with the Hindi indie that's filmed from the back of a van

GOA, kingdom of many a traveller's dreams, a place to chill in the warmth.

goa GETTER:Chris Smith has learned the art of making  indie films
goa GETTER:Chris Smith has learned the art of making indie films

Unless, like Chris Smith, you are making a micro-budget film, in which case get ready to strain every picture-making sinew.

The Pool, set in the town of Panjim, is a delicate, moving, widely praised drama about a poor hotel worker who one day chances upon a rich man's house and wonders what it would be like to have such a life. It is a film that whispers serenity, surprisingly so given the hurdles crossed in its making.

First, the dialogue was in Hindi, which the American director does not speak. Secondly, the two central members of his young cast, both making their film debuts, could not read. Before that there was the original lead actor who said he was going to Mumbai to buy a karate uniform and never came back.

"All these things ended up being blessings in the end," says the equable Smith, speaking from New York. "Everything that went wrong ended up sort of helping us make a better movie."

Smith is perhaps best known in the UK for documentary work, which includes The Yes Men, a 2003 film about the social activist satirists who crash corporate and government events to put their anti-globalisation points across. But Smith, 42, started off in fiction, with American Job in 1996.

"I had always meant to go back to making narrative films but it ended up taking about ten years," says the director, who first went to India to help on another film. "I was really taken by the culture and the visual landscape and always thought it would be a nice place to come back to."

In Panjim, he had been struck by the grand old houses sitting on a hill. The wealthy lived there in lush tranquility, while down below was a busy city. Having found a perfect setting for a story of haves and have-nots, Smith turned to the next task: directing a film with Hindi dialogue when he did not speak the language. Nor was it the first language of his young actors.

"We learned very quickly that you could feel if a performance was working regardless of the language," says Smith. Once he had a take he was happy with, the translator would check the dialogue was correct and on they would go.

"It ended up not being as much of a burden as you would think. Going into it, when we had the realisation that we were going to have to shoot the film in Hindi based on the actors we were finding, it felt daunting at the time. Once we got started and into production, there were so many other things that were falling apart that seemed like the least of our worries."

The film's two young leads had to memorise large chunks of dialogue for the long takes, one or two minutes, that Smith wanted to give the film a naturalistic feel. Smith has nothing but praise for the pair, Venkatesh Chavan and Jhangir Badshah.

"They were incredible. They were acting in a language that wasn't their first language and having to memorise these incredibly long scenes without being able to read them."

Between their determination and the general support of the Indian crew, no problem was to prove insurmountable. "If we didn't have that there was no way we could have made the film," Smith states.

Filming brought a lot of attention locally. "Whenever we pulled out a camera we could only shoot for maybe 10 or 15 minutes before the crowd would get so big it would keep you from being able to work."

On several occasions they would film from the back of the van, or jump out, do some filming, and hit the road again. This guerrilla-style method adds to the film's authentic air, and meant they could shoot whatever took their fancy. "When you are shooting in the US you don't have that luxury. You have to permit things, get things cleared, or you could get shut down in different ways."

THE film was released in the States in 2007 but it is only just getting a UK showing. Among those to be thanked for that breakthrough, Smith names Joseph D'Morais of Blue Dolphin films in London. "As with so many things in life, it was just his passion that really made this happen. He said this film is too good to have been lost in this system, we have to make an effort to put it out."

Helming independent films has become harder, says Smith. It is easier to make movies, but tougher to get them released and recoup the initial investment. He manages because when not making independent films he earns a living working on commercials in New York and Los Angeles. One pays for the other.

"We don't have to spend so much time and effort trying to raise money," he explains. "Before I got into commercials I would spend over half my time trying to find money to make projects."

He says he is "very lucky" but, as his experiences in Goa show, Smith has the indie filmmaking art of making do, mending and making friends, down to a T. "One day it would be nice to think that the films could pay for themselves, but I don't know if that day will ever come."

No sitting in the pool for Smith until then.

The Pool, Glasgow Film Theatre, December 18-20.

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