The Waiting City: Australia goes to India

Director Claire McCarthy and producer Jamie Hilton have made a film with an Australian heart and dressed up in a colourful sari, taking our cinema to a new land full of creative and business opportunities. Miguel Gonzalez reports.

The Waiting City tells the story of an Australian couple who arrive in Calcutta, India, to pick up the girl they have adopted. Unaware that local bureaucracy will force them to wait for days before they can see her for the first time, the stress of waiting, amplified by the culture shock, will test their relationship as they are forced to confront the problems they’ve been avoiding for a long time.
It is not based on a true story, but many that writer/director Claire McCarthy witnessed as she built her own relationship with India.
McCarthy’s connection with the country was born in 2002 when, along with her younger sister Helena, she decided to volunteer at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. She would return to India several times to document Helena’s ongoing experience working at an orphanage in the documentary Sisters.
It was during those visits that she met a number of couples trying to adopt children, and became fascinated with their stories and how their relationships where often tested while going through the stressful experience of waiting to meet a child they had only seen in photographs. McCarthy started interviewing couples and continued that process when she returned to Australia, talking to people who had gone through different experiences of adoption in India and other countries. It became the source for The Waiting City, a project that she took to the Australian Film Commission’s IndiVision program. The development process took approximately two years.
“I workshopped the script and asked people whether they thought it was authentic or not. It’s not a guide of how to adopt a child; adoption is the catalyst but the intention was to look at love in all these different forms, to look at it under fire and explore that in film,” explained McCarthy. “Another real challenge was to come as a westerner and make a film that’s not condescending or repeating the clichés. That was a big fear of mine, to not know if Indian people would like the film or not.”
She also took the idea to a friend, producer Jamie  Hilton, who had been commissioned to shoot a music video for Sony Music artist Old Man River. They pitched the record company the idea of an Indian shoot in Varanassi, and used the experience to test their production methodologies, meet local crew and discover what it would be like to work there.
“Our first trip was for Claire to show me Calcutta, the world in which the film is set, because it was incredibly important during script development for me to be across the culture and the place. Then we went to Varanassi to shoot the video for the song “Sunshine”,” said Hilton.
“We wanted to see what it would be like shooting on real streets with real people; if a documentary kind of approach, using a skeleton crew, would actually work. We learned many lessons; some things were working, some were not,” said McCarthy.
The $3m budget was a combination of private investment and federal (AFC/Screen Australia) and state funding (Screen NSW), with support from distributor Hopscotch Films and sales agent H20.
“Spectrum Films and Deluxe/Efilm also helped us out with our editing and sound post. If we didn’t have those equity investors, we wouldn’t have been able to make it for the budget we had,” said McCarthy.

One of the investors was lead actress Radha Mitchell, who had always wanted to make a film in India. Mitchell first heard about her involvement in the project by doing a Google search on herself.
“Back when we shot the music video, one of our Indian crew asked me who I wanted to play the lead, and I said I loved Radha because she’s so radiant and she has a connection with India. He went to The Times of India and told them that an Australian director wanted to work with Radha. She found the article online, rang her agent and asked ‘What the hell is this Australian movie that I’m supposed to be doing!?’ Her agent had a copy of the script, and she decided to do it.”
“So I wished for Radha, and then she came,” recalled McCarthy.
Having Mitchell, Joel Edgerton, Isabel Lucas and British actor Samrat Chakrabarti would help the film’s international prospects, and the Indian element would make The Waiting City a unique project in the local landscape.
“We must think of ways to make Australian films international so they don’t just feel parochial, so that they tell Australian stories that are relevant and universal.
“Casting is one way, and having the movie set in an exotic location is another. We underestimate the fact that when we travel, so much happens to us, and Australians travel all the time. It’s interesting to see the stories of travelling Australians, which hopefully differentiates this from a typical independent movie,” said McCarthy.
The intention of shooting 100 percent on location in Calcutta was to give the film a hig level of authenticity, but not to make it look like a documentary.
“You can’t purely rely on verite; you have to construct things,” admitted McCarthy. “We developed decoys, techniques to keep people from looking at the camera. We developed crowd control systems; people have a fascination with watching movies being made, and it’s a subtle dance – you can’t just cordon off streets the way you might do over here. We shot with long lenses and set up little rigs where we would shoot from far away, scenes where the actors were often integrated into real environments.”
To facilitate the shoot, McCarthy worked closely with Indian actor Tanaji Dasgupta as third assistant director, helping her communicate with actors in big sequences such as the Durga Purja festival parad.

The filmmakers were lucky that they had shot the majority of their exterior scenes by the time Mumbai was the target of terrorist attacks on November 26, 2008.

“Because of the paranoia, the security and the limitations of shooting on the street were a lot more stringent than they were before, so we were lucky we had already done that. It could have completely toppled the equilibrium of the shoot; people on our crew had connections to people on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, but we managed to stick through it,” said McCarthy.
Another one of the lessons learned by shooting the Old Man River video was that processing film was often difficult, particularly in remote Calcutta.

“We also wanted to make sure that we were in control of our footage and could get it out of the country safely,” added McCarthy.
As a result, The Waiting City was shot by DOP Denson Baker on the Red One camera using 35mm Cooke lenses to create a hybrid look, with Mark Lapwood in charge of the second unit. According
to the director, the digital shoot “could have been a nightmare” due to the high temperatures and humidity, but they came out of it unscathed. The production took three camera bodies with them, along with data wrangler James Sutton to handle the large amount of footage generated.
The Australian team included Baker, Lapwood, Sutton, first AD Greg Cobain, sound recorder Paul ‘Salty’ Brincat, costume designer Justine Seymour, production designer Pete Baxter and make-up artist Paul Pattison. Each head of department then worked with an Indian equivalent and local crew, some from Mumbai and others, locals from Calcutta.
Although the production decided not to use the services of Australian-based facilitators and find their crew and relationships themselves, they still employed a service company, Speaking Tree – which had recently worked on the then-unknown Oscar-winning Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire.
“Speaking Tree came quite late in the piece. We’d already engaged most of our key crew by that point; we asked them who they’d like to work with and who they’d worked with and their name kept coming up, so it was a logical choice.
“We set up the production as if we were doing it ourselves. My budget would have probably gone up if I’d had an Indian company taking care of the whole facilitation. By managing it ourselves we were able to keep costs to a minimum,” explained Hilton.
In terms of production design, the approach was naturalistic. The film was shot on location, and Baxter’s team opted for not retouching anything too much, adding only a few extra elements to the sets.

One moment, however, was not that natural: a horizon tank was hand-made especially for the scene where Mitchell’s character Fiona dives into the waters of the Ganges, to prevent any health risks.
The hotel where the couple stay and meet their unofficial guide Krishna was conceived as a sanitised ‘western bubble’ that would feel like it wasn’t the ‘real’ India. In contrast, the colour palette of the orphanage where they finally meet their daughter Lakshmi was more gentle, with apricot tones that created an environment that, despite the poverty, could be a loving home for children and, in McCarthy’s words, “not something out of Oliver!”.
“There is a progression of colour in the film. It starts off a little more shadowy and eerie when they first arrive at night and India seems chaotic, and then there’s a calming golden warmth that the film evolves to as they progress in their relationship.
“Visually, before our protagonists make love, the coverage is a lot more objective, fly on the wall. We then move into a more subjective space and things feel warmer and more intimate,” explained McCarthy.
The Waiting City may have been the first Australian film shot entirely on location in India, but it’s not the only Australian/Indian project. Local creatives are looking for partnerships and methodologies to build a strong relationship with India – a logical strategy, considering that its film industry is, in terms of production volume, the largest in the world, and one that has attracted the interest of the major Hollywood studios – many of which have already invested in the country (read All Roads Lead to India). It’s a learning curve that Australians are exploring.
“It’s a very delicate process, trying to figure out how to make a movie in India,” admitted McCarthy. “At the end of the shoot, some of my crew said it was the first time they’d ever been on time and on budget. There’s a different approach to the process, and the way films are made. It’s not a qualitative difference, it’s just an approach and a sensibility, and it applies to both sides.
“There’s fluidity in the way that business is done, and a whole pageantry involved in how deals are made and how trust relationships are established, and how they perceive you. One of our strategies was not to come as white foreigners trying to take over; we came in seeking to form collaborative relationships with people that we trusted as artists and business people.”
According to Hilton, some of the biggest hurdles they faced were Calcutta-specific.
“In West Bengal, the communist party in power and the unions are extremely strong. We needed to employ a lot of local people. Labour is cheap, so that wasn’t a huge burden, but we also had to keep people happy and money had to change hands for permits to be given and for us to be able to continue shooting without any interference,” he admitted. “Generally, you’ll get a better result if you don’t go through fighting the system, but being aware of it and working within it.”
Hilton adds that the demand for co-productions with India will escalate in the coming years, and therefore, and agreement with that country could help Australians to take advantage of these opportunities. He is currently planning his next India-centric project, an adaptation of Sarah McDonald’s novel Holy Cow! for which he intends to work with Speaking Tree again: “We will probably use
them in a more meaningful way as opposed to running the whole show ourselves.”
The Waiting City premiered at Toronto and, although it was well-received there and at other festivals around the world, it has not screened in competition at any of them. The strategy is being dictated by sales agent H2O Motion Pictures, which has already secured distribution in India through PVR Pictures and North America with E1 Entertainment. It will also be released in Latin America and South Africa.
“In their commercial mind, it’s more important to try to sell the film to different territories than to try to win awards,” explained McCarthy.
The Waiting City will be released in Australia on July 15.

READ MORE: Tips for filmmakers working with India, All roads lead to India


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