British Asian filmmaking has been given a new lease of life thanks to Atul Malhotra’s Amar Akbar & Tony, as Momtaz Begum-Hossain finds out
Half way through our interview Atul rolls up his sleeve and shows me his arm. Inked on his skin in Hindi scripture is a line from the film Sholay. Not from the hero. But the villain, Gabbar Singh: 'Jo dar gaya samjho mar gaya', aka ‘He who lives in fear might as well be dead.’ Is this is a metaphor for making his debut film Amar Akbar & Tony? It is certainly no easy feat to write, produce, direct and distribute a movie, which is the very journey Atul embarked on shortly after visiting his local tattoo parlour. ‘Fear can be self-destructive’, Atul tells me. ‘But it’s the same fear that makes you stand by your instincts and stops you from making compromises. Then there’s fear knowing my movie may not be perfect, but then that’s part of the experience.’
It’s lunchtime and we are eating kati rolls and drinking chai and lassi from glass bottles. Directly infront of us is a wall of faded Indian film posters, including one for the aforementioned Sholay. Fate has clearly led us to these seats and it’s not the only time fate enters our conversation. The ‘F word’ is a key element of AAT, the film we are meeting to chat about. Set in Hounslow, it’s the tale of three friends; one is Muslim, one is Sikh and one is Irish-Catholic, but other than the references to three men of different religions forming a bond, there is in fact no other comparison between this and the Hindi film that inspired the title Amar Akbar Anthony. Friendship and family are key features but it’s Fate: that one unexpected, out of the blue, all encompassing OMG moment that takes this film and turns what you think you’re watching on its head: BAM: ‘everything in life has suddenly changed’ moment, that really defines this movie, and will give it longevity…although the real fate of that, lies with the audience.
Sam Vincenti (Akbar), Rez Kempton (Amar) and Martin Delaney (Tony)
The movie had its World Premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival last September, where Atul’s tattoo once again came in use: ‘In India film goers aren’t afraid to walk out of a film if they hate it. We sold out two screens and everyone stayed to the end…I just hope British audiences take to it the same way.’ By British he does of course mean Asian. AAT is unashamedly an Asian film, made by an Asian that an Asian audience will appreciate - though Atul is quick to point out it does have wider appeal: ‘I consider it to be a film about London and the multicultural melting pot that exists here but yes the characters are mainly Asian. If Asians want to see other Asians on the Big Screen then only they can make it happen by purchasing cinema tickets and supporting British Asian filmmakers - at the moment it’s still incredibly hard finding finance and distributors to believe in what we do.’
Writer, Producer, Director & Distributor Atul Malhotra
Belief however, needs to start in yourself. After trying out a law degree and deciding it wasn't for him, Atul came to a crossroads. ‘I had always loved film from when I was a child growing up in India and at the back of my mind I had been thinking about pursing it as a career and then I had my crossroads Rubicon moment; I chose to cut the cord of film just being a hobby and decided to make it my mission.’
Atul went on to make several short films but primarily worked on television shows including Cardshark on The National Geographic channel, Breaking Magic for The Discovery Channel and Ross Kemp On Guns as well as brief stints on household hits like Come Dine With Me. The script for AAT was a labour love, slotted into spare moments when most people are asleep or enjoying days off. But writing it was just the beginning; as fate would have it, there were other hurdles to overcome.
Nina Wadia makes a cameo as a a chief matchmaker
‘I decided to go ahead and make the film even though we had only raised half of the money. If we waited any longer I would have lost the team. Thankfully the cast and the crew really believed in the project so were happy to stick around. I was getting into debt by the time we wrapped up the filming so I went back to my day job, paid off the bills and then started the post-production.’
Wouldn’t it have been easier to collaborate with a mainstream company or TV channel instead and just get it made? Atul explains: ‘In some ways that could have been our route but at the same time, independent filmmaking is about making your story your way, once you get other people involved there’s suddenly a lengthy development process and by the end of it, you’re no longer staying true to your vision so for my debut production I decided to keep it my own.’
Atul’s vision for AAT is of a film that represents Asians in Britain today. There’s no ridiculous accents, arranged marriages or religious fanaticism, instead we’re given representations of everyday people with real stories. Amar (played by Rez Kempton) is a super cool, likeable lad who it turns out is playing the first ever turban wearing Sikh protagonist there’s ever been in a Western movie (placing the film firmly in movie history books), Akbar (Sam Vincenti) is perfectly cast as the slick, smarmy but sweet estate agent, while Tony (Martin Delaney) adds charm to the line up with his fascination with all things Asian, even those he’s clearly not one himself.
Manrina making her acting debut in Amar Akbar & Tony
Audiences will no doubt appreciate seeing musician Shide Boss and Manrina, the gorgeous wife of Music Producer Rishi Rich who compiled the score and soundtrack, making their screen debuts while elsewhere familiar faces like Meera Syal, Nina Wadia, Karen David and Goldy Notay will add to the film’s appeal but for me, what sets the film apart and makes it such an essential watch is that it’s a bit like a really amazing photograph – it captures a moment in time, a segment of the lives of ordinary people whom every viewer, Asian or non, will be able to relate.
It’s refreshing to watch a dual-religion wedding taking place without anyone batting an eyelid, to witness a conservative father figure become one of the most open-minded and generous characters in the film and to see London captured as a place where celebrating difference is the norm.
As for how well the film does, the opening weekend (April 17th) is when the film’s fate will be sealed. How Atul is really feeling inside now that the biggest day of his life is approaching is something I didn’t manage to get out of him but the good news is that whatever happens to his debut film, it’s merely the start of his feature filmmaking career. Atul concludes: ‘I see AAT as part of a triptyc of British Asian films I would love to make and I'd also like to go into Hindi cinema.’ Already on his dream cast checklist is The Big B and Saif Ali Khan (while I insist he ought to include Randeep Hooda for the obvious reason that he’s utterly gorgeous); as for whether he’ll take my advice, only time (and maybe fate) will tell.
Amar, Akbar & Tony is released nationwide in UK cinemas on Friday 17th April 2015.
Watch the trailer.