FIVE SUMMERS AGO, on the set of Tony Buba's movie No Pets - which in this case was the front lawn of a home along a cobblestone road in residential Regent Square - Harish Saluja would pass the days telling people about the film he planned to make just as soon as he finished writing the script and got the money to make it.
A "short, bald, ugly Indian guy," as he sometimes refers to himself, Saluja makes his living as chief executive officer and co-owner of a small successful Dormont firm that publishes technical manuals. And though he's done an Indian music show (for no pay) on WDUQ radio in Pittsburgh for 25 years, and has shown and sold his abstract paintings around the world, no one who listened to him on Buba's set five years ago had any reason to believe his gentle bluster about making a movie was anything more than a glorious fantasy.
Harish Saluja is indeed bald, and he's certainly no Michael Jordan. But he's a fit and vigorous man, with a handsome moon face, salt-and-pepper mustache and goatee, and comfortable brown eyes that make easy contact. He's also a writer/director now in search of a national distributor for The Journey, his finished, polished first movie.
Featuring two internationally known actors, the film was shot in Pittsburgh on 35 millimeter film. Saluja is one of only a few local directors to accomplish such a feat since George Romero made Night of the Living Dead 30 years ago.
The Journey has done well so far at a few film festivals, with more lined up, including the Three Rivers Film Festival on Nov. 6, when it will have its local premiere at the Byham Theater downtown
Saluja's celluloid daydream has stretched across four decades. In 1963, when he was still living in his native India, he saw the famous Indian director Satyajit Ray's three-hour drama Three Daughters. The dialogue was in Bengali, an Indian language Saluja hadn't yet learned to speak. But he left the theater so deeply moved that he decided to go out and learn filmmaking,
Sajula made The Journey - the story of a retired Indian headmaster who comes to America to visit his doctor/son - under the umbrella of New Ray Films, a production company he formed to honor the name of the director whose work so inspired him. His first day on the set last fall was like awakening from a long sleep.
He recalls: "There was this immense quiet joy that I cannot describe. To stand there when I said for the first time, 'Cut,' I wanted to cry. This was the most joyous and beautiful moment in my life. whether the film does anything or not, I thought: I am doing this at last. All my life I’ve been dreaming about it."
On that first day of shooting, people on his crew kept asking him, "Are you okay?" They all expected him to be in a state of panic. But while most first-time filmmakers are youngsters just out of film school, Saluja came to his movie set with 50 years of life experience.
"I have gone through some major things in my life," he says, "and I have found that in moments of true crisis, I become absolutely detached and calm. I get into a truly Buddhist kind of state."
SALUJA's OWN JOURNEY began in Punjab, India, in 1946. One of his grandfathers was a doctor, the other was a professor and founder of universities. His father was a professor of biology, his mother a classical singer and writer who published some articles and stories in magazines, and who performed the Indian equivalent of gospel concerts free of charge, believing her voice was God's gift. He admits his was not a typical Indian family, especially because the women were educated (even today, the literacy rate among Indians is only 30 to 40 percent).
As a child, Saluja seized these intellectual advantages. He attended a private high school in the Himalayas, where on long Saturday picnics in the mountains with his teachers and classmates, he would talk about important stuff life, art, morals, ethics, jokes, songs - anything that made him get outside himself and think about the world. That's when, he says, "the really stupid idea was put into my head that I'm responsible for changing the world through art."
But when he’d mention living an artist's life to his family, they quickly set him straight: He could either become a doctor or an educator. They axed his idea of becoming an architect as well, so it was no small feat when he convinced them to let him attend engineering school. After college, he spent four years working as an engineer for a mining company, where he believes his greatest contribution was convincing the company's leaders that they needed to have paintings on the walls of their offices.
Saluja feels no resentment now about his family's stern hand in guiding his early career. "We are," he says, "the product of where we find ourselves accidentally." So at 25, he left to make his own life in America, taking his love of painting and poetry with him. He arrived in New York with $400, spent most of it on museums and movies, and eventually landed in Pittsburgh, which he heard was a good mill town with lots of opportunities for engineers. Soon after moving here, he got a job with Measurements and Data Corp., a publishing company he now co-owns and operates from a converted house in the Dormont business district.
Since coming to America, Sajula has made his art on canvas, and he's shown his work in such places as Paris, Frankfurt and New Delhi. But making The Journey was a lot harder than wiping a paint brush across a palette. The movie cost between $1 million and $2 million to make (he won't say exactly how much) and he raised the money by approaching friends and acquaintances who knew his accomplishments as a businessman and a painter, even though his film resume could fit on a Post-it note: associate producer of No Pets, actor in Money for Nothing (a John Cusack movie filmed in Pittsburgh) and executive producer of the feature film Dog Eat Dog. He also attended a workshop on directing at the Sundance Institute.
In all, 11 people, including himself, invested in the project. One contributor even gave "possibly" as much as half a million dollars (again, Saluja won't say for sure). His goal is to return his investors' money and, if he's lucky, give them a little profit in return.
The central character of The Journey is a philosophical, 50-something Indian widower who's recently retired from his job as a high school headmaster. He comes to America for the first time to visit his son, a doctor married to a politically active American woman who works for the University of Pittsburgh. Cultural clashes ensue, but never to the point of becoming shrill or angry. Saluja says he believes in offering solutions to the dilemmas of life, and in The Journey, his solution is to make your very life a work of art, filled with human decency, wonderful thoughts and a passion for living.
To cast the movie's leading role, Saluja knew someone who knew someone and finally got in touch with Roshan Seth, who has starred in such movies as My Beautiful Laundrette and Gandhi (in which he played Nehru). Through other personal contacts he approached Saeed Jaffrey to play a juicy supporting role. Both men are highly regarded Indian actors who work in English-language films, and getting them to star in a Pittsburgh director's first movie was a coup that Saluja could never have imagined possible - especially after Ben Kingsley's agent hung up on him a few times.
AND SO IT HAPPENED. After years of dreaming, writing and rewriting, Sajula finally made The Journey He used his own home in McMurray where he lives with his wife, Jane Aseniero, who is from the Philippines, and who is the movie's producer - as the set for the young doctors home, and the posh home of a neighbor/investor for a big party scene. His biggest location shoot took place at Fallingwater, which his director of photography, John Rice, photographed in colors so rich they seem to whisper the movie's notion of the unity of life and art.
The first cut of The Journey was two hours long, but when the producer Jim Schamus (who made Sense and Sensibility) saw it, he suggested Saluja tighten his storytelling. He did, and now his movie is a swift, entertaining 95 minutes. It's done well at a few festivals, and Saluja has shown it to distributors in New York and Los Angeles, so far without an offer.
His next movie will be Chasing Windmills, the story of a man who achieves his lifelong goal and then has to convince himself that life is worth living. He plans to begin shooting in the spring, even though he hasn't yet raised the money or hired actors, which didn't stop him from setting a start date for The Journey, then making it come true.
In The Journey, Saluja himself has a cameo role as a wealthy Indian man who throws a party and offends some people with his racist, classist slurs. It's the only truly negative thing he says about Indians in The Journey, which he admits offers an idealized view of his nation - the way he would like Indians to be.
"There is a certain negative attitude among Indians toward life," Saluja says. "We think of India as a very spiritual place where people are chanting. But my friends haven't been to a concert in 20 years. They're all happy counting money." That's why Saluja hopes art - his or anybody's - can make a difference.
Saluja is protective of his film, like a father with his newborn child. Before handing over a preview video, he insists that you watch it without interruption. And despite his best efforts to be modest, he talks about The Journey with the pride of a parent whose kid is about to graduate from Harvard.
The advertising folders for the movie say, "Life gets in the way of art," a line spoken by one of the characters. But one of the black cotton T-shirts Saluja made to publicize it says, "Life Sucks - Live Passionately. " It's a sentiment far more naked than anything you'll hear from the gentle characters in The Journey, a film by Harish Saluja, at last.