x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Travel agent returns as filmmaker

Joseph Mathew left Abu Dhabi almost two decades years ago, bound for a career as a US photojournalist. He is back showcasing his first feature film, Bombay Summer.

Joseph Mathew, the director of Bombay Summer, and  actress Tannishtha Chatterjee arrive at the Emirates Palace hotel.
Joseph Mathew, the director of Bombay Summer, and actress Tannishtha Chatterjee arrive at the Emirates Palace hotel.

Joseph Mathew left Abu Dhabi almost two decades years ago, bound for a career as a US photojournalist. He is back showcasing his first feature film, Bombay Summer, tonight. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports Joseph Mathew left Abu Dhabi almost two decades ago to become a photo journalist in the United States. He was unsure when he would return, but felt certain he had chosen the right career path. This weekend, he was back in the capital at the Middle East International Film Festival to present his first feature film, Bombay Summer.

The film, which is sold out for tonight's first showing at the Emirates Palace hotel, has received praise for its stunning cinematography, which captures the beauty that can be found in a congested city such as Mumbai. The story follows the lives of three young Indians and their trials and tribulations coming of age in the city. Mathew grew up in Trivandrum, Kerala, and did not visit Mumbai until he was teenager. He moved to Abu Dhabi for one of his first jobs out of college, at a travel agency.

"It was the first country outside of India that I had ever lived in," he said. "I was young and open to any kind of experience. I found living here quite interesting." He said he lived on Airport Road near the Etisalat tower "Is it still there?" he asked but he had not had a chance to explore his old haunts since arriving yesterday. After leaving Abu Dhabi for the US, he worked as a photojournalist in Baltimore and eventually began directing documentaries. The first, called The Last Season, was about the demolition of a landmark stadium.

The last, in 2006, was Crossing Arizona, a film about the politics of the border between the state of Arizona and Mexico. Mathew said the film "took a lot of out of me" and he decided to return to India and make a film. "It was brewing in the back of my mind, and I was ready to do it," he said. Bombay Summer tells the story of Geeta (Tannishtha Chatterjee), an ambitious, well-educated young woman and her friendship with two men: Madan (Jatin Goswami), a talented photographer and painter who supplements his meagre income by delivering illegal goods; and the polished yet idealistic Jaidev (Samrat Chakrabarti), an aspiring writer.

"When you are young, especially in India, you grow up with your friends. They are your childhood friends. You go to their homes and you know everything about them," said Mathew. "But later, you don't really care about those connections. And living in a city, these relationships can be tenuous. That was intriguing." Through his characters, who struggle with the transitions they experience, he also wanted to portray how the country and a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai had changed over the years.

"Bombay is far more democratic than any other Indian city. I like you so I hang out with you. In a city like Bombay you can do that," said Chatterjee, who has divided her time between Mumbai and London for the past six years. "I know so many of my friends who have grown up as part of the upper middle class, with public school education and really, as Indians, we don't know our own country at all. But filming in the interior of the country and living in tents, you get to see the real thing."

She said the actors took liberties with the script and improvised a lot. Mathew even managed to capture her phobia of heights in the film when one of the actors held her too close to the balcony of an abandoned mill. "Joseph told us that this is what it is to develop our characters. Even on set, it was a free thing," Chatterjee said. Actors translated the script, written in English. They improvised in at least three languages, including a scene in which they react to speeding through Indian traffic, giving the film a more realistic and gritty feeling.

? Bombay Summer shows at 6.30pm today at the Emirates Palace hotel. There will be a repeat screening at 9.45pm on Sunday at the Grand Cinemas at Abu Dhabi Mall. It will be subtitled in Arabic and English. sbhattacharya@thenational.ae