Simone in Gujarat Desert: Innovation TV Series.
About Simone:Simone Ahuja is the founder and Principal of Blood Orange Media a vertically integrated media company based in Minneapolis, USA. She began her Art career by performing and teaching improvisational and traditional theater, eventually moving into film and television. Her company, Blood Orange, develops, produces and distributes non-fiction television programs in genres that include travel, history, lifestyle, business and world culture for US and international broadcast, and develops concepts for fiction programming.
Simone has produced award-winning programming for CNBC, USA, founded an online film competition, and produced and directed the 2007 travel series Indique – Untold Stories of Contemporary India that airs nationally in the US, on international airlines including Northwest Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. In India, the series aired on Zee TV and the Indique DVD was launched at Crossword Bookstore by Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose and Ness Wadia. The series was most recently supported by Fortune 100 company, Best Buy. Simone is based out of Minneapolis, USA, and Bombay, India.
INDIQUE– Untold Stories of Contemporary India
LM: I read recently that you fund a great deal of your movies through your own means, by way of your dental practice. Do you find it hard to juggle the creative process with the business demands – i.e., distribution, marketing, etc?
SA: Though I’ve been involved in film and television for several years, last year I was able to make a complete transition out of dentistry. I now have the ability to exclusively create films, write, and pursue India-related academic studies both formally and informally. It was challenging to balance both careers – and the ability to focus on one career certainly has catalyzed a forward momentum. All filmmakers struggle with balancing the creative and business sides of our medium. Initially, I resented that so much time has to be spent on marketing, distribution, etc, but now
I’ve come to accept it and enjoy it as a critical part of a complete process. It has become increasingly easier with each film as my network, knowledge and production team grows.
LM: You’re completing production of a new television series – where did the idea come from?
SA: Our latest series focuses on innovation emerging from India. It’s underwritten by Best Buy Corp, which has a great interest in learning about innovation in India and globally – and how lessons can be drawn from grassroots innovators, for example, that can be applied in the US. I was pleased, and perhaps surprised to find such great open-mindedness, support for alternative visions – and an understanding of their impact, in a corporate setting.
We also worked extensively with Navi Radjou, Executive Director of Cambridge University’s Indian Business Centre to provide input about case studies, various kinds of innovation, and to provide shape to the series. Again, I was very pleased at the exceptional creativity brought forward from an individual in an academic setting. These partnerships have really opened my eyes to how powerful a network such as this one can be.
LM: How much shooting do you do in a day? How much is devoted to research, watching people, or just “hanging out”?
SA: The amount of time spent on research has been far greater than our actual shooting time since there is so much, and so many kinds of innovation emerging from India. We carried out extensive research along with our pre-production prior to arriving in India for more than four months. We continued with on the ground research in India. There’s definitely room for another series.
When we were on tour, our days often began at 4 am and ended around midnight since we often traveled into very remote areas, which would continue for up to 10 days at a time.
Our shooting and post-production took place over three months as we traveled across many states in India including Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana.
I certainly do people-watch and talk to individuals from all walks of life to garner on the ground information about India’s socio-cultural evolution. Just hanging out is rare, there’s not too much down time – but when there is, there’s certainly no shortage of interesting activities and good friends to keep me occupied should I have some free time in Mumbai.
LM: What impact do you hope this film will have on audiences?
SA: We hope that the series will provide not only inspiration, but also valuable insight for individuals and corporations around the world who want to break out of familiar knowledge paradigms.
The US and global economy is spiraling downward, and we must be humble enough to look beyond traditional sources of knowledge to educate ourselves. For example two grassroots innovators from Assam created a low cost windmill (under $1,000) that can be used in place of diesel engines for pumping water in the desert, where all resources are highly limited. They constructed the windmills out of different materials appropriate for unique environments – and solved problems of the financial and environmental cost, as well as the difficulty transporting fuel in remote areas.
Grassroots entrepreneurs like these taught us lessons that could never be acquired in a classroom. Again, it’s about challenging conventional truths that may no longer apply today. We are creating a companion website for the series with Cambridge University’s Centre for Indian Business and hope this will bring us beyond a monolithic series to one that fuels knowledge sharing.
LM: How did you come upon the idea for your short film Scrum in the Mud?
SA: The idea for “Scrum in the Mud” evolved out of our first series, Indique – Untold Stories of Contemporary India. When we conceptualized the series more than 3 years ago, the world’s perception of India was significantly different than it is today. The charge of that series was to showcase contemporary India and to shatter stereotypes about the subcontinent. One way to do that was to show Indians playing a sport – particularly a brutal contact sport such as rugby. The film features Bollywood actor Rahul Bose (Mr. and Mrs. Iyer, Before the Rains, Jhankaar Beats) who is also a member of the Indian National Rugby Team, so it certainly drew a lot of interest from Indian and international audiences. Importantly, “Scrum in the Mud” features Indians in a way that they are almost never portrayed – as rugged athletes. We also enlisted a Bangladeshi heavy metal band to provide music for the fast paced film – another surprise for most.
Rahul Bose in “Scrum in the mud“
LM: Do you find it easier to work in the States or in India? What are the major challenges of making a movie in India?
SA: There are certainly more similarities than differences when making a film in either the US or in India, but the differences can take some time to negotiate initially.
In the US, the industry is a bit more rigid and organized, though that’s becoming more true in India today. Still, challenges of timeliness, traffic and even crowds can become an issue for an international crew in India – but overall the experience of shooting here has been exceptional and the caliber of professionals with whom I’m working is very high. There’s a tremendous amount of talent in the film industry here in Bombay.
LM: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
SA: I have never been more inspired, and humbled, by the subjects of a film as I have been during the our latest production. The grassroots entrepreneurs with whom we met, and others who are dedicated to helping them gave me a tremendous perspective about what one person’s imagination can catalyze. One individual, Mansukh Prajapati, lives in the deserts of Gujarat, where most homes are “off the grid”. Further, incomes of most residents don’t allow for traditional refrigeration. He developed a green refrigerator made completely from “mitti” or terracotta – which has been life changing for many in Gujarat and beyond. He’s also started a school to teach others to make these and other products, which ultimately drives employment in the area. He began as a tea seller with very limited formal education – but he has that drive in him that’s unmistakable, and lessons to share that are invaluable for all of us.
Mansukh Prajapati with his green refrigerator
LM: When was your first interest in film? Why?
SA: I’ve been drawn to visual media since childhood – particularly films. Film and television are exceptionally powerful – even today as the attention of audiences becomes increasingly diluted. My interest in broadening worldwide audience perceptions of India brought me into the film world. Of course, the creativity and the technology aspects of making films today has driven my interest much further.
LM: Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
SA: I first worked at a PBS affiliate in college for an arts program called, “Alive from Off Center” – a show that featured alternative arts and artists which was a fantastic introduction to PBS programming. PBS stations are strong platforms for programs that have an international focus. It’s also well known internationally, and so gives us increased credibility when filming. We distribute our program through NETA, which is more open to programs created by independent producers and does not require exclusivity – so we can place our programs on other channels/venues. That becomes critically important to develop additional revenue streams.
LM: The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
SA: Independent filmmakers need to be creative beyond films. We all welcome the democratization of media driven by digital media and the resulting reduced cost to create films, but with the number of filmmakers and outlets for media on the rise, we need to consider alternative sources of funding and venues for our films. It’s a challenge, but also an exciting time to be in the industry. I’ve also enjoyed partnering with entities outside of the media realm who bring a new perspective. The subjects of my films, and the changing world of media keeps my learning curve high. As long as that’s true, I’ll always be motivated.