We are Asian, you can’t fight it

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Probir Geoffrey Dutt isn’t just a movie producer but a crusader too, against the cultural bias that exists in the world of Australian film and television industry

The film industry is notoriously difficult to break into no matter where you live in the world. But in Australia, if your skin’s the wrong colour, it’s nearly impossible. Or so says Probir Geoffrey Dutt, one man who is fighting to pull down the barriers through his film production company Rok Starr Films.

Dutt’s journey, from acting alongside Judy Dench in England and finding success in the corporate world to emigrating and tackling the Aussie film industry, has not been without its challenges.

He tells the Indian Sun why he decided to make movies in Australia and just how hard it can be for people of certain ethnicities to find a break.

Dutt, who now lives in Melbourne’s bay side suburb of St Kilda and has a home in the Adelaide Hills, was born with artistry in his blood.

“I have a strong musical heritage on both sides of the family. My mother was George Harrison’s cousin (from the Beatles) and he was a great inspiration to me, still is. My father is one of the Dutts of Rambagan so we had the books of RomeshChunderDutt, Toru Dutt and other family members scattered around the house. Reading their poems and sheet music still excites me even today, when I was a kid they would literally send goose bumps down my spine,” he says.

After going through drama school in England, he took to the stage.

“My last play was with Judy Dench, she was amazing and I realised that there was no way I was ever going to be that good so I started to focus on the music,” Dutt says.

Dutt managed to score a record deal and met many of his idols—including Steve Hackett from the rock band Genesis, Steve Howe from Yes, David Coverdale of Whitesnake and John Squire of the Stone Roses—but was dumped after his music failed to take off.

It was then that he decided to “get a real job”, eventually becoming Director of 3Com (now IT company HP). Dutt helped pioneer the company’s entry into the Indian market, shifting resources into New Delhi to support products.

“My boss told me that it could be a ‘career limiting move’ if it didn’t work. I was confident that India could deliver and it was a great success,” Dutt says.

He then set out on his own, launching a BPO company with friends before exiting, relocating to Australia in 2004 and starting Rok Starr Films the following year.

“I was eager to stay in the BPO industry but I also wanted to return to the unfinished business of music and drama. So in 2005 I set up Rok Starr Films with a aim at making musically driven movies,” he adds.

The UK native had no knowledge of the Australian film industry and says he found the market—beset with funding woes, a reputation for being overshadowed by Hollywood, and feeding out films that miss the mark with local audiences—somewhat of a shock.

“I knew nothing about the Australian film industry. If I had known what I know now I may not have started Rok Starr Films! It’s not for the faint-hearted!” he says.

Dutt says the fact that he wants to make movies with Indian actors that address gritty issues like racism, domestic violence and same-sex relationships has made the challenge of finding funding even harder.

“I am trying to bridge Australia and India culturally, so I want to use Indian actors in lead roles. Local cinema audiences are still more comfortable seeing the stereotypical looking lead actors so it’s a harder sell,” he says.

That said, Rok Starr Films has seen success, making more than a dozen films that have been screened around the world including The Three Ages of Sasha—which Dutt says is the first neo-realist feature film to star an Indian actor in a lead role.

Having worked in the local film industry for more than eight years, Dutt knows how tough it can be for people to break into the market if they don’t fit the old stereotypical Aussie archetype.

“Sadly, the answer is that it is harder for Indians here in any industry. I believe that some of the racial issues that we have today won’t exist into the next generation. Remember that the White Australia Policy wasn’t fully abolished until 1973 so there are people still in senior positions that have racial views that I find impossible to comprehend. Australia is a bit behind the eight ball when it comes to racial harmony but the more distant the memory of the White Australia Policy becomes, the better place it will become,” he says.

He says the situation is equally difficult when it comes to the TV industry.

“Networks are focused on revenue, they live off advertising sales so screening content that has a less social appeal won’t fly. I pitched one of our current feature film projects called Poems & Meditations to a national media body. It is a film inspired by the Guru Dutt classic Pyaasa, but set in contemporary Australia, and is about a struggling musician of Indian decent born and bred in a sea-side town in Australia. They loved the script and wanted to take the project further but only if we changed the lead role from an Indian to a white Australian. They saw this not as racist, rather a practical business decision to attract an audience,” he says.

Dutt welcomed the launch of the Australian Indian Film Fund but says, “I think with all the issues we’ve had, specifically in Melbourne, with the ‘Indian bashing’ more could have been done to bridge the cultural divide.”

“Australia needs to recognise that due to its geographical positioning and the fact that the world is getting ever smaller, over time the social demographic face of Australia will change. We are Asian, you can’t fight it. As such we need to welcome into the Australian melting pot all the different cultural elements of Asia. When I walk down the street in St Kilda I see Indians everywhere, yet when I turn on the TV I see Indians nowhere. When I go to the cinema Indians are nowhere. This needs to change, not for the sake of the Indian community here but for the sake of Australia. It’s vital that we develop to the extent that, just as seeing Indian’s walking around Melbourne is the norm, seeing Indians on Australian TV and in Australian film is the norm. Once Australia has accepted that we are a melting pot and we can take the good bits from all cultures, the country as a whole will be a better place,” he says.

To keep up to date with Rok Starr Films latest and upcoming productions, visit their website www.rokstarrfilms.com.au

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