A feature-length Indian movie by the name of Vellai Pookal, a whodunnit mystery thriller, was released on April 19 to a worldwide audience that included theaters in 20 U.S. cities, 200 locations in India and 30 countries that included Australia, Sri Lanka and Singapore. This movie stars two high-profile Indian celebrities but was shot entirely in Washington state. The film crew was also local and so were most of its actors.
This whole enterprise was undertaken by a local theater production group comprised of over 200 volunteers from the Indian expat community in Seattle.
That’s right. You read correctly: Volunteers.
Filmmakers have long known that Seattle, home of big corporate players in several industries, lacks any semblance of a film industry. It is not uncommon for filmmakers in need of lush, verdant scenery like the Pacific Northwest to skip over to neighboring Vancouver to take advantage of the alluring incentives the city has to offer.
Indus Creations, a portmanteau of “India” and the “United States,” may become the beacon of hope cinephile Seattleites are looking for to spark some vestige of a film industry in the Emerald City. Members attribute the group’s success to the mentality tech professionals have to create a superior product, along with the fearless attitude and gumption that is encouraged to dream beyond what seems possible. The enthusiasm to create something original runs rampant in every one of its productions.
Indus Creations: Where it all started
The journey from theater to movie production was 15 years in the making and started in 2005 when a group of alumni from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, in India, relocated to Seattle. These alumni had theater production experience as students and decided to balance their work life by returning to this activity and creating plays in Tamil, a language spoken predominantly in south India and in other parts of the world such as Singapore and Sri Lanka. Under the leadership of Dhigha Sekaran, a prominent tech leader and one of the future producers of the movie, Indus was born.
The group also decided to partner with various nonprofits that focus on welfare initiatives such as education and healthcare to give back to their community in India. To this day, Indus is not a registered organization but has helped raise over $300,000.
After the success of their first two plays, the group started thinking seriously about the quality, setting the bar to be as good as Broadway or Cirque du Soleil. They started collaborating more with local people and talent. Their goal was to release one play a year, setting aside six months to prepare before opening day. Each year’s production outdid the other, impressing people and growing a legion of fans.
“There are people [around the world] who would move their travel plans to make sure they could come to our play,” said Krishna Iyer, an Amazon senior development manager and an executive producer of the movie. “If they had already bought tickets when we release the performance dates, some actually adjust their travel plans.”
This support does not exist merely because they are part of the Indian community. “At the end of the day, they’re paying $15, $25 to come watch us. It’s not a free show,” said Vidhya Balasubramaniyan, a group engineering manager at Microsoft and an associate director and executive producer of the movie. “They don’t care how much effort I put in. These people come in for the quality of the product.”
The leap to making a movie
Members of Indus first broached the idea of creating a movie during a brainstorming session in 2010, but the notion seemed so ludicrous they dismissed it. As Indus’ 10th-year theater production anniversary approached, Vivek Elangovan, a senior program manager for Microsoft and the director and screenwriter of the film, wanted to create an “onstage movie.” After the success of this venture, Elangovan encouraged the group to experiment with short films, some of which have won awards in international film festivals.
As the short films received positive reviews, Varun Kumar, a future producer of Vellai Pookal and founding partner of Tentkotta, a website that streams Indian films, suggested they take the leap into making feature-length movies. The idea caught like wildfire.
“The tech background really helped us jump into this because we’ve seen people start from nothing and grow,” said Iyer. “That backbone gave us a little power to jump into some of these things because otherwise, the prospect of releasing movies in 30 countries is scary. We were audacious. The tech blood made us daring.”
Success of Indus: How skills from the tech industry helped make a movie
When Elangovan first came to Seattle in 2006, he was bored and needed something to do. Little did he know that an Indian play his roommate forced him to attend would lead him on a side career as a screenwriter and director for Indus. Vivek came to Indus as a blank slate, and his skills were fostered through the informal mentoring system already in place.
“This is where I learned most of my creativity,” he said. “It took five years for Vidhya, Krishna and other veterans to groom me. Every year for three months, I would spend time with them: I would stick around for meetings to see what these people talked about, how they wrote the script, how it was acted out, what kind of feedback was given, and what kind of changes were made. It was never a closed group and it’s all organically learned there. That’s where I learned the craft.”
Elangovan is a classic example of how the group incubates new leaders. Indus relies on talent accumulated over the years through its informal mentoring system. For every leadership position, there is a long line of apprentices—the group’s “bench strength”—whose skills have been groomed and nurtured. Depending on the volunteers’ commitment and ability, their skills may evolve and develop to the point where they are now the emerging leaders of the group. Elangovan started with no experience but was able to nurture his creativity while developing other skillsets, eventually becoming one of the group’s main screenwriters and directors.
This bench strength is also there to replenish talent whenever someone needs to leave the project, preventing it from fizzling out and allowing it to actually see completion.
“One of the good things about Indus is that organic talent has always been encouraged and nourished,” said Iyer. “This bench strength is why we are thriving as a group. We have grown stronger over the past 10 years because we are able to trust people enough to pass the baton and let it go. The quality of our work has increased because the bench strength is there to support people if things start falling apart, but new energy and perspective also evolves the group.”
Making a movie is daunting, but the members made it more approachable by looking at the project as if it were a startup—something they were familiar with in their line of work. Although they needed to learn many things, this prospect did not faze them since fast learning is necessary to keep up with their constantly changing industry. They also understood the scale of the project since they needed to satisfy millions of customers. This know-how and the temerity to question “Why not us?”, gave them the courage to dive head-on into the project.
One of the ways they aimed high was with the actors they sought after. Vivekh Padmashri, a major Indian actor with 400 movies to his name, plays the lead role in Vellai Pookal. Having the verve to approach such a high-profile actor took luck, skill and ease pitching ideas in high-pressure, stress-induced situations—much like pitching a startup to a CEO or venture capitalist. Through two degrees of separation, Elangovan got in touch with Padmashri’s manager, which allowed him to pitch the movie directly to Padmashri. The rest is history.
For Iyer, Elangovan and Balasubramaniyan, their management experience was also useful, especially since the movie-making process in Indus was democratized. This meant that decisions revolving around their project was not restricted to their filmmaking team but open to the group’s 200 members. They allowed everyone in the group to take part in the creative process by suggesting ideas and giving critiques. Deciding on the name of the movie alone took six months with over 200 Facebook threads of suggestions.
“We don’t let people come and throw ideas at random; it’s not like a one-off. People need to come in and participate,” said Balasubramaniyan. “In the tech industry, we’ve reached a point where the next product is not going to come from sitting inside a room and hashing it out. We have to listen to people, and we have to learn from other companies.”
The group also has a sizeable number of women involved, predominantly in certain departments, but also with leadership roles such as the movie’s casting director Chavi Khare, who was also one of the associate directors. The women’s backgrounds are not just restricted to the tech industry. There have been teachers, students and homemakers as well.
One may wonder what brings these people back to volunteer when many of them already have demanding day jobs. For many, their involvement at Indus improves their work life by building skills they need to thrive in the workplace.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” said Iyer. “You become a better engineer or employee because you’re doing art, and you’re doing art better because you’re bringing some of that tech muscle into the creative process. It’s free mentoring, and I’m a better leader only because I was a part of Indus.”
“Indus is a free MBA course, no questions asked, and there’s no better place to learn it than here,” said Balasubramaniyan. “I’m pretty sure Indus has played some role in keeping some good people around here even though there are other opportunities in the Bay Area or the East Coast; they like to contribute to the arts and to the community. Although some are not actively contributing, we have kept our people around. They are still here because we have built a community, and we are proud about that.”
Elangovan always refers to Indus as a “platform.” Looking ahead, he wants to continue finding ways to showcase local talent, using Indus as a bridge to India so that members can have the option of creatively flourishing domestically or internationally. He also wants to open this avenue to talent in India as well. Elangovan then wants to set his sights on Hollywood.
Both he and Balasubramaniyan want to find more ways to motivate people to join Indus. “Just because you have a nine-to-five job, you can do something creatively; it’s not closed,” said Elangovan. “You can have work and life; you can have balance. We want to be that platform that says, ‘Yes, you can do both.’”
Vellai Pookal is now available on Amazon Prime Video.