Discovering Khoya: In conversation with Sami Khan and Rupak Ginn

After the death of his adopted mother, a Canadian man travels to rural India desperately searching for the birth family he has never known - seeking to unravel the mystery surrounding his adoption. Writer, Director Sami Khan's Khoya is a story of self-discovery, finding what's lost and reconnecting with one's roots. We spoke to Sami Khan and the film’s lead actor Rupak Ginn about their quest called Khoya. 

What set Khoya in motion? 

Sami Khan: The origins of the project were when I discovered I had a long lost brother. The process of looking for him brought up family secrets and conflicting emotions. As a filmmaker I needed a way to work through those issues and I started working it out on the page. Khoya was a short film at first actually. It was just about two brothers who’ve never met before and how they meet on a beach in India, so that was sort of the starting off point. When we were trying to raise money for the short film instead of giving up, we decided to double down and turn it into a full length feature film.

How did Rupak’s involvement come about? 

Sami Khan: When we started principle photography for the film a few years ago, Rupak wasn’t cast for the role another actor had been cast at that time. In July of the same year, I got a facebook message from Rupak saying ‘Hey Happy Birthday! I hope you’re doing great. You have a great birthday because my son has the same birthday as you and he’s just turning one.’ We had known each other for five, six years at that point. He had moved to LA. So it was a little bit of kismet, a little bit of cosmic coincidence. Flash forward to a couple of months later, I was in India in Jabalpur and the main unit was in Mumbai and we lost the originally cast actor, his visa didn’t come through and we had to move on. Rupak was the first person that came to my mind when that happened. So I messaged him to say ‘Hey Rupak, how’s it going man? What are you doing for the next two months? Do you want to come to India and film a movie?’ and he said ‘Yeah I’d love to do it.’ I made him audition. He didn’t do a very good job (laughs) but we spoke and he understood the character and bought so much to it with his intelligence and passion. Then he said the magic words ‘Oh by the way I already have my OCI Visa for India.’ 

What prompted you to be a part of Khoya?

Rupak Ginn: Every time Sami tells that story I sort of get goosebumps. If it went a little bit left or a little bit right in either direction other than the way it did, it may not happened. It ended up being the most transformative artistic experience I’ve had as an actor and I have been doing this for 15 years. When we did Khoya, it was about 12 years into my journey but still it’s not like I just started. I’ve had some success and have done some interesting projects but I was at a point in my life where I was frustrated. I am brown actor, I am an Indian American actor and there just aren’t that many opportunities for young brown, leading men. I was so anxious and frankly at that point angry and hungry to get my hands on a role that I could really sink my teeth into and they just weren’t coming. A lot of the creators are white, males and they create in their own image. They are not thinking about people who look like us when they create their lead characters. This script came along, I read it and I knew instantly this was the project I had been waiting for. I knew Sami from years ago when he was a graduate student at Columbia Film School. I already knew he was deeply talented. This was the right script, the right filmmaker for me. I am so fortunate I had the chance to do this part; I had to jump on right away. It’s just so funny that I was craving and needing this thing and in my life and it happened.

How difficult was it to pool the resources to make this film happen?      

Sami Khan: It was incredibly difficult. We raised some of the money to do it from friends and family. It was a challenge to figure out how much a movie like this would cost. We were not working on the budget scale of The Namesake for example. Ours had a tiny, tiny budget. We had to talk to a dozen different co-producers in India, from big Bollywood producers to commercial production companies to people working in regional cinema to try and find the right fit. The kind of indie filmmaking that we do here in North America is different than the indie filmmaking that happens in India with films like The Lunchbox. Karen, the lead producer had met Guneet Monga at Berlin during a program called Transatlantic partners and they became friends. Karen reached out to Guneet and they were coming off producing The Lunchbox. They had experience in dealing with a Western crew in India and working with a lower budget than you typically have for a large Bollywood film. They came on board and the Indian crew was just exceptional. It was like threading a needle, we had no margin for error and we were able to pull it off. The old adage is in filmmaking you can do things right, cheaply or quickly and you can only pick two of those three. We had to do it right and we had to it do cheaply. We couldn’t do it quickly so it has taken along time but ultimately we are all really proud of it.

What is your hope for Khoya?

Sami Khan: I am big believer in the long tale more than the economics. We are aware our movie is not going to be a huge overnight success but I hope in the long run people find the movie. Ours is a relatable film. The film has done quite well in the opening weekend in Toronto. People are watching it and we have been getting great reviews. Ultimately all of us hope in the long run it is a movie that people will find.

Rupak Ginn: I have two specific hopes for this film. One is that people will recognize Sami Khan as an auteur filmmaker worth listening to, supporting and watching by viewing his films and institutions backing his films financially. My second hope is that people will look at this film and say ‘Hey brown leading men can carry films.' Hopefully we can change the tide in our own away.

Khoya is currently playing at the Cartlon Cinemas in Toronto.