I am fairly certain that people don’t lie to me, but I am also just as certain that hidden between unfinished sentences and awkward pauses are painful truths that beg not to be spoken about.
“It took me a while, OK?” he admitted boldly. “It took me a long time to accept the fact that OK, he’s not going to be a doctor.”
His straight-up attitude made me stop short in my tracks. This was going to be no ordinary conversation.
I’m not used to South Asian men admitting setbacks. But here was Dr. Sharma, respected cancer surgeon, laying all the cards on the table. Face up.
“When the children were growing up, we wanted them to take the science classes.” Being the first physician in his family, Dr. Sharma wanted his son Sandeep to follow suit.
Sandeep Sharma however, was a man of his own. Now the creator of films via a company titled A Light in the Universe Filmworks, he has worked on big productions Fire by Deepa Mehta and Kama Sutra by Mira Nair.
“Our son finished high school and then decided to take a year off. I said, ‘Why don’t you want to go to college?’ He said, ‘I’m burned out.’ I said ‘Get out of the house, go get yourself a job and an apartment, and you can explore yourself as much as you want’. You want to go to college? I’ll pay for it.’ Within three weeks, all the applications to college were filed, and he was on his way to college!”
Dr. Sharma laughs at his clever tactic, and I think of parents who could benefit from doing the same to teach children the value of hard work.
“I think working hard is something most kids don’t really relish,” Dr. Sharma adds lightly.
But Sandeep was actually working much harder than his father realized. After finishing college he moved to New York, then Chicago, and worked odd jobs to make ends meet while pursuing his dream.
“All of the time, we kept asking him ‘What do you want to do next?’ Parents are always worried ‘Oh my gosh, a struggling artist, how’s he going to feed himself?’ And he’d say, ‘Well I’m not asking for money. I’m keeping my own head up.’”
“And his only one thing was ‘Mom and Dad, for you Indians the problem is you can be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. Is there no other profession in the world?!’
“It was a loooong struggle,” Dr. Sharma admits.
Why, I ask.
“Well from a father’s perspective, because this [being a doctor] is all I know.”
“As a doctor you make a decent living, and most of us when we left India we were not multimillionaires. You have to work and you have to have an education, and do something that you think will be stable. And that is the concern most Indian parents have about their children: How are they going to make it?
“How are these children going to have the same standard of living which they have become used to?” Another fact most parents won’t admit to. “For one person who makes it to the top, there are plenty of people who are living from hand to mouth.”
So how does someone as fixed in his expectations as Dr. Sharma once was, begin to accept such a huge change?
“I think the turning point, if you really want to do that,” he says, “is when Sandeep got his first break on a big film with Mira Nair.” I accept my mistake in the question there, realizing that no shift in perspective can occur from just one instance in time.
“Some time passed in the shooting and he called us. I asked, ‘Son, how is work?’ He said, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m working so hard!’ And I said, ‘My son working hard?’ So both of us took a trip to where they were filming to see if what he was saying was really true!”
Sandeep’s parents arrived in India to see their son through a new lens.
“I thought that I was working hard,” Dr. Sharma says. “But these people, when they are working, they’re working their tails off. Both of us realized moviemaking is really, really hard work. It was an eye-opening experience…and I have a lot more respect and insight into what goes into making a film.”
“I’m very proud of what he does. It took me a while, because the concern again was, OK so you made a short film, you went to India, but can you live, from the money that you made, for the next whole year? That was always at the back of our minds. But rather than being discouraging and constantly saying ‘So where are you going to get the food from next?’ we decided to say, ‘Sandeep, do what you want to do. If we can help you some way, we’ll do that.’
“After all what do the parents make money for? To help their kids.” And help Dr. Sharma did—when Sandeep needed a Hindi translator while making one of his short films.
“Worry and fear are the two things that hinder our progress most of the time…Once you accept something, that this is how it is, as a surgeon you make a decision, ok this is how it is, you just move on with life. You can’t keep sulking about it. At the end of the day it’s his happiness that matters.
“Now my belief system is ‘God brought you down for this service, God is going to take care of you. Who am I to worry about it?’”
Sandeep Sharma is an adjunct at Columbia College Chicago, and a filmmaker-in-residence working with hospitalized children for Snow City Arts. Find out more about Sandeep’s creative vision at A Light in the Universe Filmworks.