Filmmaker Huo Jianqi suffered food poisoning, barely avoided a heatstroke and was stranded in crawling traffic a few times while shooting in Bihar and Maharashtra for the first Sino-India co-production based on famed traveller Hiuen Tsang.
With “Xuanzang” (as the 7th century monk and scholar is known in China) set for release on April 29, Huo says he’d be more than willing to direct another joint production, notwithstanding logistical problems and visa delays.
Leading Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming plays the Buddhist monk who made a 17-year overland journey to India during the Tang dynasty, and actor Sonu Sood appears as King Harsha.
Speaking to Hindustan Times at an arty cafe, Huo said he and his team of around 80 shot for 30 days last year at Nalanda and Gaya in Bhihar, around the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in Maharashtra and in the haunting ruins of Hampi in Karnataka.
In China, the team shot in remote areas of Xinjiang, Tibet and Gansu provinces.
“Most of the shoots were outdoors. It was physically taxing. In India, we spent 10 days in April and May and another 20 days in September...The heat and the sun were all very challenging,” Huo said in Chinese.
It was the heat that led to Huo’s brush with food poisoning. “During the first 20 days (of shooting), we originally planned to stay longer and visit more places in the south. But one day, I had iced lemonade in a restaurant and had a stomach ache soon after. I threw up whatever I ate and was in bed for three days.”
Language was another challenge, with translators aiding actors and the production team for every scene to ensure the dialogue did not lose its meaning.
“The only problem lay in the interpretation of some words, as sometimes we have a different understanding for certain words, especially complicated religious words,” he said.
“For example, the word ‘guilt’. (While shooting) we would discuss the meaning of guilt, whether guilt is suitable to be used in a particular sequence.”
Huo travelled to India after 15 years for the shoot. In 2000, he received the Special Jury Award for his movie “Postmen In The Mountains” at the International Film Festival of India in New Delhi.
This time, his India-connect was different with both governments closely linked to the project. Produced by acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai, “Xuanzang” is a co-production by India’s Eros International and state-run China Film Corporation.
The shoot enabled Huo to find out more about Indians, such as their love for “chicken legs” and their “mysterious curiosity” about the Chinese.
“I was overwhelmed by the degree that Indians like chicken legs. They seemed to eat only chicken, no pork, no beef, only chicken. Then, I was impressed by the beauty of the airport in Mumbai. I thought it was the most beautiful airport in the world,” he said.
Expectations are riding high on the movie, with millions of renminbi being pumped into it – the sets were lavish, hundreds of extras were used and 10 companies from the US and China comprising 200 people were hired for post-production.
It is also a prestige project as the first agreement on joint productions was signed in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in May last year.
The story of Xuanzang and his journey to India, which features in Indian school textbooks, is very popular in China, inspiring the famous book “Journey To The West”. Whether the new film can have an equally lasting impact will soon be known.
Watch | Trailer for the Sino-Indian co-production “Xuanzang”