The crowded streets of Kolkata form the potent backdrop to an intimate portrait of marriage in Claire McCarthy’s The Waiting City - the first Australian production to be shot entirely on location in India. The film follows Fiona (Radha Mitchell) and Ben (Joel Edgerton), who, after an exhaustive two year process, journey to Kolkata to be united with their adoptive daughter.
As director, McCarthy drew on elements from her own experiences living and working in India, as well as extensive interviews with couples waiting to adopt. The result is at once deeply personal and strikingly universal.
Speaking after the first screenings of her film at the Sydney Film Festival, McCarthy explains that the inspiration to travel to India came through her younger sister, Helena. "She’s nine years younger than me and had just finished high school and responded to a family taunt laid down by my mother that she would never survive a day in the slums of Calcutta,” she says.
“So we both went for three months and I started to film her [then] started to realise this is a quite a potent experience for her - being 17 and having never traveled anywhere out of her comfort zone before. And although I had been in Third World countries before, I’d never really experienced it at that level, where we were right on the streets.”
McCarthy developed these experiences into a documentary (Sisters), which, in turn, became the germ of The Waiting City. “We were working in orphanages [and] I just became really fascinated with the relationships between these people and I started to think about how full on it would be, wanting to have a baby and perhaps not being able to," McCarthy says. "And some people, you could tell there was an emotional stranglehold within their relationship and that manifested itself both positively and negatively as they waited for a child.”
When McCarthy interviewed adopting couples around the world, she discovered that the recurring theme was that the process was difficult: “And it should be difficult…but still one could argue that the process is inordinately bureaucratic and takes so long, and you’re faced with this idea that the child could sit for years, sometimes in an orphanage while you’re waiting. How does that affect both the child and the [prospective] parents?”
In the end, finding the right characters to play out this complex question came down to luck and chance. “Radha came to us through serendipity...When we were in India shooting a music video for a band called Old Man River on the banks of the Ganges, we were having a wrap beer at the end of the day and one of our crew asked who was my fantasy star for the The Waiting City [at that stage it was uncast]. I mentioned Radha and why I wanted to work with her - she’s so amazing and has this connection to India."
Later, without McCarthy's knowledge, the crew member published an article in the Times of India, divulging the film's synopsis. "And that article ended up finding its way to Radha, and [it just so happened that] the only copy of the script was on her agent’s desk, so it all started from there!”
Mitchell was an experienced yoga practitioner and frequent visitor to India’s ashrams. But Edgerton had never visited the country before. So both actors were playing against type. As McCarthy puts it: “In reality [Joel] is a little bit more like Fiona than Radha is and Radha’s a little bit more like Joel’s character. She’s a lot more watery and sweet and Joel’s very driven, very sharp. It was really interesting - they really did a switcheroo!”
There is no doubt, though, that McCarthy is please with the outcome. Mitchell and Edgerton give naturalistic performances that are compelling to behold. “I feel that their chemistry really worked. It was really an honour working with the two of them,” McCarthy says.
But the production was not without incident. In late November 2008, midway through filming, there was a series of bombings in India's largest city: the now infamous Mumbai terrorist attacks. Many crew members were from the beleaguered city, and thus were understandably distressed. “It was one of those things that could totally destabilise a shoot, [but] everyone, to their credit, stuck together and we were really lucky to have such a good team that were able to stay with it in spite of what had happened," McCarthy says. "We did do a lot of things to pay respects; we didn’t just keep soldiering on, but certainly it could have been a lot worse for our team."
Indeed, The Waiting City galvanized both the production team and the long-term relationship between McCarthy and the film’s talented cinematographer Denson Baker (The Black Balloon), who proposed soon after shooting wrapped. And while perhaps this isn’t quite an instance of life imitating art, the now happily married McCarthy concedes: “At the end of that shoot, which was four months in India including pre-production, we just thought if we can get through this than we can get through anything!”
Published in The Big Issue #358
Click HERE to view the trailer and read my review of The Waiting City