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[whitespace] Laugh Lines

Tony Sehgal captures a South Bay boy's odyssey in 'Through the Heart of a Lion'

By David Templeton

'I'VE ALWAYS LOOKED at the world the way a documentarian does," says Tony Sehgal of Palo Alto. "Even before I knew what a documentary was." Sehgal's sense of curiosity and his knack for still photography seemed the perfect equipment for a National Geographic photojournalist. But after producing a number of well-received photo exhibits, one on his birth-home, India, Sehgal shifted his focus from still photography to moving pictures--and shifted his major to filmmaking. He graduated last year from Stanford's documentary filmmaking department.

"Documentary has this reputation of being kind of boring and, um, noncreative," Sehgal admits. "But it's actually one of the most freeing, inventive, creative film mediums there is. As a documentarian, working without a script, you may start out exploring one idea, but then you'll end up changing your whole focus as all these unexpected things come up right before your eyes."

In a very short time, Sehgal has racked up a good number of filmmaking credits. He's already made a 20-minute video about endangered shore birds and the acclaimed documentary Through the Heart of a Lion, nine months in the life of a South Bay boy named Jackie, diagnosed with leukemia and in serious need of a bone-marrow transplant. To find an appropriate donor match, Jackie's father--of Indian descent but raised in England--began a life-changing search throughout the thriving South Bay Sikh community, a culture he had long ago lost touch with. Sehgal's camera caught it all.

His latest short film, No Laughing Matter, explores the surprising phenomenon of lndian "laughing clubs," popular groups that meet each day to relieve stress through sessions of therapeutic laughter. The film is a remarkable blend of dead seriousness and unbridled hilarity. "It's pretty entertaining, isn't it?" Seghal enthusiastically admits. Perhaps too entertaining. Though the film was a highlight of the Double Take Documentary Film Festival and has become a popular website attraction (http://www.kilma.com/laughing), Sehgal has had a difficult time finding mainstream support for the film.

"The people at KQED told me they loved it," he says, bemusedly, "but it was 'too different' to show on TV." This response is indicative of the struggles most independent documentarians go through; as a true-life enthusiast, you can either make interesting films that have no mainstream value or throw in the towel and make shows like COPS. Instead, Sehgal has started his own production company, Pygmy Mammoth, to make industrial films. In addition, he's lent his documentarian's eye to other people's projects, serving as director of photography for the recently completed Bugaboo, an independent comedy by Sujit Saraf, telling the tale of Indian computer programmers working in Silicon Valley.

At the same time, Sehgal is raising money for future documentary projects. "I can't seem to stop getting ideas," he says.

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From the August 26-September 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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