Milk and Opium began as a concept in the fall of 2003. I spent a great deal of time in the Muslim neighborhood of Nizamudin filming a form of Sufi music known as Qawali singing. After meeting a Manganyar musician (also Sufi and reminiscent of the Qawali musicians), Tenzin Tsetan and I went on a scouting trip in March 2004 to Jaisalmer and its surrounding villages in the Great Thar desert.
The scouting trip became the foundation of the film. Musicians from all over Jaisalmer district came to perform for us in the village of Keraliya, in the city of Jaisalmer, and a number of villages near Jaisalmer. We listened to the musicians' stories, enjoyed live music, and looked at potential locations. The amazing experience we had during the scouting trip began to feed the script of Milk & Opium.
Back in Delhi, I conducted a drama workshop for all of the potential lead characters with the help of a translator, Renu Sharma. We got the musicians acting, having fun, and feeling more relaxed in front of the camera. We read through the script and revised the script based on our conversations with the musicians. The movie began to take shape.
A small technical team was put together and filming began in July 2004. The tight and extremely demanding schedule only allowed for 23 days of shooting. My summer vacation from my teaching job would be over at the beginning of August - a firm deadline that could not be missed.
Production was riddled with problems. When packing our gear in Delhi, the main protagonist of the film called to say that he could no longer be involved. He was going to Spain for a performance. After a frenzied state of 'what should we do now', I decided to continue onto Jaisalmer to begin the shoot. I rewrote the script in short hand on the long journey to Jaisalmer. Upon arrival, musicians were called and an audition was held. At that point, Nizam was cast. The script needed to be changed drastically, but we also needed to begin shooting.
I continued to revise the script in the evenings while trying to plan for the next day's shoot. It meant very little sleep throughout the month of July.
Everyone knows it is hot in the Great Thar desert in summer. However, I had not anticipated the wind from the monsoon. I had spoken to many people in regards to the weather, but we were focused mainly on the heat. I remember one local telling me that my shoes would melt into the pavement in July in Jaisalmer. The wind became a huge problem for us. When you have wind in the desert, you have sand in your equipment. The sand storms were beautiful, but horrendous to work in. We had sand in our equipment and in every orifice of our bodies. I recall comparing the mounds of sand in our ears; our faces covered with sand, and the hours that Pankaj, our cameraman, and Manu, an assistant, sat in the car until the wee hours of the morning cleaning equipment.
The weather conditions, problems with talent, and malfunctioning equipment made a difficult shoot - almost impossible. All in all it was an incredibly challenging adventure. We had no choice but to do our best, and try to creatively solve the many problems we were confronted with.