Jillian Haslam’s journey finds its way to Hollywood studios

Kavitha Iyer
The 7X7 feet room in Kolkata, where Jillian Haslam (left) used to stay. (Express photo)

INSPIRED BY the story of UK-based Anglo-Indian philanthropist Jillian Haslam, who spent her growing years in a Kolkata slum, Hollywood director Jack Sholder and screenwriter Joshua Russell have just spent four days in Kolkata with Haslam, preparing for a film on her journey from living in abject poverty in Kidderpore to becoming a motivational speaker in London with multiple charitable initiatives in Kolkata.

In Mumbai after a hectic trip involving visits to her 7 feet by 7 feet home below a staircase in Kidderpore and the dormitory of her former boarding school, Sholder says Haslam s story is a very cinematic subject, almost like a Charles Dickens classic, a great and improbable tale with twists and turns .

Sholder, who directed Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and has a series of horror and thriller movies to his credit, has been teaching a motion picture and television course in the US.

He says he was drawn to return to the director s seat by Haslam s story. While he has worked on a Hollywood production in Hyderabad s Ramoji city in 2001-02, this will be the first time he s directing a story set in India s realities of poverty and struggle.

Haslam (47) visits Kolkata four times a year to run her various charities, including providing skill training to young women, who work as salon operators and tailors, and setting up multiple food banks for street children.

One of 10 children of an Anglo-Indian couple whose parents chose to stay back in India after Independence, Haslam has recounted her childhood of meagre meals and living on people s charity in her book Indian, English, published in 2011.

She eventually moved to Delhi and worked with the Bank of America before migrating to the UK, where she is now a motivational speaker. The book did very well by virtue of its story. I now want the story to reach every little boy and girl possible, so that they too can learn that it s not what happens to you that s important but what you do about it, Haslam says. Her latest charitable initiative in Kolkata is a playschool for young boys and girls who live on the streets, one that s as good as private playschools.

Though she d written an autobiographical sketch, the idea of a film on her life began when a screenplay writer asked her in 2016 if he could adapt the book. The screenplay won an award at an international film festival, and a producer picked it up, roping in Sholder to direct it. The team and the script have now undergone iterations, but is now ready to go into production in two months, set for a 2020 release.

Screenplay writer Joshua Russell, a teacher for over 13 years at various colleges in the US, is also co-author of a science fiction book series. It s the dramatic arc of the story that drew me in, but what s definitely been gnawing at me are the questions of how does poverty begin and how do you resolve it, says Russell.

He adds that Haslam s story showed him that it s those with very little who split what they have by one more portion to save another from among them.

Haslam says there is no way she could not return to give back to those in Kolkata who made sure she and her siblings survived the meat vendor who saved bones for them, the vegetable vendor who set aside the spoilt produce for the Haslams and other neighbours who took care of them.

My sister always says that a hidden pair of hands sometimes just takes charge of your life, and that s what has happened with me… that I ve gone from Kidderpore to London, written a book and shared my story with so many people, she adds.