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Producer Gaurang Bhat shines light on leprosy in India in award-winning documentary

Hailing from Mumbai, India, Gaurang Bhat is living his childhood dream every day: he makes movies. This sought-after producer always dreamed of telling stories, and now does so every day. He is truly passionate about his craft and enjoys the challenge of producing. He is a natural problem-solver, and that is his favorite aspect of his role.

“Being thrown into a situation and being able to figure out a solution with all our talented crews is the best thing. The collaboration of ideas coming together and figuring out what the best solution is for the problem is one of the best feelings,” he said.

Throughout his career, Bhat has shown his home country and the world just what a talented producer he is. He is known for films like Nimbus, Sushi Man, Never Too Late, Vengeance, and so many more, all of which have gone onto great success at many prestigious international film festivals, largely because of his tireless work. The highlight, however, of Bhat’s esteemed career, came back in 2017 with his powerful documentary SPARSH: A Leprosy Mission.

SPARSH was such a personal film for me. We went to leaps and bounds to make this project. We didn’t have enough capital for a documentary feature but we kept on going. My father thought I was wasting my time. After completing the shoot at the NGO, the leprosy patients, staff members from the hospital, and I had staged a small play to showcase the stigma surrounding leprosy for certain villages in Maharashtra. The response from the audience was amazing, they started joining the leprosy patients on stage and kind of let go of the stigma of touch. Just watching that made me emotional with joy, I felt like you could tell that something great was at work here,” said Bhat.

SPARSH: A Leprosy Mission highlights the condition and social stigma surrounding lepers post elimination of leprosy declared by the Indian government in 2005. Leprosy, also known as Hansen's disease, is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae. The disease mainly affects the skin, peripheral nerves, mucosal surfaces of the upper respiratory tract and the eyes. Leprosy is known to occur at all ages ranging from early infancy to very old age.

“While I was visiting India, I came across leprosy through my mother who has been a long-term donor towards this cause. I had a faint idea of what leprosy was before I dove into my research. This has been a neglected disease in India because of the stigma surrounding it. I knew there was a story to tell so I contacted the NGO and that’s when SPARSH happened,” said Bhat.

Bhat instincts were correct, this was a story people wanted to hear. SPARSH premiered at the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards and was a semi-finalist. The documentary also premiered at one of India’s premiere festivals, DadaSaheb Phalke Film Festival, where Bhat received a Certificate of Excellence. It was a winner at Lakecity International Film Festival for Best Screenplay, and nominated at AAB International Film Festival, Golden Earth Film Festival. It was an Official Selection at Inshort Film Festival, 4th IndieCapitol Awards, Short Cinefest, and Mediterranean Film Festival. On top of all this, Bhat and the film were featured on India’s most popular newspaper, Times of India, as well as International Business Times, The Indian Express and others.

“I had no words for it. I was in a state of shock. Did this really happen? I felt good. This documentary was also aimed at raising more funds for the F.J.F.M Hospital. They contacted me regarding the publications going viral. I was happy to know that the film also helped them in raising funds for leprosy patients,” said Bhat.

Creating the film was stressful, but in a good way, according to Bhat. At first, it was immensely challenging, as it was very difficult to get anyone on camera talking about leprosy. A lot of people were very hesitant to talk about the subject as they thought they might get into trouble for speaking their minds, even lose their jobs. Bhat and his team travelled all over the country, which presented other problems, as people were not accustomed to speaking freely in the more remote villages. They had their own people and they didn’t trust Bhat and his team, so the most important thing for the filmmaker was to make them trust him. Eventually, people started opening up.

“The rude awakening for me wasn’t that superstitions and stigma existed but that it was to an even deeper extent than I could have imagined. It was such an eye opener,” said Bhat.

Bhat has been in talks with some distributors, and SPARSH: A Leprosy Mission will soon be available for the public to see. It is quite a film with an important message that Bhat knew needed to be shared.

“This story is extremely important to know. Leprosy has been eliminated in so many parts of the world, but India still has 60 percent of the world’s lepers. The country is the major software exporter, but it still has a long way to go in terms of reaching basic human needs,” he concluded.

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