WEST ORANGE, NJ - Imagine setting out to produce a feature motion picture for the first time ever . . . and working with a director on his debut movie – in two different countries!  That’s exactly what West Orange resident Sheetal Vyas did when she teamed up with director Nayan Padrai on the new romantic comedy When Harry Tries to Marry, which opened in three New York City theaters and a theater in Westbury, Long Island on April 22.
      
When Harry Tries to Marry is the story of a young American of Indian descent living in New York who decides to enter into a traditional arranged marriage.  Harish “Harry” Shankar is just starting out on his own, and he wants to avoid heartache in finding the right woman and avoid the risk of marrying for love.  He’s encouraged by statistics showing that arranged marriages are more successful, while his parents, who married for love, are bitterly divorced.  His father, a lingerie designer in New York with an American girlfriend, and his mother, a high-powered developer back in India, try to encourage Harry to be more open to life’s experiences before taking a wife, but Harry’s mind is made up.
 
Through his matchmaker uncle, Harry gets engaged to Nita, a sweet girl from a prominent family in India, but in New York he meets Theresa, an American girl pursuing a career in photography, and their friendship develops into something more than platonic.  Harry starts to wonder if he’s actually taken a bigger risk by getting engaged to Nita, whom he meets in person just before the wedding in India, and he asks himself if he’s made the right choice.
 
The result is an engaging and diverting film that celebrates Indian tradition and culture and in which Harry learns that risk cannot be taken out of marriage entirely . . . and that taking a chance on love can offer its own rewards.  Ms. Vyas has been more instrumental than anyone else – except for director Padrai – in bringing When Harry Tries to Marry to the screen, and it is an astonishing debut for both of them. “I went through every scene, every dialogue, ever laugh, again and again," Ms. Vyas says of seeing the finished movie for the first time. “I could not believe that what we have produced is so wonderful, so beautiful.”             
 
Though this is her first feature movie as a producer, Ms. Vyas is no newcomer.  She began her career with the Prithvi Theatre, a professional Hindi theater company in Mumbai considered one of the most important theatrical companies in India.  She later became a production assistant at India’s UTV media company, where she learned the basics of television and movie production.  From there she worked on various projects that included an award-winning documentary on the Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma and movies such as Mrityudand, director Prakash Jha’s brutal look at life in poor Indian villages.
 
“Production is a good mix of being creative and being organized,” Ms. Vyas says.  “So it kind of matched my personality and what I always wanted to do.”
 
When she first met Nayan Padrai, both were working at a New York advertising agency and Padrai was working on the screenplay for When Harry Tries to Marry with his collaborator Ralph Stein. While presenting their script in acting workshops, Padrai and Stein submitted it to various screenplay contests in the United States. Despite receiving many plaudits, several attempts at getting the screenplay filmed fizzled out.  
 
Padrai was undeterred.  In 2008, he and Ms. Vyas made up their minds to produce When Harry Tries to Marry themselves.  Ms. Vyas quit her ad agency job and joined 108 Production, Padrai’s production company.  “Nayan had been trying to work on the movie for the last ten years,” she says, “and he decided he was going to make this movie by the time he turned 35 – on his 34th birthday – and we just did what we knew how to do.”
 
It was not an easy task.  Many prospective backers had neither the time to read a screenplay nor the familiarity with reading one.  Several of them were more interested in star quality than with the film’s potential.  They always asked the same question – “Who’s in it?” – even though not a single reel had been filmed.  Padrai and Ms. Vyas then decided to present staged readings of When Harry Tries to Marry to show potential investors how the film could be made.  The readings produced 40 percent of the money needed, with two white knight investors – one of whom had been acquainted with a business partner of Ms. Vyas – contributing 30 percent each on the basis of a book-bound development plan Ms. Vyas had helped prepare.
 
While struggling to find that remaining 60 percent, though, Padrai and Ms. Vyas were sidetracked into an amusing situation with another “white knight.”  A potential investor, a “friend of a friend of a friend“ with an entertainment background, offered to fund the whole project with the promise of supplying the cast with box-office names, on the condition that no other investors be included.   Both Padrai and Ms. Vyas sought a face-to-face meeting with the gentleman – who was only accessible via e-mail or telephone – but he always had a reason for postponing.  The best reason? “He said that his gold, which was en route to Dubai, was stolen by Somalian pirates!” Ms. Vyas says incredulously.  “He sent us looking for an El Dorado that never was.“
 
The actual filming, which began in the fall of 2009, went better than expected.  As one of five producers, Ms. Vyas was largely responsible for casting, hiring crews, and renting the equipment; she practically became a co-director.  “I have a great knack for putting things together," she says, “and I get pleasure when things go according to clockwork – no goof-ups, no slip-ups, just smooth running.” 
 
In producing When Harry Tries to Marry, Ms. Vyas split a good deal of time between New York and the Indian state of Gujarat, on the Arabian Sea.  Crews in both the U.S. and India complemented each other with their respective strengths.  The American crewmen were efficiently regimented, while their Indian counterparts contributed a great deal of passion – “so much heart and soul,” says Ms. Vyas – to their efforts.  The dedication of both crews allowed for smooth, seamless shooting.  “We had a great bunch of people to work with,” Ms. Vyas says, “and it was just a breeze for a first-time production.”
 
The story of When Harry Tries to Marry, set in colorfully romantic scenes of charming Manhattan neighborhoods and a grand palace in the Indian city of Kutch, is brought to life even more vividly by the disarming performances of Rahul Rai as Harry, Freishia Bomanbehram as his fiancée Nita, and Stefanie Estes as his ladyfriend Theresa.  Their excellent chemistry owes a great deal to Ms. Vyas’s gift for assembling a cast and spotting talent.  She and Padrai cast Rahul Rai, whom Padrai first saw perform in a Long Island dance troupe, based on a script reading in which he displayed the innocent sincerity necessary to carry the title role.  Ms. Vyas discovered Freishia Bomanbehram while in India and had Padrai audition her from New York via Skype; Ms. Bomanbehram read lines from an online video chat scene in which Harry first meets Nita after their wedding has been arranged. She played the role as Padrai wanted.  Stefanie Estes had come in to try out for a minor role, but Ms. Vyas encouraged her to read for the part of Theresa based on a hunch.
 
“There was just something about the way she carried herself,” Ms. Vyas explains.  We gave [Stefanie] the lines and she just bowled us over.”
 
When Harry Tries to Marry opened at two New Jersey theaters – Big Cinema Movie City 8 in Edison and Big Cinema Columbia Park 12 in North Bergen – on April 29, with a  Los Angeles premiere on May 6.  Having monitored the film’s production and post-production, Ms. Vyas is now overseeing its distribution and marketing.  “It’s been an amazing journey,” she says.
 
 Family and home have sustained Ms. Vyas throughout that journey.  These days she lives with her sister in West Orange, where she moved after quitting her agency job and giving up her new York apartment.  It was no sacrifice for her; she relies on the love and support from her sister and she appreciates her close ties with her family.  She also finds West Orange a peaceful and beautiful town, full of places where she can go for walks and jogs to relax.
 
So what’s next for this busy producer? An historical adventure, hopefully, she says.  “Something like Indiana Jones!”