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Her experiences in a Calcutta mission played a key role in formulating the story of a young Australian adopting couple, Claire McCarthy tells Andrew L. Urban.

“It’s easy to run and hide in the polite trappings of your daily life,” says writer director Claire McCarthy. “It’s not so easy when you are emotionally stretched, isolated in a foreign country and strange culture – and waiting endlessly for bureaucracy to hand over your newly adopted baby.”

This was the pressure point which ultimately led Claire to make her debut feature, The Waiting City, set in Calcutta. What could this young Australian know of such things, you ask. Pull up a chair and she’ll tell you.

It all began with a running family taunt. Her mum would often scald her sister, Helena, urging her to help around the house and “do things”. She would frequently tell Helena, “You’d never survive in the slums of Calcutta.”

One day Helena was stirred to action and volunteered to work at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity . . . in Calcutta. “One day my sister said to me,” recalls Claire, “that she’d volunteered for three months and asked me to go with her. An out of work filmmaker at the time, I said OK.”

"The experience was overwhelming"

A year later, the two sisters returned to Australia, but immediately volunteered for another stint. “The experience was overwhelming,” says McCarthy. “The contrast between the terrible poverty and the fate of these kids, with the beauty of the people is a real eye opener.” Those experiences helped Claire convey the reality of the orphanage in the film.

Claire met a lot of adopting couples from Australia and around the world. She would see them in emotional turmoil as they came full of expectations, having spent maybe three years working towards the moment they would pick up their adopted baby, a stranger until then. “My filmmaker brain was ticking over: what’s going on in their relationships with all this pressure?”

The idea for the screenplay evolved from a loose idea for a love story set inside these complex issues. “I wasn’t certain how it’d end up, so I talked to a lot of adopting couples and rifled through their experiences, combined them with mine and it started to take shape. Then when Radha Mitchell and Joel Edgerton came on board, it really took shape,” she says.

"a connection with India"

The logistics of shooting the film were another major challenge, with the entire film shot on location in Calcutta. The universe was listening: Claire had shot a music video in India, more or less as a try-out for the film. While talking wistfully about her project, one of the Indian crew asked Claire who she would cast in the role of the woman and Claire said she wanted Radha. “She’s so radiant and she has a connection with India.” The story got into The Times of India … which turned up in a Google search that Radha found. She instantly rang her agent, who already had a copy of the script. Mitchell not only agreed to star but also became one of the private investors in the film.

Casting Indian actor Samrat Chakrabati in a key role and shooting the film in Calcutta makes the film far less parochial, says Claire. “It’s still an Australian story, it’s totally relevant and it’s universal. My intention is to bring hope to people and explore how people can discover different types of parenting and different kinds of families.”

Claire also learnt that a child “doesn’t have to be born out of your own body for you to be a mother. Sometimes you are the custodian for another life.” Married for the past year (to cinematographer Denson Baker, she has no children of her own yet, “but we’re hoping …”

Published July 15, 2010

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Claire McCarthy


Young Australian couple, Fiona (Radha Mitchell), a lawyer and Ben (Joel Edgerton), a musician, arrive in Kolkata to bring home their adopted baby girl, guarded and guided by the helpful Krishna (Samrat Chakrabati), but the paperwork is slower than expected. Fiona works her laptop and her mobile, while Ben ventures out into the city, open to its drive – and friendly street musos. One afternoon, Ben and Fiona bump into a musical acquaintance of Ben, the pretty Scarlett (Isabel Lucas), a girl whose easy acclimatization to the rhythms of Kolkata seems to match Ben's own. Ben and Fiona respond very differently to the chaos, colour and allure of the city and frustrated by the endless delays, they turn on each other, and are forced to confront their differences, long-held resentments and secrets. By the time they finally meet baby Lakshmi, every one of their expectations has been overturned, and their lives reshaped.

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