THE MEANDERING bylanes of Chandni Chowk will soon be packed with mammoth crowds desperate for a glimpse. It is 1998: Deepa Mehta has arrived in Delhi with a motley crew of foreigners for the making of Earth. Aamir Khan will soon be seen flying a kite over rows of old Delhi rooftops. But first, all antennas must be removed; there was, after all, no cable television in pre-Independence India.
This is when Loveleen Tandan, then a fresh film-school graduate with a Master’s from Jamia Millia, gets her first real job — go house-to-house and remove all the antennas between Jama Masjid and Red Fort. Until then, she has been assigned to blocking traffic. Now, suddenly, she feels connected to the movie. “It was exciting for me because I wanted to work with someone making something important. Right out of film school, you feel you can make a difference. You start to believe that things must be socially relevant. You think you’re going to have intellectual conversations with directors on set, but none of that happens. But this was the one thing I felt I contributed.”
Now famous for co-directing the award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Tandan is proud that she completed her first task in record time — one day and night — and with the eager consent of residents. “I went to each house, had chai with them and explained the shot. People are like that, you just relate with them, and they are more than happy to help out,” she says.
This ability to connect is a vital part of the roles she continues to play. In some ways, Tandan is like glue, trickling between spaces, linking together, and expanding things into a larger, more substantial shape and form. Satish Kaushik, whom Tandan cast in Brick Lane, recalls how she helped him become his character, Shanu. “I was tense. For so long, I had been typecast with comedy. But Loveleen was sure I suited the character. She pushed me to perform well and helped me get the right stresses and emotion. This was the sort of in-depth performance I had been looking for all my life, and it happened because of Loveleen.”
‘All the other girls liked QSQT. I preferred larger than life social dramas,’ says Tandan
Born and raised in the capital, Tandan, 35, lives in East Delhi, with her joint family. Though she was to begin casting much later with Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, she had already started a database of actors as a teenager.
“As a child, the most exciting thing for me was to sit in a theatre and watch a film with hundreds of others. I knew every movie that ever came out in India. Even with a single shot, I could tell everything about the film,” she says with a touch of nostalgia. “Bollywood then meant something very different. It was more raw and eclectic, and not as packaged. There was parallel cinema, regional cinema, Amitabh Bachchan films, any kind of movie possible. That’s where my interest comes from — my growing years.” This obsession led to the creation
of an extensive database at home where every movie released would be neatly labelled and filed — Rajesh Khanna, Do Raaste,1961. The week would be declared Rajesh Khanna Week until a new character or film took the hot seat. “I didn’t realise I was building a mental bank. It was a game for me, I think; a puzzle I was trying to fit together. It helped me analyse the careers and moves of filmmakers and actors.”
What she loved most about cinema was the technique of filmmaking; that you could “take things that happen to people in their daily lives, put them on camera, and translate them into a medium that explodes, expands that experience into something much bigger.” This point-of-view reflected in her choice of movies. “All the other girls I knew found Quyamat Se Quyamat Tak andMaine Pyar Kiya so exciting, but I wasn’t ever into the romances. I preferred the larger-than-life experiences, the social dramas where things are set against a wide canvas and aren’t just about the hero and heroine.”
Favourites included Guru Dutt, Rishi Kapoor in Hum Kisse Se Kum Kahin, Bimal Roy’s Bandhini (because it talked about Indian society, and about revolution) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. The caller tune on her cell phone is from that last film. “I can never forget Harinder Nath Chattopadhyay in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. I love the character because he was mad, and linked the movie without being a part of it,” she says.
For the older Tandan in college, the first real source of inspiration to make movies was Bandit Queen. “It was so huge in what it said and the society it covered. I started comparing every film with Bandit Queen. It was my kind of cinema because it talked of things bigger than one’s own individual reality.”
This is the kind of cinema Tandan says she hopes to make, especially now that the success of Slumdog Millionaire has given her the leverage to venture into directing. Initially hired as the casting director for the film, Tandan’s involvement in its cultural nuances and in writing the Hindi scenes are perhaps what led director Danny Boyle to make her co-director. “I like to get involved because my interest lies beyond casting. It lies in the larger vision of the film.” She had several debates with the team where she had to say, “This sort of thing doesn’t happen in India”.
When a call came from Spielberg, she thought ‘Someone is making an MTV-Bakra out of me!’
For instance, in a scene depicting the Mumbai riots, Boyle wondered if he should have the Hindu rioters wear Tshirts with pictures of Ram. The goal was to show Ram to western audiences. Tandan suggested a more sensitive alternative, which was used. “When you’re a known director and come to the country, people agree to everything you say. Danny liked the fact that I was brave enough to question him,” she says.
In fact, Tandan has gone a step ahead to reject foreign films that were “pedantic and treated us like we lived in the 1930s — white people focusing on poverty and what a god-forsaken third world we are.” When portraying something on camera, Tandan says she likes to get as close to reality as possible. This drove her to the slums of East Bandra to look for young children who resembled the protagonists in Slumdog Millionaire. “I was very keen to get real slum kids, which is why I convinced them to do one-third of the scenes in Hindi. I made a scratch tape with real street kids. The team was surprised that Hindi actually made it brighter and more alive.” For the Hindi version, Tandan has adapted the dialogues herself. It is perhaps this innate ability to make things come alive in their authenticity that distinguishes her from the crowd. “Loveleen has a vision, and something to say about the world,” says filmmaker Mira Nair, vouching for Tandan. “She was my right hand while casting Monsoon Wedding. Once, when none of the actors showed up, Loveleen walked across the street to a Ramlila in progress, and convinced thenautankistyle Sita to be in our movie. Now, this Sita has a burgeoning career in Bollywood!” For director Anurag Kashyap, Tandan has been a valuable adviser. “She knows cinema well beyond just Hollywood and Bollywood. I discuss every film with her. I expect her to make progressive, original films with a point-ofview that only she can bring.” That matches her own assesment. “I want to make independent cinema. I’m not interested in getting a particular star and having six songs to sell the film. I don’t want to work within parameters set by production companies. I want to be free.” She isn’t against commercial cinema, “Slumdog is a masala pot-boiler,” but she wants to make her own decisions. “I don’t feel that can happen in Bollywood.”
Tandan is drawn to layers, complexities, and to the “strong, confident force” the Indian middle class has become. “For my parent’s generation, life was about being as simple as you can. That’s changed completely. What interests me is how? What are we growing into? I see these as positive forces, I don’t reject them. I’m trying to understand them.” Until now, Tandan’s work has been primarily with international films. The turning point in her career came with Monsoon Wedding. She joined as second assistant director, but when the first assistant broke her foot, all responsibilities fell on Tandan. “In 30 days. I had to manage 65 actors in heavy wedding make-up and clothes, and cast everyday for the next day.” That’s when Nair decided to give her credit as the casting director. “Mira changed my life in a sense. She gave me a way to work with big directors before I could make my own movies.”
Still, when Tandan got a call from Steven Spielberg’s office for The Terminal, “I thought someone was making an MTV-Bakra out of me!” To her credit, she remained calm when Spielberg asked how she spoke English so well. “It boils down to exposure, which is why Slumdog is important. We always had AR Rahman and other great talent, but people have now woken up to us,” she says. “Instead of escapist stories, I hope filmmakers in India will also be more open to exploring reality the way it exists.”