THE CAR WINDS through the narrow lanes of central Bombay, past Edwardian apartments with ornate facades and wooden balconies. The late winter sun, gentle now even in this coastal city, streams through the rain trees and bathes Sooni Taraporevala (52), who scripted Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala among other films, and is now preparing for the release of her first directorial venture, Little Zizou, in a dappled glow as she makes her way towards her Sleater Road workspace.
As the ancient wood panelled elevator zips up, you stifle the urge to launch into embarrassing speeches about how Salaam Bombay affected you and instead babble on about the Art Deco features of the lift. But it’s impossible to feel awkward around Sooni for too long. She has an approachable quality that draws you out. Besides, the photographs of the characters from her film stuck on the filing cabinet in her study are too interesting for you to cling to your self-consciousness. You study snapshots of John Abraham in a fetching vest, of Boman Irani, Mahabanoo Kotwal and of Jahan Bativala, Sooni’s son, who is the football mad ‘Little Zizou’ of the film.
“I had a huge ensemble cast and I knew whom to cast even as I was writing the script. I wrote the roles for my kids Jahan and Iyanah and they were completely natural. It was written with their personalities, with stuff I’ve seen them do,” says Sooni who believes she caught the children and Imaad Shah, who plays Zizou’s older brother, “at that cusp, just before they changed into another stage of life”.
SHOT ENTIRELY on location in Bombay, the film plays out in the city’s Parsi enclaves, a world that Sooni is intimately familiar with. “It’s my world in the sense that it’s about a Bombay that I grew up in, that I still live in. But, of course, it’s also fiction and though it’s set in the Parsi community, I’m hoping it has resonance in the outside world because it’s very much inspired by what’s happening in the world today, which is this tussle between people who use religion for their own ends and people who oppose that,” says Sooni whose biggest challenge was sticking to the schedule.
“When we shot in the lane where I grew up, I dealt with the stress by praying at the fire temple every morning before the shoot. After making this film, I understand why there’s so much superstition in the industry. You need all the good luck you can get! They have no muhurat shots in America but of course, we had one! If things were going slow, we’d say, “Okay, bring out that coconut!”’ she laughs.
So would she ever consider making a mainstream Bollywood film?
“I don’t think I’d be good at it and I don’t know if anyone would want to see a Bollywood film that I’ve made! Actually now there’s a younger generation in Bollywood that is totally organised. Even the sensibility is changing,” she says.
Which brings you to Zoya Akhtar (36), another debutante woman director whose Luck By Chance, set to hit the screens on January 30, is perhaps an example of that new sensibility.
“Till the early 1990s, Hindi films were so bad that I didn’t know where I’d fit in. Then, I saw Salaam Bombay and it blew my mind. I saw that there were other stories to tell and that they didn’t always need to be larger than life. I adore Sooni and I’ve worked with Mira Nair on Kama Sutra — they are really my film mummies,” says Zoya, who exudes a saucy charm when you meet her at the Excel Films office in Santa Cruz, Mumbai.
“Luck by Chance is about a starlet played by Konkona Sen Sharma and a struggler played by Farhan, who both come to Bombay and want to make a go in the industry, their interaction with each other and how their relationship changes their lives. They both have different tastes and different self-esteem issues. All that, compounded with random events, affects their destiny,” she says.
The dynamic of the insider-looking-at-theoutsider- who-wants-to-bean- insider is something viewers enjoyed in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om and possibly will appreciate in Zoya’s film too. But you can’t help wondering why this insider with parents who are part of the Bollywood Establishment, is fascinated enough by wannabes to make a film about them.
“Well, I’ve been a little on the fringes. We grew up with a pretty bohemian lifestyle and I’ve been exposed to lots of cinema, and not just Hindi films. My mom went to film school when we were kids, so we used to hang out with her at FTII on the weekends and we saw tonnes of foreign films. We had a projector and we’d watch films on the wall. Everyone would talk about movies, and there were lots of artists and poets and writers and assistant directors hanging around. But I grew up with a lot of non-filmi friends,” says Zoya who wrote the first draft of the film’s script during a three month break in Goa.
“We’d just done Dil Chahta Hai and Farhan and Ritesh wanted to produce my film. But we had a tough time casting the male lead because the character is a struggler and a bit of a hustler. He’s not very sympathetic. People didn’t think it would go down well with the audience. So we shelved it for a long time and I did other things. Everything changed when the multiplexes and the corporates came in. Suddenly there was money. Then, Reema Kagti, who was making Honeymoon Travels, told me to cast Farhan and that was that,” says Zoya, who reveals that the big top visuals of the film’s posters is a reference to the metaphor of the film industry as a circus.
FOR KIRAN RAO (35), another debutante woman director, the dhobi ghat is the perfect metaphor for Bombay. “I wrote the title before I wrote the film because it seemed apt for a place where everybody’s clothes come to get washed. It’s a levelling ground. And that’s what Bombay is too,” she says as she sits across the table from you at her Pali Hill office in one of those late modern buildings that once dotted the suburbs before they were bulldozed by high rises. You wonder if Aamir will be flexing his muscles as he pounds wet linen against granite in Dhobi Ghat, but soon learn that young Prateik Babbar, son of Smita Patil and Raj Babbar, is playing that part. Other characters include a painter; a girl from UP and another girl who returns to India.
“This is a film about Bombay through the lives of four people who are from different classes. I wanted to piece together the city through their experience in a mundane, day-to-day way where their lives subtly impact each other without their knowing it. What drives the energy of the city is the fact that there are so many different sorts of people, different income groups all struggling for the same thing. The film is shot on Super 16 and video and there’s a lot of photography and other things. I felt the visual collage would help get under the various skins of Bombay,” says Kiran, who initially wanted to shoot the film herself. “I was really keen on hand-making a film; I wanted to soak up every experience but thought better of it!” she concedes.
Like Sooni, Kiran too chose to shoot entirely on location, in real spaces and with “real people”.
“The most talented people who were relaxed in front of the camera were literally cast off the street! This is a very conversational film, where we don’t want anybody to be acting. That’s why we cast people as themselves. So a maid would be a maid. It isn’t hard if you are aiming for that sort of realism,” she says.
Still, being a small film didn’t exempt Dhobi Ghat from large headaches, especially as it does feature one of the biggest stars in the Hindi film industry. “We shot in the toughest locations— everything from a tiny slum by the railway tracks in Mahim to shooting during Ramzan on Mohamad Ali Road with Aamir. It was like an army operation!” says Kiran.
Throughout your conversations with these filmmakers you’ve avoided the ‘women film directors’ question mainly because, in a post-feminist era, the idea of a woman making films isn’t unusual. Farah Khan and Reema Kagti have broken the Bollywood box office jinx, Suhasini Mani Ratnam and Revathy have made thoughtful films in the south, and Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta have made films that have been appreciated internationally. What strikes you, really, is that Bombay is the real protagonist in these films. But this is not the high testosterone maximum metropolis of Ram Gopal Varma’s classic, Satya, or Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Sooni, Kiran and Zoya explore the large themes of tolerance and the struggle for material success against the backdrop of Bombay in its various avatars — as the much loved home of the Parsis, as the fantasy factory that draws aspiring actors, and as a magnet for hardscrabble immigrants from across the country who hope to transform their lives in what Gillian Tindall, in her fine biography of Bombay, had labelled it ‘The City of Gold’. You think of all that as you lose yourself in the anonymous crowds of what will always be the subcontinent’s city of dreams.