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It Took a Village to Make Me What I am Today

© 2004 Sudharak Olwe  
Screenwriter, photographer SOONI TARAPOREVALA in conversation with VASUDHA BADRI-PAUL

Sooni Taraporevala, famed screenwriter and talented photographer is looking forward to the result of her latest project: adapting Jhumpa Lahiri's book, "The Namesake" for the film version, to be released in late 2006. Her very first screenplay was for “Salaam Bombay”, a movie that catapulted into an academy award nomination for Best Foreign Language movie in 1989. The innocent and irrepressible faces of the urchins on the streets of the big, bad, glamorous city of Bombay, India, left moviegoers across the globe, with indelible impressions of lust, poverty, and joy. She then went on the write more screenplays, among others, “Mississippi Masala, which won her the Osella Award for Best Screenplay at the Venice International Film Festival in 1991, and now “The Namesake”.

In her photographic career, she published her first book in 2000, a collection of special photographs that spanned 20 years of work. The book, “Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India; A photographic journey”, is a collection that highlights her community, the Parsis of India. The book was positioned as a “coffee table” piece and after some initial hurdles, became a rapid success, with copies being sold out within 6 months of publication. A newer version was released in 2004 and is currently still in print.

Sooni studied film and photography at Harvard and New York University, and her photographs have been exhibited in USA, India, France, and Britain. After living in the USA for several years, she chose to return to her native Bombay in 1992, where she continues her creative work in screenwriting and photography for her global audience. She lives in Bombay with her husband and 2 children.

In an interview with Sooni, NRIPulse gained some insight into the background, motivations, and ideologies that have shaped her remarkable career.

Top Left:
Sooni's grandmother. Bombay 1980.

Top Right: Sooni's mother Miss Freny, a nursery schoolteacher for
30 years, with her pet student, Joy. Bombay 1980.

Left: Sooni'
s children Iyanah and Jahan with Piloo, their grand-aunt, at their favourite place in the world: Pilamai's Aksa Home. Bombay 1998.

Below: Evenings at Cozy Building. My granduncle Maneck kaka
reads the newspaper. Bombay

All photos
©  Sooni Taraporevala

I understand you grew up in a close Parsi family, as an only child. Who and what aspects of, or events in your immediate and extended family, influenced your career pursuits and attitude to life?
“I was an only child, living in an extended family with my parents, grandparents, my father’s two brothers, and my grandfather’s unmarried brother, Maneck Kaka, who would walk from his home to ours, every evening. My grandparents and he would have tea together. I’d have just come home from school and usually joined them. Then they’d sit out on the balcony; my grandmother Aloo, working on her bead embroidery, my grandfather Ader, reading a book, Maneck Kaka the evening newspaper. After the light grew too dim to read, they’d chat. And I was always around. 

My grandfather and his brothers loved books. From an early age I devoured books. They transported me to different worlds. When I was little, Maneck Kaka would read stories to me as I ate my early dinner. When I was old enough to read on my own, I’d discuss what I had read with him. Thanks to my grandfather and Maneck Kaka, both of whom had never left India, I learnt about the world; sitting on our balcony, talking about politics, history, international affairs. I learnt how to have an opinion, how to argue a point, how to think for myself. 

From my father, Rumi, who is the life of the party, and my grandmother, who was mischievous, I inherited a love for laughter and the lighter side of life. My father is also a great photographer, and I grew up surrounded by the B&W photos he’d taken on his Rolleicord.

My mother Freny, was a working mother. She was a teacher. So I grew up with a very valuable role model. Because of her, I always took it for granted that I’d work when I grew up. That was never a question. Thanks to her, I’ve never written a bad mother character in any of my scripts. I learnt about unconditional love and faith from her.

In school, my English teacher Mrs.Wadia taught me from Class 4 to 11. She is the best teacher I’ve ever had, anywhere. Another teacher, Mrs.Sethna, made us write and perform our own plays. I adapted Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan into a 30 minute version. Since then, I have adapted many fantastic novels for the screen. Thankfully now I have 90 minutes in which to convey the story.

I often think of Hillary Clinton’s quote “It takes a village to raise a child.” It certainly took a village to make me what I am today. 

Given your love for your family and Bombay, what originally made you decide to apply to and attend Harvard? What did you learn from your tenure at Harvard, besides the "educational" experience?
I saw Love Story! 
After school, and teachers like Mrs. Wadia, I hated college here in Bombay. I was bored, unchallenged. The attractions of the college canteen paled very quickly. I had a cousin Berzin, who was at Princeton. He came home for his summer break. He put the idea into my head to try and apply to American colleges. At the time, it was rare to get admission as an undergraduate, even rarer to get a scholarship. But I tried. And got miraculously lucky. Found myself on the campus I had fantasized about.

The most valuable experience for me at Harvard, was educational. 3000 courses to choose from every semester? Widener Library, second largest after the Library of Congress? It was a mind expanding explosion!

Your long friendship and creative partnership with Mira Nair has lasted through many moves, projects with other people, and life changes. What qualities over the years, in both of you, enable you to collaborate on such different projects? Do you have any funny or interesting anecdotes about working together that you'd like to share?
Mira and I have been friends since we were 19 years old when we were both foreign students at Harvard. We’ve been through many of life’s roller coaster rides together. We’ve also shared a passion for books, films, photography. So I think all these experiences have enabled us to collaborate successfully over the years. 

From the book Parsis: A Photographic Journey (Cover left) 
(Right) A navar- initiate engrossed in a video game. Wadiaji Atash Bahram, Bombay 1984.
All photos ©  Sooni Taraporevala  

How did the late Raghubir Singh encourage you to pursue your Parsi photography book? 
He loaned me his lenses, gave me his extra film from his assignments; he saw and critiqued all the photos I shot; recommended my work for exhibitions and to editors. He had a very firm belief that my Parsi book had to be wide ranging. It was something I resisted, and didn’t enjoy doing initially. But he was very right and I am eternally grateful to him. Thanks to him, the book covers a wide variety of Parsi life.

Have you been mentored in your screenwriting at all? If so, who were your mentors?
No. I was self taught. But I do solicit and get feedback from a few trusted people. Brad Gross, who’s been my agent, now manager, since 1989, has read every draft of every screenplay I’ve ever written after Salaam Bombay. I value and trust his opinion. On the non-professional side, my husband Firdaus is the first to read pages as they roll off the printer. He is a film buff and always gives it to me straight, without any bullshit. I will also include my mother. 

Given how things have changed since SALAAM BOMBAY was nominated for an Oscar, what are your thoughts or hopes for the Indian film industry and its current visibility in the international scene?
Exciting times. I have great hopes.

Most people don’t know that the American poster for SALAAM BOMBAY was a photo shot by you. I have read that you are often shooting photos on set during the making of the films. What are some of your favorite photos, or moments taking photos, from those on-set experiences?
I was hired as the stills photographer on the film ' Perfect Murder', directed by Zafar Hai and produced by Ismail Merchant in 1986. It was my first experience being on a feature film set. I enjoyed doing that film – met Purnima Raju, who became a good friend, met Naseeruddin Shah and Stellan Skarsgard, who were the two protagonists; and one of my photos made it to the poster. 

Later that same year, we made ' Salaam Bombay'. I documented our journey extensively – from pictures of the street kids who we hung out with to do our research, to the theatre workshop conducted by the wizard Barry John, to the shoot – both behind the scenes and scenes from the film. All these pictures from Salaam Bombay can be viewed on my website

What made you return to Bombay after spending time in the USA? Was it your love for India and the lifestyle?

We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

I reached the end of my exploring and came home.

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