[S] alaam Bombay! that is being re-released today marked the beginning of Sooni Taraporevala’s screenwriting career and a momentous association with filmmaker Mira Nair twenty-five years ago. Since then, Sooni Taraporevala has given memorable screenplays like The Namesake and Mississippi Masala that won her the Osella award for Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival in 1991. She has also dabbled in direction with Little Zizou (2008). Taraporevala talks about her first film, the Cannes Camera d’Or winner and Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay!, the art of adaptation, her friend Mira Nair and her plans for direction:
Twenty-five years since you wrote your first screenplay. How do you feel about it now?
I think it’s one of the best I have written. We saw the movie again last week and everyone’s comments were that it looks like it was made yesterday. It has not dated except for the cars on the road and that’s a remarkable thing. In style and in content, it’s quite contemporary.
For a person coming from a well-off background to portray the lives of people on the streets, what kind of efforts did it take?
Mira and I didn’t imagine their lives. We took the effort and spent time researching and hanging out with them. We spent a substantial amount of time with a gang of real kids who lived at the garbage dump at Grant Road station. We did everything they did. Then we went to the chillar room. We explored all the aspects of their life even before I attempted the screenplay. I believe that if you only write what you know about or where you are from, it’s very limiting. At the same time I feel that for you to write about something that is not of your world, you owe it to the subject to do your homework. And that’s the part that Mira and I both enjoy: doing research. We did it for Mississippi Masala as well and we have a really great time doing it. It really does teach you a lot of things about the subject. For me, I have always found that it’s as interesting as the writing part of the process.
Mira and I didn’t imagine their lives. We took the effort and spent time researching and hanging out with them. We spent a substantial amount of time with a gang of real kids who lived at the garbage dump at Grant Road station. We did everything they did. Then we went to the chillar room. We explored all the aspects of their life even before I attempted the screenplay.
How was your experience with direction?
I loved it. It was totally addictive for me. When I directed Little Zizou, my overwhelming feeling every day when I entered on the sets was of gratitude, to all those people who were working so hard to help me realize what I had imagined. It’s an amazing feeling that you can tap into the talents of so many people. As a photographer and as a screenwriter I am more isolated. Writing and photography is very individual. So it was a lovely change to be around people and to be collaborating with them. I was very open to change and took suggestions from everyone and anyone. But at the end of the day, I would go home and look at what we had shot because only I had the whole thing in my mind. So I couldn’t let it go out of hand, I would be in trouble if I let improvisation go to such an extent that I lost my way.
So would you like to direct again?
I would like to. I am working on a script which is actually a much larger film. It has nothing to do with Parsis. It’s totally out of my comfort zone but it’s very contemporary.
What is the reason behind your successful collaboration with Mira Nair ?
I think what makes it work is that we were friends before we started collaborating and I told her that whether or not we work together we would still be friends. For me the most essential part of our collaboration is our friendship, first and foremost. Secondly we have known each other since we were nineteen years old. That’s a long time. So we have been through various stages of each other’s life. We know each other so well, we can finish each other’s sentences. We first met when we were both college students in the USA. There were very few international students then and just a handful from India. So we were really close and we discovered that we like the same things and we have a similar sense of humour. I feel that we are Yin and Yang in the sense that she is a performer and I am her audience. She will be very funny and I as her audience will always be willing to laugh. She is more of an extrovert and I am an introvert but it’s a good fit because we complement each other. We also have a similar sensitivity.
But how is it working with her as a screenwriter-director duo?
It’s rigorous. Mira is always a rigorous director. She will go the distance to make it absolutely perfect or as perfect as it can be. She is a hard taskmaster as anyone will tell you who has worked with her. But the end results are so fantastic and that’s what you want. You don’t want to be lazy, you don’t want to do a slapdash thing. One great thing about her is that she really brings out the best in people. So you are really wanting her praise and then cringing if you don’t get it. She has that ability to make you do the best you can which is a very good quality for a director to have.
Are you working on something together again?
Yes, we are working together on an animation script.
Correct me if I am wrong. You have adapted three books into screenplays?
I have actually adapted more but they didn’t get made. Three made it to the screen: Namesake, Such a long journey and My Own Country.
What more have you adapted?
I have adapted a play for Demi Moore’s company. I have adapted a novel called Black Ice by Lorene Carey for an American studio. It’s about the first African-American class in an all American prep school from the point of view of one of the girls who was in that first class. I have adapted Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist for Mira. I have adapted another play Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner, also for Mira.
So let’s talk about adaptations. What makes an adaptation work; how do you decide what to leave out and what to bring in?
See, Such a long journey was my first adaptation. Before that I had done two original screenplays Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala. Like I always do, I did a lot of research. I once heard Ruth Prawar Jhabvala who is a master of adaptations speak on radio in the USA. I forgot what exactly she said but at that time it really hit home. She spoke about finding the kernel, the essence of the novel – which was like the small amount of yeast that makes the bread rise.
Basically the way I do it is I read the novel more than once. Usually whatever I have adapted I have already read before for pleasure without any work involved. They are all books I had wanted to read anyway. But if I haven’t, then I will read it just straight through and then I will read it again and start making notes on the margins with a pencil. Every novel always has cinematic moments and dialogues that you can use. So basically what I am doing is I am mining the novel for what I can get out of it for my purposes. And then in the writing inevitably you cannot just stick to the novel. Length is always a problem because the kind of scripts I write, the first draft is 120 pages and the shooting script about a 100 pages. Novels are dense and long. Even after having done all these adaptations, length is the one thing which is most challenging for me.
And then you just start writing and it is hard to get the structure. Because you are trying to structure something that is very long into something that is very short. It’s a trial and error thing. In Namesake, we didn’t get the structure till about the third or fourth draft. When you get it, you get it. Basically you are trying to retain the structure of the book. I also feel a responsibility towards the writer of the book. I feel like I am a medium like a good translator who translates from one language to another. I always find adaptations are about craft more than anything else because the hard and creative work has already been done by the author. Whereas in an original, the hard work is for you to do.
So are there any don’ts you would advise to new writers wanting to adapt books into screenplays?
Be as brief and economic as possible. I find in films here that the screenplays are too stretched out. There is a certain art in being able to convey something with economy. It’s like Haiku. And very often I find that screenwriting is a form of Haiku, at least the kind that I try and do. It’s hard but it should look effortless.
I find in films here that the screenplays are too stretched out. There is a certain art in being able to convey something with economy. It’s like Haiku. And very often I find that screenwriting is a form of Haiku, at least the kind that I try and do. It’s hard but it should look effortless.
Don’t tell your story through dialogue. I find that-with scripts that I read here- very often the case that you are telling the story through dialogue. That’s a very easy way of writing a script. Sometimes maybe people don’t know better but that’s not the way it should be.
What do you think of the screenwriting scenario in India right now?
Screenwriting has become more high profile so to say. When I started out people didn’t even know what a screenwriter was very often. It’s a wonderful thing that screenwriters are gaining respect and Anjum Rajabali has been very instrumental in that. It’s exciting time for screenwriting and screenwriters. Lots of youngsters are doing it. I think the scenario can only get better.
Are you excited by the scripts that the young brigade is writing. Like Vicky Donor…
Yeah, I really enjoyed Vicky Donor. It was fantastic! I think Vicky Donor worked so well because it was so specific, set in a specific kind of family. When we start being generic and pan-Indian, it fails. But when we start getting local stories, I think it’s wonderful. India is so full of local stories. Thousands of films should be made which are very local and particular.
Any Indian adaptation that you like?
Pather Panchali. Ray’s trilogy is probably the most successful Indian adaptation ever. And Shatranj ke Khiladi.