Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 9, Dated Mar 07, 2009
The Serious Laugh
Sooni Taraporewalla, whose Little Zizou, will be
released on March 13, tells MANJULA NARAYAN that
her film is a comedy about big issues
When you meet Sooni Taraporevala (52), who scripted Salaam Bombay and
Mississippi Masala, among other films,
at her study-office in south Bombay, she
is trying to be cool about the release of
her first film as director. The space is
full of sepia photographs of her mother’s
sisters as gentle-faced girls in ringlets
and lacy dresses, film stills, pictures of
Sooni’s children Jahan and Iyanah
Bativala, who play central characters in
Little Zizou, quaint bric-a-brac and
plenty of books. In between munching on
Britannia biscuits dunked in chai, you
learn about Sooni’s motivations in taking
up direction, the growth of the story,
how her family views the project that
has dominated their lives for two years
and how her work always has a core of
seriousness. Excerpts from an interview:
How did you decide to move from
scripting to making a film?
I’ve been a scriptwriter for 20 years. I
started with Salaam Bombay and that
was also totally by chance. In 2005, I
was on the sets of Mira’s (Nair) The
Namesake in Kolkata. I came back and
started with an idea and it grew. I
found I had a script that I had written
in 10 days, for the first time in 20 years,
for myself. Because I wrote it with
certain actors in mind, certain locations
in mind, I thought that since this
was a world that I really knew well, that
I was confident I could direct it. That’s
how the journey of this film happened.
It’s kind of like a fairy story because I
had no traumas making the film and I
had no traumas financing it.
Would you say that Little Zizou’s
world is essentially your world?
It’s my world in the sense that it’s about
a Bombay that I grew up in, that I still live in. Its characters are not based on
people as such but, you know, as a
creative person you get inspired by
certain things… So in that way it’s my
world. But, of course, it’s also fiction
and though it’s set in the Parsi community,
I’m hoping that 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.
You’ve scripted so many films. Why
didn’t you take to direction earlier?
I was quite happy writing scripts and it
was going well, so there was no reason
for me to stop. Also, I don’t think when
I was younger I had the confidence. I
thought that I didn’t have the personality
of a director because I thought you
need the hustling, the aggression, etc.
But I found out from making this film
that you don’t have to be that way. I
was 50 when I made this film. There is
so much riding on you as a director —
so much money, so much responsibility,
so much stress. I don’t think that
when I was younger I could have dealt
How different is direction from
I don’t think you can understand it till
you’ve done it. The director is on the
project from right in the beginning to
right in the end. It’s the director’s
headache, it’s the director’s baby. I
appreciate directors a lot more after
having directed my first film.
Was it difficult to direct the cast?
I had a lovely time with my cast. I had a
huge ensemble cast. Of course, I took a
lot of tips from Mira. One of the things
she said to me really stuck: “Sooni, use
whatever you enjoy seeing in an actor.
If you enjoy it, the audience is going to
enjoy it.” I had written the script with a
lot of actors in mind, so I actually wrote
it for them — for Boman Irani, Sohrab
Ardeshir, Shernaz Patel, Imaad Shah,
Kunal Vijaykar, Cyrus Broacha, Mahabanoo
Kotwal, Kurush Deboo…
You knew you wanted these people
while you were writing it?
Yes, they are all in the film. I never cast
against type, so I never cast someone
who I would then have to show how to
do a role. I always cast so that they
were comfortable playing that role.
This film is unlike anything I’ve
done before because it’s a comedy. The
closest I’ve come to a comedy earlier is Mississippi Masala, which is a comedy
about a serious issue. This is even more
so. It’s a light hearted look at a serious
issue and it helped that I had actors
who are great at improvising. Everyone
had fun making the film, and when
people watch it that is conveyed. I have
seen the film now with audiences in
New York, Washington, Rome and in
India, and everyone seems to have a
rocking time watching it. That’s the
greatest thing about making this film —
I’ve become a total laugh junkie.
What was it like to be directing your
I wrote the roles for the kids and they
were completely wonderful and they’ve charmed every audience that has seen
the film. It was very much written with
my kids’ personalities in mind, with
stuff I’ve seen them do.
Was the family always discussing
They are pretty fed up of this film!
Because I’ve been doing this since 2005,
they’ve been through every stage of it.
My son’s grown during the film — he’s
got a little moustache and he’s a
teenager now. My daughter’s also
grown. Someone asked Jahan at a Q&A
in New York, “What was it like being
directed by your mother?” and he said,
“It was very nice because she was much
kinder on set than she is at home!” That
got a huge laugh.
So does all this mean you going to
direct a film again?
I had resolved not to, I thought very
righteously that I’d do it when my kids
grow up… Then my husband said,
“Sooni, you’re 52 years old. If you have
a thought about doing this again, you
better do it now!” So let’s see (laughs).
It certainly beats writing.
Was there was a lot of improvisation?
Making a film is totally about improvisation.
You do shot breakdowns that
get thrown out of the window as soon
as you are on set. Everything is improvised
and that’s what I love about film;
like photography it’s very much in the
moment. You’re making snap decisions
and changing things that can have far
reaching consequences, but you keep
moving forward. That adrenalin rush is
really fun… and stressful.
Do you think there’s a thread that
runs across the projects that you do?
I guess it would be up to other people
to see the thread. One thing I know is
that, for some reason, I’ve never
written a bad mother character. I was
telling my mum that and that’s a
compliment to her, actually. Every film
that I have written has a certain issue at
its heart, so I guess that’s the thread.
Even this one does even though it’s disguised
as a comedy. It’s about tolerance
and religious fundamentalism.