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THE HUB

‘I was called a rudderless ship’

Sooni Taraporevala has moved seamlessly between photography and scriptwriting over two successful decades. She is currently scripting The Namesake, Homebody Kabul and The Impressionist. Her book, Parsis: A Photographic Journey, celebrated its second edition release in Mumbai last week. In conversation with Sonia Faleiro about ambition and life with Mira Nair

What do you love about photography?
I grew up with photographs. My father is a photographer; my grand-uncle was a studio photographer. I feel that photos capture your essence, and because they are around much after we have died, I am very sentimental about them. I also like capturing a moment in time. I’m very fond of elderly people, and I have always instinctively photographed people of my grandparent’s generation. But I also love photographing children. I rarely shoot people in the age groups between.

What was your first camera?
I started with an instamatic at 16. Then as an undergraduate at Harvard, I borrowed money from my roommate to buy a Nikkormat. But that got stolen. After that I got a Leica, and I’ve been using it ever since, although I would borrow my father’s Nikon because he had more lenses.

Do you recall your first creative period?
I loved writing in school. I had a wonderful teacher, Rati Wadia — who’s in the second edition of the book — and one of the first stories I wrote for her was in fourth grade, when I unconsciously used several narrative techniques to tell a story from the point of view of a Holocaust survivor. You didn’t know what happened until the end. When we were 10, my best friend Rashida Vahanvaty and I co-wrote books together, which we wanted to publish!

You returned to Mumbai from Harvard in 1982, and worked as a freelance photographer. What was that like?
It was horrible. People didn’t pay very much then; you couldn’t get films, cameras and lenses easily, and so the cost was tremendous compared to what you got back. I had to chase editors, chase payments. The medium was just not taken seriously at the time. It was hard to make ends meet unless you were doing glamour or studio photography.
Milestones...
1988: Salaam Bombay
1991:
Mississippi Masala
1998:
Such a Long Journey
1998: My Own Country
2000: Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar
2000:
Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India – a Photographic Journey

How did you start work on your book?
When I would come home from Harvard I was constantly taking photographs. I had also done a photographic study of Parsis through family photographs. Then in 1982, Ragubir Singh, whom I met then for the first time, looked at my photos and told me to do a book. He said, ‘you have a feeling, you are an insider, and it hasn’t been done’.

How did it feel to have Ragubir Singh say you have amazing potential?
He never said that! (Laughs). He wasn’t a man of many words. He was a very hard critic, and I respected him for that. It was tough to please him, and when I did it felt great. He was incredibly supportive, though. He was shooting for National Geographic at the time and he would give me his extra film and loan me lenses. Unfortunately, he died before the book came out.

Would things have been different hadn’t you met him?
He played a huge role because he was so eager for me to do this. Then when I started scriptwriting, the book went on the backburner, and he was quite hurt about that. He took it quite personally. He also made me do things I didn’t like doing at the time, but which in retrospect I am glad I did. For example, he told me to make the book a comprehensive picture and to shoot monuments, and because of that it feels like a whole world.

Who are your other mentors?
Mitch Epstein, Mira Nair’s first husband whom I’ve known since 1976. I met him before I met Ragubir. He’s seen my work grow and been very supportive.

What was the reaction of the Parsi community to the book?
Raghubir helped me approach National Geographic, so when I told people I was shooting for them; they were all like, “Yeah! Of course! Of course!” (Laughs) But National Geographic didn’t carry the story, and I was bitterly disappointed. I stopped photography and concentrated on writing scripts.

Why did you self publish, despite getting offers in India?
I was hesitant to let go, because it had become so important to me, and I was too afraid of losing control. So I worked with my designer Aurobind Patel, who is absolutely brilliant. I pre-sold 200 copies to hsbc, and other corporates. I learnt all this watching Mira put together an independent film, and applied the same model to this book. Last year, I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair because I wanted to reach more Parsis, and I actually got a publisher for the world rights (Peter Mayer’s Overlook Press), although my company, Good Books has retained India rights.

Your friendship with Mira Nair is legendary. How did that come about?
We met at Harvard. We were both on full scholarship. I was a freshman; she came in as a sophomore. In fact when we first met, she asked me, “What is a Parsi? Some kind of Christian?” There were only a handful of foreign students then, and we shared an interest in the visual arts and photography and so we clicked. We share a certain short hand together. A certain perspective, a way of looking at the world. We’ve never clashed creatively … we discuss things, and I go off and write.

When you two get together now, do you marvel at your successes and how it all started?
We still have a good time gassing! (Laughs) But Mira’s schedule is crazy, so finding time is difficult. But when we do it’s wonderful!

What are your next projects?
I’m adapting Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist, Tony Kushner’s Homebody Kabul and also Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

Have you met any of the authors?
I used to know Rohinton (Mistry) in Bombay, back in the day. Then I was approached for Such a Long Journey and the producer flew me to Toronto to meet him. But the film took seven years to make, and in the meantime Rohinton was busy working on his next novel, A Fine Balance. I haven’t met either Hari or Jhumpa, but I did meet Tony.

Since you love reading, have you personally approached a writer about an adaptation?
No, because the moment one project has ended, I am offered another. And it’s all been really good work. But I think sometime soon, I will need to take a break and think about what I want to write.

You’ve become a spokesperson for the Parsi community by default. Do you mind that?
It can be irritating. The moment something about the Parsis hits the news I get 10 phone calls, asking me about it, which is really boring. Do something else! Parsis are completely marginalised in the media until the vultures die or we die — in the census! (Laughs)

Has being Parsi always been defining you, before everything else?
When I was growing up in Bombay, everyone was classified according to their community, because our school had Christians, Parsis, Muslims, Jews, Hindus … it was so cosmopolitan. And of course communal insults were part of growing up, so we (Parsis) were always “mad Bawajis”. My first experience of being Parsi was being a mad Bawi! In fact, when I started researching Dr Babasahib Ambedkar, I started thinking about these things again, because he said it would be difficult for us to come together as a nation, because we were so fragmented. I think he’s right. It’s so deep-rooted, and has penetrated every community in India.

What happened to the IMAX film Taj Mahal, which you scripted?
I wish I knew! Last I heard they wanted to target it for American teenagers, and I can’t think of anything more horrifying, so it may be good if it never gets made!

What is your relationship with Bollywood?
None at all. I may have been approached by one or two people in the past, but nothing I took seriously. It wouldn’t be a good match.

Have you been in a tricky situation with contracts?
No, because I have an agent and also a lawyer (who was with me in college), in la and so I am very well protected. That’s another reason I am hesitant about working in India. They have a different way of working, and I’m too used to things being upfront.

Mira’s dad used to call you Loony Soony. Are you still loony?
(Laughs). I am a Bawa after all! I have to be mad! But I like mad people, so I take it as a compliment. He also called me “rudderless ship” because I never had drive; I was laidback, which has its advantages as well.

How could someone so laidback become so successfull?
I met Mira! I don’t know if I would have done these films had I not known her. It’s hard to say. We are like Yin and Yang. She has qualities I don’t have which are necessary for the film business — she’s a great producer, she can enthuse you about something so that by the end of the conversation you are dying to put millions into her project, and she takes huge risks. Also, when we started, no one took us seriously, which was wonderful. There were no expectations. But we took ourselves very seriously. It worked because of Mira’s resilience. My roommate in Harvard told me, “Sooni you are very talented, but so are many other people. But not everyone meets Mira, and if you hadn’t met Mira, it would have been a different story.” That’s how I feel.

And if Mira hadn’t met you?
(Laughs) That she’ll have to tell you!

Are you doing another book?
I want to, yes. But I can’t tell you about it now!

 
October 16, 2004
 

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