Big Screen Movies

Why the city of dreams is a landscape, character, emotion and more in Sooni Taraporevala’s films

A still from ‘Yeh Ballet’. and Little Zizou.

A still from ‘Yeh Ballet’. and Little Zizou.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The filmmaker's new film, ‘Yeh Ballet’, released on Netflix last week

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link spreads majestically across the windows of the Taj Lands End hotel in suburban Mumbai. “This is actually one of our locations,” says screenwriter-filmmaker-photographer Sooni Taraporevala of the landmark bridge and the area around it that figures prominently in her new film, Yeh Ballet. “We can actually see Nishu’s (Manish Chauhan, who plays himself in the film) real house from here, left of the Sea Link, on the hill. On the right is the Worli Koliwada,” she says, the familiarity with the city echoing in her voice.

One big takeaway from both of Taraporevala’s feature films — her debut, Little Zizou (2008) and now, Yeh Ballet — has been the city of Mumbai, ubiquitous as a landscape, setting, character, spirit, emotion, thought, ambition and more. Little Zizou took us closer to Mumbai’s Parsi enclaves and the dwindling community through the story of a 11-year-old soccer-crazy boy and his fervent desire to have French football star Zinedine Zidane come to Mumbai. It was all about “her own backyard”, as she once said; a world she knew well, about which she had even compiled a coffee-table book, Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India.

True story

With Yeh Ballet, Taraporevala travels to Mumbai’s slums. The film is based on the true story of two underprivileged boys — Chauhan and Amiruddin Shah (called Asif in the film) — who face several hardships while training in ballet and go on to win international acclaim.

Sooni Taraporevala started toying with the idea of directing on the sets of Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’ (2006).

Sooni Taraporevala started toying with the idea of directing on the sets of Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’ (2006).   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When I ask if Bombay is her muse, Taraporevala shoots back — “Bombay or Mumbai?” — before laughing and telling me about how it all began with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988), which she co-wrote.

“[Be it] through photography or film, whenever it’s a story about the city, for me, at least, it (Bombay) is as much a character,” she says. A character she knows intimately, and on whom she casts an affectionate insider’s gaze. “It’s a very exciting and unique city and I can explore it infinitely. It’s endlessly fascinating. There are so many layers to it, and so much history. It’s endless.”

Directing came to Taraporevala long after screenwriting. She worked in Los Angeles as a screenwriter, doing commissioned screenplays for a variety of studios, including Universal, HBO and Disney, and has been collaborating with Nair since 1988.

Her other writing credits include the Indo-Canadian production Such a Long Journey (1998), based on Rohinton Mistry’s novel, and the 2000 Indian-English feature Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, directed by Jabbar Patel.

She started toying with the idea of directing on the sets of Nair’s The Namesake (2006), using the ace filmmaker as a sounding board, confidante and mentor. And thus was born Little Zizou.

A still from ‘Little Zizou’.

A still from ‘Little Zizou’.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Between her two Mumbai features, however, there has been a gap of more than a decade and a lot has changed, naturally. The kids have grown up, for one. Her son, Jahan Bativala, who plays the protagonist, Xerxes, in Little Zizou, is the on-set editor for Yeh Ballet; daughter Iyanah, who plays Liana in the first, steps in as director of second unit photography.

Drawn to it

Taraporevala herself, in the interim, wrote a big, ambitious, futuristic sci-fi to direct herself and had a few other scripts for hire, none of which got made. “It’s not like I was retired and looking at the sunset. It’s just that nothing came out on screen,” she says. In 2016, she directed a 14-minute VR film, Yeh Ballet, for Anand Gandhi’s Memesys Lab, which led to the current feature.

Having learnt ballet as a child, she was naturally drawn to the subject. “It was elitist and exclusive back then. There were no boys in sight doing ballet,” she recalls. Taraporevala was fascinated when she saw Chauhan and Shah dancing, especially because they came into it late, belonged to the margins, and with no background in classical music or dance. “They have imbibed it so deeply and soulfully. It’s not a superficial mimicking of movements... That amazement at their achievement never left me,” she says.

This underdog trope is quintessential Mumbai. We come back to the city. “It’s full of them, each one trying to make it. Some will give up, those who don’t, I hope, will make it. It is about not giving up, about pure will and determination,” says Taraporevala.

So, what’s to come next, I ask. She has given up on the sci-fi film for now, and has begun work on a smaller production which will again be centred on Mumbai. “My Bombay trilogy,” she laughs.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 6:23:30 AM |

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