Prompted by predicament

Pamela Rooks ... making movies in which she is passionately involved. — Pic. by N. Balaji  

"DANCE LIKE a Man" is only her third film, but Pamela Rooks has made a name for herself as a maker of serious cinema. She believes that with the growth of multiplexes a ``good story, good performances and production values, achieved on a sensible budget will definitely succeed.''

Her new film in English is seasoned with Kannada, Gujarati, Tamil and Punjabi cultures. The story unwinds through the complex relationship between Bharatanatyam artistes Jairaj and Ratna, whose marriage stumbles through jealousies, hostilities and failures.

Good performances from Shobana, Arif Zakaria and Mohan Agashe triumph over the wordy script and some uneasy moments, when the narrative gathers frills to highlight its identity as distinct from the play on which it is based. There's no questioning the commitment of the director, who talks about her journey in lanes off the highway.


Your three films, "Miss Beatty's Children" (1992), "Train to Pakistan" (1997) and "Dance Like a Man" (2004) are based on books — your own, Khushwant Singh's novel, and now Mahesh Dattani's brilliant play. Do you rely on literary sources?

Just happened. The stories moved me. I make the kind of films I do because I'm passionately involved in them. I know what it takes out of me to raise funds, sacrifice personal life. If there's no substance, what's the point?

"Train to Pakistan" ... based on Khushwant Singh's novel on the Partition.

"Train to Pakistan" ... based on Khushwant Singh's novel on the Partition.  

"Miss Beatty's Children" supports the legislation against temple dancing which hindsight condemns as the cause of destroying the devadasi tradition. Were you aware of this when you made the film?

My novel was inspired by a true story. As a young girl I'd met one of Miss Beatty's adopted children in Nainital. I did bring out the temple dancer's point of view. Perhaps it needed more emphasis. The love-hate relationship between the two women came out better in the book. I explored the legislation as seen in that era, and how missionaries viewed temple dancing. I passed no judgments. In the end, Miss Beatty is judged by other people. Society rejects her.

What attracted you to Khushwant Singh's Partition novel? Didn't "Train to Pakistan" face censor troubles?

With both parents coming from across the border, I grew up on stories of the Partition. I felt I had to do it because it was close to my heart. Lots of people said it was a big budget subject for a big director. They wondered why a woman was handling a male dominant theme. My budget couldn't handle (the) epic scale, so I took an intimate approach. The press loved it Star, Sony and Channel Four wanted it. But the Censor Board sabotaged the film. In court Justice Lentin asked the Censors, ``Why are you wasting my time, you brought `The Bandit Queen' and I passed judgment restoring all the cuts; this film belongs to the same genre." But it was too late. A delay of six months and we lost out on publicity and good will, the booked theatres were now not available. It was the most tragic moment in my career.

As a play, "Dance Like a Man" depends so much on what you don't see. But the film has necessarily to show those vital moments of off stage experience.

Yes, the play uses it as a brilliant device. I was overwhelmed when I saw it. But my mind as a filmmaker wondered what possibilities it had for the screen. The locations expanded, more characters and scenes came in. The most important change was that I centre-staged the dance.

For your three films you had music from Zakir Husain, Taufique and now Ganesh-Kumaresh. Are classical musicians cooperative?

Oh yes! I look at them with awe, but they ask me ``Do you like it," wanting to please me! I stretch them, make them experiment, do things they might not do elsewhere. (Laughs) We needed a bit of western music in "Dance Like a Man." I said to Ganesh, ``How difficult can it be to make some filmy music? Let's sit down and do it." We had the recording in two days flat!

With a 25 days' shooting schedule for the whole film, you have to be totally organised. Do you tell your actors exactly what you want?

I like thinking actors, not puppets. I've had stage experience and know how I'd like to be directed. I want my actors to make the characters a part of their personalities so that they can be natural before the camera. I give them the first shot.

After going through the scenes with Shobana, I put the script away and said, ``Let's have an interaction. This is the scene, now talk in your own language. The script is important, but it is not the Bible!"

At Anoushka's suggestion, I added a few mother-daughter scenes not in the play.

Actors' approaches differ. Arif (Zakaria) likes to know his lines. Shobana is instinctive, looks at the lines and then whatever she can remember she'll do. I had to tell her it wouldn't work, she was missing lines and not giving Arif his cues. A director has to do these little things. Most of all she has to make the actor feel comfortable.

You began as a hard-hitting documentary filmmaker. What do you carry from that phase into your features?

I use a lot of guerrilla tactics when I'm filming. I don't panic in a crisis, I think fast, on many levels, and find a solution. This comes from the documentary experience. I didn't go to film school.

I was one of the first women in this country to shoot in trouble spots, the only woman in my company. I shot in Kashmir, literally with a pistol at my stomach. During the Khalistani movement in Punjab, I went to militants' hideouts when the big boys in my crew wanted to go home. Slowly the patronising attitudes turned to respect. When I meet members of that old crew they say, ``Pam, when're we going to do it again, we'd so much fun."

Why do you have four or five producers for every film?

For funding. Can't make the film on what NFDC gives. It's great that people like Vijay Mallya are stepping in to support cinema. Corporate money is important though it is a new experience for both sides. Corporate houses must understand the vagaries of filmmaking, the organisation behind the chaos! And their coming creates greater transparency in the industry.

What stimulates you as a filmmaker?

The human predicament. The story round every corner. I'm eating in a restaurant, I hear a snatch of talk at the next table and I start eavesdropping! I get into a train and make up stories about other passengers. Used to, even as a child. My characters can't be black and white. They have to be as interesting as real people are.

You have several projects on hand — Farukh Dhondy's script-in-the-making, a thriller, on gays and on dowry.

Yes. (Excited) I'd be happy if someone came up with a cheque.

For all?

(Laughing) One will do. For now.