April 6, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Aparajita Saha

'Sooni was everywhere, doing everything!'
Image from Parsis: A Photographic Journey

Different people have different gifts.

Sooni with her family
Sooni Taraporevala
and family
Some capture images that speak a thousand words. Others pen words that paint a thousand pictures. Few, like screenplay writer-photographer Sooni Taraporevala, do both.

Sooni believes everyone has a story to tell. And this one is hers.

It is the story of a 43-year-old mother of two who thought she lacked ambition, only to go on to win awards for the screenplays of Salaam Bombay! and Mississippi Masala. At the moment, she is working on the script of India's first IMAX movie Taj Mahal, expected to be an extravagantly produced love story.

It is the story of a woman who spent most of her youth denying the values her community upheld. The same community that she delved into and braced in her dream project -- a book, Parsis: A Photographic Journey, that took 20 years to see light of day.

Above all, it is a story of dreams, journeys and destinations.

'It's the naughty ones who go far!'

Although an only child, Sooni's childhood was filled with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends and books. Her initiation into the literary world commenced with her first book, which she co-wrote with her best friend, Rashida, when they were 10 years old. So what if the book's readership consisted of just the authors?

Says Rashida, "I think we both lived in fiction -- it was our love, passion and shared joy. We even lived our personal lives in shared fantasies and fiction that we created for each other and with each other. It is hard to say where exactly our verbal lives ended and real ones began and how much of what we do now is the stories we told each other."

Their 37-year-old friendship started at Queen Mary's School, Bombay. According to Rati Wadia, Sooni's favourite teacher, "Be it elocution, drama or debate, Sooni was everywhere, doing everything! She wrote beautifully and was extremely talented. Rashida and she were perpetually up to some mischief or the other." Then, she adds with a twinkle, "I've always observed that it's the naughty ones who go far in life! Sooni always needed to fly. She can't be restricted!"

'I made a deal with my father when I was 18 years old'

Image from Parsis: A Photographic Journey
Parsis: A Photographic Journey
Unhappy with the impersonal atmosphere at Bombay's St Xavier's College, Sooni struck a deal with father Rumi. "I agreed to send her halfway across the world if she managed to gather the financial resources!" Soon, Sooni, armed with an undergraduate scholarship, left for Harvard University to study English Literature.

At Harvard, she mixed psychology with film study and literature with Zoroastrianism; dishwashing in the cafeteria and work in the library with cocktail waitressing. "Harvard opened my eyes to the world", says Sooni. "My experience there taught me how to manage time and prioritise, the importance of financial independence and discipline. And it was the library work that taught me how to analyse and conduct research for the scripts I do now. If my life in Xavier's was characterised by a lack of challenges, then Harvard was the exact opposite.

'Mira's (Nair) father called me a rudderless ship!'

Her second year in Harvard introduced her to present-day film-maker Mira Nair, who went on to become a close friend and work associate. "Mira and I have had the wildest times and we've done the craziest things together! In fact, her father used to call me a rudderless ship because I didn't know where I was heading in life!"

Subsequent to a masters in cinema studies from New York University, Sooni returned to India in 1982, where freelancing as a photographer got her no respect and bad pay. Says father Rumi, "She was very particular about being independent. In fact she was a pain in the butt after she returned, but it's all part of growing up!"

'Salaam Bombay! changed my life'

In 1986 life changed.

wew "Mira had seen Runaways (a Broadway production) and wanted to do a film on similar lines. Thus, Salaam Bombay! was born. We befriended a group of children who handled garbage at Grant Road station.

"Since I had nothing to prove or lose, I wrote without any pressure. Salaam Bombay! gave me the confidence and a career.

"It was then that I found what I was good at. Scripting brought together my love for literature, films and photography. I feel that a script is like the Bible of the film. It creates the world in which a film is made."

Such A Long Journey (based on a book by Rohinton Mistry) and My Own Country are among her acclaimed screenplays.

'She is committed to facts and history'

Her greatest script writing challenge till date is her recent screenplay for Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. "Till then, I had dealt with fiction, so the prospect of writing the life and times of a public figure who inspired millions was daunting."

Distinctly aware that she had even more to prove with her America-returned Parsi background, Sooni feels her work, and those of the co-writers in the film, achieved what it set out to do. "The purpose of the film was to project Ambedkar's life to the millions who knew his work and also to those who didn't."

Dr Jabbar Patel, director, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, says, "I picked Sooni because I wanted the movie to match international standards. Her exposure to American and European cinema makes her well-versed with the craft of international screenplay. She is flexible and yet stands her ground if she believes in something. I admire her total involvement and her commitment to facts and history."

'Taj Mahal's script will be as visual as possible'

Aishwarya Rai as Mumtaz Mahal
Aishwarya Rai as
Mumtaz Mahal
In fact, it is Sooni's veracity to history that landed her India's first IMAX film Taj Mahal. The film, an initiative of the husband-wife duo, Bharat Bala and Kanika Myer-Bharat (creators of the hugely popular and patriotic Vande Mataram and Jana Gana Mana audio-video series), is based on the epic love story of Emperor Shah Jahan and his beautiful wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Aishwarya Rai is slated to play the part of Mumtaz Mahal.

For someone who hated history in school because 'it was all about dates,' Sooni did a complete turnaround in college where history was revealed to her 'like a story.'

Fascinated with the Mughal era, she researched a script two years ago about a film based in that period. But the movie was shelved. Opportunity came knocking again when Bala and Kanika approached her with the story of Taj Mahal.

"It's a challenge from the historical as well as the technological point of view. IMAX has great potential. It will be very exciting if we can pull it off. My effort will be to make the script as visual as possible.

"It's going to be tough because, while I have a historical framework of the period, I don't have any idea about the personal lives of the legendary Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. I can only hope that the historical accounts of their public lives will allow me to faithfully represent their private lives."

'Zoroastrianism cannot be an exclusive religion'

While scriptwriting satisfied, it didn't liberate. That's why Sooni sought release in photography.

To her, photography knows no rules or boundaries. It is about the Truth.

Sooni's first major purchase was in Harvard was a Nikkormet camera, funded with a loan from her roommate.

Then, Mira Nair introduced Sooni to famous photographer and mentor Raghubir Singh in 1982. Taken in by the pictures she had shot of her family and friends, he encouraged her to work towards a book. He even loaned her lenses, film and equipment when she was broke.

Image from Parsis: A Photographic Journey
Parsis: A Photographic Journey
Fortunately, a theme for the book was staring Sooni in the face. A theme that she didn't think of until it was pointed out to her by Singh. He suggested that she do a pictographic book on the Parsis.

Sooni, confessing to a natural inclination of not doing as she's told, says, "He was quite hurt when I took to scriptwriting. I am grateful I could show him the introduction of my book before he breathed his last."

Strangely enough, Sooni spent most of her youth rejecting the very fundamentals her book rests on.

Says best friend Rashida, "We spent most of our youth denying these communities had any value -- that we cared anything for them or wanted anything to do with them. We lived as far away from this reality as was possible."

Distance can mellow opinions and stances. "Leaving places behind makes you look at them differently. I travelled across the world and came back to where I started," says Sooni.

She feels that Zoroastrianism cannot be made an exclusive religion. "The very measures that initially protected us are now detrimental to us."

'Firdaus is my sounding board'

In spite of two very active kids, Parsis: A Photographic Journey, saw light of day in December 2000 -- 20 years after it was first conceived.

Describing the book a joint family effort, Sooni attributes it to her dentist-husband Firdaus's (whom she fell in love with during a dental appointment) encouragement and her mother's babysitting efforts.

In fact, she says she can't really ask for anything more now.

She has all the encouragement and support she needs from the protective and fiercely loyal circle of friends and family around her.

She has two angelic cherubs -- Jahan (5) and Iyanah (3) -- who were preoccupied with a pizza party in the bathroom while their mother was being interviewed.

And great set of teeth, with no dentist bills to boot!

Design: Dominic Xavier

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