Screenwriter, photographer, filmmaker Sooni Taraporevala, best known for award-winning films such as Mississippi Masala, The Namesake and the Oscar-nominated Salaam Bombay, is back with her latest Netflix original film Yeh Ballet. A beautiful film, it is based on a true life story about two underprivileged Mumbai boys who struggle with poverty and class issues to make it big on the global ballet scene.
Sooni first shot a documentary on the two boys, which released in June 2017. Three years later, she has turned the documentary into a film. “After the documentary, the boys and I were batting around the desire to make a feature one day. It’s such an amazing story—I wanted to tell it in more than 14 minutes. I also wanted to get into their back stories and how they came to ballet as well as tell their story using all the tools of feature filmmaking I have learnt and used these past 35 years, first as a screenwriter, then as a filmmaker,” she explains about how the idea of the film came about.
Producer Siddharth Roy Kapur, who had read about the boys and was equally passionate about making a film on them, called Sooni in. The two teamed up and Siddharth took the project to Netflix. She began writing the feature in December 2017, and it was then shot for 44 days in April-May 2019. Finally, its post-production was completed in December 2019 and the film released in February 2020.
As a filmmaker who is known for making poignant films such as Little Zizou, Sooni says her goal is not to send messages in her films but to make the audience feel. “I want them to laugh, cry, walk in other people’s shoes. At the same time, I want them to think and possibly rethink their prejudices,” she says.
She feels women filmmakers like herself bring their individual sensibilities and worldview to cinema – which is a much-needed change. “I have written scripts and made films about girls, women, boys and men – from the first film Salaam Bombay until the latest Yeh Ballet. For me, gender representation is dictated by the needs of the story, not by ideology,” she explains.
On writing about or presenting the underprivileged sections of society, she says, “As a writer, unless you write exclusively about your own life, which could be very limiting, you are always stepping out of your own life to write about other peoples’ lives. The responsibility is the same whatever strata you write about.” Both Salaam Bombay and Yeh Ballet were preceded by research, and in each instance, Sooni had a burning desire to get it right.
Moreover, she believes that cinema is a mass medium and it is up to individual creators to define their responsibilities towards it. “We live in a democracy and I am against censorship. Every kind of film has a right to exist. Personally speaking, I would not write or make a film that has regressive views on religious conflict or gender issues,” she explains.
In the past, a huge part of Sooni’s photography and films have also documented the Parsi experience. She has also photographed extensively outside the Parsi community and written scripts about homeless children in Los Angeles and women at a legal brothel in Nevada, amongst many others.
Her book Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India: A Photographic Journey (Overlook Books, 2004) was motivated by a desire to visually document the community – something that had not been done before. When asked her thoughts on fear of the community’s extinction, she says, “In these days of COVID-19, extinction has unfortunately become a universal fear faced by many others besides Parsis.
Sooni feels she has been incredibly fortunate and hopes that she is living up to all that she has been given by way of good fortune. “When I was young, I never could have imagined the journey that lay ahead,” she comments on her incredible journey as a screenwriter-filmmaker. Next, she is working on a film that she wrote with her daughter Iyanah Bativala. She reveals that it’s a contemporary tale set in Mumbai.
When off work, being with her family makes her happiest – “though I don’t know if that counts as a hobby.” Fortunately for her, her writing, films and photography are her hobbies as well as her work. “I love what I do,” she smiles.
Talking about how the massive worldwide cancellation of events, travel and conferences in the wake of COVID-19 will affect Indian cinema, she says, “I think the effect will be pretty severe for Indian cinema just as it is for world cinema as well as for the airline industry and for so many others. I hope and pray that this too shall pass.”First published in eShe magazine