It started with a tale of the rough and tumble life of a tea boy on the streets of Mumbai in Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! Twenty-five years after the film elevated Hindi cinema above the foibles of Bollywood, its screenwriter Sooni Taraporewalla — among the distinguished panel named as creative advisors to the eight Indian screenwriting fellows of the the Mumbai Mantra Sundance Institute Screen Writers Lab — opens up about her craft.
Was there a specific point in time when you decided to become a screenwriter?
I'm an accidental screenwriter. It's something that I, by chance and by luck, came into doing. I studied film theory and criticism... and I was also a student of English literature and I think those three streams helped me become a screen writer. My first film Salaam Bombay! gave me my career. It was definitely not something that I had planned.
What are the key ingredients for a good script?
Well, one of them is a story told with great economy because a script is like a haiku poem or a sonnet; you have a story to tell in a very definite page length, it should be visual, the reader should be able to view the film while reading it and, of course, the ingredients that go into making a good story: that it moves and it moves you, the story, interesting characters etc.
How does one deal with the restrictions imposed by the medium?
You learn the craft as you go along and the more experience you have… the more you come to know, but I think that first films are wonderful because you don't know so much and you just plunge in. I think creatively, the first time you do something it has a tremendous energy to it and it doesn't come the second or third time you do it.
Which was the one performance which you really thought nailed what you were going for?
All of them really... I've been really lucky with my scripts that I've got made into films that all the actors and actresses have taken it to another level.
Director Mira Nair and you have had great success together. What's the secret behind your creative partnership?
We were friends before we started working together and so we know each other as friends before we started collaborating; so our collaboration is a combination of professional work as well as a friendship and I think that makes it unique.
How was the transition from writer to behind-the-camera with your debut, 2009's Little Zizou?
It was lovely. It was great because I had a great cast and crew. It was a painless, non-traumatic experience. Of course, there was stress, but that comes with the territory and now I'm working on my second film.
When does it come out?
I have the script ready and a producing partner. It's going to be a breakthrough film. I'm very excited about it.
Can you divulge some details?
It's been in the works for four years. It's the script I'm most excited about since Salaam Bombay! Because it is about really looking at India as it is now and my idea of what India will look like in the future. It's a political thriller as well as a futuristic film. At its heart it is a love triangle. I don't mean to be immodest but I think it's going to make waves.
What were you doing when you came to know you were to receive the Padma Shri?
I was relaxing at home when I got a phone call from Delhi. At first I thought it was prank and called back and they said, 'No madam, it's not a prank'.
You are an acclaimed writer, director and photographer. What's the next feather in your cap?
I would love to write a novel some day but I'm saving that for when I'm older and I don't have the energy to make a film!