Sooni Taraporewala: In conversation post – Little Zizou

Sooni Taraporevala, who wrote the screenplay for Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala and The Namesake, turns director with Little Zizou.

Her stories dredge up the darkness in society, yet her storytelling isn’t dark . There’s drama and humour that helps connect with a wide audience. Perhaps, that is what has made Sooni Taraporevala one of the most acclaimed Indian screenplay writers. Her Salaam Bombay, a story about the street children of Mumbai which Mira Nair made into a film, won an Oscar nomination.

Her Mississippi Masala,which exposed the rampant yet subtle racism among Indian immigrants in the West (also directed by Nair), was actor Denzel Washington’s first hit. Her last screenplay, The Namesake, which explored the cultural clash between first and second-generation Indian immigrants in the US, won critical acclaim too.

This time though, Taraporevala turns director with Little Zizou, a comic flick which revolves around the dilemmas of a 11-year-old Parsi boy, Xerxes Khodaiji (played by debutant Jahan Bativala). The film is a satirical take on two Parsi families, one headed by an extremist out to “cleanse” the community of inter-racial marriages, the other by a liberal rationalist running a sinking Parsi daily. In the background is a Parsi community’s lingering fear of extinction.

The film stole this writer’s heart with its crisp narrative and deceptively simple context. At last month’s Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival held in New York, it won two awards-the Best Director and the Best Screenplay.

What compelled you to make this movie?
I have been a scriptwriter for 20 years and in all those years, all my scripts have been commissioned. This was the first story I wrote on my own and for myself. I had an adrenaline rush to direct. And I had such a good time. I finished writing the film in 10 days-after which it took seventeen drafts over the next two years. But it’s very much a film that came from within. As I was writing it, I would meet people and come across situations that would work themselves into the script.

Can you give us an example?
The flight simulator is one. My husband’s friend had actually made a flight sim in a disused maternity home in Bombay. Then, I met someone at a party whose face I really liked, and that is Tknow Francorsi, who plays Tino Fellini in the film. I had no idea whether he could act or not, and found out much later he could.

Evidently all of them could act. Was making the kids act challenging?
Actually, that was the easiest part of making the film-because they were totally natural in front of the camera. They knew I didn’t want any artifice or filmi nakhras. They got that and were so good at improvisation. In one scene, Jahan is picking his nose and sticks the snot to the refrigerator. That came from him.

Were some of the scenes candid?
My crew was most wonderful and made the kids feel at home. The kids loved, not only, what went on in front of the camera but also what went on behind it. That also helped. They were all friends around the sets. Nothing was candid though. It was just that all of them felt very comfortable in front of the camera.

Clearly, the theme is a comfort zone for you, since you’re Parsi, familiar with the dilemmas of the Parsis in Mumbai?
Yes, I am comfortable with the milieu that I come from, because I know it very well. For me, though, I don’t see it as a Parsi film alone. It is set among the Parsis, but these are themes and issues that exist in communities everywhere. It’s an allegory. You have the crazy, lunatic fundamentalist, and you have people who stand up and speak up for what they think is right.

Perhaps what clinched it was that the jury recognised the universality of the story. An old American lady came up to me and told me that there are very few things that give her joy in her life, and Little Zizou was one of them.

How do you weave characters into the script? The dialogue sounds casual and real, so was this a losely scripted film?
In terms of scripting, for example, Boman Irani’s role was the most under-written. He brought in a lot of nuance and texture, a whole of lot of subtext. The film was tightly scripted. The trick is to write a tight script and then give freedom to your actors . As a writer-director-you can do what you want with the script. I gave the actors the freedom to improvise and the result is that the dialogue has a very casual feel.

It’s a child’s narrative, isn’t it? For example, his father is shown as this grotesque and burlesque, comic-book-like character.
Yes, it is. The first time Xerxes is shown in front of his father, there is a comic-book effect to the scene with the exaggerated figure of his father looking down at him, when the child is reading a story from his brother’s comic book. I also felt that if a character like Sohrab’s (Ardeshir, who plays Xerxes’s father) was not shown in a comic-book style, with the kind of theme we have he would have become too heavy and villainish. This film is not about that. It’s a feel good movie and for once in my life, I think I am allowed to make a film with a happy ending!

Who’s your audience for this film?
The world!

Original article here.