Next weekend, four decades of 102 black-and-white photographs – or the show ‘Home in the City’ taglined ‘Bombay 1977-Mumbai 2017’ – will catch life on the lam of the megapolis clicked by Sooni Taraporevala.
Besides images of street people, familes and achitecture, there’s more. A sizeable section of the 60-year-old still photographer-film director-screenwriter’s eureka moments revive Bollywood of the 1980s and ‘90s – of gala premieres, Great Gatsby-style parties and those chillax pauses on the studio sets.
That was an era devoid of today’s photo-unfriendly vanity vans, walking-snarling barbed wire fences better aka PR agents, and the sort of bouncers you’d be mortified to run into a dark alley.
Aapri Sooni had joined me on the showbiz beat maybe a dozen times. Now decades later here she is, trying to express her gratitude, “Hey remember, we’d go to those...” I cut her short, “Yeah, yeah, but you wouldn’t take a posed portrait ever. Anyway where are those shots of Aamir Khan at a drum set (Raja Hindustani) and Akshay Kumar (one of those Khiladi flicks) in a studio-manufactured phone booth?”
Seems those colour transparencies could be in the Filmfare archives, if they have been preserved that is. That’s another story. The lord knows how many priceless photos have vanished with the wind.
“Right, I was trying to find a career after graduating from Harvard,” she narrates. “The money you guys paid was a pittance. It wouldn’t even cover the expenses of developing photo prints and the autorickshaw rides.”
Among the striking B-town clicks, the stand-outs show Feroz Khan at the premiere of Janbaaz; a fan-girl’s moment with Raj Kapoor; a contrasting study of brothers Rishi and Randhir Kapoor; Irrfan Khan at the workshop of Salaam Bombay which Sooni scripted; Naseeruddin Shah with Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard who co-featured in A Perfect Murder, and Sushmita Sen mamboing to party music.
Elaborates my interviewee, “Bollywood was everywhere. At the art-deco cinemas, like Apsara and Naaz, close to my home in Gowalia Tank. On the school benches, girls would break into the cabarets of Helen. And I’d see quite a lot of films of Mumtaz, Hema Malini and Rekha, with my movie-mad aunts.”
“When I started photography, always by natural light, my intention was to get close to the reality, not the glamour. I can’t shoot with an agenda. Making stars look glamorous at photo-sessions wasn’t my scene. There were photographers, like Gautam Rajadhyaksha, who were terrific at their jobs already.”
Erm, does Sooniji have a problem with glamour? She shrugs that she didn’t want to go the commercial route. Or she would have continued modelling. Unbeknownst to many, as a teenager she had featured in print ads and in a commercial made by Shyam Benegal.
She elaborates, “When I was taking photographs, I’d notice that the stars form the hierarchy. The crew and technicians would be treated indifferently, especially the women. There were no loos for ‘ladies’. For someone like me with a weak bladder, that was a difficult situation.”
Next question: After directing Little Zizou (2009) , didn’t she plan to helm a big-budgeter? Answer: “Correct but it was too out-of-the-box and ambitiously-scaled – it took place in the present and the future. And stars don’t believe in giving an answer. They don’t say yes, they don’t say no. I met several A-listers who said sure we’ll get back to you. Then nothing. Eventually, Kangana Ranaut and Irrfan came on board and I couldn’t have asked for a better cast. But I still found it difficult to raise the money. So I’ve put my futurstic film aside for the future. Next year I hope to direct an indie project for a global audience.”
Okay, has that put her off clicking Bollywood today? “Come on, you can see what’s going on?” the photographer in her reasons. “Would it make sense to click those so-called red carpet premieres at the multiplexes in shopping malls? Give me Janbaaz at the Metro any day. That was my kind of city, my home.”
She said it.
(The exhibition will be on at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road from October 14 to 31. It will travel to Goa and New Delhi, and is ongoing in Manchester, U.K. till February 2018)
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)