It was July 2014, my dream of being in a film festival with my own film, was elegantly satiated. And it was in one of the screenings that I had watched this short fiction about a grandmother, a beautiful woman, weak but filled with strength of time. Shy but wouldn’t stop talking to the camera. Venerable, formidable and absolutely adorable. I could not help myself from falling in love with her, that very instant. Her telltale wrinkles, her toothless and unabashed symphonic laughter filled my heart and resonated across the screening theatre.
World, meet Mamaiji – and it is my absolute pleasure to chat with the filmmaker herself, Oorvazi Irani who’s debut feature film “The Path of Zarathustra” recently had a PVR Director’s Rare successful theatrical release in 5 cities in India and will release on DVD very soon. On behalf of WMF, I wish Oorvazi the very best for this and all her projects that are going to come up in the near future.
When I asked her curiously, what her childhood was like? Was it filled with stories and tales? She said…
I am reminded of the beautiful song my late maternal Grandmother, Moti (Morvarid) Nadirshah Roowalla use to sing to me as a child and I would like to start this interview with this beautiful memory, which is in fact also the beginning of my first short film “Mamaiji”.
She’s bathing at her granny’s knees
Darling go up the mogra tree
Singing a happy song
The mogra flowers will bloom
Grandad will weave a garland
And offer it to God
Then he’ll ask a wish
To bless our Oorvazi “
Childhood is a time to be pampered and loved and I was lucky to have my parents and grandparents bringing me up with love and affection. I was born in Mumbai but we did frequent my grandparents who stayed in Nasik in their house with a garden and a mogra tree and I remember many vacations spent there. A lot of my memories are alive in the photographs my dad captured of me growing up which remind me of my love for sports and dance besides my love for posing for the camera. My dad’s sister Dr. Khurshid Shroff was a PHD in dance and practiced and taught Bharat Natyam all over centers in Mumbai and she was like my elder sister so I always tagged along most of the time to her dance classes and in the bargain learnt some dance and also participated in full-length dance ballets with her. But after she got married, she left India and with that I left dance but I think somewhere there, will also be a yearning to express and create – through body and movement.
My dad was a filmmaker and he started his career being the General Manager for Chetan Anand and then started his own company ‘SBI impresario Pvt. Ltd.’ In 1975 which made a lot of critically acclaimed films for Indian and European television including Channel Four, TV London so part of my growing up years was spent visiting dad on film sets or documentary locations.
Dad is also a Hindustani classically trained musician and the love for that has also seeped into me though I have not gained any formal training I just feel soulful when I hear it. And my sweet mom Meherangiz Irani and dad Sorab Irani were always by my side indulging me in their love and bringing me up, giving me the freedom to be who I am. And then my sister, Nooshin Irani came along who was my muse in my growing up years.
Career as a filmmaker, have you always wanted to be one? Did it help that the family was associated with filmmaking?
As a kid at some stage I wanted to be an athlete as I was good in sports but I soon realized that I was not cut out to be one. Then along the way I guess somewhere being the elder daughter I identified with dad and taking forward his legacy in a subconscious way and soon joined our home production company as one of its Directors while I was in college. It was not that I always wanted to be a filmmaker but I was attracted to the arts and gradually discovered the love for cinema in its various forms. I did not formally train to learn cinema and that has its advantages I am sure but there is also a charm of discovering it your own way and I feel cinema is a unique language that embraces all the arts and experiencing them makes you richer. Its interesting that my taste in cinema evolved after I took up teaching cinema and film appreciation. It was quite by default in fact that this happened. This was a time when I was pursuing photography and was quite disillusioned by fashion photography, which I dabbled with, so when I was invited to talk about cinema by a friend I was excited by that prospective and before I knew it a whole world was waiting to be discovered and soon I was taking film appreciation classes and currently head the subject of film at the SVKM IB school in Mumbai.
Tell us about your work so far, films you have made, scripts you have written, characters you have brought to life – memorable ones if any?
For me as an artist, making films is an extension of who I am, an extension of my identity and the quest to discover life. I have been associated with our film production company and I started my career with a travelogue series on the exile route of Lord Ram for Channel Four television, UK which was produced and directed by my dad and I assisted dad in all areas from research, direction and production and it was a great learning. And then I was the Associate Director for a documentary on Lord Ganesh for Netherlands TV but my role as an independent filmmaker, finding my own voice started only recently in 2011 with my first short film “Mamaiji” (Grandmother) 6 min.
As a filmmaker what excited me the most about this film was creating a space between the real and the unreal, taking the audience through a journey into time but through timelessness.
If I had to describe the film, I would say it was an exploration of a portrait of my grandmother in the white void of cinema. She passed away a few months ago and the film will always remain special, because it was her secret desire for a film to be made on her life story. My second short film “The K File” made in 2012 (10 min) which was a story and script by the renowned writer Farrukh Dhondy revolved around the character of Ajmal Kasab the then lone surviving terrorist of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
My most recent film “The Path of Zarathustra” was a PVR Director’s Rare and it’s interesting because its my debut feature film and also where I play the Director, Producer and lead Actor. Talking about the character in this film, the writer Farrukh Dhondy always maintained that the character is not personal but beyond that, she is symbolic – symbolic of a person, on a quest for God and love. For me as an actor therefore I pitched the performance at a particular note and tried the fine balance between being truthful and yet not too natural. Sometimes I am told it could be a vanity project that I took on playing the lead in the film but for me it was just an extension of my creative expression in front of the camera and a character I identified with the quest and I enjoyed the journey.
Directing myself was challenging and at times I missed having the opportunity to view myself through the take but I played both my roles by instinct and sincerity and it has been a beautiful journey.
Where do you think independent cinema is headed?
I think there is more freedom and hope today for independent cinema but each filmmaker has to chart her own path. I do hope a independent filmmaker is given more encouragement and infrastructure by society to create with the freedom to express original ideas and not have to fall to the lowest common denominator to exist. Because cinema is a powerful medium and should not be reduced merely to meaningless entertainment which does not challenge the audience.
Have you felt the ‘gender inequality’ elephant in the room too claustrophobic sometimes? what is the best way to beat the gender inequality in the industry?
The best way to beat the gender inequality is to be the voice to make the change.
What is the benefit of being a female filmmaker – what role does a feminine gaze / perspective play in the culmination of a script or the characters – or is it just a stereotype that calls women out as exclusive ’emotional’ beings?
Well it’s a project worth exploring if women filmmakers really have a different gaze than men and how, to begin with, does it effect the portrayal of women in film, I am of course talking here about sensitive filmmakers like Satyajit Ray who have been known to have strong women characters and are sensitive to their issues and portray them as complex dominant protagonists in their films – Charulata, Devi and even Apu Sansar have very powerful women characters which in fact are so real and made memorable in his films but could a woman Director add nuances to the character that only she could reach within to find, we women filmmakers could examine that maybe!
One way to empower a woman character I feel is to make her an active, rather than a passive player in the film. Another aspect is the objectification of the actor as a woman who gets treated as a sexual object rather than a human being on screen.
Would a sensitive woman filmmaker treat a love scene or nudity differently than a sensitive male filmmaker. Or does the character become a neutral entity when in the hands of a filmmaker be it male or female. I think its more about the space in which you are making the film sometimes, like commercial or art that also dictates these rules maybe more than the gender.
Who are your favourites (writers and filmmakers) (hollywood / world / india)? and how much of their work has inspired yours?
Cinema of an auteur excites me and there are so many great artists in cinema like Bergman, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Satyajit Ray, Abbas Kiarastami, Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf, Charlie Chaplin, Maya Deren that I admire for their vision in bringing to screen cinematic beauty and opening up new worlds. Being in the company of their films is so pleasurable. The inspiration is in various forms – above all they inspire me and prove that cinema is art and not a mere industry.
What is the way forward the address the distribution of female-centric scripts that don’t get distributed? how do female filmmakers cope with the difficulty of getting funds?
We live in a patriarchal society so there is some resistance, but there is hope. There has to be a stronger voice by women filmmakers as part of the mainstream and that can help. But having said that if it’s a good story, it has universal appeal and goes beyond gender and should find a platform to be heard. Finding a right actor to associate with your film sometimes helps to reach out to funders.
What are your future plans?
As an artist I want to discover myself – my body, my voice, my words, my thoughts, my soul – make feature films, host television shows, perform…. produce…create. Life is a mysterious journey and lets see where it leads me, how strong is the fire that burns within to ignite the glory of creation.
This is the one of the many inspiring tales under the WMF umbrella. And personally, I am way too excited to take up this pet project than I am ready to admit. Stay tuned and watch this space. Here’s hoping: one is never devoid of female idols anymore!