08 April 2008

Interview: Devyani Saltzman

'I think it's important to never be too literal in an adaptation'

Devyani Saltzman is the wonderfully talented daughter of filmmaker Deepa Mehta who came into her own with her debut book, Shooting Water last year. Besides capturing the trying times that the cast and crew of Water faced shooting of the film in India, the book really is about Devyani's emotional re-connect not just with India and her mother but also herself.

1. Anyone who reads Shooting Water will know that you are no writer by accident. You are tremendously gifted. But your initiation into the field seems like one, considering you chose the subject of Water and the incidents surrounding it? Is it that you were looking for inspiration to take flight as a writer?

I had been writing since I was a little girl, mostly short stories and plays. Shooting Water became my first book because it was a story I was passionate about. I've always been drawn to literary non-fiction, and after the five-year journey of making the film, I realised that it was a story worthy of the medium.

2. What has been your formative influence as a writer and what sort of literature has inspired you? Are you an avid reader? If so, what do you enjoy reading?

I am an avid reader. Writing began with reading for me. Books that inspired me to write Shooting Water included New Zealand writer Janet Frame's autobiography An Angel at My Table, for it's emotional honesty. Philip Gourevitch's nonfiction account of the genocide in Rwanda, for giving difficult political situations a human scale and Alexandra Fuller's beautiful memoir Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight, interweaving a white Zimbabwean girl's coming of age with the dawning of independence in Rhodesia.

3. For a book that explores so many aspects of human life, did you ever imagine that Shooting Water could be a limiting title? Because besides the obvious incidents and controversies you mention, I saw the book essentially as a journey of a young woman, her tumultous relationship with her mother, her inner urge to fight the demons of her past and reclaim her self-worth, her dejection at love...so many things. Also, considering that so many books are regularly being written on 'Making of a film', didn't you fear Shooting Water could be clubbed among them?

When I sat down to write the book I wrote three things in my notebook: Political, personal and cinematic. I always knew Shooting Water would be a balance of those three themes. My job was to weave them together. Also, I couldn't afford to worry about how someone might position a book by it's title. I spent my energy drawing the story I wished to tell, and hoping an adventurous reader would discover it for what it is on their own terms.

4. For the first time, your book reveals a side of your mother Deepa Mehta which the world had not known -- not just the fact that she was hassled due to the various controversies surrounding the film but also some of the intensely private moments from her life as a wife andmother. How comfortable were you doing that and similarly, was Deepa skeptical on that front?

The beautiful thing about writing the book was that both of my parents were very supportive of it. I am grateful for their strength dealing with the rawer elements of the narrative, but I think they knew that the book was more than just a personal tale, which helped balance it out. Also, my mom and I enjoy a great creative relationship. I'm her first reader for her scripts and she's my first reader for articles and manuscripts.

5. You mention Anurag Kashyap in your book quite a few times. Did he read Shooting Water and tell you what he thought of it? Also, what do make of him as a filmmaker?

I love Anurag. I think he's incredibly talented, and I really enjoy his company. I haven't had a chance to talk to him about the book, but to be honest, we are both far along on other projects and its imperative to let past projects go in order to continue creating.

6. Devyani, most writers today of Indian English are NRIs, every other novel talks about the Indian Diaspora (The Gifted, The Namesake). If not, it tracks the journey of an NRI in search of his/her roots (The Hungry Tide etc). Most Pakistani writers (Moshin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie) are also foreign-based. And even otherwise, there's this whole urge among writers to 'globalize' their stories, creating an artificial fluidity among nations. Do you suspect this alienates readers and creates a skewed vision of India? Also in the process of appealing to a wider readership, does it not offer an Indian experience from a 'specific' prism?

An essential and challenging question. Fundamentally, I think all perspectives and voices are valid. I would think a reader of The Namesake, or Shooting Water, would be aware that these books were written from an insider/outsider perspective on India. If that leads them to explore more writing from authors who are residents of the country, all the better. Ultimately, stories should introduce us to new worlds, and I'm not as concerned about where the writer resides as long as they do a good job taking us into that world.

5. Do you see the above as a natural consequence of more and more Indian writers in English based abroad or is it merely a marketing gimmick to widen the scope of readership? Films weave in NRI pleasing-moments to appeal to a wide segment of audiences there. Do you see books doing the same?

I see it as less of a marketing gimmick, than a reality of an increasingly mobile, globalised world.

6. Hindi cinema seems to have suddenly woken up to literary adaptations. The hitherto formulaic structure of Bollywood could be blamed for it. But internationally of course, literature has always inspired cinema. Now we have everything from Moth Smoke to The Japanese Wife to The Hundry Tide to One Night At a Call Centre being made into films. How do you personally view literary adaptations and what are the challenges one faces here?

I love literary adaptations. I think it can be wonderful when the vision of a book is extended into film. It's not to say they aren't tricky, but when done well an adaptation of a book into film can breath a whole new life into the original work. I just saw Into the Wild, Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book. I'm a big fan of the book and really enjoyed Penn's take on the subject. He interpretation of the story through imagery and casting choices only enhanced the original. I think it's important to never be too literal in an adaptation. It's more important to capture the essence of the story.

7. Lastly, one's dying to know what you're going to be writing next.

At the moment I'm working on my second book, a novel. It's a very new experience telling a fictional narrative, but I love the room it affords in drawing characters and situations. The book is quite rooted in a real political history - the idea of the Shanti Sena, or Gandhi's peace army - and that gives me a solid base from which to explore the characters' individual journeys.

05 April 2008

India in Slow Motion

Ground reality

Author: Mark Tully and Gillian Wright
Price: 450
Published In: 2001
Publishers: Penguin

Reading the first few pages of the book on Ram Janma Bhoomi felt like an extension of the reportage one watches on television all the time. So I set the book aside and did not return to it until very recently.


While flipping through it once again, a chapter on 'Creating Cyberabad' in the time of Chandrababu Naidu’s reign caught my attention.  Mark Tully had met the CM and also interviewed many of his critics and opposition ministers who believed Naidu's  much-hailed IT revolution was a sham and that unless he tackled problems at the ground-level, he would fail. That seems very prophetic now after his party was decimated in the ensuing elections.

There are two other chapters which were readable,  one on the carpet industry in Mirzapur and the child labour involved in it and another one on Nizammuddin and the Sufi saints.

Then there’s a chapter on Kashmir where Mark Tully interviews Farookh Abdulla, the flamboyant ex CM of the valley who Tully caught in an unusually irate mood. There’s another interesting chapter here on Water Harvesting projects taken on by some draught prone villages in Gujarat, driven by dynamic and innovative men.

One that I found particularly engaging was the piece on Tehelka’s expose of corruption in defence deals. Mully meets Joseph –Tehelka’s man who actually carried out the sting operation.

A ‘Tale Of Two Brothers’ that talks about V P Singh and his brother and 'Farmer's Reward' are mildly engaging but nothing exceptional.

In this journalistic endevour, Tully and his co-writer Gillian Wright are privy to English breakfasts at their European friend's house in Mirzapur and are generally taken care of by hospitable people,  too overwhelmed to have the ex BBC man among them.

Tully tackles the obvious themes on India but digs deep enough to give readers an in depth perspective. For example, most of us know about the farmer's plight in India but Tully goes a little further and looks into possible solutions.

Admirably, Tully is in no haste to make judgments and for most time, merely presents facts as a balanced observer. Of course when truth stares in the face, he does not hesitate from making a sharp comment. He’s particularly scathing in his criticism of the bureaucracy and corruption that are eating into the country’s progress and posing a hurdle in its development.

Mark Tully demonstrates genuine concern for a country that he's reported for more than 25 years and for most part, this is a fairly engaging read.

If the book is not terribly exciting,  it could be in part due to Tully's journalistic background.  The style for newspapers is usually sparse and impersonal, and when journalists turn writers, that pattern continues.