HOME Manchester offered this rare screening of an example of ‘Indian Independent Cinema’ complete with a Q&A featuring writer-director Sooni Taraporevala and two of her child actors, her now grown-up son and daughter Jahan and Iyanah. The screening was organised in conjunction with the Whitworth gallery, where a selection of Sooni Taraporevala’s photographs of Bombay streetlife are being exhibited as part of Manchester’s involvement in ‘The New North and South’ project with eleven South Asian and UK arts agencies. The exhibition is showing until January 2018 and is well worth a visit. The screening also acted for HOME as a kind of preview for the season of ‘Beyond Hollywood’ which will take place in September. The season’s curator, Omar Ahmed introduced the guests and chaired the Q&A.
Sooni Taraporevala grew up in Bombay and went to Harvard and NYU before becoming a professional photographer and scriptwriter. In the UK she is perhaps best known as the scriptwriter on three films directed by Mira Nair, who she first met as a student in the US – Salaam Bombay (1988), Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Namesake (2006). Little Zizou is her first feature film and she wrote a script focusing on the community she knows best, her own – the Parsis of Bombay. The title refers to an 11 year-old boy, Xerxes (the Parsis are one of India’s oldest migrant communities, originally from Persia over 1,000 years ago). Xerxes is obsessed with the football player Zinidine Zidane, hence ‘Zizou’. Zizou’s obsession is partly a displacement of his sense of loss and guilt about his mother who died giving birth to him. His father, Cyrus, has become almost estranged from Zizou and his other son, Zizou’s older brother ‘Art’ (Artaxerxes) and now leads a religious group which has become ‘communalist’. Both Zizou and Art pursue their own interests and both seek out a surrogate family in the form of the Pressvalas. Boman publishes a Parsi newspaper and his wife Roxanne fusses over Zizou. Art pines for the beautiful Zenobia whose younger sister Liana is a foil for Zizou. These relationships are interesting in themselves but the film has a central plotline in which Cyrus pushes his Parsi religious/political group with its fascist overtones into the limelight with street demonstrations and rallies. This provokes retaliation from the more liberal Boman through his newspaper.
The film is a comedy and a warning against communalism. Taraporevala cast the film almost entirely from within the Parsi community which includes Boman Irani, the Bollywood star who often plays villains but here is the good guy. The two non-Parsis are, playing Art, Imaad Shah, the son of the great actor of Indian parallel cinema, Naseeruddin Shah, and the Bollywood star John Abraham who has a cameo role. The skilfully written film manages to meld the social comedy with more fantastical developments but also with a satire on communalism. There is some great music and a clever use of graphic novel images in which Art imagines creating a story from all the madness around him. (Later I realised that a similar strategy was used in the Malayalam film Charlie (India 2015).)
The HOME audience enjoyed the film, especially those with some knowledge of Bombay and its communities. In the Q&A that followed we learned more about the film’s production which took place in the period when Hollywood studios were first beginning to explore working with Indian corporations. Little Zizou was part-financed by Viacom 18, the company 50:50 controlled by Viacom/Paramount in the US and local investors in Mumbai. The film was mostly shown at film festivals around the world and, eventually on the streaming service Hulu in the US. A DVD was released in India. The film was made almost completely in English with some dialogue in Gujarati which wasn’t subtitled in the print we saw. When I queried this with Sooni Taraporevala she explained that these are the languages that Parsis use in Mumbai. She explained that she had to get a DCP made for this screening and that adding a subtitle proved a step too far. But the lack of subtitles was not a problem in this case and the DCP looked good. When I queried whether making a film in English limited the potential market for the film in India she pointed out, quite reasonably, that the English language may be niche in India but it still adds up to a large number of potential viewers. She also suggested that a film in English suited Viacom 18 at the time. (On its website, Viacom 18 claims to have made cinema films in 7 languages.) The other thing she said was that this kind of comedy was a difficult sell in India. I think that’s a bit more questionable, though I don’t know whether the focus on a relatively small community such as the Parsis of Bombay limits its reach. Around the same time, Boman Irani also appeared in his more usual ‘villain’ role in Khosla Ka Ghosla (India 2006), another popular social comedy, and again as the villain in 3 Idiots (India 2009). Much later, Zoya Akhtar in her segment of Bombay Talkies (India 2013) creates a short narrative with another small boy who this time idolises Katrina Kaif the Bollywood star rather than Zidane the footballer. What these three films have in common is that they are all Hindi films with major stars and a guaranteed distribution. Nevertheless they do indicate that there are writers in Indian cinema (such as Jaideep Sahni and Chetan Baghat) with a similar interest in forms of comedy that are both appealing internationally and in India itself. Sooni Taraporevala is working on another script and I hope at some point she returns to this kind of comedy. Little Zizou is a gem that you should catch if you can – DVD in India, and also available in the US.
This trailer from the Levante Film Festival features the wonderful ‘Mambo Italiano’ sequence.