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Rocking on

It should be a time of nail-biting tension for director Tanuja Chandra. Her movie Zindaggi Rocks has just been released and the first reports are still coming in. Will its slightly controversial storyline revolving around an unmarried single-mother rockstar be a hit with Indian audiences'

If Tanuja is nervous, it isn’t showing. She’s bubbling with enthusiasm about the film starring Sushmita Sen. The movie was delayed for several months when Sen injured her neck trying to belt out an energetic rock number on the sets.

Tanuja has a busy schedule lined-up in the coming months. She’s working on an English film Hope and a Little Sugar for which post-production is being done via the Internet with her collaborators in New York. And she’s also going through two other scripts for her next projects. “It’s too early to talk about them, but one has been written by my mother and the other by me,” she says.

The young filmmaker hails from a family that is firmly rooted in the movie industry, but she has cut out her own path in the business. Her mother Kamna is a respected scriptwriter and brother-in-law Vidhu Vinod Chopra is a prominent moviemaker. But Tanuja believes that if she hadn’t become a filmmaker, she might well have been a writer. After all, writing runs in her genes with her brother Vikram Chandra being amongst India’s most sought-after writers.

Chandra was bitten by the movie-making bug when she was living with her brother in Houston in the early 1990s. She started out by making short films on the Indian community for a public channel called Access Houston. “It was a free-for-all channel, which featured short films without censorship and anybody could make films for it. I got hooked and soon realised that this was what I wanted to do,” she says.

Her next move was to sign up for a course at Temple University, a film school in Philadelphia, to hone her talents and pick up the finer points of filmmaking. Tanuja did a masters degree in Film Direction and Writing and then returned to India in the early ‘90s. Today, sitting in her plush home in upscale Bandra, she cheerfully says she hasn’t regretted a single moment.

Zindaggi Rocks was always written, says Chandra, with Sushmita Sen in mind. She and Sushmita are good friends and had talked about the movie even before the script was completed. Says Tanuja, “Sushmita always wanted to play a character like Madonna and when I narrated the story to her, she agreed immediately. Sushmita has great screen-presence and the role suited her.”

At another level, Chandra is also upbeat about Hope and a Little Sugar produced by independent producers Glenn Russow and Scott Pardo in New York. The film had a theatrical release at the South Asian International Festival recently and stars actors Anupam Kher, Mahima Chowdhury, Suhasini Mulay and Vikram Chatwal. “It’s a Muslim-Sikh love story set in the context of 9/11 in New York,” adds Chandra, who started shooting the film 18 months ago.

Shooting has been a challenging task as the entire pre- and post-production has been done on the Net. The crew, which included 25 Indians and the actors, travelled to New York and the shooting was completed in 25 days flat.

But Tanuja had to start on pre-production two- and-a-half months before the actual shooting as everything was being done via the Internet. She finalised the cast, locations and even set design sitting in Mumbai.

“The producers sent me minute details about the locations in New York. They also sent the exact measurements of the windows so we could organise the curtain material from India. And when we landed in New York, it was the first time that I met the producers,” she says.

Despite the complications, working on the film was fun and the new possibilities opened by technology were an eye-opener. “From sound design to colour correction to changes in the scenes, everything happened on the Net and I used to send extensive notes to the producers after looking through it. Their style is very rigid and meticulous as they edit and re-edit scenes and show the film to test audiences a number of times. After collating all the suggestions, they finally come out with the final version,” she says.

Chandra has the reputation of being concerned about women’s issues and letting it show all the way in her movies. “I have very strong women protagonists in all my films. But I don’t agree that being a woman director, I should get some concessions,” she says.

Even though her mother was the scriptwriter for films like Premrog, Chandni and 1942: A Love Story, Tanuja found her own way through the industry. She started her career in television and directed the popular Doordarshan serial Zameen Aasman in 1993.

She followed it up with another serial, Musafir but left it in-between to become an assistant script writer with Mahesh Bhatt and co-wrote films like Tamanna and Zakhm. She also co-wrote the film, Dil To Pagal Hai that established her reputation as a scriptwriter of repute.

Then, she made her debut as a director with Dushman in 1998 starring Sanjay Dutt and Kajol and produced by Pooja Bhatt Productions. After the success of Dushman, she went on to direct films like Sangharsh (1999), Sur (2002), Yeh Zindagi Ka Safar (2003) and Filmstar (2004).

But why hasn’t she made any movies after Filmstar' That was partly because Zindaggi Rocks was delayed. Also she was working on two films simultaneously.

Even though she has carved a niche as a director, Tanuja says that writing is something that is close to her heart. It is only when she’s wielding her pen that she feels completely in charge. And, of course, her family is a constant support. “Though both Vikram and Vinod are preoccupied with their own professions, they are my pillars of strength,” she adds. Chandra insists that she’s a homebody who loves nothing better than spending time with her sister, Anupama’s kids.

What’s next' Tanuja wants to make commercially viable films with good storylines. “I’m still learning as a director.” But that isn’t the bottomline she says: “Be it as a director or scriptwriter — the only criterion should be to do memorable films.”

Photograph by Gajanan Dudhalkar

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