Bhavna Talwar stands there like a still from an old, black-and-white film — the kind that may have made its way to the famed Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. The Bombay High Court has emptied out for lunch, and hers is the lone figure there, under a dozen bell-shaped lamps that still shine from the grand courtroom ceiling.
Talwar has lost this round, but has set a debate in motion on the selection of films for the Oscar awards. On October 17, the Film Federation of India told the court that Eklavya: The Royal Guard was India’s official entry to the Oscars. Her debut film, Dharm, is out of the race — but the issue, if Talwar can help it, is not going to die down.
“The Oscar is what the Olympics mean to the world of sports,” she exclaims later. “I want to win. And I know I have the ability to win,” she says, lounging in the verandah of her office at Worli seaface, a star on Mumbai’s real estate map.
Clearly, questions will now be asked when the federation zeroes in on Indian films to be sent for the Academy Awards. The court case arising out of Talwar’s allegations of a biased jury that chose Eklavya for the Oscars is poised to spill into the next year. With some prompting from the court, the federation has agreed to set aside differences and draw up guidelines to ensure a fair selection of films. The next hearing will be sometime in the end of November.
Even a couple of months ago, Talwar was just one of the scores of directors chasing a dream in Mumbai’s tinsel world. One film, a screaming controversy and an ongoing court battle later, you no longer say, Bhavna Talwar, who'
Of course, Dharm has already made an impact — the film on communalism, starring Pankaj Kapoor, has drawn critical acclaim. But the director, though widely feted for her debut film, really made her presence felt in and out of Mumbai when she moved court last month, saying that Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya had been shortlisted because some members of the selection committee were “very close” to Chopra.
Though Talwar stresses that her battle is not about Dharm alone, the 30-something director has clearly been building castles around her film. And she has good reason to. Dharm, which tells the story of the turmoil that a Brahmin priest faces when he realises that the foundling he has adopted is not a Hindu but a Muslim, was premiered at the 60th Annual Film Festival at Cannes in May this year.
“There was a full theatre and I had butterflies in my stomach,” says Talwar. “I was sitting outside in my jeans and kurta — too nervous to sit inside.”
She recalls the “stricken” look on the faces of the audience as they trooped out after the screening. “I couldn’t make out whether they liked the film.”
Then a woman walked up to her, took her hand and started hugging her. “She would not let go. Suddenly I felt her body moving. She was crying on my shoulder. She said, thank you for making a film like this. It’s a beautiful film.”
That’s when, Talwar adds, she knew the message had reached home. “It was my first foreign audience. I was wondering if they would connect with the emotion portrayed in the film. After all, it’s a film set in Varanasi and has typical India motifs and expressions.”
Dharm may not go to Los Angeles, but it’s going places. She says it has been nominated for the best film category for festivals in Venice, Mexico, Palm Springs and Karachi. Yet the fact that it is not going to be a contender for the Oscar awards to be announced on February 24, 2008, continues to prod her. “I feel wronged. And when you feel wronged, your mind is there — you want to do something about it.”
But Talwar knows she will have to let go of it — the “reputation” that being an Oscar nominee brings to a production house or the subsequent “opening of the international market.” She says she also needs to regain her mental and emotional energy claimed by the legal battle.
“I think my productivity has gone down and I need to focus on work,” she says, stubbing her third Wills Classic into a wide ceramic Jack Daniel’s ashtray. “I’ve begun to forget things. Recently I could not place a scriptwriter whom I had promised feedback on his script — as I normally do when somebody gives me a script.”
In a gently modulated tone, Talwar talks of having identified some potential film scripts. “One is set in Bombay, another in rural small town India, and yet another in Vienna.” But, she is not satisfied. “I’m finding it difficult to find something that would make me say: Wow! I love it.” And even if all fails, she sounds adamant about not remaking films. “It’s like Picasso saying he’s going to repaint (Van Gogh’s) irises,” she laughs. “A film that has been made has been made. I don’t think I have the arrogance to say I can better it. And if I can’t better it, why would I want to do it'”
Talwar’s take on Bollywood is ambivalent. “The bottom line in the film industry is that you must have talent and ability as a film-maker — even if you have filmi connections that create easier inroads to meeting the right people, making the film.” Yet she is also critical of what she calls the “power lobbies” in the industry. “One had heard that there is power lobbying and there is this coterie that functions. But when you experience it, it shakes you up. It shook me.”
Cinema was always there in Talwar, waiting to take shape. She graduated in history and political science from the University of Mumbai in 1994, after which she did a two-year stint as a film journalist, and then joined an advertising firm.
Advertising taught her the ropes of film-making, and her journalism background prompted her to ask questions: “How is the selection process democratic' On what basis are we selecting the jury'”
It was, however, her cinema buff father, a former chief commissioner of income tax, who gave her a taste for films. She still remembers her father coming home one day, when she was a small girl, and excitedly announcing that he had got four tickets for the family for The Sound of Music.
A big source of support in the Dharm versus Eklavya controversy has been her husband, Sheetal, the producer of Dharm. “There are occasions when a director wants to stand up for something and the producer is not willing to, or vice versa. Over here both of us have the same agenda and we’ve been in this fight together,” she says.
The court case continues. Vidhu Vinod Chopra may or may not get to thank his relatives, friends and crew on the glittering stage at LA, but for this year, Talwar has lost out to him in the race to the Oscars. But next year may be another story.