There are times when one is allowed a glimpse into the soul of a person, or a peek into the recesses of their minds. That was the privilege I had when I caught up one afternoon with Shonali Bose. The warmth and grace with which she walked me down her memory lane, the lively way she fielded each question with deft candor was frankly speaking a trifle unexpected. (Born of experience interviewing other celebrities but as they say - do not generalize!)
Though most known for her block buster Margarita with a Straw (based on her cousin Malini), I was however more curious to know the woman who had made 'Amu'. Those were after all not the days of the social media, human rights as a subject was just beginning to dawn and the 1984 Sikh riots were not a 'sexy topic'. So what was it?
"I loved watching films from an early age, and specially writing, directing and acting in plays. But my real passion has always been people and social change. I dreamt of changing the world, of becoming a teacher or lawyer." Though fate had something else in store for her the desire to change the world resulted in college activism. The 1984 Sikh pogroms took place during that time. Shonali, along with some of her college peers, volunteered in the relief camps. The seeds for Amu were sown.
At the time that she was learning to give comfort to wailing widows and mothers and children, Shonali herself had not faced such trauma. But two years later, in her final year at college, Shonali suffered her own tragedy. She lost her mother through medical negligence. “I just needed to get out of India. I had so much anger against the system. I got a scholarship to do my Ph.D in Political Science at Columbia University and I left.” Many years later when she graduated UCLA Film School and thought of what her first film should be – the trauma of 1984 came back to her. “It was a watershed event in the history of the subcontinent, just as much as Partition, and yet no one had dealt with it. I just had to take it on even though it seemed impossible.” Unconsciously as she wrote, her own personal maternal loss and pain wove itself into the story making Amu an emotionally heart wrenching tale.
Margarita with a Straw was just as revolutionary, inspired by her cousin Malini – who wrote the graphic and poignant autobiography ‘One Little Finger’. Yet, like In Amu – Shonali used much of the events and experiences from her own life making the film deeply personal and emotionally complex. She started writing the screenplay on her first born Ishan’s 17th birthday – 4 months after his death. “I was able to celebrate him and the day as his mother for his death could not take away the joy of his birth. And that night I picked up a pen and just started writing. Thirty days later when I finished the first draft, the title came to me – Margarita, With a Straw. When life hands you lemons you can be bitter and sour or you can make lemonade or better still a margarita and raise a toast to life! With a straw – if you need one.”
[I literally followed the age old cliche- when life throws lemons at you, don’t be sour – make lemonade or better still a margarita instead!]
MWAS helped her cope with her pain; instead of blocking it she channeled it there, flinging herself headlong into film direction.
Two personal tragedies catalyzed into creative triumphs, and we – the audience – were the beneficiaries.
[Two personal tragedies catalyzed into creative triumphs]
Yet, what makes her tick, this filmmaker whose, with apologies to Shelley, sweetest films are those that were born of saddest thought? Candor and grace are two words that immediately leap to mind. Without batting an eyelid she talks of her bisexuality, and in the same breath says that she still remains close to her ex-husband’s family. Unflinchingly Indian, rooted in India, in spite of living abroad for extended periods of time, she says she feels indignant whenever the NRI tag is thrown at her. She lives in Santa Monica, in the US, when not travelling the world of course. She loves yoga, eats simple – dal-chawal is her favorite, is excited about going deep sea diving and feels most comfortable in tee shirts and palazzos. She bikes along the ocean everyday and is a fitness and health enthusiast.
There is no denying that in a person at whom life has thrown its fair share of lemons, the child within is not just alive but awake and kicking. So is the joi de vivre. ‘The Sound of Music’ remains one of her favorite films, while ‘The God of Small Things’ remains one of her favorite books. She is addicted to watching American episodic television that is of course when she has time off from attending film premieres and festivals across the globe.
So what defines her? In one word – color. ‘I love to be surrounded by color and I always like to have a red wall in my house – somewhere.’
[‘I love to be surrounded by color and I always like to have a red wall in my house – somewhere.’]
Red walls, Margarita, mother, activist, director – there are times when one is allowed a glimpse into the soul of a person, and it can turn out to be a moment so very inspirational that it remains with us forever.
Written byAditi Bhaduri