Culture

From Mira Nair to Ritu Dalmia: 8 personalities look back at a moment that defined them

And their work

1. Mira Nair, film-maker: My father’s credo was PERT: productivity, exercise, regularity and time efficiency. And though I was loathe to admit it then, I was influenced by him forever to make productive use of my time. This is why, from the age of 11, I took over his unused home-office and made it my workspace. It was here that I first began to work at finding my future profession.

Mira Nair BW

One summer, I bought a book alled Typing Made Simple and spent weeks teaching myself to type. I brought in a poster of a painting by MF Husain and tried to copy it to see if I was a painter. I read, recited and wrote pithy poems. For two years, I studied the sitar with Mr Banerjee, a serious dhoti-clad man on a bicycle. I pursued political theatre and dreamt of making art that would change the world. One day, he said something that was, in retrospect, crucial for me: “You decide. You can be a sitar player or you can be something else.” Beyond granting me the novel experience of being treated like a grown-up, with this one comment, he taught me my first lesson in focus. It was as simple as choosing my path, and then pursuing it fully and completely. Thirty years (and many films) later, I found myself thinking of Mr Banerjee’s lesson. I was at a crossroads—exhausted from a legal battle with the Indian government over the banning of my 1996 film Kama Sutra, and aghast at my own decision to abandon another project I’d already raised money for. As an antidote to my despondence, I decided to make a documentary on the Laughing Club Of India: people who get together every day to laugh. One day, I was trying to charm a retired Nepali musician into talking to me about his life, all the while thinking: what am I doing with mine? Will I ever be inspired again to make a proper film? But I ploughed on, keeping my focus on people who took laughing seriously.

The Laughing Club Of India (2001) was not going to be watched by thousands, but its style—the freewheeling montages of Bombay in the rain, against a soundtrack of Hindi songs—informed my next film, Monsoon Wedding (2001). It won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival, became one of the 10 highest grossing foreign language films in the US, and is now heading to Broadway as a musical. Only at its fullest will an endeavour reveal where it may lead you. If you’re always thinking, “I have to do this because I want to use it to do that,” you simply won’t be ripe for the plucking. If Mr Banerjee ever reads this, I fold my hands in gratitude for his words to a young, crazy girl.

2. Tavleen Singh, columnist, political reporter and writer: When I wrote my first book, Kashmir: A Tragedy Of Errors, in 1995, it was not easy in India for first-time authors to get published. It was almost a cottage industry. So, I tried to sell it abroad for a year, and failed. Then Khushwant Singh helped me, and one morning, my son came home with a book in his hands and said, “Look what I found in Khan Market.” It was my book. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

3. Sumer Verma, underwater photographer: The first time I used an underwater camera was almost 20 years ago, when I was training to become a diving instructor in Lakshadweep. I still remember the thrill as though it were yesterday—the way the light poured in, the total silence and peace I felt, and my total absorption in the moment, as I tried to capture the beauty I felt in my soul. That first day left a strong impression on me, and I’ve chased that dream ever since. Today, I am proud to say that I am India’s only professional underwater photographer, making a living doing what I love most. The sea gods have been kind to me and I am grateful for the path I have chosen—or rather, for the path that has chosen me.

Sumer Verma

4. Hanut Singh, jewellery designer: There have been many experiences that have moulded me, but I want to focus on two: when Beyoncé and Meryl Streep wore my earrings on the red carpet, and when The New York Times featured me in 2017, heralding my earrings as one of the great inventions of that year. I am still speechless!

5. Sujatha Gidla, author: When I first came to New York in 1992, from a small town in south India, I saw black mothers pushing white babies in strollers. I also saw elderly white women begging on the streets. When I tried to give them change, they would look at me funny and turn away. I later realised that the black women I saw were babysitters. And the white women I tried to give money to were not beggars; many were well-off. In India, you don’t see elderly women hobbling around on their own, unless they’re begging. Learning to see a new place enabled me to look at India with new eyes.

6. Mithu Sen, artist: The ‘first time’ never comes first, because there are plenty of second, third and fourth times that occur before the experience of the first is realised. Thus, as I dream and desire to remember my first-ever ‘first time’, it constantly teases and eludes me. So, I would say the experience of having that ‘first time’ is yet to materialise, and the impact is yet to be felt. I am in no hurry; I shall wait. 

Mithu Sen art

Self-portrait (Myth-U) by Mithu Sen (on left), Mithu Sen (on right)

7. Asad Lalljee, curator, The Royal Opera House, Mumbai: The reopening of The Royal Opera House, Mumbai, in 2016, was one of the highlights of my career. There we were, unveiling this restored jewel of a venue after 25 long years, hoping that the lights would work and that the stage was polished, and wondering how the operatic arias (sung on this stage after almost 100 years) would sound. Although I organise programmes annually in my role as CEO of Avid Learning, I have always worked behind the scenes.This was my first time speaking in public—I felt it was important for me, as the curator, to reintroduce the space to the city. Since I am no from the industry, it was daunting and terrifying—an occasion of many firsts, both personal and professional. 

Asad Lalljee final

Asad Lalljee (on the left), The Royal Opera House, Mumbai

8. Ritu Dalmia, chef: As a self-taught chef, I opened my first Italian restaurant when I was 20. One evening, the food writer Karen Anand came in and asked for a French souffle; something I had never made before. Despite that, I was so intimidated by her that I couldn’t say no. So, I ran to the kitchen and consulted a few cookbooks. After making her wait for nearly an hour, my souffle finally arrived at her table. But the minute she dug her fork in, it exploded. I wanted to die and disappear from the restaurant. Instead, all I did for the next one week was make thousands of souffles, till I perfected the art. Now, 25 years later, when someone insists that I do only what I know I am incapable of, I think of this first lesson and find the grit to say no. The only difference is that I now take great pride in the souffles I make.

Ritu Dalmia

Photographs: Sukant Dipak (Mithu Sen), Mithu Sen (Myth-U), Andrea Varani (The Royal Opera House)