Hey Homi


Hey Homi

The director of Finding Fanny is determined to keep you guessing

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  September 5th, 2014

Homi Adajania is something of an enigma – a yodelling, cussing, chain-smoking enigma who says ‘babe’ a lot. When we meet at his insta-friendly sea-facing apartment in south Mumbai, he’s only just rushing back from taking his older son Zreh to the doctor on one side of town and putting in an “unnecessary” courtesy visit to some “asshole” on the other. Forty-two-year-old Adajania is shorter and stockier than I imagined but every bit as haggardly handsome. His leering laugh becomes even more disconcerting with the disclaimer, “I’m a total bullshitter,” issued early on. We settle down to chat but are only able to start once he’s explained the doctor’s prescription to the babysitter, and after much pleading, let the sniffling six-year old know if he can eat a biscuit (he can’t).

In just a couple of days, Adajania’s third project, Finding Fanny – a cross between his whimsical first film, Being Cyrus (2005), and mega-budget second, Cocktail (2012) – will hit screens. The plot is promising: a crew of oddballs from an indolent Goan hamlet set off on a road trip in search of Stefanie ‘Fanny’ Fernandes, childhood sweetheart of the town’s elderly postman; he has just found out, 46 years after, that the letter he sent asking for Fanny’s hand in marriage remained undelivered. Adajania has roped in his by-now regular suspects – Naseeruddin Shah (as despairing postman Ferdie), with Dimple Kapadia (sporting a tremendous arse), Deepika Padukone and Arjun Kapoor as his bumbling companions; Pankaj Kapur is the cool newbie to this party. The Wes Anderson-like kink of the trailer and the music video for title score ‘Fanny Re’ (earworm alert) suggest the film is on course to become a hit. Adajania, perched on his balcony, pulling deeply on his cigarette, shrugs. “I know I have a good product here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I’ve tried to play with a little absurdist humour. Either you’ll say, ‘What the fuck is going on? Why are these guys acting like buffoons?’, or you’ll dig a little deeper and like it.”

Either way, it’s your problem now, he doesn’t say outright. But the kinesics are there. Adajania appears to keep no more than a slippery handle on the outcome of his films. Watch the interviews, survey the promotional tours, this time and the previous times – you’ll find he sounds almost cavalier about his work, compared to the praising, practised bytes bandied about by others. “I don’t not give a shit,” he corrects. “I hope the people who’ve put their balls on the line get their payoff, I hope it translates into their version of success – which is usually commerce. But for me, once it’s done, it’s gone. Over. Go back to bed and dream a new dream.”

I believe him. (At least, I think I do – there’s too much eye-twinklage-wicked-smileage to be really certain.) Taking years off between movies – seven years the first time, two years the second – to be a diving instructor in Lakshadweep, spending the time above water “alone, surrounded by books and watching scratched DVDs over and over again”, and to be a part-time house-husband and stay-at-home dad (to Zreh and two-year-old Zane) is hardly the work ethic of a number-crunching, career film-maker. it’s almost obscene, his willingness to cut off. Doesn’t it scare him? “I like the uncertainty,” he says. “The idea that I don’t know what’s just around the corner, that excites me.”

But he’s had some practice, too. From working as a runner at an ad agency right out of college, to manning the family petrol pump in Mumbai’s red-light area at 21 – “with mafia, cops, hookers, greasy logbooks” – after the death of his boxer father, to spending the next 10 years hustling his way around the world. There’s a story about carting a fake fakir to the Venice Biennale; getting arrested for sleeping on a park bench outside an airport in Greece; attempting to sail a four-seater wooden ketch from Ipswich to India, getting distracted and landing up in Crete where he could only afford free cave dwelling; plus “babysitting, washing sofas and painting lots of shit for money.” (Adajania rather likes telling this part, doing his best to humble-brag but not nearly concealing how much he enjoys a wide-eyed “you did WHAT?”). Eventually, when the wandering “stopped being relevant”, he let Anaita Shroff Adajania, his “very patient girlfriend” of all those years – also current Bollywood supra-stylist and fashion director of that other magazine we must never speak of – make an honest man of him.

But what’s his creative payoff? Exploring why we are the way we are and then, with a bit of tinkering, instituting utter chaos. “There may not be an answer, but it’s fun to explore. It excites me how fucked-up people can be and how we think that’s normal. But we’re not normal. If we were, the world wouldn’t be a mess and it very much is,” he says. “I like to exaggerate my characters’ defining traits into dysfunctions and watch the fun. It gives rise to all kinds of new worlds.”

And the quaint, stock-still settings he chooses – the Panchgani bungalow sliding into decay in Being Cyrus; the bucolic Goan village utterly insulated from the onward march of time in Finding Fanny – do much to echo the inner lives of his characters. “The city is so devoid of soul that I can’t tune into my characters beyond a point,” he agrees. “Besides, I grew up very influenced by Márquez, Camus, Kundera, Allende – the visions of those small towns are in my head; you can smell the walls and know everybody’s business.”

That’s beautiful; did he forget all of it while making Cocktail? WHAT GAVE, HOMES? The alarming laugh again, and then he rushes to answer the doorbell “to stall for some time”. Granted, the film was no worse than the other glossy, wooden affairs that routinely break box-office records. Granted also that it became a creative tipping point for some of the people involved. Deepika Padukone’s barnstorming performance as the volatile wild child Veronica was the most acting anyone had seen out of the preternaturally symmetrical actor until then. Newcomer Diana Penty could not have asked for a better springboard as the good-girl vertex of the love triangle atop which sat Saif Ali Khan, who walked away reassured once more that middle age or not, his man-child shtick enjoys endless popularity. Really, it was only a shock for the lot of us who went in curious to see what the guy whose uneducated first attempt at film-making gave us a quietly unsettling Parsi noir thriller, was doing with a big-ticket entertainer.

When he gets back, he lights up once more and settles back in his armchair. If he hedges, I’ll be disappointed. “When I first heard the story [it was written by director Imtiaz Ali], I wasn’t excited.” Adajania had been on an almost five-year sabbatical by then, working on a few scripts that were considered “too offbeat”, spending vast amounts of time underwater in Lakshadweep, when his producer ordered him back to civilisation to make Cocktail. “I thought it had promise, but was weighed down by clichés. And being hired just to direct it, I wouldn’t be able to change it much. I said no.” And then what happened? “A month later, while drinking with friends, I suddenly realised I was saying no to the film, not just because the story was not my thing, but because I didn’t have the balls to make a Hindi film – I wasn’t good with the language, I didn’t know how to direct song and dance.” It was the unknown calling again. “I phoned my producer in the middle of the night to say I was doing it.”

Right, so when did the sinking feeling arrive? “Almost right away. I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? What have I gotten myself into?’, but I had committed and so I did it. And you know what? I had a blast. I don’t regret a minute of Cocktail.” Post the movie’s release, he was surprised at being inundated with mostly complimentary calls to the tune of, ‘You made a Hindi movie, you bloody non-Hindi-speaking bawa?!’ He recounts being accosted by an excited group of fans while grocery shopping outside his house. “They were like, ‘We saw it four times and we’re going to see it again!’ and I thought, ‘Why don’t you go see a shrink?!’”

And the cartloads of money helped him get over the initial “self-bashing”, yes? “It definitely opened up my eyes to the joy of working with big budgets. As opposed to physically dragging reels of Being Cyrus across to Israel and France to obscure pseudo-intellectual film festivals in little Art Deco theatres,” he rolls his eyes. “I needed to do a Cocktail to get even a fraction of this budget for Fanny. There is a trade-off at some point. At the end of the day, we’re all pursuing happiness. And you have to be wise so your happiness is not short-lived.” Oh dear, so we might have more Cocktails to dread? “Coming right up, babayyyy!” he hollers with laughter. But he’ll only direct stories he believes in, he soothes, and only until he’s learned to write a commercial Hindi film himself.

Knowing how to trade-off at just the right bends in the road has been Adajania’s life force. When not trying to crack the Bollywood blockbuster formula on his own terms, taking the kids swimming, reading them interminable bedtime stories (“it pisses them off if I miss a night”) and big, messy family breakfasts are now the high. But this isn’t a tepid fairy tale about blissful domesticity; the devil of adventure won’t leave him that easy. He still goes snowboarding alone once a year. And the last bout of wanderlust led to his being shipwrecked in the Galápagos Islands, on a diving trip to see a hammerhead migration. He called his family on a SAT phone from a dinghy in the middle of a pitch-black Pacific Ocean – “There was silence for a moment and then Anaita said, ‘What have you done now?’” He grins, “She doesn’t like it, but I know she won’t stop me. She understands the fabric of who I am.”

She can mostly rest easy, because “two films next year” is the unknown that’s riveting him for the foreseeable future. “For the first time in my life, I can say I have a career. And I could never claim it before,” he says. All the hustling, all the disappearing and all the Cocktails have converged well for Adajania. Why? Because they were all the result of a single question, “Does this make me truly happy? And if you are happy, fuck everything.” More bullshit? I ask him. “I’m good at it too,” he laughs. “Like this whole interview.”

Photograph: Neville Sukhia

Homi Adajania is something of an enigma – a yodelling, cussing, chain-smoking enigma who says ‘babe’ a lot. When we meet at his insta-friendly sea-facing apartment in south Mumbai, he’s only just rushing back from taking his older son Zreh to the doctor on one side of town and putting in an “unnecessary” courtesy visit to some “asshole” on the other. Forty-two-year-old Adajania is shorter and stockier than I imagined but every bit as haggardly handsome. His leering laugh becomes even more disconcerting with the disclaimer, “I’m a total bullshitter,” issued early on. We settle down to chat but are only able to start once he’s explained the doctor’s prescription to the babysitter, and after much pleading, let the sniffling six-year old know if he can eat a biscuit (he can’t).

In just a couple of days, Adajania’s third project, Finding Fanny – a cross between his whimsical first film, Being Cyrus (2005), and mega-budget second, Cocktail (2012) – will hit screens. The plot is promising: a crew of oddballs from an indolent Goan hamlet set off on a road trip in search of Stefanie ‘Fanny’ Fernandes, childhood sweetheart of the town’s elderly postman; he has just found out, 46 years after, that the letter he sent asking for Fanny’s hand in marriage remained undelivered. Adajania has roped in his by-now regular suspects – Naseeruddin Shah (as despairing postman Ferdie), with Dimple Kapadia (sporting a tremendous arse), Deepika Padukone and Arjun Kapoor as his bumbling companions; Pankaj Kapur is the cool newbie to this party. The Wes Anderson-like kink of the trailer and the music video for title score ‘Fanny Re’ (earworm alert) suggest the film is on course to become a hit. Adajania, perched on his balcony, pulling deeply on his cigarette, shrugs. “I know I have a good product here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I’ve tried to play with a little absurdist humour. Either you’ll say, ‘What the fuck is going on? Why are these guys acting like buffoons?’, or you’ll dig a little deeper and like it.”

Either way, it’s your problem now, he doesn’t say outright. But the kinesics are there. Adajania appears to keep no more than a slippery handle on the outcome of his films. Watch the interviews, survey the promotional tours, this time and the previous times – you’ll find he sounds almost cavalier about his work, compared to the praising, practised bytes bandied about by others. “I don’t not give a shit,” he corrects. “I hope the people who’ve put their balls on the line get their payoff, I hope it translates into their version of success – which is usually commerce. But for me, once it’s done, it’s gone. Over. Go back to bed and dream a new dream.”

I believe him. (At least, I think I do – there’s too much eye-twinklage-wicked-smileage to be really certain.) Taking years off between movies – seven years the first time, two years the second – to be a diving instructor in Lakshadweep, spending the time above water “alone, surrounded by books and watching scratched DVDs over and over again”, and to be a part-time house-husband and stay-at-home dad (to Zreh and two-year-old Zane) is hardly the work ethic of a number-crunching, career film-maker. it’s almost obscene, his willingness to cut off. Doesn’t it scare him? “I like the uncertainty,” he says. “The idea that I don’t know what’s just around the corner, that excites me.”

But he’s had some practice, too. From working as a runner at an ad agency right out of college, to manning the family petrol pump in Mumbai’s red-light area at 21 – “with mafia, cops, hookers, greasy logbooks” – after the death of his boxer father, to spending the next 10 years hustling his way around the world. There’s a story about carting a fake fakir to the Venice Biennale; getting arrested for sleeping on a park bench outside an airport in Greece; attempting to sail a four-seater wooden ketch from Ipswich to India, getting distracted and landing up in Crete where he could only afford free cave dwelling; plus “babysitting, washing sofas and painting lots of shit for money.” (Adajania rather likes telling this part, doing his best to humble-brag but not nearly concealing how much he enjoys a wide-eyed “you did WHAT?”). Eventually, when the wandering “stopped being relevant”, he let Anaita Shroff Adajania, his “very patient girlfriend” of all those years – also current Bollywood supra-stylist and fashion director of that other magazine we must never speak of – make an honest man of him.

But what’s his creative payoff? Exploring why we are the way we are and then, with a bit of tinkering, instituting utter chaos. “There may not be an answer, but it’s fun to explore. It excites me how fucked-up people can be and how we think that’s normal. But we’re not normal. If we were, the world wouldn’t be a mess and it very much is,” he says. “I like to exaggerate my characters’ defining traits into dysfunctions and watch the fun. It gives rise to all kinds of new worlds.”

And the quaint, stock-still settings he chooses – the Panchgani bungalow sliding into decay in Being Cyrus; the bucolic Goan village utterly insulated from the onward march of time in Finding Fanny – do much to echo the inner lives of his characters. “The city is so devoid of soul that I can’t tune into my characters beyond a point,” he agrees. “Besides, I grew up very influenced by Márquez, Camus, Kundera, Allende – the visions of those small towns are in my head; you can smell the walls and know everybody’s business.”

That’s beautiful; did he forget all of it while making Cocktail? WHAT GAVE, HOMES? The alarming laugh again, and then he rushes to answer the doorbell “to stall for some time”. Granted, the film was no worse than the other glossy, wooden affairs that routinely break box-office records. Granted also that it became a creative tipping point for some of the people involved. Deepika Padukone’s barnstorming performance as the volatile wild child Veronica was the most acting anyone had seen out of the preternaturally symmetrical actor until then. Newcomer Diana Penty could not have asked for a better springboard as the good-girl vertex of the love triangle atop which sat Saif Ali Khan, who walked away reassured once more that middle age or not, his man-child shtick enjoys endless popularity. Really, it was only a shock for the lot of us who went in curious to see what the guy whose uneducated first attempt at film-making gave us a quietly unsettling Parsi noir thriller, was doing with a big-ticket entertainer.

When he gets back, he lights up once more and settles back in his armchair. If he hedges, I’ll be disappointed. “When I first heard the story [it was written by director Imtiaz Ali], I wasn’t excited.” Adajania had been on an almost five-year sabbatical by then, working on a few scripts that were considered “too offbeat”, spending vast amounts of time underwater in Lakshadweep, when his producer ordered him back to civilisation to make Cocktail. “I thought it had promise, but was weighed down by clichés. And being hired just to direct it, I wouldn’t be able to change it much. I said no.” And then what happened? “A month later, while drinking with friends, I suddenly realised I was saying no to the film, not just because the story was not my thing, but because I didn’t have the balls to make a Hindi film – I wasn’t good with the language, I didn’t know how to direct song and dance.” It was the unknown calling again. “I phoned my producer in the middle of the night to say I was doing it.”

Right, so when did the sinking feeling arrive? “Almost right away. I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? What have I gotten myself into?’, but I had committed and so I did it. And you know what? I had a blast. I don’t regret a minute of Cocktail.” Post the movie’s release, he was surprised at being inundated with mostly complimentary calls to the tune of, ‘You made a Hindi movie, you bloody non-Hindi-speaking bawa?!’ He recounts being accosted by an excited group of fans while grocery shopping outside his house. “They were like, ‘We saw it four times and we’re going to see it again!’ and I thought, ‘Why don’t you go see a shrink?!’”

And the cartloads of money helped him get over the initial “self-bashing”, yes? “It definitely opened up my eyes to the joy of working with big budgets. As opposed to physically dragging reels of Being Cyrus across to Israel and France to obscure pseudo-intellectual film festivals in little Art Deco theatres,” he rolls his eyes. “I needed to do a Cocktail to get even a fraction of this budget for Fanny. There is a trade-off at some point. At the end of the day, we’re all pursuing happiness. And you have to be wise so your happiness is not short-lived.” Oh dear, so we might have more Cocktails to dread? “Coming right up, babayyyy!” he hollers with laughter. But he’ll only direct stories he believes in, he soothes, and only until he’s learned to write a commercial Hindi film himself.

Knowing how to trade-off at just the right bends in the road has been Adajania’s life force. When not trying to crack the Bollywood blockbuster formula on his own terms, taking the kids swimming, reading them interminable bedtime stories (“it pisses them off if I miss a night”) and big, messy family breakfasts are now the high. But this isn’t a tepid fairy tale about blissful domesticity; the devil of adventure won’t leave him that easy. He still goes snowboarding alone once a year. And the last bout of wanderlust led to his being shipwrecked in the Galápagos Islands, on a diving trip to see a hammerhead migration. He called his family on a SAT phone from a dinghy in the middle of a pitch-black Pacific Ocean – “There was silence for a moment and then Anaita said, ‘What have you done now?’” He grins, “She doesn’t like it, but I know she won’t stop me. She understands the fabric of who I am.”

She can mostly rest easy, because “two films next year” is the unknown that’s riveting him for the foreseeable future. “For the first time in my life, I can say I have a career. And I could never claim it before,” he says. All the hustling, all the disappearing and all the Cocktails have converged well for Adajania. Why? Because they were all the result of a single question, “Does this make me truly happy? And if you are happy, fuck everything.” More bullshit? I ask him. “I’m good at it too,” he laughs. “Like this whole interview.”

Photograph: Neville Sukhia