Q&A: Tabrez Noorani
Tabrez Noorani's decade-plus experience as a line producer of Western film projects in India came in handy when he was approached by the producers of "Slumdog Millionaire," a shoot that involved a lot of challenging location work. But the thirtysomething Noorani also has worn the director's hat for commercials and music videos since his film school days at Loyola Marymount University. While line producing for other projects, Noorani is prepping his directorial feature debut, "Love Sonia," about global sex trafficking. Jet-setting between Los Angeles and Mumbai, Noorani and his New Delhi-based partner Parvesh Sahni run India Take One Prods., which they established in 1995 to service international film shoots. The company has handled, among other projects, Gurinder Chadha's "Bride and Prejudice," Jane Campion's "Holy Smoke" and commercials for director Joe Pytka. With "Slumdog" turning out to be an international hit, Noorani spoke with The Hollywood Reporter India correspondent Nyay Bhushan about the growing potential for foreign filmmakers to look to India.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did your involvement with "Slumdog" come about?
Tabrez Noorani: I actually got a call from the film's London-based co-producer Paul Ritchie, who was the line producer on "Bend It Like Beckham." We all met up in London and then Danny Boyle flew down to India for the shoot, which was done between October and November of 2007. I also introduced Danny to (New Delhi-based) casting director Loveleen Tandon.
THR: How was the experience working with Danny Boyle?
Noorani: I have worked with many interesting directors in the past. Danny was different in that he would do things that nobody thought of. He would keep pushing all of us to get that extra shot and we would end up shooting in offbeat locations where not even Indian filmmakers have ventured. We all knew the film was going to be something special but we had no idea it would end up this big. Danny drove us mad, which was great. He would keep shooting non-stop and tested all of us beyond our measure.
THR: How did you handle the chaos of India, something that every foreign film shoot has to be prepared for?
Noorani: I think the entire unit handled it very well, starting with Danny, who was brilliant. I mean, he would just walk around a location such as a slum and meet anyone who came up to him. He loved to shake people's hands because people in India always do that, especially with foreigners. I would sometimes tell Danny you don't have to shake everyone's hand. But that was Danny. And it's not that he would then reach out for his anti-bacterial bottle to wash his hands. He was quite accessible and as a result the people got used to him and even opened up their homes to him and the crew. He would ask them in detail about their lives and challenges given the conditions in the slums. Once you have an emotional connection with the people, more than half the battle is won.
THR: Were there any scary moments?
Noorani: In terms of pushing the limits during shooting, there is always a fine line between safety and danger. For instance, we shot a sequence in Mumbai's red light district at night and the crowds would just appear out of nowhere. Danny would see my face and, looking at my expressions, he knew when to stop shooting. But the biggest challenge was to shoot inside Mumbai's Victoria Terminus railway station (frequented by up to 8 million passengers a day). The film ends with a full-blown Bollywood dance number with the lead actors and thousands of men and women dancing in and out of trains. VT station is only closed for about three hours daily. In order to light the seven platforms, this had to be done over a period of eight nights, setting up the scene before they could even begin to shoot. The final scene was shot over four nights. The dangerous task of just getting the lights up there above the platform was probably the most difficult because each platform above it had live electrical wires that could have killed someone had it not been done correctly. They were unable to shut off the live wires at any time, so for the scene to be shot, I had to somehow maneuver and work around these challenges and the result is probably one of the most breathtaking and exhilarating endings in recent film history.
THR: How has India developed as a shooting location for foreign projects?
Noorani: To be honest, after "Gandhi" (Richard Attenborough's 1982 Oscar-winner), "Slumdog Millionaire" is really the next big international film shot in India by a Western director that is generating so much buzz. But over the years, India has been developing as a location base for international shoots -- from commercials to music videos and features -- in that now it's faster to get approval for a script than in the past. A script for a commercial can be cleared in a week, which is a big improvement. When we submitted the "Slumdog" script, the government only had some reasonable objections, which we agreed upon, but otherwise approvals were not a problem. In some areas there is still some red tape, such as getting clearances for aerial shots or shooting in wildlife locations, archeological, heritage sites and railway permissions. By comparison, other countries, especially Morocco, offer strong competition to India but then India has much more to offer given the sheer size of the country. I am optimistic that foreign shooting norms will continue improving as they have over the years and India can be an attractive destination. The biggest advantage here is cost. We had a 12-week shoot with multiple crews and there is no way we could have done what we did in any other country at the cost we did it in India.
THR: How does it help to have the world's largest film industry here?
Noorani: The Indian industry has developed tremendously, especially in terms of equipment and trained manpower for logistics and support services. Today, it's much easier to get things like a Technocrane or a Steadicam at short notice in Mumbai than in the past. Some directors of photography also own their cameras and equipment, which makes it much easier to work with than just dealing with rental agencies.
THR: What kind of projects are you handling now?
Noorani: After the success of "Slumdog," we have been bombarded with projects of all kinds, from features to ad shoots and, for the first time, we have to even say "no" to some projects. There is new interest by Hollywood producers for India-based projects for sure. At the moment we are handling "Bollywood Hero," a comedy miniseries produced by IFC that stars "SNL" alum Chris Kattan as a Hollywood actor who is tired of being rejected as a leading man and decides to move to Mumbai in search of a starring role in a Bollywood film. We begin shooting by the end of February.
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