Think of famous Indians in Hollywood. The names that come to mind are the likes of Priyanka Chopra, Freida Pinto, Irrfan Khan, Kunal Nayyar, Archie Panjabi, M Night Shyamalan and Aziz Ansari, among others — but not Tabrez Noorani. His is not a name that would make the celebrity lists. Most people would not have heard of him, but the big Hollywood film production companies have him on speed dial. Though he lives in Los Angeles, 43-year-old Mumbai born and bred Noorani, through his company India Take One Productions, has been the first port of call for most international filmmakers looking to shoot in India for well over a decade. As the India segment producer, Noorani and his partners’ stamp can be seen in movies ranging from Oliver Stone’s Alexander to Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice, Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and more recent films like Life of Pi, The Hundred-Foot Journey, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Million Dollar Arm, Eat Pray Love and Zero Dark Thirty.
However, Noorani’s invisibility among the general public will end soon. The nephew of Zafar Hai, the ad and documentary filmmaker from the 1980s and 90s (who also directed the Merchant Ivory film The Perfect Murder) is now parlaying his years of experience in assisting big Hollywood names, to produce and direct films himself. He made headlines recently for the projects he acquired to produce, including The Garden of Allah, a trilogy set in its namesake iconic 1920s Hollywood hotel and Graceling, a bestselling young adult fantasy in collaboration with veteran producer Deepak Nayyar. More recently, he has wrapped his first movie as a director, shooting in Mumbai, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. Love Sonia, which will hit screens worldwide next year, is a story based on international human trafficking and was inspired by Noorani’s deep personal interest in the subject. Produced by the formidable David Womark (Life of Pi), the film stars, among others, Demi Moore, Rajkummar Rao, Freida Pinto, Richa Chadha, Manoj Bajpai and TV actress Mrunal Thakur in the title role.
Over the years that I have known him, Noorani has always stood out. In a business where the players are infamous for bluster without substance, he is a quietly ambitious perfectionist. The long list of movie credits and a longer list of friends in front of and behind the camera are a testament to him having earned respect and trust in an industry that is stingy with both. Characteristically, an evening with Noorani in LA starts with him turning away from his mobile phone and ends in the company of people I usually see only on screen. A cheery humility and an intense work ethic make him the antithesis of the loud-mouthed-LA-producer personality most people are used to.
Noorani has always been the consummate movie fanatic. As a child growing up in Mumbai, he watched Antonioni, Visconti and William Wyler with his parents and Star Wars and Sholay with his friends. “We had New Empire, New Excelsior and Sterling — beautiful cinemas with the frankie stall next door. And even today in LA, I do the same thing on a Friday night. It is still all about going to the cinema and being amazed,” he tells me. In fact he traces the roots of this fascination for films to a time even before he was born. “When my mother was pregnant, apparently all she did was watch movies and eat chocolate,” says Noorani.
On the sets of Love Sonia
A love for films runs in the family. His mother was an art director on many of Zafar Hai’s films, and Tabrez’s own experience in front of the camera came early, courtesy his uncle. He was one of the two kids from Mumbai’s Cathedral school who were selected to be the face on a popular brand of glucose biscuits in the 1980s. That led to more commercials as a child actor, but not for long. “As a kid, I had probably told my parents I wanted to be an actor, but once I did a Nespray ad and had to drink a glass of milk over and over again, I decided that was it was over for me, and began to spend time with my uncle behind the camera,” he says. If his mother triggered his interest in films and his uncle nurtured it, Noorani credits his father for giving him the skills to pull it all together. “My father was with Bayer India and then he started his own machinery business, so I’d like to say I got a lot of my producing skills from him,” he says.
Having an uncle as a filmmaker had its benefits. He worked as a production assistant on Hai’s famous 1988 Inspector Ghote film, The Perfect Murder, when he was still in his teens, and fell in love with the job. “In the first week as a production assistant, my aim was ‘How do I get a walkie-talkie?’, but months later while watching the rough cut, I knew that all I wanted to do was make movies”. In the pre-internet days, the discovery of his uncle’s stash of American Cinematographer magazines led to some self-education and eventually to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to study film. “I had to go to LA, because in these magazines, everyone talked about Hollywood, and I had to go to LMU because it was the only film school where, in your freshman year, you could put your hands on the camera and direct,” he says.
On campus, Noorani discovered the greats of American cinema and revisited other auteurs for the first time on the big screen. Off campus, he shot films for school in every corner of LA. It was the ideal Hollywood initiation. During those years, Noorani also cemented many relationships that would be crucial in his future career.
Building a network paid off. One of the writers on Love Sonia is an acquaintance from film school, while his executive producer Deepak Nayyar was someone he met when shooting The Perfect Murder. He met his producer David Womark while working on Life of Pi. Like most young Indians who are into films, he did try his hand at Bollywood soon after film school. Through his mother’s friendship with Zeenat Aman, he worked on Mazhar Khan’s film from the 1990s, Gang. Though the film was much delayed and hardly created a ripple when released in 2000, two years after the director’s death, Noorani has fond memories of it. “It was my introduction to Bollywood. Until then, I had been exposed to the commercial and documentary world through my uncle, and to finally work with the big studios in India was amazing,” he says.
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
His second film, also in India, was more educational. He assisted Mahesh Mathai on his debut film, Bhopal Express (1999). “This was my first start to finish film — two years of my life. That’s the best film school,” he says. It was around this time that Noorani, who was still based in LA, foresaw Hollywood’s growing interest in India and Indian subjects. He teamed up with Nayyar and friend Parvesh Sahni to set up India Take One Productions, with offices in LA, Delhi and Mumbai, as a one-stop shop to help foreign filmmakers navigate India’s complicated bureaucracy, infrastructure and cultural landscape when shooting films in the country. “From getting your visa for the very first scout , to exploring the vast panorama offered by the country, we are here to help you every step of the way. This includes clearing your script with the proper authorities, overcoming any governmental restrictions, obtaining shooting permits, organizing a completely capable crew, and building those beautifully complex sets that you have imagined,” is how the company describes its mission.
While India Take One kept Noorani away from the director’s chair, it also brought him closer to the process. When I ask him what he learnt from the various big names that he has worked with, he has a lot to say. “Oliver (Stone) was always reading. From him I learnt that you never stop working on the script. Danny (Boyle) was always focussed. He wants the world and that’s why he is so brilliant. From Kathryn Bigelow, I learned calmness. Nothing affected her — whether it was riots outside the hotel or internal conflict with financiers.” And it was a conversation with Womark, the producer of Life of Pi during its shooting in 2011, that gave him the impetus to forge ahead with Love Sonia, an idea that he had been thinking about for more than a decade after he met a met a girl who had been trafficked from the Indian subcontinent to the US by people smugglers. This had led to him spending time with an NGO working on human trafficking, and of course, the film script. “It took someone like David Womark to read my script and to very simply say, ‘I’ve just finished a $120 million film and now I want to do this.’ I knew it was time, but he gave me that push,” says Noorani.
Life of Pi
Over chai at his bright blue, red, steel and glass office in LA, where homage to Bollywood stars mingles with posters from Hollywood, and later in Mumbai, it became apparent that I was talking to someone who was ready to make the leap to the big league of directing international productions. The journey was even sweeter considering that Love Sonia deals with a subject that is close to his heart. “The girl I met in January 2004 had been trafficked and found in Long Beach Harbor in LA She was originally from Sri Lanka, but from newspaper cuttings in her pouch, we gathered she had been in Nepal, Kolkata, somewhere outside of Mumbai and Hong Kong before landing in LA. We knew about local sex trafficking at that time, but not global trafficking. This was also my first introduction to a local NGO called CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking), with whom I have been working ever since. I have also been working with some NGOs in India who have been dealing with the same issue. Out of all these girls I met came the real life stories for Love Sonia.”
Once he had his producer and writers (Ted Kaplan and Alkesh Raja) in place, he was able to attract a bevy of Bollywood heavyweights for the film. But for the central character of Sonia, he wanted someone new and fresh. “I ended up going with Mrunal Thakur,” he says, “She had done some TV, but was still fresh and real enough to bring something new and exciting to the table. It was her honesty, innocence and ability to take direction that made us pick her. Casting in India was done across five cities. Many open calls, flyers, and 1,500 girls later, we zeroed in on her.”
Tabrez Noorani on the sets of Slumdog Millionaire
For Noorani, who spent time at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity while still at school, Love Sonia is more than just a film. “It is a film that has been very difficult to live with,” he says. “It takes you to a very dark place, but I hope that once the movie is seen across the world, it will bring about some change.” Part of the profit from the movie will be donated to the two anti-trafficking NGOs he works with — CAST in LA and Apne Aap Women’s Collective in India. Helping rehabilitate the rescued girls includes teaching them the rudiments of filmmaking “They are learning how to edit and work with the movie camera and hopefully make a career out of it,” affirms the man whose own life changed with the camera.
After Love Sonia, Tabrez will move on to other projects, including a film based on Spy Princess, a book about the life of the famed Indian World War II spy Noor Inayat Khan, which he acquired the rights for three years ago. He is also working on a TV series, The Garden of Allah, a trilogy set in the legendary Hollywood hotel by the same name. Another film in the works is Graceling, based on the bestselling young adult fantasy novel whose inspiring heroine, Katsa, epitomizes survival and a film based on the life of Alexander Jacob, the mysterious 19th century India-based British jeweller, magician and spy after whom the fifth largest diamond in the world (the Jacob Diamond) is named, and who made a fortune reselling it to the Nizam of Hyderabad in a murky deal. While much of this ambitious pipeline will depend on the worldwide success of Love Sonia next year, what strikes me is that Tabrez is someone who, because of his Indian sensibility and Hollywood familiarity, should be able to deliver a truly Indian international film that will appeal to a range of audience across the world. And beyond that, as the female central characters in his pipeline of films indicate, here’s a director who takes the notion of diversity in Hollywood very seriously.