A Piece of Aradhana

Aradhana Seth, Goa, January 2014

‘I want to be all that I am capable of becoming.’ — Katherine Mansfield

I am currently in Goa, India, staying with my friend, Aradhana Seth.

The following is the sort of exchange I have with her:

Setting: her parents’ house in Noida, near Delhi, 10 years ago. I see a photography book on the table titled India Mexico: Vientos Paralelos, with images of India and Mexico by photographers Raghu Rai, Graciela Iturbide and Sebastião Salgado.

Me: What a gorgeous book! What a brilliant idea!
Aradhana: Thanks.
Me: Wait – did you make this book happen?
Aradhana: I guess so.

Or the following:

Setting: my apartment in Bombay, three years ago. She’s staying for a week and we’re making plans for the days ahead.

Aradhana: I need a half day to meet a gallery owner.
Me: To see a show?
Aradhana: To discuss my exhibition.
Me: Really! Of what?
Aradhana: Oh, some pieces I’ve been working on.

The pieces she’s working on turns out to be 237 works of art and 40 photographs for her show, Everyone Carries a Room About Inside. The gallery turns out to be Chemould Prescott Road, the most prestigious exhibition space in Bombay.

Or the following:

Setting: her apartment in Vienna or my apartment in London or her house in Goa, various years.

Me: What are you working on?
Aradhana: Directing a documentary for the BBC. / Designing the flagship home store and café for Fabindia in Delhi. / Doing a workshop for film students at Jamia. / Renovating a house in Goa. / Researching a book. / Giving an academic talk at a conference in Vienna on Shahrukh Khan and Indian cinema.

Did I mention her day job is working on films?

With Aradhana at the wrap party for ‘Earth‘, March 1998. Photo: Rahul Khanna

I first met Aradhana 18 years ago when we worked on Deepa Mehta’s feature film, Fire. Aradhana was the production designer, responsible for the look of the film. I was the production coordinator. When I moved up the food chain and became a line producer (in charge of the budget and hiring the crew, amongst other things), I knew to get Aradhana onto every film I headed.

The Indian segment of The Bourne Supremacy was one of these. I came on the project six months before it had a script or director. The producer in LA would send ideas from the screenwriter (‘Bourne ends up in an Indian hospital’ or ‘Bourne escapes from an Indian prison’) so I could do research and budget estimates. In one of their endless meetings at Universal Studios, Goa was chosen as the Indian location. Whoa-hey! Once a director was attached, we went on a recce and locked down a bunch of locations and the budget.

Aradhana came on board, and she and I flew to Berlin to meet with the main unit for a few days then flew to Goa. We had three months’ location prep for a two-week shoot (this may seem extravagant but it wasn’t to Universal, who were betting on Bourne Supremacy to be their big summer hit, which – thank heavens – it was).

Aradhana was responsible for the sets and look of locations. Her team of carpenters, painters, dressers, prop people and buyers did the following under her eagle-eyed direction:

They removed a segment of a concrete bridge to replace it with a replica, through which Bourne’s jeep could crash into the river below.

The original bridge, the mould made to match, the jeep crashing through the mould.

They changed/added/removed greenery, hoardings, sign posts and murals on the multiple walls and billboards around Goa, wherever any of the chase scenes were taking place.

They took an empty store and converted it into a telegraph office. In quintessential Aradhana style, every detail had been so lovingly considered and thoughtfully put in place that when the director arrived for the shoot, he forgot he’d seen the original empty location on the recce some months before, and exclaimed how fortunate we were to find a telegraph office just where we wanted one.

A telegraph office, down to the finest details, constructed from an empty shop space.

Most staggeringly, they took what was a flat piece of land covered with sand and some trees near the beach and built Jason Bourne’s cottage and three surrounding bungalows. From scratch.

Bourne cottage: starting construction, basic framework, final front of house.

Everything, inside and out, was aged to make it look as if it had been there for years and lived in.  The cottage had fly walls – walls that could be removed so cameras could swing through for various shots. The structure had to withstand the weight of 200 crew members, very heavy cameras, lights and grip gear. And it had a fully functioning kitchen and bathroom, just in case the director decided at the last minute that Bourne had to take a shower or wash his face or cook biryani.

Interiors and exteriors of the Bourne cottage, built from scratch, including a functioning bathroom, kitchen, a well and fly walls.

What I remember of the Bourne experience – beyond the sleepless nights (the caterers’ truck breaking down and my having to figure out breakfast for 250 people at 4:30am; a production runner getting mugged and ending up in the ICU; the director trying to persuade me to send a unit to an earlier location to get ‘one more shot’, etc) was decompressing every evening with Aradhana.

Our hotel rooms were side by side, and from 1am to 3am on most nights, we would either sit in the corridor or in each other’s rooms and shoot the breeze. It would have been too difficult to function the following day without this.

Over the years, we have each moved from country to country, and have always made a point of visiting each other at these various homes. I went on to work for Disney in India and she worked on The Darjeeling Limited, Don and West is West, amongst many others. This is, of course, in between her making a documentary on Thich Nhat Hanh or going to Khoj, an artists’ association workshop. (She comes from a family of high achievers: her mother, Leila Seth, was the first woman Chief Justice of India and is now a hugely successful author; her brother Vikram Seth is, well, Vikram Seth.)

During the filming of Fire, actor and activist Shabana Azmi told me that it’s not really six degrees of separation between people, but only two. I – sceptical – tested her: ‘Me and Bill Clinton.’ Shabana said, ‘You know me, I know Bill.’ I said, ‘Me and Nelson Mandela.’ She said, ‘You know me, I know Nelson.’ Aradhana is not far off from this. Even for a hermit like me, to know her is to know – in a second degree way – practically everyone. And everyone feels very close to her.

She has the rare trait of being so sincere and genuinely empathetic that I’ve seen strangers, upon their first meeting with her, offer her (a) dinner, so that they can continue conversing, (b) work, to get some of her magic, and (c) marriage proposals.

Over these two near decades of being colleagues and friends, we have developed our own shorthand (sometimes literally – she speaks in half sentences, knowing I’ll figure out the end of them). We can work peacefully side by side in the same room (we are doing this right now, actually), we can go exploring, we can talk late into the night about boys, politics and the meaning of the universe.

In this past week in Goa we, as always, covered wide ground. This included trying out a new pizzeria; looking at the stone floors at Britona Church; reading aloud the manuscript of my novel to her (only she can get away with requesting this); dress shopping at a beautifully curated boutique, Sacha’s Shop; and rewriting an interview for a national magazine (they had accidentally failed to record the actual phone interview with her, and sent over very un-Aradhana-like replies to their questions).

Here’s a sample of our conversation today:

Aradhana: Could you help me select some photos?
Me: Sure, for what?
Aradhana: I’m on the panel for a symposium on 3D technology…

‘The woman who can create her own job is a woman who will win fame and fortune.’ — Amelia Earhart

*All photographs from The Bourne Supremacy are courtesy of Aradhana Seth. 

6 thoughts on “A Piece of Aradhana

  1. Nupu! That was great writing! Like a step back onto Palolem beach in the Bourne days! Thanks for bringing it all back.. but I guess that’s what a great writer does! Keep it up!!

    1. Thanks, Dhruv! Many, many memories – and it was 10 years ago. Gosh. (Had hoped to do a slide show of the cottage going up, but sadly not possible on my blog’s theme software… have many more pictures to illustrate all your amazing work.)

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