‘If I love you it means we share the same fantasies, the same madnesses.’ ― Anaïs Nin
I’ve just returned from a trip to India. Ah, India! How I love thee.
Not for its immense historical and cultural pleasures, but because it’s home to my tribe.
Nearly 20 years ago, I was debating whether to assist filmmaker Mira Nair for my first film job or to teach photography in my beloved Florence, Italy. In the typical feast-or-famine flow of my life, I was for ages without any enticing job prospects, then two landed on my lap the same day. I chose Mira and, with it, an introduction to film life, living in India and my tribe.
There’s family, there are friends and there’s the tribe.
Most members of my tribe originated as colleagues. You really do have to be a little insane to work in film production, so we all had that in common. We were nomadic, living in hotel rooms for months at a time; we were driven, because anyone who didn’t deliver could and would swiftly be replaced by a hundred other potentials; and we could survive on little sleep and a lot of adrenalin.
Some of us no longer work in films. Many of us still don’t have children. Some people I’ve become close to were never in the business, but by being spouses or siblings to those who are, understand that life well (though they are smart enough to refuse to indulge the dramatics that can come with it).
They are still my tribe. It’s not history or longevity that binds us. It’s not what we have in common or what we each bring to the equation. It’s something so intrinsic to me I rarely even think about it, so writing about it now is a fun way to celebrate it.
Our tribe bring out the best in us
When I lived in London, I was contained, polite and, as a friend put it recently, ‘measured’. Plans to see others were made weeks in advance due to everyone’s busy schedules, and we would meet in the centre of town so no one person would have to trek for an hour across the vast city. I would trudge quietly home after a nice evening out.
When I lived in Bombay, plans were never required. Nobody complained about spending an hour in traffic to come over, even if they had just spent 12 hours shooting or editing. The necessity of spending time together overruled all else. Every day was used well.
Being reserved is a trait difficult to hold on to when I’m in India. There is something palpably warm and inviting about Indian culture and people. I enjoy a similar aspect of it in Dhaka, though sometimes a concern over religious impropriety gets in the way.
I love my tribe in India because it brings out the best in me: the warmer, happier, more relaxed me.
Our tribe requires no masks
A dear friend in Delhi remarked some weeks ago about how great it would be to meet someone who is disarming in the literal sense: someone who could disarm himself of armour, allowing us in turn to do the same.
Being with my tribe doesn’t require any ‘front’, because I never feel or fear judgment.
When I am open and truthful on my end, I receive insight and wisdom from theirs, enlightenment required to evolve. There can be no growth with the shield of bravado; it’s only possible when the barriers are down.
Our tribe has our back
When my father died some years ago in Bangladesh, everyone gathered round to give condolences and offers of help. When I did ask for practical assistance, many slipped away, making excuses. I will never forget the few who were actually there. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like the ones who weren’t; they may be family, they may be friends even, but they demonstrated they’re not my tribe.
When I started working for Disney in India and was running up an alarming number of expenses in the process of setting up my base before I received my first month’s salary, a friend asked me if I needed help. Upon hearing a moment’s hesitation from my end, he brought over a big wad of cash in a taxi to my office in an hour. This was not someone who owed me anything. He did it because he had my back and wanted to be there for me.
Our tribe is energising
My basic test with people is: are they draining or revitalising?
There are unfortunately far too many ways people are draining. They can be cautious, unable to relax into themselves for fear of how they’ll be perceived. Some are habitual whiners; I don’t mean those going through a tough patch and needing to vent, but those who do nothing but pour out negativity. Some act as if everyone should cater to their timetables and their needs, expecting ceaseless patience and indulgence. There are those who require constant validation of how successful or important they are. A relentless need to joke and deflect is tiresome and draining too.
In comparison, energising people listen and share, and delight in understanding each other better. They’re excited and exciting, they’re usually content and infectious with their positivity, silence doesn’t freak them out, they respond to authenticity, they’re honest themselves and are not afraid to be vulnerable.
Our tribe is not a zero sum game
Many years ago, when I was approached for the Bourne job, a set of Los Angeles-based line producers I knew socially went to Universal to try to get the gig for themselves instead. This was the only instance I saw this happening, because in my years as a line producer I felt very much a part of a community, even with producers I’d never met face to face. We could call each other in confidence and exchange thoughts on cast and crew. We recognised it’s not a zero sum game, where achievement for one means loss for another. Because when one of us did well, we all benefited.
When I hear of someone pointing out the misfortunes of a fellow filmmaker, I know they’re not in the tribe. Everyone – and certainly those in the fickle business of films – should know that success is as random and unpredictable as failure. It is always, as Joan Baez sang, a case of ‘there but for fortune, go you or I’.
Our tribe is in our square
My darling hosts this past week in Bombay are one of the few happily married couples I know. Is there a secret formula, I always ask. How can you tell someone is right for you? Is it energy, is it someone who’ll extend themselves, is it someone who’ll fight for you?
The right person, said the wife, is always in your square. You may make some gaffe at a party and he may be annoyed or furious, but even at that moment, he will still be in your square.
And that’s true of my tribe. I feel safe, loved and understood. I generally go around feeling rather solitary and unconnected. But in India I feel a part of something bigger. I feel united.
‘I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon, that I beat Al Pacino, that I beat Peter Sellers. I refuse to believe that Robert Duvall lost. We are a part of an artistic family. There are sixty thousand actors in this Academy – pardon me – in the Screen Actors Guild, and probably a hundred thousand in Equity. And most actors don’t work, and a few of us are so lucky to have a chance to work with writing and to work with directing. Because when you’re a broke actor you can’t write; you can’t paint; you have to practice accents while you’re driving a taxi cab. And to that artistic family that strives for excellence, none of you have ever lost and I am proud to share this with you.’ ― Dustin Hoffman, part of Academy Awards acceptance speech, 1980.
The unpredictable nature of the film industry was captured succinctly by William Goldman who, in his book Adventures of the Screen Trade, declared: ‘Nobody knows anything’, an aphorism that remains applicable to Hollywood and, indeed, life.
Writer and director Zoya Akhtar (who went on to make the massively popular Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) first made Luck by Chance, a sharp and wry fictional story with a star-studded cast of how Hindi films are often made.
Sidney Lumet, director of 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express and my favourite, Dog Day Afternoon, amongst many more, wrote a humble account of his creative processes in Making Movies.
‘Stand by Me’ has been covered endless times, though the original by Ben E King is still my favourite version. The song was also used in the brilliant 1986 film of the same name, directed by Rob Reiner and starring River Phoenix.