Celebrated screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala wrote the script for the Indian segment of Girl Rising — a new film about girls in the developing world who are struggling to get an education.
Her previous work includes the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated film Salaam Bombay. In Girl Rising, Sooni tells the story of 11-year-old Ruksana — a girl who lives on the streets of Calcutta. She spoke with World Vision about her experience.
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Why did you choose to focus on Ruksana?
The producers gave me a video of interviews they had done with various girls and asked me to choose whose story I wanted to tell. As soon as I saw Ruksana on screen, I knew it was her.
She felt like a child who had no agenda. She was a natural. She was also an artist and someone who enjoyed painting. And as a screenwriter, I felt I could use that in the story that I wrote about her.
What sort of life does Ruksana have?
She lives on the pavement with her family and spends the night at a shelter. She has a very loving and supportive family, which I was very happy to see. It’s just her physical circumstances that are hard. Her mother told me that she too had been born and brought up on the same street and on the same pavement.
Where do they keep their things?
Their “house” is up against the wall of an institution. They have a kind of tarpaulin that forms the roof, and everything is in that space — school uniforms, school bags, cooking utensils, everything.
Ruksana’s father works two jobs, and her mother cooks and looks after the family. Her father is a sugarcane vendor, and he also works at the airport as a painter.
Even though he works two jobs, the father can’t provide a better house?
It’s very hard in cities like Bombay [Mumbai] and Kolkata [Calcutta], which are very densely populated, to find any kind of reasonable housing. People just can’t afford it. Even though he’s working two jobs, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence. They are under constant threat of demolition, because the government frequently goes on demolition drives to clear up the pavements.
How did you break the ice when you were first introduced to Ruksana?
With my camera. This always breaks the ice. I’m also a photographer and I carry my camera around with me everywhere.
When I first met her, I took pictures of her and her family. Because of the wonders of digital photography, you can show the pictures immediately on the screen of your camera, and that did it. Even so, she is a shy girl, and it took a little while for her to open up.
You write fictional films. How did you adapt to a more documentary style of storytelling?
I do write fiction feature films. But the first film I wrote was Salaam Bombay [about street children in Bombay]. I did a lot of research before I wrote the script, which was very much based on reality.
Basically, that’s what I did with Ruksana’s story. It’s not fictionalized, but the events that happen in the story don’t necessarily happen according to the chronology shown on screen.
I understand Ruksana seldom misses a day of school.
Yes, she does have an enthusiasm for school. I think her parents have inculcated into their kids that they have to be well educated. World Vision helps with school fees and school books, and in general, keeps any eye out for the family.
Girl Rising opens in theaters today. Directed by Academy Award-nominee Richard Robbins, produced by critically-acclaimed producer Martha Adams, and narrated by world-class actresses including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington, and Selena Gomez, Girl Rising tells the stories of extraordinary girls faced with unforgiving circumstances.
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