‘Bombairiya’ is about the love-hate relation people have with Bombay: Pia Sukanya

Aspiring actors coming to Mumbai with the dream of making it big in the film industry is not a new trend, but landing in the city from another country with a dream that big is pretty rare.

Debutante filmmaker Pia Sukanya is ready with her film Bombairiya, one of the first Bollywood releases this year. Pia, who grew up across the globe, is a professional singer, an actor, and also holds a degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge.

In an interview, the director shares her journey of becoming a filmmaker, her experience of working with Radhika Apte, and her relationship with Mumbai…

Pia Sukanya(right) with Michael E Ward (left), her husband and scriptwriter and producer of ‘Bombairiya’

Q. Speaking of Bombairiya, what does the word mean?

Bombairya is many things to many people. Some people asked me, “Oh Bombairiya like Malaria?” So it’s like the disease of the city Mumbai. The word ‘bairi‘ has a lot of significance to the name, it means an enemy who is also like a lover… People have a love-hate relationship with the city — like the way one argues with a lover.

Q. Is the film entirely based on a true incident?

Bombairiya is a comedy-mystery; and tells the tale of how a girl, who was just trying to avoid a bad day and not talk to anybody, ends up interacting with strangers in order to get her phone back. And all this happens in a course of 24 hours.

Aarti Bagri, a filmmaker friend of mine, told us a wonderful incident of how a phone got stolen. It made me laugh and had me at the edge of my seat. What I loved about it was how beautiful the three characters were – the girl whose phone gets stolen, the thief who doesn’t switch off the phone (which is why she can talk and negotiate with him), and the stranger who helps the girl out! I loved the idea and asked my husband Michael E Ward to write the story; 80-90% of it then became a fictional tale, but the catalyst of the story was the phone getting stolen and what happens in that one day.

Q. What got you interested in film direction?

I didn’t go to film school, but being a musician I have a sense of rhythm. Being an actor, I know what an actor is looking for and how to direct them, and then the anthropology degree gave me a really solid foundation on how to talk about human experience and make it relatable — how not
to put my judgement into it and look at everyone and their stories objectively. The film is a reflection of Michael’s (Pia’s husband) and my personalities. Actually, I never thought I would direct a film this early.

Radhika leads the very large ensemble cast we have in the movie: Pia

Q. How did Radhika Apte come on board?

I required everyone to perform very genuinely. Radhika leads the very large ensemble cast we have in the movie. Now, we all know that Radhika is a very fine naturalist actor. However, we were not chasing her, we met her when she loved the script. And when we met there was this electrifying energy — we understood each other. It was her enthusiasm for the script, one of the reasons why we chose her.

Q. You have some great actors in your film. How was the experience working with such a diverse ensemble?

In short, it was a privilege for me. I remember Ravi Kishan saying at the end of the shoot to someone, “I felt like I was learning so much with Pia.” It felt like a huge compliment. Adil (Hussain) said to me, “We trust you completely, and I will do what you need me to do.” This was undoubtedly very satisfying to hear. With the unique performances of the actors, which also includes Shilpa Shukla, it was fantastic working with them.

Pia with Adil Hussain (left)

Q. What’s your connection with Mumbai?

I was born in Cambridge, in England, spent my early childhood in Delhi, then lived in Manhattan, Florence, and again Cambridge. It was only after graduation in 2005, that I landed in Bombay with hopes in my eyes. I knew the moment I stepped off the plane that I am home. I gave up my green card to be here.

It was as if my personality was drawn to the city. I would have come here even if I was not a performing artiste but as an anthropologist. My upbringing was not like an NRI, but my parents brought me up like a global citizen, and so I was constantly connected to India — we used to come to India every year. I just came to Mumbai like anybody else comes with a dream. And as a woman, I felt very comfortable here, I felt I could be myself here.

Q. Being a musician yourself, what aspects did you look into in the music of the ‘Bombairiya’?

We really liked the song called Bairiya, written by Arko Pravo Mukherjee. That’s a really special song for us, as it gave the name to the film. Then we have Sajde Karoon, a Sufi song, which represents a mystery in the story.

Another song, Sanki encapsulates the feeling the city gives us — it also has a cool rap. There is an opera as well in the score of the film, and incidentally, I have sung the female soprano part in it. The Christmas carol Silent Night, celebrated 200 years in 2018 — two professional opera singers from England and Denmark sang it in the opera form. We also have a couple of characters singing a bhajan. The variety in music shows the different moods and the spirit of the city.

And lastly, talking about shooting Pia says, “We shot for 49 days, in three schedules over eight months, and post-production took a while. Because it is an independent film, all struggles you associate with a first feature film we have had all of it.”

Bombairiya which features Radhika Apte, Adil Hussain, Siddhanth Kapoor, Akshay Oberoi and Shilpa Shukla among others, will release on January 18.

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