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In the background, one could hear the happy voices, the shouting, the cheering, and cars coming to a screeching halt as Tandan hung up. It was no small feat. Slumdog Millionaire, the rags-to-riches story set in a Mumbai slum, co-directed by a Delhi woman, had won eight Academy awards.
And the same emotions reverberated in the city, too. As longtime friends talked about Tandan, the high pitch of their excited tones gave it away. Tandan didn't just find the faces from the slums in Mumbai, they said, she was the link, a connector, a cultural translator and an integral part of the film.
In fact she reshaped the project, they said.
When she watched Slumdog Millionaire, Sabeena Gadihoke, a longtime friend and teacher of Tandan, knew that the subtle cultural nuances in the film could only have been Tandan's work. As a student of mass communications at Jamia Millia Islamia, Tandan asked questions, argued, and was a perfectionist who would rework scripts until she got what she had been looking for, Gadihoke recalled.
"What stands out for me is her passion. We are very proud of her," she said.
Tandan, 35, was born and brought up in East Delhi, graduated from Hindu College and went on to study filmmaking at Jamia. Though she shuttles between cities, Delhi has figured in her work. Even while searching for actors for Danny Boyle's movie, Delhi dance schools were prominent on her list.
And, why not? After all, Delhi gave Tandan her first break. In 1998, then a fresh college graduate, Tandan tracked down Deepa Mehta's number. Mehta was in the city shooting 1947: Earth. Tandan got on board and then Monsoon Wedding happened.
Soon offers from overseas came calling. Then came Slumdog.
No wonder, starting off as a casting director for the film, the high point came when Boyle offered to make her the co-director. "I always wanted to direct, and Danny gave me that chance to make the switch. I felt honoured — it was the most special day of my life," she had told Newsline when the film was selected for the Golden Globe awards.
'She always loved cinema'
But controversy came bundled as a package deal. In 1978, the Director's Guild of America had passed a bylaw saying there could be only one director for a feature film. So the film carried Boyle's name though he did give due credits to Tandan.
Some critics demanded that Tandan be nominated for the Oscars with Boyle. But Tandan called it "embarrassing" and sent a letter saying she didn't want the nominations for herself.
Sohini Ghosh, a professor at Jamia and Tandan's friend, however said she deserves more acknowledgment. The visibility that Slumdog has got Tandan is well-deserved, Ghosh said, but the media could have done better to highlight her contribution to the film. "She has been often referred to as a casting director but she was the co-director," Ghosh said. "It has to be clearly acknowledged. She has worked really hard — she always had great love for cinema."
The two have stayed in touch over emails and telephone conversations. In the 19 years of teaching, Ghosh has gone through thousands of student submissions. She still remembers the documentary Tandan made while in Jamia: "She was so completely devoted — now she has got the visibility. She is a wonderful person."
Swapnali Das, who worked in the art section of the film that has created quite a stir both nationally and internationally, couldn't agree more. She met Tandan on the sets and they shared lunches, cracked jokes and worked together.
Once, when Das had forgotten to bring her script, Tandan lent her script. That gesture was the ice-breaker, Das said. "You just don't give your script to others — you have your notes and all on it. But she did. She is a warm person, very unassuming.
And she asked me to keep in touch. You wouldn't expect that from someone of that stature. She has no attitude."
For now, the friends are waiting to hear from Tandan about her experience. "We will catch up when she is back," Gadihoke said. For Tandan, the journey has just begun. All along, she wanted to direct films, and now that's next on her list.