Mumbai boy Aliakbar Campwala to present his new film at Cannes

British filmmaker Aliakbar Campwala, a Mumbai boy, presents his new film Samuel Street at Cannes’ Marché du Film 

A rippling laugh later, actor Sarita Joshi tells us, “Burkha burkha mein farak hai!” We agree. There are the stark black burkhas, bejewelled iterations for the fashionable, and then there are the springtime versions worn by Bohri women. In Joshi’s case, the discussion about burkha species can extend to her roles as well. The veteran starred as a Gujarati matriarch in the TV series Baa Bahoo Aur Baby; an austere mum in 2008 Bollywood film Dasvidaniya, who is paid homage through the song Meri Ma; and, as the doting, value-upholding and ghunghat-wearing mother of Dhirubhai Ambani (played by Abhishek Bachchan) in Mani Ratnam’s Guru.

(Above) A still from Samuel Street, which features newcomer Saif Thakur and veteran actor Sarita Joshi (below)
(Above) A still from Samuel Street, which features newcomer Saif Thakur and veteran actor Sarita Joshi (below)

In her latest role in a new film, titled Samuel Street, the veteran actor plays a different mother — burkha-clad, middle-class and a Muslim from Masjid Bunder. “She is a typical Mohammedian character. She is modern but is part of the society that she lives in,” says Joshi. Samuel Street, directed by Aliakbar Campwala, gets screened at Cannes on May 14 in the Marché du Film section, a hub for young professionals to further their projects. For Campwala, 35, who resides in Bedfordshire, UK, this film has meant revisiting his childhood home in Dongri.

Sarita Joshi

Streets of Masjid Bunder
An introduction to the original Samuel Street goes thus. The street is named after a rather knightly soldier with the British East Indian Army, Samaji Hasaji Divekar. In the English-speaking world, Divekar, a Bene Israel Jew, was known as Samuel Ezekiel.

Located behind the ornate Minara Masjid, and flanked on one end by Dongri, Samuel Street is now home to Shia, Sunni and Khoja Muslims. The houses are said to be at least a century old and elevator-less; the inhabitants mainly from lower and middle classes. Admittedly, this is the description of practically every street in Masjid Bunder and Dongri.

The premise is ripe for conflict when a Samuel Street mother, Shere-Bano meets her son Moosa (played by Saif Thakur) on a visit from the UK, where he now resides.

Aliakbar Campwala

But, Campwala wants you to be surprised. Negotiating strong winds in a high-rise apartment in Jakarta, he says, “I wanted to make a film set in South Mumbai with a Muslim backdrop and show a different perspective.” The long street, he continues, is business heavy on one end and runs up till Dongri, infamous for its mafia gangs. “But, when you take a peek into the lives of its people, they are simple.”

For Campwala, Samuel Street is impervious to change. Its residents continue to lead modest lives, and their world is limited to their immediate environment. “People talk a lot about other people. Who is getting married? Who hasn’t married? Who doesn’t have a kid?”

Campwala, who has lived abroad for more than 15 years, repeats a cliché that Mumbai has a special place for him. He then points out a stereotype. Mainstream Bollywood, which investigated the heart of the part-desi-part-videsi with the gusto of scientists in search for intelligent alien life, has largely ignored the Muslim NRI experience. “In Muslim families, it’s common to have relatives abroad. How do they deal with each other?”

He explains that an NRI is not always glamorous the way Karan Johar made it out to be. The Muslim NRI could very well be working in the Middle East, alienated from his wife and children whom he left behind.

Mother power
The other stereotype that Campwala seeks to break is the image of the browbeaten Muslim woman. Shere-Bano, we are told, is dominating to the point that she fires her servant when she learns her son is visiting. “She believes her son will do everything for her now,” says Campwala.

But the comic, the conservative and the unconventional in the film are not without emotional truth, hopes Campwala. The mother is a single woman braving storms of narrow-mindedness, and at the same time, addressing the loneliness of her life.

There will be no singing or dancing in Samuel Street. Campwala, who has done his MA in International Cinema from the University of Bedfordshire, says he has brought to it a realism inspired by Satyajit Ray and French New Wave cinema of the 1950s. More importantly, being a local boy from Dongri helped.

For Joshi, who trades the bright sarees of TV serials to play a Muslim character for the second time in her career, frequent visits to Dongri helped finetune her role. She studied the women in the neighbourhood, imbibed an Urdu lilt to Hindu and got hold of some local idiosyncrasies. She reveals she played the role without knowing the end of the story. “The director wanted it to be a surprise and I want it to be a surprise for you too!” she says.

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