On Monday evening in Delhi, we were lucky to meet with Loveleen Tandan, Co-Director: India for the Academy Award winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Over drinks and North Indian snacks, we were all captivated by her charisma and stories from her career.
Loveleen is a rarity in India, as traditionally most women in India’s film industry are actresses and concentrated in the colorful Bollywood industry. While Loveleen loves Bollywood flicks, she comes to filmmaking rooted in the documentary style but years ago switched to fictional films based on her belief that once you turn on a camera, you immediately alter reality.
After graduating from Hindu College, Delhi University with Honors in Sociology, she pursued a Masters in Mass communication from MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia University. Starting as a production assistant, she quickly advanced by becoming a de facto Casting Director on Mira Nair’s 2001 film Monsoon Wedding. Following several more casting director or advisor roles (e.g. The Namesake, Vanity Fair, Tandoori Love) she landed the role of casting director on Slumdog.
In many of her career moves to that point, Loveleen would step up to fulfill a role beyond her initial assignment – and on the set of Slumdog her role grew substantially to the point that she was given the unique title “Co-Director: India” as a recognition of her contributions. She served as a check to ensure that the characters, settings, and tone of the movie matched with reality.
But most critically, she was the driving force behind the decision to use children from the slums as the young characters in order to capture the raw reality of India’s slums. Since these children do not speak English so she first had to sell producers and the studio on taking a large risk by filming their scenes, almost one-third of the entire film, in Hindi. Based on her persuasive arguments, Loveleen stepped in to rewrite the children’s lines as well as direct those scenes.
Loveleen was candid about many of her casting and directorial decisions, particularly around the use of the street children. Obviously, nobody knew during filming how successful the film would be – but Loveleen was acutely aware of the impact she would be having on their lives financially as well as psychologically since they would be on a movie set. Therefore, they were careful to have parents on set, as well as start the children in formal schooling (setting them up for future success after the shoot ended). In addition, their share of Slumdog’s profits were put into a trust until their 18th birthdays.
Currently, Loveleen resides in Goa where she is working on the manuscript for her directorial debut. It will be the first time she works with her own content, instead of adapting and reacting to another’s work. While her career in cinema is a far cry from the more traditional business avenues that all of us will be pursuing next year, my classmate Mike Friedman made a great connection between us and Loveleen. Many of us come from hierarchical organizations where a lot of content, ideas, and overall strategy were set at a higher level before we were able to react, contribute, analyze, etc. But as we step into our post-MBA careers, we will find ourselves in leadership positions, mentoring younger colleagues and assuming increased responsibility.
Much like Sindushree Khullar at the Planning Commission earlier in the day, Loveleen also served as an inspiring, strong female perspective (most of our conversations in India were with men). She embraces the fact that she is a woman, and noted that it is something she must negotiate every day in her career. But she does not want to simply be a “female filmmaker” – she is hoping to leave her legacy as a filmmaker who happens to be a woman.