One is 16 and the other is a little bit older, but both aunt and niece share the same zest for fun and for creativity. Niece Zuni Chopra’s first book is already a success. “The House that Spoke” is fantasy fiction set in Kashmir. Aunt Tanuja Chandra is a film director and screen writer recently debuted her first book “Bijnis Woman: Stories of Uttar Pradesh“.
The two have a great bond — they go on holidays together, and even inspire each other’s creative work. And of course, they come from a highly accomplished family of story tellers. Zuni’s father Vinod Chopra is known for producing a multitude of hit films, and her uncle Vikram Chandra is one of India’s most renowned authors.
So we had to ask the two — does creativity really run in the genes? They speak to us about what makes a great story, what it’s like coming from a creative family, and what writing means to them.
What about each other’s works do you resonate most with, and like the most?
Zuni: Her vivid descriptions. She really brings out not just a world, but an atmosphere. That isn’t easy to do, and it takes time and skill. I hope to imbibe that soon!
Tanuja: While Zuni’s dramatic writing is wonderful to read, it’s her sense of humour that I value a lot. It isn’t easy to achieve humour in writing. It helps that she’s basically a funny person but the way she uses words to put it out there is something I admire. She has written some really funny poems too. I hope this only gets sharper and sharper in her writing.
What does it feel like to come from a creative family, how does that effect your relationship with one another? How much of your creative process is informed by the other?
Zuni: It feels awesome, to put it bluntly. All the other kids at school are ‘forced to take HL Math’ or ‘forced to take Business’ and my dad thinks I should drop out of school and write! It also means we all connect more to one another, since we can ask each other for help and we’re all attempting to create. I go to my aunt for help all the time, and it’s good to know that there’s always someone you can ask for help if you need it.
Tanuja: A great love of stories abounds in our family! Even my father who isn’t into the creative arts, enjoys stories and has plenty interesting ones to tell from his childhood — some of these found their way into my book of short stories, Bijnis Woman. This certainly is fertile ground for writers — Zuni was encouraged to read from when she was little, as were we, when we were young.
We all have different styles though, which is as it should be. My mother has written films of social drama like Prem Rog and Chandni, I have made thrillers and dramas centering around women protagonists, my sister, Anupama is a critic and journalist who has written books on films, my brother, Vikram is a literary writer of international repute whose epic crime drama, Sacred Games, is being made into a Netflix show, Zuni’s father, Vinod Chopra, produces films of varying kinds: comedies, thrillers, love stories, and Zuni – she has her own unique, sharp style which is developing as we speak. So it’s a fascinating melting pot of storytelling!
What, according to you, makes a great story?
Zuni: A universe that the readers can lose themselves in, as in a writer that completely nails the suspension of disbelief. If for one minute, you doubt the truth of the story then its hold is lost on you, as is its power.
Tanuja: A tale with a big heart! Emotions drive a story for me. If a story touches me, I like it. If it digs deep into the inner core of my heart, I love it. That said, for me, even strong emotional films must be rooted in our lives. Fantasies too must touch the real issues human beings grapple with. Stories must have context because we live and struggle in a real world. If this is achieved in an emotional way, for me, that’s a great story.
Also Read: Why Do I Write: The Art Of Storytelling by Tanuja Chandra
Tanuja, what advice would you give Zuni as she goes forward, and Zuni, what about your aunt’s path do you admire the most?
Zuni: I admire that she never lets herself be daunted by anything. I want to follow that lesson as best I can. Especially for a young person in today’s world trying to pursue what is sometimes considered a dying industry, it is important to be fearless in your pursuit of happiness and excellence.
Tanuja: I have learned a lot from Zuni’s writing — from her vision. I would advise her to forge ahead fearlessly on her chosen path. Her unique love of fantasy which is dramatic, touching and funny at the same time, her sharp humour that is confident but also so aware of human inabilities and anxieties, these are what make her an original writer. I would also tell her to fill her life with as much experience of different things as possible because that would only make her writing more rich. (Of course, somewhere in there, I would tell her to eat well and to stress less!)
Also Read: Women Writers Fest: 15-Year-Old Zuni Chopra Shares Her Insights As A Writer
What are some of the most fun experiences you have had together as aunt and niece?
Zuni: Our Paris trip! When she called me a stubborn donkey in the middle of a small, elegant pastry shop in Paris because I refused to try an éclair. Which I tried and then loved, by the way. It was hilarious!
Tanuja: We’ve always laughed a lot. At the same time, I feel fortunate that she’s able to talk to me about almost everything. We’ve gone on holidays abroad, just the two of us, and those are some of the best times of my life. I hope to continue doing these things always — laughing, sharing, holidaying.
So is creativity in the genes?
Zuni: Maybe! Or maybe it’s just being surrounded by it growing up. But there are always exceptions. Like my brother. Who you literally couldn’t pay to read a book!
Tanuja: If not storytelling specifically, one’s general nature is predominantly genetic and an inclination towards creativity surely comes within that. True, one’s conditioning plays a big role and the atmosphere in the house while growing up informs our taste, but I would say it’s a kind of calling. The creative field is so full of uncertainty and struggle that one would choose to do it only for the love of it.
What does success mean to both of you?
Zuni: Being proud of my own work and knowing in my heart that I couldn’t have pushed myself any harder.
Tanuja: To be able to do the kind of work one truly wants to do. To be able to achieve at least in part what one ideally dreams of. To be able to touch peoples’ hearts by one’s work. And if this happens to be a large number of people, then that should make one ecstatic!
Also Read: Tanuja Chandra On Her Book ‘Bijnis Woman’