She is still shy about admitting that she has arrived. But Hollywood is desperately seeking Sabrina. There is an unmistakable excitement in her voice as she talks about Hollywood's mega studios and cutting-edge film companies lining up to discuss plans, make offers and cut a deal. Agents want to represent her and managers want to manage her. They all want a piece of Sabrina Dhawan and a share of the profits they hope she will make.
Warner Brothers want her to recreate Mary Poppins with a Latino twist. Maria Poppins, if you please. "They probably figure, Latinos are brown, I am brown, I must understand them better," laughs Sabrina, who after six years in New York is as tough as they come. Disney executives want her to do some wholesome, mainstream writing that will be pitched at ordinary Americans. Oh, then there is the adaptation of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende. The phone has been ringing rather often, shall we say.
The flood began with Monsoon Wedding and her earthy, essence-filled script capturing the "masti" of Punjabi Dilli with soul-bearing candour. She also had the courage to take on an issue like sexual abuse in the family, a taboo subject for Indian movie-makers and consumers. Variety and other oracles of Hollywood recognised she had delivered a winner. Her Delhi-specific cultural rendering was deemed universal as Greeks, Italians, Jews and others found a piece of themselves in the film.
But it was when Monsoon Wedding made a $13 million killing at the box office that Hollywood's agile spotters zoomed in on Sabrina. Money is and will always be the bottomline for the Big Boys. Even though the buzz began when Monsoon Wedding won the Golden Lion at Venice, it was only after it became one of the top 10 foreign grossers that things changed. "Reviews and awards don't matter in Hollywood. The box office does," says the 32-year-old Delhiite, her feet firmly on the ground in Manhattan. "Before, even junior agents wouldn't return my calls. Now it's like 'We just want to sign you on.' Imagine, Brillstein-Grey wants to manage me. I was, like, why do you want to manage me? It was a little intimidating." For the uninitiated, Brillstein-Grey is one of the biggest companies in LA with stars popping out of their cubicles like computer cables—Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, to name just two.
Life surely has taken a delicious curve for Sabrina who now has some classy people to represent her and wade through the offers—David Godwin of Arundhati Roy fame in London and Nicole Graham in Los Angeles whose company Writers and Artistes represents Gene Wilder, among others. London, LA, New York, even Bombay—they are such vastly different worlds that you need different skills to traverse them. But Sabrina is ready. She is off to Hollywood later this month to clinch some deals her agent has set up. She has already signed with Killer Films (on-the-edge producers of such critically-acclaimed films as Boys Don't Cry, Far From Heaven and One Hour Photo). Her agent had arranged an exploratory meeting and everything clicked. "The studio executives have to like you in the end because you have to work together. They asked me if I had any ideas and I pitched a Bollywood-Hollywood crossover film. They liked what I told them and I signed with them to write the script for The Promise. It is a thriller set between India and the US." No more details to be revealed just yet.
Then there is a possibility of adapting William Darlymple's recently-published White Mughals for none other than Shekhar Kapur, a man she admires for making a smooth leap from Bollywood to Hollywood and directing mainstream American cinema. There is a good chance Miramax will pick up the project. Various agents and busybodies are talking and negotiating. "I don't want to overbook myself at this stage.There is already a lot on my plate," says Sabrina, a graduate of the Columbia University's film programme where she had the unique honour of selling her final-year screenplay and having it produced while still enrolled. Monsoon Wedding was shot during Sabrina's third and fourth years at university and released before she got her degree.
It was purely by chance that Sabrina found herself with Mira Nair in an elevator at Columbia and summoned up the courage to greet her. The two ladies from Delhi bonded immediately over a cup of tea at the basement cafeteria. Mira asked her to work with her after reading the script of Sabrina's thesis film Saanjh—As Night Falls, which she wrote, directed and produced herself. The film went on to win the New Line Cinema award for 'Most Original Film' and was cited as the 'Best of the Festival' at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2000.
Sabrina's Muse definitely resides in India. Or more specifically Delhi where she grew up trying not to be a doctor—both her parents are and wanted her to be one. She floated between advertising and journalism after a degree in English Literature from Delhi University trying to pacify parents who didn't understand her wanderlust. New York finally helped her find her place but India remains in her bones. "My politics, my friends, my family and connections are all there. Ideally, I would like to live between India and the US," she says. "It is very hard for me to detach myself professionally from India." Yet, she had to decline an offer to work with Yash Chopra whom she has admired for years because she just couldn't tear herself from her commitments here.
So what's on for right now? She is currently working on Manil Suri's Death of Vishnu which she has adapted for Arena Pictures of New York. "It is a complex book with multiple story lines which must evolve into a film. I have spoken to Manil and he says he trusts my judgement," says Sabrina. "You have to make a lot of changes when you adapt a book for a movie script—throw out a lot because the movie has to stand on its own." The other major project she has almost completed is a feature film in a series called American Voices for PBS, the public broadcasting corporation. The film is based on a short story by Akhil Sharma about an older Indian man who lives alone in New Jersey after his wife and daughter leave him. The story is about how he tries to befriend an American woman with a reputation who lives next door. The pbs series is on various immigrant groups and Sabrina was selected for the Indian segment.
She, however, is trying hard not to be ghettoised in the "Indian slot". Her eyes are set on a trajectory like Shekhar Kapur's who she thinks with Elizabeth showed he could navigate other sensibilities just as well and go on to be nominated for the Oscars. And her real ambition is to be a director in the end. As Sabrina makes her moves, it will be difficult to confine her to a little box. She is all set to go mainstream with her eyes on the prize.