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Buboo Kakati unravels the Big Apple's secrets

Last updated on: February 9, 2010 14:23 IST

Buboo Kakati unravels the Big Apple's secrets

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Arthur J Pais in New York

"I chose to live in New York which I consider the centre of the universe," says Buboo Kakati, best known for her research for the Secrets of New York series, produced by New York City TV and being shown on PBS in many states.

There are endless stories in the Big Apple that are intriguing and life affirming, and a filmmaker, writer or artist can never run short of material, she affirms.

She should know -- the writer, director, editor and producer of documentaries has 23 Emmy nominations to her credit, and a win in the research section.

Kakati, who is working on a screenplay based on Thrity Umrigar's novel The Space Between Us, says though she has been influenced by the cinema of Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti, she is also beholden to the populist narrative films she watched growing up in India.

'My background as an Indian and as someone who is also very entrenched in American society,' she said in a statement, 'informs my work whether directly or indirectly.'

Each episode of Secrets of New York takes about three months to research, produce and direct, she says.

"I get to read and hear wonderful stories in the media or from people," she notes, "The stories are wonderful but unless they are solidly researched, they are not going to come out well on the screen."

Often, she gets help from top professionals like Pulitzer Prize-winning city historian Mike Wallace.

"I have been to places in New York that most people just cannot go to," Kakati says. For instance, for an episode about the Hindenburg disaster, she went up with her team in the MetLife blimp and circled the city.

For a show on New York's century-old subway system, Kakati went to rail yards where subway cars are fixed. She rode on a 30-ton crane that picks up an entire subway car and puts it on the axle.


Image: Buboo Kakati

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One 'secret' Kakati discovered is about the extreme shortage of dye in America between the two World Wars.

"There was heavy smuggling going on, even when America was at war with Germany, most of the dye coming from Germany," she says. "One thing leading to another, a lot of pharmaceutical secrets also reached America in that period, ultimately leading to America becoming a dominant producer of pharmaceutical products."

At times, Kakati gets cold shivers. "There is espionage, sabotage, double crossing in the dye smuggling story," she says.

For a new series she is developing on green New York, Kakati met a Catholic priest in the Bronx who works with Mayan people to create top quality eco-friendly clothes for high-end chains in America, and invests the profits in the same communities to create self-sufficiency.

Kakati's short films, like Off-Duty, have traveled widely, including to the Toronto International Film Festival. Two years ago, the Tribeca All Access Program Film Festival chose her script, The Castle, a tale about a haunted apartment in New York; it was one of the 32 projects the festival chose from over 1,000 scripts submitted.

In the feature film, which she also hopes to direct, Kakati narrates the plight of a couple that moved into a haunted apartment that could change their future.

"It is not a story about Indians," she says, and adds with a chuckle: "But then, I think it is, since it deals with reincarnation."

She enjoys researching for her films and visiting little-known locales.

"In my documentaries, the present and future are always present with the past," she says, "Everything is old, everything new too."


Image: A scene from Secrets of New York

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When Kakati researched another segment of Secrets, this time focusing on New York's garment industry about a decade ago, she discovered that the city was as crowded then as it is today.

The footage of 1904-1905, for instance, shows scenes of New York streets filled with people from many countries, speaking dozens of languages.

Born in Assam, educated for a few years in Jaipur, then in the United Arab Emirates and, later, West Wales, Kakati is the daughter of physicians who found work in many cities and countries.

"I have lived in half-a-dozen cities, and have studied in Rochester."

Her parents had sent her to Rochester to live with their relatives so that she could have an American medical degree.

"I studied chemistry and psychology, hoping to go into medicine," she says. "But I had also taken courses in literature and cinema, and I found myself enjoying them much more than science."

She went to Utah (for a master's in fine arts) and Los Angeles (making her short narrative features) but she always wanted to live and work in New York, where she earned a master's degree in film and video producing at the Tisch School.

"New York kept pulling back," she admits. "It was all very natural. From my days in the UAE when I first began reading American comics and watching American books, I wanted to be here. It is also the city that has provided the background to scores of film classics over the decades. It is the city of filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. So I came back to New York. In all I have spent over 16 years here. It is truly my home."


Image: Shooting in progress

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