Life Imitating Art

by E. Nina Rothe

I am often surprised when I find in films I watch or in the books I read some personal, familiar references. It always feels cozy and cool, as if the writer/director/actor have gained some insight into my own life... The top prize goes to an Indian actor -- name purposely withheld -- to whom I sent my screenplay a few years ago. I even included a CD with my script since in my story - music is the third character, after the boy and the girl parts. Nearly a year later, I was traveling on a flight to India and the selections of movies included a new film starring said actor.

The story seemed vaguely familiar but my doubts were confirmed when the main song of my
CD started to play on his convertible car stereo, at a pivotal point in this story (as -- you guessed it! -- it does in mine). Anyway, to those of you who are wondering how the film had been made so quickly, chuck it to the magic of Bollywood.
And to those who are questioning why I didn't sue, again, chuck it to the magic of Bollywood.

Ultimately, the fight would have taken years, and a great burden on me to prove true and the thought that such a successful actor liked my story that much, well it made me more proud than angry.

But fear not, this is not a post where I get to bore you with personal anecdotes and stories of me, me and more me. This is all about how life has a way of making some films come alive for us. I ask you to share your own "Life Imitating Art" stories in the comment section. A couple of mine follow, just to get the game going:

'Slumdog Millionaire' -- When I first watched Danny Boyle's film I knew I was witnessing
history in the making. It has proven both momentous and controversial, but the film took a whole new meaning for me back in January, when I met the 'real' Jamal on the streets of Bombay. During the latest of my visits to the Maximum City -- as it's affectionately called these days -- I noticed a conspicuous lack of street urchins on the street.

Could they have all been lured by the glamour of Danny Boyle's filmmaking and enrolled themselves in acting schools? Or perhaps had they moved on to less tourist-infested cities in India, where they could still pull some of their charmingly familiar stunts? Or perhaps, the Indian authorities had relegated them all to the Juhu and Dharavi slums to prove that such suffering and poverty truly does not exists in India and was just all the imagination of a couple of foreigners, inspired by an Indian writer in the Foreign Service -- hence read: out of touch? Just as these disastrous thoughts began to consume me, I took a taxi back to my hotel from South Bombay. As my smart taxi driver avoided major traffic in Bandra, he turned down an alley and there HE was! The quintessential Bombay streetwise boy, the one who could sell you a painted stone, or even a newspaper in illegible Hindi script, for three times its price. He approached my open window and thus we began a complicated conversation about Salman Rushdie -- of all people, his photo was on the front page of the newspaper he was peddling! -- which included the three words I know in Hindi, the ten words he knew in English and a whole lot of head and hand gestures. At the end of the conversation, he told me his name was Salim (OK, not Jamal, but close enough, as that's the brother's name in the film) and wanted to gift me one of the papers. I paid him $100 rupees -- to put it into perspective that's the price of about thirty-three newspapers -- and we winked each other goodbye.

'Mississippi Masala' -- Quite possibly one of my favorite films ever, if you haven't seen it,
quickly put it on your Netflix queue. It's the best film ever made about racism, mixed couples and national longing. Sounds like a weird combination? You have to watch it, I told you! A few years ago, I went back to L.A. a few months after leaving the apartment I had shared with the man I then referred to as 'the love of my life'. It was a hard journey back, that first time without him, since I kept expecting him to show up at the airport, then at the motel where I was staying, and again at my dear friend's wedding -- the event I was to attend and the reason why I made the excruciating voyage to the land of remembrances. But my sour mood and heavy heart were soothed by the cranky, rough but pretty young Indian woman who checked me into my room at Motel Patel. I still remember her name, Chayya, like
the title of the song that opens Spike Lee's 'Inside Man' and one of the greatest musical numbers ever written by 'Slumdog Millionaire' composer and Oscar winner A.R. Rahman. Anyway, Chayya immediately reminded me of Meena -- the title character in Mira Nair's film -- and somehow, at that moment, that connection soothed my heart and warmed my soul. I will forever remember her voice, her demeanor and the saving power of her being.

'Children of Heaven' -- In this Iranian film from 1998, a young boy loses his sister's shoes on the way to getting them repaired. I have not watched the film in a long while, but a little skinny boy in my neighborhood recently reminded me of Ali and his misadventures, which turn the film into a feel-good drama about family bonds and the power of being resolute. I simply took one look at his slight, long limbs, caramel complexion, short cropped hair and oversized white sneakers and began sobbing. I mean, the boy was just walking, and not on his way to war, prison or his father's funeral. But something in his gait brought back all the tears I shed upon first watching this beautiful film. It's funny how life imitating art can sometimes trigger so much in us. A lesson, perhaps, to those who think that making a film about violence, misery and hate is OK?!

So, now I would love to hear all about your own experiences when life has managed to bring back your favorite film scene or a book character was brought to life by someone sitting across from you on a train. Do share... You know what they say "sharing is caring!"

Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight, Majid Majidi, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Mirabai Films and Warner Bros.


  1. Nina - what a beautiful and poignant article.

    And I have a similar experience to yours with regards to your script idea becoming a bollywood film. You are right. In the end it isn't worth it and it's a compliment as well as a tough lesson. I try to meet with producers in person before passing them an idea - and to find out from others how trustworthy they are - even if you do what most writers do - mail the script to yourself and -never open it - before mailing out copies to prospective producers - it still doesn't prevent the big guys from stealing your work. Ideas are out there - everywhere right? And then the burden is on you to prove.

    I enjoyed "Mississippi Massala" but adored "Children of Heaven". There has been such a flowering of cinema from the Middle East in recent years that reminds me of the post-world war II films from Europe - especially Italy - those wonderful small stories about real people - so moving. Speaking of Italian movies (one of my fave subjects) I've talked about this film before - but when I first saw "Cinema Paradiso" (one of my fave films of all time) it made me think of my father - my parents growing up in Italy after WWII. My father has shared numerous stories of his childhood including once stealing money from his sister's sewing box so he could go see a movie (he paid for it later when his sister chased him through the streets of town). Young Toto does the same in the movie - taking his family's grocery money to go to the movies) Because movies were and are a way for us to connect with our dreams. And this is one of the reasons why I love them so much.

    I love your story about the little boy selling newspapers - you have a wonderful way of sharing your personal experiences.

    Wonderful article!

  2. A big fat 'boo' to the thief who stole your script!! But I digress...

    There have been so many of these intense connection-to-film moments for me, it's hard to pick a few. I went to see When Harry Met Sally a few weeks before my 2-year friendship with my now-husband had turned the corner from friendship into romance. I squirmed my way through that whole movie because everything hit so painfully close to home.

    A bit more recently, the character of Adam Carter from the English spy drama Spooks (MI-5 in North America) has been the fictional character whose every instinct is my instinct. It's weird! The way he's a bit of a hard-ass with his team, the way he stops for a moment to give full-on attention to someone who needs some serious shoring up, the way he says with certainty that everything will be alright (even when he has no way of knowing whether it will!) - these actions are such a part of me but I've never seen a fictional character exhibiting all my own behaviours before. Sometimes it's creepy.

  3. Joanna dear!

    Thanks always for the caring and loving words. You make this blog possible and sharing these experiences with our peers a reality.

    It was very touching to read about your father's story and his passion for the movies, which has obviously been passed down to you! Slices of life that involve fathers are always particularly poignant to me... I have such a volatile relationship with mine, but am reminded everyday that it's still such a luxury to know he is alive...

    Thank you Julie, for engaging in this little game I started. I loved reading about your own 'When Harry Met Sally' incident and it certainly must be a momentous movie for you today! It still makes me cry every single time. Like 'Monsoon Wedding', always in different parts of the story!

    Have to admit complete ignorance on the 'MI-5' program, what a shame. But will now look for it on DVD! Sounds like fun and I'll get to discover some of your character in the process!

    Love to both and well, I can still make my movie one day... It will just be changed. And BTW, the 'stolen' script turned out to be a flop of a film. Goes to show...

  4. Nina, how awful - I can only imagine how you felt seeing your story brought to life without your consent, and altered too. As you say, goes to show, and life will reward you greater in the end.
    Wish I could share some experience, but I'm terrible at remembering. Just know that I do care!

  5. Fie Fie on the actor/filmaker who stole your ideas! Too bad you did not pursue the matter.

    Children of heaven was such a lovely movie!

    I had just such a moment yesterday. Come by and read it.

  6. Thank you Cate!!

    I know you care and I'm sure you know that life has a cycle of karma going on... It's brought me so much amazing writing and wonderfully supportive colleagues as a result. I can't complain!

    And Kiran, thank you too!!

    Always a pleasure to hear from you! I'll definitely drop by your blog right now.

  7. Nina - Spooks (MI-5) has been running for 7 seasons and has had several significant cast changes. The Adam Carter seasons are 3 - 6.

  8. Thanks Julia!

    Will definitely check it out! Hugs

  9. My goodness, but I'd be upset if someone stole my idea like that. As you said, the Karmic wheel will turn.

    Or as John Lennon put it, "Time wounds all heels." *grin*

    Perhaps the only sense I have with movies connecting to my life is when I recognize a private yearning brought to life. Like "While You Were Sleeping" is a sweet love story but I always felt that what Lucy really fell in love with was The Family. Being from a disjointed, disfunctional background, that really struck a chord.

    Music, though, has always been a part of my life. Certain songs may pop up repeatedly to send a message of sorts. For a long time the song, "Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing" by Stevie Wonder always seemed to magically appear when worries took hold. The sound was a soothing balm and a welcome message from the universe to me.

    Wonderful article!

    --Chiron O'Keefe
    The Write Soul:

  10. May be if you persued, atleast the person would have got a black spot on his reputation, and people like him need it.

    I enjoyed Missisipi masala and SDM just irritated me.


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