From the City of Nawabs comes a love story that celebrates the charm of an ancient culture.
Uttar Pradesh has been the cynosure of Bollywood’s affection across the ages, with many films being shot and set in the state. But there is something especially charming about Lucknow, the City of Nawabs. Box Office India was among the few invited by the makers of Behen Hogi Teri, to meet and greet the cast and crew of the film, and Lucknow’s tehzeeb (etiquette) and refined sophistication gave us a fitting introduction to what the characters in the film would be like.
The chill in the air is invigorating and we are all geared up to learn more about the film, which in its two-part schedule is close to finishing its first roster of the shoot. It’s a long haul to the sets but we’re not complaining. Thus, we set off on the long road from Lucknow airport to Moti Mahal Lawns, where Rajkummar Rao and co-star Herry Tangri are shooting for a cricket match scene.
We are welcomed on the sets by a calm yet alert producer, Amul Vikas Mohan, who introduces us to his team. We take a seat in a corner and Mohan joins in for a chit-chat while keeping a watchful eye on the scene. “The weather is much better today, it has been much colder in the last few days. We packed up late at night yesterday and the temperature kept dropping by the minute! Due to the weather, we have to work keeping the limited sunlight in mind,” says Mohan.
Switching tracks, he tells us that the film has been inspired by the life of Ajay Pannalal, who marks his directorial debut with this film. We spot Rao, cricket ball in hand, having a delightful exchange of words with his director Pannalal and co-star Tangri. Spotting us from a distance, Rao makes his way to meet us and welcomes us with a broad smile.
While the next shot is being set up just a few feet away, the director tells you that the title ‘Behen Hogi Teri’ hints at the fact that the film is a complete family entertainer. Mohan then introduces us to producer Nitin Upadhyay, who disappears quickly. “He is very shy and doesn’t talk much,” quips Mohan. Soon enough, Upadhyay makes his way back to us and explains why he chose this film. “The film is loosely based on the director’s life. It has emotional value for me as I know the director and Amul was involved too.”
Mohan says, “Nitin only made me meet the director and I fell in love with the story. It is a beautiful, romantic story with that slice-of-life feeling that has been missing from rom-coms as a genre for a few years. We were lucky to find something like that. The numbers assured me that it would be a commercially viable project… just the numbers.”
He adds that they maintained a delicate balance between staying true to the story, casting the film appropriately and being smart enough to stay within the budget. “If we pumped it up and tried to make it like a Humpty… or something else, it would have lost its charm,” explains Mohan.
“Everyone says cinema is art but good cinema is actually business. We have planned it as if it is a big film. Although we have not made any compromises, we are also being smart and not wasting money to make it look big. The film is big on content, as it is. The whole point is making the numbers work. When the time comes, we will spend on marketing and promotions too,” says Upadhyay, when quizzed about the film’s budget.
As if to prove that they haven’t held back, Mohan says, “We are shooting on a red helium camera, which was launched only a few months ago. There are only three of these in India. This is the only camera that allows you to shoot in 8K. It is a very good low-light camera and ours is the first Hindi film to be shooting on it.”
Soon, we meet Rajkummar Rao, who is rushing to get to the next location in the city. “It is going fantastic. Although I love winter, it has suddenly become very chilly here and given the kind of costumes we are wearing, it is getting kind of tough. Still, I love being here. The people of Lucknow are very warm and they speak to you as if you are a part of their lives. This is a lovely, sweet story set in Lucknow with very real and relatable characters. It is a very human story, a story that one might have heard or been a part of in real life,” Rao says.
Just before the next sequence, Shruti Haasan greets us in the hotel lobby, where she is getting ready for a wedding function scene. Haasan says, “I really like this film and, as a genre, this was something I had not explored. I like the simplicity of the character and also the fact that she has many shades. There is nothing stereotypical about her. You get to know her story and the breadth of her story through the film, which I found very heartwarming. What I also like about her is that she has this boisterous side and also a sensitive side. And I think I am very much like that.”
Revealing that the content of the film has universal appeal, Haasan adds, “If you were to take this film and plant it in a city in the South or anywhere else, it would still work because the emotion is universal. And it takes you back to a time that is simple and refreshing. This city has such an old-world charm and a character of its own. As actors, we need to relate to the characters but, for Ajay, the responsibility is even greater because the film has stories he is connected to and is about people he knows. I think the audience can expect to be entertained in a way that they laugh and feel wonderful about love and reminisce about the simple times we have lost.”
We make our way to a location in the narrow streets of Lucknow. Tucked away in a warren of bylanes is a beautifully lit-up house that exudes old-world charm, just like the city. But we discuss matters that are pragmatic. Asked about the expectations that the trade and the film fraternity have of Mohan’s first film as a producer, he says,” My father (the late Vikas Mohan) was a very respected man in the industry and this is the first decision I have taken without checking with him. Wherever dad is, he should be proud of us. And I know he will be. People will have expectations and I would like to fulfill them but my benchmark is that.”
The perfect host, Mohan calls for Lucknow’s famous kebabs, a perfect end to an equally perfect day.
(Behen Hogi Teri is being produced by Amul Vikas Mohan, Tony D’Souza and Nitin Upadhyay, directed by Ajay K Pannalal; and features Rajkummar Rao and Shruti Haasan in the lead)