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Mother Superior: In conversation with Team Hirkani - Sonalee Kulkarni, Rajesh Mapuskar and Ameet Khedekar

Creative producer Rajesh Mapuskar, lead actors Sonalee Kulkarni and Ameet Khedekar talk to Padma Iyer about their upcoming film Hirkani, the making of the film, challenges faced, the passion that drove the project and more

Sonalee, this is a film that you have wanted to make for a very long time. What was it about the story that made it your passion project?
Sonalee Kulkarni (SK): More than the story it was about how it came to me, I was shooting for Ajintha which was also a historical film. Pratap Gangawane who mostly writes historical projects, was part of the research team on that film. It was he who brought the story of Hirkani to me. ‘Why don’t you make a film on Hirkani? It can be a cinematic story. Think about it,’ he said. I was excited and thrilled about the idea but as an actor, I didn’t know what to do with this thought, Also I was very young and new when this happened; it was eight years ago. So the idea remained and I went about making other films. Three years ago he again approached me and this time he gave me a four-page synopsis of Hirkani to read. And I thought that it was destiny that the film came to me again and I didn’t want to miss doing it. I called up Prasad (Oak) dada, and said that I had a story which I thought that he should direct. I sent him the synopsis and he was really thrilled and excited. He chose Chinmay Mandlekar to convert that into a two-hour script and what a script he came up with! Then there was a lot of struggle in finding the right producers who would believe in us and that just went on for a long time. A lot of people didn’t want do it and I thank them today because that’s how we could reach Rajesh (Mapuskar) sir, because he was destined to make this baby come to life.

Prasad had approached many producers for this film, but they were not keen on being part of this film. Rajesh, what convinced you to come on board Hirkani?
Rajesh Mapuskar (RM): I am a huge fan of Sonalee and I really admire and appreciate her for what she does. So, she was one of the reasons for doing the film. 
Secondly, after Ventilator I wanted to make more films because of the kind of love which I got for that film especially from the Marathi industry, it was like a homecoming for me. So I thought why not stay home and enjoy all the attention and pampering. Getting pampered was the best feeling to have. 
And thirdly, I usually write my films and it takes one to two years to write a project and then another two years to make it. So, I thought why not produce films and tell the stories of others. That is when Falguni Patel and Irada Entertainment, Mr Lawrence D’souza; we all came together. 
What I got from Falguni and Irada Entertainment is what any creative producer can dream of; the freedom to choose and that is what inspired us.  There was no interference; just absolute trust. So then it became our responsibility to come up with something that we could be proud of.  It was during that time that Aakash Pendharkar who was bringing many projects to us, suggested we take a look at Hirkani starring Sonalee being made by Prasad Oak. 
We all knew the story of Hirkani but as soon as we decided to make the film, all the economics involved in the making of such a film flashed in front of my eyes. But then I heard the narration from Prasad and it was difficult for me to find flaws in the script because the way he read the script, I was mesmerised and lost into it. I tried finding flaws but there weren’t any. My guru Vidhu Vinod Chopra had told me that if something is not broken, don’t fix it. So, I thought that it may not be the perfect script in the conventional way of things, but the way Prasad conveyed it to me, it connected with me.  With Sanjay Memane, the director of photography teaming up with Prasad on this whole project, actually the passion I saw in the whole team, I had to be part of it and here I am!


Ameet how did you become the part of this passionate project?
Ameet Khedekar (AK):
I got a call one fine day to come and meet for a film. I had absolute no idea about the project. And when I arrived, there was Prasad sir, his better half Manju tai and Sonalee. I was absolutely shocked to see them. And when they gave me the script, it was all the more shocking because it was a historical film.  
SK: It was almost like an interrogation. He was shell-shocked, I remember. He has absolutely no idea about the film or the character.
RM: Well, Ameet agreed to the film on only one condition, that thank god he didn’t have to descend down the fort! (Everyone laughs)
But jokes apart, there is an interesting story about the casting of the character of Jeeva. This was the last character to be cast and I was very convinced that Prasad should play the part because the way he read the script, his language... I told him that he should do it. But he said that it was difficult for him to be director and actor. But I could not imagine anyone else in that role. And then one fine day he called me and said that Jeeva has been cast. He told me about Ameet Khedekar and that he was perfect for the role. I had not heard the name before as I was relatively new to the Marathi film industry. He showed me his picture and I immediately warmed up to him. But then I saw him on the first day of shoot. He was shooting for a scene and when I heard him speak he immediately took me to that era.  

Rajesh, as a creative producer how did you contribute to the film?
RM: My biggest contribution as a creative producer was not doing anything. It was difficult since I am also a director and there was a temptation to say or do something. But deep down I knew how I would feel if I had to go through the same thing. And Prasad is such a nice guy that he listens to what you say, but he does what he wants and he does it so well. Since they were making a good product, I took it upon myself to put it out there. Yes, I had to learn about that as well, but then it was a humbling to do that. I tried my best to hold the team together which was so beautifully handpicked by Prasad Oak.
I still remember the first day we shot in Raigad, we had to tow all the equipment via ropeway, horses and everything all the way up the fort. And when I saw the effort that went into I realised that it was a huge task and that I was better off chilling rather than directing this film. (Everyone laughs)

Sonalee, the highlight of the film is the descent that Hirkani does down the fort. It involves VFX and this is something that you have never done before. How did you prepare for it?
SK: A lot of people ask me, did you prepare, did you learn mountain climbing or rock climbing or did you rehearse how to do the stunts? I did nothing of that. In fact, my biggest challenge was to unlearn. To know that I can do this, or anything else for that matter, not just the climbing portions. Learning is easy; unlearning is the most difficult part. How can I pretend that my world is just my husband, my child and my in-laws. I can act that I am absolutely unaware of the outside world, but then it will show in your eyes that you are acting. It will not look real. So the unlearning part began from looking naïve and innocent; I had to go back to being the person I was ten years before. When I came into the film industry I didn’t know anything. I had to bring that and as an actor that was challenging because the character I am playing is so innocent.
For a woman like her, whose world is just her family, milking the cows and doing the chores around the house compared to a woman of today who has seen and experienced the outside world, they are affected differently. And it is that very innocence that probably gave her the courage to climb down that mountain. A woman of today would be more practical if she knew the dangers and think that she could wait till morning. To get that rawness and innocence was the biggest challenge for me. And every time Prasad dada kept reminding me to keep that intact. And of course shooting the entire sequence was challenging; it was a nine-day shoot, actually nine nights. It happened during kojagiri poornima, under the moonlight. We shot during the nights; from 7 pm to 7 am the next day. As an actor I don’t think I will ever get to shoot like this in the future and of course it has never happened in the past. It doesn’t happen often in any actor’s career that they have shot nine consecutive nights and that too all alone. There is no dialogue, no co-actors, nothing. Acting is all about reacting and here who am I going to react to? What am I going to react to? Everything is imaginary. So hats off to the Hollywood filmmakers who make entire films on CGI and VFX. Indian actors don’t get to experience this so much. I am very privileged that I got to experience something like this. At the same time it was a very traumatic because I felt that I was stuck in this situation. Imagine how she must have actually felt! It was physically, mentally and emotionally very straining. But it was all worth it.

Ameet, were you at any point intimidated working with Sonalee or Prasad?
Yes, but only in the beginning. But once I was with the team and became part of the team, it was good. I believed in Prasad sir’s vision and that was the only thing that I did in the film. As an actor he is brilliant and he has a command over history and the language. When there are such experienced people behind you, things become easy for you. All you need to do is trust them. I didn’t overthink and just followed the instructions. So I guess that is what has reflected on screen as well. 

But did you have to learn anything specific, like Sonalee had to?
We had to learn the dialect. You can learn a language to communicate, but the inherent sweetness develops over time. We did a lot of readings; sitting, standing, in costume, while doing activities and daily chores, while practising the scenes. And if in the trailer people are able to see and appreciate that we have been able to capture from that era, then the credit goes to the process. Of course then comes the body language and the stunts that we had to do, like horse-riding and so on.
SK: Watching the film and how it has shaped up is definitely overwhelming. But not many actors get to do stuff like this or undergo such a process. How often does it happen that you spend two years on a film to prepare for it? It happens in Hollywood where directors and actors spend four to five years on a project. We are privileged that we got to do a film like this in which our producers and director gave us enough time to prepare to get the characters right. We got to learn so much.

The Rajayabhishek song has been talked about a lot and it has received attention and appreciation. What was the idea behind this song?
RM: This film lets you get in touch with your core, as a proud Maharashtrian, a proud Indian. Every Maharashtrian feels proud when you mention Raje Shivaji. From that history come Tanaji Malusare, Baji Prabhu Deshpande and Hirkani. It is that history that all of us have and warm up to, feel proud about. That is what every Maharashtrian will connect to. Now coming to the Hirkani story, we know about the incident, but we don’t know her, her family, her personal life… so that has been fictionalised. But it has been kept true to the character. Above all of that this story needed a starting point that will take you to that era and that is how Prasad approached it. This was completely Prasad Oak’s vision. 
SK: Both of us are revealed in the song. The beauty of the song is that who is Shivaji Maharaj is not revealed in the song, but his presence is felt throughout it. Prasad dada rightly says the song takes you to that era instantly. 

Hirkani is releasing during Diwali at the same time as three Bollywood releases. How do you look at the box office?
RM: First of all we don’t feel threatened by the big films. It is not arrogance, but the core emotion of this film. The audience that will connect with that is different. The Marathi film audience is very rigid and very loyal. They will come and watch the film. When it comes to Diwali, people look for reasons to get out of the house, reasons to celebrate. They want to be together and enjoy together. So I feel that everyone who knows Hirkani or wants to know about Hirkani will be curious. That curiosity will bring the audience to the theatres. So I feel it is a film made purely for Diwali and we are working day and night to get it out on that day. Yes, there was pressure from distributor friends to not release the film with the big releases, but there was no other date that we contemplated. We want all films do well. I want people to watch all the films. So I don’t feel threatened, none of us do.
AK: When you do all the promotional activities, the love that we are getting, especially from the mothers, they want to watch the film and they also want their children to as well. And like sir said, there is no fear and we have the confidence that the audience will come and watch the film in theatres. 
SK: I agree with both of them. The day the first clap of the film was given we had decided that the film will come out on Diwali. And making clay forts is part of Diwali and what better occasion to celebrate motherhood than this time. Leaving all this sentiment aside, if we look in recent times, we have had Marathi films come with big Hindi releases during Diwali and doing well at the box office and what better occasion to celebrate this film than this festival!

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