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Packing A Punch

Producer Dhaval Gada, director Kundan Shah and leading lady Meenakshi Dixit of P Se PM Tak in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): Kundan sir, after more than four decades in the industry, how would you describe your journey?

Kundan Shah (KS): I have made seven films in four decades. After Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, there were no offers and, still, there are no offers. There was just this man who backed the project.

BOI: How did this project come together?

KS: It’s a black comedy. The film is a political satire and the main protagonist is a prostitute. Usually, prostitutes have a very sad story when presented on celluloid. Even this is a very tragic story but we have interpreted it in a different way. We have maintained the tragedy but she is an observer. We have used comedy, slapstick comedy, and in terms of the story there is a raid on her brothel and she is the only one who manages to escape. She meets a man and he tells her that his sister is running a brothel in Satara and that she should go there. This prostitute is from Pune and she has no money. So this man tells her to go to Satara, where his sister will manage everything.

She lands up in Satara along with a tea boy, who is graduating into a pimp. When she lands in Satara, that brothel too is raided because there is a by-election underway there. So this woman gets caught in the by-election and ends up becoming the chief minister in just four days. Soon she is asked to stand for election as Prime Minister. That’s how the story progresses. She didn’t want to be CM and she didn’t want to get into politics but due to the absurdity of situations, she goes with the flow.

BOI: What made you cast Meenakshi in the film?

KS: This role had a fantastic range. I approached Madhavan and even Farooq Sheikh for the role that Bharat Jadhav is now playing. But the first question everyone asked me was who was going to play this girl’s part. It is such a colourful role and everyone wanted to know who was playing the part. Strangely, many actresses rejected the part outright. I tried Madhuri Dixit before she got married even after she got married but no luck. Dhaval and I have worked on this project together for seven years.

Finally, his father (Jayantilal Gada) gave me an ultimatum and told me that they had found an actress. She worked in television and was a comedian, and the producers were prepared to pay her whatever she asked for. But there was a problem – I found out that this actress had signed the film not for me, or the script, or the role but for the money. I told the producers I cannot work like this as the role is very important and the range of the character is very different. Also, this was a very small budget film so we needed someone who really wanted to do this film.

Meanwhile, we had been testing girls for the part and his father gave me an ultimatum of five days. Meenakshi happened to audition. And just like that, 15 years of making this film fell into her lap in just four days.

BOI: Did you change the script as it was meant for 15 years ago?

KS: No, the story is the same. A story can never get outdated, just like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.

Dhaval Gada (DG): (Cuts in) Basically, it is a political satire. Since it is not today’s story, nor yesterday’s or tomorrow’s story, it was not dated. So it didn’t make much of a difference. It is a universal story.

KS: Yes, we wrote the script seven years ago but it is still relevant. We have not used a prototype politician; only the essence of a politician who is even relevant today.

BOI: What were you thinking when you were cast in this film?

Meenakshi Dixit (MD): I wasn’t expecting to get the role and I was very surprised. I didn’t believe that I had actually cracked it, so I thought, let things sink in and wait till I actually signed on the dotted line. But when I signed the agreement, Kundan sir told me, ‘Don’t think we signed you for the film because you fit the character. We signed you because you are nothing like the character and you have to work towards it. Until you do that, it is not confirmed whether you will do the film or not. So I was on tenterhooks every day till we finally started rolling.

KS: We rehearsed for three months.

MD: I was in love with the script. And I was given an ultimatum ‘n’ number of times. There came a point that I became so selfish and was ready to do anything. Sir mujhe subah 9 baje se raat ke 9 baje tak baitha ke rakhe for the rehearsals and I had no problem.

KS: I would tell Dhaval that we made a huge mistake. We paid her what was in the agreement and, after six months, she says she would have done the film for ` 1 (Laughs).

MD: Yes, I said that (Laughs).

KS: It is a brilliant role and that is why everyone kept asking who was playing this part. This character has such a wide range of emotions, from tragic to comic, to becoming a statement and a metaphor and becoming the voice of our society.

BOI: Dhaval, how creatively involved were you in the film?

DG: I think when Kundan sir is there, you don’t need to be creatively involved at all. We liked the script and locked it seven years ago. We were waiting for the D-Day and there was not much involvement from our side. But, with other projects, we do get involved. In this case there was no need.

BOI: Now that you have begun promoting the film, what is the marketing plan?

DG: We have tried to crack a different strategy. We are not looking for a big release but a concentrated release. I mean, if a multiplex chain offers me 800 screens, that wouldn’t help as we are looking for 350 screens. And we are not even looking at a specific number of promos because if you load a small-budget film with a big marketing budget, it becomes very difficult to recover your investment. This is a small kind of film and we have to accept that fact. So we are going ahead with a different model and we hope it works.

KS: The smaller the film, the bigger the adventure.

BOI: Dhaval, was it after Kahaani that you thought of making this film even though it was with you for seven years?

DG: Yes, immediately after that. Kahaani was definitely a game-changer for us but when you are sitting on that chair and have to make decisions, you go with your gut and have to believe in the product. So after Kahaani, we did Issaq and the animated film Mahabharat and then this film. But it was around that time, in three to four months, that we locked a few scripts.

BOI: Kundan sir, in all these years, weren’t you approached to make any films?

KS: I had signed an exclusive agreement with Tips Entertainment that I would only direct films for them. Rameshji (Taurani) was a very dear friend. He asked me to direct Dil Hai Tumhaara, which was not my script. It was written by Rajkumar Santoshi and I am not very comfortable while directing other people’s stories. But they forced me to direct that film. My point is, if the story had been written by someone else, he should direct it as he best understands the flow. When Raj used to narrate the story, Rameshji used to double up with laughter and I used to be, like, I might not laugh at the same joke. So, I finally told them that I would like to direct my own scripts. In fact, one day, I asked Rameshji what kind of film he preferred – one that becomes an instant hit or one that becomes a hit after four to five years and people remember it for a lifetime? In the end, I understand that they are also producers. I narrated this script to him so many times but he did not agree. I have been narrating the story to many people but no one connected with it.

BOI: Then…

KS: Then I discontinued the agreement with them as I wanted to tell stories that I wanted to. I write stories which are real; my stories always come from the newspapers. I write stories that reflect our society and what happens in our society. We were never on the same page, so I thought yeh toh galat shaadi ho gayi. And I discontinued the contract. But it was a mutual decision. I can’t direct stories written by someone else. I need to connect and agree with the concept before I direct it. Like Kya Kehna was by Honey Irani and it was ahead of its time. But I felt an urge to tell the story. I asked Honey if she wanted to direct it because it was her baby. While making the film, we faced so many issues, people had asked Rameshji to stop the shoot midway as we might not have recovered our investment, or we might not get any buyers. But somehow we all put our faith in the film and went ahead with it. And it was highly appreciated by the audience.

BOI: Meenakshi, tell us about your journey and what it was like to work with Kundan Shah. Did you feel the pressure of being a debutante with a central role?

MD: Totally! But it was a learning experience. Initially, I was very nervous. Ever since I signed on the dotted line, it felt like I was in a boarding school. It was very tough because I needed to transform into that character. Learning Marathi was not challenging but all the other actors had a theatre background. So I was very stressed and nervous in the workshops. There were times I wondered whether I would be able to do it or not.

KS: (Cuts in) Yes, suddenly, my assistant would come up to me and say that Meenakshi was crying, and I used to be, like, why is she crying? I would tell her that she was there to work so she should not cry as the film was all about her. I used to say, ‘If you as the main lead lose confidence, how will I direct the film?’

MD: Exactly! That’s why I used to cry. He used to be, like, ‘If you fail, the film fails.’ So I was very nervous in the beginning. But once I started to get along with everyone and became stable, everything was sorted. By the end, I was a totally different person as I had transformed into the character I was playing.

KS: (Cuts in) That’s why I took so many workshops. And during workshops, she used to cry. We had so many theatre actors. Eventually, with every passing day, with script readings and workshops, she grew.

MD: Then I understood that it is a process. I don’t have any relatives or friends in the industry and I have never done theatre. So everything was new. I had worked in South films but there we do the shoot on sets. Here, there were workshops, sessions... That’s why I was scared. Later, I built my confidence.

BOI: Now that the film is ready, how happy are you?

KS: I am very happy. We have all worked hard. I waited for so many years for this story to be told and it was only because of Jayantilal Gada that I completed the film.

BOI: Kundan sir, how has filmmaking changed over the years?

KS: It is more risky and recovery is very difficult. On the day PK released, I was coming out of my building and I saw a watchman watching the film on his mobile. So piracy has increased, people no longer go to cinemas or at least people who can’t afford it. The recovery window is now only three days, which is a weekend. Today, it’s no longer really about cinema; it’s more about selling your product, about who spends more on marketing.

BOI: Will we see this association going forward?

KS: (Laughs) It all depends on how this film works at the box office.

BOI: Usually, directors start with television and then take a leap to films. But you seemed to have done it the other way around?

KS: I do whatever gives me satisfaction. When I made Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, I didn’t expect this kind of response. People love watching it till date. Then I was not getting anything at par but I got to do amazing work in television, like Nukkad and Wagle Ki Duniya, which gave me creative satisfaction. And they were instant hits too. So I chose that route. And when a script came along, I directed films too. But television changed drastically and it was no longer what I was used to making.

BOI: Dhaval, you started at a very early age. Kahaani was a turning point but then Issaq and Mahabharat didn’t work.

DG: I am learning on the job, every day. Yes, Kahaani was a turning point but then the other films didn’t work. We knew we couldn’t be overconfident. The audience doesn’t like everything you offer them, so one has to be very selective. Today cinema is more about content. If you have a good story, may not be on Friday but the audience will surely watch your film. That’s the kind of faith we had in this story.

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