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A Page-Turner

Debutant actors Zaheer Iqbal and Pranutan Bahl talk to Anita Britto about their first film, Notebook, their mentor Salman Khan and their experience of shooting in Kashmir

As newcomers, what kind of launch were you hoping for, and how did Notebook fit the bill?

Zaheer Iqbal (ZI): I did not know if, with Notebook, my expectations would be met, but I was always open to doing a film that was content-based. I did not want to do a film that had a quintessential hero, the ‘shirt phaad ke baahar nikla’ element. Because I have my entire life, my entire acting career, ahead to do that in. As far as my first film goes, I always wanted it to be special; I wanted it to be completely content-driven.

Pranuthan Bahl (PB): Honestly, I never thought about it much. I did not think that it would be like this or like that. The truth is that I just wanted to be inspired by the story I heard and hopefully audition for it and bag my debut. That was my first concern, and I have to say here that I couldn’t have asked for a better beginning in the industry as an actor.

What was the brief that director Nitin Kakkar gave you for the film?

PB: He told us both not to act but just to feel the emotion. He wanted us to remove the layers that are in our system, to meditate and be calmer as people, as individuals. He told us to come to him with a clean slate and then give birth to our characters in the film, Kabir and Firdaus. He said this to us because we, in reality, were very far from Kabir and Firdaus, as people. He doesn’t believe in anything but honesty so he wanted us to really get into the characters and for that we had to come in without any prior ‘learning’.

ZI: The thing is that Nitin sir never sounds preachy, even when he is giving advice or telling you how to do something; he does it very subtly and smoothly. He has taught us a lot. In fact, the person I am today is all thanks to Salman Khan obviously and Nitin sir.

How did the two of you break the ice to create the chemistry we see in the trailer and the songs?

ZI: Actually, there was no ice to be broken, because the first thing we did within two minutes of meeting was to perform a scene. And right after that first experience with Pranutan, I became her fan. We got along really well and really quickly. All this happened when I was doing a workshop and Nitin sir asked me to step up and perform a scene with her. She had come to audition and I was blown away by her performance. It was very organic. Luckily for both of us, there was no need to force a friendship. It is important to get along with your co-star.

PB: Yes, I completely agree with him. It was really organic and thank God for that. (Laughs)

It is said that it’s difficult to work with kids, and there are seven of them in the film. What was that like?

ZI: Touch wood, we are both very good with kids and kids love us. That really is a blessing. We had an instant connection with all the kids because they were just very loving and very welcoming. I think that’s how the people of Kashmir generally are. Everyone there is so loving and hospitable, it just passes on to the kids.

PB: When we were shooting together, on and off camera, I felt like they were my kids and I love all of them equally. If you’d asked me, I couldn’t have picked favourites.

ZI: They are her kids and my siblings. (Laughs)

Do you think a production house like SKF and a name like Salman Khan gives a boost to your career and the film?

PB: Yes, it does give a push. The world knows about you. People know that you are being launched by him and that’s a great thing for any newcomer.

ZI: It gives a lot of exposure to someone who is starting out. But along with that, there is also a lot of pressure. SKF is launching you. You can’t let anyone down, especially Salman Khan. We just hope we prove that we deserved it, deserved this opportunity that he has given us.

PB: (Cuts in) Salman Khan has given his everything to this film, whether it is his time, his energy. He wishes us well and loves us. He is always aware of what we are doing. It is also a huge responsibility on his shoulders. (Smiles)

As your producer and as an actor himself, what kind of influence did Salman Khan have on both of you?

ZI: One thing that he told everyone was to not worry about me. He kept telling people that he has trained me in everything and one thing that I do not need training in, is speaking with people. He said that speaking with people, conversing and connecting with them was my forte. He has taught us how to treat our teams, how to treat our staff and all the people we are working with. We have learnt a lot from him. Be it a spot boy or the director, we should show them respect. Even today, if any director or producer comes to Salman bhai’s house, he will always go to drop them to their car. I have seen him do it and I would do the same. These are the small things that I have learned from him.

What was it like shooting at the school created in the midst of a lake in Kashmir?

ZI: It was phenomenal. In Kashmir, you get a perfect frame anywhere you place the camera, and then it is just a matter of choosing which one suits the scene best. The school was built on drums and it was mind-blowing how that happened. Hats off to the art director who created a set that could take the load of so many people and equipment, along with which it lasted for so long. Urvi Ashar and Shipra Rawal have done the art of the film and I have to say that they are geniuses.

PB: It was a beautiful set with a lot of detailing. It helped us to know Kabir and Firdaus better.

ZI: (Cuts in) There were times when we slept in those rooms because they were so comfortable and it really felt like home. It didn’t feel like a set at all. We almost cried when it was demolished.

You have both been part of films since childhood. How has your perception of films and filmmaking changed now that you are actors?

ZI: There is so much learning to do. We are learning something new every day. There are a lot of things we did not understand in the beginning but now we do.

PB: We have also realised that as actors, the degree of mental focus, concentration and discipline you need is huge. Both of us will keep that in mind for our future after Notebook.

As new actors entering the industry, were there any inhibitions?

ZI: Absolutely none. People think I should be a little inhibited at times, but honestly, I have no inhibitions at all.

PB: (Cuts in) My father says that, as an actor, you should have no inhibitions. But I am a little bit more inhibited than Zaheer because my nature is that I take time to open up, but I have really worked on that through Notebook. It is important that you lose your inhibitions to a very large extent. Also, on the sets of a film directed by Nitin sir, you cannot have any inhibitions. He manages to get you out there completely.

Is there a path you have envisioned for yourself after the release of Notebook?

ZI: I just want to do great films. (Chuckles) I am actually okay with any kind of script. I am not particular about genre. I will do anything, horror, comedy, action. I want to explore it all.

So what’s next for you? Have you signed any films?

ZI: I have been approached for a couple of projects but I am not going to sign anything until March 29. I am very confident about this film but you don’t know what a Friday has in store for you and what will happen. I also hope I will be offered bigger and better films. I just want to keep moving forward.

PB: I am only focused on Notebook, releasing on March 29. Everything else comes after that.

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