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Smiles Ahead

Director of Marathi film Smile Please, Vikram Phadnis and lead actor Lalit Prabhakar tell Padma Iyer about how the film came about, the process of its making and more

Vikram, you are a well-known personality in the film industry. You have been associated with films as a designer for a long time. What was the reason that you decided to turn director?

Vikram Phadnis (VP): I always wanted to tell stories, I just didn’t know if I would be able to. I feel a good director is someone who can tell a story, not necessarily good or bad because technicians can always be hired. I was always behind the camera for many years, so I knew exactly what angles are and what shot taking is all about. As technicians, when you are behind the camera, you interact with the DoP, the art director, the costume designer, the director, the assistants. Because I was a costume designer, I had the knowledge and know-how, I just didn’t know if I could execute it. So first I started writing Hrudayantar. And the whole idea behind writing it was that I wanted to make stories that I wanted to tell and not direct stories that others wrote. I wanted to say something.

If tomorrow, somebody else is writing a script, then it has to inspire me so much that I should be able to visualise somebody else’s story and then execute it. It has to resonate with me or else I will take as much time as I want but I will only write the stories that I am convinced of. So the journey was beautiful. And the kind of faith that people showed in me! If I was not prepared, I would not put my career at stake and let people say that I should go back to being a fashion designer. I would never take that risk. Here there are no second chances.

How do you balance between being a designer and filmmaker?

VP: I don’t want to mix designing and direction. You will be amazed, but I have also written both the stories. Rohini Ninawe did the dialogue for the first film and for Smile Please, Irawati Karnik did the dialogue. When I am doing films, I don’t want to get my influence of fashion into it. My method of working will be the same. I don’t want to mix the two. I am riding two horses, but I cannot ride them simultaneously. I will ride one, take it to a point. Then, I will come back and ride the other horse. I will never intertwine them because I will fall.

Lalit, how did you come on board Smile Please?

Lalit Prabhakar (LP): There was a screening of my film, Tujha Tu Majha Mi and Vikram sir had come for that. During the interval, he said he does not know when it will happen, but that he wants me to do his next film. At the time, even I didn’t know how serious he was about what he said but I said yes, we would work together. When he started thinking about the subject of his next film, he involved me in it from that time itself. So I have been part of every draft of the film.

VP: There used to be no one else but the two of us. We used to have dinner together, discuss about the film. Irawati Karnik was not even part of the film at the time. Nobody was. We were discussing ideas, just throwing stuff around. In fact it was he who told me about Milind Jog, my DoP. See, he is also like a younger brother to me. I don’t know him through this film, I know him because I treat him like a younger brother. We chat a lot about cinema.

Lalit, because you were involved in the film from the beginning, do you think it gave you an advantage while working in it?

LP: The fun aspect of it is that no two directors are alike. Here it helped because you are involved in the process in a different capacity. I feel that you should look at your film as an entire project instead of looking at just what your part is. During the reading itself I went to him with many questions. I had queries even in the scenes that I was not part of. As an actor I believe that you have to surrender, but I cannot blindly follow instructions. I never told sir that I will not say this or I will not do this. I was ready to do whatever he wanted, but then I would continue to ask questions till the end. That is important for me because that is the only way that I can deliver. I need to have clarity. And since I was there from the beginning, I was aware about a lot of things. So it helped, yes.

Vikram, this is your second film with Mukta Barve. You worked with her in Hrudayantar earlier. Have you seen any change in her as an actor?

VP: I have not seen a change in Mukta from Hrudayantar to Smile Please. Inherently she is talented. Also, there was no change that I wanted. There was never a brief given to her that she should not do what was done in Hrudayantar. It happened organically. There was no deliberate effort to make her do something different. Now if I do another film with Lalit, the characters will change but inherently Lalit Prabhakar cannot change. I don’t want to do that because you will take away from who he is. Your character can have nuances, your character can change, your character can have ups and downs but the actor should not change.

LP: When I asked him if there is anything he wanted me to do, all he said was, ‘Be as you are’.

VP: That is the beauty of every actor. If I wanted them to change, then I would take somebody else who has that change. I want to take you for who you are. I will give you the zone and in that zone, you play. The idea is that he has to act. I will tell him the tone of the scene, but I will not change the actor’s perception of that character.

Lalit, how was it working with you co-actors? What was the dynamic like?

LP: Since I was working with all of them for the first time, there was a different kind of bonding that developed. There is Satish Aalekar in the film and he is an institute in himself. I had a lot of scenes with him and with Mukta, of course. And that is the interesting part that each one has their strong point which you get to experience and learn from.

From Prasad (Oak) I have heard the narration of film scripts. His vocal acting is beautiful. There is so much that comes from his experience. This is my fourth or fifth film. So I am still grappling and experimenting and exploring the different aspects of filmmaking. So working with these people, I got to learn a lot.

Vikram, during the trailer launch you had mentioned that Prasad had a lot of questions for you during the shoot. And he is also a director himself. So were there any challenges in directing a director?

VP: When I signed him up for the film, I was very clear. This happened a couple of times with Prasad as well as Lalit. With Mukta, this is my second film (so she knew my process). I have seen this happen even in Hindi films that the actor asks you if he can play that character a certain way. Many a times you let them do it. In the process, you waste time and you also know that you are not going to retain that take in the final cut of the film. So on the set I went with that clarity. I told them, you want to do it differently, do it but I am not going to keep it in the film. The second take that you do for me is what I will retain. This happened a couple of times. It happened during the climax sequence of the film with Prasad. Then there was an important scene with Lalit, it was the pre-climax scene. We stopped the shooting for 15 minutes. Lalit had questions as to why his character was saying what he was saying. I told him that the character is evolving now, so he will say this. When you see the film you will understand. If his character didn’t say those words, then that character will not show growth. It will not have its graph and will stagnate. So I said to him, ‘You do how you feel, but you will also have to do what I have told you and that is what I will keep. So you can decide!’ Today, it is one of the most powerful scenes in the film.

I have visualised the film long before I reached the set. What you see in the film is what it was at the screenplay level. I have not changed one scene. What the bound script was, the film is. I edit my film on paper. I call my editor for the narration. So if something is not working out, we fix it there itself. Even my songs were edited when the narration took place. I like to go prepared.

The promotions for Smile Please started well in advance, which we don’t see happen often.

VP: I agree I started promotions in advance. I will tell you why. Everybody’s film is important to them. I can’t make a film and keep it in my house. I have reach all over Maharashtra. Visibility is very important. Why have people gone Instagram-crazy? Why people have gone Facebook-crazy? Why is the use of social media so widespread? It is because of the reach. I cannot make a film and say that I am okay with the last 10 days of promotion. I am not okay! I want to market my film. I want to take my film to the people. We all have put in our blood and sweat. Why should people not recognise that? And who says that it is the last week or the last 10 days when promotions should be done?

My marketing plan was ready one-and-a-half month before the film was over. I gave it to my artistes one month ago. Today it is the survival of the fittest. I don’t know which other film is coming on my Friday. Every film, irrespective of the language, is competition for me if it is coming on my release date. And I want to make sure that my film reaches people. So, I believe in hard selling. I am not apologetic about it.

Lalit, what are your expectations from the film, for yourself and of course from the audience?

LP: My expectation from myself is that every character I do be different from the previous one. I want people to receive me as an actor rather than a star. After Aanandi Gopal, if there was any film that would have presented me in a heroic way, in a different, it couldn’t have been any other film than Vikram sir’s.

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