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A Star Is Reborn

Director Shekhar Sartandel and lead actor Mangesh Desai of Marathi film Ekk Albela in conversation with Team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): Can you tell us how you thought of making a film on Bhagwan Dada?

Shekhar Sartandel (SS): I have always been drawn to actors of yesteryears because I am also a teacher at a film institute. So while reading up on filmmaking during those times, I got a reference point on Bhagwan Dada. I read about him six to seven years ago. One day, I was talking to producer Monish Barbare and he asked me if I would like to make a film on Bhagwan Dada. That’s how it all began.

BOI: Mangesh, how did you bag the film?

Mangesh Desai (MD): I believe it was a wish of Bhagwan Dada that I should play this role in the film. I never thought I looked like Bhagwan Dada or that I could play him in a film. I had heard his song Bholi soorat dil ke khote when I was very young. It used to play at most weddings. I met Dada just once at SN Studios in 1996. Then, one day, Shekhar sir told me he wanted me to listen to a narration and so we met. He narrated the story to me. The script was compact and very nice. I asked him what role he had in mind for me and he said, Bhagwan Dada. That’s when I realised that an actor has one eye but a director has three eyes. That’s how I landed the part.

BOI: Why do you feel the director has three eyes?

MD: Because directors can see things I could never even imagine. If I had three eyes, you wouldn’t be asking me this question. Before he met me, the director had compared my picture with Bhagwan Dada’s picture and marked all the similarities.

BOI: Was it tough for you to do the casting?

SS: Since film stars are very public figures, casting someone in the role of an actor means you run the risk of the audience not accepting it. There were three things available about Bhagwan Dada – his dance style; before that he was an action hero; and he was an unconventional hero of the 1950s. In those days, actors used to have a lean physique. Finding a man like that, to dance like that and to do action like that was a challenge. Add to that the emotions that had to be portrayed and it was a tall order.

Again, Geeta Bali was an unconventional heroine. She was also a chubby heroine, unlike the actresses we have today. So there were some pretty serious challenges to casting. We had been looking at Marathi actresses and then my mind went to the Hindi industry. I had worked in nine Hindi films. But I still couldn’t come up with anyone.

Then, with Raj Kapoor… This movie is set in the pre-1950s’ era and Raj Kapoor was lean then. But the Raj Kapoor we often see is a little different. So we had to convince the audience. For Raj Kapoor, I looked at 150 to 200 faces or more, from the Hindi industry.

The other problem was imagining what an artiste would look like after he was made up as the character. Then, apart from these three actors, we had to cast an actor to play the role of his father. Once again, people looked very different then.

BOI: When you make a period film, you need very specific kinds of sets. How did you accommodate that in the budget?

SS: Yes, it was difficult for me. In the Hindi industry, when a period set is made, even the price of the set makes news. So, yes, it was a challenge. But I was clear about one thing – I didn’t want to focus on too many jazzy things, glamour and huge sets. The core part of the film was the biopic and I had to focus on the person and the events in his life.

BOI: How difficult was it for you to portray the character of Bhagwan Dada?

MD: Sir had made one thing very clear from the very beginning, that I didn’t have to mimic Bhagwan Dada. Second, except the Albela film, there wasn’t any material available on Dada. There is a film calledBhagam Bhag but it was not a solo hero film; Kishoreji(Kumar) featured in that film with him. So it was difficult to watch just one film and gauge the personality of the man.

In the beginning, when I asked the director to send me some information about Bhagwan Dada, he said he would in a couple of days. That stretched to a month and, in the end, he said only Albela was available. By then, I had watched Albela almost 10 times. I finally watched that film 25 times.

I am a student of drama and we are taught that whether or not we become good actors, we should become good observers. We must learn to observe things. By now, I had about 18 years’ experience and, during this time, I realised one thing – you can never play another character 100 per cent; your personality is bound to come though.

When I saw Bhagwan Dada’s Albela, I realised he was a natural actor but he was melodramatic in his style. The director had given me the script earlier, so I used to study a scene and wonder how Dada would have behaved in his personal life etc. I thus tried to create a character. Still, before every scene, I used to ask sir and he would always say, ‘Go ahead and do the scene, and if there is any flaw I will tell you. Otherwise, you are on the right track.’

BOI: How did Vidya Balan agree to do the film?

SS: It all started with a joke. I had started shooting the film but was still looking for someone to play Geeta Bali. On the sets, everyone would ask me, ‘Mili ki nahi?’ And from spotboy to watchman, everyone had suggestions on Geeta Baali.

One day, our make-up artist Bhatte saab asked me if I had settled on someone to cast for the role. I angrily replied, ‘Nahi mili!’ Then, he asked me who I wanted. And I replied saying, ‘Vidya Balan chahiye.’ Since he had worked with her in Bobby Jasoos, he texted her and she had replied to him in 30 minutes, saying, ‘Sounds interesting, I am coming from Chennai next week and I would love to get a narration from the director.’

I narrated the entire film to her and told her that her part was in the second half but I didn’t believe in narrating only her part. After the narration, there was a brief silence and then Bhatte saab asked if she was interested. She replied, saying, ‘I would love to do this film. He has given me such a good narration that I could actually see the film.’

BOI: You mentioned that there wasn’t much material on Bhagwan Dada. How much of a challenge did that pose while scripting the film?

SS: There was one thing that was difficult while scripting – when you do a biopic… I mean, jab samaj sudharak ya phir bhagne wale ke upar biopic hoti hai toh koi objection nahi leta. (Laughs)  Since this film was about a film star, a celebrity, you never know from where and how objections may be raised. The thing is, there are some scenes that you take from original literature about the person’s life. But everything cannot be positive. Nor can you leave out facts from the film as you have to show ups and downs. Even though we haven’t dramatised the story, questions may still be raised, like, how do you know this happened? I had references but there was still some tension while writing the script.

For instance, there was one fact about Raj Kapoor sir that I learnt but I couldn’t use it in my film. I can tell you about it here. Since Raj Kapoor was junior to Bhagwan Dada, he would go to his editing room and look at his shots. Bhagwan Dada nahi hote the tabhi. He was a great admirer of Bhagwan Dada. You see, at the time Raj Kapoor was very young and the editor would say, ‘Woh jo Prithivi Raj ka beta hai na woh baar baar ate rahta hai, toh usko bol haan ander ake humare shots nahi dekhe, pura ka pura dekte rahta hai.’ If I use this in the film, kaunsa bhi Kapoor aa sakta hai… there are many Kapoors who could ask for proof that this had actually happened.

So, it’s very problematic. We were treading a thin line but without doing that, we wouldn’t have a screenplay. I had to select the ups and downs of his life in such a way that it could be accepted without any objections.

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