Randeep Hooda (RH): Ketan, how does it feel to have your film release after so many years?
Ketan Mehta (KM): I feel like a very pregnant woman who is about to deliver.
RH: Was it a good pregnancy?
KM: Five years!
Nandana Sen (NS): Long labour.
KM: Five long years of labour.
RH: We don’t have to say five years.
NS: Yeah, let’s be vague about it.
KM: Yeah! I am very happy the film is finally releasing. We have all been looking forward to this day. It’s an absolutely wonderful feeling.
KM: We kept on being brave. We never gave up hope. Alternatively, I feel very lucky because we have all done such a good job in the film. It’s a wonderful subject. We have put so much love into this project and we want to share the love with the audience.
BOI: Ketan, you have worked in this industry for many years. Does it feel good to see your lead pair supporting the film? Nowadays, not many support films that run into trouble or take ages to release.
KM: They are professionals and know that they have done a great job in the film. So I am sure they are as eager as I am for it to reach out to as many people as it can.
RH: Absolutely! Unless your work is shared by a large audience, which includes screenings and film festivals, I think the film is incomplete. You have to give people a chance to watch it and for this, you have to make people aware of the film’s inception, pregnancy and delivery. The delivery cannot be half-hearted.
NS: It was a very important and a very courageous film, so it deserves to be celebrated and championed. Every film deserves that effort, and this one in particular because it’s such a heroic film.
Deepa Sahi (DS): It was a very long journey but the entire team was totally committed to the film. I remember, during the shoot, we had to keep in mind how Raja Ravi Varma had travelled across the countryside to understand the soul of India. So it was like taking that journey ourselves. We travelled to Jaisalmer, Varanasi, Kerala, Baroda and Pune and we did loads of research in terms of costumes of that period and getting the rights to those paintings. Raja Ravi Varma made these huge paintings that now cost ` 20-30 crore. Photographing them, getting them painted upon and blowing them up was a huge organisational job.
KM: Changing the face of the girl in those pictures and replacing it with Nandana’s was a huge special-effects job as well.
DS: We didn’t want to compromise on any of the artworks because Raja Ravi Varma is the father of Indian art. So we ended up having two DoPs because one of them couldn’t speak in English and I assured him that I would get another guy to translate everything in English for him. But it also had to be a technical guy, who could quite literally understand the language of cinematography. Since this is a period film, that’s the kind of authenticity we have achieved.
BOI: How crucial was the casting?
DS: It was very crucial, and Ketan kept on screen-testing. One day, I was watching this movie called ‘D’ in which Randeep was the hero and I asked Ketan to watch the film too. he watched just five minutes of the film and said, ‘This is my Ravi Varma!’
BOI: But there is a world of difference between a ‘D and a Raja Ravi Varma…
DS: (Cuts in) But a director can spot the craft of an actor and figure out the range of the actor with just one glimpse.
RH: Working with Ketan was a no-brainer. My two favourite films in Indian cinema – and none of them features Sholay! – are Ghulami and Mirch Masala. Sholay has elements from movies across the world while JP Dutta saab’s Ghulami and Ketan sir’s Mirch Masala have original stories. Moreover, he has worked with all these super guys. So I felt that mera bhi chal jaeyga kaam! (Laughs)
DS: Guys and girls, Randeep!
RH: Yes, guys and girls like Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Shah Rukh Khan, Deepa Sahi and Aamir Khan. When he gave me the script in his office, he offered some chai and told me, ‘Padh lo yeh script.’ So sone pe suhaga ho gaya. But the first thing I asked Ketan was, ‘Who is this guy, Raja Ravi Varma. Is he a fictional character?’ Ketan gave me this book and began flipping through the pages. When he came to the pages with paintings of Laxmi and Saraswati, I was shocked because I had these very same paintings in my house. So that was really sone pe suhaga! The only thing is that, had this film come to me now, I probably would have played the role differently because I am more mature as an actor. But the downside is, I would not have brought the innocence to my acting that I had at the time.
BOI: Nandana, what was your reaction when Ketan approached you?
NS: Ketan and I have wanted to work together for a very long time. There were films we could have worked on but they didn’t happen. So when he came to my home in Mumbai, he saw two life-size replicas of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings. I have loved and admired Raja Ravi Varma’s work for quite some time, as an artist and a pioneer. I had one small painting of his when I was in college and two of these large replicas of his work. Besides, I had wanted to work with Ketan since I made my debut. Ketan is a rare kind of Indian filmmaker, whose films strongly portray women, whether Mirch Masala or Maya Memsaab. Ketan is very strongly invested in women’s rights and women’s empowerment without being didactic about it, without hitting you on the head with it, by just finding the right story. This film makes such a strong and beautiful statement about how vulnerable women are and yet how strong they can be. So to play this part with a director I had always wanted to work with, on a story about an artist who I am deeply inspired by, and to act with a friend who had moved to Mumbai the same time as I did…
BOI: You knew each other before the film?
RH: Yes, we had met at Vinita Nanda’s place once.
NS: So it seemed like it was meant to be!
NS: It was very challenging. First, I had to essay this timeless character who was strong but also fragile. This combination was key to the character and was a beautiful challenge. A period film has its unique set of challenges. So, for instance, Ketan once cancelled the shoot because the sari’s border didn’t look like it should have. I was also playing the character represented in the painting. Even though we didn’t know much about her, Ketan was certain that I needed to gain some weight for the film. And that was challenging. I had to gain 7 kg. I had to eat lots of bananas, rice and ….
RH: (Cuts in) Grapes
NS: …and grapes. It was also a huge responsibility to pay the archetypal Indian women. Actually, Sugandha’s journey mirrors the trials of all the archetypal Indian women. It’s like Damayanti, it’s also like Draupadi, in a way, because of the kind of humiliation she goes through. It’s like Sita, in a way, because of virtue being on trial and it’s like Shakuntala, in a way, because it’s been forgotten. So I went back and reread all of these mythological stories. And I drowned myself in Ravi Varma’s painting to figure out the physicality of these women, which is very different from Nandana Sen. I am very clumsy and you know I don’t walk like I do in the movie. And by the time we started shooting the film, I was walking like Sugandha. In fact, when I finished the movie, I missed the character. It was beautiful but very challenging. Over to you, Randeep…
RH: I just played it. It was as challenging as any other role. I had just come off playing Daya Nayak in Risk and I had developed this harsh look and macho character. So the biggest challenge was to develop a softer look. While Daya Nayak looked at the worst things in life, Raja Ravi Varma looked at beauty. That was the hardest part. Then to get your head around a mundu, those lungis… And the soul of the film is painting so someone from Nitin Desai’s team taught me the basics of painting.
BOI: You mean you learnt to hold a brush.
RH: You require a delicate touch when playing a painter. He was also a Bharatanatyam dancer. That was the bomb Ketan dropped on me. I had to learn the body language that Raja Ravi Varma had. Initially, we decided to use a Malayalam accent but we dropped the idea. I tried losing weight and gaining weight between shoots as the character demanded that, and we were shooting continuously. I discovered ways to look puffy in the morning and regular by evening. Ketan had written the script in a way that all the information we needed was there. The body language was captured nicely by ‘old gun’ Murugan, our director, with Mr Mehta watching over it like a hawk. So I didn’t have to do any thinking.
KM: He is underplaying it. The fact is, getting a Haryana Jatt to play a Malayali was quite a challenge for the actor. And to play it with ease is an even bigger challenge. He cut her lip… all this happened while we were shooting.
NS: (Cuts in) I caught fire too.
KM: I am really thrilled that both these actors got into their respective characters to the fullest. They exceeded my expectations to make this film happen. It is rare to find that kind of commitment in this industry.
DS: This film covers an entire life span. It’s tough to physically change your look like that. I was very impressed. It was a 75-day, nonstop shoot, 12 hours a day, and then working out every day for the next day’s look, then freshening up and attending the rehearsals. The challenge was shooting for 75 days non-stop.
RH: It was tough doing the love-making scenes in those small rooms with four to five bright lights bearing down on you. Then you have make-up all over you and the body paint was so hard to wash off. I even developed a skin allergy from the paint, heat and sweat. And we were living at ND Studios at Karjat. Moreover, it was a sync-sound film and we had to dub for it later because of the surrounding noises. Sometimes, dhols would suddenly start playing, and once, it rained. So it was difficult for us to do sync sound. We had a great ensemble cast who are now famous, like Vipin Sharma. It was actually his debut film in Hindi. Then there were brilliant actors like Paresh Rawal, Darshan Jariwala, Prashant Narayanan and many more. And I had four muses… ek se bor ho jao toh dusri hai. (Laughs)
KM: It almost feels like a rebirth.
RH: (Cuts in) This film travelled to festivals and I had stopped watching it and even stopped going to the festivals. You feel very sad when so many people appreciate the film but it can’t release. And now that it’s releasing, I wonder if it’s the right time to release it. If it had released earlier, it would have been ahead of its time. Today people are making biographies, for better or worse. There is an acceptance of that kind of personal storytelling. And the sensual aspect is also more acceptable. But, after all these years, I am more recognisable today, so perhaps it is a better time to release it now. But I know they have suffered in many ways. I mean, Deepa and Ketan have suffered much more than Nandana and me because they have nurtured it all these years. All that suffering will be worth it since the film is releasing at the right time.
DS: Yes, we had a screening at the London Indian Film Festival and we won the Audience Award. It was truly overwhelming to get such a spectacular response.
RH: Yes, I also saw footage someone had taken after a screening. I saw all these women coming up to Ketan and hugging him and appreciating the film.
KM: That was at the special screening for Anoop Jalota and his wife.
DS: Yes, all the women were in tears.
KM: It is strange that although the film is based on Raja Ravi Varma, women identify so strongly with his muse, that character and the film. Women have responded in a substantially much more emotional way than men have.
BOI: What kind of problems did you face with the censors?
KM: Initially, we had problems with the Censor Board as the screening committee refused to certify the film. Since the film is about censorship itself, we had to take it to the Reviving Committee. Sharmila Tagore was the Chairperson of the Board back then and also a member of the Reviving Committee. There was a screening in Delhi and we were waiting outside, worried about what would happen to the film. After the screening, they called us in and everyone stood up and clapped. They congratulated me on making such a sensitive film on such a sensitive subject. All our tension melted away and we were elated.
DS: By the time we landed back in Delhi, 15 to 20 people had already called and told us, ‘Ye toh Oscar winner hai. It is a lovely film and we have not seen a movie like this in a long time.’
BOI: It must have been very frustrating for people to appreciate your film and yet to not have it release.
KM: I think every film has its own destiny and, sure, it was tough when the film was stuck. But if one dares to make a film on a controversial subject, one should expect repercussions. I am glad we stood by it and that made us take it this far. But I agree with Randeep when he said the timing was not right for the film to release back then.
NS: I am absolutely thrilled. It is a pioneering film in every way and an amazing story on so many levels. I believe in everything the film stands for. Whether the urgency to have the freedom of expression or the focus on women’s empowerment, it is really an outstanding film. I am more than delighted that it is releasing now.
BOI: Randeep, what are your last words on the film’s release?
RH: As I said earlier, there is a right time for a film to release and it is a 700-screen release. So we cannot be judged alongside films that release in 4,000 screens. This is a classical, niche film and the kind of film that comes very rarely. It has been made on a large canvas and it has the kind of mounting you would expect with a big budget. It looks far more expensive than it actually is.
KM: I think the media has perpetuated the myth that only nonsense works at the box office. They have built a wall between so-called art cinema and so-called commercial cinema. This wall should have been demolished a long time ago but it is at least beginning to crumble. It is time we realise that there are beautiful films which can be shared by a large audience and they don’t have to be nonsense.
RH: Basically, it is a film about India’s first rockstar who doesn’t have to drink and smash doors and sing and go on a mad journey of aimlessness. He is a rockstar. If you have read about him, you will know that if you wrote a letter to Raja Ravi Varma in the 1890s, all you had to do was write his name on the envelope and it would reach him. The government had to create a post office especially for him as his fan mail used to arrive in bulk. This was a time when Claude Monet in Europe was experimenting with form of paintings and Raja Ravi Varma was busy trying to take art to the common man.
He printed his own paintings and put them on soap dishes, clothes and other things; he was the first marketer. Up until bikinis and short skirts came into vogue, every Indian movie heroines were modelled on his paintings. He invented the sari. Before that, it was just a long cloth wrapped around the body. He gave it the form of a sari and showed us how to drape it too. It is now the epitome of the Indian woman’s sense of dressing internationally. This film is the story of such a man. Not only do we have to educate the audience about it but the media too.
DS: Even the music of the film is beautifully classical. The songs grow on you and they are very visual.
RH: We have music which is authentic and we have used Indian instruments. You can dance to it and you can romance to it.