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How committed are avant garde filmmakers?
Subhash K. Jha, Aug 8  [ Mon, Aug 8, 2005 ]
  • Mumbai, Aug 8 (IANS) The other day a very serious filmmaker called for some very serious advice.

    "I want to cast a good 22-23-year old actor as a male sex worker who redeems his torn and troubled conscience by marrying a widow."

    "Cast Sammir Dattani. He's bright and untried. And he's a very sensitive actor," I suggested.

    The filmmaker sounded excited. "Isn't he the boy from the Rajshri films? Yes, he'll be perfect."

    We exchanged ideas about this serious bit of innovative casting. The next thing I knew, he had gone and cast a non-actor from a film family.

    "His uncle has a financial stake in the film. And he insisted," said the filmmaker sheepishly.

    But seriously!

    Years ago I remember having a very enlightening conversation with Prakash Jha. We were discussing the exquisite casting of his best work "Mrityudand".

    "Do you know?" he confided. "I had offered the main role to Pallavi Joshi? When Madhuri Dixit agreed to do the role, I quietly sent Pallavi flowers and a thank-you note."

    All our so-called serious filmmakers suffer from acute star-o-phobia. They pretend to abhor the star system when they don't get the stars. The minute Shyam Benegal got Karisma Kapoor to play Zubeida, he was a converted man.

    The only filmmaker who was honest enough to admit stars are indispensable was Hansal Mehta, who very frankly confessed to me that he works with newcomers only because he can't get stars.

    Otherwise, all the fiercely dedicated directors rush to sign the stars the minute they get a chance to do so. Ketan Mehta, who once planned a film on the 1857 mutiny entitled "Kartoos" with Naseeruddin Shah has revised his dreams to accommodate Aamir Khan into an updated version of the same story in "Mangal Pandey".

    Naseer had unambiguously abused Mehta for what the actor saw as a massive act of betrayal.

    More recently, there's Amol Palekar trying desperately to woo the masses into the theatres with the lure of watching the mighty Shah Rukh Khan and the minty Rani Mukherjee. With Amitabh Bachchan pitching in a rabble-rousing cameo, "Paheli" looked more like a film by Karan Johar than by a practitioner of the small-is-beautiful school of filmmaking.

    Do you know "Paheli" had originally been planned as a small art house film with that wonderful actor Nakul Vaid from "Ab Tak Chappan" in the lead?

    Rumours revolving around SRK's attempt to be different insist that the mighty Khan and his cast were mighty miffed by Palekar's wife's continuous assertions on the sets. It came to a point where the cast would simple huddle into a collective heap of unobtrusive defiance each time the lady began her commanding exercise.

    Continued on next page...

  • SRK has never really worked in an unconventional film - Mani Ratnam's "Dil Se", Santosh Sivan's "Asoka" and Ashutosh Gowraiker's "Swades" were major setbacks in the superstar's career.

    But we must hand it to Shah Rukh. Whether he actually believes in the power of the unconventional or not, the star decided to back Amol Palekar's dream of making it among the movie moghuls to the hilt.

    Can a man who visualizes life in abstracts deliver a tangible hit at the box office?

    Now we have Ketan Mehta, the man who made such enigmatic odes to outré artistry as "Mirch Masala" and "Maya Memsaab" (the latter featuring the director's better-half Deepa Sahi in a role that seemed destined for Dimple Kapadia).

    "Mangal Pandey", then called Kartoos, was initially planned with Mehta's then favourite actor Naseeruddin Shah. When Mehta switched loyalties to Amitabh Bachchan, Naseer let out a volley of abuses on the subject of committed filmmakers and their treacherous sell-outs.

    "Kartoos" with Bachchan never worked out. I wonder what Naseer has to say about Aamir Khan as Mangal Pandey! Considering there was no love lost between Aamir and Naseer during "Sarfarosh", I'm dying to know the senior actor's views on the way Khan has played Mangal Pandey with flowing hair, flaming moustache and all.

    The original Mangal Pandey would've a tough time recognizing this replica. Hopefully, Naseer and the rest of the audience would be less fixated on surface scrupulosity. After all, did Asoka look anything like Shah Rukh Khan?

    We will never know, will we?