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July 21, 1997


The dalit messiah

Chindu Sreedharan

Mammotty as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar
On went the brown, baggy Ambedkar trousers, on went the striped Ambedkar shirt, on went the brown Ambedkar tie, and on went thick, round, Ambedkar glasses.

"Am I wearing a coat today?" the Ambedkar-actor wanted to know, as he surveyed the world on his left foot -- the other, firmly in the clasp of a make-up boy, was getting itself clothed in fresh, grey Ambedkar socks.

In the tiny dressing room on the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar sets, with his devil-may-care hairstyle sacrificed for a formal, slicker one, and minus the magnificent moustache which had hundreds of female fans swooning about his 'charisma', Kerala superstar Mammotty did look the architect of India's Constitution.

Earlier, while make-up artist Vikram Gaikwad worked on his face, an young, bespectacled production assistant had taken him on a whirlwind tour through the script. She had read the dialogues aloud, making him repeat it after her. And Mammotty had more or less memorised the anti-Gandhian lines he was to speak.

Director Jabbar Patel
"Am I wearing a coat today?" the actor repeated as the make-up boy made a grab for his left foot, "Or is this it?"

'This', apparently, was 'it'. Mammotty slid his feet into brown Ambedkar shoes, gave his Ambedkar image a once over in the mirror, had his Ambedkar hair patted down again, and walked -- not with his characteristic swagger, but a heavy, distinguished tread -- to the sets next door.

Today, the scene had Ambedkar and his friends preparing to launch Parishkrit Bharat, a fortnightly newspaper. The famous Mahad uprising of 1927 (where the Maharashtrian untouchable, with a procession of fellow-untouchables, drew water from the upper-caste Mahad tank) was over, and Ambedkar's efforts to unify the dalits against discrimination was very much on. Parishkrit Bharat was to be his voice for the people.

"Dr saab," Ambedkar's colleague asked as cinematographer Ashok Mehta got the cameras rolling, "Don't you think those who are planning Independence have inconsistency in their attitude?"

"Yes," Ambedkar stood up, coffee cup in hand, "They raised violent protests against the insulting treatment meted out to Indians in south Africa and Britain. At the same time they are denying human rights to their countrymen here..."

Mammotty playing the younger Ambedkar
Painstakingly, frame by well-researched frame, director Dr Jabbar Patel (Simhasan, Jait re Jait, Umbartha) is piecing together Dr Ambedkar's life. The film, the first-ever feature film attempted on the dalit leader's life, is scheduled for a global release on August 15.

"Ambedkar was more than just the architect of the Constitution. He was a social activist, a champion of human rights," says Dr Patel, "The struggle he took up is comparable to the racial discrimination against the blacks. But people, even Indians, do not know much about it."

The Rs 60 million attempt, produced by the National Film Development Corporation in English and Hindi, strives to present Ambedkar, the humanist -- and traces his life right up to his diksha (induction into Buddhism) shortly before his death.

Dr Patel has drawn many big names into the project -- Ashok Mehta as cameraman, Nitin Desai as art director, Oscar winner Bhanu Athaiya (of Gandhi fame) for costumes and Sooni (Salaam Bombay) Taraporewala, Marathi novelist Arun Sadhu and the late dalit poet, Daya Pawar, to do the script.

Ambedkar's life as it unfolds before you in two-and-a-half hours, Dr Patel promises, will reveal flashes of his complex persona which have never come to the fore -- his relation with his wives (he married twice), his progressive ideas (wasn't he the one who thought of the Hindu Code Bill for equality to women?), his love-hate relation with Gandhi...

"There is no fiction, but enough drama," Dr Patel says, "It is an honest story, meticulously researched."

The script, strengthened by almost nine years of research, draws heavily on Ambedkar's writings, personal letters, and interviews with living Ambedkar-ites. The sets and costumes have scrupulously followed what research turned up, and Dr Patel has used authentic locations -- even authentic Ambedkar furniture -- to shoot on.

Thus, Dr Patel and team flew to London and New York to film Ambedkar's days at Gray's Inn (where he did his law) and Columbia University. "In fact," the director says, "the shooting started with the London scenes last October. The first shot was of Ambedkar crossing a street, soon after his arrival in London."

Where he couldn't get to authentic locations, Dr Patel had to compromise for lookalikes -- but lookalikes that had been made up to the last detail as the original, and gone over for flaws with a fine toothcomb.

Most of the indoor shooting was done on a mammoth set at Bombay's Film City. "This is the biggest set ever in the industry, area and component-wise," Dr Patel claims proudly, "Look, that part is the middle-class Parel where Ambedkar spent his early childhood, that is the Improvement Trust Chawl where he stayed till 1934... that is the exact replica of his house, behind that is the Byculla market where he got married. And that is the Fountain area of old Bombay..."

In 1988, Films Division approached Dr Patel to do a documentary on Ambedkar. He started researching the project, and soon found that the subject would make an excellent feature film.

"On Ambedkar's centenary celebrations, I mentioned it to Mrinal Gore. Sharad Pawar, too, was there. He was very interested," Dr Patel reminisces, "The project kicked off with the Rs 10 million which the Maharashtra government granted. Later, the Centre pitched in with Rs 50 million."

For the next two years, it was just research and scripting. And then came the time for casting. Govind Namdeo was to play Ambedkar's father, Mohan Gokhale was to play Gandhi, and Sonali Kulkarni was to be Ramabai (Ambedkar's first wife).

But who was to play the title role?

"We had a long search... an extensive one," says Dr Patel, "I had no fixations about having an Indian actor. I wanted to have whoever fitted the role best -- British, American, Spanish... it didn't matter. We needed a soft, intelligent, academic kind of personality... and he needed to be a first-rate actor to show the agony and humiliations which Ambedkar suffered."

For the next couple of months, Dr Patel and British casting director Priscilla Jones (of the City of Joy fame) poured over hundreds of photographs and video clippings. But they couldn't find anyone satisfactory. "I had seen Mammotty's picture in a film magazine and I could see the similarities," Dr Patel says, "We decided to see what we could make of it. At the fourth stage of the computer imagery we got done, there was Dr Ambedkar staring at us!"

Dr Patel approached Mammotty. And the actor, after a lengthy discussion, was only glad to take up the role. He had reservations about looking the part, especially Ambedkar's later years, but those disappeared after the trial make-up.

"Mammotty's face is long, while Ambedkar's is round," explains make-up artist Vikram Gaikwad, "What I did was to broaden his jawline with cheek pads and foam rubber pieces. A bald cap was used to give a receding hairline, and nose rings to broaden the nose. The eyebrows were shaped differently to peak over the glasses, the moustache was off (that itself was a major change!), and wrinkles and double chin were created."

The heavy make-up, though, had its own consequences. Besides the three-plus hour it involves, it restricted Mammotty's acting. "My mouth was full of rubber and I couldn't speak," the actor says, "I couldn't even move properly!"

Further, Mammotty could not shoot for more than four hours at a stretch, as the make-up would start running. The close-ups, hence, were shot in an air-conditioned studio.

"Do you foresee any controversy about the film," he was asked, "Particularly about Ambedkar's anti-Gandhi views?"

Dr Patel doesn't. "We have got our facts right, and made sure that no injustice is done to anyone," he says, "So why should there be any controversy?"