Come September, the Tamil Nadu town of Tirunelveli will play host to Shabana Azmi for at least a week or two.
She will be shooting for playwright-filmmaker Mahesh Dattani's new film Morning Raaga, in which she plays its protagonist, Swarnalatha, a middle-aged Carnatic music singer living in a village in Tamil Nadu.
Its first shooting schedule will begin in Hyderabad and the bulk of the movie will be shot in one continuous stretch until mid-July. After the monsoon break, shooting will begin again. "I want to capture the town at its greenest and best after the rains," Dattani told rediff.com from Hyderabad.
This film is Dattani's first movie screenplay. Morning Raaga is not a play converted into a film; it was actually written for the big screen. Dattani will also direct this film, which will be produced by Telugu producer K Raghavendra Rao, who has more than 100 films to his credit.
Rao's son Prakash, who was attending an acting workshop with Dattani in Bangalore, asked him if he would script an English film his father could produce. That gave rise to the Raaga screenplay about six months ago.
Raaga will star Prakash as Abhinay, a young musician who is into techno trance music and has his own music group.
The film has three pivotal characters: Swarnalatha, Abhinay and Priyanka, otherwise known as Pinky, played by actress Perizaad Zorabian (Namaste, Bollywood Calling).
Swarnalatha, a Carnatic singer, becomes a recluse and gives up singing after her child dies in an accident. During a visit to his village, Abhinay hears her sing. Enraptured by her voice, he decides to tempt her to join his group. Swarnalatha and Abhinay are also linked by the fact that the same accident that cost Swarnalatha her daughter also cost Abhinay his mother.
Priyanka is the daughter of a character played by actress and Mumbai theatre personality Lillette Dubey. A fashionable, pretty woman, Dubey's character has seen hard times but now runs a plush boutique. Priyanka falls in love with Abhinay, and is also passionately dedicated to his music.
For Azmi, who began her film career with a memorable performance in Ankur, a film where she acted as a south Indian, this will be an interesting return to an ethnicity different from her own. She is already in Hyderabad rehearsing for the film and has begun learning Carnatic music in order to play Swarnalatha better since her character also plays the violin.
"There is something about her face that made me feel she is just right for the part," says Dattani. "Besides, I knew she would be able to do justice to this role."
Music (composed by Amit Heri) is the mainstay of the film, says Dattani. It attempts to show a meeting of worlds. "Music is the metaphor that links the past and the present," he says. There is just one song in the film, a mixture of two morning ragas, Sindhu Bhairavi and Thodi.
Raaga is a low-budget film. "It's like a one-stop shop here [Hyderabad] for filmmaking," explains Dattani, who made his last film Mango Souffle in Bangalore. "The Andhra [Pradesh] government under [Chief Minister] Chandrababu Naidu has managed to woo most of the film industry to Hyderabad. My producer's entire film unit is based here."
Dubbing will be done in the post-production stage, unlike the live sound recording for Pamela Rooks's film version of Dattani's famous play, Dance Like a Man. "Most of that film's locations were interiors," says Dattani. "Many of my locations are external, and I cannot control sound in them."
Cinematographer-director Rajiv Menon [Sapne, Kandukondain Kandukondain] will handle the camera for this film.
Dattani hopes to finish the film by the end of the year, in time to catch international film festivals that take place in early 2004, before he attempts to release it in India. "I should have done that with Mango Souffle," he says. "I never expected Souffle to do well in India. I should have waited until it was shown at a lot of festivals abroad and then released it in India, where the right people would have seen it because of all the interest it attracted at the festivals."
Is he concerned Raaga might fare as badly as Souffle at the box office, at least in India? "Raaga has a universal subject, not a niche one," he says. "So I think it will do well enough anywhere. Souffle was a very difficult subject to handle. Making that film was a gamble for me. It would have done very well if we had stooped to the level of sensationalising its subject of homosexuality, or had generated any controversies around it. That would certainly have at least got us an initial draw. But we did not want to do that."