'My first shot was a bedroom scene with Rekha'
From Utsav to Heartless, Shekhar Suman has come a long way. He looks back.
Television star Shekhar Suman turns film director with Heartless, a remake of the English film Awake.
He paid Rs 5 crore to get the rights of the film and had to mortgage his house, but he did it to revive his son Adhyayan’s acting career.
In the film, the protagonist suffers from the same medical condition that Shekhar's elder son Aayush succumbed to in 1994.
Shekhar Suman speaks to Patcy N about making the film and gets a sneak peak into his past, which included a stint in Bollywood.
I am excited that Heartless is finally releasing. It’s a dream that I saw years ago, when I started acting.
It just took me a year to release it. I shot the film in 35 days flat.
Alka, my wife, is the producer. Adhyayan, my son, plays the protagonist. I have written one song in the film and one poem. It’s all in the family.
It’s team work and I owe it to two people: Nina Arora who wrote a beautiful script and screenplay, and Niranjan Iyengar for writing the dialogues.
A romantic story with a medical background has never been seen before -- Heartless is a medical thriller.
I have incorporated a medical phenomenon called anaesthesia awareness, in which after a person is given anaesthesia, his body is paralysed but he is conscious.
People in that condition hear sounds and feel pain, but they cannot scream for help. It is a frightening situation and our protagonist goes through that.
Adhyayan’s character, Adtiya Singh, is terminally ill and so doesn’t want to live, doesn’t want to settle for a heart transplant. Until he falls in love. Then, everything changes. He wants to live.
But when he goes through heart surgery, he experiences anaesthesia awareness. He starts hearing sounds. He overhears something that is going to change his life completely and there is nothing he can do about it because his body is paralysed.
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Image: Shekhar Suman with son Adhyayan
Photographs: Abhijit Mhamunkar
'Deepti Naval's character is based on Alka, my wife'
Similarity with real life
The character is born with congenital heart disease which is what my elder son Aayush suffered from. That is the only similarity with the script.
Deepti Naval’s character is based on Alka (Suman’s wife). She is a strong person, she is an entrepreneur, in complete control of the situation on the domestic side, but at the same time is an emotional, protective mother who will go to the ends of the world to save her child.
I am very fortunate to have directed Deepti Naval, Om Puri and Madan Jain.
The new girl, Ariana, is a revelation. I forced a graphic designer from New York, who couldn’t speak a word of Hindi, to come to India, settle here for a while and learn the language. Her performance will surprise many.
Adhyayan is a delight to work with. I appreciate him as an actor and not because he is my son. I have seen him in Raaz and Jashn. Mahesh Bhatt would call me and say this boy is really good.
Adhyayan has had his successes and failures. He has given one of his best performances in Heartless.
Image: Shekhar Suman along with wife Alka, son Adhyayan and heroine Ariana Ayam
Photographs: Abhijit Mhamunkar
'If someone else is putting in the money, they will always dictate terms'
Why he chose to direct and produce
I always wanted to direct a movie. I thought if I have to direct a film, why should I ask someone else to risk his money?
I would like to produce my own film because then you have creative control. If someone else is putting in the money, they will always dictate terms.
I got cold feet while the script was being written. It’s a difficult script. It’s a medical thriller that’s not a kind of subject a newcomer would choose, but that was the exciting part for me.
I realised when I started shooting that a film is about your heart, not about technical know-how. You have to be a good story teller.
When we first planned the film, everybody told me I should not take risks, so I approached studios. But none of them wanted to take it forward. One of them told me to either change the director or change the actor as both of them cannot be new.
There was nothing like being father and son on the sets. I was like I would be with any other actor. If I had to be strict, if I had to explain to him a hundred times, I would do that.
By the time Adhyayan went on the sets he knew everything because he was part of the film from the beginning.
Image: Ariana Ayam and Adhyayan Suman in Heartless
'I was told, 'If you are chosen, you will be hero opposite Rekha''
A big break with Utsav
Destiny got me to Mumbai at the right time, at the right place. I was cast in Utsav, opposite Rekha.
Before leaving for Mumbai, I joined Shriram Centre for Art and Culture in Delhi. I took a diploma in acting and I served the repertory company as a stage actor for two years.
Shashi Kapoor was shooting for a film called Pighalta Aasman. He had come to our repertory company in Delhi to look for boys who could do small roles in the film just for experience. I raised my hand and I was in!
I played the role of a news vendor. I was happy facing the camera with Shashi Kapoor and Rakhee.
The film got stuck and its producer Shammi aunty called me for the shoot of the same film two years later.
On the sets of Pighalta Aasman, I was formally introduced to Shashi Kapoor. He must have seen something in me. He told me about a film (Utsav) that he was making. He was looking for a boy to play the main lead.
He told me, ‘Can I offer you the role of a hero in my film Utsav? If you are chosen, you will be hero opposite Rekha.’
I just fell off the chair. I thought he was pulling a fast one.
But he wasn’t. He asked me to meet Girish Karnad (the director of Utsav), so I did.
His wife opened the door and said, ‘Girish, your Charudutt is here.’ (Charudutt is the character Suman played in Utsav).
I was told to go to RK Studio for an audition. And there I discovered that I had been taken for a ride. There were 500 other Charudutts who had also been called! My confidence took a huge beating.
But after the audition, everybody was sent home except me.
Image: Shekhar Suman, Rekha in Utsav
'A newcomer, all of 22, can die of over-excitement if he is pushed into Rekha's arms'
There were some very erotic scenes in the film. Rekha said she couldn’t have a newcomer making love to her; she had to know him and approve of him.
So, every day, I would dress as Charudutt and wait to meet Rekha at Prithvi Theatre. I felt like the bride who is waiting for the bridegroom to approve of her. I waited for many days. After I reached Prithvi, I would learn that she wasn’t coming that day.
Then, finally, one day we met. But Rekha didn’t speak at all that day.
I had seen her once before, in the 1980s, on a visit to my elder sister in Mumbai. I went to watch the shooting of the film Parmatma, starring Shatrughan Sinha and Rekha. I was part of the crowd that was pushing to get a glimpse of Rekha. Little did I know that five years later I would play the hero opposite her!
On the first day of Utsav’s shoot, I felt very nervous with her on the sets. After the first shot, Girish took me aside and told me: ‘Buddy, I know that you are a newcomer and you are working with The Rekha, but don’t get intimidated by her. She may be a big actress but you are playing a character and you are stage actor. Have confidence, play the character, go out, hold her tight if you want to, don’t show you are nervous.’
The first shot was a bedroom sequence. Can you imagine a newcomer giving a bedroom sequence with Rekha? I was dying. I behaved like a brave soldier and went and clutched her hard.
Rekha turned around and said, ‘Girish, isn’t he supposed to be nervous?’ and Girish said, ‘No no, he has been practising for the last two days with a pillow!’
That broke the ice. A newcomer, all of 22, can die of over-excitement if he is pushed into Rekha’s arms.
My theatre background helped immensely. But I will always be eternally grateful to Shashi Kapoor and Girish Karnad who showed confidence in me and gave me the biggest film of my life. I can’t imagine my life without that break.
Image: Shekhar Suman, Rekha in Utsav
'To pull off a political satire for five years wasn't easy'
Life after Utsav
After Utsav, Naache Mayuri and Anubhav were the only two hit movies. Nothing worked after that because the movies that I did were not right roles for the hero.
I played the common man in Anubhav and in Naache Mayuri and Pati Parmeshwar, I played negative roles. Utsav was delayed by a year-and-a- half and I did not sign a film as I wanted it to be my first film. That must have sent out wrong signals to producers and directors.
I had to struggle for a certain period after that. I started losing out on films. I lost confidence in myself. I was jobless.
Then my son fell ill and everything just went wrong. But I think God has a plan up there and he gave me television.
Television resurrected me.
In the last 20 years, there has been Dekh Bhai Dekh, Reporter, Kabhi Idhar Kabhi Udhar, Wah Janab, Chote Babu, Andaz, Amar Prem Aaha, Movers n Shakers, Simply Shekhar and Carry On Shekhar. There is Poll Khol and The Great Indian Comedy Show -- I can go on and on.
I was the first television actor to be featured in India Today. I felt vindicated then because my father wrote me a letter saying you have done seven generations proud.
The three shows that became the most popular were Dekh Bhai Dekh, Wah Janab and Movers n Shakers. But Poll Khol was a path-breaking show. I got a show on a news channel and it ran for five years. To pull off a political satire for five years wasn’t easy. Reporter was huge too.
I was there continuously; I did Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa and also got into politics.
One should not look too much to success and failure. I just told you what happens to a man in the twilight of his life. I feel life is there to enjoy.
Image: Bhavna Balsavar, Sushma Seth and Shekhar Suman