The Rediff Special /Suparn Verma
'Christopher Lee playing Jinnah is like
Mukri playing Gandhi'
It was meant to be the final cinematographic word, the officially sanctioned version of the life of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. But it has generated so much controversy that the government, which commissioned it, is now having second thoughts about it.
The film on Jinnah was commissioned by Pakistan President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari and the interim government which ruled Pakistan between November 1996 and February 1997, to honour the leader in the 50th year of its independence. Budgeted at 3 million pounds, it is produced by Pakistan Television.
The film generated controversy even before shooting began, with the selection of Christopher Lee, famous for his portrayal of Dracula, to play Jinnah. Professor Akbar Ahmed, a bureaucrat, anthropologist, scholar, is currently shooting the controversial film on the Quaid-e-Azam in Karachi.
Soon after Ahmed and his crew arrived, some newspapers in Karachi started a campaign to denounce the film. Leading this protest is Imran Aslam, the editor of The News. He cannot be completely objective since Ahmed screentested him too for the protagonist's role.
"They are trying to trivialise the whole thing by trying to put the blame on me," says an angry Aslam in a telephone interview from his office in Karachi. "It is not about me being spited; I was approached 10 years ago by Robert Mulligan to play the role of Jinnah." But he makes it clear he does not like the central character.
"The selection of Christopher Lee to play Jinnah is like making Mukri play the role of Gandhi," he says.
Ahmed admits having auditioned Aslam, but says, "We finally chose Christopher Lee because he bears a striking resemblance to Jinnah." That is enough to incense the fans of the famous leader. "His age is perfect, he speaks and acts the part with great dignity. Our motive was to get the best person possible to portray this part," he concludes. Richard Linton plays the younger Jinnah.
The movie begins with Jinnah in the dock, answering accusations. The idea is that Jinnah is waiting to go to heaven and is explaining himself. "The film is a mix of Time Bandits and Salman Rushdie. It looks like someone wrote the script in a daze of hash," says Aslam, attacking the film.
The other grouse critics have is Shashi Kapoor playing what appears to be the archangel Gabriel.
Shashi Kapoor laughs as he exclaims, " Oh no! I'm not playing the archangel. There is none in the film. I play the role of the narrator -- it is similar to the role of the sutradhar in Indian (drama); it’s like the chorus in plays of Shakespeare. My character is in limbo; it’s a mix of fiction and abstract… There have been all kinds of malicious rumours springing up, mostly from the newspapers in Karachi, though things have quietened down now."
Professor Ahmed clarifies, "It’s a device we have used to give the background and explain the historical situations to the audience of the younger generation."
The current government led by Nawaz Sharief, who has his own axe to grind with Leghari, has asked his minister for cultural affairs Mushahid Hussain to scrutinise the script and delete objectionable scenes.
Hussain, who is also Sharif’s advisor on media affairs, said the government has blocked funds for the film "The script is… being scrutinised right now," he said in a telephone interview, adding, "They wanted additional funds of one million pounds which will be given after I have gone through the script. They are currently shooting with the money in their kitty." He said he could not reveal which scenes were objectionable because the script is confidential material..." He said the ministry had a lot of work to look into " so, inshahallah, we will be through with the script soon."
Professor Ahmed claims the authorities are solidly behind him. "Nearly 30 per cent of the film has been shot, and we have all support from the government. It would have been impossible to shoot without their help." He even claimed funds were not withheld, "otherwise, we would not have been able to shoot the film. Whatever the controversy is it is in the local papers because one gentleman in particular has been spited."
In the midst of all the flak, Shashi Kapoor is at peace. "The atmosphere is very congenial," he says. "Apne hi log hain, yaar. The same people, the same culture, you don't feel like you are shooting outside India. I'm honoured to be part of a film that will create history."
Kapoor was contacted by director Jameel Dehalvi for a project years ago, but the film did not materialise. Then Dehalvi asked whether he would work on a project that would take 11 weeks. "I said, well, that is a pretty long time and I had not even read the script. But on reading it, I liked it very much and was thrilled to do the film," he says in a telephone interview from his hotel in Karachi.
He finds the whole thing very touching. "The crowd scenes are very moving to watch. When Jinnah walks through the crowds, we actually had old men who were not part of the crew touching him… It reminded me of… the shooting of Gandhi… in Bombay and Delhi. The people here treat him with such reverence."
For all that, Shashi Kapoor has been provided security by the producers. "Not that there is any problem. I do move about, I go to people’s houses for lunches, to the Sindh club… It’s a very nice place, with really great people. After all we are one and the same."
He is all praise for Christopher Lee. "He is a marvellous actor besides being a good human being, he is very conscious of the responsibility that he carries playing the role of the Quaid-e-Azam."
Associate producer Ruby Mallick told Rediff On The NeT, "We have finished shooting most action scenes, including the refugee scenes,’’ adding shooting will continue in Pakistan till May 11 and then for two weeks in London.
The 73-year-old Christopher Lee is reportedly hard at work on his role, shooting from 5 am to 9 pm. The other characters are James Fox who plays Lord Mountbatten, Sam Dastoor as Mahatma Gandhi, Indira Varma as Jinnah's wife Rati, Rashid Surhadi as Nehru, Pakistani actor Shakeel as Liaquat Ali Khan. The music is provided by Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
"The film will be a great exposure of the Quaid-e-Azam to the world, not just the people of India and Pakistan," says Kapoor. "Very little of the man has been televised or filmed. The film is a tribute to the life and feelings of the great man."
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