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Khushwant Singh's Train To Pakistan to be filmed, at last

Suparn Verma in Bombay

Khushwant Singh Originally, it was Shashi Kapoor who was supposed to convert Khushwant Singh's classic saga on Partition, Train To Pakistan into a feature film. He had the script ready; he had even signed Shabana Azmi for the female lead.

"But," says the legendary Singh, (right) "things didn't work out."

Then, Ismail Merchant (he of the Merchant-Ivory duo) decided to take up the challenge. Only to face constant roadblocks, because some crucial scenes required the train to cross the Indian border into Pakistan. "So," says Singh, "either the government would say no or the railway ministry would step in with an objection."

Satyajit Ray toyed with the idea for a while, before a Japanese director expressed interest in making the film, which would have been financed by American producers. "They even offered me a pittance of a royalty -- $100 or $ 500. Obviously, I refused," says Khushwant Singh

Yet, Singh did not lose heart; he hoped that his book would, someday, be converted into a film.

And, last year, Singh was approached by director Pamela Rooks who made the critically acclaimed Miss Beatty's Children. "It is high time someone made the book into a film," the author notes wryly.

Train To Pakistan is set in 1947; it depicts the trauma and massacres that accompanied the Partition of the country. The story, set in a small village in Punjab, revolves around a womaniser-dacoit Jagga, whose life's aim is avoiding the clutches of the law. Then, Partition occurs. And Jagga's beloved, Nimmo, flees to Pakistan on a train that has been booby-trapped. Jagga lays down his life trying to rescue her and, in process, saves the lives of many others.

Nirmal Pandey Nirmal Pandey, (left), who portrayed Vikram Malla in Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen, has been signed on as Jagga. "We are not," says Rooks, "banking on a stereotype that Bandit Queen may have created. Every actor's character will, with the help of the director's vision, be defined and etched by him."

Pandey concurs. "Vikram Malla and Jagga have nothing in common. Jagga is from Punjab and speaks an entirely different dialect; Vikram, who belonged to the Chambal, was a Robin Hood-ish character. Jagga, on the other hand, has no redeeming feature."

Nimmo's role has been bagged by Smriti Mishra (Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin), while Rajit Kapur (who won the national award this year for his portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi in Shyam Benegal's The Making of the Mahatma) plays the jailer. Rooks, meanwhile, has been moulding her cast by holding acting workshops.

"We are modern actors," says Pandey. "We need to study a character in depth if we are to understand and portray it correctly. Besides, Train To... is a bold novel for its time. Jagga and Nimmo have an intense physical relationship; the situation is such that they have no time for the intricacies of romance."

Rooks has selected parts of Punjab and a small village in Madhya Pradesh to shoot the film. Though talks are on with MP Chief Minister Digvijay Singh and everything seems hunky-dory, there are hiccups. Rooks is facing a problem with the portions requiring a railway engine, since no models of the type used in 1947 exist any more.

Train to Pakistan is being produced by the National Film Development Corporation; the shooting is scheduled to begin on February 21.


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