June 5, 2002 
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Guddu Dhanoa
'I wanted stars in my film'
Guddu Dhanoa on why he chose Bobby and Sunny Deol

Vickey Lalwani

"Shaheed Bhagat Singh has not been given his due," says director Guddu Dhanoa, who hopes that his cinematic spin on the martyr's life will educate the masses about the sacrifices of the legendary patriot.

The director's 23rd March 1931 -- Shaheed [produced by Vijeta Films], hits the silver screen on June 7. It will fight the other Bhagat Singh film [Rajkumar Santoshi's The Legend Of Bhagat Singh], tooth and nail for the cinegoer's rupee.

Dhanoa is unperturbed about the competition. "I have tried to remain as authentic as I can. Bhagat Singh fascinated me; that is why I decided to make the film. As a child, I loved the 1965 Manoj Kumar starrer Shaheed. Though, I think the Kumar film was limited in his research; it did not dwell on Singh's childhood in detail. Our version is an upgrade of Manoj Kumar's Bhagat Singh."

"As far as I know, Manoj Kumar did not have an adequate budget. He shot major portions of the film under badminton court lights. I had no budget constraints for my film and that helped me recreate history."

Everything from the Lahore Court to Pratap Press and Kanpur Street (where Bhagat Singh and Azad met for the first time), has been meticulously recreated for this lavishly mounted flick. The art director Nitish Roy and cameraman Thiru even insisted on filters worth Rs 20 lakh to make the sets look authentic.

Bobby Deol and Rahul Dev in a still from 23rd March 1931 -- Shaheed "That was the only way I could overcome the constraints in terms of location. I could not have shot the film in Lahore, which is now in Pakistan. Apart from a bit of Alfred Park in Agra (where Azad died), and Lucknow, everything has changed," says Dhanoa.

"I have tried to show the events that led to the making of Bhagat Singh the revolutionary," he explains. "His influences ranged from people like Kartar Singh Saraba, who was hanged when he was just 19, to incidents like the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Bhagat Singh travelled to the site the very next day, alone. This, when he was only ten years old.

"Then, of course there was Chandrashekar Azad (played by Sunny Deol), who influenced Singh," adds the director who has until now been associated with action flicks like Ziddi, Salakhen.

The director who has been accused of roping in big names at the cost of jeopardising the film's authenticity defends his decison. "I decided to go in for stars in my film. What is wrong with that? If the star cast works in my favor to draw in the audience, why not? Haven't we paid them through our nose?" he asks.

More important, he says, "Box-office collections matter. You can be sure a star will give a better output than a newcomer. He will immediately win the confidence of the public."

"Only after we had shot some pictures with him wearing the trademark Singh hat was Bobby Deol convinced about him playing the lead," the director says.

Bobby Deol and the director on the sets of 23rd March 1931 -- Shaheed "Bobby put in a lot of time with our researchers. Sutanu Gupta [writer of Badal and Sunny Deol's Damini], and Sanjay Masoom [writer of Sunny Deol's Indian], read out several books to him. When Bobby had to wear a turban for the first time for the first two or three scenes, he was so uncomfortable," the director recalls.

"Many stars wanted roles in my film. Amrish Puri was anxious to do the jailor's role because his elder brother Madan Puri had done a similar role in Shaheed. Unfortunately, he did not have dates to spare. Then, Farida Jalal was keen to play the mother's role, but she had already signed Rajkumar Santoshi's film," Dhanoa informs.

The director, however, says his film has now shaped up to be near perfect. "Watch out for Amrita Singh, who plays Bhagat Singh's mother. She will get a standing ovation for this performance. Her scenes with Suresh Oberoi, who plays the jailor, are outstanding."

"Rajkumar Santoshi said recently that he did not sign Aishwarya Rai because people would have been disappointed seeing her in a miniscule role," Dhanoa says, in parting. "But I think our audience is savvy enough to realise that Singh's fiancee cannot have major footage in the film. Bhagat Singh was married to his country!"


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