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Aparna, Shabana, Waheeda, Konkona and me!
Raja Sen
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April 05, 2005 13:47 IST

Aparna Sen and Shabana Azmi on the sets of 15 Park AvenueSometimes, the sun shines into life through the unlikeliest of windows. The office called and advised me to carry warm clothes, a surprising request considering the Mumbai-centric work profile. Things were soon explained when I found myself on a flight to Bhutan.

Aparna Sen [Images], possibly India's most respected lady director, is shooting a film in the picturesque country, and I was being sent to check out the proceedings. The word, you realise, I'm fumbling vainly to avoid here is: Yay!

15, Park Avenue is only the second film to be shot in the breathtaking country of Bhutan, the first being Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha in 1993.

Sen's film is therefore India's first film in friendly neighbourhood Bhutan. And friendly is the keyword. Situated a hop, skip and a Druk Air (Bhutan's national airline, with a total strength of two planes) jump away, Bhutan is an economical trip, and rupee-savvy -- you freely use a rupee interchangeably with their ngultrum. The 1:1 ratio needs no mental mathematics.

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The flight lands, after traversing the glorious Himalayas, in the scenic Paro valley, and I'm overwhelmed by Bhutan. With Murphy's Law well in motion, this is almost immediately undercut when I'm stopped because of a trivial immigration snag. While this is sorted in less than 15 minutes, the airport has shut down at 1 pm, and my luggage is stowed away somewhere.

Thankfully, the Bhutanese are friendly people, and I'm helped out with courtesy so warmly apologetic that I begin to feel embarrassed about being stranded. I take a taxi to the capital, Thimpu, where I'm to meet the film crew. I sit gaping out the window, slack-jawed by the sights.

The crew is wrapping up the shoot when I arrive, so I meet the producers in a relatively empty Druk Hotel. This is soon to be replaced by a noisy, bustling Druk Hotel, full of familiar thespian faces, the air rent by characteristic Bengali exclamations. The crew's back.

Konkona SensharmaAfter a hurried round of introductions, the first person I manage to squirrel away for a quick conversation is the director. Even while she rushes madly from pillar to post, Aparna Sen looks composed and graceful, and I'm treated to a wonderfully welcoming smile as we sit down to chat.

The shooting for the film is well ahead of schedule, and Aparna's rightfully pleased. 15, Park Avenue deals with schizophrenia, and the director's daughter Konkana Sensharma plays the lead. After Konkona won the National Award for her mother's last film, Mr & Mrs Iyer, it's relatively safe to overlook nepotism. The veteran director's conversation soon turns toward cinematic preferences, and we bond merrily over her unlikely love for Quentin Tarantino [Images].

Shabana Azmi [Images] plays Konkana's elder sister in the film. Lest this seem like a Rekha-esque obsession with constant age-camouflage, they play half-sisters, credibly separated by a good 18 years.

Ms Azmi, a firebrand activist, is an intimidating conversationalist at the best of times, but Bhutan seems to have rejuvenated her spirits. She's virtually glowing as I fidget in the chair across her, but am soon put at ease as the actress regales with quirky anecdotes from her film career, some of them deliciously bordering on the 'unfit-to-print' edge.

Bhutan is a smoke-free country, and cigarettes aren't sold locally. While sitting in the actor Dhritiman Chatterjee's hotel room, however, it's hard to spot the difference. This isn't illegal, foreigners are allowed to carry smokes for their personal consumption, a rule that makes all the difference in the world to this Bengali film crew, the camera crew later confess. Dhritiman (last seen as Rani Mukerji's [Images] father in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's [Images] Black) is universally called by his nickname, Sundar, appended by the da of respect, and looks remarkably spry and fit for his 59 years.

None from the above are on time when dinner is served in the hotel restaurant later, where I find myself having rushed with all the promptness of a boy scout. I literally run into the film's leading man, Rahul Bose [Images]. He encircles the buffet table like a smug shark, returning to attack the traditional Bhutanese repast several times. He proclaims that Bhutan is the most beautiful country he's ever been to. Cynicism is easy, but one look out the window inspires you to nod in awed agreement.

The dinner table is presided over by the regal Waheeda Rehman [Images], who looks unbelievably dazzling. Articulately, she dominates conversation with a casual ease that no one would even want to interrupt. And those uncouth enough to would also be hushed into silence by the all-important task of digging into the fabulous dessert.

The next morning begins on a rather annoying note. Thanks to a blissfully uncoordinated production crew, I'm not clued into the schedules changing at the last minute. So I spend the morning ambling around playing bad shutterbug and clicking Bhutan through a disposable camera.

Rahul BoseSuddenly, I'm told that the morning's shooting is already well under way, and it's 'such a shame.' Fretting, I'm in the lobby with my eager shoes laced up, waiting for the van to whisk me away to the rest of the day's play, when I see the film's primary cinematographer waltz cheerfully in. The shooting's over, and they've wrapped up considerably ahead of schedule. Isn't it fantastic?

I don't quite join him in the grin, and, after an obvious round of jeers and leg pulling, am finally consoled by both the director and an immensely amused Shabana. Half the film crew has already departed to take in the exotic Bhutanese sights. The rest, after a long breakfast, settle in to grab some quick naps.

I take the opportunity to catch up with Rahul Bose, as the actor unwinds. He's been trekking a lot, taking in the exotic local monasteries, the dzongs. He's a creature of the hills, truly in love with Bhutan, and promises to keep revisiting the beautiful country.

I hope to meet up with Konkona Sensharma next, whose Page 3 struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. So far, it is 2005's only real hit. Just that the young actress sleeps through the afternoon. And the evening. Finally, after waiting expectantly by the phone in my room for ages, I try again. Aparna Sen asks me to catch her at the neighbourhood bar, where she's popped over to relax.

The Om Bar is a quaint little watering hole, and at 10:30 pm, it's still quite deserted. The dimly lit dance floor is empty, but the garrulous bartender assures me that by 11:30, it's 'swinging!'

My barging in interrupts Rahul, Konkona and some friends sitting around with their drinks and listening to jazz. I'm included in the conversation for a while, and then Konkona and I sit down and talk about her films. The actress says she feels great about all the media attention and critical acclaim thrust upon her over the last year, but shrugs it off simply. Acting, it seems, comes naturally to her.

Dinner is subdued that night, since shooting has been completed and everyone's busy eulogising about the great experience they've had in Bhutan. No one wants to see it end, exhausting as filming may be, and the rest of the film is to be shot back home in Kolkata.

We pile into vans early Saturday morning, trundling back to Paro Airport. As Shabana Azmi recounts her shero-shaayari sessions with Aparna from the night before, she notices Rahul is awfully quiet, something that really isn't the norm.

I look out the window, at the uniquely coloured architecture and the stunning valleys, the monasteries and the fields, the complete lack of pollution. Maybe, during goodbye, Rahul was just letting Bhutan do the talking.

Photographs: Getty Images

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