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April 1, 1998


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Tough territory

V S Srinivasan

A still from Vaastav
This is for real. Or at least, as real as any movie can get: Mahesh Manjrekar, who swept the Maharashtra state awards with his Aai and India's first commercial film on AIDS, Nidaan.

This time, he's focussing on the grit and gore of life in skid row. And, mind you, he's pulling no punches.

In Vaastav -- yeah, that's what the film's called -- all the goons behave like the real ones, not the growling hams that roam the rest of commercial cinema. No rakhis, no talk of honour, just plain brutality. Or, in Bombaiyya, bhaigiri.

The autorickshaw bounces across the uneven road, throwing in the bright sun at uneven intervals, and then plunging you back into relative darkness. You are headed for one of the bungalows squatting beside the road leading to Aksa beach in Bombay.

We arrive in time to see Sanjay Dutt looking like he's on steroids and a lot else besides coming running out onto the portico and get into heated debate with Namrata Shirodkar, who plays his wife.

"Cut," hollers Mahesh in displeasure. "The shot is not good enough and back into the house goes Sanjay to come back again. Twice over.

In the final take, Sanjay, who plays the good guy in bad guise, does the rushing up part all right and gets on with the dialogue. "Why are you crying?" he asks Namrata. Good question. We'd also like to know.

Manjrekar directing Sanjay Dutt and Namrata Shirodkar
Mrs Bhai explains that their son was playing with a friend who took Sanjay's gun and fired at their son. Fortunately the bullet missed.

Sanjay is all puzzlement. "Then why are you crying?" he asks. Clearly, if this is reality, there is no IQ test for gangsters.

An incensed Namrata yells back at him.... Mahesh cuts her off and then explains what's eating her.

"She tells him that the bullet didn't hit him but what if it had? She has accepted him as a gangster. She knew that quite well when she tied the knot with him. But she does not want the flames of his dhanda harming their son."

Manjrekar knows what he's talking about. He was brought up in an area frequented and inhabited by goons. Incidents like this were common there, he tells you. And that is what he has replicated here -- reality.

"I have seen many such bhais in my life and many bhais on screen too. Unfortunately, they didn't match... So I decided to make a film on the subject.

A still from Vaastav
Scripting took him some time. So, in the meantime, he made Aai and Nidaan and pocketed a few awards.

Sanjay played a small character in Nidaan. "I explained the concept to him. He was impressed and wanted to do the role. And well, here we are," concludes Mahesh.

Ram Gopal Verma's Satya, which too dealt with the bad, bad, underworld, will hit the screen earlier. But Ram Gopal's story has been watered down, allegedly due to goon pressure. Manjrekar, though, has just started on his project.

Sanjay, who has played smuggler, mobster and the like movies like Naam Khalnayak, Aatish, says this role breaks the mould.

"I have always essayed characters who are invincible, who falls in love with a girl, dance, sing and ultimately save everybody to become a hero. Here, the story is different -- everything is for real; it's true to life. This film has a message: "It's nothing great to be a gangster. It's great in the beginning -- it glitters like gold -- but ultimately what is there to it? You die like a dog, either at the hands of the cops or by a rival gang." Makes you feel good, that.

Sanjay has been aided by his experiences at Arthur Road Jail after being arrested in connection with the Bombay blasts on March 12, 1993.

"True. I have met several characters during my tenure there and that has helped me formulate the basics of my character." And then its back to work with the gorgeous Namrata, a former Ms India.

Sigh! If all this were for real, then how come most bhaislooks like retired Mike Tyson sparring partners? And here she is, entreating the lunk of wood that passes for a husband to give up a life of crime. If reality were like this, crime, we welcome you.

Namrata has Vaastav in her file as one of her 1998 releases. And she tells you straight off what she thinks:

Manjrekar with Sanjay Dutt
"I did not want to be branded as a glamour doll." She's got a hard task ahead. "I am acting in other films too, but this role is different. I try and mellow him" -- who, oh, the goon? -- "down. Towards the end he realises that maybe he should just chuck it all up and take off with me and the child." Anyone offering prizes for guessing the ending? In a film that translates into "reality"? If yes, chuck any offer of a job as a gambler.

The film will release about Diwali and the songs for it are being composed by Jatin-Lalit. A lyricist has yet to be signed on.

Sanjay strolls into the less vicious side of the neighbourhood.

"This is a dream role, the kind of shades it has. It's a challenge, for me at least. People will have a chance to say, 'Man! He has done some amazing work. Or, Sanjay Dutt is a damn good actor,yaar. Initially, there is only star value but ultimately you grow out of it. Even when you look at Amitji's graph, you can count the films which mattered, where he is really amazing. This is one of the few films like that which come in an actor's life and I am damn lucky to get it."

The producers are Sanjay's good friend, Balakumar Giri, whom he dragooned into the film, and his friends Gopi Mallya, Anil Narvekar and Ketan Gandhi. Giribhai, though he has been associated with big banners, came in despite his lack of acquaintance with bhaigiri and similar behaviour.

You duck your head and smile politely. But there's no getting away from the fact that all this gangster talk is getting to you now. And so you bow, fold your hands, say your goodbyes and slink away quietly.

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