'It reminded me of the Ramayana, a story that runs in every Indian's blood.'
Among Bollywood's most memorable hits at the beginning of a new century, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha is an emotional film about a star-crossed couple, played by Sunny Deol and Ameesha Patel, grappling with the horrors of Partition.
On June 15, 2021, Gadar clocks 20 years of its theatrical release.
Director Anil Sharma takes a trip down memory lane and shares fond memories from the making of the film.
Recalling how several leading actresses of that time turned down the role of Sakeena, Sharma tells Rediff.com Contributor Mohnish Singh, "Many actresses thought there was no Switzerland and that they would have to toil in dust and mud if they agreed to do the film."
How does it feel to be the man behind creating this iconic film?
I feel extremely lucky.
Twenty years have passed since the release of the film, but even today, it looks as fresh as it was when it hit the big screen in 2001.
When and how did the idea of Gadar strike you?
While making Maharaja in 1998, there was a constant thought in my head that I wanted to direct a high-profile period film.
I was constantly looking for a script set in that zone.
At the same time, I was also working on a script revolving around the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. It was tentatively called Kashmir.
I had even approached some prominent actors of the industry, including Dilip Kumar saab and Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan).
I was extremely serious about making that film and my entire team was working really hard to put the entire project together.
In that same script, I wanted to add a sub-plot about a young Kashmiri man falling in love with a girl from PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir).
After eight or nine months, my writing team finally cracked an idea. When I read it, I was blown away.
I thought that the sub-plot was a complete film in itself. It had all the ingredients of a sure-shot commercial Bollywood blockbuster.
It reminded me of the Ramayana, a story that runs in every Indian's blood.
And when we set it against the devastating times of Partition, I was convinced I was making Gadar next.
The film that I had planned about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits is still close to my heart. I am definitely going to work on it someday.
I was in my bedroom where my writer Shaktiman (Talwar) narrated the entire story. I started pacing after he completed the narration.
I came waltzing into my hall on the ground floor. My family and assistants were present there.
I narrated the story to them. Everyone got goosebumps.
I could see their eyes well up.
In that very moment, I decided to direct Gadar. I knew it was going to be India's Titanic.
God gives you everything. I am a film-maker and there are so many film-makers like me who strive to come up with interesting ideas and stories.
Everyone works hard. But I feel it was His and my grandfather and father's blessings that I got the honour of making a film like Gadar. It could have been someone else because there is no scarcity of talent in our industry.
Did you originally want to cast Govinda in the film after having worked with him in Maharaja?
This is all speculation.
Govindaji is a very good friend of mine.
When I was working with him on Maharaja, I told him I was planning to make a period film like this. He got very excited after I briefly shared the storyline with him.
But he had reservations. He said, 'There is so much India and Pakistan angle in the story. How will you pull it off?'
He might have thought that maybe I wanted to cast him, but I never imagined him in the role of Tara Singh.
We had written the story keeping Sunny Deolji in mind.
But since I was working with Govindaji at that time, I just shared the story with him.
If I am not wrong, you were in advanced talks with Kajol for the character of Sakeena. How did that casting fall through?
See, I was in talks with several leading heroines of that time.
But you receive only what is given to you from heaven.
Some actresses were demanding a hefty pay cheque, others were unable to understand the subject.
They could not understand the concept of a period love story.
At that time, Bollywood was producing modern love stories, set in foreign locations.
Many actresses thought there was no Switzerland and that they would have to toil in dust and mud if they agreed to do the film.
How did a newcomer like Ameesha Patel get the role?
After the big heroines said no to the film, we decided to cast a fresh face.
We received photographs of nearly 400 girls for the role of Sakeena. We called 40 for an audition.
It was written in Ameesha Patel's destiny to play Sakeena.
Did you sign her before the release of her debut film Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai or after its release in 2000?
Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai had not released when I auditioned her.
If you look at the credits of my film, it says 'Introducing Ameesha Patel'.
Rakesh Roshanji and I selected her for our respective films at the same time.
Gadar boasts of the record for registering the maximum footfalls for any film in India.
Gadar amassed an unprecedented footfall of 17.5 crore (175 million).
Today's biggest films cannot register a footfall more than 5 crore (50 million). The film that is being hailed as the biggest blockbuster of Indian cinema (Baahubali: The Conclusion) had a footfall of just 5 crore.
Had social media been there at that time, people would have gone crazy.
I will tell you an interesting story about the massive popularity of the film... While the film was still in theatres five-six months after its release, a big-shot financier came to me and said, 'Anilji, give me a hug.'
I asked him, 'What happened?'
He said, 'I cannot believe how people are going crazy for your film. Recently, I was in a small village of Punjab. I wanted to build a theatre there. As I was going to the site in my car, I saw a fair was going on.
'I asked a villager, 'What's going on? What's this fair for?'
'He said, 'It's a Gadar mela. People from the nearby villages gather here to watch Gadar.'
'I looked around and saw that people had set up tents. They were preparing their food there only. People would come in droves in tractors, live in tents for two-three days, watch the film back-to-back and then go home. It looked like some endless picnic was going on.'
I was astounded to hear that.
Do you think you can make a film like Gadar in 2021, keeping in mind the current political atmosphere in our country?
Gadar toh ab kisi ka baap bhi nahi bana sakta.
God made Gadar and if He wants another Gadar, only he can make it then.
The number of protests that Gadar faced upon its release, I do not think any other Hindi film has ever gone through that.
There were riots in theatres across India as certain things shown in the film did not go down well with a certain section of the society.
Theatres were set on fire in several parts of country, including Bhopal.
Some people thought there was an anti-Muslim angle in the film. But when they saw the film, they realised it was a pro-Muslim story. There was nothing to raise eyebrows over.
In London, members of the Indian and Pakistani communities hurled cold drink bottles at one another in a theatre. After this incident, it was decided that cold drinks would not be served in a glass bottle, and plastic bottles came in vogue.
Political parties had their own agendas. I as a film-maker had nothing to do with politics or any agenda.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
The most challenging scene to shoot was the one where Ashraf Ali (Amrish Puri) and his entire family, including Sakeena, try to board the train to Pakistan. It involved a massive crowd of nearly 50,000 people. I had put nine cameras at various angles to capture the chaos.
It was the month of June and the temperature ranged around 48-50 degree Celsius in Firozpur, Punjab, where we were shooting.
Gadar is filled with a slew of difficult scenes.
There were so many moments of pain and joy, and that is the fun of film-making.
I often feel that I should write a book on the making of Gadar. I am sure it will be more interesting than the film itself (laughs).