'I asked all the actresses to stop waxing, shaping eyebrows, pedicures and manicures because I wanted a rustic look.'
'They are very glamorous women, so there was a bit of insecurity.'
'They would put on a little make-up on the sly, but I would sit like a school teacher and check make-up and nails!'
'I would make sure that every bit of unnecessary make-up was taken off.'
Director Srijit Mukherjee's Hindi adaptation Begum Jaan of his 2015 Bengali film Rajkahini hits theatres this week.
The National Award-winning director tells Rediff.com contributor Rajul Hedge how Begum Jaan is the perfect film to start a Bollywood journey.
How different is Begum Jaan from Rajkahini?
It is not a remake, but an adaptation. There are new scenes and sequences, which were not in the Bengali version.
Though the plot, the flow of events and the basic characters are the same, the mapping is different. It is mapped onto a pan Indian scale.
Why make an adaptation?
There are some stories that deserve a bigger resonance or audience, and Rajkahini was one of them.
Partition is something that affected both sides of the country tragically. Unfortunately, not many stories deal with it.
Do you think Begum Jaan is the right debut for you in Bollywood?
Absolutely! It's one of the most brutally honest films I have made.
It looks at uncomfortable things right in the eye. It's the bravest film I have ever made.
Also, it is one of the most heartfelt and heart-wrenching films I have made.
It is always safe and wise to start off with heart.
When a narrative attacks your heart, that is the narrative you should start with.
What made you cast Vidya Balan?
Vidya is so apt for the role that I even went to her with the Bengali version. She could not do it because she was occupied elsewhere.
It was easy to get Vidya on board for Begum Jaan as I had a Bengali film on the same subject and that helped a lot. Instead of pitching her with a story or idea, I could show her the film.
So Vidya was always there on my mind as Begum Jaan. Though I have to mention when Vidya turned the Bengali film down, I went to Rituparna Sengupta and she gave a mind-blowing performance.
I think she deserved a National Award.
What was it like working with Vidya?
I want to work with Vidya in every film.
We had a one-month workshop before the shoot. The first 20 days was a psychological workshop with Vidya and the time, it was the physical handling of guns.
Vidya would ask me many questions concerning the backstory of Begum Jaan.
Jokingly, once I said, 'If I don't have a female character in the film, with her level of preparation, she can probably pull off even a male character!' (Smiles/)
She is a director's delight to work with.
She is dedicated and her camaraderie with the girls was amazing.
She is so helpful and well prepared on the set... I can go on and on.
Did the other actors watch the Bengali film before the shoot?
No. Only Vidya saw the Bengali film. I told the others not to watch because I did not want them to get influenced. I wanted to have a fresh take on the story.
Interesting anecdotes from the shoot?
I had asked all the actresses to stop tending to themselves -- stop waxing, shaping eyebrows, pedicures and manicures because I wanted a rustic look.
They were shocked but went by the rules.
They are very glamorous women, so there was a bit of insecurity.
They would put on a little make-up on the sly, but I would sit like a school teacher and check make-up and nails!
I would make sure that every bit of unnecessary make-up was taken off.
After a while, they forgot about it because they got under the skin of their characters.
They had their own equations, little tiffs, jealousy and insecurities with each other, but for the greater cause the film, they united and did their best.
Similarly, within the film, you will see their small tiffs and how they unite when a crisis hits them.
So it was a reel meets real kind of scenario.
Was it difficult to deal with such a big cast?
Once you motivate them, they take charge of themselves and the others.
It was like a joint family, who looks after themselves, fighting for each other and sometimes, against.
And we were shooting in incredibly adverse conditions.
We did a month-long schedule in Jharkhand, where the set was extensively damaged due to thunder storms. But we rebuilt it and moved on.
There were snakes and scorpions...
I could pull off this film only because of these women, so I owe them the film.Even the male actors were fantastic.
How do you balance commercial and critically acclaimed films?
What I make is an extension of who I am, and who I was in my growing-up years.
I have been exposed to different kinds of films, languages, sensibilities and aesthetics.
I have enjoyed films by David Dhawan, Mani Ratnam, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Satyajit Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh and Anurag Basu.
I have grown up watching and being emotionally close to Hindi films, right from the era of Guru Dutt.
I like telling stories and it could be in any language.
Are you planning to make more Hindi films?
There are four, five films -- a mix of original and Bengali remakes -- but we are trying to fix the scripts. Various actors are reading them.
Vidya is not part of any of them, but I told her that I will keep sending her scripts!