'He not only immerses himself into the character, but he wears it.'
'He does not let even a fragment of himself show while he's playing the part.'
Meghna Gulzar is numb.
"I go inwards, leading up to the release of my films and few days after," she says before Sam Bahadur opens on Friday, December 1, 2023.
After directing three films on real-life stories [Talvar, Raazi, Chhapak], this film is the story of India's most famous military hero, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.
Field Marshal is the highest rank in the army bestowed on military officers of rare calibre. Only two officers in the Indian Army have received the honour.
"I do not refer to him in the past tense. This is the impact he has had on me. They don't make men like him anymore," says Meghna.
"The minute I had my script, the first thing I did was ring up Vicky," she says in the concluding part of the interview to Rediff.com's Archana Masih.
- Part 1 of the Interview: 'We are telling the story of our tallest hero'
What sets this story apart from the other real stories that you have told in your previous films?
There is immense responsibility whenever you are depicting a real person whether living or deceased. You cannot tarnish, disrespect or dishonour the memory. It is just not right and that has always been my intent.
The integrity of telling this story is compounded manifold because it is the field marshal, the highest ranked soldier in our army.
The film covers four decades of his life from pre-Independence British India up to 1973 [till the end of his active tenure in the Indian Army. Field Marshal is the highest rank of the Army. A Field Marshal does not retire].
There were logistical challenges in depicting the different periods accurately -- vehicles, uniforms, medals, ribbons, accoutrements, light switches... everything had to be faithful to the period portrayed in the story.
We had to ensure the army officers and men were donning the right uniform, including the variations of fabric over the years. Earlier, uniforms were made of cotton and changed to terry cotton by the 1960s, so we have attempted to be accurate about every detail.
You said that you didn't know much about the Field Marshal when Mr Ronnie Screwvala told you about this story. What have you learnt of him in the course of this film?
The qualities that stay with me and have subconsciously affected my personality are his integrity and righteousness -- irrespective of whether he was talking to a jawan, gardener, or his khansama or his prime minister.
Vicky often quotes that the only thing I told him was that they don't make men like him anymore.
He is such an inspiring person, and if you realise, I do not refer to him in the past tense. Somehow I can't. I will never say he was because I cannot wrap my head around referring to him in the past. This is the impact he has had on me.
You have said in the past that Vicky Kaushal wasn't your first choice, but you still...
I actually didn't say that. And I would really request you to please correct it if you can.
What I said was that as far as acting prowess was concerned, there was absolutely no doubt that Vicky will deliver what I want. The only uncertainty was achieving the look of the field marshal.
Vicky is much taller...
Not only taller, he does not have light eyes. He has curly hair, whereas the field marshal has straight hair. So that was the only fragment of uncertainty that we both had.
We did a very preliminary look test in 2019 and fortunately for us, all it took was a moustache and lenses.
We did not need any prosthetic to get him to look like the field marshal.
The minute I had my script, the first thing I did was ring up Vicky.
What is it about him as an actor that makes you so confident of him?
He not only immerses himself into the character, but he wears it. He puts it on him. He does not let even a fragment of himself show while he's playing the part.
He portrays the smallest details like the hand movement or the voice and he does this for every character he plays.
He can act like the 16-year-old boy in Sardar Udham Singh  to the 60-year-old field marshal in Sam Bahadur.
So why would you not think of him to play the role?
What made you select Mr Neeraj Kabi who you've worked with in the past, and Sanya Malhotra and Fatima Sana Shaikh?
What strengths do each of them bring to your film?
There are two parts to this thought process, one is the physical resemblance and two is the ability to deliver the required performance.
Neeraj sir has played Gandhi before and when I said, would you like to play Nehru, he was extremely excited. It was a privilege for me to direct him again.
Sanya has a lot of resemblance with the young Silloo (Manekshaw, the Field Marshal's wife). Plus, she has to play the role from a 20 year old to a 50 year old. I had to choose actors who will be able to give that performance and the age range was important.
The same applied with Fatima, even though she was wondering why I would consider her. She was not convinced that she'd be able to pull it off, but my God, how she has! I am so grateful that she just placed her faith in me.
Can you give a peak into your working relationship with Gulzar Sahab in this film?
I think it was extremely energetic and productive. The song situations in a film like this are extremely unusual. Badhte Chalo is a song that revolves around the preparation of the '71 War with regimental war cries in between.
He had to write a song around those regimental war cries. To write words that wrap themselves around the situation and immerse the war cries into the song is not easy.
The words that he has used are simple and identifiable which makes the song easily hummable. Actually, most of his writing has that quality. People often think, 'arrey, we can also write like this' and this is absolutely beautiful.
What is your mother's reaction to this film and your previous movies? Is she enthusiastic? Or is her response to your work one of quiet pride?
I think quiet pride would be closer because she's not an overtly expressive person. She generally never sees a part of the film nor does she read the script. She likes to see the film when it's complete.
I have shown her the trailer, the teaser and made her hear the song, but she's yet to see the completed film.
She says she likes to see the film as an audience and then give her reaction.
Does she come to the premiere?
No. If I am having a very quiet and intimate screening then she likes to be a part of that.
What is it like for you before the release of a film?
I'm actually generally numb, because I'm immersed with finishing the film, checking the various copies that are going et cetera, et cetera.
There are promotional activities and there is not much space to sit and process the momentousness of the time.
But I go inwards, leading up to the release and up to a few days post release. It is an extremely vulnerable time for any film-maker and everyone who is part of the film because you're putting your work out there for public consumption and critique.
Do you watch the first day first show of the film like many film-makers and actors do?
No, I don't.
Any superstitions or good luck charms that you seek comfort in before your film is out?
Not really, because before Talvar none of my films worked and after that life took a different turn.
So, I honestly think that my good luck charms are the stories that choose me to be told. I can't have a better good luck charm than that.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com