'Rani was apprehensive because she was doing a film outside the YRF banner after a long time.'
'She said she hoped she would be as comfortable with me as she was working in her home productions.'
'I promised her that she would feel at home.'
The trailer of Rani Mukerji's next film, Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway, opened to an overwhelming response.
There are raves in plenty for the actress who is riveting as Dipika Chatterjee.
The film recounts an Indian couple, Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya's struggle to win back the custody of her children, three-year-old Avigyan and year-old Aishwarya, who were forcibly taken away by the Child Protective Service in Norway in May 2011.
The authorities objected to Sagarika feeding her children by hand, giving them what they felt was inappropriate clothes and toys and inadequate play space, and to the son sleeping in the same bed as his father.
They put the children in foster care till they were 18. Then, following diplomatic intervention, gave custody to Anurup's brother, allowing him to bring them back to India.
In the midst of this protracted legal battle, the couple separated and the distraught mother continued the battle alone. The Calcutta high court finally granted Sagarika custody of the children two years later in January 2013.
Speaking about the film, Producer Nikkhil Advani tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya, "The story underlined cultural differences which, hard as it is to believe, can result in parents losing custody of their children because in another country, our black tikka, which is supposed to ward off evil, is seen as voodoo."
"Like with my film Airlift, which details the evacuation of Indians from Kuwait which was attacked by Iraq," Nikkhil adds, "this story too emphasises that in a crisis, it is our own country that comes to the aid of Indians living abroad."
The first of a two-part fascinating interview:
What made you bring Sagarika Bhattacharya's story to the screen?
I remember it was a Sunday when I read Ashima Chibber's (writer-director) script, in one go.
As soon as I finished, I called my sister Monisha and told her I was sending across a script.
She called me back after a few hours, saying, 'We have to make this film!'
The story grabbed me not just as a parent but also as an Indian.
It underlined cultural differences which, hard as it is to believe, can result in parents losing custody of their children because in another country, our black tikka, which is supposed to ward off evil, is seen as voodoo.
It was ridiculous, and it made me angry that this couple had to go through a harrowing two-year ordeal because the Child Protective Service in Norway have their own rules that are rooted in their culture, and since they did not conform to them, they put their children in foster care.
Like with my 2016 film Airlift, which details the evacuation of Indians from Kuwait which was attacked by Iraq, this story too emphasises that in a crisis, it is our own country that comes to the aid of Indians living abroad.
Airlift, Batla House, Rocket Boys, now, Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway. You like to bring real life stories to the screen.
Yes, I like to read and these are the kind stories that impact me.
One of my next productions is Freedom at Midnight, an epic political thriller drama series on SonyLIV, based on Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre's book by the same name.
The series, which rolls in May-June, will highlight several incidents from the year of India's Independence and interconnected stories about crucial events and personalities who played a significant role in altering the course of our country's history.
If it is a real story, we at Emmy like to take it to the world. That's become our USP.
Given that you had to move the Delhi high court for Batla House to keep its Independence Day release date in 2019, weren't you worried of running into legal hassles with Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway?
The first thing we did after signing Ashima was send the script across to three legal firms.
We asked them what we can show and what we can't, what permissions are needed and from whom.
We don't like any last-minute changes.
After a couple of weeks, they got back saying we could green-light the project.
There were no changes?
None. Ashima had already got an NOC (No Objection Certificate) from Sagarika.
We have bought the rights to her autobiography, Journey of a Mother, which should be out soon.
Our film is an adaptation, based on that manuscript and Ashima's conversations with Sagarika.
Didn't Norwegian authorities raise any objections to the film?
On the contrary, we got a letter from the embassy of Norway after we announced the film, inviting us to shoot in their country and promising support.
We shot Mrs Chattterjee Vs Norway in Estonia and since its trailer release, our film is making headlines in all the local newspapers in Norway.
The reactions to the trailer have been overwhelming, in particular from the film industry with Alia Bhatt 'weeping' over it, Arjun Kapoor 'shaken to the core', Neha Dhupia getting 'goosebumps' and Sonam Kapoor raving over Rani Mukerji who plays the mother.
Yes, every single person in my phone book has called, texted or commented on social media after watching the trailer.
A young member of my team expressed surprise over the overwhelming reaction and I pointed out that Shah Rukh (Khan), Salman (Khan), Kajol and Rani are not Friday, Saturday, Sunday stars. They are the true stars of India.
They have been around for the last three-four decades.
Our audience has grown up watching their films and there is always an outpouring of love for them.
We have all seen how they embraced Pathaan and Shah Rukh Khan, who was returning after a five-year hiatus.
It's a hard-hitting and intense trailer, but from the reactions, it's evident people have embraced our film and Rani too.
This is the first film that Rani Mukerji has done outside Yash Raj Films in years. How did you get her nod to the project?
After the first narration, I called Rani because I knew that only she could pull off this role.
She was surprised: 'You are calling me after 20 years. What happened?'
I told her I was sending her a script based on a true story.
It was a Thursday. She said she would revert by Monday.
On Monday, she admitted that she had wanted to call and say yes on Friday itself.
Yes, Rani was apprehensive because she was doing a film outside the YRF banner after a long time.
She said she hoped she would be as comfortable with me as she was working in her home productions.
I reminded her that everything I know I learnt from YRF and Dharma Productions (Nikkhil was an assistant director on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Mohabbatein and directed Kal Ho Naa Ho) and emulated their high standards of quality and professionalism.
I promised her that she would feel at home.
You worked with her last in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. What was she like 20 years later?
Rani has been an extremely collaborative partner, bringing her professionalism and passion to the table.
All the scenes carry her signature, including some which were not even there in the script.
Like the one where Dipika is sitting in the middle of her living room and screams her children's names out loud, remembering happy moments with Shubh and Suchhi.
No one had told Rani to do it.
The shot was done but the camera was still whirring, and suddenly, she screamed, the agony in her voice stunning all of us.
That scream came out of her reading of the script and from what Sagarika had said.
I guess, like Ashima who is a single mother herself, Rani too being a mother, was outraged by the fact that people could just walk into Sagarika's house and forcibly take away her children without explanation because they believe she was not fit to raise them.
What was Sagarika's reaction to the trailer?
She teared up, grateful to us for putting her story out there.
She's still a young woman, and a very strong one.
She is a software engineer who lives in Gurugram, with her two children, who are eight and 12 now.
She hasn't forgotten the horrors she went through when in Norway with her husband in 2011.
It changed her life forever.