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'Heeramandi wasn't another sex scene'

Last updated on: May 16, 2024 12:10 IST

'While I was performing it, I had a weird feeling that people would love it because it's so bizarre.'

Photograph: Kind courtesy Shekhar Suman

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar, has brought back both Shekhar Suman and his son Adhyayan into our living rooms, and also in the news. Even as Shekhar celebrates this new chapter as an actor, he has also returned to politics after 15 years.

In the first part of a long conversation with Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya, Shekhar says, "There's a sense of catharsis, redemption and validation, gaiety and victory. We've gone through some bad times, but that's life! I'm proud Adhayayan took it on his chin and fought back with dignity. We are the happiest family right now."

Let's start with Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar and your character, Nawab Zulfikar, who grabbed the audience's attention in the very first episode with a fellatio scene that wasn't what it appeared to be. It took a few seconds to figure out what was happening...

(Guffaws) Yeah, many were wondering, 'What is this guy doing?' and when it finally began to sink in, they were like, 'Oh my God!'

As a kid, I remember watching Amitji (Amitabh Bachchan) reprimanding God in Deewar, 'Aaj khush to bahut hoge.'

It was an audacious scene as it's blasphemous for a man to be firing God, so it took people a while to understand, but when they did, it was an OMG moment too.

That scene has since become iconic.

I'm not drawing parallels here, but Heeramandi wasn't just another sex scene, there are nuances and subtexts here that a discerning audience will get.

You are referring to the political undertones?

Yes. My character is a man who wants the best from life which can only come from sycophancy.

But he is also far-sighted and tells Manisha's (Koirala) Mallikajaan that once the British leave, there will be a lot of bloodshed, with many of our own dying while fighting each other.

That's what happened after Partition.

There were communal riots, innocents were slaughtered, and with the abolishment of the privy purses, nawabs like Zulfikar lost their riyasat.

When Mallikajaan accuses the British of divide and rule, he points out that tawaifs like her are doing the same, dividing the nawabs from their begums and ruling over them.

The scene is laden with interpretations.


IMAGE: Shekhar Suman with Manisha Korala in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar.

Did you expect it to become a talking point?

I'm not surprised it has because when you work with a master craftsman like Mr Sanjay Bhansali, every shot and scene will be talked about.

While I was performing it, I had a weird feeling that people would love it because it's so bizarre.

The way it was written, Zulfikar and Mallikajaan are sitting close together in the carriage, holding hands, him whispering into her ear.

But on the day of the shoot, though the lines remained the same, Mr Bhansali changed the scene completely, giving it a unique interpretation and bringing out through Zulfikar's drunken stupor, the decadence and pathos of a man who has fallen from grace.

He also told me in no uncertain terms that I had the liberty to say no.

And did you, even for a moment, think of saying no?

I told him I wanted to go the whole hog.

If Mr Bhansali had thought of it, that was a good enough reason to do it.

Drunken scenes are hard to pull off because they are either over-the-top or under played; the pitch is never right.

This one was a bigger challenge, so I decided there would be no rehearsals and it would be a one-take performance.

There was no brazenness, I performed with complete conviction.

(Chuckles) I improvised as I went along, adding the 'Ahista... Gently', which surprised even Mr Bhansali for a moment before realisation dawned.

Then he was like, 'Oh my God, this is so good!'

After we shot it, Mr Bhansali came to me, jumping with joy and clapping his hands, 'Magnificent! This will be historic!'

I remember Aanand Mahendroo, who developed, edited and directed the sitcom Dekh Bhai Dekh, telling me the same thing back in the '90s after that scene where I fell down the stairs.

He had prophesied that scene would become iconic.

IMAGE: Sushma Seth, Bhavana Balsavar, Deven Bhojani, Shekhar Suman and Navin Nishcol in Dekh Bhai Dekh.

Walk us through that again...

Well, I was wearing shoes with rubber soles and there was a carpet. (My character) Sameer, who works in the share market, learns that share prices are falling, and he falls down the stairs in disbelief.

This has never happened before and when he falls a second time, he is startled.

He hears Bhavana's (Balsavar) Sunita coming and waits for her to fall too, but she sails down.

So then, he goes back up and while coming down, falls again.

I had to fall thrice, and got it right in one take every time, and returned home happy.

At 2 am, Aanand called and exulted, 'You don't know what you have done!'

Groggy, I wondered if I had done anything wrong, and he announced, 'You have created history!'

I didn't believe him, but he insisted everyone was watching the scene again and again in the editing room and clapping each time.

'You have to come here right now and watch it with us,' he demanded.

I did, and stayed till breakfast.

Sometimes, little scenes rather than long monologues give an actor so much joy.

IMAGE: Shekhar Suman with wife Alka. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shekhar Suman

How did your wife react to the intimate scene with Manisha Koirala?

(Laughs) When I returned from the shoot, I told Alka that I had done something crazy, but didn't tell either her or my son (Adhyayan) what, as I wanted it to come as a surprise.

My wife enjoyed it when she saw it at the premiere.

Alka almost fell off her chair laughing when towards the end, Mallikajaan steps out of the carriage, shuts the door with total disdain on Zulfikar sprawled out in satiated sleep and imperiously tells the buggy driver to drop him home.

It had faintly crossed my mind whether some would take umbrage, but watching the scene in the theatre, all doubts vanished.

An intimate scene where the partners don't even touch each other, it reminded of your first film, Utsav, which back in the '80s was considered revolutionary in its sex scenes.

Yes, life has come a full circle.

Utsav was also a period film with lavish sets, extravagant costumes and jewellery and my character, Charudutt, is in love with a courtesan, Rekha's Vasantsena.

The bathing scene was so erotic and yet, there was no physicality.

It is so aesthetically done, like a painting or poetry.

Girishji's (Director Girish Karnad) diktat to all of us was to feel our characters and the moment.

Cinematographer Ashok Mehta used only candles to light up the scene.

All my love-making scenes with Rekha were so beautiful, it would be a sin to call them sex scenes.

IMAGE: Shekhar Suman in Heeramandi: The Diamond Bazaar.

Reportedly, Sanjay Bhansali originally had Rekha in mind to play Mallikajaan. Had Heeramandi been made 20 years ago, you could have been doing the scene with Rekha.

Imagine that!

It would have had a different kind of chemistry though because while Charudutt was a sedate, innocent Brahmin, Zulfikar is a conniving nawab.

Getting back to the Heeramandi...

(Breaks in) I had no sense of objectivity when doing the scene, but while dubbing it, I realised it would have a definitive impact on the minds of cine-goers.

No one had experimented with something like this before, bringing a degree of sexuality into the scene without making it look obscene.

There's another powerful scene where Zulfikar holds Mallikajaan by the scruff of her neck and tells her that she will be dead, floating naked in the fountain, if she doesn't give him the file.

His sudden anger and aggression scares her.

She says uncertainly, 'Aap mazak kar rahe ho na? and he replies, 'Hum aagha kar rahe hain (I'm warning you).'

She shoots back, 'Do you doubt me?' and he responds, 'Yes, I doubt you, but I also love you.'

It's such a joy for an actor to work with maestros like K Asif, Kamal Amrohi, Guru Dut, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy and Sanjay Leela Bhansali who will hone your latent talent by giving you such layered characters.

IMAGE: Shekhar Suman with son Adhyayan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shekhar Suman/Instagram

What was it like sitting with your wife and son and watching the series, which also features Adhyayan as your on-screen son, Zoravar?

To be sharing the screen in a magnum opus with my son was gratifying and exhilarating.

While performing our scenes together, I had a three-pronged reaction -- that of a father proud of his son, an actor watching him with scepticism and finally, as the character.

There was one scene which unfortunately edited out, where the tension between us is palpable after Zoravar discovers that he was conceived with a prostitute and his father abandoned him.

The anger, angst and aggression is reflected in the way he sits before Zulfikar, a cigarette dangling in his hand and screaming out his defiance.

There are so many subtle nuances that only someone well versed with a script would notice.

What's the atmosphere like in the Suman home today?

There's a sense of catharsis, redemption and validation, gaiety and victory.

We've gone through some bad times, but that's life!

I'm proud Adhayayan took it on his chin and fought back with dignity.

We are the happiest family right now.

IMAGE: Former Congress leader Radhika Khera and Shekhar Suman join the Bharatiya Janata Party in Delhi. Photograph: ANI  on X

You have returned to politics after 15 years. What prompted you to join BJP?

Passion, compassion and emotion.

The Heeramandi milieu brought along a need to do something for society and the country.

The series ends with martyrdom, a fight for freedom, and while India has since become an independent nation, our fight against poverty, inequality, illiteracy and incivility continues.

In this scenario, when I saw our Prime Minister Narendra Modiji, selflessly fighting to elevate the country's honour through the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, abolition of Article 370, pushing for a Uniform Civil Code, the atmanirbhar and vocal for local campaigns, I had to jump in.

My decision is more emotional than political.

I'm not here to fight elections, I just want to do something for my country.

Had you joined the party earlier, people might have believed you. But now coming in the midst of elections, it seems like a politically motivated decision.

People can read what they want into my intentions.

If I was an opportunist, I would have joined earlier and asked for a ticket.

At this point, there is nothing to ask for.

The BJP as a party in totality also has an emotional ideology in sanatan dharma, Ram and Aastha. I have aligned myself to that.

There's pride when I look at some of our airports and Mumbai's coastal road. I see progress and growth.

I'm an impulsive, spontaneous, person and for the first time, I did not discuss this decision with my wife or my son, my sisters or my friends because I did not want anybody to dissuade me.

Does your decision bring back memories of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when you stood from Patna Saheb on a Congress ticket and lost to the BJP's Shatrughan Sinha?

That was an impulsive and premature decision and best forgotten.

One should not hark back on the past and lug around excess baggage.

It was a lesson I learnt and moved on to become a better and wiser person.