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'Priyanka Chopra is a big star and taking her as a lead would ensure a great Friday opening because it’s a huge film,' Mary Kom director Omung Kumar tells Sonil Dedhia.
“I am confident that Mary Kom will be loved by all the people who have doubts about the film,” Omung Kumar announces boldly, during an interview about his directorial debut, a biopic on Olympic champion Mary Kom.
Omung began his career in television, and tried his hand in various things like modelling and anchoring. Later, he became a successful art director with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, working in films like Black and Saawariya.
In this candid conversation with Sonil Dedhia, Omung tells us why Priyanka is the perfect choice to play Mary Kom and rubbishes rumours about tiffs with Bhansali.
After being a successful art director, was direction the next step?
I had never thought of directing. But I realised that I could do anything that was needed to be done in a film because of my years of working as an art director.
Five years ago, I started writing two scripts that had larger-than-life characters. I could have started my career as a director with either of these scripts, but while writing I realised the film had become too big and I didn’t want to make my first film on a grand scale.
Three-and-a-half years ago, I told my writer, Saiwyn Quadras, to give me a biopic or a female-oriented story, something that if I had been offered that role, I could not say no to.
I told him to give me something that would become the Mother India of my career.
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Why choose Mary Kom as the subject?
We started researching and nothing interesting came our way. Suddenly my writer said two words -- Mary Kom.
I asked him who she was. I started reading about her and I felt ashamed that I wasn’t aware of who she was.
I decided to meet Mary Kom. With my wife (Vanita Kumar) and my writer, I took the flight to Manipur to meet her.
I was inspired by her life.
This is not just a biopic or a film on boxing. Right from how Mary struggled to become a boxer, went to winning the world boxing championship, to her marriage and becoming a mother and then making a comeback as a boxer, there are many human elements that you will see in the film.
I am sure people will have tears once they see the film.
What was that first meeting with Mary Kom like?
It was really interesting. I had read about her and seen her photographs so I knew what she looked like.
We were sitting in a restaurant in Imphal waiting for Mary to arrive. I saw a lady walking towards us in tight slacks with a skirt on top and wearing huge sunglasses. She came up to us and introduced herself.
I was shocked. She looked completely different from her boxing photographs.
She knew nothing about me so I told her about my work and that I wanted to make a film on her life.
At first, she didn’t believe us. Later on she gave us the go-ahead.
We started working on the script and the 2012 Olympics happened at the same time.
Mary won the bronze medal and suddenly everyone started talking about her.
Was Priyanka Chopra your first choice for the film?
Yes, she was the first actress I approached.
Priyanka and I have known each other for many years. We have done a lot of stage shows together.
I narrated the first half and she immediately agreed. She was a little hesitant later about whether she could pull off such a tough role.
I told her that if anyone could do this role, she could.
What convinced you that she was the right choice?
There are only two or three actresses who could have played Mary Kom and Priyanka was the best of them.
Her dedication to her work is amazing. Whenever we do stage shows, she completely involved. She does so many rehearsals, takes interest in how the act needs to be done and tries to get into the character.
Mary Kom is one crazy film. It required immense physical working out and sculpting muscles. Priyanka looks so fit, but let me tell you that she has never gone to the gym in her life.
She had to make muscles and learn boxing. Priyanka has gone all out to do this film.
A lot of people felt that you could have cast a fresh face, preferably an actor from the north-east instead of Priyanka Chopra. Were you expecting such reactions?
Yes, we all knew that this was going to happen. I could have easily made a small film catering to only the north-east region, casting an actor from the north-east and the reach would have been limited.
I wanted to make a commercial film and make people aware of Mary Kom. I wanted a famous person.
Priyanka Chopra is a popular name and my choice for the lead from day one.
Once the film is released, people will forget everything and love the character. The rest of the cast is from the north-east so that we could balance the cast of the film.
So it was purely a commercial decision to cast Priyanka Chopra?
Yes, it was purely a commercial decision.
Priyanka Chopra is a big star and taking her as a lead would ensure a great Friday opening because it’s a huge film.
But I am not thinking only about the box office. I also want the film to reach to as many as people possible in India and all over the world. I want everyone to take notice of the film and Mary Kom.
What inputs did Mary Kom give?
We had extensive meetings with Mary. Priyanka and I stayed at her house for a few days.
We noticed how she trains for boxing, how she cooks, how she eats, how she abuses (laughs).
We took into consideration the little details of her life.
When we were shooting the film, she never came on the sets but she was always available on the phone.
If we were stuck anywhere, we would call her and ask what we should do.
I remember one day we even requested her to abuse so that Priyanka could emulate her perfectly!
Was it easy to get Sanjay Leela Bhansali as producer since you have worked with him in Black and Saawariya?
I was working on Bela Sehgal’s Shirin Farhad Ki Nikal Padi and had a meeting with Sanjay, who was producing the film.
After the meeting, Sanjay asked me what else I was doing and I said I was working on a script. He told me to narrate it, but I said it wasn’t the kind of film he’d like to make.
He insisted, so I narrated the script. He immediately told me that he would produce the film.
Yes, I agree that my proximity to him got me access, but it was the story that helped me find a producer in Sanjay.
There were rumours that you and Sanjay Leela Bhansali had major creative differences. How much does he step in during the filmmaking process?
They were all rumours. There is absolutely no issue between us.
Sanjay came on the sets only twice. The first time was to sign Priyanka Chopra to do the song in Ram Leela.
The second time he was in Dharamshala where we were shooting for the film and he came on the sets just for 15 minutes.
During the process of developing the script, he just gave me the guidance that I required. He asked me to make the character more fierce and crazy.
He also gave small inputs to make the film better. The best part was that he trusted my work and allowed me to make the film I wanted to.
Have Mary Kom and her family seen the film?
Yes. Mary has seen the film and loved it. She cried after watching the film.
Three weeks ago when Mary, her husband Onler and I were watching the film, she was really excited. She would say, ‘Aree this looks just like my house’ or ‘This fight looks the same way I would have fought.’
The detailing is very real. Onler loved the film and was really happy with the way the story has been told.
So would you call it your Mother India?
Yes, it is my Mother India. I wouldn’t have asked for a better film to start off my career as a director.
I’ve got the best platform to prove myself. It’s something I can feel proud about.