Floored by Jaya's talent
Govind Nihalani talks to Vinita G. Singh about his experiences on the sets of ‘Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma’
It was in Calcutta, during the screening of his television serial Tamas as a full length feature film, that Govind Nihalani zeroed in on Mahashweta Devi’s novel Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma and fell in love with the story. It wasn’t long before he took on the project and set about amalgamating personal and political elements into the film, which he says has been a sublimation of a lifetime’s hopes and experiences. Recently in Bangalore on a visit, Nihalani was full of praise for the female protagonist of the film, Jaya Bachchan and his crew which completed the film in a record breaking time of 59 days — from the mahurat shot to the final frame.
“Working with Jaya was exhilarating and invigorating.., there were no apprehensions on her part or ours about her facing the big screen after a long gap. We found her in her element for every shot — no qualms about the conditions we shot in or the tiring hours. Her dedication and commitment was astounding. Jaya never ‘prepares’ for a role in the real sense. Even if she does, no one knows it... though her onscreen persona is very different from her off-screen one... acting comes effortlessly to her. She has that invaluable combination of instinct and talent,” he says. He undertook the project because he found that the political and introspective elements blended beautifully and he has always favoured political settings. “Mahashweta Devi captured raw emotions and the elements of uncertainty and the inevitable, that chequer our lives in such a beautiful manner. She later wrote additional scenes to relate it to a modern context and adapt it to the political mindedness of today’s youth. When I read the novel I found the story simple and gripping — it had no demands on the reader; but its non-linear narrative style and dramatic form, with a human background ensure a lucid story line. The book is like an on-going process which constantly reminds us about the necessity of change in our lives.”
Nihalani says that Jaya was sent the first draft of the script which interested her and when the second refined and compact draft was sent, she was definitely impressed and ready for the role. “She read the script and told us that she found the essence of the character and she could relate to it almost instantly. That is precisely what happened, she slipped into the role like it was her second skin.” The cast and crew of the film got so attached to Jaya who regaled them with anecdotes from her earlier film days that when it was time to wrap up, there were many who were visibly upset. Says he, “Jaya was really like a ‘Ma’ to the unit. She’s so refined and appears stoic and reserved on screen, but once the cameras stopped rolling, she had the unit in splits with her jokes.”
Nihalani recollects a scene from the film which touched him the most and made him almost forget that it was only a staged shot: “The police enter the room of her dead son and rip his mattress open, while conducting a search. The look on Jaya’s face while she did the shot was enough to move even the cameraman to tears. Jaya explained her naked emotions this way, ‘Something happened to me when I saw the torn mattress. It was like my own son was being ripped to bits and to a mother that was akin to sacrilege, I reacted the way I would have if anyone has trampled on the sanctity of a mother-son relationship.’ Each expression, each emotion and gesture of hers was so refreshing. She is one actress whose instinctual responses trigger off an expression.
He says that the most exciting element of the film is the traversal of time — jumping from present to past and hack — and he adds that he has tried to find the cinematic equivalent of Mahashweta’s novel to the best of his ability. “The script was written taking off from the novel and I was swept off my feet by its nonpropagandist, non-didactic approach. It is a beautiful tribute to a generation of Indians which tried to change society for the better and made a difference in many lives.”
Asked about the greatest challenge to a film personality of his talents and experience, Nihalani replies that keeping pace with the changing times is not only challenging but quintessential for the growth of any director, producer or actor, “Work on your imagination, concern, courage and the desire to face reality head-on with no short cuts. Constantly update ideas, technology, approaches and styles in every sphere... if you don’t you stand to become a relic,” he advises.