December 24, 2020 07:15:19
The South Indian siren for the Shakeel screen was everything a woman shouldn’t be in a movie theater. Independent, defiant and successful. And not surprisingly, in the end she bore the brunt of it. “Men in the Malayalam industry were insecure. They couldn’t match the success of her films, ”says director Indrajit Lankesh, who brought the role of Rich Chadha-star to Shakeel’s eventful and less talked about life on screen.
As Shakeela prepares for a theatrical release, Indrajit Lankesh discovers why he told the story of one of India’s most successful but forgotten artists.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What did you think about Shakeel’s movie story?
Everyone, except those close to Shakeela, knows her only through her films. After hearing her story and watching it carefully, I decided to make a film.
In fact, Shakeela was the artist in my film Monalisa. Someone told me that she was going through a difficult phase and that she lived in a 1BHK house in an unclean place in Chennai. I was shocked that even after appearing in 200 movies, she lived in such a state. During the little time we spent together during the filming of Monalise, I asked her about it. She said, ‘I lost it all and now I’m looking for character roles’.
We met a few times after that, but the real story unfolded a decade later when I invited her for another film. The situation has not changed for her. Although by then I was aware of her rag-to-rag-rich story, I learned what really happened – how they cheated and sinned against her. She was honest about it. When you sit down with her, she accepts her mistakes but doesn’t regret them.
However, she regrets being banned in the industry. If you do not receive a censorship certificate for 40 of your films, you will be unofficially rejected. She was the first adult movie star to be a woman. She entered the Malayalam industry, which is dominated by male-focused films. There was no stopping her. Then the men felt insecure. They didn’t even get theaters for their films and couldn’t match the success of Shakeel’s films. That interested me.
Was Shakeela happy with the idea of the biography or did she have reservations?
I am very lucky to have my opinion. Shakeela made my life as a director a lot easier because she didn’t hide anything. She did not hesitate. A lot of new information came out when I started talking to her in front of the camera. And it’s not just a sad saga.
Surely the challenge was to decide what to keep in the script and what not.
That was always on my mind while I was filming her, and she talks without a filter. Like I said, it made my life easier because when you’re doing a resume and a person is open to sharing stories about their life, it’s great. I kept it as real as possible, sticking to the true story of Shakeela without taking cinematic freedoms.
But yes, there was a lot of content. It was a challenge to tell it in two hours, taking into account several factors.
Were you aware that as a narrator you don’t lose objectivity, given that most of your research was through talking to the person whose life you were bringing to the screen?
If you try to celebrate a person or just look like the original character, she stays with the audience for 10 minutes. You need to build a narrative that is more realistic and get into the character’s skin. That’s why I didn’t agree to someone who looked like Shakeela. I wanted a good actor, someone who could be as real as possible. And Richa is a real actor. I followed her movies closely. However, she achieved her best performance with Shakeel.
Richa is not like Shakeela but a performer. I tried to do that, get a performer who can make the character look authentic to the audience. My father would tell me I didn’t believe in autobiographies. However, what helped me present the true story was that Shakeela did not hide anything about herself. We didn’t try to celebrate it. My film speaks to your face and tells you what it’s like to survive in a male-focused society. It’s the story of a woman who wanted to achieve something big and did it. She swam against the tide before being referred to the footnotes.
Pankaj Tripathi, as a creepy past star, is an interesting choice for the cast as no one has seen him play in the gallery. What was it about Pankaj that you thought suited the character?
Shakeela is one of the biggest films for Pankaj in terms of screen space and the character itself. He had never played a superstar or actor before. Pankaj is one of the best actors we have today. He is the biggest star on the digital platform. In fact, he is bigger than any Bollywood star. He is the advantage of our film.
I became a fan after seeing him in Newton. I felt like he changed the play in the movie. Going back to Shakeeli, Pankaj told me that he always wanted to play this type of character, but he didn’t get the chance. The character he is talking about represents the industry, as it is today.
How do you react to comparisons between Shakeela and Dirty Picture? With the latter’s success at the box office, did that put extra pressure on you while creating Shakeela?
First of all, I’m a big fan of Vidya Balan and I loved her performance in Dirty Picture. Of course, the film was a huge success and added pressure on us as we also tell the story of an adult movie star. When you do, you have to capture many meta scenes. The similarities end there. I followed Silk Smith’s career. She was popular for her dance. In fact, when many heroes from the South came across a rough patch, they would add a song with Silk to make their films succeed.
Of course, the creators (Dirty Pictures) took a lot of film freedom and that was in line with the way they wanted to present the story. And the film became a big hit. However, Shakeela is different. It’s a serious movie. I was realistic in the sense that I didn’t stray from Shakeela’s life story.
Shakeela comes out at a time when people are not comfortable watching movies in theaters. Didn’t they hesitate?
I thought about it a lot, I even had conversations with my producer and marketing team. We even have a lot of OTT offers. But my producers and I believed this was a movie for theaters. Shakeela was a popular face not only in big but also in smaller cities. The masses adored her. Someone had to take the first step to get the audience back to the cinemas, which is a better excuse than Shakeela. We are ready for a challenge.
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