Ekk Albela – A tribute to the spirit of actor Bhagwan Dada
Celebrating the life of an actor, who by himself was larger than life, Ekk Albela is a tribute to the legendary Bhagwan Dada. Noted Marathi actor Mangesh Desai steps into Bhagwan Dada’s shoes while Director Shekhar Sartandel is the man behind this biopic, which traces the life and times of an actor for the very first time. Pandolin gets in conversation with the actor and filmmaker to know about the challenges, accomplishments and pleasure in making a film like this.
Mangesh Desai, Actor
You play the legendary Bhagwan Dada in the film. How did you understand and prepare yourself for such a character?
I never thought that I’d would essay the role of Bhagwan Dada. As a kid, I’d listen to songs his songs like “Shola Jo Bhadke” or “Bholi Surat Dil Ke Khote.” We both have similar facial features but I never thought that I’ll get an opportunity to play his character. When Shekharji (Sartandel, director) narrated the script of the film to me, the first question I asked him was, “Which role would I be playing?” And he said, “Bhagwan Dada”. He showed me photographs of Bhagwan Dada and myself and marked the similarities between us. He told me that Bhagwan Dada’s cheekbone was exactly like mine and our eyes too look similar.
Shekharji had seen a few of my skits. I also hosted a TV show and seeing me in that role, he told me that my style was also similar to that of Bhagwan Dada. But my biggest concern was dancing. Because I’m a non-dancer actor, I don’t know how to dance at all. I know only informal dancing like dancing in the baraat (laughs). But Shekharji was confident that I would be able to manage that too. He saw me dancing at my birthday and said that he wanted that kind of a dance itself. He told me that I danced really well to rhythm, and that my dancing style was also similar to that of Bhagwan Dada’s.
It is said that the story is emotionally challenging. Tell us more about it.
Dada not only earned big fame in the Hindi film industry but also a high status in the society. Raj Kapoorji always asked him to bring out his unique style in social films. He would say, “Otherwise, I’ll bring it out myself and then don’t tell me that I copied you.” Dada was such a big man yet there’s hardly anything about him in social media. So, the biggest challenge that I faced was, “How do I essay his character?” I’m from the field of drama and one of the first things that they taught us is that becoming a good or a bad actor is a matter to be considered in the future; first become a good observer.
In the 17 or 18 years of my experience, I’ve learnt that whenever an actor has to play a character, his personal life also becomes a part of the process. I saw Dada’s Albela almost 20 to 25 times and learnt that he was such a natural actor and did some melodramatic work, according to the need of the hour. I realized that if I maintained that in my personal life, with a little concentration, I could play the role better. I used to look into the script everyday, understand the scenes to be shot the next day and would put myself in Dada’s shoes to check my own acting capabilities.
It’s often said that an actor remains restless till he gets proper appreciation for his work. Even I wasn’t not sure if I was able to give my hundred percent to the character, but at the launch of the film’s teaser, Dada’s son, Mr. Arun Palav was present with Dada’s grandson. Both of them watched the teaser and told me that it reminded them of Dada. That’s when I felt that I gave my hundred percent to the character I played and the background study that I did.
When Dada’s son and grandson watched the teaser, they told me that it reminded them of Dada
You’ve mentioned that you are glad to have Vidya Balan as a part of this film. What value and expertise has she brought to the film?
After she joined the film, the film automatically acquired a big status. Being a film on Dada, it obviously had to be big. But if were any other actress or even the star heroine of the Marathi film industry, the film wouldn’t have been this big. After Vidyaji became a part of the film, it has reached international standards. We’ve been getting calls from Australia and UK to know whether the film is releasing there. So, you can understand how huge the film has become after she joined it.
How was the experience of working with director Shekhar Sartandel?
Shekharji is a very simple director. He’s an actor’s director, which means that he knows what his actor can do. He doesn’t try to control the actors as he’s confident about them and their capabilities. If anyone does make a mistake, he gently tells them about it. Otherwise, he never disturbs his actors. He’s a very nice director.
Were there any personal learnings after completing the shoot of the film?
After watching Albela and completing the shoot of this film, I learnt that my life has a lot of similarities with that of Dada’s. Dada was a carefree, spirited soul and I too, in my personal life, am a carefree person. He could take stress only to a certain level and I’m also exactly the same. We both love helping people.
Another thing that came to my mind was that when Dada was a superstar in stunt films, he wanted to venture into the world of social films. And no one actually allowed him to do so except Geeta Baliji. As of today, I’ve done 42 films and have essayed the lead role in 30 of them and played character roles in the other 12. I’ve received a number of awards too but I couldn’t stand out publicly. So as Geeta Baliji came into Dada’s life, Vidyaji has come into mine (smiles). I hope this film works wonders.
When I do comic roles or character roles, I use my own mind but in a biopic you put yourself in someone else’s shoes
Do you feel the pressure of living up to the expectations from this film?
When I saw the teaser and did the dubbing, I was quite confident that I did a fine job. When his family said that it reminded them of Dada, I was a hundred percent sure that I nailed it. So I’m not really afraid of the audience or critics. The only thing I fear is that now I’ll have to be careful regarding choosing roles in my future films.
You have largely done comedy roles. How different and difficult was it to be part of a biopic?
In a biopic, the character sketch of the person becomes quite personal. When I do comic roles or character roles, I use my own mind but in a biopic you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s the most difficult task. Especially for this film since very few people who knew Dada are still alive. And people hardly have information about him. So essaying this role was certainly a challenge.
Shekhar Sartandel, Director
Ekk Albela is the first film that revolves around the life of an actor. What inspired you to choose a subject like this?
I am quite intrigued by the lives of yesteryear actors. Apart from that, being a teacher myself, I have to often go through the history of cinema and research those topics thoroughly. I am quite interested in those periods, beginning right from the 1910’s. Consequentially, I knew about Bhagwan Dada. The fact that he became such a ‘topic of discussion’ just because of one film (Albela) was something that always struck me by awe. So when I was introduced to the producer, after talking about a lot of things ranging from films to stars to periods, he told me that he wanted to make a film on Bhagwan Dada. He asked me if I would be interested in doing it, and visibly, I said I would be happy to do it (smiles).
What kind of research goes into a film like this?
Honestly, most of the information that you find on the Internet is fake. For example, a lot was said about him having a house in Juhu. But that was not at all true. He spent all his life in Parel and later moved to Chembur, next to RK Studios. In fact, the film industry in those days was limited to Dadar as there were around 7-8 studios all together, of which only Ranjit Studio is the one that people know of today. I also tried to talk to people of those times, his colleagues, and co-actors. But even while doing that, it was difficult to get a perspective, since most of them didn’t remember too much because of their age.
Fortunately, I got to know a writer from that time who used to write for the Indian Express. He was a scholar of film studies in a way. That helped me lot. It gave me a sense of the character. That was the first time that something felt real. Yet, the events in my screenplay were not very clear. So I went on to source interviews, periodicals, magazines etc. from those times. I used those to get the events right. And then finally there were his films. I took bits and pieces from everywhere and created this puzzle. All incidents in the film are absolutely real though. There is no element of fiction.
There have been biopics made on celebrities, sportsmen, real life heroes etc, but this is the first time that something was being filmed around an actor’s life
Tell us something about the choice of cast you have made for this film.
Mangesh (Desai)’s role was a major challenge for me. Once I took up the project, I realized that there isn’t a single film that has been done on a film industry actor. There have been biopics made on celebrities, sportsmen, real life heroes etc, but this is the first time that something was being filmed around an actor’s life. In the former scenario, you can cast somebody who is close enough to the character, but for an actor’s biopic, you need somebody who fits the exact requirements. Add to this his style, his dance movements, the unconventional body structure, and the fact that I needed an actor who is Marathi speaking. One could manage the scenes, shots, etc, but if the audience doesn’t believe that this is Bhagwan Dada, the film falls flat. Keeping all these things in mind, and how much make up could achieve, we finalized upon Mangesh.
Coming to Geeta Bali, she too was an unconventional actress of her time. She was a little chubby. I always felt that Vidyaji would be perfect for this role. Her body structure and dancing capabilities were both reassuring. So I wanted her in the film, and luckily she agreed to do it.
Are you satisfied with the way the film has shaped up?
Yes. Like I mentioned before, this is the first time that a film like this is made in India. It hasn’t even been done in the South, or in Bengali cinema or anywhere else. So it is an honor for me. Also the responses to the promo have been satisfactory. But more than anything else, I feel we have worked hard for the film to be what it is today.
-Dhruvanka Medhekar & Shradha Aswani. Transcription by Anindita Roy