Till Madhuri (Dixit-Nene) came on board; no producers were interested in Gulaab Gang: Soumik Sen
“We have never seen a woman go against a woman, we have had bahu going up against saans, but not in this milieu. I thought a Western with female leads would be a novel milieu to set the story in,” says writer-turned-director Soumik Sen, who managed a casting of coup of sorts by pitting Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Juhi Chalwa against each other in his directorial debut Gulaab Gang. In a candid chat, the multi-talented filmmaker talks about the journey of a thought in his head to the big screen.
What inspired you to make a women-centric film like Gulaab Gang?
I always wanted to make a Western, which is a classical story of the underdog going against the oppressor. But most the films we have seen are with male protagonists; be it classical westerns by Christopher Sergio Leone, or back home, Sholay, Dabangg, et al. All of the films are essentially man versus man: Thakur vs Gabar in the former or Salman (Khan) versus Prakash Raj in the latter. But we have never seen a woman go against a woman. We have had a bahu going up against a saans, but not in this milieu. I thought it would be a novel milieu to set a story in.
Can you tell us about the writing process?
Around the time I was writing Kishore Kumar (bio-pic), I came upon various women around the country who have stood up for various things. There is Gulab Bai from Bihar. There is Pinky Baby from Maharashtra. In fact Smita Patil’s character in Mirch Masala is like them too. Essentially these are very strong women. I just wanted to amalgamate all these characteristics and create this fictitious woman, who is somewhat superhuman, in terms of looks, singing and dancing – she sings and dances like Madhuri (Dixit-Nene) – and fighting skills. So that’s what went about in creating the character of Rajjo. If you ask me the writing process per se, I write one to 60 step outline. That’s how I start. Once the story is drafted in my head I elaborate upon it to write my screenplay, and dialogues, obviously, come last. Since I am a musician, when I write a film like this I write the songs in it as well. So when I narrated the film to Madhuriji, I narrated it to her with the music. I sang the songs to her. As I was very clear in my head what kind of sound would be and songs would be in the film. I even wrote and composed the music for the film too.
How much of the script is inspired by real life experiences of Gulab Bai, Pinky Baby et al?
I think the quality is of these women who weave their own clothes and baskets is present, but the incidents or the happenings are completely fiction.
Was it difficult or easy to find a producer for the film?
It was difficult. Till Madhuri came on board, no producers were interested to do it. At least the people I went to. They saw it as a radically different kind of film. Once Madhuri said yes to the film, things were simpler. I decided to go with Anubhav (Sinha) as the producer. And even thereafter, when I was looking for my second actor, for a female villain, a lot of people at that time suggested I take an established actor. But I was always sure what I wanted. I was doing the rounds for a year and half at least.
Were you nervous to direct Madhuri Dixit-Nene and Juhi Chawla?
No. I think I was nervous the first day I met both of them. When I met Madhuri, it’s very unnerving because she smiles like that. But once she was on board she was Rajjo for me. Ditto with Juhi. I don’t think I was intimidated on the set at all, because they were two actors cast to enact roles and they were doing it.
What was the experience shooting with two iconic star actresses?
I wanted a song and dance spectacle, and not an art house film. Gulaab Gang is a complete masala film. Once Madhuri came on board she adds her dimension to the character I had written on paper. She obviously delivered way more than that. Juhi, yes I was very clear on how she would perform in the film. And I remember I enacted each and every scene to her, the way I wanted it, including the mannerisms. I think she primarily followed my cue and took it from there.
How much time did Juhi Chawla take to say ‘yes’ to play the antagonist?
I think she said ‘yes’ in three meetings. Initially she was apprehensive. She wanted us to tone it down, in terms of some scenes and language. And we tried it. I took it back to her and told her that it’s damp now. That’s not the film I want to direct. And I think then she understood that the punch goes if you try to not make Sumitra Devi (name of Juhi Chawla’s character) so evil. This woman character is radically evil. I can also understand the inhibitions Juhi had to say the things she says in the film. Given her persona, it must have been difficult for her to step in those shoes. And I think those shoes are really dirty. But she did it.
Did you have rehearsals with the cast before the film went on floor?
Yes, we had rehearsals and readings.
Do you like spontaneity or prefer to follow the method as a director?
Spontaneity is great when you do it on the spot, but obviously there is a method to it. The lines are written and characters are etched. So there wasn’t too much improvisation. Obviously improvisations that radically improved something, then one would consider it. But otherwise we were doing exactly what we wanted to do.
What was your initial idea regarding the look and the feel of the film?
The film is set in rural India, but I was clear that it should not look like drab rural India. A lot of filmmakers tend to confuse the colours of the country with poverty. While the film does talk about poverty it does not imply it has to be discoloured world. I think rural India is extremely colourful and extremely beautiful. And I did not want that to go away in anyway.
Then the shade of pink, which we choose is very magenta-ish rather than the baby pink, because it is a strong-ish colour. I wanted pink to be fierce, and not soft. And yes, the one thing I did mention was the use of R on Madhuri’s head as a bindi. She’s an advocator of education in the film. Her bindi is her initial.
What kind of research and referencing did you do for Gulaab Gang?
The atmosphere and ashram (in the film) are an amalgamation of reality. It’s a world where you will see art and crafts forms from all across and have found a common place in Gulaab Gang. A lot of research went into creating the weapons for the women, because they were not ready-made ones. They were things that are used in our day-to-day lives in villages. We modified implements as weapons. So in regards to costumes and props, we did a lot of research. I told Eka (Lakhani, costume designer) to reference the different ways the sari is draped across the country for the film.
What was your brief to the cinematographer?
There was obviously a look and texture that I had in mind before I met Alphonse (Roy). But he’s not a full-fledged commercial cinematographer. He’s most comfortable in the documentary space and shooting the wild animals. He’s shot documentaries like ‘The Wild Cats of India’, shot with the tigers in their natural habitat. So his outlook towards nature was radically different from most other people. And that’s what one tried to do (in this film).
What were the major challenges you faced while making Gulaab Gang?
This is not a big-budget film, contrary to what people think. We had to work within the means we had. We had our constraints and the risks were minimally kept. So that’s the only challenge. Apart from that, you have to take bad days in your stride. I remember one of the days the camera just didn’t start and we kind of lost half a day. Essentially we were working with two things, availability of the actors and sunlight. So we had to just maximise what we could do in that time period.
Are you nervous as it is your first film as a director?
No, I just hope people come to the theatres and see the film. Because I have done the film I wanted to make. It’s impossible to please everybody, but it’s absolutely possible to be true to what you wanted to make. I have made what I wanted to make.
Did you always want to be a director?
I call myself a story teller. I am a musician so I tell stories in tunes and in writing. So it’s just about reaching out. It’s about telling a story to as many people as possible. I think the compulsive trait is to tell a story, be it through film, theater, song and television, even through your mobile phone or the internet.
Tell me about your journey into the film industry.
I actually was a journalist and worked for Business Standard. I used to do business reporting, but I used to do stories too. Story-telling is an art form, and I liked cinema. I am a huge Satyajit Ray fan, actually not a fan, more of a student. So I have been trying stuff. I started with writing, essentially putting a story together. That’s how I wrote Anthony Kaun Hai?. I got to know Raj (Kaushal, director). Then after came the phase when you write for a living. And of course then the bio-pic on Kishore Kumar came along. Actually, I always wanted to do a bio pic on Kishore Kumar. And during the writing phase I realised I wanted to make a film.
Who are the filmmakers you idolised while growing up, and whose work inspires you now?
Satyajit Ray. I won’t really say inspired, but I am a big fan of many filmmakers, internationally and in India. I love the work of Jean Pierre Jeunet, Cohen brothers. I love how Peter Jackson handles his drama. Spielberg has innocence and childlike qualities in his story-telling. Tarantino, I think, is the most brilliant writer in the world right now. Then there are my friends like Shoojit Sircar, Sujoy Ghosh, Anurag Basu, Dibakar Banerjee and so many more.
– By Rachana Parekh