Sarabjit’s story is nothing less than a film’s script
A former actor, model, television host, art director & production designer and now film director, Omung Kumar, has excelled in various fields. Post his National Award-winning debut film Mary Kom, Omung had decided that he wouldn’t make another biopic for some time. But his decision changed the moment he was offered Sarbjit, a film on Sarabjit Singh, an Indian resident who was convicted of terrorism and spying by a Pakistani court and sentenced to death in 1991. However the government stayed his execution for an indefinite period in 2008. Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur relentlessly fought for his release from Lahore jail, but her quest ended tragically when Sarabjit was killed in a brutal attack by fellow prisoners in 2013.
Omung talks about the making of this saga and what went into it.
How did this film on Sarabjit Singh happen?
The producer of the film, Sandeep (Singh) told me that he had a very interesting subject. Though I’d said that I won’t make a biopic for some time but after reading about Sarabjit and seeing Dalbir Kaur on YouTube, I firmly knew that this is a very important story. Moreover, it was important that this story is told. It moved me a lot. And that’s how I decided to make a biopic once again.
When Sarabjit was alive, people thought that such a film should be made so that he gets released
Earlier there was news that Subhash Ghai or Hansal Mehta will direct this film. But later you were announced as the director. Was this just a rumor?
This movie has been in talks for the past four years. When Sarabjit was alive, people thought that such a film should be made so that he gets released. The movie came to me after my National Award and I immediately said yes. We scripted everything and got things done in a new way. I met Dalbir Kaur and even she came down to Mumbai. I’ve done the story in my style as we have taken the rights and have also produced the film.It is produced by Sandeep Singh, Smita Thackrey and me. Zeishan Quadri also has the rights to this story, so he is also involved.
A lot is being said about Dalbir Kaur’s role and the film being from her perspective. Will her journey of more than two decades, in which she faced several hardships, be the soul of the film and not the circumstances Sarabjit faced?
It will be both. It’s Sarabjit’s story but will also showcase the struggle of his family. It talks about their fight and all that they went through. The movie will show Dalbir’s journey and will also show Sarabjit in jail.
From Sonakshi to Kangana and now Aishwarya, several actresses were in consideration for Dalbir’s role. How did you zero in on Aishwarya Rai?
Aishwarya is the first person I’d approached and she said yes. I wanted someone who is experienced enough to play an older character later in the film and also look young in the beginning. I wanted an unconventional choice for this role and because Aishwarya was making a comeback, I thought she will be a surprise element in the film.
How closely could you identify with Aishwarya for this role?
Aishwarya is a director’s actor and will portray the role the way I tell her to. She is completely into the character. When she saw everything and heard about the story, she agreed right away. Aishwarya knows that it is such an important role because Sarabjit’s story is very powerful and emotional.
I wanted an unconventional choice for this role and because Aishwarya was making a comeback, I thought she will be a surprise element in the film
What kind of research, reading and preparation will Aishwarya and Randeep (Sarabjit’s role) require for their roles?
We met the family, gathered the truth and got to know how they have lived in that situation. What their life was earlier and how they lead it now. I have a lot of photographs and details as we have gone into depth of things, considering every small detail – how they lived, what they ate, what happened that day and so on. We did all this research and shared it with the actors.
There’s a huge difference between your earlier biopic and this one, for the latter is a very sensitive topic. Are you finding it difficult to deal with this subject as compared to Mary Kom?
Not really. It is not difficult; the only thing is that the topic is very sensitive. I have to be very particular about my research and see that each and everything is done properly. Sarabjit’s story is already known to most people and something that is already known needs to be told properly. Everything is available on the Internet, you can see it on YouTube, so one can’t go haywire with the details. But what is told is told; I’m saying it in a better way.
Till now, what impact has Sarabjit’s story left on you?
When you are listening to his story and writing the script, you feel very heavy. The moment you realize all that the family has gone through, you automatically start crying. Even my writer and the crew got very emotional. You can almost feel all the emotions that Sarabjit and his family had gone through. We could feel the tension while thinking about the shoot and planning various sequences. Hearing his story will make everybody cry.
You can almost feel all the emotions that Sarabjit and his family had gone through
Before Mary Kom, you have been known for your production and larger-than-life set design for films such as Black or Saawariya and even Big Boss. Will your skills as a set designer also to come to fore in this film?
My wife Vanita was the production designer for Mary Kom and some of my previous films where the art direction was looked after by me. She is the production designer for this film as well. The jail that couldn’t be shot in Pakistan and Dalbir’s house have been set designed. Even though we shot on live locations, one still needs to add details to it. Almost everything is art directed. The jail set is the biggest and was constructed in Mumbai.
From Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom to Aishwarya Rai in Sarbjit – In today’s scenario, where the script is said to be the hero, do Indian audiences still prefer watching films with a famous name in the lead?
It just gets you a bigger hope for the release. If you make such a dedicated film, you can make it with a newcomer as well. You can try your luck in that way. I deliberately wanted a very established actress so that the story reaches everywhere, similar to what happened with Mary Kom. That’s why I thought of Aishwarya Rai and Randeep Hooda.
I deliberately wanted a very established actress so that the story reaches everywhere
With biopics, there is always a debate about the melodrama or cinematic liberties that eventually don’t get justified. To what extent do you plan to take cinematic liberties or involve melodrama on this film?
The truth is the truth. If you watch the various videos on YouTube you’ll think that this isn’t real life as something like can only happens in films; but it was actually happening in real life. Sarabjit’s story seems like a film story. If anybody is in jail for more than 20 years and there is so much anticipation about his release, does it appear to be a real situation from any angle? Wohh anne wala hai, abhi nikalne wala hai, family try kar rahi hai – such things are only seen in films. This story already has so much in it that it is nothing less than a film’s script. With good acting, nothing appears to be melodrama.
How did Rajesh Beri come on board as the film’s writer?
He had written the earlier script and we have taken it from there. But he has co-written it.
Biopics have more or less worked well in the industry. But some recent releases such as Manjhi – The Mountain Man though an amazing story, had a lot of melodrama in it and thus faced immense criticism. What goes wrong with such stories?
The problem is that when you show a little more than reality, it starts looking fake. One should not do that but stick to the story. But if the story is not engaging there are chances that it will start looking like a documentary.
You were planning a film on Indian soldiers in World War II. Tell us more about it and what is happening with that?
It will happen after this film.