A peek into the world of ‘Mastram’ with lead actors Tara & Rahul
She makes her debut in Hindi cinema while this is his second film outing. Meet Tara Alisha Berry and Rahul Bagga, the talented and dynamic actors who play the lead roles in the upcoming film Mastram, based on the life of the acclaimed Hindi erotica writer. Tara and Rahul share their experiences of landing their respective roles, getting into the characters and their expectations from this highly anticipated film.
Tara Alisha Berry
Tell us about you and how did you land this role.
I know Sameer Sharma (Director, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana) pretty well and he recommended me to Akhilesh (Director, Mastram). Akhilesh and Sameer worked together for Luv Shuv... Simultaneously, I was auditioning for Kai Po Che with Mukesh Chabbra (Casting Director) and he also recommended me for Mastram. I met Akhilesh, he tested me and they offered me the part. But they did mention that I should read the script first, before anything, which was very nice of them. So they offered it to me, I immediately read the script and said yes. I have done some modelling and a few ads but I’ve always wanted to act from a very young age. I have done a Telugu film in 2011 and as soon as I came back I got Mastram.
Why did you choose a film like Mastram for your Hindi debut as against taking a safer route?
I think the role chose me. At that time I had almost signed something else, but when I read this script, I literally fell in love with it. Till then I had no idea who Mastram was. I knew it was his story and was also told that he did exist but I did not know the extent of his fame. Everybody keeps asking me about the boldness of the film because in our cinema we don’t really see much of that. There are times when people put boldness in a film just for the heck of it and sometimes the story actually warrants it. This is a story about a guy who does write erotica, so given the context of the film, obviously there will be some of it.
Since you were not aware of Mastram prior to this, how did you prepare for the film? Tell us about your character.
We did a lot of preparation. The character that I play is called Renu and she is diametrically opposite to me in many ways. I’m from South Mumbai, I’ve had a very urban upbringing. But Renu is completely different. The film is set in the early 80’s and Renu is a woman whose life revolved around getting married and settling down. She would never have dreamt of marrying someone who was a creative person, wanted to be a writer and who ends up doing something, which at that time, would be blasphemous. Getting to know Renu was wonderful because today in cinema, you don’t see the vulnerable strong woman, you see the urban strong woman. I think we have lost that woman who is strong because of her femininity, Renu is that. It was great playing her because she belonged to a time when women did not have a voice and she had one.
What was the most interesting/difficult aspect of your character?
Somebody like Renu is completely different from me. Even when I speak in Hindi I do come across as an urban girl. So generally everything, from the way she spoke, to the way she sits, her interaction with people, with her husband and things like that, was all very different. We worked a lot before we left for the shoot, we did a lot of workshops and Akhilesh and Gunjan (Co-writer) also told me about what their interpretation of her was. And then it was just an integration of their interpretation and my understanding. And all of us have workshopped together and we built on all of our characters. Rahul and I went to Manali five days before we were going to start the shoot so we had the opportunity to get into the skin of the place and the kind of people who were there. It was a collaborative process.
How do you see this film shaping your career in the industry?
Honestly, I hope that when people at least from the industry watch the film, they actually see the amount of effort that has been put into the film by everyone. As for my career, I hope that people like my performance and I do get the opportunity to work in different roles in other films.
It is said that you were not the original choice for the film. How did the role of Mastram happen to you?
I was doing Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana with Sameer and it was being produced by AKFPL. It so happened that we were together in the office at the same time and that is how I got introduced to Akhilesh, who was then co-writing Gangs of Wasseypur. At that time he spoke to me about this idea he was working on, but never told me what the idea was. He just said that he wants me and will tell me the details at the right time. I completed Luv Shuv…, a couple of months passed by and one day Akhilesh called me. That was the time when he told me about Mastram and it sounded like an interesting idea. The intention of the film, if I had to describe it in one line is, it is about everyone. Every individual dreams of becoming something and there are times when various pressures make us do something that we don’t actually want to do. And then slowly we start relishing the fact of what we are doing. So Mastram wanted to become a Kalidas or Manto, a famous Hindi writer, but society and economic pressures make him do something that he wasn’t aware of. And we also cannot deny the hidden desires and fantasies that we have as human beings. So this guy also had some fantasies, which he probably vents in the form of soft porn. And he never imagined that it would become such a rage. Society began to read it albeit in a hidden way. So our ideology behind the film is not to titillate audiences. That is why it interested me as an artist.
I think and the little that I know, Rajkummar (Rao) was considered for the role but he was busy at that time with Kai Po Che. So maybe things didn’t work out.
Were there any apprehensions before saying yes, considering you play a porn writer?
Definitely. I come from a theatre background and there is always a desire of doing something substantial. When a thing like Mastram comes up, you always think about how it is going to be shown, what is the intention behind making a film like this. I don’t want to get involved in something that is very superficial. So that was the apprehension, as to how it is going to be shot, how the scenes are going to be translated on screen etc. But when I spoke to Akhilesh, Gavemic (Cinematographer) and all the other actors, we were all on the same ground which was that we didn’t want anyone to watch the film and say that it is vulgar or cheap. And we were actually walking a very thin line, because at the end of the day the backdrop of the story is a soft porn writer and that too in Hindi. Our youth, our country is in an evolving era where everybody relates to English more. English has become an integral part of our society, especially for the youth and there is a kind of a back step that we have about Hindi. So our concern was that how do we reach out to the youth of today considering it is a film set in the 80’s. And the youth of today don’t know about him. So there were many apprehensions but we were on a common ground about our objective.
Have you read any of Mastram’s books? What kind of preparations did you do to get into the skin of the character? Was it challenging in any way?
There were two parts to the character. One was this simple guy, Rajaram, the guy who works in a bank, leads a regular life in Manali, wants to be a writer, has simple desires and dreams. That was the hard part for me to crack because if you don’t have highs and lows in your character, it is more challenging. For example, if there is a character with a mental disturbance, it’s easy to portray him because there is a trait. But when someone says that he is a simple guy, then what do you do, how do you portray that. When he starts writing as Mastram, that was easy because I had read Mastram during my theatre days and it helped me while playing the character. If you actually read the book, he had this particular manner of writing wherein he paid a lot of attention to detail. So the act was not that important but the detailing was important and that took you into a different world, you would start imagining, fantasizing as that guy and you would transform into him. Which for an actor is very important.
Do you wish to continue exploring new and bold topics or is commercial cinema also on the anvil?
I have no issues with exploring anything. The only thing which I will probably want is, the bigger picture of the script that I’m working on.
Were there any rehearsals/workshops that you’ll had to undergo prior to the filming?
T – When we started the workshops, all of us would sit together and read the script, sometimes it was just me and Rahul, sometimes everyone would be there. We started working on it, first on individual scenes as well as playing different characters in the film and doing scenes that we weren’t even in. Everyone was from a theatre background and had different exercises that they had done previously. For example, we did one exercise where we all played our characters as children, so I did Renu when she was 7 years of age, then 11 years and so on. It was a process of exploring our characters and luckily we had the time to do that and everybody was interested as well.
Since the film does involve intimate scenes, how essential was it to establish a common comfort level and how did you’ll achieve that?
T – It was very essential. If I wasn’t with this team, I don’t know how comfortable I would have been doing intimate scenes. When you read the script, all these things are written but it’s not the same thing. We were all very close as a team and it helped me feel comfortable in doing these scenes. Especially for a girl on set, it’s always like there are more men and then you are shooting this scene with a guy, you are making love and it is an intimate thing and everyone seems uncomfortable. But it’s really nice when everyone is on the same page. So if I am comfortable, the person I’m doing the scene with will be comfortable, the cameraman will be comfortable and so on.
R – Physical intimacy cannot be comfortable at any point of time. It isn’t possible that two people of the opposite sex can be completely comfortable doing intimate scenes. I am very uncomfortable doing such things on screen or in theatre as it is something very personal. The good thing about Mastram was that we didn’t have to do much. We had to show the journey of this guy, so we have shown his writing, that was the only way we could have told the audience what he was doing. So either we visually show what he was writing or we concentrate on his words. Things have been depicted in a very artistic form, we have very artistically shown the visuals and have tried to put a layer of humorous words, a distinct layer of storytelling. The words will take you to that world rather than visuals doing the same.
Many a times, actors get typecast with certain roles they play. Any reservations of getting typecast in a certain manner with this film?
T – No, I have been really lucky because my character in the second film that I’m doing is completely different from Renu. I play an NRI and so the characters are poles apart. I hope that people watch that film too and they are able to see that I can do varied roles.
R – It’s a very large perspective. Getting typecast is like a compliment for me. That means I will be offered roles. As an actor I am still struggling to get roles. There are many talented actors who are waiting to get a chance. And I have been lucky to get the opportunity to show my talent with a very different script.
How was it working with director Akhilesh Jaiswal? What were his expectations from you’ll?
T – I think Akhilesh is a very sound director. The beauty of his skills is that he wants us to explore and give our inputs also. Everyday he would make Rahul and me read our scenes, he would then give his inputs and take our inputs as well. So it would be like an amalgamation of three of our ideas and it would transform into something wonderful. Sometimes in a scene you have physical restrictions, but Akhilesh and Gavemic allowed us to be as natural as the characters that we were playing. Akhilesh also never discouraged me from expressing my feelings as an actor about the character that I was playing. He was completely approachable at all times.
R – The only two discussions that we had were, first, we had to make it an interesting film and second, make it a film which will bring a smile to people’s face, not make them moan or groan, it has to have a humorous angle. And then again the film should not look like a raw film, it should look classy, hence when you see the visuals they are very glossy, very world cinema kinds.
What are the kind of reactions that you’ll have witnessed to the trailers?
T – Some people have totally loved it and understood that the film is not about sex. But there are others, for instance, I have received messages on social networking sites asking me if this is a porn film. And I find it strange. It is a feature film releasing in cinemas all over, but these things are such taboo topics in India that people are shocked as to how can someone make a film about an erotica writer.
R – Very supportive reactions. As an actor our lives are restricted to a small radius so I don’t know what reactions normal people are having. My family or friends have told me very interesting things and I don’t think it is coming from any bias. Right now there are certain people who are raising voices saying that it is a bad thing for society, you’ll are promoting porn etc. What happens is that an individual can understand something but when 100 people come and their minds start working, then they start clashing. So they need to try and understand what we are trying to show through this film, we are just trying to tell a story.
Do you think, the content of the film is limiting the reach in any way as the film has no visibility on TV.
T – There is really nothing like that in the film but maybe, people are nervous to play it, we have still not reached that level I guess. Kissing is now happening in films but we are still talking about the number of kisses etc. So we are on the way to being more liberal as an industry but we are not there yet.
R – It is surely restricting our viewership as these days cinema is anyway dependent on only one week. Unless you are some big star or a big production house. I only hope and wish that all the efforts of everyone, including our producers who are trying from their end to promote the film, pay off.
What according to you is the driving factor for audiences to watch this film? Are you’ll nervous about its reception?
T – Firstly, the topic is quite sensational. A writer who wants to be a Premchand and ends up writing erotica, it’s an interesting story even as a one-liner. There are audiences who want to see how we have depicted Mastram’s story and that is also a great reason to watch it. When you see the film, the way Gavemic has shot it and Akhilesh and Gunjan have written it, you will be pleasantly surprised. It is deliciously humorous as well as being erotica and I think Mastram himself wrote like that.
R – People are going to come in to watch something and they will realise that the film is not designed to show you porn stuff. We have made our intentions very clear, but now it totally depends on the viewer’s intention. If they are coming to watch explicit scenes, then they should be aware, it is a Bollywood film. There is nothing more than certain things. But if they come with an intention of watching the story of a guy who was a porn writer, then I can think they will be content when they come out of the cinema halls.
I have no fears, I can openly challenge anyone that nobody can call it a bad film. The issue is whether people will say it is a great film.