Emotions in conflict
After "Fiza", movie scribe Khalid Mohammed tries his hand at filmmaking again with "Tehzeeb." Does he resort to self-probe as the theme indicates? GOWRI RAMNARAYAN finds out.
R. Ravi Kannan.
HOW WOULD you like to wake up on your birthday with A. R. Rahman in charge of the birthday ditty? Followed by the music wizard taking you to a Dargah for special prayers?
That is what happened to Khalid Mohammed, film scribe-turned filmmaker, when he came to Chennai for post production work on his soon-to-be-released feature film, "Tehzeeb" (yes, with music by A. R. Rahman).
``Rahman hasn't done ghazals before,'' Mohammed tells you at the hotel lounge on a hot May morning. The film has ghazals by Momin, Daag and Kaifi Azmi, besides lyrics by Javed Akhtar.
Rahman found a new rich voice in Madhushri, with Asha Bhonsle for a special number. ``It's a mix of Rahman wanting to do something semi-classical, plus me wanting to do techno-pop,'' chuckles Mohammed. ``He said, `Hello, you're more commercial than I am,' and I said, yeah, you bet!'' The result is far from the early 1950s mode or the "Umrao Jaan" mould.
The tale starts in the 1980s but the happenings are in the present. In a crucial scene the career woman-playback singer mother (Shabana Azmi), tells a television audience sarcastically, "You loved me, made me what I am, now you want me to do pop, rock, reggae whatever, and I will give it to you.'' She then launches into a lively pop number picturised on Urmila Matondkar, the TV viewing housewife-daughter, performing the song in her imagination.
"Tehzeeb" (manners; the name of Matondkar in the film; title of the first serious work of her pulp fiction writer husband) is about a mother-daughter relationship.
Mohammed pre-empts the obvious question saying that he had always wanted to do something in the vein of "Autumn Sonata." ``Not a remake, in (Ingmar) Bergman's classic the characters speak intellectually, profoundly, quoting from literature in normal everyday conversation, in a way not connecting with their reality.'' But the question stayed with him: What happens between a famous mother and a daughter who doesn't want to be like her?
Brushing aside this writer's remark about Rituparno Ghosh's "Unishe April" on that theme, Mohammed carries on, ``I tried to see what happens when I sat down to write about it.''
Apart from Azmi and Matondkar, the cast has Arjun Rampal, Diya Mirza and Rishi Kapoor in a special appearance. Estranged from the husband, the mother has had a much-publicised affair. Her daughter opts for marriage over a career. Visiting her daughter after many years, the mother is confronted not only with the waste of her singing talent in stubborn housewifery, but with her mentally challenged second child (Diya Mirza) brought home from the institution where she had been placed.
Her busy concert tours and studio recordings had left the mother little time for either child and the elder believes that neglect has affected the younger sister. Cordiality soon gives way to tensions. Mohammed agrees that children tend to idealise mothers as symbols of purity. ``In my film, the daughter finally asks her mother about her lover. In a reversal of roles, she tells the mother that she has to face things, she cannot escape from reality.''
So is "Tehzeeb" another self-probe and therapeutic `mother trip,' for Mohammed? We know that his mother was the original Zubeida (in Shyam Benegal's eponymous film based on Mohammed's story), a flamboyant beauty who abandoned her son when she went to live with her royal paramour.
``She died at 19. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been if she had lived longer. I can almost see her swirling past in chiffons and diamonds. Somewhere I'd have held her guilty for not staying with my father who went away across the border. So, in the actual writing, "Sonata" went for a toss and it became the story of a child who had witnessed scenes that created psychological traumas. If my mother had returned to my placid house one day after many years, I too would have said, hey, you have a lot of explaining to do...'' He adds after the pause, ``All of us have questions for mothers. Don't we?''
The story of stress and strain would make a good novella, one remarks, recalling how he was wary of book writing, a solitary, lonely activity as against the bustle of life around the journalist.
But hadn't he made a start in 2002 with two books on Amitabh Bachchan and M. F. Husain? Glancing at "The Life of Pi" peeping from his shoulder bag, Mohammed reflects that fiction demands research, knowledge, and brilliance in blending narrative and description. ``Far easier to write dialogue than to ornament your story with details of tree, street or home. In cinema they depend on location and camera angle.''
Javed Siddiqui embellished Mohammed's screenplay "Tehzeeb," taking it ``further because he is steeped in Urdu adab and Muslim culture.'' Inputs came from the whole team. ``Cinematographer Santosh Sivan is a genius and editor Sreekar Prasad innovates with his cuts.''
It was smooth sailing with the actors. The director used Arjun Rampal's sense of fun to change the grim and serious husband into a man who pulls gags, understands situations and defuses tensions. Rishi Kapoor's innate charm enhanced the father's nawabi courtliness. The film was shot in 40 days, no delays, no cancellations. ``With everything going like clockwork, sometimes I felt I was in the periphery!''
The script was written with Azmi and Tabu in mind. The former had the mercurial unpredictability needed for the part, which made her a deliberate choice over good friends Jaya Bachchan, Rekha and Dimple Kapadia.
When he told Azmi that the film could take time, she had replied with a song line, `Intezar karenge kayamat tak.' ``I've still got that SMS in my cell,'' says Mohammed, more like a star-gazer, but the scribe surfaces when he talks about her craft that gets every note right, the glance, the shadow on the face...
Matondkar had initially been the choice for the mentally challenged girl's role, but Mohammed believes her glamour and lack of `ultra-seriousness' made for good casting in the part that Tabu didn't play. Physiognomically compatible for their roles, Azmi and Matondkar also caught up with memories of playing mother and daughter in Gulzar's "Masoom" when the latter was a child.
Has his reviewer's perspective changed after making films? ``Now I know there are ways of getting out of problems. I can smell a lazy shot, a badly constructed scene, performance problems, see where the director is fudging it, all more acutely than before.''
Controlling annoyance Mohammed responds to the inevitable charge that he has opted for commercial rather than art cinema, the brand he often trounced in his columns. No, he hasn't been against Bollywood fare, liked Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, even Manmohan Desai. But the bulk of Hindi cinema was trash. It would be a strange situation if he praised a Deepak Bahri or Anil Sharma film.
Yes, he does have a taste for the `other' cinema. But there is an eclecticism in him, a dichotomy. ``I'd like to make both kinds, but it's easier to raise Rs. 5 crores than to raise Rs. 50 lakhs. I'd love to do a film about the last Irani restaurant in Mumbai, I even have a script about this Irani who leads a double life a robocop at night, a restaurateur by day. No commercial potential, so no funding. It's common sense to make a "Tehzeeb" where the Rs. 5 crores investor gets Rs. 6 crores back. And why not stars and glamour so long as I use them aesthetically?''
Mention film festivals as a channel and Mohammed sees red. ``You have to know the right person in Mumbai or Delhi, make the right phone calls at the right time. Recently a woman came from Locarno, asked what I'd done, saw one scene (I didn't want to show the whole) and said, `Oh, we had a little taste, now we want the whole! But mind, no promises. Try it in Switzerland and see what happens!' Okay, so the West wants to promote our commercial cinema now, but you must be sensitive about it, not treat people as if they are holding begging bowls. Don't you think it's a big political game, all condescension and groupism?''
Is the commercial circuit free of politics and groups? ``Of course,'' he replies. ``But my film will get to the theatre, get its exposure, my taxi driver, my milkman and my neighbour will know my film, right?''
There is a postscript. Back in Mumbai the filmmaker e-mails deletions in his interview. It is a pleasure to reply, ``You must be careful when you talk to the press, Mr. Khalid Mohammed!''
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