Despite the fact that news headlines seem rather captivated by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s purple pout on the Cannes red carpet than her film ‘Sarbjit’, which premiered at the ongoing film festival, early reviews of the biopic have lauded the Bollywood star for her fiery performance as Dalbir Kaur.
Speaking to ‘Emirates 24|7’ on the eve of the premiere, director Omung Kumar appeared exhausted, yet defiant of detractors criticising his efforts in bringing this politically-charged story to the fore.
"Taking up the story of Sarabjit came with a sense of responsibility, one that wasn’t unfair to their life,” Kumar said. “I couldn’t take cinematic liberties with the story, as the freedom is not there.
"But I was also not making a documentary. So I knew the film had to have drama and all the elements an audience expects when they watch a Bollywood movie."
Film shelved initially
For the uninitiated, Sarabjit Singh was a farmer from Punjab, India, who allegedly crossed over into Pakistani territory unknowingly and was convicted of terrorism and spying.
Singh’s sister Dalbir Kaur fought his case for 23 years, claiming his innocence; after he was granted bail, Singh was attacked by inmates in jail and succumbed to his injuries on May 2, 2013.
Even as the glittering premiere of ‘Sarbjit’ continues to fill the news cycle, Kumar reveals the movie was almost not made.
He revealed: “‘Sarbjit’ was to be filmed while he was still alive. When he died so tragically, we just shut the film.”
However, Kumar said, some stories are meant to be told and the film finally saw light of day with its resurrection and corresponding premise of narrating the story through his sister’s perspective.
“When you see Dalbir Kaur’s videos, her fiery demeanor when she fought for Sarabjit’s release, you knew this was her story to tell,” said Kumar. “She caught that attention.”
‘I needed a mature actress’
Kumar revealed choosing Rai Bachchan to essay Kaur was a 'natural choice.'
He said: “I always knew I needed a middle-aged actress, a mature one who could play 22 years and 62 years with ease. That was my benchmark. And only Ash (Aishwarya) could do justice to this.
“If you see her in the film’s trailer, when she’s addressing the media, her fiery speech leaves you mesmerised.”
The director continued: “Of course, there are detractors who say Aishwarya’s beauty comes in between and we ensured that didn’t happen. Ash truly is a director’s actor and submerged herself into the role, as she has in the past in several other deglamorised avatars such as ‘Raincoat’ and ‘Chokher Bali’.”
Kumar says half the battle was won when Rai Bachchan had her makeover to appear as a 60-year-old, adding: “She not only delivered, but shocked.”
The ‘Mary Kom’ director revealed the scene in the trailer, where you see Rai Bachchan’s Dalbir has beating her chest and screaming her rage was captured in a single take.
“After that shot, everyone on the set, in the crowd started clapping. That’s the energy she brings,” he said.
Kumar revealed the film was always meant to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, which has been an annual sojourn for the actress over the past 15 years.
‘Randeep lived in a six-foot space’
Actor Randeep Hooda, who lost 18 kilogrammes of body weight to play Sarabjit in prison with realism, was also a first choice for the director.
He said: “Randeep Hooda is fabulous. He makes the character his own. Here was different challenge to one I faced with Ash’s transformation.
“I wanted a Punjabi fellow who looked like a wrestler but would transform into a skeletal weakling, where you can see his bones. Randeep took it upon himself and in 28 days, lost 18kg.”
However, a physical transformation was not enough for the method actor.
“The challenge was, how to become Sarabjit. All we had were a few photos during his happier days, along with a video of a confession he was coerced into giving during his time in jail,” said Kumar.
After meeting with Sarbjit’s real-life sister, Kumar says Randeep took it upon himself to live like his reel-life character, in a six-foot prison of his own making.
Kumar further revealed: “He had demarcated areas in his home. We gave him chains to cuff himself. He would roam in his home and live by himself, in his own personal prison.
“To escape his own hell, Randeep would write letters to me, addressing me like his brother.”
The director revealed Hooda has refused to show him the actual letters he penned to him, saying they were ‘too intimate’ to share.
“When we started filming, Randeep was unrecognizable,” he further added. “I was shooting a jail scene and asked the crew to call him on to the set, only to realise he had been sitting on the floor in a corner all this while.
“I simply couldn’t recognise him, and even Dalbir was shocked.”
Release in Pakistan
As the biopic readies for a global release this week, Kumar admitted he wasn’t nervous over the film’s fate at the box office.
“I know the product and my cast has delivered beyond expectations,” said a proud filmmaker.
Quiz him whether he was hopeful to secure the film’s release in Pakistan and he answered: “There are two nations involved so I had to be responsible as a filmmaker.
“I am trying to send the film there. And there is nothing in the story that will ruffle feathers. Everything in my story is documented. All I am saying is what happened shouldn’t have happened.”
'Sarbjit' releases in UAE cinemas on May 19.