Staying in the game

The sun has set and a corridor in Juhu’s Novotel is filled with reporters and photographers making their way home after a day of interviews. Director Shaad Ali nearly joins this exiting stream before being told he has a last interview with us. The exhaustion is almost distressingly tangible, and yet as soon as he sits down, he eases into the conversation with answers that are refreshing in their honesty.

“I need a hit,” he says between laughs about the impact he hopes his upcoming
Soorma
will have. “It should [have] a big impact on me at least,” he adds, “let’s not beat around the bush!” Ali’s earlier releases were spaced far apart, but would often prove to be underwhelming at the box office. There was
Kill Dil
(2014), one of Govinda’s numerous comebacks, and
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom
(2007), a glitzy musical that tanked. Obviously neither could compare to his 2005 comedy hit
Bunty aur Babli
. In fact, what seems most distinctive about his 20-year-old career is that half of his oeuvre is made up of either assisting on Mani Ratnam’s films or remaking them.

A different drama

He was an assistant director on the Ratnam classic
Dil Se
(1998), reprising this role with Abhishek and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan-starrer
Guru
(2007) and the duo’s next with Ratnam,
Raavan
(2010). Even his directorial debut was
Saathiya
(2002), featuring Rani Mukerji and Vivek Oberoi in the successful Hindi remake of
Alai Payuthe
(2000) — Madhavan’s debut in Tamil cinema that firmly established him as a chocolate boy. And it seems that after
Kill Dil’s
failure, Ali returned to his safety net with his last directorial venture –
Ok Jaanu
(2017). But even that got a lukewarm reception being a literatal remake of Mani Ratnam’s Tamil film
O Kadhal Kanmani
(2015).

But
Soorma
is a far cry from Ali’s usual romantic dramas and comedies. A biopic based on the life of former hockey captain Sandeep Singh — a player who was wheelchair-bound early on in his international career owing to an accidental gunshot, before he made a wildly successful return to the sport. “It was literally an essay written by Sandeep’s own hand,” shares Ali about the script handed over to him by first-time producer Chitrangada Singh. “And once I picked it up, I couldn’t keep it down,” he says.

In developing an universe, Ali follows a principle that holds true for both his process behind a remake and behind this biopic: “First root your film — wherever it is.” Ali shot the film in Shahabad, Haryana, because it is Singh’s hometown. “Being true to [a combination of] the characters, the world, and the film [is] important.” For instance, the director explains that even the actors’ own backgrounds added authenticity to the film. “Being sardars helped them. I didn’t need to write Punjabi at all — if I had taken non-Punjabi actors, maybe I would’ve been tempted to put in Punjabi words. But I took three sardars [Diljit Dosanjh, Taapsee Pannu, and Angad Bedi] and gave them Hindi lines. When they speak in Hindi, it sounds [like] Punjabi, [and] it sounds lovely because it’s genuine,” shares Ali.


In the pipeline

While
Soorma
is an uncharacteristically quick release for Ali, following his previous after only one year (his other films have been separated by years), the filmmaker admits he wants to stay on this track. “I don’t want to be known for taking time,” Ali laughs. But the director, son of filmmaker Muzaffar Ali and vice president of All India Democratic Women’s Association, Subhashini Ali Sehgal, has wanted to make another biopic since the beginning of his career. Ali hopes to make a film on his grandmother, Captain Lakshmi Sehgal, leader of the all-woman Rani of Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army. “Since I wanted to start making films, that was the first subject I wanted to do,” he says about his grandmother who also served as a doctor for the marginalised in Kanpur, and joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “But it’s a difficult, big, [and] huge film,” he continues, “and there is a lot work and research in it.” Drawing the talk to a conclusion, Ali promises that her biopic is in its script stages.

Being true to [a combination of] the characters, the world, and the film [is] important

Shaad Ali

Director

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