On the outskirts of Mumbai, the car moves at a leisurely pace on the highway. The traffic is sparse on a Saturday morning. Soon, you get off the highway and enter a small lane on the left. And now the car is bumping along a dirt road that is certainly living up to its name. At the end of the road is your destination – Shirdi. Entering the village is like travelling through time. You are now in the 1870s. And the first sound that greets you is a cow mooing away to glory. Thanks to the lush greenery and the numerous mud houses around you, it is difficult to trace where the bovine greetings are emanating from. Looking around in amazement, you wonder if you will actually see Sai Baba passing by! The very thought gives you goosebumps. Even as you try to adjust yourself to the sudden change in your surroundings, you hear a man admonishing someone. His clear voice echoes in the silence.
As you walk towards the sound, you suddenly see Sai Baba’s great devotee and friend, Mhalsapati standing outside his house, shouting at some villagers who have gathered there. But the villagers appear to be angry too. They have just told him that his cousin, Tulsa who is staying with him, is a witch and her feet face backwards. “What nonsense is this?” Mhalsapati shouts at them. Just then, the cousin in question, Tulsa, comes out of the house and stands beside him. Mhalsapati points to her feet and asks the villagers, “Look at her feet! Are they facing backwards?” “Cut!” Sachin Ambre, the director of Sony TV’s highly popular series, Mere Sai, shouts from his seat in front of the monitor. He is satisfied with the shot and the actor’s smile at him.
Importance to detailMeanwhile, the crew immediately disperses to make arrangements for the next shot. The first thing that strikes you on this set is the close attention paid to the details of the period depicted in the series. “We have tried to stay as close to the reality as possible while shooting this serial,” Ambre says. “The Shirdi Sai Sansthan has helped us a lot in our research. We have done our own research too and have got a lot of help from the descendants of people close to Sai Baba. For instance, we met the descendants of the real Mhalsapati and got a lot of details about the costumes, the language and the social culture of that period,” he tells you.
Several fans of the TV series, many of whom are also Sai devotees, wonder whether all the events shown in the series really took place or if some have been added to create more drama. “No, they are all events that actually happened. It is just that sometimes an incident may have lasted half an hour when it actually occurred, but we have to stretch it to an entire week.
So, we go into the details of the entire incident, its root cause, the events leading up to it, the various small characters involved in it and so on. Although the series conveys Sai Baba’s message, all the other characters in Shirdi, such as Kulkarni, Anta, Banta, Baija Ma, Appa Patil, Mhalsapati are also very important. This is the story of Sai Baba and also that of Shirdi,” the director explains.
In the distance, an actor playing one of the villagers signals that he is ready for the next shot. He is about to tell Mhalsapati to send his cousin out of Shirdi immediately. Ambre shifts his attention to the shot, while you shift your gaze towards Dwarkamai wondering if Sai Baba is there.
In Lendi BaugThe production manager standing next to you realises whom you are looking for. “You will find ‘Sai’ in that garden,” he says, pointing towards a large patch of lush green plants in the distance. “In the series, that is Sai Baba’s favourite spot, the Lendi Baug,” he informs.
A short pathway leads you to the garden and before you know it, you are looking at the great Sai Baba himself. Accompanied by his child devotee, Laxmi and another villager, he is tending to the plants in the garden, patiently answering their questions with that well-known smile. The ambience of the place and the scene being enacted there once again take you back in time. You recover with a jolt on seeing Sai Baba standing before you and greeting you in English! He asks an assistant to give him his smartphone and quickly checks for messages.
And within seconds, Abeer Soofi, who plays the great saint, is ready for a chat. The series, he says, is a blessing from Sai Baba himself. “Once I had gone to Shirdi with my mother. On that day, the temple was so crowded that while my mother managed to enter the sanctum, I was pushed behind. Upset at what had happened, I prayed to Sai to make me a celebrity so that I could have his darshan in peace. And just a few days after returning to Mumbai from there, I was called for an audition for this role and was selected.”
Even after more than 200 episodes, the series still remains a must-watch for millions of viewers across the country. “What is interesting is that most messages I get are from young people who praise my work. This means that the younger generation is also listening to the message of Sai Baba, which is heartening,” Abeer says.
Obviously, preparing for such an iconic role was hardly an easy task for him. “I focused mainly on being calm under all circumstances. I had to learn to react to every character and every situation with a smile and deep calmness. I had to prepare for the situations when people like Kulkarni would scream at me, and humiliate me. I had to learn to send a signal to my brain to remain calm and think that there was a reason why this person was shouting and things would be alright soon. And I am happy that I have managed to do that,” he smiles. The next shot is ready and Abeer excuses himself. The camera turns on and the young actor once again turns into Sai Baba, untiringly delivering the message of love, faith, patience and peace.
As you walk past the house of the wily Kulkarni Sarkar, the arch villain of the TV series, you expect him to order Anta and Banta to throw you out of Shirdi. But to your relief, you are told that he will not be shooting that day. However, in that empty house, you cannot help but notice a tired ‘villager’ dozing off on a chair. The 12-hour work schedule, without even a single day’s leave, certainly seems to be taking its toll. But as they say, the show must go on.