Arsh Tanna (centre) on the sets
Arsh Tanna (centre) on the sets

The makers of the National Award-winning Gujarati film, Hellaro, were in for a surprise when they learnt the film has garnered special interest among scholars too. A University of Florence student, Anastasia Vulgaris, has written a thesis on Hellaro after she saw the film in December 2019 at Florence’s River to River Indian Film Festival — the first festival in the world, outside India, devoted to films from and about India, under the patronage of the Embassy of India. Anastasia’s thesis is in Italian and compares the portrayal of women in Hellaro to that in other Indian films.

Hellaro had premiered in the Indian Panorama section at the 50th edition of International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa in 2019. Since then, it has received several accolades and awards including the best feature film at the 66th National Awards – the first Gujarati feature film to receive one – and the Special Jury Award for all the 13 actresses of the film.

Production Designer Sheel Thakore on the sets of Hellaro
Production Designer Sheel Thakore on the sets of Hellaro

“The love Hellaro has received so far has been unexpected and only continues to grow. We started out making a film on a subject close to our heart and chose a folk theme as that’s something close to both Abhishek and I. Hellaro has struck a chord with many,” notes Tejal Panchasara, actress and Hellaro director Abhishek Shah’s wife, who played Gomti in the film. A theatre artiste, Tejal ended up doing the film when “another actress finalised for the role declined it at the last moment”.

Jayesh More’s dhol-playing character Mulji catalyses the liberation of the village women in the film, who express their silent rebellion through their garba, otherwise prohibited for them by the village men. Jayesh went on to win several awards for his portrayal of the character.

“This was the first Gujarati film I worked in during my career despite having choreographed Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Ram Leela, etc. Not keen initially, I decided to do the film when I heard the story…it was so powerful. During the narration, the director told me there is no hero in the film…garba is the hero,” says Mumbai-based choreographer Arsh Tanna.

Lead actress Shraddha Dangar got the role of Manjhri after “several rounds of auditions”. Like most members of Hellaro’s cast and crew, Shraddha too didn’t anticipate the film’s success. “Hellaro shattered the perception about regional films and their reach.” After Hellaro, Shraddha has worked in a few Gujarati films, music videos and a few web series.

Tejal Panchasara with Abhishek Shah
Tejal Panchasara with Abhishek Shah

Actress Jagruti Thakore, who performed the role of an older woman Rudi in the movie, had faced a unique challenge while shooting for the film. I have been performing garba for more than two decades in Ahmedabad. But, in the film, my character stops the other women from performing garba. So, the most difficult task for me was not to be able to dance when the dhol was played. It was only in the last couple of sequences that I get to dance too…thankfully,” quips Jagruti with her infectious smile. An industry veteran, Jagruti has worked in films, theatre, television serials, documentaries, etc. “Hellaro has been the culmination of my work so far and has yielded phenomenal success…jiska nasha abhi tak hai.”

Costume Designer Niki Joshi was only beginning to venture into films when Hellaro came her way. Not only was she entrusted with designing and creating costumes for the cast, she had to do it “in a very short span of time.” A single mother, Niki took up the project as a challenge and a diversion from a personal crisis she was tackling and…succeeded. “I had roped in local tailors from Bhuj, Anjar, Bhachau, Nakhtrana and Ahmedabad to create the costumes. The co-ordination was challenging given the shooting was taking place in the middle of the desert in Kutchh with limited resources. At the end, it was all worth it though!” feels Niki Joshi.

Production Designer Sheel Thakore recalls the days when, with her team, she was “preparing the sets for the film in the scorching heat and with limited infrastructure.” She too had roped in local artisans for the work and the biggest challenge she faced was “coordinating with different kinds of people in the area.”

The entire cast and crew of Hellaro came together to overcome personal and professional challenges to deliver a film that millions could identify with. Hellaro’s story is not just about women in a village in Kutch, it’s about overcoming bias, winning gender battles, making a point and succeeding even amidst all odds. It’s this commonality that transcends religions, languages, borders even nationality that makes Hellaro such a global movie. Little wonder then that an Italian has taken up as a thesis a film which, for once, makes for the perfect academic assignment.

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