She’s in the midst of hectic pre-release, yet Meghna Gulzar courteously apologizes for a slight delay in the interview, and once she starts, continues despite bouts of coughing and a voice that is visibly tired from giving the final touches to a biographical drama prepped during the Covid-19 pandemic and shot over seven months in 13 cities.
Excerpts from the interview:
Let’s start at the very beginning. What was your first day on the Sam Bahadur set like?
Before we go on the floors, I do a test shoot of some critical scenes with my primary cast to give them and my crew an understanding of the film’s tonality and the work ethics we will be following. I did this during Raazi and Chhapaak. For this film too, we test shot two scenes, one featuring Sanya (Malhotra, playing Sam Manekshaw’s wife Silloo) and the other with Fatima (Sana Shaikh, as former PM Indira Gandhi). The first day of any film is overwhelming, and since Ronnie Screwvala (producer) had come to me with this subject towards the end of 2016, Sam Bahadur had been inside me for six years by then. We shot the first scene with two other actors, but for the second, I got Vicky (Kaushal who plays Sam Manekshaw) on camera for a conversation across the table. Since we were shooting chronologically backwards because Vicky wanted to lose weight naturally without any visual effects for Sam’s younger avatar, it was hugely intimidating for both of us. Technically, we had completed 60 per cent of the film’s journey by the time we reached this scene so I knew we’d have to work both forward and backward from this point. (Laughs). In Sam’s words, “we were okay”.
Your father, writer-filmmaker Gulzar, has been an integral part of all your films. What has been his contribution to this one?
Papa has written the lyrics. I’ve always shared the first draft of every script with him. (Laughs) He reacts with exclamations and in this case, there were many, with him enquiring, “Isko kaise dikhaoge? Aur issey?” (How will you show this? And shoot this?) I told him we would figure as we went along.
And your mother, actress Raakhee?
My mother does not like to see work in progress. She wants to consume the film like a lay audience so will only see it when it is complete.
In your journey through 13 cities, what was the most difficult part?
It was a difficult film overall and a huge responsibility, but the team worked like a well-oiled machine. A year-and-a-half before the shoot, we had made a schedule. When we would take off from Mumbai, which day we would arrive in city 1, when we would depart and land in city 2, and so on, till the shoot concluded in March 2023. We followed it meticulously and actually finished a day early. Without any disrespect to the army, I have to admit we functioned like one. And that’s because of the integrity every member brought to the project. The only thing that played havoc was the weather. The rains followed us everywhere. When we were in Ooty, it rained through the entire schedule and we were not geared for it. The production team bought umbrellas and gumboots and we shot action scenes out in the open, in the rain, even though this was not a part of the plan. The visual difference it brought to the palette was amazing!
When you look back on your journey as a filmmaker, would you have done anything differently? Maybe started with another film or not made a certain film?
No, the first 15 years of my career in which I did not see success are a huge part of the person and filmmaker I am today. No experience goes unaccounted for. I wrote my first film, Filhaal, when I was 25, I wasn’t even married and a mother then.
Would you have written it differently today?
Most certainly. With age and experience perceptions change. Also, my craft is very different now.
What’s been your son’s reaction to Sam Bahadur?
It’s my first film which he watched with the cast and crew on November 29 before its December 1 release. He hasn’t seen Talvar or Chhapaak yet because he’s still young, but he watched Raazi some time ago. Samay likes to call himself Sam, many of his friends call him that too. So, the first time he saw my script whose working title was ‘Sam’, he asked, “Are you making a movie on me?”