Zubeidaa, an inter-faith love story between an actor and a Rajasthani king, did not earn money at the time of its release twenty years ago but the movie holds a special place in director Shyam Benegal’s heart as it reflects a period of transition in India- from a feudal society to a democratic one.
Benegal said the story of Zubeidaa Begum caught his attention when he read Khalid Mohamed’s article in a newspaper and he thought it was a beautiful love story.
Mohamed, Zubeida Begum’s son from her first marriage, was initially hesitant as he was not sure about telling his mother’s story on the big screen but things eventually fell into place with Karisma Kapoor playing the title character, Manoj Bajpayee as the prince and Rekha as his first wife in the 2001 release.
“None of them really earned money. I don’t think anyone did the film for money. But the film did win the National award,” Benegal told PTI in an interview on the film’s 20th anniversary on Tuesday.
“I don’t think the film did well financially. We were happy with the way it all happened. I don’t think Farouq Rattonsey (producer) was happy, he was hoping he will make a little money,” the director said about the film, which explores the romance between Zubeida Begum, an aspiring actor and Jodhpur Jodhpur Maharaja Hanwant Singh.
The couple died in a private aircraft crash that Singh was flying in January 26, 1952 to celebrate his impending victory in India’s first election.
Benegal, credited for starting the alternate cinema movement in the ’70s with his classics Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977), said he loved the story of Zubeidaa as the film depicts a certain period of transition in the Indian society.
Recalling how he too was born in Hyderabad before India became independent, Benegal said the Zubeidaa reminded him of his own days when he could feel the changes around him.
“The feudal system was being dismantled, there was a churning going on in Indian society. I found that very fascinating. Certain people took time to adapt, while some were incapable. From a feudal situation, we turned into a democratic system. The story is set in that cusp moment.”
Asked whether it would be possible to explore an inter-faith love story in this day and age without any trouble, the veteran director said there has never been a time in history when “people had full freedom” to make what they wanted.
“Then or now, the fact is you have to work within what is possible and what is not, you have to stretch the limit of possibilities, you have to make what seems impossible, possible. That is important. You need to believe in your film,” said the director, who is among the most respected names in the Indian cinema.
Benegal, 86, said the polarising that is going on in society “needs to be corrected both on political and social level”.
“We are a democratic constitution and we are secular country. It means you don’t recognise the differences. You know there are (differences) but you don’t recognise them under the law. It is changing this kind of social change takes a long time.”
“These days there is a problem everywhere in the world but more and more in older and complex societies like us because we have multiple religions, communities, ethnic groups, languages, etc. We are a masala country and therefore these problems are also there. We are a multi-layered country, there are certain habits, attitudes that are medieval, that belong thousands years ago.”
The film, with a beautiful score from A R Rahman, concludes Benegal’s trilogy that began with Mammo (1994) and Sardari Begum (1996) – all three written by Mohamed.
These stories, he said, are ruminations of Mohamed’s own family, Mammo dealt with his grandmother, Sardari Begum about an aunt while Zubeidaa on his mother.
For the versatile director too, stories are often drawn from his experiences.
“When you are making something, there is always an autobiographical element in it. Otherwise, how do you develop your perspective, your understanding of the world? There are things that come from your own experiences. Some are closer to you or are from other people’s experiences but they ring a bell when you see or hear it.”
Recalling how the cast of the film came together, Benegal said he had worked with Rekha on Kalyug and knew that she was an “extremely capable actor” while Karishma’s name was suggested by Mohamed.
“She is a quintessential actress. There is much more to her than you saw of her. Manoj is a fine actor, now you can see his range as a performer. He has always been keen to take on challenges as an actor. Karisma is a natural actor,” he said.
Benegal is currently working on an Indo-Bangladesh co-production on the life of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
“We are preparing to shoot, it is pre-production. We will shoot both in India and Bangladesh. The shoot will start this year. It is titled Banga Bandhu. Sheikh Mujibur was called by that name hence the title comes from there. The film is in Bengali so the cast is from Bangladesh.
“Arifin Shuvoo will play the title role, he is a very good actor,” the director said.