Neeraj Pandey: I believe in anti-casting

1Neeraj Pandey candidly admits that he had trouble finding backers for his debut film, A Wednesday. That’s the reason Friday Filmworks, the banner he set up with Shital Bhatia, came about. “We were not equipped to set up a production company, it was born out of default so we could make the film we wanted,” he acknowledges.

Eight years on, after talks to ensure that they were on the same page, the duo joined hands with Reliance Entertainment for an equal partnership joint venture, Plan C Studios, whose first co-production, Rustom, opens this Friday. “The collaboration gives us more freedom to express ourselves without thinking about market constraints and other trappings,” Neeraj smiles.

Rustom is loosely inspired by the KM Nanavati case. The Parsi naval commander shot dead his wife Sylvia’s lover, Prem Ahuja. The jury of the Greater Bombay Sessions Court pronounced him “not guilty” under Section 302 with an 8-1 verdict but Judge Ratilal Bhaichand Mehta referred the case to the High Court which agreed with the prosecution’s argument that the murder was premeditated, and sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment for culpable homicide amounting to murder.

On November 24, 1961, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction.But after three years in jail, Ahuja’s sister, Mamie, was persuaded to forgive him and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then Governor of Maharashtra, pardoned Nanavati who migrated to Toronto with his family.

In 1963, RK Nayyar’s Sunil DuttLeela Naidu-starrer, Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, despite a disclaimer that all people and incidents were fictitious and altering the case’s outcome, had a similar storyline even though the screenplay was said to be have been written before the case made headlines. More recently, Soni Razdan’s on-the-floors Love Affair draws from the same source. With facts only a Google away, wasn’t it a gamble going ahead with the Tinu Desaidirected Rustom?

“Vipul Rawal’s story is only loosely inspired by Nanavati’s and has integrated another fictional element. I don’t know much about the contemporary film, but Yeh Raaste Hai Pyaar Ke released decades ago. For us, it was an interesting story to tell today as it was a landmark and the jury system has since been abolished,” reasons Neeraj.
He has established himself as a filmmaker who steers clear of formulae, bringing stories with a semblance of truth. He is also responsible for Khiladi Kumar’s transformation through films like Special 26, Baby and Rustom. Neeraj refuses to take credit for the makeover.”Akshay was hungry for different roles and ready for risks. His appetite got Special 26 going. He followed it up with Baby, Rustom and Airlift which wasn’t our film. I believe in anti-casting, I offered him Special 26 to explore a different side to him as an actor. He believed in me and vice versa, this trust has kept us going,” he says.

Signing Sushant Singh Rajput to play MS Dhoni in the upcoming biopic was another casting decision that went against type and was met with scepticism. Today, Neeraj reveals that even the actor admits to being surprised by what he has done while dubbing: “But I’m not surprised, I was expecting it,” he asserts. “I could see that he was training himself, both as a player and actor, during the readings, getting there. Sushant has an unquestionable amount of discipline, is hungry and yet wasn’t doing much work. It worked in his favour.”

Point out that all the secrecy around MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, along with the change in release date has lead to speculations, including reports that the real Dhoni was unhappy with the film.
“Work started when we were shooting for Baby, it’s been two-and-ahalf years since but because it’s a biopic you can’t stop rumours.

They can’t impact a project like this which has a life of its own and can’t be hurried,” he argues, adding that the stories about Dhoni being unhappy are baseless. “But we choose not to give justifications or clarifications, the film will be out soon.

Meanwhile, he’s in talks for the rights of several books, including S Hussain Zaidi’s Mafia Queens of Mumbai which is being developed into a web series. “Barring the stories Hussain has already sold to other makers, we have bought the rights to the rest for a digital series, including some he was planning to use in a sequel to the book. We are also in talks for another novel and developing my own, Ghalib Danger. As makers we are constantly looking for material,” he says.

Meanwhile, while a follow-up to A Wednesday is out of question “because that story is done”, sequels to Special 26 and Baby are in the works, and a new production which should roll in a couple of months could also spin a franchise. “There’s no rush… No deadlines or finishing lines on projects. We don’t have a target of making five-10 films, we will grow as we go along,” he signs off.

Published on TimesOfIndia

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