The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 was being telecast live on National Television. The atmosphere was tense and a backlash seemed inevitable. The unthinkable happened. Curfew was imposed in Mumbai and riots soon followed.
As soon as I could, I left for my hometown, Lucknow, as there was no point in staying back in Mumbai. The city was shut and the atmosphere was ominous. On a happier note, while in Lucknow, I got engaged to Ramila, now my wife. I stayed on for a bit for us to spend some time together before I would return to Mumbai. On March 12, 1993, Mumbai was shaken by a series of bomb blasts across the city. As the city faced uncertain tension again, my return to Mumbai was indefinitely postponed. I tried to make up for it by reading as much as I could. I opened my copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I had stolen from the Film and Television Institute Of India (FTII) library! While going through the novel, the chapter, where the central character, Prince Mishkin, stays in a town where a girl had eloped and paid a heavy price for it, made quite an impact on me. I delved deeper in trying to understand Dostoevsky better by reading pieces on his literary criticism. From there, I got the idea of adapting this particular episode from The Idiot. The process began with reading between the lines of the text and thereafter infusing it with the master’s world view.
Experimenting with the spoken word in cinema was my preoccupation at that point in time. For the use of dialogue was something that many of us feared at FTII. Even our dialogue exercises sometimes had minimal dialogue! The proposed film, which had started with an inquiry into Dostoevsky’s philosophy, was now combined with my need to explore dialogue as a valid cinematic tool and not just something to be castigated as theatrical or verbose. And so the journey of Ek Thi Maria began.
Once the script was ready, I approached my father, Dr Raj Kumar, a well-known psychiatrist of his time in Lucknow telling him that I wanted to make this film, whose duration would be under an hour. I narrated the script to him and as soon as the narration was over, he asked me how much it would cost to make the film? I told him that someone in Delhi was already providing us with the equipment and post-production support. So we needed to chip in with basic production money and the crew and actors’ fees. I recall I rattled off a figure of about rupees one lakh or something around it. He promptly said, “The money you need is right here in my bag. Just go ahead.”
Heavily enthused, I returned to Mumbai with the agenda to meet Pankaj Kapur, my original choice for the central character. I also had Irrfan Khan in mind for another role and had to find a girl to play Maria. However, Pankaj did not have the dates I required. So I promptly landed up at Raghubir Yadav’s house. Fortunately for me, he promptly agreed after the narration. Irrfan was a neighbor and a friend and since I had missed out an opportunity to work with him in my diploma film at the FTII, I really wanted him in the film. He was to play Rahul, the character with whom Maria elopes. He, too, agreed immediately. But the big question remained. Who would play Maria? Weeks, then months passed. But no one seemed to fit the bill. Even if I did approach someone, they turned down the role.
In the meantime, the film’s location was fixed. While going through an article on Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (1982), I discovered that it was filmed at this very quaint place called Smetacek’s Colonial Homestay in Bhimtal in the Uttarakhand hills. I rushed there and booked the place for the filming and the boarding and lodging of 20 people for 8 days! My next destination was the Nainital Boat House Club, where the famous song from Kati Patang (1970), Pyar Deewana Hota Hai, Mastana Hota Hai was picturized. Mr RS Mathur or ‘Ravindra Uncle’, who was married to playback singer Mukesh’s cousin, was a close friend of my father and interested in the movies. He was a very senior IAS officer at the time and it was through his intervention that I got permission to utilize the Nainital Boat House Club to be Maria’s café location in the film. Since I had no budget for a generator and in any case, having a generator at any of the locations for so many days was virtually impossible, Ravindra Uncle got us an electric meter installed. The meter could take the load of cinema lights installed and we were to pay only actuals.
By now, I had fixed my shooting crew. Rajesh Shah, one year my junior from the FTII and a local Nainital resident came in as the cinematographer. Arun Nambiar, the baby of my batch at FTII and fresh from the shoot of Kalpana Lajmi’s Rudaali (1992) was on board to do the sound. My dear friend and another FTII junior, Shobhit Jain, was not only the editor but ultimately also my associate and the conscience keeper of the entire unit. But the big problem persisted. Maria was still not cast, and the shooting dates were literally round the corner. The dates of Raghubir Yadav and Irrfan could not be shifted and on the personal front, I was to get married after the film’s shoot. Finally, my brother-in-law, who was at that time in Ogilvy & Mather (O & M), Delhi, told me about his colleague who used to model occasionally and was keen to act. I met Sudipta Bhanwar at her O & M office and was elated that I had finally found my Maria.
The shoot started at Bhimtal in the October, 1993. But that was just the beginning of our problems. Within the first couple of days itself, the camera started to misbehave before it finally conked off. We realized that the rest of the equipment given to us was also sub par and the shoot had to stop. With our tight budget and even tighter schedule, all we had was a single evening (and night) to arrange for new equipment. Frantic calls were made to Delhi since it was the closest place from where we could hire the equipment. Fortunately, Shobhit was from Delhi and had managed to source some equipment. So in the evening, my father, Rajesh, Shobhit and I left by jeep for Delhi to get the equipment. We reached Delhi well past midnight and took whatever we needed after Rajesh checked all the equipment to his satisfaction. We reached Bhimtal early in the morning and immediately resumed our shoot! By now, our equipment dealer, who was also our post-production partner, was no longer a part of the film. My father, without batting an eyelid, took over the entire responsibility to see that the film is completed.
After the fiasco with the equipment, adding surplus funds to the film’s original budget was still not enough for us to pay everyone. And there was no way we could put more money into the film. It was embarrassing to ask the actors to forfeit their payments and so, I approached the crew and sheepishly told them that we would not be able to pay them. All of them – Rajesh, Arun and Shobhit – agreed on the spot. I still owe them for the film and have only had gratitude to offer them till date. I sincerely hope that the film, which is being finally released by Pocket Films on their YouTube Channel, gets enough hits for me to offer them some remuneration. After all, better late than never!
That was not all. A Lucknow theater actor, who was to play the headmaster in the film fell ill, and had to opt out. We had no actor available to replace him and once again, my goto person was my father. This time, he freaked out! But then the need of the hour was dire and soon, he was on set this time as an actor! The sole thought that kept us going was that we all felt we were doing some good work together.
Any story about Ek Thi Maria will be incomplete without mentioning my father’s closest associate, who doubled up as production controller and actor in the film. The late DK Ghoshal or ‘Deepu Bhaiyya’ was the one who had introduced me to Tagore and Ray and worked tirelessly not only to see that everything was in order on the shoot but also as to how I was shooting the film. He was keenly involved and extremely supportive during the entire process of filming. Even today, I miss him dearly whenever I am working on a film.
The saga of Ek Thi Maria continued long after the shoot got over. I got married and then Shobhit began to edit the film at an edit studio in Karol Bagh in Delhi. Often, Shobhit and I would land up for the edit only to be told that the edit recorder and player have been rented out for a shoot! Rather than continue with the disorganized way of working in Delhi, the rest of the post-production following the edit was done in Mumbai. It was months before Ek Thi Maria was ultimately completed. We then tried selling the film to Doordarshan, the only available means to get some revenue back at the time, but sadly, we were not successful. The film was screened for the press in Lucknow, a screening was done at NSD in Delhi and also at the House of Russian culture in Mumbai since it was an adaptation of Dostoevsky. By then, we had completely run out of funds and were in no position to enter it for film festivals or do any follow-ups on the film. Life took over and Ek Thi Maria, shot on High Band U-Matic and converted to the DigiBeta format got consigned to a shelf in one of the cupboards at home.
It was only recently that Roshni, Raghuvir Yadav’s business partner and ‘Raghu Bhai’ himself pushed me to see if it was possible whether the film could still see the light of the day. Taking it up as a challenge and working with renewed energy, we digitized the film and added subtitles. And thanks to Pocket Films, who have done some pioneering work in distributing and exhibiting short films, Ek Thi Maria can now be viewed by audiences. The film has been streaming on their YouTube channel since the evening of August 22, 2022 and can be seen here.
Last but not least, this journey of about 3 decades was made possible not only by the cast and crew of the film, but because of the unflinching support and belief of one man – my father. He knew that Ek Thi Maria would not just be made but would one day find its audience as well. Today as he is old, invalid and infirm, and Irrfan, too, is no more with us, this digital release of the film is for them. Thank you so much, Dad. And miss you terribly, Irrfan!