Filmmaker Indrajit Lankesh’s new release is the Shakeela biopic, which traces the adult actor’s rise to superstardom from humble beginnings, and subsequent fall after she was banned in the Malayalam film industry. In an interview with Hindustan Times, he said that it has a ‘strong message about the hypocritical society we live in’ and gender imbalance.
What about Shakeela’s journey inspired you to make a film on her?
Shakeela has given superhits and she is a superstar in Malayalam cinema but her life as an actor and her experiences… After starring in 250-odd films and achieving superstardom, going and living in the same one-room house where she was born in a minority community, very poor background, and living a hand-to-mouth life, that was a game-changer for me. That was a story which had to be told – a woman trying to become an actor in a male-dominated industry, seeing success and then being unofficially banned from the industry. She had to return advances to 30 producers because her films were not being censored. When she was a rage, almost all the theatres in Kerala were playing different films of hers at the same time. From that kind of career to living a hand-to-mouth existence and struggling for opportunities… Everyone should know this story, of how hypocritical our society is, and I wanted to tell it on a larger scale and to a bigger audience.
You have personally known Shakeela for many years and even launched her in Kannada cinema. How do you put your personal equation aside and ensure that the film does not become a hagiography?
When I was reading the biography of a superstar, my father once told me, ‘Biographies are a lot of lies and never honest.’ I know that if you are making a biopic on a superstar, you cannot glorify the person. You have to be very truthful to the subject and characters. Knowing her personally helped me, as I had a good equation with her. When you make a biopic on someone who doesn’t exist anymore, you have to get information from a third person and a lot of it might be very superficial or glorified. But when it is a person who is still living and active, and she comes and talks to you, no filters, in front of a camera, it is a huge advantage. She is very outspoken and open about her life. There were no filters and she did not hide anything, which helped me make the story as truthful as possible to her life and character.
Shakeela has come out with a biography as well. What does the film offer to the audience that the book doesn’t?
To be honest, I didn’t read the book because she was ready to tell me her experiences, successes, failures, anecdotes, personal life, her problems in the industry, the background she is coming from. But I didn’t completely go by her side of the story, I did my research on the Malayalam industry in the 90s. I watched her films, talked to people. At the same time, I took her into confidence for some of the incidents and situations.
Already, there are comparisons between Shakeela and The Dirty Picture, which was loosely inspired by Silk Smitha’s story. Are there any similarities between the two films?
No, there is no similarity at all, except that they are films on actresses and when you shoot for films on actresses, there are bound to be some scenes from their films, a sort of picture in picture. That is where the similarity ends. The Dirty Picture was very successful and I am a fan of that film and Vidya Balan. She rightly deserved the National Award. Having said that, I am from the south and I have watched Silk Smitha’s films. She was more of a dancer, popular for her item dance. She was never the main heroine, except for a handful of films. She was a superstar for her dancing and item songs, not her acting. Shakeela was the first adult star, she was the main lead and the story revolved around her. In fact, she was the hero of the film. People of all ages watched her films and they were even dubbed in Sinhalese, Japanese, Chinese, Nepalese. Shakeela is more real, I have not tried to take cinematic liberties and go away from the story, it is on her life.
Like the rest of the film, which is based on true events, Pankaj Tripathi’s character seems to be inspired by an actual superstar as well. Will the film make it clear whom it is based on?
We will have to respect the audience’s imagination as well, and give a little bit of space to that. I have tried to not hurt anyone but at the same time, I have not tried to take cinematic liberties and go away from the story. I have tried to keep the characters real and very close to Shakeela’s life.
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How did you go about the treatment of Shakeela?
When I announced that I was making a film on Shakeela, a lot of eyebrows were raised. Everyone asked, ‘Why a film on Shakeela?’ My answer is, ‘Why not?’ Of course, she made adult films and even if I was making a film on her films, there is nothing wrong. But it is not only about her films, it is about a girl from a minority community and poor background coming from the slums of Chennai and becoming a superstar in Malayalam cinema, a woman swimming against the tide and dominating in a male-dominated industry, being cornered and going back to a hand-to-mouth existence. There is a strong message about the hypocritical society we live in. There is an imbalance in gender in the film industry even now, if you compare pay scale, the stories being written etc. People like Kangana Ranaut, Vidya Balan, Richa Chadha are making a difference but there is still a long way to go.
How was your experience of working with Richa Chadha?
Oh, it was a great experience. Richa has a lot of layers in her acting. I am glad that she did this role because she is a very realistic actor. We were trying to narrate a real story about a real person and we needed someone who can do justice to that. It is one of the biggest films for her as well – the title is on her and it is the biggest pan-Indian film which has been made in five languages.
Did you have any reservations about Shakeela getting a theatrical release in such times?
Someone has to bell the cat. Call me old-fashioned but I love the experience of watching films in theatres, with the whole atmosphere. In this pandemic, no one has tested the waters. I hope and I am sure that Shakeela will bring back the audience to the theatres.
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