Circa 2012, the news of a fresh-from-the-success-of-Bol Humaima Malik being cast opposite Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt took the media industry by the storm, especially on this side of the border. It was hailed as one eminent crossover venture for a Pakistani actress. That the film, titled Sher, kept getting delayed, after an initial shooting spell in India, due to Dutt’s detention and financial issues that the producers had encountered, while Malik had to contend with an unsuccessful debut in an eminently forgettable Emraan-Hashmi-starrer Raja Natwarlal, is history. Five years on, as Dutt moves around a free man now, the film is being resurrected; its original title changed to Sarman Munjha.
Instep catches up with director Soham Shah, who says he is delighted that Sarman… is finally on its way. He also speaks of a “nikah song” that remains to be filmed on Humaima Malik.
For the uninitiated, Sarman… is Shah’s third directorial venture, the others being Kaal (2005) and Luck (2009). In the last one, he came together with Dutt for the first time. Sarman Munjha, as Shah puts it, is a biopic of an ordinary mill worker from Gujarat, India, who goes on to become a gangster a la Robin Hood. While Dutt features in the titular role, Malik gets to play his wife, Santokben Jadeja.
According to Shah, it’s a very strong character of a woman who eventually takes on the mantle from her husband after he is killed, thereby becoming “India’s first lady gangster.” While Sarman… ends where Malik’s character replaces her deceased husband, it is relevant to call to mind another Bollywood film, Godmother (1999), which was based on her life only. The film saw acclaimed actress Shabana Azmi win India’s prestigious National Award for her portrayal of the iron-willed lady who fights the evil forces in the village and earns immense respect from the locals.
For 36-year-old Soham Shah, Sarman… marks an important phase in his career. It’s a time when he must redeem himself as a filmmaker of note, after Luck’s small fortunes. A graduate from Mumbai’s JJ School of Arts, Shah began in showbiz as a publicity designer. Later, he assisted Karan Johar on Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Ram Gopal Verma on Bhoot (2003), before embarking on a solo flight with Kaal. He has since directed a movie and a number of TV commercials. Incidentally, many of these TVCs were pitched to him from his Pakistani clients — be it Soya Supreme cooking oil or Super Max razors.
In an exclusive interview, Shah talks about Sarman Munjha and also what makes him one of the most sought after directors for Pak ad agencies.
Instep: What prompted you to change the film’s title from Sher to Sarman Munjha?
Soham Shah: Well, Sher was a title we came up with when we had just begun work on the film. Later, we thought that since it’s a biopic of this character named Sarman Munjha Jadeja, it would have a much stronger impact if we titled it after him. Also, it made sense because he is very well known in India, especially in Gujarat.
Instep: The film has been in the making for quite sometime. What is its current status?
SS: We completed the shoot in one schedule in 2012. Later, Sanju [Sanjay Dutt] sir was sentenced [to jail], and then our producers ran into financial issues. Currently, there’s only one song that is left to shoot; it’s to be picturised on Humaima. We are going to plan it and only then we’ll be able to devise a proper release strategy for the film.
Instep: Given the present situation between India and Pakistan, you might be forced to shoot the song at some neutral location?
SS: We’ll take that call obviously according to the visa and other issues.
Instep: How did you cast Humaima Malik?
SS: I had seen her film, Bol, and found her to be a fabulous actor. Also, we needed a girl who was young and at the same time could pull off the character when it ages [in the film]. Humaima happened to be in India at that time, and had met one of the directors. Ram Gopal Verma ji, who I have worked with as an assistant and learnt a great deal from, also suggested that I should see her. That’s how we met and cast her.
Instep: Humaima has already started promoting the film on her Instagram account. But it seems there’s no buzz in India about Sarman Munjha right now. Comment.
SS: Generally, in Bollywood, we start advertising and publicity about 40 days ahead of the film’s release. Right now, we are trying to resolve the financial and other matters; it should take us a month or two. Also, Sanju sir is going to release Bhoomi first.
Instep: What can you tell your Pakistani audiences about Humaima’s character in the film?
SS: Oh, it’s a very interesting character, with a lot of history behind it. In Gujarat, where the movie is set, this woman [played by Humaima] actually rises to take charge of her gangster husband [Sarman Munjha]’s legacy after he is killed. In real life also, this woman was India’s first lady gangster. The film Godmother, which had Shabana Azmi ji in the lead, was based on her character. In our film, she is shown to provide a solid support to Sanjay Dutt’s character. She is a lady with strong social mores. For her, nothing comes before justice. The village people look up to her.
So, it’s not a glamorous girl who’s there to do some song-and-dance and exit; it’s a very important character that we are talking about. After Dutt’s character dies in the film, we show Humaima taking charge. That’s where the film ends.
Instep: Tell us a bit about the song that remains to be filmed.
SS: It’s a ‘screenplay’ song where we show her [Humaima’s] nikah. It’s based on a Gujarati folk melody, a very fast-paced one, and features a number of ladies. I am hopeful that commercially it’ll be a big hit.
Sarman Munjha is a period film, set in the 1960s, but it’s not your typical masala film of gangster genre in which there’s an item song, exaggerated action sequences etc.
Instep: Do you see any comparisons with Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees?
SS: The tone of our film is very different [from that of Raees]. Raees was set in the 1980s; ours is a period film. Besides, Raees was treated quite commercially; our film is thori ziada authentic. I mean, we haven’t taken commercial liberties ke hero hai toh kuch bhi kar sakta hai.
Instep: You’ve directed TV commercials also, some of which were for Pakistani ad agencies. Why, in your view, did they approach you, in the first place?
SS: There’s no planned strategy behind it; I just got the opportunity and had a lovely time working with my Pakistani clients; they were all brilliant. Besides, I never got the feeling that I was from another country. We gelled perfectly. I am thankful to them for appreciating my work and repeating me. For instance, I’ve shot the campaigns for Soya Supreme cooking oil for the past six years now. Super Max razors have also repeated me as a director.
Instep: Where were these ads shot?
SS: Either in Bangkok or Dubai. In January this year, we shot one in India also. But this was primarily because the client and the agency people could not join us. I prefer to have my client around on the set; that way, we get the right texture and colour of Pakistan which we have to show in these ads.
Instep: Have you had the chance to work with any Pak models?
SS: Mostly, I’ve worked with Indian models and actors. We’ve also taken European faces, whoever could ‘look’ Pakistani.
Instep: Are you working on a film other than Sarman Munjha?
SS: Yes, I am working on two films right now — one is a patriotic subject; I am in the process of casting for it; and the other I am planning with Sanju sir again. That will happen sometime next year, after Sarman Munjha is released.