Mis[s]e en scène
Did you know that — legendary scenes or song sequences almost didn’t happen?
Screen Savour

At the end of the trial show of Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), starring Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla, Aziz Mirza the director of the film is reported to have approached the veteran producer-director Yash Chopra who was amongst the select audience, for his expert opinion. Chopra just opined, “Drench Juhi!”

I don’t know if drenching the heroine added to the box office returns but the film definitely facilitated Khan, then a new actor working with a big star – Juhi Chawla — in his rise towards stardom.

Veteran directors have a unique way of assessing a film based on intuition and experience. They may not be always right in their evaluation but a young director, desperate to create an impression with his film is always hungry for advice that could make it better, even if it pushes up the budget.

When Manoj Kumar’s assistant Chandra Barot made his debut film Don (1978), featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman, the veteran director, disturbed by the relentless pace of the action-packed thriller which was written by Salim-Javed, advised his protégé to provide relief by inserting a song. Barot turned to his music directors Kalyanji-Anandji for solution. Fortunately, they had a spare song already in their kitty which was meant for another film, but never used — Shankar Mukherjee’s Banarasi Babu (1973), starring Dev Anand, Yogita Bali and Rakhee. Kishore Kumar’s superb rendition of Khaike Paan Banaras Wala remains an iconic track in the annals of Hindi film music and definitely raised the film’s fortunes by several notches.

During the post-production of Sholay, its director Ramesh Sippy and his wife Geeta had gone to London and heard a peppy number sung by a singer called Demi Russo. They liked it so much that Geeta suggested that they use it in Sholay, which was already lengthy. Sippy decided to work up a scene in Gabbar Singh’s den where it could be sung by a gypsy to the sexy gyrations of Helen — a precursor to today’s ‘item numbers’. The writers Salim-Javed were aghast at the idea; they found it clichéd, but eventually yielded. RD Burman and lyricist Anand Bakshi re-worked the track in no time and RD decided to sing Mehbooba-mehbooba himself. The rest is history.

Taking inspired chances and heeding advices — both qualified and unqualified — have always been a practice unique to cinema, mainly because it involves a fortune to make one. In Hollywood, it is a standard practice of producers to take their films for test screenings to select audiences before release, and hand them a questionnaire where they are required to note down their observations. Based on their reactions, producers and distributors decide whether to re-edit the film, which may cause endless pain to the director concerned, but is seen to have worked for the benefit of the film’s fate many a times.

Fortunately, such a practice is not followed in India, as of now. It is only individuals whose advices are sought, and they may not always be pertinent or judicious. But one sage advice that definitely saved a film from sinking before it began shooting is Kundan Shah’s black comedy masterpiece — Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). Unsure of its worth as a screenplay that operated at a level of unapologetic wackiness, the director developed cold feet and starting infusing logic into it. Not sure if he was doing the right thing, he approached the famous writer Akhtar Mirza who was in the NDFC committee that had initially approved the script. Mirza heard him out and counselled the young debutant director, “Your script is like a snow, so it is floating. If you put all this logic into it, it will become ice and sink.”

Of course, there are times when refusing to heed a veteran’s advice has worked for the better. When Satyajit Ray showed the rough cut of his debut masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955) to legendary Hollywood director John Huston, the veteran suggested not to hold on to the shots for so long. Fortunately, despite being awed by the iconic filmmaker, Ray stuck to his guts and as a result we have one of the best lyrical pieces to have graced the silver screens.   

(The author is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)

Ranjan Das