It is refreshing to meet a filmmaker who prefers to self-fund his project rather than conform to a narrative that weaves jingoism into a story on cross border relations between India and Pakistan.
For UAE resident Manav Bhalla, whose film Lashtam Pashtam is poised to release this week, the choice was a ‘no-brainer’.
“We were kicked out of so many rooms and not in a very nice way,” revealed Bhalla. “We had a lot of people saying, don’t do it. They said you have no experience, you have no star. Or at least, turn it into a revenge drama. Revenge sells, you see.”
Yet Bhalla, along with his co-producer Gheorghe Seran, stuck their ground.
“We realised that if we don’t bet on ourselves then nobody is going to bet on us,” said Bhalla. “If we were confident about our script then we were the ones who needed to put in the money.”
Story of brotherhood
Lashtam Pashtam, which stars newcomers Samar Virmani and Vibha Roy, was a seed of an idea that took root a few years after Bhalla moved to the UAE.
“About 10 years ago, when I moved to Dubai, I used to work for a shipping company,” said Bhalla. “On my first day, I had lunch with my colleagues and realised a few of them were Pakistani. They were the first Pakistanis I’d ever met; and I immediately called my friends back home and told them about it, and their first reaction was ‘No! How are they like? Did they want to hurt you?’”
Bhalla said the pre-conceived mindset they were exposed to living in India was very different to the world they were living here, adding: “If you ask me what inspired the idea of this film, then I would say the seed of an idea was always there. Someone just had to come and tell the story and change the narrative.”
A trip to a local Virgin Megastore had Bhalla spot a board for Hollywood acting classes and on the prompting of his wife, the filmmaker decided to enrol. And that’s where he met his future film producer, Seran.
“I had my own real estate company when I met Manav,” stated Seran. “We met during the financial crisis, when the real estate market was down. I needed surreal excitement in my life and spent three days on the sets of Mission Impossible 4 while it was being filmed in Dubai.
“After absorbing the energy of Tom Cruise and Anil Kapoor on the sets, I forgot about the crisis and real estate sales.”
Ticket to Bollywood
Armed with a story of Indian and Pakistani expats living in harmony in the UAE, the duo pushed off to Bollywood to get a script ready and find some funding. The latter was no easy feat, they said.
“We kept rolling the ball without stopping, knowing if it stopped, the film would die. And today, two of the companies that told us no are distributing our film worldwide,” said Ceran.
Once the project was a green lit, Bhalla went about securing his cast, with the late veteran actor Om Puri featuring on his bucket list. Calling his first meeting with Puri surreal, Bhalla recalled the actor was left in tears after hearing the narration.
“He immediately said I want to do this. I want to believe Om Puri sahib [sir] saw something in the script that he wanted to be a part of. He even slashed his fees when I told him I couldn’t afford him.”
With his cast secured, the filmmaker and his team set off to Dubai to shoot.
“It was March 9, 2016, we were at Zabeel Park with 100 people down from India on the set; 100 people from the UAE on the set, and the skies opened up, Dubai was witnessing the worst rainfall it had experienced in 30 years,” laughed Bhalla.
Despite delays and force majeure in their way, the film continued to shoot across familiar UAE landmarks, including the Burj Al Arab beach, the Burj Khalifa and Downtown Dubai, before heading to India and Pakistan for completion.
Changing political climate
The last few weeks have witnessed a turning of the tides in Pakistan with a new Prime Minister poised to the lead the country, with talks of extending an olive branch to India. Bhalla believes the narrative of the changing times couldn’t be more fitting to the story he is trying to tell with his film.
As Pakistan and India celebrate their Independence Days on August 14 and 15, the timing of Lashtam Pashtam couldn’t be more relevant.”
- MANAV BHALLA | Director
“While I was in India, Ceran sent me a Gulf News front page story, which talked about India and Pakistan strategic alliance. We now have a new leader who is talking about change and I hope this rhetoric carries forward,” said Bhalla. “As Pakistan and India celebrate their respective Independence Days on August 14 and 15, the timing of Lashtam Pashtam couldn’t be more relevant. We are bringing a political film. We are trying to celebrate love. When we live outside India and Pakistan, we see a different world. Why can’t this be true in those countries as well?”
MEET THE CHARACTERS
Filmography: Jo Hum Chahein (2011), Stupid Cupid (TV movie, 2015)
Character in Lashtam Pashtam: Sid Oberoi, part-time tennis player and best friend to Fahd Khan
How did you land the lead role in Lashtam Pashtam?
“I was working on a short film in India and my director of photography, Mr Ashwin Prabhakar, liked my work and suggested my name to [director] Manav Bhalla. We met for a narration and we had a series of auditions which went for six months before I bagged the role.”
How did you identify with the character you play, Sid Oberoi?
“Sid is a lot like how I am in real life. It was very easy to prepare for it. He learns from his flaws and he asks a very fundamental question — were we born to hate?”
Tell us about the India-Pakistan theme that forms the basis of the story.
“When you talk about India and Pakistan, there is often a misconception and a general sense of animosity on both sides of the border. But when you stay in a neutral place such as Dubai, it’s a different ballgame altogether. In the film, these two boys growing up don’t understand the meaning of being Indian or Pakistani until the misconceptions set in when they grow up.”
How was it shooting with Om Puri?
“I am really lucky to have spent a lot of time with him. He went out of my way to make me comfortable while shooting. When I interacted with him on the first day of shoot, he started things out with me by giving a warm hug and giving me tips on how to bring out the right emotions for each scene.
“It is really unfortunate we are talking about him in past tense. Imagine, I was dubbing with him a week before he passed away.”
Your take on the timing of the film with two Independence Days and a new leader in Pakistan who is ready to extend a hand of friendship towards India:
“You know, he [Imran Khan] just recently said, if India will take one step forward, we will take two. I don’t know if I can say this on camera, but sir, this is our first step.”
What’s your advice for new artists?
“There are no shortcuts. Please audition as much as you can because every audition is an acting class.”
Filmography: Padmaavat (2018), TVF — The Making of a Star Son (Web show, 2016)
Character in Lashtam Pashtam: Faht Khan, a Pakistani expat living in Dubai, part-time tennis player and best friend to Sid Oberoi.
How did you bag the film role?
“Manav sir [Bhalla, director] was struggling to find someone and the film was going on the floors the following week. I auditioned with one of his assistant directors and they sent the tape to Manav in Dubai. He called me and said can you start next week? So I think, now is the time to raise my price because he’s more desperate than me. Jokes apart, Manav liked me so I’m here.”
How did you identify with your character, Faht Khan?
“It’s a film about the inherent prejudices and conditioned mindsets that may exist at home, but these don’t exist when you live overseas… And that’s what our film stands for — universal brotherhood. Friendship transcending borders.”
How was the experience of working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Padmaavat?
“That’s a different world all together. Sanjay sir is very intense; he’s a task master. He’s very passionate and at times, emotional as well. I learnt a lot on that set, rubbing soldiers with Ranveer Singh, Raza Muradji and Jim Sarbh. I’d expected Ranveer to be completely to himself but he was out there, literally holding my hand and guiding me through.”
Tell us about working with Om Puri;
“I was really jealous that all of Samar’s scenes are with Om Puri sahib. I did have a couple of scenes with him. I am the kind of actor who psychs himself out and listens to music during a shoot to set the mood. And there comes Om Puri on to the sets, yanks my headphones off and says, what the hell are you doing? I said, sir I am preparing. And he went, no! Understand the power of now, work on this film with me and let the magic happen.”
Your thoughts on the film’s title Lashtam Pashtam?
“I was as taken aback initially, but the reason behind the title works well. Manav called it a phenomenon. It’s an emotion. You can’t articulate it. When you watch the film, you will come out with a perception of that emotion.”
What is Lashtam Pashtam?
“It enables you to ask that question. It makes for a conversation. It’s a vernacular people are intrigued by. Its’ not a phrase we use in day to day language. It’s a mindset. It has no one meaning. When people start to see meaning this way, they will find their own Lashtam Pashtam,” explained director Manav Bhalla. “To me, it means completion and love to me.”
Probe further and Bhalla admitted the words were coined by the film’s lyricist. After seeing everyone’s reaction to the phrase, and they decided to rename the film from its original title, Darmiyaan.
Don’t Miss It!
Lashtam Pashtam is out in the UAE on August 9.