My conversation with Amole Gupte revealed some interesting anecdotes from his past. Most people are not familiar with Amole Gupte’s work during the early days of his career. His first big gig was playing a protagonist in a Gujarati play called Khelaiya, where Paresh Rawal played the antagonist. Mansoor Khan and Aamir Khan made their directorial shorts with Amole Gupte as the protagonist before their film debut with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. Mansoor’s short film was titled Umberto, and Aamir’s short film was titled Open Windows. After Tom Alter fell ill, Amole Gupte stepped in for his role in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar as an announcer. This was when he had turned a painter, and had his studio in Mansoor Khan’s bungalow. Gupte also played the lead role in Imran Khan’s short film, Happy Birthday. All of this before the world learnt about Gupte because of Taare Zameen Par. Post this, Gupte paved his own path as a film director and an actor. He recently recovered from Covid, but that did not lower his spunk in any way. Currently, he is reveling in the praises of his latest release, Mumbai Saga, as he gears up for Saina, and corrects me when I referred to his film as Sania by mistake.
What was so intriguing about Saina Nehwal’s story that you decided to make a film on her?
In 2010, Nehwal won the Gold Medal in the Commonwealth Games. As I followed her career, I wanted to know more about her ups and downs. What was her childhood like? How was she in school? Toward the end of the first quarter of 2015, through a series of championships, she was declared World’s Number One. I felt compelled to make a film about her. She felt like the daughter I never had. I have immensely dedicated myself to Saina, the film, as a father. Now, it’s out there for the world to see six years of laborious work.
How did you decide which portions of Nehwal’s life were important to include in the film?
When you are creating an inspiring story, it is necessary to strain out impurities. It is important to understand the filter you are choosing as a film-maker. I have personally taken out every negative controversy from Saina. I was extremely conscious that the film is about celebrating a girl child, and should be an inspiration to Indian families. It is anti-patriarchy. It shows how a middleclass family can raise a world champion.
Most of your films revolve around kids and their struggles. What’s the reason behind this? I’m a child rights activist. I have been working with many NGOs that fend for children’s rights. It comes from the intrigue of what happens to the populace that doesn’t have voting rights. Nobody wants to listen to a child who might have the most honest view about the surroundings. We were easily dismissed by our elders during our growing up years. As adults, we are so full of ourselves and so terribly jaded that we don’t give the importance that our kids deserve. A large part of Saina focuses on the younger Saina, played by Naishaa Kaur Bhatoye. She ranks first in Doubles under 13 category, and number four in singles in the Under 13 category in India. She’s a remarkable athlete, and that brought the authenticity of the sport to the film.
It took five long years to make the film. How does a film-maker stay motivated towards a project for this long?
Mere liye toh achchha hai ki paanch saal ka employment mil gaya. Film jaldi khatam ho jaati to kuchh naya sochna padta (It’s good for me that I was employed for five years, if the film was wrapped soon, I’d have to think of something else). On a serious note, I take it easy. I’m a firm believer of the John Lennon quote, ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’
Shraddha Kapoor was supposed to play the titular role, but eventually, Parineeti Chopra played Saina. How different was the working experience with both the actors?
There were many hiccups during the making of the film. Kapoor had become athletic and fully cued to play the part. Unfortunately, when she was down with dengue, it drained all the strength out of her. To stand and play badminton for 12 hours was difficult. My producer, Bhushan Kumar, got Parineeti Chopra into the film. I gave Chopra the entire narration, the tone, and the timber for her character. Chopra was sharp and alert in her process. She also put in a lot of hard work to become an athlete.
Apart from direction, you have played terrific characters on screen. How have you managed to keep the actor separate from the director?
I have not. I write my own scripts, and give my own narrations. In those narrations, I get to portray all 30 of my characters. I don’t take acting seriously. Only if someone pursues me for a role, I end up doing it. I do one film every five years as an actor and as a director. I never take my scripts to the child actors; instead, we just sit, talk, react, enact, and shoot. I use the same technique to get honest performances from kids and adults. The idea was that the kids should not feel the pressure of a film shoot. In 1981, I was a successful theatre actor from Prithvi Theatre. I went to FTII to play Chandu in my friend and senior Niranjan Thade’s epic diploma film, Chakkar Chandu ka Chameli Wala. The film won the National Award that year. FTII had a significant impact on me. I stayed on campus for the next 12 years, and acted in various films. I assisted Ketan Mehta on Holi, and even played a character. I worked as the associate director with Ketan Mehta on Mirchi Masala. Anil Mehta and I managed the entire unit with big names like Smita Patil, Deepti Naval, Suresh Oberoi, and Naseeruddin Shah.
You and Deepa Bhatia celebrated your 25th anniversary this year. How would you describe your professional relationship, as she has been the editor of all your films?
It is unreal to find a life partner and someone who understands the same aesthetics as you do. In our LLP (Life Long Partnership), she is the senior partner. Saina belongs to Deepa Bhatia, and not to me. She is the uncredited writer-director and the unsung hero of every film that I’ve attempted to date, and with Saina, it was even more evident as she was with me on the sets every day.
Why should I not acknowledge it by giving the title credit ‘written and directed by Deepa Bhatia and Amole Gupte’?
I’ve had many fights with her over this, but she doesn’t budge. If only the world could convince her. She tends to stay in the shadows, and I don’t like that. She’s made an award-winning and celebrated documentary titled Nero’s Guest (2009). She’s a very able director.