New Delhi, Aug 21 (PTI) Acclaimed cinematographer Baba Azmi is entering direction with dance drama "Mee Raqsam", a story that he says was brewing in his mind for years.
Known for his work as director of photography on several Bollywood blockbusters from 1980-90s like "Tezaab", "Beta", "Mr India" and "Dil", Baba Azmi said he initially wanted to make something "more commercial" for his debut.
"I've been wanting to make this film ('Mee Raqsam') for quite a long time. I had many commitments as cinematographer so I could not take up this film earlier. I would often think that I'll come back to this film after finishing yet another project.
"I also thought that 'let me work on some thriller or something more commercial, action-oriented. But there would be no satisfaction in those scripts. They felt like the reflection of all those films that I had photographed over the years," Baba Azmi told PTI in an interview.
But he was sure the film had to be made a certain way.
"I wanted to focus on the narrative more. Especially being a DOP, there is a tendency that one veers more towards visuals." It was only fitting that he would make his directorial debut with "Mee Raqsam" (I Dance) as an homage to his father Kaifi Azmi by shooting the film in the legendary poet-lyricist's birthplace, Mijwan, a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Many years ago, Kaifi Azmi asked his son, "Baba, you are a big film photographer, is it possible for you to shoot a film in Mijwan?" "I couldn't say anything but we both just smiled at each other. Shooting in a tiny place with no infrastructure in place like Mijwan would be task. How will a 70-80 member strong film unit live and manage?" wondered Baba Azmi.
But once he decided to shoot "Mee Raqsam" in Mijwan in the birth centenary year of Kaifi Azmi, things started working out.
Born on January 14, 1919, Kaifi Azmi would have turned 101 this year.
"I think it was my father's blessing that we were able to make the film so smoothly," Baba Azmi added.
Presented by his sister, veteran actor Shabana Azmi, the Zee5 film revolves around Salim (Danish Husain) who stands resolutely with his daughter Mariam (Aditi Subedi) when she wants to become a Bharatnatyam dancer.
"It is about a father's unwavering support for what his child wants to achieve in life and how their society is against it. The father-daughter bond is the core of the story," he said.
"The film also celebrates the composite culture of India that has nurtured Shabana and me. The Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb and that art is not a restricted concept, it's a character in itself," he added.
"Mee Raqsam" also features Naseeruddin Shah, who plays the narrow-minded community leader averse to Mariam pursuing Bharatnatyam.
Baba Azmi said he and Shah have known each other since the veteran actor's days at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).
They also later worked on the 1982 film "Bezubaan", which went on to become an important film in Shah's initial career and was Baba Azmi's first project as cameraperson.
"We always had a fondness and mutual respect for each other's work. Once I met him after one of his plays finished at Prithvi Theatre and told him I'm making the film.
"He said 'Finally you are making it? Are you sure?' "I said yes and I want you to do this role. He said yes without any narration or reading the script. He said 'tell me the dates and I'll be there'." The director said Shah was suffering from a major problem in his lower back right before he was supposed to go to Mijwan for the shoot.
"He was in acute pain. But he messaged to assure me that he will be there to shoot the film.
"He took shots and pain killers, travelled from Mumbai to Varanasi. From there he made a three-hour long drive to Mijwan. He kept his promise." Baba Azmi said he sought Husain, another name from the world of theatre, to play Salim - the "hero" of the film.
"He is such an experienced actor. I hadn't watched any of his plays or films before offering him a role. I met him a couple of times, and I liked his look. I thought he was different and would be perfect as Salim." But the "surprise package" was the Mijwan-born newcomer Subedi, who underwent four months of Bharatnatyam training to play Mariam.
Recalling the story of how Baba Azmi found her, he said, "Whenever we used to go Mijwan, all these kids used to come and meet us. There was this girl Aditi who used to sit in a corner quietly and observe everything around with such twinkling eyes. And that caught me." The director said he didn't want to take a trained child actor from Mumbai as "they know how to 'act' and deliver the lines".
"She was a natural and wasn't intimidated by the camera or the cast. As she didn't have the craft, she acted from her heart. She owned the lines. It was my honour that I found her after rounds of auditions," he said.
"Mee Raqsam" started streaming on Friday.