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The Curious Case of Sharmaji Namkeen

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

Satyabrata Ghosh

Seldom a painter could finish a portrait or a landscape in one go. The same is true for a sculptor or an author, who diligently works for days before the final shapes they envisioned in their respective mediums come to life. The artist invests the time and energy to take up from where (s)he left the previous day. While dealing with it the next day, there can be moments when (s)he looks back on what was already done. Since an expression of art evolves every day, the artist might find scopes to modify. (S)he may then use the brush, chisel, or pen (or keyboard) to rework some or even entirely. But filmmakers can hardly indulge in such reworking, especially if it is a feature film made with a fixed budget.

In world cinema, Luis Buñuel once cleverly conflated reality and the absurdity of surrealism by replacing Carole Bouquet with Ángela Molina in his film Cet Obscure Object du Désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977). It was however Buñuel’s creative choice where a fair, blonde and elegant French girl (Carol Bouquet) who played the role of Conchita in the film changes into the form of a slightly elder, raven-haired Spanish woman, which the other actor (Angela Molina) was. Buñuel remarkably used two Conchitas in the same scenes to establish how Mathieu (Fernando Rey), the middle-aged protagonist of the film perceives the two distinctly different women as one.

But in general, the hundreds of shots that constitute a feature film are recorded at different points of time after staging the scenes in locations/sets following a pre-determined schedule. Few extra days are kept aside in the schedule to do patchwork if the director has to shoot things that were left out or felt needed during editing. But what happens when the sudden demise of the main actor stalls the filmmaking itself?

The director, in some cases, has to ‘cheat’ by using dummies as famously happened for the Bengali movie Ogo Bodhu Sundari (1981) because Uttam Kumar suffered a massive cardiac arrest while acting in one of its scenes. He was ambulated to the hospital straight from the shooting floor but unfortunately could not recover. Salil Dutta, the director in his desperate attempt then used a dummy (almost fully back to camera) and wrapped the shoot. Once the film was released after carefully publicising the famous ‘last shot’ of the demised actor, the audience discovered the voice of Tarun Kumar, who dubbed for his elder brother, but overlooked the discrepancy and made this adaptation of My Fair Lady (1964) a ‘hit’. It was a different story though for movies like Rajasaheb, Khana Boraha, et. al. which too were affected by the sudden demise of Uttam Kumar, but failed to tick at the box office and were soon forgotten.

Rishi Kapoor could not complete acting his role in Hitesh Bhatia’s Sharmaji Namkeen (2022) as his ailments became acute. He succumbed during treatment on April 30, 2020, and the film would otherwise be destined to suffer or be stopped due to his absence. But instead of shutting down, the makers chose an unconventional path to complete the film. They roped in Paresh Rawal and the final result is unusual. The storyline which centres around an ageing widower’s endeavour to make himself relevant in a fast-changing and aspirational world is relatable to middle-class Indians today, but the novel way they have completed the film makes all the difference.

The practicalities involved in the production design of a feature film hardly take into consideration a linear method of filming unless the director insists to do Scene 1 of the narrative first and then follow with the scene next. So, mostly the location (or the set) that is arranged (erected) first gets the priority in the shooting schedule. At times the preferences of actors and key technicians can become the decisive factor in filming a particular scene at a particular point in time. The time constraints and other unavoidable circumstances often compel the director to leave filming a scene unfinished, which would be included in another shooting schedule sometime later. Such a piecemeal approach to filming is a sort of standard protocol throughout the world. It is left to the film editor, together with assistant directors to put the okayed footage in a timeline in accordance with the script.

For Bodhaditya Banerjee, the editor of Sharmaji Namkeen the stricture to the timeline according to the script professionally involved putting the shots of the late Rishi Kapoor after or before those of Paresh Rawal. Although the sync sound helped his job, the jerks imminent while editing the footage of two different actors in the same scenes are too harsh for him to remain consistent in his splicing. To the credit of Banerjee and the entire directorial team, the final cut of the film comes out as a coherent whole. For them, the main actor has never changed!

Kudos to Paresh Rawal too, who took the call to play unabashedly the role an actor had left undone because of his untimely demise. There are numerous instances when an actor professionally stepped in the roles played by other actors. In Bengali movies we have watched Prasenjit Chatterjee, Jisshu Sengupta and Abir Chatterjee playing the iconic roles that Uttam Kumar had played in Antony Firingi (1967), Sannyasi Raja (1975) and Chowringee (1968) in Jatiswar (2014), Ek Je Chhilo Raja (2018) and Sajahan Regency (2019) respectively. But then these are different film projects where not only the directors but the sensibilities both in spatial and temporal terms have changed. To put oneself into the shoes of another actor following the same sensibility of the production team is surely a tall order and also the rarest among the rare cases. A great extent of Paresh Rawal’s malleability as a seasoned actor is to be lauded when he fits into the late actor’s role consciously without being a ‘dummy’. Very few of the living actors in the world could shed their personal and professional insecurities aside to sport into such a challenge.

What becomes significant in this context is how Paresh Rawal gives a consolidated impression of Brij Lal Sharma, the role he has played in the film as well as of the late Rishi Kapoor, in whose shoes he had stepped in. Both actors, known for their pleasing but distinctive appearances, exude credibility in two different ways. While one had been primarily dependent on his fine instincts in portraying his roles in a natural way for the screen (especially in the later films like Do Dooni Char (2010), Mulk (2018), et all, the other has honed his acting skill with the discipline as a theatre personality too.

Despite such differences in methods, the audience of Sharmaji Namkeen sees Brij Lal Sharma as one soul. And even if there were discrepancies in their portrayals, the conviction in the script and in its making has put such hitches to a minimal level. Perhaps, this is the biggest attribute of the film, which otherwise in its newly emerging sensibility of Hindi films projects a ‘Baghban (2003) style outstanding hero’, as one character in the film describes the lonely genial Sharma in his mid-50s.

As the narrative of Sharmaji Namkeen ends, a montage of NG rushes makes the audience emotional once again reminding as in the beginning that it is the swansong of late Rishi Kapoor. Strange, how the Indian audience adulates some of our actors, even in form of accepting Paresh Rawal for him. Such adulation actually takes us back to those stop motion shots right in the middle of Coolie (1983) in which the late Manmohon Desai and his team shared with the audience those critical moments when Amitabh Bachchan got severely injured while performing in an action scene.

The instance of Sharmaji Namkeen will be there in the minds of many filmmakers because Farhan Akhtar, the producer instead of shelving the film, has taken an out-of-box idea seriously. It was reinforced by the conviction of Hitesh Bhatia, the director as well as of the actors along with key technicians. They have not indulged in an option to remake or modify the film, but have used every possible creative and material resource to be loyal to the script. Their decision as a team appears ‘natural’ to say the least, in hindsight. But adopting such astuteness and resilience will probably rank high among hopeful signs to make films stay longer in public memory amid an age when there is a super-saturation of visual contents streaming from various OTTs and other virtual sources.

Satyabrata Ghosh is a Kolkata based screenwriter who often writes articles on cinema in newspapers, magazines, and various websites. He hopes to make his own film soon.

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