"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

A 2014 Oscar for Indira?

Publication: The Times Of India Ahmedabad;

Oscar-winning Hollywood director Bruce Beresford was in Mumbai recently to scout for actors for a film on former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In an exclusive interview, he tells Dhamini Ratnam why he is betting on a newcomer to play lead TIMES NEWS NETWORK

BRUCE BERESFORD is by his own admission, fascinated by India. Which is why, when the script for Birth of a Nation, a film on Indira Gandhi dropped into his email inbox while he was holidaying in Hawaii last year, he took barely 48 hours to respond with a 50-pager Word document with questions and clarifications.

“The thing about scripts,” says the 71-year-old director of Driving Miss Daisy (which won the Oscar in the best film category in 1990), “is that they pile up. I always read scripts as soon as I get them.”

The script Beresford read was in its 27th draft. Krishna Shah, who demands instant recollection as the man behind the 1978 film Shalimar, wrote the first draft in 1986. The USA-based Hollywood producer wasn’t able to figure out which story to tell from Gandhi’s life.

“Her life is like a Russian melodrama, with a plethora of characters. Then I came across the Bangladesh war, and realized that this episode best exemplified her. She stood up to Yahya Khan (the then Pakistani President), whom nobody wanted to touch, since he was friends with (US President) Nixon. She could not bear the brutality against the people of East Bengal,” explains Shah.

Excerpts from the interview:

Where were you at the time of the Bangladesh war?I was in England, where I worked till 1972 at the British Film Institute. I remember that there were a lot of news items about Indira Gandhi at the time. It was a long time ago, but I was an admirer. The general turn was that she was pretty remarkable, a sort of an Indian Mrs Thatcher. But, by the time I got the script, 40 years had passed.

Did you ever think then that you would make a film on her?No, I never thought I would. It was a fascinating story, though — the rise of a woman to such extraordinary power, which in itself was very rare. Besides, she was a woman, who was also, to put it mildly, formidable. I felt that it would be better if such a film would be made by an Indian, rather than an outsider like me. Then, when I read Krishna’s script, I thought I don’t know why I should rule myself out. Maybe as an outsider, I can bring some objectivity. The last film I did — Mao’s Last Dancer — was about Chinese politics. I thought, if I could do that, you know...

Tell us a bit about your research on Indira Gandhi.I assumed that there would be many films on Indira, given the huge number of films made in India. There were none that I knew of. I searched for her online, and read up, largely to see how accurate the script was. The dialogue’s good. I’ve even started on a couple of biographies that I downloaded from Kindle.

What is the perspective that you are trying to bring in?One of the key tasks is to humanise Indira Gandhi and capture her personality. This is why I like doing films, and if I may say so myself, it’s what I’m good at. I’ve done a number of historical films, and it has always been important for me to portray people with sympathy, warts and all. I want to show them as rounded personalities, not flawless beings, but still capable of admiration.

One aspect that will come into play is her politics. For a lot of liberals, Indira Gandhi was a dictator, and her policies were problematic.That is really what makes the film interesting. If you look at the biographical films done in the 1930s, they were completely idolatrous. Audiences now, are far more sophisticated. They don’t want to see people simply idolized. They want to see elements of controversy. To make a biographical film, you need character conflict, people who have weaknesses that they then overcome, or perhaps don’t, but certainly deal with.

So what are the flaws you’d depict?It’s too early for me to answer that. Once the film is absolutely locked in... I’ll refine all the thoughts. One thing I do know is that she was extraordinarily wilful, which I’m glad about, because it gives us enough conflict for the story. I personally, admire that trait.

The Gandhi family is very particular about the way it is portrayed. Did you need to take permission to make this film, or let them know of your plans?I’ve had nothing to do with that.

(Krishna Shah): This story is in the public domain and as an artiste, I have the right to interpret and depict it, based on factual material. They (Gandhis) know I am doing this film. I haven’t sought any permission, nor do I need to. Through intermediaries, however, we have informed them.

You are keen to cast a newcomer to play Indira Gandhi. Why is that?The one thing that we’re keen on is that the actor bear some resemblance to Indira Gandhi. We have met a number of actors, gone through several known actresses, but the jury’s still out. I’m weary of prosthetics — they take forever to put on and tire out the actor before the shot.

(Krishna Shah): If we have a newcomer, we may surround her with some well-known actors. Indian cinema is star-driven. Nana Patekar matches Jayaprakash Narayan rather well. Shah Rukh (Khan) matches Jawahar Lal Nehru. Paresh Rawal would make a great Yahya Khan. But we haven’t approached them yet. That’ll take a few months. We hope to shoot the film between October and December this year. We’re looking at a November 2013 release, in time for the 2014 Oscars.

While media reports have thrown up Madhuri Dixit and Priyanka Chopra’s names, Bruce Beresford says he’d rather have a newbie play Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi was India’s prime minister from 1966 to ’77, and served a fourth term in the ’80s

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