By Subhash K. Jha, Indo-Asian News Service
Mumbai, (IANS) Urmila Matondkar says her new film "Banaras" has made her recognise elements in life that are not discernible to the eye as much as they have made her grow as an actress.
"I play this physics student whose father is a high-profile priest. When I read the script I was stuck by the strength of my character. But I got a full measure of my part only when I went to Varanasi and saw what the city signified," Urmila told IANS in an interview about her character Shwetambari.
Urmila, recovering at home from a viral infection, describes "Banaras" as a "simple straightforward love story. And since the setting is Varanasi there's an element of mysticism about the whole experience.
"It's very important to continue growing as a person. An actor could have the best bank balance in the world, but she shouldn't wake up one day to realise she hasn't got anywhere in life. 'Banaras' has humbled me. It has made me recognise elements in life that are not discernible to the eye.
"Even the language isn't about saying the words correctly. I think my command over the Hindi language is fairly good. But I had to go beyond an expression of words. My struggle was to get people interested in my character and the film within 10 minutes, or not at all."
For Urmila, going to Varanasi itself was a life-changing experience.
"And I'm not just talking about the experience of standing in a city which is extraordinarily rich in religion, culture and spirituality. I'm also talking about being in the midst of people who are hardcore Hindi-film fans, not the kind who watch DVDs but queue up in movie theatres on Fridays.
"After a while the sheer spirituality of Varanasi begins to sink into you. The city has people from all over the country...and when you visit you know why they like to come to this city. The place is a marvel of architecture and aestheticism. And we got to shoot in places where no film has been shot like the Kabir Samadhi, Sarnath...While shooting in Varanasi I was completely oblivious to the rest of the world."
"It's a role that I couldn't approach from the outside. I had to enter my character's spiritual world and then embrace her soul. I had to take my character to unimaginable heights of self-discovery. It was tough. And though I had read my part carefully, when I started shooting I suddenly realised I knew nothing about my character...Luckily my introduction scene in Mauritius which puts the plot into a perspective was shot at the end. By then I had a firm grasp over my character."
Urmila knows the film's spirituality can be dismissed as fake.
"We shall see about that soon. Speaking for myself, I haven't felt a single false note in 'Banaras'. Dialogue writer Javed Siddiqui had gone to the city for a week to get a feel of the ambience. He stayed on for a month. The people making it weren't faking it. In fact I'd say it takes tremendous courage to make a film that doesn't sell India's poverty to the world or go overboard with a fantasy treatment of Indian values.
"'Banaras' treats our religion and culture the way they are meant to be. But if people want to see it as a musical love story, they're most welcome. My co-star Ashmit Patel plays a music teacher."
She's gung-ho about the vast cast. "It was like revisiting my childhood. Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi (who's a dear friend) who played my parents in 'Masoom' are in 'Banaras'. So is Raj Babbbar who played my father in yet another childhood film 'Kalyug'. He plays my father again.
"Dimple Kapadia and I had become close friends during 'Hum Tumpe Marte Hain'. We got a chance to spend time together. She's a wonderful human being. Unfortunately Naseer-ji and I don't have too many scenes together. But the presence of an actor like him reminds me that I didn't know anything when I worked with him years ago as a child. I still don't know much."
She's all praise for her director, Pankaj Parasher.
"I had seen his earlier films like 'Chalbaaz' and 'Jalwa'. When I met him I got to know he had done some documentaries on spiritual subjects. So he was already familiar with the theme. Pankaj-ji gave me a book called 'An Autobiography Of A Yogi' to read. At first I thought, 'Oh God!' But then I began reading...And suddenly the journey of the yogi became my journey. Pankaj-ji's sleek style of storytelling gave the spiritual theme a fresh approach."
So is "Banaras" her best performance to date?
"I'm very satisfied with what I've done. But unfortunately in this country, good acting is synonymous with makeup-less looks and melodramatic emoting. In 'Banaras', I've taken subtle acting to another level. I wasn't acting my character. I didn't want to look like a fake god person. I was very nervous. I had to walk on really thin ice. I was nervous. But I think I finally managed to get it right."