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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Manav Bhalla on his Dubai movie and Om Puri's final performance 

It’s a real Dubai story of peaceful co-existence and living side-by-side as people, not tagging you with nationality or religion

Samar Vermani and Om Puri in Lashtam Pashtam. Courtesy Phars Film
Samar Vermani and Om Puri in Lashtam Pashtam. Courtesy Phars Film

It has been more than two years since ­beachgoers in Dubai were surprised by the sight of a full-scale Bollywood dance routine taking place for the cameras in the shadow of Burj Al Arab. Among the dancers that day were Indian TV stars Samar Vermani and Vibhav Roy, while Bollywood actress Ishita Dutta watched on with the film crew.

Samar Vermani and Vibhav Roy in Lashtam Pashtam. Courtesy Phars Film
Samar Vermani and Vibhav Roy in Lashtam Pashtam. Courtesy Phars Film

The film that was shooting was at the time titled Darmiyaan, from first-time Dubai director Manav Bhalla, and it would prove to be Indian cinema legend Om Puri’s final appearance on the big screen before he died in January last year, at the age of 66 – although Puri wasn’t among the dancers on the beach that day. The film lands in cinemas in the UAE and India this weekend, with its new title Lashtam Pashtam.

How did Bhalla, as a first-time director, writer and producer, manage to attract such a huge name to his fledgling project? “When I first told Om the story, he had tears in his eyes and said: ‘I really want to make this film,’” the director explains. “It’s not a made-up story – it’s based on true events that happen in a city like Dubai every day, and he said” ‘You know what? A story like this that tells the story of brotherhood beyond borders needs to be told.’ That’s how we managed to get him, I guess.”

The Dubai-set drama tells the story of two tennis-partner friends, one Indian and one Pakistani, who dream of winning the Nations Cup, but Bhalla emphasises that the film is a drama with an undercurrent of tennis, rather than a sports film.

The director also adds that Puri managed to complete all of his scenes on the movie before his death, so there will be no Carrie Fisher-style CGI appearances for the Indian great. “Om finished dubbing with me about a week before he passed away, so we did finish everything before he died,” Bhalla says. “He absolutely loved the film. He gave me an interview just before he died where he just talked about the film for about 11 minutes and how much he’d enjoyed working with us. It was a real pleasure working with him, and a real honour to hear how much he’d enjoyed working with us.”

Om Puri in Lashtam Pashtam. Courtesy Phars Film
Om Puri in Lashtam Pashtam. Courtesy Phars Film

As Puri’s love of the film’s message of “brotherhood beyond borders” suggests, Lashtam Pashtam isn’t your usual portrayal of Pakistan in an Indian film. Bhalla was clearly conscious of breaking away from the idea of India’s neighbour as the “bad guy”.

“Indian films about Pakistan have been of a certain type in the past. We all know that and this film is trying to break that stereotype,” he says. “For a start, it’s a film that’s been made in Dubai and it’s set in Dubai, and I think that makes a real difference. It’s a real Dubai story of peaceful co-existence and living side-by-side as people, not tagging you with nationality or religion. It’s what we love about Dubai and it’s something that’s very real here.”

Bhalla’s knack for pulling in the big guns despite his lack of experience in the film industry doesn’t stop at casting. He has also managed to secure Indian distribution through global giant Sony, as well as Gulf distribution through Dubai-based Phars Film – this means that the film can expect a far wider release than is normal for a first-time independent director. I ask Bhalla once again what his secret is. “With Sony, I just managed to get the number of the MD from a friend,” he says. “I didn’t know him, but I contacted him anyway and he agreed to meet me. It was a long process, but I persevered, we talked many more times, and eventually they agreed to distribute the film. I think the secret was a strong cast, a strong film and simple perseverance.”

The perseverance certainly paid off, and although it may have been a long process, the slog hasn’t put off Bhalla from continuing with his budding film career. “I loved it. It was an arduous journey – it’s not easy to break into that world from the outside. I never went to film school, I kind of learnt on the job, but I managed it. To have National [Film] Award winners in the film, brands like Sony and Phars Film on board, it’s opened up a few new avenues, and I’m hoping to do more,” he says. “Everyone at first said: ‘Don’t do it, it’ll never work – even if you finish the film, you’ll never get it out to cinemas.’ But I did, and I’m already working on some new things now.”

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Lashtam Pashtam is in cinemas across the UAE this weekend