Making Sarbjit Was a Heart Wrenching Experience: Omung Kumar
Sarbjit director Omung Kumar and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan take their film to Cannes (Photo: Twitter/<a href="https://twitter.com/OmungKumar">@OmungKumar</a>)
Sarbjit director Omung Kumar and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan take their film to Cannes (Photo: Twitter/@OmungKumar)

Making Sarbjit Was a Heart Wrenching Experience: Omung Kumar

It has been a few days since Sarbjit’s theatrical release and while the box-office collections are not flattering, the feedback to ensemble performances in the film has been overwhelming. Director Omung Kumar appears far from worried. Clad in a milk white shirt to beat the heat, Omung recaps his journey of discovering Dalbir Kaur over coffee and biscuits.

Director Omung Kumar with Richa Chadha, Aishwarya Rai and the crew of <i>Sarbjit </i>(Photo: Twitter/<a href="https://twitter.com/OmungKumar">@OmungKumar</a>)
Director Omung Kumar with Richa Chadha, Aishwarya Rai and the crew of Sarbjit (Photo: Twitter/@OmungKumar)
Are you nervous that the collections are not what you anticipated?
When Mary Kom was released the collections were not flattering initially, then slowly reactions changed by word of mouth and the collections improved. 
Biopics are different from our regular masala movies. Not everyone likes to watch a slice of history but those who are inclined, will make sure to visit the theatres and that’s what matters.
How different was shooting Sarbjit from your debut film?
Sarbjit is a more intense subject so we were in a different frame of mind. But, so that we don’t get all consumed we made certain to enjoy ourselves too and this was possible because the unit worked as a family. During Mary Kom on the first day of the shooting my wife said, “you have never shot a film before, are you nervous?” and I said, “ya, kind of”. Then I went on the set and began shooting the boxing sequence and the anxiety disappeared! During Sarbjit I was more confident, and after the screening at the Cannes Film Festival, I was further convinced. This time I think I’m more excited than nervous.
Your producer says you were not keen on making this subject initially, and had rejected it outright?
Absolutely, that’s because I didn’t want to be branded as a director who only makes biopics. Then I was traveling somewhere and in isolation I revisited the proposal. I began surfing and watched videos of Dalbir Kaur and I was hooked! I called my wife and said “I’ve made up my mind”, and she asked “are you sure?” I said “yes”. I called my producer and said I’m on and he said, “are you sure” I said “yes”. He said he will get the news printed so I cannot change my mind, and by the time I got back, the news was all over.
Aishwarya Rai in a scene from <i>Sarbjit</i> (Photo: Twitter/<a href="https://twitter.com/OmungKumar">@OmungKumar</a>)
Aishwarya Rai in a scene from Sarbjit (Photo: Twitter/@OmungKumar)
How easy was it to get the actors on board?
Before the actors, I had to get permission from Sarabjit’s family. The subject had been doing the rounds for a couple of years and was in fact initiated by Sarabjit’s family, because they were advised that a film on him will draw attention from the media and aid his release. 
My office contacted Dalbir Kaur. She arrived in Mumbai and we talked and talked…It was not easy for her to relive those memories. She was upset and watching her cry, we got upset too. Sometimes to cheer her we would all go for a film and dinner, but the next day, we went back to Sarabjit’s story and inadvertently to crying again.
Randeep Hooda and Aishwarya Rai with Dalbir Kaur at a promotional event for <i>Sarbjit </i>(Photo: Yogen Shah)
Randeep Hooda and Aishwarya Rai with Dalbir Kaur at a promotional event for Sarbjit (Photo: Yogen Shah)
Priyanka Chopra did not resemble Mary Kom and Aishwarya Rai does not resemble Dalbir Kaur. Is the contrary casting deliberate?
Yes, because it is the story of the character not the resemblance. My motive was to offer a dynamic role to an actor she cannot refuse, which is why Priyanka agreed to Mary Kom even though she was petrified of building muscles. I’ve known Aishwarya since her Miss World days and we have done innumerable shows together. She is familiar with my work as an art director and agreed instantly. 
In fact, I was not prepared for Aishwarya to say yes so fast. So I asked her “are you sure?”, and she hugged me and said “YES”.
Randeep Hooda in a scene from <i>Sarbjit</i> (Photo: Twitter/<a href="https://twitter.com/OmungKumar">@OmungKumar</a>)
Randeep Hooda in a scene from Sarbjit (Photo: Twitter/@OmungKumar)
What about Randeep Hooda and Richa Chaddha, were they your first choice?
Strangely, everyone in my unit suggested Randeep Hooda as Sarabjit. I guess because he is familiar with the language and is a prolific actor. The actor is restricted to a 6x4 space in a foreign country’s jail for decades, and endures the worst possible adversities. 
Randeep understood and absorbed the complexities intuitively. He isolated himself in darkness and talked to himself to fathom what the character went through. He wrote many letters to me when preparing for his role but hasn’t shared them with me so far.

As for Richa, I saw her on the poster of Masaan and was drawn to her eyes. For Sarabjit’s wife I wanted an actor who emoted with her eyes and Richa is fabulous.

Does it weigh on you that had you made this film earlier maybe Sarabjit Singh would have been a free man today?
May be, may be not! But the thought always haunts me and the regret will always remain. But on the positive side I will say that if my film can influence and alter the verdict to save even one prisoner, then the effort of making Sarbjit has been worth it, more than any revenue or awards I may receive for it.

(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for 30 years and is the author of 12 books. Twitter: @bhawanasomaaya)

(The Quint is now on WhatsApp. To receive handpicked stories on topics you care about, subscribe to our WhatsApp services. Just go to TheQuint.com/WhatsApp and hit the Subscribe button.)

Follow our Entertainment section for more stories.

    Also Watch