A FILM ON AHILYABAI HOLKAR
By Suhel Johar
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As a student of architecture, Nachiket Patwardhan was fascinated by the life of the 18th century warrior queen Ahilyabai Holkar, who built numerous wells, riverfront, stairways, highways, rest houses and temples all over India. The most noteworthy among these were the road from Varanasi to Kolkata, and the rebuilt temples of Somnath in Saurashtra, Vishnu in Gaya and Visweswara in Varanasi. The admiration has now found expression in a historical film, 'Devi Ahilyabai'.
It took a 55-day start to finish shooting schedule for Nachiket, 54, and Jayoo, 53, the film-maker couple from Pune to can the film featuring Mallika Prasad as Ahilyabai and Shabana Azmi as her stepmother-in-law, Harkubai. Ahilyabai fought and won battles to uphold the honour of the state and was loved by her family as well as her subjects.
Ahilyabai was born in 1725 to Manakoji Shinde of the proud Dhangar (shepherd) community, at Chowndi village in Maharashtra. Although women were not educated then, he taught her to read and write. Malharrao Holkar, a commander in the service of the Peshwa Bajirao and later ruler of Malwa, who passed by Chowndi was so impressed by her piety and character that he took the eight-year-old girl to the Holkar territory as the bride for his son, Khanderao.
"We decided to look at a span of 20 years in her life when she was at her peak as a child and then when she began ruling until she was 40," says Nachiket. As Khanderao had died prematurely, Ahilyabai suceeded Malharrao as the ruler of Malwa, and with support and encouragement from Malharrao and his two wives, she became an excellent administrator and impartial judge. Unfortunately, her only son died prematurely. As a result, Ahilyabai withdrew from worldly pleasures and gave away her wealth for charity. Predictably, the mood of the film changes here. Ahilyabai continued to live a life of austerity until her death on August 13, 1795. Nachiket admits that he drew several blanks while researching her life. Her birth date is not verifiable.
Though Nachiket and Jayoo had studied architecture at M.S. University in Baroda, they turned to film direction, assisting in the art direction of Utsav in 1984 and in Girish Karnad's Cheluvi in 1992. They have made Marathi films of their own like 22nd June 1897. Jayoo, who handled the costumes for Devi Ahilyabai, had earlier worked on projects like 'Ghashiram Kotwal' of that period. "Looking at the upwardly mobile attitude of the Dhangars then, there was room for trendsetting," said Nachiket. "Not too many details are documented, so we could take a few liberties."
The movie script was ready in 1999 and casting began in earnest. "Sadashiv Amrapurkar seemed right for the role of Malharrao," said Nachiket. "And Shabana Azmi, who is a friend, had been very supportive and enthusiastic about this project since the start. She helped us tremendously. We considered her for Harkubai and she agreed to do the role."
When Nachiket saw Mallika in a Girish Karnad film in Kannada, "somehow I knew she was right for Ahilyabai," he said. The film uses the lyrics of Anant Phandi, a poet in Ahilyabai's time, and, except in one or two small scenes, the dialogue has the flavour of Malwi and Nemadi languages of the 18th century. Ashok Mishra has written dialogues and Ashok Ranade has composed the music.
He expects Devi Ahilyabai to be ready for screening early next year. After Veer Savarkar, Babasaheb Ambedkar and five versions of Bhagat Singh, the desire for historicals was dying out. But the story of the unsung warrior queen may well capture hearts.
Incidentally, Shabana Azmi, who plays the little-known character Harkubai in 'Devi Ahilyabai', has also been the film's godmother. Her association with it began right from the scripting stage. When Nachiket had trouble finding finances for the film she pulled strings in the culture ministry and things got going. In fact, she forced her way in the film knowing it well that if she were to act in the film that would add more weight to the film. She told Nachiket, "I'd like to be a part of the team, too. He offered the role of Harkubai and she was only to happy to do a special appearance, and that's how I forced myself in".
As Ahilyabai's stepmother-in-law, Shabana's role, though small, is considered to be important to the story even though without any doubt the film about is Ahilyabai. The character of Harkubai is important and interesting because within the traditional space, she questions authority but can rebel only up to a point. And she subverts. For instance, when Ahilya has to commit sati after her husband's death, Harku cannot stop it per se, but she knows that her husband isn't happy about sati since he is fond of his daughter-in-law. She plays it in such a way that it seems as if she is taking the priest's side, yet she is able to prevent Ahilya from sati. This space is important; a space about a woman who is not able to make the crossover completely to feminism.
Unlike other recent historicals in Bollywood, 'Devi Ahilyabai' does not fit into the 'pop nationalist' kind. The look of the film in no way attempts to glamorise or commercialise the reality of the situation. A lot of research was done by the Patwardhan couple to see that they're able to create the right ambience and atmosphere. Jayoo who has done the costumes is said to have done a wonderful job with the sets and the costumes. There's no fantasy or romanticism in the film since the Patwardhans have tried to recreate an authentic celluloid picture of their subject. Shabana Azmi is said to be happy with the way the film has turned out and reportedly feels that Mallika who has played the title character will prove to be a discovery after the film's release.
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