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Friday, February 26, 2021

First of Many: Shekhar Suman revisits Utsav

This week's First of Many features Shekhar Suman. In the 69th edition of our exclusive series, the actor talks about his first film, Utsav (1984).

Written by Mimansa Shekhar | New Delhi |
Updated: February 19, 2021 9:36:51 am
shekhar suman acting debut film utsavShekhar Suman worked opposite Rekha in his acting debut film, Utsav. (Photo: Express Archives)

Actor Shekhar Suman is a man of many talents. He has also been a successful host and a filmmaker. Over a career spanning more than 25 years, Suman has performed in films and television alike, giving us some memorable roles in Chor Machaye Shor, Anubhav and others.

His Sameer Diwan in cult sitcom Dekh Bhai Dekh still remains one of the favourites of the audience. While his Movers N Shakers gave us India’s first late night talk show in late 1990s, his turn as a judge for The Great Indian Laughter Challenge in early 2000s helped the audience discover a brilliant line-up of homegrown stand-up comedians.

But how did it all begin for Shekhar Suman? Here’s what the artiste shared:

What was your first acting project? How did the project come to you?

My first movie was Utsav (1984), produced by Shashi Kapoor. There was speculation that many actors were vying for that role. I had given my screen-test but I had not been told that I had got the role. I still remember one day, I was peeping inside Prithvi Theatre, post my audition for Utsav. Shashi Kapoor was watering his plants. He looked at me and asked me to come inside. Like a little child, I went there. He said, ‘Don’t you want the role?’ I said of course! He said, ‘Go grab it before someone else grabs it. You have been chosen to play the hero.’ Can you imagine, I ran the entire distance from Prithvi Theatre, Juhu to Andheri, without even stopping for an auto. I wanted to break this news to my elder sister with whom I was staying at that time. She asked me if I was sure that I got the role. This was unimaginable. I had just come to Bombay and within three weeks, I had bagged the film with none other that Rekha. That was an unprecedented break. I had grown up watching Rekha. So, I could never imagine in my dreams that I could be cast opposite her. Before I could say Jack Robinson, I was there in front of Rekha.

What do you remember from your first day on set?

I remember the first shot was a lovemaking scene with Rekha. I thought I would probably die. Girish Karnad came to me and said, ‘This is a huge day and your first shot is going to be with Rekha. You are a young actor and I can imagine you have apprehensions and reservations. She’s a very professional actress and is just doing her role. So don’t be hesitant in giving your best, even if you have to put your arm around her or be close to her. It’s just a role you are playing.’ My heart was really pumping, but that gave me a lot of confidence.

My first take was in Kundapur, near Mangalore in a 400 year old house. I distinctly remember, I was dressed as the character Charudutt. I came and lay down next to Rekha. And, before she could say a line, I just put my arm around her and said my lines. She suddenly stopped and looked at Girish and said, ‘Oh my god, isn’t he supposed to be nervous? Look at his confidence.’ Girish said, ‘He’s been practicing a lot with a pillow the whole day.’ All of us burst out in laughter and that eased the situation. After that, I never looked back, because that’s the barricade you had to break. After that I was just the character and she was so cooperative and professional. I owe it to her for having accepted a new comer like me as a lead part. I’m indebted to her, Girish Karnad and Shashi Kapoor.

Were you nervous? How many retakes did you take?

I was 20 going on 21 and paired opposite a huge star. Luckily, I had a theatre background. I came from Delhi and was quite prepared. Things always get the better of you. There was nervousness as well as huge excitement. And you had to balance out the emotions at that moment.

utsav film shekhar suman Shekhar Suman starrer Utsav (1984) was directed by Girish Karnad.

How was the rapport with your co-stars and team when you got to meet or work with them again later?

No matter how close you get during the shooting, unfortunately, the pace of life is such in Bombay and the industry, that you just tend to go your own ways. I kept in touch with Shashi ji but unfortunately, after a while he had fallen ill, he had lost his wife, I lost my son, there was a lot of commotion in our lives. He was the nicest gentleman I had known. I don’t know how he was an actor. Actors have so much air and reservations, but his office at Prithvi Theatre would be open to everyone. One could have lunch, sit there, he would speak to everyone. There were no restrictions.

I was already married at 21, and my first son was born a year later. I remember I took my son to the sets in Film City where the climax was being shot. Shashi ji looked at me and said “Who is this?” I said, “My baby.” He said, “Are you kidding me?” He stopped the shoot, called everyone, and said, “Just see this kid has produced a kid!” Everyone would carry Aayush (son) on the set. My wife Alka would often visit the set and we had a great time. When we were shooting, every evening Shashi ji would come with a bottle and ask what I would drink, eat. He was so loving.

Girish had gone and settled in Bangalore. Off and on I would meet Rekha at the parties and exchange pleasantries. I always kept these people in my mind because I owe my life and career to them.

If given a chance to go back to your debut role, what would you like to change or do better?

I would beef up. I was too thin and too young so I would like to have some abs. I would like to have a beard. As an actor I was very happy with what I did. Perhaps the way I looked in Utsav, there’s nothing to change. My lean physique was the reason why I was chosen. If I had muscles, probably I would’ve been rejected. It was the role of an impoverished Brahmin. But on a lighter note, I would make him look like today’s boy.

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One film or role that inspired you to become an actor?

Loads of films. I was born with the desire to be an actor. I think from age 6-7, I started watching movies. By the time I was 12-13, I started watching all the old releases. I caught up with Motilal, Balraj Sahni, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, Manoj Kumar, Dharmendra, Rajendra Kumar, Shashi Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, K Asif, Bimal Roy, Meheboob Khan, Guru Dutt, and that’s what I wanted to be. I became a huge fan of Dilip Kumar. From him, I understood the importance of pauses. When I was growing up in Patna, the films would come there very late, after 6-8 months of its release in Delhi or Bombay. So in that interim period they used to release old films, which were 10-15 years old. That’s when I caught up with old classics like Madhumati, Devdas, Mother India, Do Bheega Zameen, and these were like institutions for me. Mughal-e-Azam and Ganga Jamuna were two films which really impacted me. In the later years, I was impressed with the kind of performance Amitabh Bachchan gave in films like Abhiman, Mili, Anand, Namak Haram, Zanjeer, Deewar. His acting style was completely different. It impacted me as an actor. I realised I had to be a more natural actor. I was also influenced by Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal and Gulzar.

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