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Ek Baar Phir's London dreams

How a small-budget film about a married woman finding love again became the first Hindi film shot entirely abroad

Sonal Pandya

These days audiences don't even blink when big-budget Hindi films are shot abroad. It's become the main selling point for a film and often is a key part of the story. Last year's Dil Dhadkne Do based its story around a cruise trip that ends up changing the course of its character's lives. With a huge, growing overseas viewership, many films revolve around NRIs as the lead characters from Preity Zinta's Naina in Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) and Katrina Kaif's Meera in Jab Tak Hain Jaan (2011).

The first ever talkie to be filmed outside the film studio was In Old Arizona (1929). Released on 20 January, 1929, it became the first Western to use sound and featured a singing cowboy in Warner Baxter who played the infamous character created by O. Henry in 1907, The Cisco Kid. Baxter ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the fearless outlaw.

In early Indian cinema, Filmindia founder Baburao Patel made Sati Mahananda (1933) which ventured out of the studios and showed Maharashtra's Ellora Caves in all its glory. Since then, Hindi films have been shot all over India from Barsaat (1949) in Kashmir to Do Bigha Zamin (1953) in Kolkata. Raj Kapoor's first film in colour, Sangam (1954) was shot abroad in Paris, Switzerland and Venice popularizing the concept of musical and romantic interludes in foreign locales. The 1970 film Subha-O-Shaam directed by Chanakya with Sanjeev Kumar, Waheeda Rehman and the well-known Iranian actor, Fardeen boldly stated itself to be the first Hindi film to shoot in Iran.

But Vinod Pande's Ek Baar Phir (1980) was one of the first Hindi films to be shot entirely on location, in England. Based on the novel of the same name by the multi-hyphenate Pande, Ek Baar Phir shows the deteriorating marriage of an Indian couple, a movie star and his wife, during a trip overseas. Suresh Oberoi played the insufferable star with a huge ego, Mahendra Kumar, and Deepti Naval was his supportive yet lonely wife, Kalpana. The film was a big break for both Oberoi and Naval who were just starting out in their careers.

Ek Baar Phir shows off its foreignness immediately as it opens with the unveiling of Mahendra's latest film offering to an eager Indo-British audience at the Liberty Cinema in Wembley. Mahendra is quickly established as an innate charmer who carries on his affairs in front of the long-suffering Kalpana. Early on, Mahendra, while shooting a new film in England with co-star Saeed Jaffrey (as himself in a special appearance), completely hijacks the whole scene in front of the experienced actor.

Meanwhile, Kalpana sits alone in the hotel room, only to be trotted out by him as the wife at parties which she clearly despises. As Mahendra goes to Switzerland for more shoots, she signs up for drawing classes at the local university in London. There, she meets Vimal, played by newcomer Pradeep Varma, an artist with whom she bonds over art and poetry. He sketches portraits and lives in typical artiste's apartment.

The more time they spend, the closer they get. They go from friends to lovers. All this while, Kalpana knows that Mahendra is sleeping with other women. When he returns, she begins to see the differences between the two men. Vimal gives her everything Mahendra doesn't. Despite this, she believes she has to return back to Mahendra.

But in a sudden moment of truth, Kalpana starts asking hard questions of herself. Has Mahendra been a good husband? She's educated and able, why can't she make it on her own? Could she live a fake lifestyle with Mahendra after experiencing the real thing with Vimal? She gives Mahendra her final answer and walks out into the world, where Vimal is waiting.

Ek Baar Phir was a passion project for writer-producer-director Vinod Pande. A resident of London himself, Pande was a former advertising executive who also had had a side career as a newsreader in the BBC. He has a cameo in the film as a BBC interviewer who questions Mahendra on why Hindi films aren't more viable abroad. Making of the film was difficult, Pande got through it with the support of his extensive contacts and well-wishers in India and England.

The film was also fairly successful at the time, with a strong subject, daring to show a woman walking out on her marriage. It helped that Pande wasn't a traditional Hindi film director. In the beginning, Ek Baar Phir presents Kalpana dressed up in a sari, the traditional image of a supportive wife she has to display to the world. But in a few unguarded moments, she is shown young and carefree, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt or a salwar kameez, a definite contrast to unhappiness she experiences in her marriage.

Ek Baar Phir even pokes fun at the way Indians are represented abroad when Oberoi as Mahendra asks his director why he's singing awkward songs in English. There's a nice bit about the logic of the hero singing in Hindi while the Swiss misses answer back in English. The director chalks it up to artistic license. The soundtrack composed by Raghunath Seth had favourable songs sung by Bhupendra, Anuradha Paudwal, Suresh Wadkar and Kittu picturised in the green English countryside and in several urban spots of London especially along the Thames.

Ek Baar Phir wasn't the first time that a married woman was depicted giving up on a heartless marriage and finding love, but it set the stage for later films like Ek Hi Bhool (1981), Arth (1982) and Aakhir Kyon (1985) with standout roles for Rekha, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil.