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Kamini Kaushal is still 'All There'! – Mother's Day special

Age may have slowed the actress down, but giving up one's passion is never easy. After all, there is more to life than just playing safe.

Rahul Sood

My 91-year-old mother Kamini Kaushal has been working in the Indian film industry since 1946. Earlier, if you count her radio stint in Lahore starting as a 9-year-old! Over 80 years and counting, culminating in her earning the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement award in 2015.

She acted as Shah Rukh Khan’s grandmother in the blockbuster Chennai Express (2013) a few years ago. One key scene she did with Khan took her 20+ takes to get right! And this for a lady who prided herself on generally getting it right the first time. It was just too embarrassing for her. As a result, she decided to refuse all subsequent acting offers. What with increasing forgetfulness, low stamina, and a growing anxiety condition, we in her family were relieved she had finally seen the writing on the wall.

But, sitting at home, day after day, taking care of herself, and taking care of her bedridden niece Anu, down with a severe case of multiple sclerosis and sharing Mom’s lovely Malabar Hill penthouse flat for umpteen years, was proving just too confining. She needed to step out, take on another creative outlet.

So Mom did a rethink and changed her tune: she accepted an acting role in a new TV serial. Against all advice. Drove through Mumbai’s interminable traffic to the shoot in the suburbs. To get another rude shock: the pace at which the production team expected her to perform and deliver was just too rapid! She had to opt out of the production, something she had never done before. She decided yet again: “No more acting stints in front of the camera.”

With her growing inability to learn her lines easily and the increasing effort she had to put in to get up in the morning, get ready for a shoot, and do justice to a scene, she was beginning to realize that her work may end up being only ‘second best’. That doing her very best may not be possible any more.

Photo: Rahul Sood

Then, in 2015, she got a call from Dungarpur Films. “Please act in an ad film. For HUL’s Surf Excel. You are just right for the role…” She knew the Dungarpur Films folks from a previous ad film assignment. She was assured the shoot would not stress her. A car would be sent to take her to the location. And the price was very right! So, you guessed it: She succumbed and accepted! And where did they decide to shoot the film? Panchgani! Requiring an interminable drive and overnight stay. You can imagine her state when she limped home after the shoot…

Her new mantra? Only consider assignments that are ‘manageable’…!

Cut to 2015: she gets yet another call. This from one Shrimanta (Shree) Sen Gupta, an experienced director from Kolkata, attached to Mumbai-based Dreams Vault Media, producers of short films, non-fiction content, and reality films. With a slew of successful TV shows, including Indian Idol, Dance India Dance, and Emotional Atyachar, under their belt. “I would like to meet you,” Shree said. “I have written this short film script. It is for Friendship Day. Please hear it. You will surely love it. I had you and only you in mind when I scripted it.” It’s a winning line.

So Shree came over. Narrated his story idea. To be distributed mainly via YouTube. To serve mainly as a showpiece for Shree’s directorial skills and for Dreams Vault Media.

Photo: Rahul Sood

A simple but charmingly poignant story of an elderly Catholic landlady named Mrs Braganza who has a typically callous and reckless young bachelor Rohan Khurana tenanting her next-door flat. Getting the boy to pay his monthly rent, and on time, is a constant battle. The landlady and the boy do not share a good equation! This time the landlady is unbending; she wants the rent due, and she wants it on time. No excuses, no extensions.

Why? Turns out the landlady had been saving up for months to buy herself a new smartphone so that she could surprise her London-based granddaughter on her birthday with a 3G video call!

So Rohan pays the rent. And Mrs Braganza buys her new smartphone. But, to her dismay, she discovers she does not know how to operate it! And has no one to ask for help either, being somewhat friendless.

Guess who comes to her rescue? The same tenant, Rohan! And, of course, she gets to speak to her granddaughter. The landlady is much obliged and appreciative. Their relationship shifts from acrimony to appreciation. From bashing to bonding. A rare example of how the gap between the generations can be bridged, how friendships can form even between those with dissimilar backgrounds and ages.

Just a one-day shoot? In Mumbai, not Panchgani? And you will send a car? Yes, yes and yes. You guessed right, Kaminiji got seduced, yet again! And signed on to play the landlady for Shree.

I asked Mom, “Why did you agree to do the film? The fee they are offering you is so low. You know you have to run every second week to your GP, Dr Rajiv Shah, for a vitamin booster shot. You know you can barely remember what happened an hour ago. You know you are likely to develop such an anxiety condition that you will not be able to sleep the night before your shoot!”

“You are right,” she replied. “But there is more to life than a safe haven. I realized you can go for a swim, watch TV, gab away with a friend, but only for so long. Then you tell yourself, ‘Maybe I should do something more serious.’ That was one reason for doing the film.

Photo: Rahul Sood

"Then it’s like testing yourself; are you still able to convey what you want to convey? I thought, why not just challenge yourself and see if you can still do it!

"The film’s theme was so positive, how could I not accept?  When Shree told me it was just a one-day shoot, which, even in my condition I thought was manageable, I decided to do it. I told myself, ‘Treat it like a picnic! Go have fun. Enjoy yourself.’ And as for performing, just let it come from the heart and it will carry itself.”

So what happens the night before the shoot? I get a call from Mom. “I really don’t know why I am doing this! I must be really stupid. Can you please cancel it?” Cold feet. Anxiety. A drop in confidence. Just as we had predicted. It took me a long, long time to patiently and gently make Mom realize that it is unprofessional to cancel at the last minute. The location has been rented. The production team is in place. Lights have been booked. Catering, actors, props. Even the Changing Room van. And, in the process, I tried to calm her down. Thank god she finally relented.

Luckily the shoot was on a Sunday. I accompanied Mom as we drove from Malabar Hill to the quaint cottage producer Pratish Khakhkhar had picked for the shoot on Madh Island. With little traffic on the road the journey took a mere 60 minutes. Mom read the full script for the first time on the ride. And realized it was a lot longer than she had bargained for. More scenes, more dialogues, more time.

As we drove Mom reminisced about how things used to be in her early years, when she would take a train from Dockyard Road station on the Harbour Line to the suburbs to work at Filmistan, Bombay Talkies and other studios! And to realize how much things had changed.

Shree had come prepared. To complete the shoot within the allotted 9-to-9 shift. I also think he knew he had to shoot efficiently today so that Kaminiji’s workday was as short as possible.

Photo: Rahul Sood

While Mom put on her makeup, Shree was busy taking shots of the other main actor, young Gaurav Paswala. By 11:30 am Mom had done her makeup and their joint shots were taken. Takes took place in rapid order. Set and light changes were done quickly. All was going well.

During the lunch break Pratish had arranged for some journalists to interview Kaminiji. We all know how important publicity is in this game. But no one anticipated what result this set of interviews would have on her. When I spoke to Mom later she lamented, “I wanted to be left in peace after the morning shoot. To get some rest. Stay calm. Regroup. These journalists took that away from me, and asked all these irrelevant questions. I am so upset. They left me exhausted!”

Kaminiji was just not the same person when she returned to the set. Tiredness had set it. She was having difficulty focusing. In her words, “When I returned to the shoot it took me a while to get back to the level I was at previously. To reach a point where I thought I could coordinate my thinking, my dialogue, my expression and my mood, as the scene required. To bring me back to that pitch took me a while. Yes, I felt embarrassed. But I told them, ‘Just keep quiet. Nobody talk. Let me get my thoughts together’.”

Photo: Rahul Sood

Kaminiji limped along. Shree realized her stamina was fading. But there were many scenes yet to be shot. Kaminiji was facing a dilemma: “For me to perform I have to be All There! All extraneous thoughts have to be removed. What you keep is your pure thought and situation. Incorporate these into your system and you can perform. You become that person. But, as I get older, I am realizing this takes longer than usual. I find coordinating all my thoughts one after the other a little difficult. I need time. But, in this case, you cannot. You can take your pauses, you can take our timing, calculate it. But it must come! So, basically, you have to know your thought and you have to know your dialogue well. And then incorporate it in such a way that it looks ‘natural’. You and your mood must be in the same frame of mind as you are required to be for that particular scene."

It all came to a head at around 7 pm. When Kaminiji had to shoot the 'all-important scene'. The one that Shree felt Kaminiji and only Kaminiji could do justice to. The one that Shree had gone to Kaminiji to request she please act in his film. One that required her to change her mood and expression from line to line.

The script required Mrs Braganza to say, ”Today is my granddaughter’s birthday... my daughter’s daughter. Woh log London mein rahta hai... mai socha tha, Elina ko surprise doongi. She wanted to do video chat with me. Two months back I took their email id from my son-in-law. It’s written in the diary. Two months se I’m saving money to buy a new mobile. Today I had to... teen saal hua nahi dekha usko.”

From reminiscing to beseeching to cherishing. Poignant. Loaded with pathos. Requiring all the skills an artiste can summon. In her heyday, Kaminiji would have done this scene in a second. Without even a rehearsal. Today, at her age, it was a near-insurmountable struggle. Especially in her tired condition.

After getting briefed by her director, she tried to memorize her lines. Five minutes went by. She seemed still to be working on learning the lines. Then another five minutes. Her eyes were going blank. Seeing her predicament, Shree suggested they shoot the three lines in three separate takes. But Mom would have none of that! As she told me later, “If I was to have delivered the lines with breaks it would have lacked the flow and the impact would just not have been there...".

Everyone on the set waited patiently. Shree, more than anyone. This was his prize scene! It had to be done right for the film to work. But I could sense that some of the crew were getting a little impatient. Hoping that things would move forward.

Watching my mother go catatonic, even I could take it no more. Taking the director’s permission, I pleaded, “Please get practical, Mom. Break down the dialogue and do it in three separate but manageable takes. Please! You have been staring at the script for nearly 20 minutes! It is getting apparent you are very, very exhausted. You seem to have ‘hit the wall’! Everyone is waiting for you...”.

She heard me out, but she would have none of it. Sorry, no compromises. If this key dialogue had to be delivered, she felt it had to be done in one continuous take as the director had desired, so as to capture the needed flow and get the needed effect.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, her energy level suddenly seemed to go up. Like someone had given her a dose of vitamins! She gave the director the all-important ‘go-ahead’, with a “Let’s try it!” The crew came out of their stupor, and their quiet ‘hurrahs’ were almost palpable!

Photo: Rahul Sood

"Quiet on the set!" ... "Roll sound!" ... "Roll camera" … "And ... take!” Following a lead-in line from Rohan, Mom threw herself into her scene. Amazingly, she remembered her lines. She emoted like she is known to. Her pauses were just right. Her eyes moved the viewer. And the impact of her performance was beyond what anyone could possibly have expected! Even I had tears in my eyes... Her first take was perfect!

Shree leapt up from his camera position with joy all over his face. Complimenting Kaminiji for her amazing performance.

Simultaneously, and this was the moment to remember, each and every member of the cast and crew burst into spontaneous applause. Each actor. Each lightman. Each assistant. Each hairstylist and makeup man. Applause that lasted nearly a minute! It was truly heartrending.

And for Kaminiji, trying her best to act effectively at 89, it sounded like the sweetest music to her ears. An affirmation like none other could have been.

“So, I got an accolade! Hurrah! It was very sweet of them to say I did a good job. They were very patient and very quiet. And did not make me feel bad that it took me so long to be able to deliver all the lines in the dialogue together, as required.”

I saw the completed film. Shree had showcased his directorial talent very well: the images and scenes had a special texture to them, created mainly through the use of light and shadow. He had made his actors perform in a particularly understated manner. And he had used a pace that was a lot slower than what we are typically used to today. And what a lovely tagline: This Friendship Day, spend time with ‘that’ friend who has only one friend, you!

Well done, Shree! And thank you for letting Kaminiji know she is ‘still there’!