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Interview Hindi

20 years of Zubeidaa: Why Shyam Benegal cast Karisma Kapoor without having seen any of her films

Benegal looks back at the making of Zubeidaa and the unconventional casting for an unconventional love story that had no villains.

Keyur Seta

Filmmaker Shyam Benegal's name is synonymous with what was called 'parallel' cinema, films about social issues, though he has also made films exploring love stories, like Junoon (1978) and Zubeidaa (2001).

Zubeidaa completed Benegal's Muslim women-centric trilogy after Mammo (1994) and Sardari Begum (1996). Written by Khalid Mohamed, the 2001 movie was inspired by the life of the well-known critic's mother Zubeida Begum and starred Karisma Kapoor, Manoj Bajpayee, Rajit Kapur and Rekha.

The film explored the quest of a young man Riyaz (Kapur) to learn more about his mother since he had grown up in the care of his grandmother.

Zubeidaa becomes the second wife of Maharaja Vijayendra Singh (Bajpayee) after she falls in love with him. The maharaja's first wife is played by Rekha.

Zubeidaa is a free bird who only yearns for love, but that isn't to be. She dies a mysterious death with Vijayendra Singh when their helicopter blows up.

With the film completing 20 years of release today, filmmaker Shyam Benegal looks back at its making in a conversation with Cinestaan.com. Excerpts:

Karisma Kapoor and Manoj Bajpayee

What impressed you the most in Khalid Mohamed’s script?

I thought it’s a wonderful story and it has no villains. Also, one very important thing was that they are all people who are caught up in problems that they really have very little control over. They are equally victims. That is what appealed to me at that time. The world isn’t a villain either.

The fact is that you are caught up in certain circumstances. What drives you actually are your own feelings for another human being. The way they are caught up like that, I found it very interesting. In situations like these, you cannot blame the world as it were. When you can’t do that, it’s a tragedy. If you can blame somebody else, there is a villain to be blamed for anything that has happened to you.

Khalid wrote it with so much feeling because it was his own story. It was a very deeply felt story. I was wanting that to come through. To some extent it did, I think. There were other things we enjoyed doing. The music by AR Rahman was a very fine piece.

DoP Rajen Kothari with Manoj Bajpayee, Karisma Kapoor and the rest of the crew

What was your biggest challenge while making the film?

To get the atmosphere and the period right. To get some of the psychology of the people right. It was a time when India had become independent. The princely states were being absorbed into the nation. They were losing their power. They didn’t have the kind of power they had during British rule. They could see that their days were numbered as the ruling community. So there were those aspects that are slightly under the surface. Those qualities and things I was very keen to look at. There is a profound sense of loss.

In an interview during the release of the film, you had said you hadn’t seen a single film of Karisma Kapoor before signing her. What convinced you then that she was the best fit for the titular role?

Somehow I saw her in that role. In my mind’s eye I saw her in that role. I felt that she would be right for it because she had the right amount of daring on one side as well as vulnerability on the other. Both the qualities were there, which you can see by looking at her. She will dare but she is also extremely vulnerable. She can be hurt easily. 

Karisma Kapoor

Before Zubeidaa, Manoj Bajpayee had never played such a rich character.

The important thing was that this was the first time he played a person of a different class. His work till that time was mostly related to people from the working class. He had become quite well known for that. But here he was playing someone with a princely background. He, in fact, was a bit doubtful whether he should accept this. He wasn’t 100% sure, but he gave such an outstanding performance, very restrained and cultured.

How was it directing Karisma Kapoor and Manoj Bajpayee for the first time?

It was my first film with her, but she had been acting for a long time before that. She comes from an acting family. She started as a heroine when she was barely in her teens. She was a bit nervous because it was a different style of film that I was making. But she was like fish and water. It was no problem at all with her.

Shyam Benegal getting Manoj Bajpayee ready for a shot

Bajpayee is a trained and wonderful actor. First of all, he is a well-educated, literate human being. He came with a lot of experience. He had an acting background. So there was no problem. Those were assets that he came with. It was actually a pleasure working with him. I think in terms of casting, it was perfect.

The film has Rekha, who is much older to Bajpayee, in an important role as his character's wife.

In the real story also his first wife was older to him. In princely families, marriages are fixed when the princes and princesses are children. So, often what happened was that they say that if you have an offspring and if I have an offspring and one is a boy and the other is a girl, we will marry them off and our relationship will be strengthened. 


Those kind of things used to happen. So, frequently, you had a wife and husband of the same age or sometimes the wife would even be slightly older. Now it doesn’t happen unless they fall in love with each other.

How do you feel when people still like Zubeidaa and talk about it?

Whichever film I make, after I have made it, I don’t think about it. I get on with my next one. I can’t keep thinking about a thing I have already done. It’s done, it’s done. It’s a closed chapter as far as I am concerned. If I carry on with it, it will affect my next work. When I am doing something new, I don’t want to repeat myself in any which way. 

I will see it from time to time when the occasion arises. But then I have the advantage of seeing it like it’s someone else’s work. When I keep a distance from it, I can also be critical of it.