For me, he will always be Mr India, and now some more. After essentially sticking to hyper-formula films, Anil Kapoor has demonstrated that he's no longer a stranger to cinema of sense and sensibility. Evidently, he's as much at ease as an actor in a ribald comedy like No Entry as he is in shepherding his cast and crew members to Johannesburg. Incidentally, he is brand ambassador for South Africa.
Spry as ever, and retaining a boyish enthusiasm, he has produced Gandhi My Father as his first independent venture. The story - the clash between the Mahatma and his son Harilal - has been enacted on the stage – Mahatma versus Gandhi (English) and Gandhi Virudh Gandhi (Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati).
About five years ago, there was talk that Yash and Aditya Chopra were planning a film adapted from the play but only if Ben Kingsley agreed to replay Gandhi. It seems the Chopras could not even get an appointment with Kingsley. <b1>
Be that as it may, the 48-year-old Feroz Khan now Feroz Abbas Khan (because of ceaseless mixups with the Jaanasheen actor), has fulfilled his dream. He had directed the English version of the play, besides portraying the role of Harilal.
For several years, it had been conjectured that he would either direct its film adaptation or an entirely different subject.
Khan would often been seen in the company of film Shabana Azmi (whom he directed in Tumhari Amrita), Anupam Kher (Salgirah), Aamir Khan, and Anil Kapoor. Khan would even speak about adapting a version of the popular Hollywood comedy Goodbye Girl.
Khan emphasizes, "The theme discussed in the film and in the play are the same.. obviously because it's about the strained relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and Harilal. But the film has drawn more from the Mahatma's life than the play has."
For both Khan and Kapoor, Gandhi my Father is a litmus test - its appeal with the public and the critics will indicate the road ahead for both the producer and the director.
Not surprisingly, then, there is air of expectancy as a sizeable unit assembles at Sahar airport to wing off to Johannesburg for the film's premiere last Sunday.
Darshan Jariwala, who portrays Gandhi, is courtesy personified with the ladies, helping them with check-in formalities and luggage management. He knows where to exchange currency and which counter to get the best rate. Only, he can't rip open some baggage tags left over from earlier flights.
"I'm a non-violent person," he grins, "So, no long nails."
An hour in the lounge elapses. Bhumika Chawla, who plays Harilal's wife, and her director dissect the promos of Chak de India and Ram Gopal Varma Ke Aag. Both are very polite. From Mumbai to Nairobi, a change of plane, and then Jo'burg is in sight.
I'm shepherded into a car with Akshaye Khanna urf Harilal. The hotel is half-an-hour away; the first ten minutes whiz by in stony silence. As every reader of film-related media stories should know, he can be majorly reserved.
A George Michael song on the car radio, actually makes him converse with me about pop music. The guy's actually quite warm, maybe he's just shy which is mistaken for aloofness.
At the Hotel Palazzo lobby, instructions have been left to return right there from the room in five minutes to travel to Montecasino, a slick mall, for a press conference.
The PC is hosted by a Mr Moosa, who I learn later belongs to the third generation of the family of barristers which had first employed MK Gandhi in South Africa.
The conference is lively, the questions to the point..and what do you know?..there isn't one query on anyone's private life.
Next morning, Shefali Shah who portrays Kasturba, Bhumika, and Feroz's wife Sonia Khan and son Maahir, are back at the Montecasino, this time to shop.
The place is quite reminiscent of Harry Potter's Diagon Alley: a faux ceiling makes it look like nighttime always. Street lamps light up every shop corner.
Shah attempts to buy toy thingies for her kids but is horrorstruck on coming across "a cigarette smoking baby doll." The "grow your own boyfriend/girlfriend" kit is more fun.
Come 4 pm, the women are cool in silks, director saab is a bit nervous though. And hello, we're back in the Montecasino, which has a multiplex cinema. <b3>
President Thabo Mbeki arrives. He crouches on the carpet to sign an autograph for Maahir.
Inside the auditorium, national anthems of South Africa and India are played. Anil Kapoor, then, introduces his unit. A recorded message by Nelson Mandela is relayed, wishing the film his best.
The unit takes off to the other screens in the ‘plex. Akshaye warns me to stay put, "What's the point of coming all the way here if you don't actually see the film?" he asks. I stay back. And I love it.
President Mbeki reappears when the lights come one and dispenses with his speech papers. "It's a very good speech," he laughs,"I'll put it on the government website.. you can read it there."
He talks extempore about how emotions are universal. It's a touching speech, (later I learn the President lost his own son, Kwanda, who was killed while trying to leave South Africa when Mkebi was in exile.) After the premiere and dinner, we're back at the coffee shop at the Palazzo. Akshaye actually smiles when he sees me. "You tell us, what you think," he insists. I don't want to flatter him in public, so I look into my wine glass seriously.
Next stop.. home
At the airport, the unit is sought out by autograph hunters. Indian popular cinema has a fast-expanding market there.. and of course, in recent years, many blockbusters have been shot there.
Anil Kapoor, managing too many things, is halted at immigration - his stamp of arrival had been put in the wrong passport. Back in Sahar, Mr India has to run back from immigration to the aircraft.. because he's left his passport on his seat. And his heart in his movie.