A true princess at heart
There’s nothing very small children enjoy as much as pretending to be their parents. It’s almost a toddler rite of passage, much as the teenage and twenties’ rite of passage is to be as different from the parents as possible.
New York-based actress Jyoti Singh, however, has taken this parent hero worship one step further: she’s played her own grandmother, Princess Yadhuvansh Kumari, the daughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, in a movie called Yadvi – The Dignified Princess, which so far has collected 22 awards (Best Emerging Female Director (Jyoti Singh) at Dada Saheb Phalake Film Festival (2017), Best Cinematography (Jigme Tenzing), at The People’s Film Festival, New York (2017), Best Director (Jyoti Singh) at 4th Indian Cine Film Festival, 2016 to name a few. ) Released a few months ago in India, it is currently being showcased at Manhattan, New York.
Much has been written about the lavish Maharaja of Patiala (played in this film by Chandrachur Singh). He was the first person in India to own an airplane, and he also donated the Ranji Trophy. Set in the 1940s, Yadvi – The Dignified Princess is a true account of the wealthy royal who, like all of India’s other royalty, lost her privileges in 1971 when India stopped the privy purse, yet used her integrity, grit and courage to raise three daughters on her own – a fact that the writer and director of the film can both testify to, considering that they are Princess Yadhuvansh’s granddaughters.
Woman on top
While Gauri Singh wrote the script, her sister Jyoti Singh not only played Princess Yadvi, but also debuted as a director with the film. Having spent the first 13 years of her life with her maternal grandmother, Princess Yadvi, and parents in Dehradun, Jyoti moved to the US with her parents, an engineer in the Indian armed forces and the Princess of Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, and chose to be an actress after completing her education, acting in movies such as Samosa, 9 Eleven and On Golden Years.
Jyoti’s intense familiarity with her grandmother made it easy to play the princess. “I was totally impressed by her grace, her attitude towards life and the fact that she was not only highly educated, but also had the courage to raise three daughters on her own after her husband deserted her for another woman,” says the admiring granddaughter. “She was a woman of values. She taught us never to be late and to respect elders. She always said, money does not define wealth, how you walk, how you talk, defines wealth. She was spiritual and educated. She read books, listened to the BBC, travelled and talked about what was happening in the world.”
Jyoti’s sister, Gauri Singh, had been writing her grandmother’s story for the last few years. They asked a friend to work on the screenplay but when she was unable to finish it, Gauri wrote it herself. “Once I saw the screenplay, I thought to myself that if a film is made, I want to act in it for sure,” says Jyoti. “In the meanwhile, my husband gave me money to invest, but there was no plan of directing the film then. We went to India to shoot, carrying our grandmother’s saris, and some of her jewellery. We wanted to shoot at the Patiala palace, but that did not happen. Then we decided to shoot in Maihar, but in the end we chose to be close to Mumbai because it was easier.”
The focus of the film is less on Yadvi’s royal background than on her personality. “Princess Yadhuvansh Kumari was the daughter of Maharani Vimala Kaur Sahiba of Patiala, one of his five wives,” says Jyoti. “After the Maharaja’s passing, no one actually recorded or kept track of things. No one noticed what happened to these families and how and where they are today. Having lived with her, our goal was to just focus on her life and show how she managed to survive with dignity against all odds.”
Jyoti’s grandmother appears to have been formidable. “She was unlike anyone else,” says Jyoti nostalgically. “She had her soft side and her kayadas (norms). She was strict about timing. She also believed in the reward system. She made us do household chores, and then we got ₹10 or ₹20 to go to Dwarka store in Dehradun to buy whatever we wanted. She even educated the servants. She was much ahead of her time. She was okay with us wearing shorts even in those days, and talked and joked about boyfriends with us. She was an elegant woman who lived her life with principles and maintained the full respect and legacy of her family.”
The decision to make the film wasn’t easy. The whole family needed to be informed, and permissions had to be taken. “They were not happy, but they supported us,” says Jyoti. “However, my grandmother, for once, would have not been okay with this. She always maintained her father’s name and did not want people to see what became of her. Our family had reservations about what we would show, and we tried to make things as comfortable as possible. Finally, my mom’s sister saw it, and she gave us a write up about what happened during those times, which we added at the end of the movie. We told our family that in a movie, not everything can be perfect. And thankfully till now things have been fine.”
Who’s the boss?
Jyoti had never intended to direct the film, but the lack of a viable option led her to take the plunge. It was tough enough learning to direct on the job, but she also had to learn how to lead a team, something she’d never done before.
“Gender bias was the number one adversity,” says Jyoti. “What made my job uniquely hard was the outright reluctance of several men to listen to or abide by my rules and expectations. I had never worked in India, so I was caught off-guard when this problem manifested. But thanks to my editor Vick Krishna in America, who guided me every night via chat, I somehow learned the beginnings of how to direct. I also have significant respect for our cinematographer, Jigme Tenzing, who kept calm through daily difficulties – actually exhibiting the qualities of Yadvi. He especially took charge when I was involved in acting; my sister Gauri served as his assistant. Another actor friend Vibhu Ragave essentially became my counsellor and advisor. And by the grace of god, we finished 90 per cent of our film in a month, with four days off.”
If the film has a message for the audience, it’s this: never give up hope. That comes through in both Yadvi’s story and in the story of how Jyoti and Gauri made the film against the odds. “Life is a struggle, yet facing challenges is what makes us the individuals we are,” says Jyoti.
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From HT Brunch, June 3, 2018
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