Girija Shankar on playing Dhritrashtra in Mahabharat at age of 28: ‘I trained myself to look straight, was asked to try lenses’
Girija Shankar, who played the role of a visually challenged Dhritrashtra in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, is now settled in Los Angeles and visits India to shoot for Punjabi films.
Girija Shankar is better known as Dhritrashtra from the hit BR Chopra show, Mahabharat. However, not many know that the actor was just 28 when he played the visually challenged father of the Kaurvas and sported a white beard. Girija says that while he was apprehensive about playing an old man on screen at such a young age, he understood the importance of the character after he read about it.
The actor is now in his 60s and settled in Los Angeles but travels to India for work, which mainly comprises Punjabi films. In a video interview from Los Angeles, Girija told Hindustan Times about how he went on to play the character of Dhritrashtra and much more. Excerpts:
Watch: Girija Shankar opens up on playing Dhritrashtra in Mahabharat
What were the challenges of playing Dhritrashtra?
The challenges were many, probably more than any other character. This was the only character who had a conflict within him throughout, till the last frame of Mahabharat. The reason he had so many challenges was because he was blind and he was denied the throne which was rightfully his. He was always in a dilemma about what he should and shouldn’t do.
Were you not apprehensive of playing an old man at the age of 28?
I was definitely apprehensive when this role was offered to me because people knew very little about the importance of Dhritrashtra in Mahabharat. One day, everybody was sitting around a big table in the office and I told them ‘why don’t you give it to me.’ They said, ‘we only want you to play this role because this has something more than any other character’ and I trusted them. They said, ‘don’t worry, take this book’, on which the show was based. I started reading and after 4-5 days, I realized this is actually ‘the major character’ because Mahabharat begins with him and ends with him, everybody else comes later.
The conflict begins with Dhritrashtra in episode 6 when he is introduced, and is denied the throne in the next episode. The conflict continued even after the war. He tried to kill Bheem as he was still very, very angry. If Krishna hadn’t mediated, he would have killed Bheem.
Did you face any difficulty shooting for the show?
The only thing I was a little concerned about was that I had to maintain the same look and the same posture for more than two years. I used to get very tired because I had to train my eyes to look straight and sometimes used to take a little break in between shots.
How were you selected for the role?
Before Mahabharat, I had acted in one of Chopras’ movies, Aaj Ki Awaz, starring Raj Babbar and Smita Patil. Before that, I was doing theater and Chopra saab (show creator BR Chopra) and his family used to come and watch our plays at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai. He appreciated one of my plays and remembered me as my character. So when he was making Aaj Ki Aawaz, he specially called for me to play a small but good role. He also gave me a good role in Bahadur Shah Zafar, which he made before Mahabharat.
Share your favourite memory from the show.
For some of the scenes, Ravi Chopra used to ask me ‘Girija, tell me how you want to do the scene? How you will you move and act the whole scene, so as you move, I will set the shot accordingly’. That’s a great honour for any actor.
We had shot first six episodes two years before the show was actually telecasted. When they envisioned the look of Dhritrashtra, they suggested that I should wear lenses to look blind. I was in two minds because it was a long process so I told them ‘let me do it naturally’. Fortunately, after the first shot, Ravi came and hugged me and said, ‘you are perfectly alright, I am very happy, nothing else to do’.
Tell us more about your other projects.
I was doing a lot of other work before and after Mahabharat. Fortunately, the image didn’t stick with me. I did Buniyaad before Mahabharat and Uttaran is one of my other Hindi work. I mostly work in Punjabi movies so I go to India, shoot and come back. Work keeps me travelling from Los Angeles to Mumbai to Punjab.
What keeps you busy during lockdown?
I am writing my scripts, which I plan to shoot in future. I have my production house in LA and we are starting a few productions. One was about to go on the floors before the coronavirus pandemic and we hope to resume once it’s all over. I produced and directed a film Banana Brothers in Los Angeles 17-18 years ago.
The kind of work I want to do, I find it more comfortable here as we can express and work the way we want. There are some restrictions at home, sometimes we do something and we get stuck in controversies regarding what to show, what not to show. Here it is more liberal and you can do whatever you want.
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