Puneet Issar on playing Duryodhan in Mahabharat: ‘My body turned black and blue after climax fight scene with Bheem’
Puneet Issar, known for playing the lead antagonist Duryodhan in BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, is one of the very few actors who actually got to play his dream role in the hit mythological show. While many had to settle like the show’s Krishna, Nitsh Bhardwaj, who actually wanted to play Abhimanyu, Puneet got the role he wanted. However, the 6 feet 3 inches tall Puneet was cast as Duryodhan on one condition -- the makers should be able to find an actor taller than him to play Bheem. They found their ideal Bheem in athlete Praveen Kumar, who left Puneet bruised and battered in the climax fight scene.
In an interview with Hindustan Times, Puneet opened up about his journey from the Coolie accident where his punch left Amitabh Bachchan battling for his life to being beaten up by two-time gold medallist Praveen Kumar on the sets of Mahabharat.
Why the makers were intent to cast you in the role of Bheem?
I was 6’3’’, super fit guy with a well-built body and Chopra saab thought I was perfect for the role of Bheem. Since I had read Mahabharat, I wanted to play Duryodhan. He agreed to cast me as Duryodhan but on a condition that if they are unable to find a man with a bigger body than mine for the role of Bheem, I will have to take up the role. I recommended Praveen Kumar, the Asian Games gold medallist who was 6’8’,’ and finally breathed easy when he was finalised for the role of Bheem. I had recited the Jayadrath Vadh in front of Chopra saab and they were convinced with my powerful speech.
Mukesh Khanna was also considered for the role of Duryodhan but he didn’t want to play an antagonist. He wanted to play Arjun and but was signed for the role of Dronacharya. Vijayendra Ghatge was cast as Bhishma but he wasn’t ready to sport a white beard and had to be dropped. Then, Mukesh was finalised for Bhishma.
Why did you want to play the antagonist in Mahabharat?
There was a proper character arc of Duryoydhan. He was shown as an innocent child who thought his parents were wronged and should get justice. He thought that his parents didn’t get what they deserved so it’s his duty to get them what they deserved. He said ‘my father was blind but I am not blind’. As an adult, he started taking his own decisions, which were often under the influence of Shakuni. From the day he was insulted by Draupadi to the end (40th episode to 100th episode), the character of Duryodhan was the highlight of the Mahabharat.
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Did you face the rage of the audience for playing Duryodhan?
I was called ‘dusht (evil)’, people hated me but I took it as a compliment. There were many cases off sets when people refused to call me saying that I was ‘dusht’.
What difficulties did you face during the making of Mahabharat?
We faced a lot of difficulties. Assembling real elephants and horses and making them stand in a line was a task. Nowadays, a big army is portrayed by shooting in front of a green backdrop. We shot with 50-60 elephants and running with them in chariots was a challenge. A single shot used to take a lot of time. The climax scene alone was shot over 15-25 days. We had to do real action. Earlier there was no cable work and we had to jump by ourselves without any stunt double. Injuries were common and I remember many injured their eyes amid flying arrows.
Do you recall a particular fight scene?
My fight with Praveen Kumar was a tough experience. He wasn’t an actor, he was a two-time gold medallist discus thrower at the Asian Games. Duryodhan had a blessing that he couldn’t get hurt and when I used to recite the dialogue “aur balpurvak (with more strength)”, Praveen would beat me up with even more strength. Also, the mace in those days used to be very heavy, unlike the foam mace used at present. My entire body used to turn black and blue after the shot. The fight in the climax scene was shot over 18 days. I had bruises all over my body. But as they says ‘you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg’.
How was the ‘cheer-haran (disrobing of Draupadi)’ scene filmed?
BR Chopra had contacted a mill to provide hundreds of metres of cloth with no visible joints or change in shade or texture. Now it is all done through VFX.
How do you compare BR Chopra’s Mahabharat to the latest mythological shows?
Content is king. If it is not written well and the performances are not up to the mark, you cannot do anything. I agree VFX is much better these days and the way a scene is mounted is done in a much better way than it was done in the 80s. The Mahabharat on Star Plus had very good CGI work. But BR Chopra’s Mahabharat was written very well. We had air-conditioned studios where we used to shoot from 9 to 9. We used to shoot one episode in a week and that quality is visible. Until BR Chopra wasn’t entirely convinced with each dialogue, he wouldn’t move ahead. We used to have long shots and that made performances stand out in a natural way.
Post the Coolie incident, you were not getting much work? How did you get Mahabharat?
I was getting some work but it wasn’t up to my expectations. I delivered a few superhit films in the meantime. My 1983 horror film Purana Mandir was an iconic film. It had its platinum jubilee at the theatres. I also did Palay Khan and Zakhmi Aurat and both were hits at the box office. When I heard BR Chopra was making Mahabharat, I approached him and said that I wanted to audition for the role of Duryodhan.
That was my destiny. Those four years was a period of introspection, I had to work harder. Bhagya se adhik aur samay se pahle kisi ko kujh nahi milta (no one gets more than his destiny and before the right time). I was destined to get Mahabharat in 1988. Before that, it was my struggling period but I utilised the time to work on my body, my voice and my acting.
How much time did it take to complete the casting for the show?
We were signed in 1986 and the casting process continued for two years. When I was initially selected for the role of Duryodhan, I started reading about him in scriptures. I had six-pack abs but had to stop kung fu karate to gain weight for the character of Duryodhan. I gained 22 kilograms over 2 years and reached 108 kgs in order to match up to Praveen Kumar. So much preparation and planning makes it look irreplaceable even today and made all the difference.
(Author tweets @ruchik87)
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