Lead actors of Azhar Emraan Hashmi and Prachi Desai talk about their semi-biopic on one of the most celebrated and controversial figures in Indian cricket, Mohammad Azharuddin.
Box Office India (BOI): It’s good to see the Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai team coming together again, from Ekta Kapoor to Rajat Arora, Emraan Hashmi and Prachi Desai.
Emraan Hashmi (EH): Yes, it’s been six years. I was very happy that she (Prachi Desai) agreed to do the film. Rajat was obviously there from the very beginning. He started with the idea, Ekta too, so the whole team was getting back together. I was on board from the beginning. In fact, I was sold on the idea during the very first phone call, where Ekta said they wanted me to play Azhar. I didn’t get the script then but I knew Rajat was writing it and so it would be exclusive.
But Azhar bhai (Mohammad Azharuddin) said ‘no’ in the beginning as he didn’t want a film to be made based on his life. I think the main reason was he had just finished with a court case in 2012 and didn’t want to relive it, on screen, and revive it in people’s minds. But, then, Rajat wrote the script and we made him listen to it. I think it was the third or fourth draft that he loved, we all loved it. Then everything else fell into place and the rest, as they say, is history.
BOI: So it began before Azharuddin came on board?
EH: Yes, it was basically in its initial stages and then they presented it to him. But I think before the presentation, when they approached him saying ‘film banana hai’, he had a preconceived notion about the story. That’s why he was apprehensive. Of course, when the story was fleshed out, and when he had a narration, he really liked what Rajat had written and also how the story had been told. Then he was on board.
BOI: Since he finally approved it, does that mean it is a sugar-coated version of his life?
EH: Well, when you watch the film, you will realise that it is not a sugar-coated version. What is on our side is that he won the court case. There is a certain section of critics, who without paying attention to the court judgment, had alleged that he had taken the money, and those are probably the same voices we have been hearing for 12 years, to this date. We are not trying to sway them and make them say, ‘Oh look, what a great hero Azhar is and look what a great story he has.’ I would divide the story into two parts – one is the inspiration story from his birth right up to finding a place in the team, to becoming the captain of the Indian team. Then there is the controversial portion which has been left to the audience’s perspective.
We are presenting an unbiased, neutral perspective about his life, leaving the audience to be the judge of it. There will be people who will probably criticise the way some things have been portrayed but the fact remains that the details are factual and have been provided not only by Azhar bhai but also stories from the media, his friends and all the relevant people we have spoken to. Yes, it is being told from Azhar bhai’s point of view but he is not portrayed as someone who is speaking from a position of strength; there are vulnerable moments too.
BOI: You said it was an instant ‘yes’ from you, the minute you heard about the subject. What was it about this real-life story that attracted you?
EH: Everything. I have been following him since the ‘80s, ‘90s and right up to 2012. His story has everything, starting from humble beginnings in Hyderabad to a rags-to-riches story. He became part of the Indian cricket team, created a world record in his first three matches, Test centuries and then he became captain. It is a very inspirational journey full of ups and downs, especially when the match-fixing scandal surfaced.
I feel this film shows you a lot of things about cricket. Cricket fans assume they know a lot but they don’t. Stuff that goes on in the locker room, personal relationships, conversations in hotel corridors, fights, humour between players, what happened in the court… it’s all there. That’s what got me to do this film as it has all kinds of emotions and makes for a great cinema experience.
BOI: Prachi, what drew you to the film?
Prachi Desai (PD): This is the first time I am playing a real-life character and that was very interesting for me. What really had me was there was very little known about Naureen. She was never in the limelight, so it’s not about her being a celebrity but just a star wife who was never in the public eye. That was very intriguing because I personally did not know anything about her. We didn’t know anything about her marriage to Azhar for nine years, and I thought that was beautiful.
Their arranged marriage was very endearing. They both lived in Hyderabad then. She was barely 16 and he was only a few years older. They were both were very young and then he went on to become one of the most successful cricket captains in the country. Most people know only details about him on the field, the controversies and his great skills as a cricketer. But I think the human side to him, his family and all of that is very interesting. We always want to know more about the people who we loved while growing up or are an inspiration to us.
BOI: What was it like meeting Naureen? Was she okay with the film being made?
PD: Yes, if she wasn’t, I don’t think you would see Naureen in the film. I think most of the people are there in the film because we got everybody’s consent. Also, the film has approached everything with sensitivity because it is a real story. It may be a dramatised version but there is nothing there that is not true.
There was a time I thought I would never meet her because our director told me that she had been a very private person for most of her life. But we met her in Hyderabad, thanks to Abbas, Naureen and Azhar’s son, who was working with us as he was in the direction department for the Hyderabad schedule. He made the meeting happen. She was very gracious and it was very nice of her to meet us.
Also, I met her in a more personal capacity, not as an actor from the film, which could have thrown her off a little. She had already given her side of the story to our director. From that brief meeting, from our conversation and the things I observed about her, I learnt things that changed the whole character for me. That meeting was very meaningful for me. If not for that meeting, I would have felt as if I was playing a fictional part in the film, as someone who knows nothing about Naureen.
BOI: We recently watched a song from the film, where in one scene, both of you were watching the song 'Oye oye' in a theatre. Is that incident true?
EH: Well, only Rajat, Tony (D’Souza, director) and Azhar bhai are privy to that, so I don’t know if that portion is fictional or true. But I know this much about the film… it tilts towards fiction, there are cinematic liberties and there’s the truth. As I said, there are a lot of things about cricket, about the sport and about his life that people are not awar of. About 80 to 85 per cent of the film is based on facts.
In the treatment of scenes, we have tweaked things to dramatise events, but not over-dramatise. I think we have hit a sweet spot with this film, between The Dirty Picture and Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai, which were slightly over-dramatised versions of what really happened. That is why we are not calling it a 'biopic’ in the true sense. It is a ‘semi-biopic’, where we have included four to five songs and changed a few things in the setting of scenes for cinematic effect.
The accuracy and content have been maintained but it is the treatment and language of the film that have been changed slightly, just to give it that push and keep the audience entertained. In these parts too, there are portions where through his marriage to Naureen, there were cracks in the relationship and it fell apart.
BOI: When you watch a movie like Paan Singh Tomar or Neerja, there is a certain image that comes to mind but with Azhar being such a recent and familiar figure, how daunting was it for you to play him on screen?
EH: That was the biggest challenge because I have known him, I have seen him on the field, off the field, his journey through those 20 years on the field, and how the media captured his life. There are controversial elements, not just the match-fixing, but also his marriage to Sangeeta (Bijlani) was controversy at one point. So I see this film as documenting the essential, important phases of his life including the cricket portion and the eventual falling out.
He is a man who got out on 99, he was one match short of 100 Test matches. Films like Neerja and Airlift are stories that are lost in time as you don’t know anything about the characters but, as an actor, if you fail here and are not close to home, there will be a lot of criticism. That is why, in this film, most of the work was done during pre-production, there was an immense amount of research, including pulling up archives of matches.
Also, we had to get the Hyderabadi accent exactly the way Azhar bhai and his family spoke. There were two ways of doing that. One way was to do the Hyderabadi accent like they do it in the films. But Azhar bhai requested us to steer clear of that and said, ‘I know Bollywood does it this way but this is not how we speak at home. That is a joke.’
So we sent the Hyderabad script to the family and had voice recordings of all the family members in his house sent back to us. Some people might think it is not the Hyderabadi accent we know but this is how Azhar bhai and his family speak. This is the kind of detailing we went into.
We were apprehensive because everybody knows Azhar, so everything, right from his walk to everything else, had to be just right. I think the biggest compliment to me was when his son thought that Azhar bhai had walked back to the camera in that first teaser. It was such a relief because I didn’t know if I could nail that walk.
That’s what I remember of Azharuddin, the taveez, the collar up and his walk. He had a very lazy charm on the field and his son thought that was him, so it was such a relief for me. The bits I tweaked were in the way he says his lines, to bring out the effect of the dialogue. We did everything else by the book, including his style of dressing. We knew what we were up against because people are aware of Azhar bhai and his life.
BOI: Physically, how challenging was it for you… the walk, his stance, the strokes he played?
EH: I had to lose weight for the film, around 5 kilos, because when he joined the team, he was very thin. Then, there was a gradual change till he was 40. We had a team in place to do all that. I had a trainer and Azhar bhai as well trained me for cricket. I was more of an off-side player, so I had to start hitting on the leg-side, which was very tough for me, my wrist used to hurt every day after every session but it was worth it.
And I couldn’t get his leg stance and stuff right but things started to fall in place after the fourth month, when I started hitting the ball towards the leg-side. It was really tough.