The film does not glorify or justify Shakeela: Indrajit Lankesh on the Shakeela biopic
Kannada filmmaker Indrajit Lankesh discusses his Hindi-language debut, the relevance of Shakeela Khan's story in the #MeToo era, and his experience of directing Richa Chadha and Pankaj Tripathi
Thirteen years after launching Deepika Padukone in his Kannada film Aishwarya, director Indrajit Lankesh is making his Hindi debut with a biopic on actor Shakeela Khan. The film stars Richa Chadha in the titular role. Hailing from Nellore, Shakeela landed her first acting role at the age of 20 in the 1995 Tamil film, Playgirls. She achieved fame for her appearances in Malayalam softcore and B-movies through the ‘90s, being hailed as one of the first adult superstars of Indian cinema. However, Shakeela's road to stardom was straddled with difficulties and discrimination, not to mention a steady backwash of social and moral outrage, and these are the themes that Indrajit hopes to highlight in his new film.
Cinema Express spoke to the director about his decision to make a film on the veritable 'South siren', the relevance of her story in the #MeToo era, and his experience of working with Richa Chadha and Pankaj Tripathi.
Edited excerpts from a conversation…
What interested you to make a biopic on Shakeela?
I was interested in the story of a Muslim minority woman coming to a male-dominated industry and becoming a superstar. Hers is an unprecedented rags-to-riches story. But even after becoming a star — maybe because of her own mistakes or the industry’s ego and hazards — she kept facing problems. It’s a story that can inform a lot of youngsters who dream of joining the film industry, but only see the glitz and glamour.
What was your research process for the film?
I know Shakeela from 2003, when I cast her for the first time in Kannada cinema. By then she was out of the Malayalam industry and was doing character roles. I eventually came to understand the magnitude of her life and stardom. For the biopic, I conducted extensive personal interviews with her. I also read media reports from her heydays and spoke to industry veterans. The film sticks close to reality. It does not try to justify or glorify Shakeela’s choices.
There’s a lot of conversation surrounding gender discrimination and harassment in light of the #MeToo movement. Does your film touch upon these topics?
Discrimination, certainly. The Malayalam industry has always been dominated by male heroes. There’s a huge pay disparity between male and female actors. In such a scenario, the idea of a woman superstar was unheard of. Shakeela not only headlined her movies but also created a profitable market for her films. Her movies were dubbed in Nepalese, Sinhalese, Chinese, and Japanese in the ‘90s. She also made a splash on the European market. So naturally, there was a lot of shock and resistance. Her religious identity and upbringing were also a factor.
How was the experience of working with Richa Chadha and Pankaj Tripathi?
When Richa read the script, she immediately agreed that this story had to be told. She is a talented actor and a thorough professional. She got into the skin of the character and worked hard on minute details. She is a complete director’s actor — she cares about the larger product than her own scenes and dialogues.
Pankaj Tripathi is playing a popular actor in the film. It’s a combination of two people. When he came on board and got into costume, he told me that if he was directing this film, he too would have cast himself for the role. I was delighted to hear that from him.
Given your family heritage (Indrajit is the son of journalist P. Lankesh and brother of Gauri Lankesh, who was assassinated in 2017) how do you feel about the rise of so-called propaganda films and biopics in India?
I feel to each his own. Any director will make the film he or she wants to make. It’s up to the people of this country to accept or reject their stories. I think Indian audiences are smart enough to dismiss a dishonest film. I respect and appreciate the democracy of this country.