Sashi Kiran Tikka: Major Sandeep was never jingoistic
Filmmaker Sashi Kiran Tikka talks about the difficult choices that shaped his biographical action film, Major, which is now playing in cinemas
There’s a persistent smile on Sashi Kiran Tikka’s face as we catch up for a conversation a day after the release of his third film, Major, a project he has been working on for more than a couple of years now. Based on the life of 26/11 martyr Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, the film opened to tremendous reviews and took a strong start at the box office. Talking about his state of mind, Sashi calmly drops a filmy line. “The mind is normal, like always, but the heart is full.”
Sashi shares that he was initially reluctant to direct the film since he had just collaborated with Adivi Sesh in Goodachari (2018). “Although I knew Sesh had this idea for his dream project, I felt we should take some time off from each other and collaborate later,” says Sashi, adding why he had a change of heart. “My knowledge of Major Sandeep was quite rudimentary but when I started reading about him, I could connect with 95 per cent of his character. I then realised that I had to tell his story.”
Preparation for the film included talking to K Unnikrishnan and Dhanalakshmi Unnikrishnan, the parents of Major Sandeep. Describing his interactions with them, Sashi shares, “The conversations with them were deep and emotional. There were also times when they were laughing aloud while recalling some memories. For instance, the funny scene where Sandeep’s father finds a Baywatch poster in his room was a real incident.”
Sashi believes that the film found its heart in these interactions, which have been translated into many heartwarming moments. “Several important moments from his childhood, like the scene where he tries to safeguard his sister from a dog, are consolidated versions of many different events. It’s a fiction made from reality.” Another important moment comes when Sandeep is ready to leave for army training, and his father (played by the terrific Prakash Raj) hesitates to send him off as he isn’t happy with his son’s decision to join the army. Moments later, when he finds that Sandeep forgot his admission letter, he rushes to the auto his son is leaving in to hand the letter and hug him tight. It’s such intimate moments that make Major an emotional rollercoaster ride. “I am receiving messages from people that they could see their father in Prakash Raj. Especially people who lost their fathers. I lost my father a year ago and many people like myself are connecting with the film,” shares Sashi.
It is clear that Major is not just about Sandeep Unnikrishnan's heroic death but also the life he lived. One of the challenges of adapting such a life to the screen is condensing it all into a feature film. “While we had tons of first-hand information from his parents and family about his life and character, we only had two and a half hours to narrate it. It’s a pain, man; you are forced to forgo many beautiful things about him.” Listing out a couple of such incidents that didn't make the final cut, Sashi says, “He was an animal lover, who also rescued many animals. He was a great admirer of Sufi music and used to tune into Pakistan’s radio frequency to listen to it. In fact, if they weren’t playing it, he would even send them requests to play the music. Despite being at the border to uphold national security, he would still admire and acknowledge the other side’s culture,” Sashi says.
An impressive aspect about Major, which is a story with innate national pride, is the lack of jingoism. Sashi says it was nothing but a product of Major Sandeep’s virtue, integrity and values. “Sandeep was patriotic on the inside but was not a loud expresser of it. He wasn't stern or stubborn either. Sandeep was a jovial person with a great sense of humour. He was somebody like you, me, us… a simple man, but the decision he took in an extraordinary situation is what the movie is about.”
Although the ending and the final moments of Sandeep holding his mother’s purse—which he stole as a kid—are dramatised, they too are borrowed from reality, Sashi reveals. “He stole a lot of his mother’s cosmetic boxes, and she never realised that it was Sandeep who took it. It was only after his belongings were sent back home after his sacrifice that she found all the cosmetic boxes. We knew that this had to be integrated into the film. Of course, we don't know the exact details of what happened in the final moments of his life, but even the creative liberties are borrowed from reality," signs off Sashi.
This is an emotion that can be extended to Major as well... It might seem dramatised for cinematic effect, but it is all very much real.