Ruskin Bond on 7 Khoon Maaf
|Ruskin Bond in Landour on Sunday. Picture by Samhita Chakraborty Lahiri|
Sitting in his hometown Landour, near Mussoorie, beside a crackling fire, sipping steaming mugs of coffee and then potions more potent, Ruskin Bond spoke to t2 about foraying into films, facing the camera and killing seven times over. Outside, the pine trees were shrouded in mist and a wicked wind tapped on doors and windows, trying every trick to be let in…
Tell us about your short story Susanna’s Seven Husbands becoming the film 7 Khoon Maaf…
It’s the story of this lady — Susanna Anna-Marie — who got rid of seven husbands. Her philosophy is: after some time, you begin to hate your husband.
But we don’t mind them being bumped off. She’s a rich woman and they are fortune hunters.
Vishal Bhardwaj had made The Blue Umbrella based on one of my stories (of the same name). When he wanted to make a film on Susanna’s Seven Husbands, I expanded the five or six-page story into a 70-80-page novella.
The challenge was devising seven ingenious ways in which she could kill her husbands without being suspected. And she does it successfully, until towards the end.
Susanna’s story is Bluebeard in reverse… Bluebeard (a wealthy aristocrat in a French folktale) killed seven wives. There’s something about the number seven. Vishal wanted seven in the title… so it became 7 Khoon Maaf… Seven Murders Forgiven.
The husbands in the film are played by… let’s see, John Abraham, Naseeruddin Shah, then there’s this quite good actor — Neil Nitin Mukesh — then Irrfan Khan...
Naseeruddin Shah’s younger son Vivaan Shah plays Susanna’s neighbour who’s telling the story. He meets Susanna as a boy and he’s fond of her, though she’s much older than him. He sees her going through all these husbands.
The film releases on February 18 and the book, by Penguin, will come out on the 19th. UTV has an understanding with the publisher…. they don’t want to give away the suspense, you see.
It’s a black comedy, I hope the humour comes through in the film. The screenplay was written by Vishal and a man from Hollywood called Matthew Robbins, who co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical feature film, The Sugarland Express (1974).
Is Priyanka Chopra the suitable Susanna?
The little I saw from the rushes, she’s thrown herself into the role. She ages in the film, from the first husband to the last, it’s a span of 30 years or so.
Tell us the methods of murder you thought up. And why did you choose these seven methods?
Well, I had to think of something interesting… it’s entertainment, after all. She gives Naseeruddin Shah an overdose of Viagra. So, it’s not really a children’s story!
(At this point, like a true filmwallah, Ruskin became a tad reluctant to give away details of the plot. Like true truth-hunters, we quickly refilled his glass with more gin and tonic.)
Okay, I’ll tell you some of the methods, it’s only the end that I’m not supposed to say.
The methods were... one was very complicated, the murder of the army officer. He’s fond of shikaar. One day, he’s on the machaan and she’s up there with him. He’s having his drink while he waits for the tiger but she’s put something in the drink. So, when the tiger comes, she pushes him off the machaan and he’s consumed by the tiger. The tiger, of course, dies too, because of the poison!
Then she has a husband who’s a nature freak... and another she kills right on the honeymoon!
Now I won’t say more… people must go to the theatres and watch the film.
You have a cameo in the film... how did that happen?
They gave me a guest appearance…. I play a priest who marries off Susanna and one of her husbands. We shot in this beautiful, old church in Byculla in Mumbai that goes back to 1830. The scene is actually set in Goa but they couldn’t get permission to shoot in a church in Goa, or even in Pondicherry.
They (the film crew) were very friendly and nice and I just had to be myself. It’s just a couple of scenes. I didn’t have a name or anything… I was just there, beaming upon everybody.
Did you take acting tips from your neighbour in Landour, Victor Banerjee, before you faced the camera?
If I’d had to act, I would have taken tips from Victor, but I just needed to be myself. It was the part of a naughty old man, which is what I am (laughs)!
Nobody knows my real secret though — as a schoolboy, I had acted in a play!
I have never talked about it before but now I’m going to. I finally confess that I played Humpty-Dumpty. They made a costume which looked like an eggshell. I was supposed to fall off the wall in the final scene and it was supposed to break. But it wouldn’t break… and I kept bouncing around.
So, now in my old age, I’m going back to acting!
Did you know, in St John’s Church in Calcutta, there lies a certain Mrs Frances Johnson (1725-1812) who, according to the epitaph, saw four husbands to their graves?
Is it on the headstone? My God! You must send me a picture of it. [See picture top]
Though I didn’t set the story in Bengal, I’ll tell you this… Susanna Anna-Marie did exist in Bengal, in about the 1880s or even earlier. Her grave is there, in rural Bengal. She was a Dutchwoman and had this huge estate, somewhere west of Burdwan. I don’t know if her grave still exists but it was there till about 20 years back. It wasn’t in a cemetery, it was on its own.
She had this huge mansion and indigo plantations. She had the reputation of being married seven times. The legend was that most of the husbands were fortune hunters. See, in those days you had to get married, you couldn’t just live in.
But Vishal has updated the timeline and set the film in the present time.