Watching you!

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By Ash is camping at Agarpara with team Raavan. And t2 has been watching every step she takes, every move she makes... Text: Anindya Shankar Ray and Mohua Das Pictures: Pranab Biswas, Sanat Kr. Sinha, Pabitra Das, Aranya Sen, Amit Datta
  • Published 4.03.09
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DAY 1 (Tuesday, February 17)

The open stretch outside Saheb Kuthi, the white-and-blue bungalow near Agarpara jute mill off BT Road, has turned into a mini mela. Eager for a glimpse of Aishwarya, the swelling crowd gathers around vendors selling ice creams and churans to grapes and phuchkas.

The clamour doesn’t reach the interiors of Saheb Kuthi where Aishwarya, in jeans and a green top, is working out on the treadmill. Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the designer of Aishwarya’s Raavan wardrobe, strolls in the garden, keeping an eye on the stack of sherwanis, saris and blazers being unloaded from a car. A little later, Aishwarya turns up in the first floor naachghar in a red sari, ready to dance to A.R. Rahman’s tune. “Ready? Lights… camera… action!” yells Mani Ratnam. Aishwarya sways, lip syncs and pauses… “Okay!” shouts the director. And on and on it goes…

A few points we picked up about Ash at the end of Day 1:

Her armour: Four brawny bodyguards in safari suits, who form a ring around her at all times

Her accessories: A make-up artiste, a hairdresser and a man to hold an umbrella

She can’t do without: A white battery-operated fan. She turns it on to cool her face, often

When not shooting: She prefers to retreat into the air-conditioned comfort of her make-up van

DAY 2 (Wednesday, February 18)

Aishwarya emerges out of her make-up van in a purplish red sari with brown border, a long plait, danglers and a hint of make-up and strides into the first-floor music room. There, she has Malayalam star Prithviraj for company. For the better part of the day, Ash rehearses a dance sequence with Prithviraj (her Ram in the Tamil version) to an A.R. Rahman song laced with the sounds of ghungroo. Tamil superstar Vikram, who is Ram in the Hindi version, potters around till evening for his turn to match steps with the Bolly beauty.

After the gruelling daylong shoot, Mani eases up. “What to do? No gymming here, so only hand gym,” he laughs and lifts his right hand to bite into an apple.

It’s pack-up time and the crowd outside grows restless, awaiting The Moment. The Bachchan bahu doesn’t disappoint. She smiles and waves from behind the rolled-up window. Her white Innova zips out of Elias Road, kicking up a swirl of dust.

DAY 3 (Thursday, February 19)

A brief shoot later, Aishwarya leaves for Delhi to catch the Delhi-6 premiere of hubby Abhishek Bachchan.

But the action continues at Saheb Kuthi. The team pitches camp in the kitchen. Mani takes a stroll on the makeshift terrace, discussing camera angles with DoP Manikandan.

There’s a new visitor on the sets today — adman Piyush Pandey is playing a small part in the Hindi version. The scene is set for a windy afternoon. Two large propellers whip up a storm. Vikram, sporting a moustache, long sideburns and crew-cut hair, makes a dash for the kitchen where an elderly lady is packing his lunch. Mani booms “okay” into his hand-held mike. Now, the shoot for the Tamil version. Prithviraj steps into Vikram’s shoes and costumes to repeat the same scene. All of a sudden, Mani flies into a rage. He springs from his chair, walks up to the girl holding the script and knocks the sheets off with his microphone! As the girl stares baffled, Mani walks up to the elderly lady to explain what has gone wrong. Order returns.

DAY 4 (Friday, February 20)

With Aishwarya busy playing a dutiful patni in Delhi, the team shifts to Mangal Pandey Udyan at Lat Bagan in Barrackpore for a sequence.

Around 1,500 police personnel from the police training institute in Barrackpore queue up on the parade ground for a guard of honour. They march up to Vikram. Standing on a raised dais in khaki uniform, Vikram receives his salute from the soldiers and makes way for Prithviraj to take the same position under the scorching sun.

But we return to Saheb Kuthi to find the Bachchan bahu back at work! In a white salwar kameez, she is set for some more flirting with Vikram and Prithviraj. In the late afternoon, Ash calls it a day while Vikram and Prithviraj stay back for solo shots.

DAY 5 (Saturday, February 21)

A hectic day lies ahead for Aishwarya with about three costume changes and a flurry of retakes.

The camera starts rolling; Vikram and Prithviraj take turns to play Aishwarya’s object of romantic interest. “Okay!” shouts Mani.

The scene shifts to the makeshift terrace with the river in the backdrop. It’s a longish choreographed movement and Aishwarya, sporting a green-maroon salwar with jhumkas, looks a little taut. Her cheeks flushed in the warm February sun, Aishwarya concentrates hard on her steps with danseuse-actress Shobana and her assistant monitoring every move. Vikram lifts Ash up in his arms and wheels her around to the other side. She lets out a giggle.

Post-lunch, Ash walks into the kitchen in a white salwar kurta, her hair wet and wild, and starts pouring wine into a non-stick pan. “Ash, your hand shot is a bit jerky!” Mani interrupts. “Okay Sir,” Ash nods and goes back to pouring some more wine.

The trio (Ash, Vikram and Prithviraj) step out to the bougainvillaea bower again and what follows is a teasing song-and-dance routine at the edge of the makeshift terrace. Aishwarya tries to woo both the men with her classical moves. After a couple of takes, she goes for a stroll with Sabyasachi, discussing if he might have another costume for her in the next scene.

Mani’s plan is to finish the day on a quiet note. So, back into the dimly lit kitchen, where Aishwarya is immersed in her dance, all alone. She looks electrifying in a white sari and red backless choli, and to make the most of it cinematographer Manikandan focuses bursts of light on Aishwarya’s face and shapely form. Vikram, Prithviraj and the rest of the team watch her in silent admiration.

DAY 6 (Sunday, February 22)

Song-and-dance is the order of the day.

A bunch of 30 girls, between five and eight years old, from Bani Chakra music and dance school have made their way to Saheb Kuthi for their date with “dance teacher” Aishwarya. A romance scene has kept the Bolly star busy upstairs all day. So by the time Mani turns his attention to the kids, it’s almost dusk. The children are lined up in the ground floor classroom where “Aishwarya ma’am” strides in, says ‘hi’ to her students and waves at them. Then she starts teaching them the bol taan. Shot over, she mingles with the little ones, chatting with and hugging a few.

Mani goes through the monitor and cheerfully shouts: “Wrap up!”

DAY 7 (Monday, February 23)

Aishwarya dazzles in a bright red angrakha. Swinging in a garden chair in the lawn, she listens intently to Prithviraj. Behind her, a gardener gets busy watering the plants.

Mani’s actress wife Suhasini (in blue kurta in picture left) has joined the crew today. She spends the afternoon touring the set and whispering into her husband’s ear in between takes.

DAY 8 (Tuesday, February 24)

A wardrobe malfunction slows things down.

Dressed in a casual red chequered body-clinging shirt (picture right), brown belt and blue jeans, Aishwarya does the Bharatnatyam rounds under Shobana’s strict eye in the bougainvillaea bower. Now and then, she pauses to check her make-up in the mirror.

But looking through the camera, Mani spies a problem. Aishwarya’s white slip is doing a peekaboo from beneath her shirt. Mani suggests a costume change.

Enter Sabyasachi’s assistant, clutching a stack of shirts. Mani, Shobana and Ash shuffle through the pile of clothes and pick a blue top.

Ash runs into the bungalow, changes into the summery shirt (picture right below) and returns in a jiffy. “I couldn’t have done the shot in that outfit…” a ruffled Ash tells one of Mani’s assistants, fixing the brown belt.

The shot begins. Ash switches to a playful mood in a second. An artificial water sprinkler drenches her as she prances around the shrub of violet blooms, first with the kids and then around Vikram, followed by Prithviraj, singing the Tamil and Hindi songs.

After lunch, Ash goes traditional and sexy in that white sari and red backless choli. We spot Nikhil Dwivedi, the boy from My Name is Anthony Gonsalves, pottering around. To play Lakshman in Raavan, Nikhil has slipped into a khaki uniform and got himself a false moustache.

Before wrapping up, Ash tells Sabyasachi’s assistant: “Call me at night. Need to discuss something.”

DAY 9 (Wednesday, February 25)

Mani Ratnam (right) discusses a sequence with Shobana

The Bollywood beauty is finding the Calcutta sun a little too warm for comfort. On the sets, Aishwarya whips out the tiny battery-operated fan to cool off while the hairdresser struggles to keep her hair in place. Wednesday morning has been especially tiring — she has been out for a boat ride on the Hooghly, romancing Vikram and Prithviraj.

The unit members are in a sporty mood during their lunch break. Yes, a game of cricket is on the card. Some crew members quickly line up a red plastic chair as the stumps. A mineral water bottle serves as the bowler’s mark. The Saheb Kuthi lawn turns into a makeshift pitch in no time.

Drawn by the hullabaloo, Nikhil Dwivedi strolls in wearing a white Tee, jeans and shades. A production boy asks him to join in, but Nikhil decides not to cross his Lakshmanrekha. “Nahin, kaala ho jaunga!” he smiles.

At the end of 30 minutes, a smiling Shaad Ali (the Bunty Aur Babli maker who’s here assisting Mani Ratnam) is declared the man of the match, having bagged three wickets and scored loads of runs!

Post-lunch, Ash clambers out of her make-up van, resplendent in a yellow angrakha with golden threadwork and a green border. After a brief discussion with Shaad, Mani yells: “Lights, camera... action!” Ash’s character is in a naughty mood now, teasing and taunting one of her Rams (Vikram) in the kitchen.

Ash: Kis baat se pareshaan ho? (in a sad tone)

Vikram: Tumse… (teasingly)

Ash: Music pasand nahin hai, mere haath ka bana hua khana pasand nahin hai…. Ab main bhi pasand nahin hu. Aur kya kya pasand nahin hai tumhe? (with mock anger, she brings him a plate of bread and omelette from the kitchen). Mera ek bhavishyavani sun lo. Baarah bachche honge mere! (sternly)

Vikram: Kuch discount mil sakta hai? Government service hai. Do se zyada hua toh naukri gaya. (smiles)

Ash: Terah chalega? Agar number pasand nahin hai toh chauda? (she flirts)

Vikram springs up, grabs Ash and holds her in a tight embrace. Ash screams, “Bimla!” (the housemaid), and resists while Vikram struggles to cover her mouth.

Sorry folks, time for pack up!

DAY 10 (Thursday, February 26)

The day is only about dialogues.

A little after noon, Aishwarya steps out of her make-up van in a blue sleeveless salwar kameez and green dupatta with two bodyguards in tow. A man shields her from the sun with a large multicoloured umbrella. Mani signals action and a long chat follows between Ash and a middle-aged man in Tamil. Then she walks up to a white Ambassador, does a namaste and sees him off. In between the shots, Ash flips through her script and brushes up her lines. Job done, Ash walks up to Mani’s wife Suhasini, who has so long been glued to the monitor. Even as they smile and hug, Ash is wary of the strong afternoon sun. She tugs at the umbrella to ward it off.

DAY 11 (Friday, February 27)

The scene is on a boat parked on the bank. Ash settles down, chatting and smiling. After a couple of shots, Mani and Ash swap places. Ash wades through the slushy bank and plonks herself in front of the monitor, while Mani climbs the boat to pack the camera, reflectors and tripod stand.

Aishwarya crouches, turns to the camera and stretches out her hand towards her director for a high five. Mani responds, grinning ear to ear.

Day 14 (Monday, March 2)

Ash spends the entire day shooting a solo song sequence on a boat. She mounts the boat early morning and cruises down the river towards Belur. By afternoon she sails back towards Saheb Kuthi and stays afloat mid-river sitting and swaying to an A.R. Rahman tune. Shobana’s dance assistant seated in one corner of the boat helps her get her moves right. A big barge piled with haystack and an empty launch form the backdrop.