Prince to preacher

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By RESHMI SENGUPTA
  • Published 22.05.06
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Trekking back 2,500 years in time may be easy for the pen but not so for the camera ? novelist Shahzad Firdaus learned the hard way while making a film on the Buddha, with a band of tonsured theatre actors traversing the hinterland of India. Tathagata, which releases on June 3 at Nandan II, captures the six years in Buddha?s life when he meditated for enlightenment and discovered the path of ahimsa.

There has been no indoor shoot and Firdaus has travelled from Rajgir to Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, ?following the footsteps of Buddha?. But sticking to an authentic account of the period had its own share of unforeseen problems. ?Nature has changed so much over so many centuries that you don?t get any of the trees mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures. So, wherever I panned the camera, I could see only eucalyptus, the tree that grows in the US! But one had to make do with what was available,? says Firdaus, during a chat at Academy of Fine Arts.

?Buddha was opposed to idol worship. He didn?t support the supernatural, but it?s ironical that we worship him as supernatural. I am interested in Buddha the man, who was actually a social reformer and preached ahimsa,? adds Firdaus, a published author from Ananda who has around 17 novels, revolving around religion ? from the Mahabharata, the Old and New Testaments to Islamic traditions.

Having read extensively on the Buddha over the years, Firdaus had initially planned to write a novel in three parts. The idea of turning it into a feature film came when he was made the offer of a telefilm on the subject. Firdaus, also a documentary film-maker, wasn?t interested as the subject demanded no less than a full-length film. He had been thinking of making Tathagata for the past two years and finally took the plunge in June 2005.

?If Buddha?s life is broadly divided into three parts ? from birth to 29 years, the six years in between when he left home to meditate, and from 36 to 80 years when he came to be known as a preacher ? the second phase is the best. That?s when he transformed into a religious leader from a prince, that?s when he gained enlightenment. But nothing much is known about this period,? says Firdaus, who devoured the works of scholars like Rhys Davis, Hermann Oldenberg and Tich Naht Han.

Firdaus has made Tathagata in Hindi to reach a nationwide audience and with a 35-member cast, all from Hindi group theatre. He scanned several places in the country before picking his actors from Delhi, Mumbai, Bokaro, Lucknow, Sahaganj, Varanasi, Bhilai and Calcutta. ?Professional Hindi actors were very expensive. So, I decided to go for people from theatre,? he explains.

Buddha has been played by the Delhi-based Sanjay Singh, a Chandigarh University passout who does theatre at NSD and Shri Ram Centre. All the actors who have played Buddha?s followers have shaved their heads; there has been no use of wigs or makeup.