Filmmaker Amole Gupte on Shraddha Kapoor’s training for his Saina Nehwal biopic and his ‘sniffing’ superhero film
Roshmila Bhattacharya (MUMBAI MIRROR; August 12, 2017)

The focal point of Amole Gupte’s childhood was books. An avid reader, he devoured everything from Roald Dahl to Enid Blyton, his hero being Fatty from the Famous Five series. Innumerable dissections and 40-50 readings of The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage and The Mystery of Holly Lane turned him into a child detective, who tried to find clues to solve simple crimes in his everyday world, like who stole the scented eraser in school. “Between 10 and 12 years, with two friends, Mohan Natrajan and R Ganesh, I pooled our books to start a library for the 600-odd kids who lived in Bima Nagar, the middle-class society in suburban Mumbai I grew up in. This way everyone could sample my Blyton series and Mohan’s collection of Amar Chitrakathas, as also Mandrakes and Phantom comics, and get introduced to Inspector Eagle, Havaldar Naik or Agent Vinod. It was 10 paisa for one book, 15 paisa for two,” the writer-director reminisces with a laugh.

He sighs over changing times that have weaned kids off the habit of reading. “I don’t judge them but I can entertain them. This is another way of bringing mystery into their lives,” he reasons, referring to his upcoming film, Sniff, which is about a child detective blessed with supernatural sniffing powers.

The film features eight-year-old Khushmeet Gill as wonder boy Sunny Gill. Amole had finished his script based on a concept pitched to him by Radhika Anand, one of the four young writers who had been brought to him by producer Ajit Thakur, who couldn’t develop it because she had to be at a wedding. Amole sent out feelers to local gurdwaras inviting kids to free workshops on art, theatre and cinema during the summer holidays. “Since I don’t audition, this was one way of scouting for young talent. They came in batches of 30-35 and I screened Majid Majidi and Charlie Chaplin films for them, gave them voice exercises and we did a bit of drawing. Khushmeet also came and walked straight into my heart. He’s a delightful and delicious haapus mango!” he laughs.

Amole also discovered Adil Majoo, a little boy who surprised him with his intensity, and Parshva Dhariwal, being a painter, gave inputs on creating the den. Mahi Zaveri he’d met at an elephant sanctuary in Kerala when she was two. Eight years later, he cast her.

He filmed at Mazgaon’s St Mary’s School on Sundays and during Ganpati and Diwali holidays so he didn’t have to take the kids out of their comfort zone, wanting them to feel that they were prepping for an annual day function. He gave them a detailed narration with the cast and crew but gave the master script only to his technicians. “On the morning of the shoot, I would sit with the kids and explain the scenes to them. With the first shot we would go for take. Except for Khushmeet, everyone answered to their real names. This way no one was playing a character. Life is like a series of scenes, you don’t rehearse for it. You create moments and capture them,” he says.

He also took the story into the community he grew up in, shooting portions in Bima Nagar. “It was a golden jubilee reunion, me at 55, sitting with the mic and watching old friends walk into the frame. After this, I’d have no regrets if the Lord takes me away tomorrow. Meine Ganga naha liya hai,” he smiles.

There’s time for the curtain call as Sniff could spin into a franchise and he has the Saina Nehwal biopic lined up next. “Shraddha’s (Kapoor) working really hard and conscientiously with her coach Jitesh Padukone to become the butterfly called Saina Nehwal. I don’t want to press or rush her. The day she is ready, we will roll,” he says, describing the actress as an “amazing bachcha” and exulting over their father-daughter talks.

There has been buzz of him having approached several actors like Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt for the role which he dismisses as “rumours”. “Shraddha was the only one I pitched it to and she agreed as soon as I finished the narration. Look at her face and forehead, there are such startling similarities between her and Saina. She is also athletic, Jitesh will attest to that,” he asserts.

You wonder why he zeroed in on the badminton ace and he points out that she’s the ‘celebrated daughter of our country’ and hers is the “great Indian family’ he plans to explore with his film. “A World No.1 doesn’t happen every day in such families. I’ve known Saina since December 2014 when she trashed Spaniard Carolina Marin in the pre-quarters in Dubai. Marin is the reigning Olympic champion and Saina trashed her four times when she was at her peak,” he raves about his golden girl, pointing out that despite her phenomenal success there’s an inner glow about the champ and a disarming simplicity that are her biggest draw for him. “Being an international icon hasn’t affected her or her family. She’s still not very media savvy. Her spirited rejoinder is ‘maar doongi’. That’s a great slogan for Saina and Shraddha,” he signs off with a laugh.