Fresh from the success of Ek Tha Bhujang, adman-turned-filmmaker Mohinder Pratap Singh talks of working with kids
As a child, filmmaker Mohinder Pratap Singh was never the coolest kid on the block. “Every child wants to be a hero, but I was always at the periphery in school. I wanted the adulation but never got it,” he admits with much candour. It’s the same aspiration that’s reflected in Kabir, the protagonist of Singh’s first feature film.
Ek Tha Bhujang (There Was Once a Snake) follows 10-year-old Kabir, who wants to play Lord Krishna in a school skit. His teacher rejects him because he is a Muslim. Since the drama is about Lord Krishna’s battle with a large snake, Kabir invents a lie in the form of bhujang. He claims there’s a snake in the school compound and that he will rescue the school from it.
A still from Ek Tha Bhujang, in which a young Muslim boy wants to play Lord Krishna in a school skit
The lie attains greater proportions and Kabir has to face his fears. “It is a simple story narrated from the child’s point of view. The Hindu-Muslim angle is like salt in the food, but it’s not a preachy film, says Singh. The 75-minute long film, which released in May this year was selected for a screening at the Busan International Youth Film festival in South Korea in August. Now, it has made the cut from over 1,200 entries from all over the world, to make it at the 19th International Children’s Film Festival India to be held in Hyderabad this November.
Originally from Karnal, Haryana, Singh made Mumbai his home in 1994 when he bagged a job as a copywriter with Leo Burnett after doing his MBA from Indore.
“But telling stories was always at the back of my mind,” says the 47-year-old who writes poetry and short stories in his spare time.
The film, too, has been shot in Karnal and includes a cast that has faced the camera for the first time. “We could not afford a lavish set or a cast from Mumbai,” he says. However, a modest cast had its own set of challenges. And for Singh, working with children was a different ballgame altogether. “In each frame, we had about 20 kids. And in middle of a scene, one of the kids would raise his hand because to take a leak. And then the rest would follow. And there’s no way we can tell them to hold on,” laughs Singh.
The movie has been funded by the Children’s Film Society, a Government of India organisation that produces children’s films and various TV programs in Indian languages. The film took Singh two years. “I would receive the funding in installments so I had to be patient and have faith.”
That Singh has faith in his ability is evident when he tells us that he quit a successful job as a group head in an ad agency to venture full time into theatre and script writing. He worked with veterans like Dinesh Thakur, founder of the theatre group Ank, and Sagar Sarhadi, who wrote over 15 screenplays and dialogues for films like Kabhi Kabhie, Silsila, Chandni and Kaho Na Pyar Hai. “After slogging for 17 hours a day writing ad campaigns, I felt I needed to delve deeper into serious storytelling.
And for me films were an extension of it.” In 2007, Singh made Salt ’n’ Pepper, starring Nawazuddin Siddique and Tejaswani Kolhapure which received critical acclaim and was part of HIFF (Hyderabad International Film Festival) and Rome Film Festival in 2008. The short film explored the chasm between different social classes and how they chose to cope with the problems that came with it. “Back then, Nawaz was not the star he is today but was always humble. He also had this habit of saying ‘janab’, a word that has so much respect in it. We couldn't afford a make-up room for him and he was fine with it.” Singh has also written the screenplay of Happi, which had Pankaj Kapoor stepping into the shoes of Charlie Chaplin. The film, however, did not see the light of day. “But it was a delight working with Kapoor,” he says.
Singh already has three scripts at hand, including yet another children’s film, God in Custody. “Many producers have told me that there’s no market for children’s films in India, but I don’t buy that. Look at Walt Disney who created an entire universe for children’s films. I will continue making children’s films,” he smiles.