As most people her age are busy enjoying retired life, Madhura Pandit Jasraj is gearing up to direct her first Hindi feature film. But, make no mistake, the septuagenarian is no newbie when it comes to the director’s chair. “I made a Marathi film just a few years ago,” she says, settling in for a chat at a suburban music studio where producer Anup Jalota and the music director — her son Shaarangdev — are recording a song for her upcoming film.
Madhura Jasraj wants her film to release on November 18, a Friday and her father’s birthday. Pic/Nimesh Dave
"During my teenage years, I hated wasting time," she says, "so I’d write stories and essays to publish them in a handwritten magazine. About 15-20 people would have the honour of reading them and then I’d pester them for feedback."
Madhura with her father after a performance of her dance ballet, Geet Govind
As the conversation steers toward her childhood, it is impossible not to touch on her memories of her late father, the celebrated filmmaker V Shantaram. "During our vacations, and on weekends, we’d visit Papa on set. And it was fun. My father would encourage us to observe various people and he’d say, ‘If you can help them, go ahead.’ So, we would serve tea to the light men or learn how to hold a light. I didn’t know it at the time, but my education in cinema had started."
Ask about her father and she gets a bit emotional. “He was a strict father, but always encouraged us to do what we wanted. On Sundays, he’d come and observe my dance lessons. He would enquire after our progress. He was very involved in our upbringing, despite his busy schedule.”
For Jasraj, who went on to pen her father’s biographies, Shantarama (Marathi) and V Shantaram: The Man Who Changed Indian Cinema (in English), the most important life lesson from her father is captured in an anecdote from his film set. As a curious child, she once went to a person in charge of making paper flowers — a common decorative item those days. "I spent the whole day with him and made four paper roses. He told me to gift them to my father. Of course, my father was delighted but he asked me, 'Did you learn how to wrap the paper around the wire (to make a stem)?’ it was a small detail, but I had missed it. He told me to go back the next day and learn how it was done. That was Papa. He always taught us that when you learn something, you must learn it thoroughly!"
And learn she did. In addition to classical dance, Jasraj was a student of classical music. "Oh! I travelled all over the country for concerts those days,” she announces with pride. Her love for music became a large part of her life when she married vocalist and the doyen of Mewati Gharana, Jasraj, recipient of the Padma Vibhushan in 2000.
She talks of how both her children started their musical journey. "When Panditji did his riyaaz in the evenings, the kids — music director Shaarangdev and actress and singer Durga — would sit in our laps. That’s where their training began.”
Incidentally, it is because of her son that she decided to foray into feature film direction. Shaarangdev has composed many popular tracks, including the theme for RK Narayan’s television series Malgudi Days.
“My son and his friend were making a film on one of my stories. One day, he called and asked if I would direct the film. I said yes,” she smiles. The film was Aai Tujha Aashirvaad (2010). “I had directed documentaries on both my father and my husband before that and also directed Faster Fenay, a TV series on Doordarshan. In the 70s, I had done a multi-media presentation Kaan Kahaani Sunyo Kare,” Jasraj explains as she talks about her body of work. She has collaborated with Pt Jasraj on many projects but the one she holds dear is her dance ballet, Geet Govind. “It was so well received. And I had a stellar team.”
Grateful for her husband’s support, she adds, “At the same time, I never skimped on my duties towards my family.” In the age of leaning in and having it all, we ask her for a word of advice. “Spend less time sleeping,” she laughs, “so much of our time is wasted in sleeping. I used to sleep less than five hours a day.”
Her grandson, Rishabhdev walks in and the two exchange a quick smile. The proud grandma says he will embark on a musical career with her upcoming project. The 20-year-old will be assisting his father Shaarangdev. “It is so exciting that my first Hindi film as a director will also have him on board,” she says affectionately.
So, why did she decide to make a film at 78? “Because this is a story that has been with me for 20 years,” she says. The story revolves around a father (Annu Kapoor) and his daughter (newcomer Kashish Bohra) — a rape survivor — and traces the girl’s physical and psychological struggles as she copes with the trauma.
The subject is very close to Jasraj’s heart. “Since Aruna Shanbaug’s case in the 70s, I have always wondered about the life that rape victims are forced to lead. It hurts to read the newspapers. I really wanted to do something.”
It was a chance conversation that really got the ball rolling for her. “Anupji (singer Anup Jalota) is like a son to me. I had heard that he was producing films, so I casually asked him if he wants to make a film with me.
He was on board as soon as he heard the story. It has all come together wonderfully.”
While the screenplay and dialogue are ready, the casting for the untitled project is almost near completion and Jasraj hopes to start shooting soon. “This year, my father’s birthday (November 18) falls on a Friday. It is my wish to release the film that day. So we have to move fast.”
As we wind up our chat we ask her about the challenges she expects to face as she gears up to sit in the director’s chair. “None. I am going to have fun,” she exclaims. The spirited lady has a bunch of scripts and stories waiting to be made into films and she feels that one lifetime is too short to do it all. “I want to live long but only with good health. The only sign that had me realise that I have aged is that I can’t remember names,” she giggles.