Director Namrata Singh Gujral reveals why she cast Nargis Fakhri in her Hollywood film

Aug 09, 2016, 14:51 IST | Kasmin Fernandes

Namrata Singh Gujral, who will direct Fakhri in a Hollywood film, discusses her connect with the actress and promises made to Yash Chopra and Dev Anand

Nargis Fakhri, who just returned to Mumbai after a few months at home in New York, will soon fly back to the US to join Golden Globe nominee and supermodel Bo Derek, and Oscar nominee Candy Clark (American Graffiti and The Man Who Fell To Earth).

Nargis Fakhri
Nargis Fakhri

She is part shoot for a slice-of-life comedy, 5 Weddings, helmed by filmmaker and cancer advocate Namrata Singh Gujral.

The story follows an American journalist, who travels to India for what she thinks will be an easy magazine feature on Bollywood weddings. As the coverage unfolds, so does a colourful mosaic of lost loves, transgender tangles and culture clashes.

Herself an Indian-American actress, Gujral has appeared in Denzel Washington-starrer Training Day (2001). However, you may remember her as Renu Mathur in Sanjay Dutt-starrer Kaante (2002), as Shelley in Beau Bridges-starrer Americanizing Shelley, as Nurse Kathy from American TV show Passions, as Saira Ahmed from Family Show, and Anna Kraus in 1979 action film, The Shark Hunter.

For Gujral, also a co-producer, the film is a multitude of promises made right. “The first was to Yash Chopra, who ran a fantastic panel called FICCI in Mumbai, where I was an invited guest speaker on global co-productions in 2008 with fellow panelist Cameron Bailey from TIFF. One night, Cameron and I were returning to the hotel after a party in Juhu, and Mr Chopra was in the lobby. He congratulated Cameron on TIFF and then congratulated me on Americanizing Shelley. I was shocked that he knew about it. He said he was a fan of romantic movies, so I said I’d love to produce one with him. He smiled and asked “Promise?” No telling if he was kidding! But I never got to find out...”

Bo Derek and Candy Clark
Bo Derek and Candy Clark

On the same trip, Dev Anand requested a meeting with Gujral. “It lasted three hours and explored various angles to make a contemporary version of Hare Rama Hare Krishna. His love for East-meets-West [movies] was eerily similar to mine. But, within three months of returning stateside, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Life took a major detour,” recounts Gujral.

After chemotherapy and going into remission, Gujral decided to pursue the cancer-inspired film 1 a Minute with Olivia Newton-John, Deepak Chopra while putting other projects on hold. “Sadly, by the time we got done with its global release, both Mr Anand and Mr Chopra had passed away within a year of each other.”

Namrata Singh Gujral
Namrata Singh Gujral

Then, there was another brush with death, as Gujral was diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer in 2013. Given three weeks to live, she was sent to a medical centre in California, for six months. “Lying in bed after intra-thecal chemo to my spine, where you can’t move for hours, I promised myself that if I ever made it out, I would honour the two filmmakers. Shania in 5 Weddings is a little bit Jennifer from Hare Rama Hare Krishna, a little bit Simran from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and of course a whole lotta Nargis.”

Gujral’s film also upholds a promise made to a member of India’s hijra community during a meeting in 2014 outside Tata Memorial Hospital, where shel launched Finding Match: The Cancer MoonShot Story featuring US Vice Prez Joe Biden and Congresswoman Priya Dutt. The film is being shot in nine parts of the world, and focuses on the challenges that these communities face in finding bone marrow and organ matches. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with the US-based filmmaker:

On life before turning director
It was an innocent life, because that was before breast cancer and blood cancer. I was an actress in Hollywood, doing pretty well and spending my days thinking about how not to age when I wasn’t on set. After my journey with cancer, which started almost 10 years ago, I am shelled out of innocence into an abyss of wisdom, truth and oddly a strange tranquility.

On similarities with Four Weddings And A Funeral
Both have similar pacing and tone; the similarity ends there.

On casting Nargis Fakhri
We considered some fabulous Hollywood actresses for this role. Then, a casting assistant brought up Nargis. I knew I had found Shania right away when I saw her work. She is sweet and funny. She has also had a tough life herself. So, we connect on many levels.

On expectations from her film
Anyone in the world who has lost a loved one to death, especially a parent, will find the film almost healing. Apart from death, there is birth, life, weddings and, of course, love and acceptance as part of the narrative.

On being a woman filmmaker
Three years ago, I was given three years to live. ‘Deh Shiva Bar Mohe Eha’ from the Guru Granth Sahib became my mantra. So, when you beat two aggressive cancers, it’s hard to say anything else is a challenge. But yes, I find it fascinating that even in Hollywood, the supposed Mecca of progressive thought, women directors are a definite minority. There is a line in 5 Weddings which says that for things to change, you can change laws, but it’s ultimately the people who have to change. I think that holds true for anything.

Conquering cancer

Gujral was at the forefront of a Los Angeles rally in August 2015 to support the ABX-215 California State Assembly Bill for terminal cancer patients to have an end-of-life option. She says, “California became the fifth state in US to allow the option. Everyone has different belief systems and when one is at the end of their lives, who are we to tell them how they choose to go? As a progressive society, we should let each individual decide for themselves, how they choose to die or live.”

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