Appu Raja! It all started with a phone call.
Sarika called from Madras to wish me on my birthday; Kamal Haasan came on the line, wished me and asked what I was doing the next day. I answered – ‘Nursing a hangover.
‘Fine’, he said, ‘…take the first flight on the day after; my car will be at the airport.’
So, on 11th of April 1987, I was at their place around 9 o’clock in the morning, very curious about what was in store.
Over a cup of tea, he started talking – “I want to do something no one has done before. Write me a story, it’s going to be a Tamil film.”
I wanted to be a Director, I told him. But he insisted.
We started talking of films already made; he wanted a double role.
We spoke about an old Hollywood film – “The Man Behind The Iron mask…” a story about twins… one of them is deformed… but that was stale… then, out of the blue, I threw a knock-out punch at him – ‘What if one of them is a dwarf’
He did not answer; kept staring at my face; he walked to the phone, spoke animatedly in Tamil and came back.
I was wondering what had gone wrong. I asked him. I was told that he had spoken to a senior scientist in Bangalore and asked him to come to Madras immediately.
The scientist arrived. He spoke to him. That guy said, I will work during the night and get back in the morning; it was whisky time. I noticed him gulping his drink; we were silent most of the time.
The next morning, the scientist arrived with a whole lot of sketches. He had worked out, how the dwarf would be created.
It Was possible. A film was successfully conceived, and I had become a writer.
It was to be named ‘APOORVA SAHAGODRAGAL’. Later to be dubbed in Hindi and titled ‘APPU RAJA’!
Work on the film started immediately and in top secrecy. The great P C Sriram was to be the cinematographer. Of course I did not know too many people from the Tamil industry, but soon a lot of them knew me as Kamal Haasan’s new blue-eyed boy from North India. For people in Madras, anything north of Hyderabad is North India.
The next few days in Madras, are really hazy in my mind. My life had changed. I met the Director, Singeetham Srinivas Rao. He had already made ‘Pushpak’ and though he was much senior to me, he was as excited as a child who had got his first Playstation!
We fixed the dates for writing the screenplay. He was going to shoot in Bangalore and that is where I would be meeting him the next month.
When Sarika and Kamal Haasan came to drop me off at the airport, I knew, I had made them proud.
‘Apoorva Sahagodragal’ was finally complete. It was real hard work to say the least. But when we saw the first print, the beaming faces all around said it all.
It was released and immediately became a craze. It was declared a super hit on the day it was released. It completed a Silver Jubilee run in all four languages in the South — Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.
Till date, it remains Kamal Haasan’s biggest ever hit.
I did attend most of the shooting because I wanted to see how the dwarf would be created. A video showing how it was done, was also shot. It was hard work, most of the time, he’s walking with his legs folded at the knees; at other times, a pit’s dug for him.
Kamal Haasan would walk in the pit, while the other actors walked on level ground, false short legs and all. But the biggest secret was a rubber suit he wore under his clothes. It was moulded to bring his stomach higher than normal…and that really completed the illusion.
Kamal Haasan used to be sore after every shoot. But he is an actor who will kill himself, if it makes a good shot.
It was not long before some producers bought the rights for the Hindi version. Remaking the film involved too much expense and many people, all over India had already seen the Tamil version on video.
Kamal Haasan arrived in Bombay to dub for the film himself. An interesting co-incidence, Sarika dubbed for Gauthami.
A very famous writer (who was a regular in Raj Kapoor’s camp) was writing the Hindi dialogue. I mention this incident because even though I came through it as a winner, it did make me realize a few things.
On the third or fourth day of dubbing, Kamal Haasan called me to the recording room, and proudly showed me the four reels, that had been dubbed. I saw them, heard the dialogue and walked off quietly.
Kamal called me at night, to ask me why I had walked off and how I found the dubbing. I gave him my honest opinion – B***S***! (the male version of cow-dung). He could not believe his ears. He asked again, my answer was the same. He banged the phone on me.
At six, the next morning, he called again, sarcastically asked me – “So what do you have to say about the dubbing, now that you are sober.”
I told him the same thing again; he told me to come to his hotel immediately. I told him that the dialogue was very badly written.
He thought about it silently – what I was saying meant not only embarrassment but also a loss of a few lakhs of rupees. He picked up the phone and called up Ramesh Sippy
The most successful director in the film industry – Ramesh Sippy – arrived at the dubbing studio and saw the dubbed reels. As soon as the lights came on, he said, this is B***S*** !
Over lunch, Kamal Haasan explained to me – “I could not throw out such a big writer, just on the word of an unknown entity called Dinesh Shailendra, now that Rameshji has said it, I can.” I was back on hard ground, and I had a long way to go.
Ramesh Sippy suggested Manohar Shyam Joshi’s name to re-write the Hindi dialogue.
According to me, Appu Raja is one of the best dubbed films I have seen till date, and another lesson learnt. Life is a great leveller, sometimes one is Raja, sometimes Appu.