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|July 9, 2001||
The man who lives, breathes, eats, dreams cinema
The man in black dominates the ballroom of the Regent Hotel, Bombay.
Watching him ease through the crowd, handling with easy assurance the many who demand a moment of his time, I'm struck by the fact that the self-effacing young (34), director of Gentleman has, five films later, gained immensely in self-assurance.
His body language is that of a man who knows his worth but can wear it lightly, and who is comfortable with the expectations he raises with every fresh release.
Then again, why not? His debut, Gentleman (Arjun-Madhoo), was a superhit. Ditto, his next film Kaadhalan (Prabhu Deva-Naghma, dubbed in Hindi as Humse Hain Muqabala). His third, Indian (Hindustani in Hindi) with Kamal Haasan, Urmila Matondkar and Manisha Koirala, exceeded even the high expectations raised by the first two.
His next, Jeans -- a comedy caper, departing from his norm -- with Aishwarya Rai and Prashanth in the lead, was dubbed a 'flop' (despite being the year's biggest grosser in Andhra, and more than recovering its investment in Tamil Nadu). Which was just another indication that, increasingly, the industry expects miracles from the man.
And then he came up with the Arjun-Manisha Koirala superhit Mudhalvan, to make it five out of five.
Now, for his debut Hindi outing (his sixth straight film boasting A R Rahman's music, incidentally), Shankar has Anil Kapoor and Rani Mukherji reprising the roles played by Arjun and Manisha in the Tamil original.
In Bombay for the release of the film's music, Shankar handled a request for an interview with a grin and a "Do you want the mandatory two minutes or a long interview? If you want an in-depth one, can we do it next week, when I come back?" And then took a few quick questions "just for now".
Directing in Hindi, he says, was less traumatic than he first imagined. "It was very comfortable, really," he shrugs. "I had some initial trepidation. But that disappeared and I think I have finished it all very smoothly."
His director of cinematography, K V Anand, chips in with what could be a clue. Shankar, says Anand, prepared for his latest project by acquiring a Hindi teacher -- and on shoots in and around Bombay, 'practised' by reading aloud all the Hindi signposts and boards he could find.
Perhaps it is this dedication that turned a potentially difficult task into what he describes as "a good experience."
"Actually," he smiles, "I finished Nayak in less time than it took me to make the original. Mudhalvan was my debut as a producer. And at the time, I remember people were critical. They said that I had done my first four films quickly, but when it came to my own film, I was taking inordinately long.
"Nayak has been quick, though. I finished it earlier than expected."
A speed born of increased self-assurance? How, I ask the six-films-old director, would he say he has changed, evolved?
"At first, I was like a newborn calf let loose -- hopping and skipping around, roaming wherever I wanted to go and doing what I wanted to, feeling very carefree. Then Gentleman, my first film, became a big hit, my second film Kaadhalan was also big at the box office, and everything changed," he shrugs.
"From then on it felt like everyone was constantly looking at me, at my performance. Expectations soared. And with them, my responsibility increased."
Shankar's on-set behaviour, say Anand, Anil Kapoor and others who work closely with him, is characterised by a singleminded focus that permits of no interruption, no diversion, no distraction.
"This man lives, breathes, eats and dreams cinema," Anil Kapoor said, during the music launch function.
"He is completely absorbed. It is amazing the focus he brings to what he does."
"I guess that with time, I began feeling, realising, that I have to keep delivering, that each successive film had to do better than the previous one," Shankar explains.
"I think the one big result of all this is that the carefree calf is now more careful, more restrained, less impetuous and no longer carefree."
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