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November 27, 2001

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Who's hotter: Madhuri or Ash?

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Subhash K Jha
It's a bewitching beehive.

Post shooting a major part of his film at Film City, Bombay, director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has now moved to Filmistan Studios for the last lap of his dream project Devdas.

Floor 3 of Filmistan. I am greeted by a gaunt Sanjay. He has lost so much weight: "Yeah, look at what Devdas has done to me."

Sanjay is shooting the climactic dance number, featuring Paro (Aishwarya Rai) and Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit). Both look gloriously Bengali, in heavily embroidered silk zari saris and traditional jewellery. The chorus dancers, too, with their saris wrapped in the traditional Bengali style, are dressed to kill.

Madhuri, Aishwarya and cinematographer Binod Pradhan (working for the first time with Sanjay) get into position. And much to Sanjay's annoyance, the dancers chatter incessantly in the background. It takes a while for them to get quiet.

I'm dazzled by the sheer multi-dimensionality of Sanjay's sets. The colours scream with subdued flamboyance. Red, silver and gold dominate the dance floor. Art director Nitin Desai looks pleased. "Sanjay is a director who knows exactly what he wants," the affable Nitin looks on at the world of romantic lyricism he has constructed.

An entourage from London has come to observe Sanjay at work. Though the shooting commenced around 1300 hrs, they were invited at 1100 hrs. The Brits look on with genuine interest as Madhuri, eyes brimming with tears, moves towards the camera to give a perfect take.

"Their saris are really lovely," a Londoner leans over. "Tell me, which one of the two ladies is hotter with the audience?" I tell him.

The question reminds me of the inevitable comparisons between the two that are bound to crop up once Devdas releases in April.

Right now, both seem comfortable in their individual space. While Madhuri retires to a chair after every shot, Aishwarya is more effusive. She hugs Sanjay, laughs and whispers in his ear.

I make small talk with Aishwarya and head towards Madhuri, who smiles politely. "Sanjay doesn't like his heroines disturbed between shots," she hints broadly as I sit next to her.

I look at Sanjay, daring him to shoo me off. He grins and rolls his eyes.

The cameras roll. Aishwarya and Madhuri are transformed into two exquisitely lovelorn ladies, pining for Devdas who, incidentally, isn't on the sets that day.

A few days later, on Floor 4 of Filmistan, Shah Rukh Khan is looking dapper in a dhoti. Jackie Shroff, who plays Devdas' friend and confidante, Chunnilal, is even more comfy in the national garb.

Madhuri, Jackie and Shah Rukh share a perfect emotional shot. I get up from my chair to offer her a seat. Madhuri beams and plonks herself on the other seat. "It's okay. The chair doesn't have anyone's name written on it!" she laughs.

On the set, Shah Rukh and his director remain locked in a serious discussion about the next shot. Jackie comes down, smiling to meet one of his favourite directors, Ketan Mehta. They chat amiably.

I tell Jackie he makes a cool Chunnilal. "Let's hope the audience feels the same way," he winks, and goes back to gabbing with the softspoken Ketan.

The set is alive with sounds and smells today. Perfumes and unpolished wood mingle with samosas and dahi vadas as snacks make their round.

The director's utterly charming mother is on the set today. She is undoubtedly the star of the evening as the entire unit fusses around her. But she is worried: "Look how much this film has taken from Sanjay. He hasn't eaten since this morning."

Finally, after the next shot is duly discussed and decided, Sanjay turns his attention to the lunch which his mother has prepared. With her watching over him, Sanjay digs into his home-prepared dal chawal. He invites me to have a few morsels. "This could be my last meal for a long time," he grins.

A familiar-looking boy walks up to her. She greets him warmly. He is the boy who played Nana Patekar and Seema Biswas' son (and Manisha Koirala's little brother) in Sanjay's first film Khamoshi: The Musical.

The faces I saw on the sets of Devdas are memorable, alive, eager -- the mood is mesmeric. The elegance, poise and romance of an era gone by are about to come alive on screen.

Sanjay, for one, can hardly wait.

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