This is the story of two friends. One who trusted. The other who betrayed the trust. It is the story of two professionals. The established actress who wanted to help a struggling filmmaker and didn’t take the requisite precautions. It is the story of two human beings. The compassionate one surrendered to the dictates of her heart. The deprived one who manipulated every opportunity that came his way.
It all started when K Shashilal Nair and Manisha Koirala met during the making of Grahan in 1997. The film was in the making for almost five years. During the long schedules a strong bond formed between five friends: Anu, Manisha’s closest friend, her husband Avi (co-producer of Grahan), director Shashilal Nair, his wife Mala and the heroine of the film, Manisha Koirala. They spent almost every evening together and even though the film was delayed indefinitely and finally bombed at the box-office, it’s failure did not break the friendship. On the contrary, Nair’s recurring misfortunes evoked the actress’s sympathy and empathy. She continued to believe in Nair’s technical whizadry and could not fathom why success eluded him, time and again.
Nair was the only one amongst them who after so many years in the industry still lived in a rented apartment. He had huge debts to clear and practically no bank balance. His friends wanted to help him without hurting his self-respect. Opportunity came when Mani Kumar, a financier from Delhi, approached Manisha to do a film. Manisha recommended Shashilal Nair as the director. She even arranged a meeting between the two men. But for some reasons the project fell through.
A month later, Nair phoned Manisha. To inform her that he had found another financier. He confided that he had a subject in mind for her provided she was open to the idea of starring in a small-budget film. Manisha agreed instantly. He enquired about her fee. Manisha evaded the issue saying she wasn’t going to accept money from friends. “Don’t make me feel small,” she told Nair. They agreed to meet the following week.
It was sometime in February that Nair narrated his story idea to Manisha. She understood that it would be an experimental film for a limited audience, targeted for the festival circuit abroad, to be completed in 20-25 days. Recalls Manisha, “It was a bold subject but I have always risked my image with different roles. It had shades of Summer Of ’42. However, when Ram Gopal Varma asked me if it was a remake of this film but I clarified that it had actually been borrowed from Malino, a superbly crafted and edited Italian film made by the director of my favourite film Cinema Paradioe,” informs Manisha. “At no point was the Polish film (A Short Film About Love made by Krzystof Kieslowski of which Ek Chhotisi Love Story is supposed to be a frame-to-frame copy) ever mentioned or shown to me.”
She admits that the character did seem a wee bit confusing to her and she even expressed concern to the director. But Nair assured her that the contradictions would be resolved once they began shooting. “Trust me,” Nair told her. “I will not let you down.”
In March and the producer puts up a huge set at Heera Panna in Powai, Mumbai. The script was more or less defined on paper: A teenage boy obsessed with his attractive neighbour keeps ogling at the older women through binoculars. Initially annoyed and later exasperated, the woman surrenders to the young boy’s fantasy only to break his dream and awaken him to reality. During the shooting, doubts again surfaced in Manisha’s mind. She wondered if she had made a mistake. But every time Nair put her fears to rest by quoting relevant examples from the past like Hema Malini in Rihaee, Shabana Azmi in Yeh Nazdeekiyan and Rekha in Aastha. The arguments offered were convincing and Manisha sought consolation in the fact that they were releasing just two prints of the film, Delhi and Mumbai.
Then one fine day, Nair sprung a surprise on her. He said that the script called for some explicit love scenes and he had decided to shoot them with a body double. Manisha was perplexed. She protested, weakly. Again Nair was quick to reassure her. “I’ll show them to you and if you disapprove, I will remove the scenes,” he told her.
A month later, in April, the shooting was completed and dubbing commenced. Manisha who had temporarily put aside her fears enquired about the scenes involving the body double. She was informed that they had still to be edited and would be incorporated in the film later. “That’s the first time I felt a danger signal,” Manisha remembers. “Until then I had been complacent, trusting a friendly unit and confident that nothing would go wrong. For the first time however, I felt I needed to protect myself.”
She phoned her secretary, Madan Jain and told him to take a letter in writing from the director that he would not retain any of the body double shots if she disapproved of them. The secretary immediately obtained the letter from filmmaker. On the surface at least, everything was under control!
In May, Manisha and her mother who was visiting her in India were called to the first trial. Nothing in their wildest imagination could have prepared the two women for what was unfolding on screen. “I was dumbfounded and my mother was seething. The nagging doubt that I had made a mistake was finally confirmed. After 12 years in front of the camera, I have some sense of cinema and a perception of my portrayal. What I saw came nowhere close to what I had visualized. What I was seeing resembled an x-rated film. I felt exploited and helpless!” she shudders at the memory.
With a heavy heart Manisha returned home and confronted her friend. Nair was surprised, almost furious, by her reaction. He postponed the clash saying, “We will discuss this.”
A week later he phoned Manisha to say that he had substituted some of the scenes with alternate shots and now there was no cause for alarm. She was relieved to hear that but it was like the calm before a storm. After that neither did Nair phone nor were the alternate shots screened for the actress. He wouldn’t take any of her calls. A time came when the two were only communicating through Manisha’s secretary, Madan Jain.
After weeks of persuasion and regular follow-up, Nair finally confirmed a date for the second preview. This time Manisha was accompanied by her secretary. Nair conspicuous by his absence. He was represented by his assistant. Manisha was not in the mind frame to see the entire film. She asked the assistant to only show her the four double body shots. “He had merely reduced the duration of the scenes but they were the same shots,” she recalls. “He had once again gone back on his promise. I felt weighed down. But realised there was no point in having a showdown with the assistant.”
Once she was back home Manisha phoned Nair. Only to learn that the director was in London negotiating with foreign financiers. She tracked him down and complained about the shots. By now Nair was in no mood to be reasonable. He argued that he had shown her two options and could not cooperate any further. Says Manisha, “I could not believe I was hearing it right. I could not believe that a person I had known so closely could change so drastically so suddenly. He is defensive. Embarrassed, I withdraw to seek solace in the fact that I have his declaration letter and he could not harm me.”
Journalists meanwhile had caught the whiff of a story. They were provoking her to issue a statement against the director. But Manisha had been in show business long enough not to fall into that trap. “I pleaded with them not to turn this into into a controversy,” she maintains. But that’s exactly what happens!
In the coming month, while Manisha was in Nairobi on a UNICEF fund drive, the producer launched a dramatic promotion campaign. The notorious line “Ek Chotti Si Love Story... Ek Badi Si Controversy” started making the rounds and even flashed on the actress’s mobile phone. She didn’t think it was funny.
At the end of July Manisha returned to India and chanced upon a copy of the trade magazine Complete Cinema carrying an ad of the film. It was a four-page spread, graphic to the point of blasphemy. “There was a visual of a boy sking on the bare breast of a woman...Another of him fishing inside her naval...And a third of him playing golf on her bare butt. The text clearly mentioned my name and not that of my character in the film. I was in panic and summoned my secretary,” she remembers.
Meanwhile, Shashilal Nair’s statements in print kept changing. “First he said that he had shot the scenes with me. Then he said that he had a letter from me giving him permission to shoot with a double. Next, he pleaded that he is willing to replace the objectionable scenes with alternate shots that would meet with my satisfaction. And immediately contradicted himself by saying he was not willing to cooperate with me any further. It was a never ending chain of lies and more lies,” informs a shaken Manisha.
Exasperated, Manisha went to the Cine Artists Association for her. The CAA President, Amrish Puri was sympathetic and announced a hearing on August, 20. By then a very nervous Manisha has filed an appeal with the High Court asking for a stay order on the film.
Those were restless days for the actress. She was shooting for Tan Man. Com during the day and dubbing for Escape From Taliban in the evenings. But her heart was in neither project.
On August 17 there was a hearing at the High Court. The judge announced that he would give his verdict only after seeing the film. “I was confident that the verdict would go in my favour. After all, I had a letter of agreement and it is clear that the director had betrayed. So how could the legal system not see my point of view?” she argues.
Meanwhile, a distraught Manisha sought out Bal Thackeray. He was the only one in the the given crisis who could provide a quick solution to the messy problem, well wishers told her. Bal Thackeray adviced Manisha to hire a lawyer since the matter was subjudiced. He recommended his own advocate, Satish Maneshinde who was confident Manisha had a strong case in her favour. He immediately filed an appeal for a stay order telling Mainsha that it would take five days for the appeal to be implemented. Uncaring of the consequences, the producer ordered 97 prints of the film.
Then the unthinkable happened!The High Court rejected Manisha’s appeal for a stay on the release. She appeals against the judgement to a division bench of the Bombay High Court. The division bench admitted her appeal and granted ad interim relief restraining exhibition of the film till the four objectionable scenes were edited out. The injunction order however was not applicable to theatre owners. On Friday, September, 6 Ek Chhotisi Love Story opened all over India.
In Mumbai, halfway through the first show, Shiv Sainiks disrupted the screening and tore posters of the film. There was chaos in auditoriums across the city. Many were injured. The public lashed out at Manisha for taking the help of the Shiv Sainiks to resolve her case. Her supporters criticised her for visiting Matoshree, Thackeray’s residence, and blamed her for the rampant vandalism. Overnight, Manisha transformed, from the victim to the oppressor.
Analyses Manisha, “I understand that there are wheels within wheels and support comes with a price tag. But there are moments in life when you have to make choices. I wasn’t seeking violence, merely support. And Balasaheb offered me a helping hand when a lot of my own people turned their back to me. I went to him again to offer my thanks to him for recommending the right lawyer. I fail to understand why everyone is condemning me when in fact it is the filmmaker and the exhibitors who ought to be condemned for contempt of court.”
Manisha’s heartbroken but putting up a brave front. In the coming weeks, there are bigger hurdles to be overcome. Even though she has the support of some top-ranking political leaders in Delhi and the National Commission of Women, the media has been lambasting Manisha. They suspect that the controversy is a publicity stunt to promote the film and boost up sales. She’s being hounded for a statement. But Manisha’s inaccessible to the press and that’s adding to the misunderstanding. “What is there to say under such compelling circumstances? I’m not in the frame of mind to absorb questions and provide appropriate answers. I’m not even taking calls from friends and family because I don’t have the energy to communicate with anyone. I’m tired of going over the details again and again with various body heads and the lawyers. Running from pillar to post, questioning the legal system and judiciary has drained me,” she sighs tiredly. “It’s very easy for everyone to say that Manisha is no babe in the woods. She should have known what she was doing. Yes, I should have. But despite the conflicting signals I surrendered to the vision of a director I trusted. It was a mistake and I’ll regret it all my life. No actress should ever have to go through this.”
What’s particularly distressing for Manisha is that none of my colleagues have come forward to express solidarity. “I’ve realized that everyone is with you only during happy occasions. In tragedy and crisis, it’s always a stranger, who helps you out,” she rues.
These past few weeks have taken their toll on her. “I’ve lost sleep, appetite and the will to meet anyone,” she admits. “I feel disconnected with everything, even acting, which is unfair because cinema is my passion. I have lost a friend and accept the fact that my reputation can never be salvaged. The pain will remain in my heart forever. But it is my prerogative as an actress and as an individual to protect my right for dignity.”
Manisha however, does not want to wage a never-ending battle with the director. “My plea is simple. I have only three demands. Delete four objectionable scenes. Pay me my fee even though I will not touch the abused money, but it’s my right to have it and then donate it to whoever I want. And finally, I want an unconditional public apology. That’s important to me!”
The story hasn’t ended. Stories involving errors of judgement never do. Nor do stories of abuse of intention. They result in infrequent tragedies and triumphs. The current story in fact reminds me of another story made into an award winning film in Hollywood. Starring Jodie Foster, Jonathan Kaplan’s much-acclaimed film Accused, scripted by Tom Topor, was inspired by a real-life incident that occurred in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1983. Jodie Foster won The Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sarah Tobias, a hard-living, fiercely independent woman who is gang-raped in the back of a local bar. The rapists defend their act saying that the girl was willing. What goes against the defendant is that she is an overtly attractive and uninhibited personality. She loses the case the first time but is not discouraged. She battles with the legal system a second time with her attorney, Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis). Murphy turns the verdict in the woman;s favour by reversing the rules and going after the attackers and putting the onlookers whose cheering fuelled and encouraged the assault, on trial. She berates the spectators for keeping silent and making no attempt to stop the brutality. The final verdict is that no matter how provocatively Tobais was dressed or how suggestively she danced, she did not ask to be gang-raped. Similarly, just because Manisha Koirala dressed in shorts and singlets in Ek Chhotisi Love Story and knowingly enacted certain erotic scenes integral to the script, the actress did not ask to be portrayed in a pornographic film. If Manisha feels that she has been objectionably projected then it is her prerogative to protest. The public and the media cannot stand judgements on her personal life to determine a professional issue.
Published in ScreenIndia