Major, released on 3rd June, is based on the life of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, who fought against terrorists and was killed in action during the 2008 attacks at the Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai. Actors Adivi Sesh, Sobhita Dhulipala and Saiee M. Manjrekar speak to Sneha Desai Menon about their duty toward the depiction of their characters and more.
Major Unnikrishnan’s life lends itself so organically to the cinematic experience: there’s heroism, there’s patriotism, there’s tragedy, there’s love. So, as the writer and the actors as well, what did you see as your responsibility towards him and doing right by his story on celluloid?
Adivi: I think the responsibility wasn’t so much to recreate the exact things that happened in his life. The moment you put music behind the story, it’s not an exact recreation anymore. The idea was to find the truth in his spirit, the truth in his soul and to make sure that it is present in every scene that we write. Sometimes, we took things that happened five years apart in one scene. But honestly, I can say that every scene in the film has the truth of his soul and that was the responsibility we had. Uncle and Aunty (Major Unkrishnnan’s parents) were, in the beginning, hesitant but as we were discussing the scenes, eventually, they started to see what I was seeing and I started seeing how they feel: that as long we capture the spirit of the man, the audience are and will witness something extraordinary.
Saiee: My first impression of Isha (Major Unkrishnnan’s wife) was that she brought a sense of innocence and purity to his life. My headspace was that I had to be more myself in this role and that is what helped me play Isha.
Sobhita: There are the 31 years of Major Sandeep Unkrishnnan’s life that is one track, and then there’s a parallel track that runs throughout, which is about 36 hours of the Taj Operation. They run parallel in the film and at some point, they collide. I play Pramoda, who is based on a real person and whose gender and name have been changed for privacy’s sake. I represent the inner story of the Taj and I think it is a significant perspective because it’s impossible to fathom what Pramoda went through.
It was important to me to have no pretence while playing the role as with a fictional character there’s room to improvise but when it’s a real person it’s important to submit to the experience wholly. My intention was to be absolutely truthful. Thank god we could pack-up at the end of the day and I had the privilege to retreat from that world. To think somebody went through something so immense — to go from checking into a hotel to worrying about whether they will make it to the next day is very hard to imagine; it was difficult to find a reference point but I drew from whatever I heard from Sesh and the director, who had interacted with the person, to try to do my best to be authentic. To be sincere with the role wasn’t just a choice, it was my duty.
At the press conference of the film when Mahesh Babu was asked about doing a Hindi film, he said his responsibility as a pan-Indian actor goes beyond just doing a Hindi film but actually getting more people across India to watch Telugu films. Is that something you resonate with?
Adivi: I think it’s an extraordinary way of looking at things and it’s precisely how I feel Rajamouli sir also did it. He opened the floodgates for the idea of a pan-Indian film with Baahubali but he never shot it in Hindi, rather he shot it in Telugu and brought the glory of Telugu cinema to all of Indian cinema. I think for me the decision to have Major be shot both in Telugu and Hindi was done because that’s what this story demanded. Major Sandeep has lived all over India and spoke multiple languages, including his native language, Malayalam, extremely fluently. So we tried to depict it from that space. If anything Telugu is probably there because I’m a Telugu actor, isn’t it? (laughs)
Out of respect to authenticity, I tried to speak Malayalam for a day but I knew it would take me five years to make a proper shot in Malayam film, so I dropped the idea there. I understand Mahesh sir’s feeling: we want to take what we’re making already and do that at a bigger scale, rather than fitting into a hierarchy of something else. Because, in the end, we’re all ultimately making Indian films.
Your decision to do secret screenings of the film, without it being in an organized way was gutsy, especially in the age of social media. Is that a reflection of how confident you guys are in the film’s ability to draw an audience?
Adivi: No, I mean, we simply asked people to leave their phones outside of the theatre so there was no issue about piracy (laughs).
What about when they come out and tweet?
Adivi: Yeah, that’s great because when we did the secret screenings for 1700 people and they were screaming ‘Bharat maata ki jai!‘ as they walked out. People were crying and laughing as well. I also got calls from several people such as Saiee’s family and Sajid Nadiadwala sir’s family so I knew I’d signed up for something great.
It’s a first — that a big Indian film is being shown in ten cities, ten days before release.
Sobhita: It’s one thing to look at it as a show of confidence but not even once did our marketing team talk about landing a big box-office collection. Obviously, we want to be rewarded financially so that we can take up other meaningful projects as well, but in the case of this film, we were more concerned about how we could get more people to watch it because this man’s life was so exemplary. In fact, there are schools in Bangalore and Hyderabad that teach his life in their curriculum.
Saiee: When I was watching the movie, the younger sibling of a friend of mine was excited because she could relate the scenes of the film to what had been taught to her in school. It shows the amount of research that went into making the movie.
Sobhita: In the past, we’ve had freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh who are revered and celebrated. Even in today’s times, we have examples like that: people who need to be put out there, as they were ordinary people put in extraordinary situations and the choices they made deserve celebration and respect.