After facing a string of hurdles, the biopic on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is finally set to roll into theatres on 24th May. Titled PM Narendra Modi, the biographical drama is directed by well-known filmmaker Omung Kumar and stars actor Vivek Oberoi in the titular role.
Ahead of the release of the much-anticipated movie, Eastern Eye sat down with Vivek Oberoi at co-producer Sandip Ssingh’s spacious apartment in Mumbai and tries to know more about PM Narendra Modi, the kind of challenges he faced while playing one of the most powerful leaders on screen and what stayed with him after he was done shooting for the biopic.
The talented actor also opens about the season 2 and season 3 of Amazon Prime Video’s Inside Edge, his upcoming project with Ekta Kapoor and a yet-to-be-announced multilingual movie he is quite psyched up about working on.
The release of your film is just round the corner. How are you feeling?
I am really excited that the film is finally coming. Let me open by saying that on 23rd of May, our honourable PM Narendra Modi is coming back to power and on 24th of May, PM Narendra Modi is coming in cinemas. There is going to be a lot of celebration. We will celebrate the film’s release and the coming back of our honourable Prime Minister in the office with a huge majority.
The majority of people believe that PM Narendra Modi will be voted back to power. Do you think that his return to office is going to benefit your film?
I don’t know about that, but it is going to benefit the country. It is going to benefit the country in a big way because it will bring continuity and stability. From what I am hearing, he is going to come back to power with an enormous majority. I think it is going to be a vote of confidence, not out of a wave.
In 2014, I think people wanted a change, but when it is a pro-incumbency vote, that is a very intelligent vote. That is a vote given by people who feel that they have experienced some change in their lives.
How patriotic are you?
Patriotism is in my blood. I am born in a family where almost everyone was revolutionary. My paternal grandfather was involved with Bhagat Singh Ji. My maternal grandfather was from Chennai, South India. He was a freedom fighter and patriot in Chennai. When my mom and dad got married, the common meeting ground was patriotism and freedom fighters. Both were children of freedom fighters and that’s how they got married. They never thought about cast, creed, Punjabi, Madrasi, etc. The only thing they considered was that both of them were patriots.
Even my wife belongs to a family of freedom fighters. Her grandfather was a freedom fighter. In fact, her grandfather was the first southern prince to surrender all his fancy clothing for khadi at the age of 19 or 20 and joined Mahatma Gandhi’s movement.
What have you discovered about PM Narendra Modi while doing his biopic?
What I have discovered about Narendra bhai is that whatever he has done, he has done it for his country. It impacted me a lot as a person. See, I have done 45-46 films in the past 17 years. Most of the characters live with you only for a couple of days after the release of the film and you move on. Very few characters leave an indelible experience. They leave an experience so deep that they become a part of you. This is one of those characters.
How do you describe the entire process of playing one of the most powerful politicians in the world?
For me, during this process, two things happened. I have known him since he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. I have seen his journey from CM to PM. I have met him multiple times. I have rather had the privilege of hearing his ideologies, his vision and his progressive nature. There are so many things that I have experienced over the years, but still, there was so much more to explore.
When I did this film, one thing that clicked was that we, by our nature, chase what we don’t have. If we come from poverty, our first aim is to make so much money that we don’t see poverty ever again in our life. We want to accumulate so much wealth so that our family doesn’t see poverty again. When he was a kid, he watched his mother wash utensils at other people’s houses for money, yet he did not chase money. He is a Gujarati; business should be in his blood, but he did not chase money.
A man who had nothing, came from nothing, gave his everything to the country. Very few people who come from nothing want to give their everything to their people. That is amazing. That is one thing that stayed with me.
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There were some people who did not like the news of you playing PM Narendra Modi in his biopic.
When Sandip Ssingh announced that he had roped in me to play Modi, many people were like, “There is no match. No way, he cannot play him,” and all of that. There was a lot of trolling also. They kept saying whatever they wanted to, but I am a very positive person. I only said, “Challenge accepted.” I started working on the film.
What was the first thing you began with to play the part?
I started working on my physical transformation. Sandip wanted to get prosthetic artists from all over the world – Japan, US, UK and all. I said, “No, it’s a film on Narendra Modi and hence, prosthetic artists will be Indians only.”
Was it challenging to get the look right?
We used to spend 7-8 hours on prosthetics. The first time I put prosthetics on the face – it had silicon, gum and all – everybody was waiting to see how I looked. After it was done, now the whole team was waiting for me to say anything about the look. I said, “Okay, guys. This is crap. We need to do it again?”
Everybody was like” Oh, gosh! We cannot do it again. I said, “No, we can do it.” We kept pushing the envelope. The fifteenth time we did it. It used to take around 7-8 hours each time. We tried the look for multiple days and finally, we got it in our fifteenth attempt.
Was there anything more challenging other than getting the look right?
The biggest challenge was to get the shine that he has in his eyes. Any lenses cannot help you with that. It’s not an expression so nobody at any acting school can teach you that. Then how do you get that? I sort of thought of where did he get that shine from? Then I remembered Narendra bhai telling me in Bhuj that, “No matter what time I sleep, I wake up at 4 am and do pranayama and yoga.” I started doing that. The first few days were so difficult. Five months before shooting, every single day, I used to get up at sharp 4 am in the morning and do pranayama, yoga and meditation. That was really tough. I became completely satvik, pure vegetarian in the process. I ate no onion, no garlic, no tea and no coffee. Nothing. It was only fruits.
A day before starting the shoot, I called Hrithik (Roshan) and said, “I wanted to show you the first poster of my film. When he saw it, his first reaction was, “Dude, this is you? I cannot believe it. What a transformation! It’s superb.” We had a great conversation. Then he said, “How did you get this look in your eyes?” I got up, hugged him and said, “It took me five months. I have been waking up at 4 am every day.” That habit has stayed with me.
How did you feel when the Election Commission of India stalled the release of your film just a day before it was set to enter theatres?
I was really upset and disappointed. I felt there was a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) against our film, just like many political parties have formed a mahagathbandhan against our honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Suddenly, everybody wanted to ban the film, from NCP to MNS and TMC to DMK. Was that a core issue? I mean you should talk about your confidence in your work, your belief in yourself. Why are you shaken up by a small film? It is my freedom of speech and expression.
When we made the film, we did a full legal check and there was not a single instance of violation of any Model Code of Conduct. Even in High Court, there was an oral submission by EC where they said, “We have told CBFC to go ahead, but keep the Model Code of Conduct in mind.”
Everything was fine; there was no problem. But one night before the release, I don’t know what pressure came on EC, they sent me a notice.
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Did it increase the cost of the film?
Yes, exponentially. I don’t have any legal recourse for that. I don’t have anybody that I can sue and say, “Listen, your arbitrary decision has cost me so much money.” It has not affected the cost of my film only in India but overseas also. 40 countries across the world were about to showcase the film. All my bookings and screens had to be cancelled. The cost has really gone up.
What will be the screen count for the biopic?
Globally, I think, we are going to release it in around 2000 screens. In India, it will be a figure about 1200-1250 screens.
Does the biopic encapsulate every major event of honourable Prime Minister’s life?
It starts from his childhood. From him being a tea seller to becoming the Prime Minister of India, we have tried to show everything possible in 2 hours 15 minutes.
What is next in the pipeline?
What is next is very interesting (smiles). I have been very lucky with Inside Edge. Ever since it won us an Emmy nomination, Amazon Prime has shown a lot of confidence in us. We have finished shooting for season 2. On 24th May, my film PM Narendra Modi releases and I will start shooting for Inside Edge 3 on the very same day.
I have also signed something big with Ekta (Kapoor). It’s something very exciting. After Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007), I am back to Ekta. It’s a very exciting project for us. You will hear about it soon. Aside from that, there is also a very exciting film, a very exciting subject that I am excited about doing next.
Is anything happening down South?
Nothing down South now, but the film that I am talking about will be a multilingual venture for sure.