KOCHI: Afather who transformed a cowshed into a wrestling arena for his daughters - this made quite an impact on Divya Rao while she was revisiting an interesting article about Mahavir Singh Phogat in 2012. As the creative producer in UTV Motion Pictures, she felt rather strongly about pitching it to the creative head.
“We not only have to pitch creative ideas for films, but also validate why it’s worthy to do it. But when the creative head, Manish Hariprasad, took my two-page submission to Siddharth Roy Kapur and Ronnie Screwvala, they gave it a go right away,” Divya said. “And I was overjoyed to know that they decided to keep the title ‘Dangal’ which was my suggestion.”
Why Dangal? “Dangal essentially means a wrestling bout. But it was also the bout between society and the Phogats, the ideological bout between the father and daughters,” said the Keralite from Thrissur, who grew up in Mumbai. She added that she has always followed sports keenly, and is a 2nd degree black belt holder in taekwondo.
Once the idea was okayed, a scriptwriter needed to come on board and that’s when Nitesh Tiwari stepped in. “As the first step, Nitesh, his assistant Piyush Gupta and I went to meet the Phogat family in Haryana. “Mahavirji’s Hariyanvi was so dense, we didn’t get a word of it in the first five minutes. However, we eased into it slowly. It took a little time to convey to them that we were going to make a positive film about the family. And then he obliged and narrated his story to us.”
“The best part about his home was that the men were hosting us, not the women! Young men inquired whether we wanted water/tea,” exclaimed Divya, adding it was so unlikely in patriarchal setups that it touched them all.
Once the scripting was underway, Aamir seized the spot of the strongest contender for the father’s role. “We needed someone who would take that kind of effort. And when we finally got a chance to narrate the story to Aamir, he gave us the word saying he’d love to do it,” said Divya.
“Aamir Khan is the most democratic person I’ve met,” said Divya describing her interaction with the star as fantabulous. “After the first cut of the film, I was thrilled that he asked all of us for feedback!”
“There was a screening for the Phogat family too, and I was very nervous about that. After the film, I asked Mahavirji what he thought about it, and he told me that his eyes were just as misty as mine were, when I had first heard his story,” said Divya.
What if Aamir Khan hadn’t done the film? “Oh in that case, the only other actors who come to mind are Mohanlal and Kamal Haasan,” Divya stated. Not someone new to the industry, Divya Rao has previously assisted eminent directors like Nagesh Kukunoor and Nandita Das. However, the then creative head is now a freelance writer, who is penning her own script as well as teaching Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. Direction looming large in the horizon? “Not for now, for I’d love to keep writing.”