Nitin Kakkar’s Notebook looks relatively sedate for a Bollywood launch film. Adapted from the 2014 Thai film, Teacher’s Diary, the low-key romance is set in Kashmir, a setting that snugly replaces the rivered countrysides of Northern Thailand, where the original was set.
The plot remains faithfully untouched, with minor changes: a former army officer, Kabir (debutant Zaheer Iqbal), takes up a teaching job at a remote school on a houseboat.
He bonds with the children there and, to his surprise, finds a notebook left behind by the previous instructor, Firdaus (debutante Pranutan Bahl). To cut back on loneliness, Kabir starts flipping through Firdaus’ private scribbles and finds himself falling badly for her — a girl he has never met.
Zaheer grew up in the Bandra suburb of Mumbai. His father, builder Iqbal Ratsani, is Salman Khan’s childhood friend. “I am not from a film background but my family is quite filmy,” says the 30-year-old. “I grew up watching movies religiously at Gaiety Galaxy every Friday. I was drawn to theatre, dance and modelling in my college days.”
Some months into his Bachelor in Business Management course, Zaheer quit college to assist his father in their family business.
He recalls having fun running around the Municipal Corporation and procuring approvals — a practical skill he believed college couldn’t teach. At one point, Zaheer owned and managed an Uber cab on the side, just to figure out how the taxicab business worked.
Then, luck turned. Salman — who’d launched his production banner, Salman Khan Films (SKF), in 2014 — spotted Zaheer dancing at his sister Arpita’s wedding that same year. That was it. Next thing he knew, Zaheer was assisting Sohail Khan on Jai Ho while learning the ropes to become a Hindi film hero. “It was surreal. Bhai walked up to me and said, ‘Hero banega?’ Who would dare say no to Salman Khan offering him a film? My dad was surprised too, but understood that this was destined. I have worked hard over the last five years to live up to everyone’s expectations.”
Compared to Zaheer, Pranutan was more focused on becoming an actor from an early age, having practically grown up on sets, observing the industry from up close. She is the granddaughter of film legend Nutan and the daughter of actors Mohnish Bahl and Arti Bahl (known by her stage name Ekta Sohini). “I was a studious child who took her education seriously, though I always wanted to be an actor. Academically, I am a double graduate. I studied Law and interned through my five years at law school,” she shares.
After finishing college, she auditioned for films for three years in Mumbai. It was during this time that Notebook co-producer Ashwin Varde, impressed by a previous audition Pranutan had given, asked Nitin Kakkar to test her for Notebook.
“Honestly, I love giving auditions. It’s your only playground as an actor. And there’s no entitlement. A thousand people come to Mumbai to become actors and this is where you get to process your worth,” Pranutan says, adding, “As far as approaching my craft is concerned, I was taught everything by Nitin sir on Notebook. I never went to acting school. I did one workshop for this film with acting coach Hemant Kher. I call him my life coach as well. He kept telling us that the only way to become a better actor is by becoming a better person on set.”
The script of Notebook (by Darab Farooqi) was initially offered to Salman to star as the main lead. However, the superstar felt the role didn’t mesh with his present image, and thus decided to produce it. “It’s not like whatever scripts I turn down I pass on to newcomers. Rather, these are films I wanted to do myself, but for some reason couldn’t,” says Salman, giving the example of Nikhil Advani’s Hero (2015) which launched Sooraj Pancholi.
On his preference between acting and producing, the star says, “Producing is more mehnat (hard work), because you need to be hands on. The money part is taken care of, but there’s also scripting, editing and music to look into. It takes up a lot of my energy because I’m working (on my own films) as well as taking care of these things.”Asked about one advice he’d like to give Zaheer and Pranutan, the actor jokes, “Stay out of trouble.”