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On the sets of Pradhan Mantri

'Pradhan Mantri': life imitates art
Kay Kay Menon plays the prime minister (Inset: director Ketan Mehta)
The seventh episode of Zee Telefilm's new political drama Pradhan Mantri (prime minister) is in progress. There is pin drop silence. Suddenly the noise of paper ruffling in the wind disturbs the silence. "Cut," shouts director Ketan Mehta, yelling for somebody to take care of the noise that was interfering with the take. The shot is redone.

Open to a scene of Mansi, the PM's wife (played by Malavika Tiwari of Kashish fame), entering the drawing room where a familiar voice is in animated conversation with her children. Mansi is surprised to see her brother (played by Sandeep Kulkarni) has dropped by at home. During the conversation her face turns pale as she realises her opportunist bother has come to take advantage of her husband's position as the newly elected PM.

PM Anirudh Prakash with wife Mansi (Malavika Tiwari )

Dressed elegantly in a dark green saree, Tiwari's resemblance to Sonia Gandhi, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's wife, is the first thing that strikes you. "The appearance is the only thing similar between Tiwari and Sonia Gandhi, nothing beyond that," emphasises Mehta.

Her role as Mansi marks Tiwari's return to the small screen after a six-year break. "And also the last," she reveals. "I am much more comfortable being my own character. Playing someone else doesn't appeal to me anymore," says the Delhi-based Tiwari, who is now fully involved with her stain glass painting business. She is content anchoring talk shows if they come her way, says the former model. Before you can get any more questions across, she is ushered away. Somebody seems to have called a halt to further questions. "The scene has to be shot before 6 pm, otherwise it will hamper the shoot. Malavika has to catch a flight back to Delhi," pleads a harried looking unit member.

The crew in a brainstorming session.

The cast gets together around a central table discussing the details of the forthcoming scene. After a bit of brainstorming, improvisation and discussion with Mehta, they are set for the next scene. With just two episodes as a bank and the fourth episode already being aired, the unit is fighting against time. The shoot for the seventh episode is going on round-the-clock to meet the deadline. "We are working with our backs to the wall with time against us but we are all engrossed in the shoot," says Mehta.

Cut to the scene. PM Anirudh Prakash (played by Kay Kay Menon) enters the mansion and is surprised to see his brother-in-law waiting in the drawing room for him. While exchanging notes with his brother he asks him to stay back, looking at Mansi as if asking if it is okay and his wife signals no. At that moment her brother turns round and she puts on a smile. The interplay of emotions are quite complex and Tiwari appears unnerved with the first take. Mehta immediately gives some words of encouragement: "I know you can handle this shot so go for it." And after sometime she manages to get the appropriate expression. Everyone's pleased hat the shot went well.

Behind the scenes, unit hands, while discussing amongst themselves, seem pretty impressed with the way Kulkarni plays his character. Apparently Malavika, Kulkarni, and Menon where selected after a lot of screenings.

The team behind the innovative tele-series is a talented one to say the least. The script has been conceptualised by editor of the Asian Age newspaper MJ Akbar. There are a team of four scriptwriters working on Pradhan Mantri with inputs from both Akbar and Mehta.

Queried whether the story had any link to the recent expose on political corruption by the "news and views based" website, Mehta gives an emphatic "no". The serial is very different and is not at all influenced by the Tehelka expose, the director clarifies. "PM is absolutely original. In fact the airing of the series was delayed since we had to scrap the initial episodes," he maintains.

The concept about political big-wigs getting caught on camera taking bribes was supposed to be the series' first episode and was conceived much before Tehelka came into the spotlight, Mehta maintains. "We were already in the middle of a shoot for the first episode when Akbar called from Delhi and said only half in jest that the episode would have to be shelved unless one wanted to get the production unit into trouble. He asked me to switch on the television and find out for myself what the situation was," Mehta goes on to explain.

"It really was rather funny. We had anticipated something like this throwing the nation's politics out of gear in the near future. We wanted to project this through our serial. But events overtook us by a long way," points out Mehta. "It really surprised us to see it happen right in front of us on television," he adds.

The PM's mansion built on the sets at Esselworld

Shot mainly on sets constructed at the Zee-owned Esselworld in Mumbai's northern outpost of Madh Island, extensive use has been made of footage of Delhi city, its main roads and crucial landmarks, to give a typical bureaucratic appeal as well as realistic ambiance.

But it's not political issues alone that the serial touches upon. In later episodes it explores the family life where the focus is shared between the prime minister and his wife. 'Mansi' eventually takes an active interest in the basic living conditions faced by the people at the grassroots level. "You look after the country while I'll look after the people is what 'Mansi' tells her husband," says the Ashish Jalal, executive producer of Mehta's Maya Entertainment Ltd.

With names like Mehta and Akbar attached to the script, the serial has had a very short gestation period and was approved without shooting a pilot. Everything moved swiftly from there. The, sets designed by Nitin Desai, sprang up within three weeks. The set covers the prime minister's office, his house and a lush garden. Though no one was willing to discuss production costs, a unit hand said: "He (Desai) charges a bomb but his work is equally good."

Costume designer Payal Saluja

Much attention has been paid to the kind of clothes staff wear as well as the protocol that is maintained at the prime minister's residence, says costume designer Payal Saluja, who also helps on the sets.

THE STORY: The drama unfolds with the country facing a major political crisis. And it is in this climate of instability that a new prime minister is sworn in. "He is aware that he is living on borrowed time and can be shunted out at any time. Feeling he has nothing to lose, he decides that while he occupies the PM's chair, he will steer the country in the right direction," Mehta says.

Coincidentally or otherwise, Pradhan Mantri has gone on air at about the same time that Star introduced Ji Mantriji, a BBC produced version of the celebrated British political satire Yes Minister. Mehta points out that Pradhan Mantri is very different in that it is a contemporary and original story about a proactive prime minister, the kind that every citizen of Indian desires.


Ketan Mehta

Production House
Maya Entertainment Ltd.

Ketan Mehta

Star cast
Kay Kay Menon
Malavika Tiwari
Sandeep Kulkarni
Chirag Vohra
Sumitra Iyer
Shri Vallabh Vyas
Lalit Tiwari
Sharad Vyas
Abhijeet Lahiri
Ajay Rohilla
Singh Badola
Anupam Shyam
Smita Tai
Promod Moutho
Vijay Arora
Javed Abidi
Pratibha Mathur
Jasmine Grover
Nissar Khan