As Makdee turns 19, Shweta Basu-Prasad, who played Chunni and Munni, recalls the film's magic and unparalleled impact on Indian cinema.
At a time when Bollywood was still heavily dependent on romantic comedies and lesser-successful remakes of English blockbusters, Vishal Bhardwaj made the wise choice of pursuing his dream of filmmaking. Having had a rich musical legacy of films in Hu Tu Tu (1999) and Maachis (1996), Bhardwaj forayed into direction with 2002’s Makdee, an unassuming gem that stole a million hearts.
A rural folklore of sorts, Makdee promised the full haul – from socio-economic disparities and religion, to unadulterated mischief and entertainment. The film’s limited cast brought in the required authenticity to each character. Shabana Azmi’s Makdee (the “witch”) was grotesque and repulsive, easily becoming the dreaded ‘villain’ in every child’s eyes. Theatre stalwart Makarand Deshpande (who played the village butcher, Kallu) was the perfect blend of cantankerous and adorable and Aalap Mazgaonkar (played Mughal-e-Azam) became the smitten village boy who was transfixed by the notorious Chunni (played by Shweta Basu-Prasad). Makdee introduced Basu-Prasad’s talents to the world. The then-10-year-old flitted between the double role of Chunni and Munni (identical twins) with elan and ease. She matched each step with the acting veterans and seamlessly portrayed Bhardwaj’s vision on-screen.
On the film’s 19th year of release, Basu-Prasad opens up about the film’s charm and how it will always remain a special film for the entire cast and crew.
On bagging Makdee
I had essentially gone to Ajay Devgn’s production house to accompany my father who had some work. There, Honey Trehan (casting director) happened to chance upon me and asked me to give an ‘introduction’ for her. Having no clue about my chances or the future projects, I somehow managed to blabber words into the camera. I had no idea what I did but must have been my natural nautanki self.
My parents and I later learned, the audition was for a film called Barf, which Vishal Bhardwaj was going to direct. But unfortunately, a few months down the line, the film got shelved. And as I was happily leading my adolescent life, going to school, and doing my daily shenanigans, news came that Bhardwaj had selected my tapes and wanted me onboard Kukdu Koo, which was later called Makdee. In fact, the film script that I possess still says Kukdu Koo on its first page, which was struck out later and written Makdee.
On Makdee ‘prep’
Both my parents had always been very heavily inclined towards literature. My father owned a theatre company and though I never went on-stage or had any training, I’d picked up concepts like ‘blocking’ early on in my days. My mother had a strong film connection, in that, she was a huge movie buff and fan of retro cinema. She had watched all of Gulzar’s works, which was a no-brainer since she was a huge advocate of Hindi parallel cinema.
Since I had no idea about the bodies of works that the film’s cast and crew bore, my mother took it upon herself to educate a clueless me, so that I realise the kind of legacy I was going to be a part of. So, in an attempt to give me some context, she made me watch Shekhar Kapur’s Masoom (1983). She simply told me, “This is the aunty that you’ll be working with (referring to Azmi).” I also came to know that Urmila Matondkar, the child who sang ‘Lakdi Ki Kaathi’ in the film, and grew up to be the Rangeela actress. I was a die-hard fan of Matondkar and Karishma Kapoor and used to dance to Dil Toh Paagal Hai and Rangeela songs. So, I thought to myself, “if she grew up to dance to Rangeela, then maybe this was a brilliant opportunity after all”, (laughs heartily).
On-set Makdee magic
Makdee was shot during my winter break, since both my parents were sacrosanct about the fact that my studies should not get hampered. My first memory of Makdee (and maybe that’s just a testament to how much of a family it became for me) is that my 11th birthday was celebrated on set. Vishal ji and Deepa Motwane (the line producer and also the mother of filmmaker Vikramaditya Motwane) threw me a birthday bash and I was spoilt silly (grins).
The first time I met Shabana ji was when she was in full getup and I remember being taken aback initially thinking, “wow, this looks nothing like the aunty I saw in the film my mother showed me” (laughs). I remember her being completely supportive as a co-star. She’d always call me over to her room and rehearse our lines together, to make sure I had no inhibitions once the camera was rolling. She was attentive to my needs as a performer.
We had shot in multiple locations for Makdee. Goa, Alibaug and Mumbai were the three main ones. During our shoot in old Goa, we were stationed at this resort which had an exquisite swimming pool. Being a child of only 10, my eyes went there first and I used to crave to jump around in the water. But, due to our schedules, none of us could ever make it. So, one day, I got exasperated and whined to Vishal uncle. I said, “every day we shoot till late, and the pool closes, why can’t we please use the pool some time?” Without a second’s worry, Vishal uncle shifted the shot sequences and declared that “Shweta ka pack up karwa do (arrange for Shweta’s pack-up).” I was on cloud nine and quickly rushed to the welcoming waters and splish-splashed for about 10 minutes since I had no idea how to swim [laughs].
So, that was the kind of affection that people extended towards me while shooting this film.
The Gulzar conundrum
When I look back at those times, I realise how pure they were. I have always maintained that a crew that you cannot have fun with, will always end up reflecting in the quality of work you produce. Makdee taught me this. For me, I was just having a gala winter vacation where I got to do draamebaazi in front of the cameras and I was more than glad. In fact, the atmosphere was so friendly, I remember walking up to Gulzar ji one day and asking him why he only donned white clothes. He smiled indulgently and said, “Okay, I’ll wear some coloured clothes just for you one day.” I later went on to star even in a commercial which he directed, and I thank the lord that he did not take my words seriously about his sartorial choices, his fans would just kill me. [laughs].
On instinctively knowing Chunni and Munni
I know it sounds dramatic, but I had an immediate and inexplicable connection with the twins’ characters. Even before reading the script, I somehow knew I’d be playing a double role. Maybe I had heard my parents talking about the film and picked up bits and bobs from those conversations subconsciously, but I knew beforehand that I would be essaying two roles.
Chunni came to me very naturally, since I’m a lot like her in real life as well. We were both feisty, opinionated, and full of mischief. But Munni, for me, was uncharted territory. Her naivete and unidimensional simplicity were difficult for me to navigate. Her habit of mispronouncing ‘s’ for ‘sh’, her general stutter and lack of self-esteem were initially hard for me to relate to, but Vishal uncle took out every bit of Munni from within my system.
On the Chunni-Kallu love-hate relationship
Chunni’s ever-dramatic ups and downs with the village butcher Kallu formed the narrative thread upon which Makdee was sown. Much like Makdee’s intricate cobwebs lacing her intimidating hallways, Deshpande and Basu-Prasad’s on-screen verbal jousts would trap audiences with its whip-sharp timings. The actress recounted how that was possible…
Makarand sir always treated me like an equal on set. He never coaxed or cajoled me into thinking I was a child. We spoke like colleagues, and he treated me like a buddy. His need to not infantilise me during our conversations is what really helped, I think.
In fact, that’s how the entire crew treated me. I would always be present during meetings, and everyone would include me in the daily goings-on. Even though I’d often be unable to grasp the technical aspects as much, I was always listening, and that I think is crucial for any good actor. While they were discussing the important issues, I was only worried about sharing lots of screen space with a hen. Most children get to pet puppies, kittens or even lambs, but here I was wondering, “what if the hen bites my hand?” [laughs].
On Makdee’s writing
Makdee’s USP was easily its writing. Vishal uncle created a story that underlined so many small nuggets of wisdom within it. Makdee was unpretentious and self-aware. I have often complained how Indian content always portrays children’s characters unidimensionally. Vishal uncle’s writing was far from that. He had no qualms portraying a bratty pre-teen and the absolute abomination that she (Chunni) could be. There wasn’t any sugar-coating or euphemising. This is what brought a fresh change and helped viewers connect with the realism that he injected into his simple-but-wonderful world.
The plot was sans any exalted sense of didacticism either. Every character flaw was openly displayed for anyone to see and criticise, and most importantly, it was never watered down.
Even today, when I look back at my Makdee days, I realise it’ll be a special film for each person who was associated with the project. I couldn’t tell you exactly what worked and didn’t, I just know it was a magical joyride that kickstarted my career in the world of entertainment.