As soon as the national anthem trails off, Jawaharlal Nehru bobs from left to right, as if he were at a rock concert. Govind Ballabh Pant’s head-shake disappears. The back-benchers of Parliament snap out of their collective slump and file out for lunch.
History is being made, in a manner of speaking, at the Film City studio complex in Mumbai’s Goregaon neighbourhood, where veteran director Shyam Benegal has been shooting for the forthcoming television series Samvidhan—Making of the Indian Constitution 1946 to 1949. The 10-part series, which will be aired over the next few months on the Rajya Sabha TV, recreates the constituent assembly of India that sat from December 1946 to November 1949, and aims to animate a process about which we know only from our history books. Filming a bunch of speeches and backs-and-forths might not immediately appear as great television material, but Benegal emphasized the need to understand the foundations of independent India as well as meet some of the architects of this foundation. “Most of us know very little about how the Constitution was created,” he says. “The process was marvellous, but except for a blip during the Emergency, we have remained true (to the Constitution) despite all the problems we have faced as a diverse country.”
Some of the diversity that marked the constituent assembly is represented by the rows of costumes stored in a nearby room. “There are double-breasted suits, dhoti-kurtas with Nehru jackets, south Indian bush shirts, various kinds of turbans, sherwanis, and saris in silk, handloom and cotton,” says Daksha Sharma, who is assisting costume designer Pia Benegal on the series.
Featuring several faces from Shyam Benegal’s productions, Samvidhan brings back the film-maker to television after such series as Yatra and Bharat Ek Khoj. More than his previous experience with the small screen, it is Benegal’s stint in the theatre of the biggest democracy in the world that encouraged him to make Samvidhan. “It was during my time as an MP that I realized that India has such an extraordinary democratic constitution,” he says between shots. “The Constitution gives us the definition and parameters of our nation, and it tells us how we are supposed to function.”
The real Parliament is air-conditioned, but the atmosphere in the recreated one is decidedly warm since the fans that are supposed to circulate the air move slowly. The crew shoots fast and furiously to bring in the production within deadline. The shoot is supposed to wrap up in October, after which Aseem Sinha, who has edited several Benegal films, will assemble the series in time for its proposed January deadline.
A modest budget means that the set isn’t as lavish as one might have expected. Clever cinematography suggests a larger gathering than there actually is. The front rows are occupied by actors playing men and women out of the pages of history—Amit Behl as C. Rajagopalachari (dapper in his Lennon-before-Lennon shades and starched dhoti), Rahul Singh as Acharya Kriplani, Tom Alter as Maulana Azad, K.K. Raina as K.M. Munshi, Utkarsh Mazumdar as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajeshwari Sachdev as Amrit Kaur, and Ila Arun as Hansa Mehta. Neeraj Kabi plays Mahatma Gandhi, who famously never entered the Indian Parliament.
The back-benchers are packed with junior artistes, some of whom seem as disinterested in the making of history as their present-day contemporaries from the real world. One of them checks his phone; another is warned against chewing gum. “Nobody should keep their hands behind their backs,” bellows Benegal from his perch. But everybody snaps to attention when Dalip Tahil, who plays Nehru, delivers a portion of the “Tryst with Destiny” speech in a clipped, Anglicized accent. It’s a make-believe but nevertheless a goosebump-producing moment.
Atul Tiwari, who plays Govind Ballabh Pant, has also written the script along with veteran Benegal collaborator Shama Zaidi. “If something has been least written for the series, it’s the dialogue,” Tiwari says, clutching a cane with a camel-shaped brass head. “The dialogue has been taken verbatim from whatever has been spoken on the floor of the assembly. You can’t tamper with that.”
At least three-quarters of the series takes place inside the assembly, and covers the debates about various provisions on the floor of the house. The series will reproduce many of the “extraordinary speeches”, as Benegal puts it, that were made by some of the nation’s most reputed leaders, as well as the dissent and consensus that led to the text that guides the nation’s governance. “We had to edit a lot of the conversations,” adds Shama Zaidi. “There were tonnes, and debates, and they were very civil and learned about everything.”
Sachin Khedekar, who played Subhash Chandra Bose in Benegal’s biopic Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in 2005, plays one of the most important roles in the series, of Bhimrao Ambedkar, the lawyer and Dalit giant who headed the team that wrote the Constitution. Khedekar is gravitas personified on the set but off it, he breaks into his customary broad grin, his good cheer partly a consequence of playing one of the greatest and most colourful personages in Indian history. “This is sheer privilege, and the most difficult bit was to look the part,” Khedekar says. “Vikram Gaikwad, who is a great make-up guy, got it right for me. The second responsibility was the speech. We had all these recordings of Ambedkar for reference. He was very theatrical, he made loud gestures, and he emphasized every word. It was a great exercise as an actor. Bose (the Netaji film) changed my life, and I am hoping Ambedkar will change my life too.”
It’s time to play the national anthem. A copy of the actual recording is cranked up as young women make their way to the front of the rows, their slippers and smartphones left behind. Silence descends on the set as the women mouth the Jana Gana Mana, and for a moment, the typical chaos that marks the average shoot freezes. The shot is taken, Nehru bobs his head and the spell is broken. It’s time for lunch.