A headache was the unlikely seed of an idea that led former Adlabs studio executive Abhishek Sharma to write and direct his debut feature film Tere Bin Laden. “I tied a towel tightly around my head—almost like a turban—to try and get some relief. I also had a longish beard then and my wife said I looked like Osama bin Laden,” recalls Sharma, who has trained in design and direction at the National School of Drama.
This got him thinking: What if someone looked like the world’s most wanted man? Research followed and numerous conspiracy theories were explored, primarily that the bin Laden tapes could be fake or doctored. “I did not want to do a serious film because Osama is always taken seriously. And I wanted to demystify him, so I thought of a comedy that includes a lookalike and a fake tape,” Sharma adds.
The biggest challenge was to find an actor to play Noora, the poultry farmer who resembles Osama. He is discovered by Ali Hassan (played by Ali Zafar), a Pakistani journalist desperate to realize his American dream, which has been thwarted in a post-9/11 world. Hassan uses Noora to create a fake bin Laden tape and sends it to an American TV channel.
Double take: The crew called Singh ‘Osama sir’ on the sets of the film.
“The actor not only had to look like bin Laden, but also needed comic timing to play Noora, who is 10 times funnier than the fake Osama. I could not get the right combination,” says Sharma, who even auditioned a taxi driver he thought might look the part.
Fortunately, Sharma remembered Pradhuman Singh, who had participated in theatre workshops the director had conducted in Noida. A make-up test followed and Sharma found his bin Laden.
Singh says: “Abhishek didn’t tell me anything about the film or the part. He just showed me a video and said that is what I have to do. When I saw a video of Osama bin Laden playing, I was shocked. Working in films was a dream, but this was shattering all dreams. I didn’t know how to pull this off.”
Along with all the cast and crew, Singh too signed a non-disclosure agreement. It was not till January, 14 months after shooting started, that Singh could tell his family what he was working on in Mumbai. “It is difficult to make your family understand something like this, so we kept it under wraps till the first teaser. They were shocked,” says Singh, who left a job with Wipro to do this role.
Playing two completely different characters required a great deal of preparation. “I studied his (Osama’s) expressions and mannerisms; how he raises his fingers, or eyebrow; how he twitches his nose; how he smiles; how he half closes his eyes when he talks. We wanted it to be a mirror image,” says the 25-year-old, who plays 40-year-old Noora and the 60-something Osama.
For the part of Noora, Sharma applied some principles of method acting and insisted that Singh live with a rooster for a month. “He had to clean (up) after the rooster, feed him, learn how to pick him up, etc.,” says Sharma. Singh butts in: “It was painful. The only thing I learnt was how to clean his s*** and how to feed him. It put me off chicken for some time.”
Though Singh remained sceptical about his similarities with bin Laden, the reaction on the Mumbai set, where Karachi was recreated, settled his doubts. There was stunned silence on the first day of shoot when he stepped out of his van at Film City. Singh recalls: “A few people got scared. They didn’t understand what was happening. Then a crowd of 40-50 people starting clicking photos. It was funny and scary because you never know when somebody might just do something believing something else. On set, the crew called me ‘Osama sir’, or ‘Osama’.”
Ask Sharma what he would do if he were to meet bin Laden, and the 32-year-old says: “If the situation is under my control, I would lock him up somewhere and go for the $25 million (around Rs117 crore). I wouldn’t have to make any more films after that. But if the situation is under his control, I would ask him what he thought of my film.”
Tere Bin Laden releases on 16 July in theatres nationwide. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org