Debutant director Hitesh Bhatia says that he thought "Sharmaji Namkeen" would be a forgotten dream after actor Rishi Kapoor passed away, until the producers assured him of ways to finish the project, one of which was to get the veteran's son Ranbir Kapoor to play his part.
"Sharmaji Namkeen" marks the final screen appearance of Rishi Kapoor, who died at the age of 67 in April 2020 after a two-year long battle with leukemia.
At the time of his passing away, Bhatia had completed half of the project.
Eventually, actor Paresh Rawal stepped in to finish the film, which follows the life of a recently retired man, who discovers his passion for cooking after joining a riotous women's kitty circle.
In an interview with PTI, the Delhi-based filmmaker said Rishi Kapoor's passing away was shocking and nearly sealed the fate of the film.
"It was a tough time and a deeply emotional moment because it came out of nowhere. I had spoken to Rishi ji, very briefly, before he passed away. We were sharing random jokes with each other on WhatsApp, where he was telling me, 'Hey this should be in the film'. It was a normal conversation, where he said, 'Let's start the film soon' and then the news came. No one was prepared for that".
After the veteran actor's death, the director recalled a conversation with his wife, where he told her, "The film is over, it is not going to get made".
Just when Bhatia had "accepted" the film's destiny, the producers of the movie, Farhan Akhtar, Ritesh Sidhwani, Honey Trehan and Abhishek Choubey, reached out to him over Zoom call.
"Farhan said, 'Don't worry, I know you must be down and out, but we will finish the film'. I didn't get how would we do that. The producers assured me that they will figure out a way, they will ensure it gets made. I couldn't process it," she added.
One of the earliest options was to get Ranbir Kapoor onboard to play the titular part, using VFX.
"It was a journey of Ranbir coming in with prosthetics or VFX, or having another actor (to play the part). It took me a lot of time to come on board with the idea that it is a feasible option that we can do.
"We had a great responsibility on our shoulders because we knew we are presenting his last film, so we have to do a good job for him, his family and his countless fans. It was a tough job but I am glad everything fell into place," he added.
When asked, why did it not feel like a feasible option to feature Ranbir in a prosthetic to finish the part, the director said, "We did try that and a lot of things, but things have to work in a way... I would fail as a filmmaker if you are thinking of two actors playing the same part ten minutes into it.
"You should not be thinking about Paresh Rawal, Ranbir or Rishi Kapoor. You should just be with the film and focus on the story, be with the characters. That had to be achieved and no other device was giving us that kind of canvas or freedom. That was the main deciding factor," he added.
The film, backed by Excel Entertainment in association with MacGuffin Pictures, is gearing up for release on Prime Video on March 31.
For Bhatia, the story of his debut directorial comes from a personal space.
When his father, who worked in a sales department of a private company, retired after more than 30 years of service, Bhatia observed him sitting at home and "interfering in everyone's life".
"My mother joked that please get him some work otherwise there would be a divorce at this age! From those jokes, the journey began, when I started helping my dad do something for him to get busy. That's when I realised that this is a unique story to tell the world. I spoke to a lot of people to realise that this is a common pattern.
"It's not about money, it's about staying relevant. When he was working, he had a voice, a purpose, but at home post retirement, he had nothing to do," he added.
When the script got completed, which he co-wrote with Supratik Sen, Bhatia wanted someone "larger than life, a Punjabi man who loves food" and found Rishi Kapoor to be the perfect fit.
"When we approached him, he liked the story. But he was being himself, he told me, 'It is a good film, your first film, why are you taking me? Cast some bigger actor, who would come to watch me?' He was also involved with the script, which many don't know.
"He had a major input in the second half of the film, where he pointed out what he thought was weak. When we went back, we realised he did have a point. We reworked the draft, approached him again, and he was ready to shoot," he added.
"Sharmaji Namkeen" also features Rishi Kapoor's longtime co-star Juhi Chawla, actor Suhail Nayyar, Taaruk Raina, Satish Kaushik, Sheeba Chaddha and Isha Talwar.