August 21, 2002 
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Amitabh Bachchan in Agni Varsha
What exactly is Amitabh's role in Agni Varsha?
Director Arjun Sajnani on the myths and truths of his stylised mythological

Vickey Lalwani

He is a renowned theatre personality, an actor, a chef and an antique collector.

The multi-faceted Arjun Sajnani, who hails from Bangalore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, is now promoting his maiden Hindi venture Agni Varsha, releasing August 30.

Based on one of India's foremost playwrights Girish Karnad's play The Fire And The Rain, the movie stars Jackie Shroff, Raveena Tandon, Milind Soman, Sonali Kulkarni, Nagarjuna, Prabhudeva and Amitabh Bachchan (in a special appearance as Lord Indra).

At a media conference at Hotel Regent, in suburban Mumbai's Bandra, on Tuesday, Sajnani was a picture of confidence. "I have made this film with a lot of heart and sweat. You can call it a stylised mythological [movie]. I am sure it will be accepted," he said. All the cast members were present except for Amitabh Bachchan and Prabhudeva.

Sajnani explains the theme of the film, "Agni Varsha is about how Jackie's exalted position as head priest --- who performs a mahayagya (holy prayer) to appease the gods to send rains to a drought-ridden land --- builds animosity in his cousin, Nagarjuna, who seduces Jackie's wife Raveena in a bid to take revenge. Milind plays Jackie's younger brother, and Sonali, his love interest."

Incidentally, Sajnani had essayed the the role of Lord Indra in the 1998 theatrical version of Agni Varsha, which he had directed as well. Now, Amitabh Bachchan will play Lord Indra on screen. The director refuses to divulge more about Bachchan's role. "It is not a one-minute role as some have begun to think," he quips. Raveena Tandon and Sonali Kulkarni in Agni Varsha

Agni Varsha was shot over 65 days amidst the ruins of Karnataka's Hampi, a world heritage site that is under the stewardship of the Archaeological Survey of India.

What made this multi-talented personality take to filmmaking? "I was always fascinated by Karnad's novel. I first adapted it into a play. But somewhere at the back of my mind lurked the desire to see the same on the big screen. The characters intrigued me. Everything about the book beckoned me to make a film out of it," he replies.

Interestingly, Shabana Azmi was the first choice for the role of Shroff's wife, now played by Tandon. "Yes, Shabana was very enthusiastic when I had sent her a copy of the script. She had to pull out as she couldn't coordinate her schedule with the shooting dates," explains Sajnani.

He reveals that Prabhudeva is a surprise element in the film. "When I approached him with the part, he just looked at me and said, 'So where's the dance?'

"I surprised him by saying, 'There's no dance. I want you to do this role because I think you're the only one who can do it.' He was surprised, a bit apprehensive, but finally relented."

Agni Varsha draws its inspiration from the Mahabharata, but there is no grandeur in its picturisation. Sajnani's reasoning is simple: "We are focussing on an impoverished land. The script did not demand extravagance."

Post Rajat Mukherjee's Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya and Farhan Akhtar's Dil Chahta Hai, Sonali Kulkarni is excited about her role in Agni Varsha. "I had seen the play The Fire And The Rain, and liked it. I play an innocent tribal girl Nittilia who stands up for what she believes in. My unconditional love for Arvasu (Milind Soman) drives me to commit the ultimate sacrifice -- my love and life."

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Tandon pitches in, "Sonali is saying that she plays the good girl simply to convey that I play the bad girl. Jokes apart, I play Vishaka, the neglected wife of Paravasu (Shroff). Loneliness and bitterness drive me into the arms of my ex-lover and husband's arch rival Yavakri (Nagarjuna). Frankly, I was apprehensive about working with a first-time director. But when I met Sajnani and had a long sitting with him, I was totally at ease."

Nagarjuna, whose character has negative shades, remarks, "People ask me why I hardly do Hindi films. Honestly, I am more comfortable down South --- Telugu is my mother tongue." Milind Soman and Nagarjuna in Agni Varsha

And Shroff is in good spirits: "The tag line of this film says it is an epic of sacrifice. I made the biggest sacrifice: I had to shave off my moustache for the role of the Maha Purohit (head priest). Such a sacrifice will certainly do a world of good to the film's fortunes."

The film's technical team is spearheaded by National Award-winning cinematographer Anil Mehta (Lagaan).

Sandesh Shandilya (Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Road) scores the music to Javed Akhtar's lyrics.

Agni Varsha was screened at the American Film Market, Los Angeles, in February 2002. The film was also inaugurated at the prestigious Commonwealth Film Festival in Manchester, in June 2002.

Agni Varsha hits the marquee August 30.


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