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The Cast

Smriti Mishra

Shaped by the masterly hands of Pandit Durga Lal and Birju Maharaj, Smriti Mishra was a brilliant Kathak dancer when she was discovered by Vijay Singh to play Jaya Ganga’s female lead role of the courtesan.

Her sensitive performance as Zehra in Jaya Ganga (Jaya, Fille du Gange) won her the praise of the press worldwide. After Jaya Ganga, Smriti has completed many other films in India and abroad including Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum, Sudhir Mishra’s Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Pamela Rook’s Train to Pakistan and Aparna Malladi’s American film Mitsein. Smriti was also the first actress to star in an IMAX movie titled Kingdom of Tigers. She also played a role in Vijay Singh’s One Dollar Curry.


Asil Rais

Asil Rais is a Paris-based Indian actor. After a brief involvement with the Bombay theatre, he moved to Paris in the eighties where he has been associated with Ariane Mnouchkine's reputed theatre company, Théatre du Soleil. His performance in Mnouchekine's Indiade and the Greek Tragedies established him as an actor who had come to stay.

In Jaya Ganga (Jaya, Fille du Gange), he played the lead male role of  Nishant, the young Indian writer. Variety magazine described him as "a handsome, forceful hero whose self-searching honesty about his feelings wins sympathy."





Press Profile

Fresh like the Ganga
(The Times of India, Delhi, 21 Jan 1996)

Smriti Mishra, the heroine of Jaya Ganga, is refreshingly different, says Nikhat Kazmi finds out.

She is not glamorous, made-up, put-on and oh-so-perfect. She doesn't roll her eyes, flutter her lashes and pull an act. She does not sport those smiles that never reach the eyes; has no pat replies, and is hardly bothered about presenting the perfect profile.

She's different. The girl next door who steps out of the shadows when the arclights fall on her. The friendly neighbourhood girl who changes colours once the cameras begin to roll. The actress who may be one film old, but is being heralded as a turn-of-the-century Smita Patil, after her mesmeric portrayal of an enigmatic courtesan in Jaya Ganga.

Yes, Smriti Mishra is a natural. Despite being untrained, inexperienced and somewhat unsure of career goals, she has managed to win accolades for her debut performance; has already bagged two prestigious roles with directors like Shyam Benegal and Sudhir Mishra; and caught the eye of several Bollywood badshahs as a star of substance. Quite a long way off for a sweet little girl from secluded small towns (Benaras and Allahabad). For some who is described as 'young, choti si and insecure' by the director, Vijay Singh. For someone who can still recollect the heartbreak she underwent when Mahesh Bhatt rejected her after he first screen test and candidly declare, like an avid fan: "I always dreamt of acting with Naseeruddin Shah. I'm so fond of him!"

What's on her side? Her disarming freshness that is able to blend itself into a variety of characters. So that, after having essayed the role of Zehra, the khandani tawaif who falls in love with a visedhi Indian, she nows plays Sardari, a singer in Shyam Benegal's Sardari Begum and a woman who is hopelessly in love with a married man in Sudhir Mishra's Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. "Love. It happens to anyone, doesn't it?" she queries. "To an innocent, kind-hearted honest girl who is unable to control her emotions and is willing to do anything for the man she loves. So what if the man is married. So what is she is puzzled, confused and must suffer heartbreak and unhappiness too."

But it isn't innocence alone that works wonders for Smriti. It is freshness with an uncanny aggression and a diehard spirit that refuses to be quelled by rejection and defeat. Before she emoted in front of the camera, Smriti dreamt of hitting the headlines as a dancer. "I'm a brilliant kathak dancer," she declares. "But I just couldn't make it due to the dirty politics that forced me to leave the Kathak Kendra before completing my course. It is really unfortunate that in India there is politics in everything. In dance, too." But the politics of dance was not potent enough to break her spirit. She shifted to Bombay, where Mahesh Bhatt spotted her on just one of those days when a star-struck Smriti had been gazing at her favourite star. Naseer, of course.

"Interesting face, Mahesh had told me. Can you imagine how excited I was. Mahesh Bhatt calling me beautiful! Now that was something," she gushes. he called her for a screen test and then rejected her. "I cried the whole night," she confesses. In fact, even Vijay Singh had not been too pleased with her first screen test for Jaya Ganga. "She was horrible," he laughs. "Her Adam's apple was hanging down till her knees and she dramatically delivered the dialogue in a manner that was no different from the regular Hindi film," he adds. If was only later, when he asked her to whisper the words and be her usual self, did she realise that she had something.

Something that made her win over the other probables for the role: Madhuri Dixit and Manisha Koirala. Something that is reminding everyone of Smita Patil today. Something that tells her she will be able to survive in the big bad world of Bollywood, both "as a commercial heroine and an art film actress." And something that convinces her that she will "manage in both the worlds," for she has an acting credo that is both rigid and adaptable. "An actress should be able to do everything. She should be able to play a sweeperess, a prostitute and a princess. She should be able to sweep the floor and sit on the throne with equal ease," she elucidates.

The only no-no in this artistic credo are those usual bugbears: cheapness and vulgarity. After having delicately performed an intimate sequence in Jaya Ganga, Smriti is willing to repeat the intense passion play in future films. But only if they are artistically handled, with no place for voyeurism. "I have no objection to portraying lovemaking scenes onscreen. After all, love is life and we are here in cinema to depict life. Only, it should be artistically depicted and must be integral to the story of the film. I will not do it in order to make the film a bigger and better commercial bet,' she states.

Interestingly, it was the love sequence which bothered her the most in Jaya Ganga. The director had to throw everyone out - even the technicians - while rehearsing the scene. So much so that during the initial takes, Vijay handled the camera, the boom and the sound recorder all by himself while Smriti shed her inhibitions and simply performed. A performance that light just go to win all those mandatory awards and catapult her into the limelight. One that might even cajole an ambitious actress into making a handful of compromises with credos and roles. Nevertheless, one which might perchance perpetuate the unsullied innocence of a small-town girl in a crumpled salwar-kameez and a freshly scrubbed face.


"I could not have asked for more"
(The Pioneer, New Delhi, 2 Feb 1997)

Actress Smriti Mishra who has been acclaimed for her roles in Jaya Ganga and Sardari Begum in conversation with Vishnu Khare

Alone and looking vulnerable, she sat behind a transparent glass-table in her producer-director Vijay Singh's Vasant Vihar office. In a one-piece creamish, embroidered gown, sans even a hint of make-up, she is as beautiful as the Zehra of Jaya Ganga or the young Sardari Begum with her dreamy elsewhere eyes and full sensual mouth. Smriti Mishra is only three films old - she went almost unnoticed in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, and Jaya Ganga and Sardari Begum await commercial release - but she is almost an international celebrity. Jaya Ganga is doing the rounds in the global film circuit - this week it is being shown at the San Francisco Festival - and Sardari Begum will meet the same fate, having made it to the 1996 Indian Panorama.

Born in Allahabad but taken to Varanasi when only 3 days old, Smriti has had a middle class hindi-heartland upbringing and does not flaunt the mongrel public school accent. Mishras can be extremely orthodox - even reactionary - Brahmins but Smriti's father, AN Mishra, regional transport officer in Varanasi, is an enlightened cultured man who allowed his third daughter to migrate to Delhi after finishing school in '88 to learn Kathak under such masters as Durga Lal and Birju Maharaj.

"Had my first guru Durga Lalji not died so early, I would have never left Kathak for films. I started dancing as a little school girl and my only ambition was to be a good Kathak dancer. But guruji died and I did continue under the great Birju Maharaj-ji but something had snapped in me and by 1993-94 I wanted to do something independent, something different. It was Ram Gopal Bajaj. now the director of the National School of Drama, who coaxed, cajoled and compelled me into films," confessed Smriti. Then came the coup. Vijay Singh left his Paris abode and came to Delhi and asked Bajaj to be the casting director for his maiden film Jaya Ganga. Even a cursory glance into the script convinced Bajaj that in Smriti Mishra he had found Zehra, the dreaming young Muslim prostitute-heroine of the film. The rest is history.

Smriti was given the script of the movie six months before the shooting started and she was not even sure that she would land the role. But once she was chosen, it was smooth sailing. "Most people wonder how I could act in a movie with almost no experience. But they forget that all Indian classical dances have a katha (narrative) element and abhinaya (enactment) is a sine qua non in our choreography. The training in navarasa (the traditional nine moods) is a great help. Surely, acting before an audience or a camera has to be more 'natural' and controlled, but a background of classical dance is an advantage. Public performances also help you overcome crowd or camera fright."

But Smriti acknowledges that she has learnt a lot from her three directors - Vijay Singh, Sudhir Mishra and Shyam Benegal. "Vijay explains the scene and lets you emote in your own way, with minimum suggestions. It was he who asked Sudhir to cast me in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. Both Sudhir and Shyam babu are consummate professionals. They know the minutest details, the most subtle nuances of the shot. I am so fortunate to get such gurus in the very beginning of my career in films."

Of course, her role in Jaya Ganga has given her the utmost satisfaction. Zehra is a dream character- she is a singer and a dancer, a lover of Urdu poetry, a rebel who wants to run away from the brothel and fulfill her ambition as a public performer, a highly emotional young woman who does not deny the erotic in her. "An actress couldn't have asked for more in her first movie. But when I see my films, I am far from satisfied with my performance. I know I could have done better," says a wistful Smriti...

Jaya Ganga is attracting large enthusiastic audience at film festival screenings, which are sometimes followed by Smriti's dance recitals. She has danced in Sydney and she is invited to perform in Paris, London and New York. She sang her two lines in the film and the tune was turned into the Zehra theme by the composer Vanraj Bhatia. Singing runs in the family, claims Smriti, who still nurses the ambition to learn classical singing at the feet of none other than Pt. Jasraj. How she wishes Shyam Benegal would have allowed her to sing a few lines in her own voice...

Smriti wanted to be a science graduate but the ready-to-be-dissected frog pushed into the bosom of humanities. The years 1988-1994 were her years of struggle and there came a time when her four sisters were rather worried about her future. Then came the three films and the laurels and the "ugly duckling" grew into a graceful swan...

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