A creative wanderlust

bollywood buzz

He’s been quite a master of all trades: actor, model, television host, art director and production designer, and now director and co-writer.

Omung Kumar, the man who designs and has executed the big sets of mega-movies and television shows like Sarabhai Vs. Sarabhai, Bigg Boss and Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, is naturally charged about his big-screen directorial debut, Mary Kom.

The half-Punjabi-half-Irani comes across as a soft-spoken, thorough gentleman, and his office is a delight in its funky layouts and décor that extends even to his washroom. From childhood, Omung was used to being in front of the camera, acting in Doordarshan shows like Magic Lamp and Khel Khilone. “I also kept doing stage shows since childhood,” he tells you. “In college, I took Arts as I was good at drawing and painting, and my First Class First graduation result led to an offer from Hindustan Thomson Associates in advertising.” 

Starting out in films as an actor in the 2002 film Na Tum Jaano Na Hum, followed by Fida, Omung’s innings as an art director simultaneously took off with Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002) and Ishq Vishq. His later films include Jhankaar Beats, Chameli, Masti, Waqt and Yuvvraaj, while his association with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, now the producer of Mary Kom, started with the art direction of the latter’s films Black (2005) and Saawariya.

With his good looks and acting experience, why did Omung not try for an acting career? “Oh, when I was in advertising I did get modelling offers, and I did take on some, one being for Godrej. I also faced the camera for Ek Minute as its host — the show ran for 12 years on Zee TV and I had to leave the ad world as I had no time for it. In fact, I also designed the Ek Minute set — Zee TV’s first of that kind — and it became quite a sensation,” he recalls. 

Five years ago, Omung asked himself — “Now what?” He had made money, got a good share of awards, and had even moved from having an ordinary car to a swanky one! And so, the answer came: “Why not make a film?”

The result was preparing for two big movies, both acting-oriented, which he would write and direct. But a little later, Omung decided on making a smaller, female-oriented film first, and then, for no particular reason, he thought of a biopic.

And one day, his writer Quadros asked whether he would consider a film on MC Mary Kom’s life. Says Omung, “Today, I am ashamed to say that I asked him, ‘Who is she?’ When he told me that she had won the world boxing championship five times — at that time she had not even participated in the Olympics — I knew that if I had been ignorant about this girl from Manipur, so would be a huge chunk of viewers. This was a story waiting to be told. And I had to tell it.”

Off went Omung, his wife Vanita and Quadros to meet Mary in far-off Manipur. “She turned out to be an average-looking girl who sported glasses and wore simple attire,” Omung remembers. And the first question Mary asked when they told her what they had in mind was, “Are you insane?” Chuckles Omung, “‘If I was, would I have come to meet you here, all the way?’ I told her. But we had clicked from the beginning, and she agreed.”

Omung’s next step was to find a producer. “I never thought of Bhansali-sir as it was not his kind of film at all. But I was doing his Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi as art director when he casually asked me what I was up to, because I had stopped taking up new work as an art director. And so, when he read the script, he just loved it for the same reason — that it was not his kind of movie.”  Omung almost preens as he reveals that Bhansali visited his sets only thrice, of which “once was to sign up Priyanka Chopra for her cameo in Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram Leela.” However, due to his experienced suggestions off the sets, Bhansali has been billed as “Creative Director”.

And so the big question: why did Omung cast Priyanka? “Who else?” retorts Omung briefly. “We did a look-test and I decided that a dedicated actress who was also experienced and commercially strong was needed rather than someone physically similar, and Priyanka was — a 101 per cent — the only choice. Mary has freckles and so we ‘put’ them on Priyanka. And no one else could have been so dedicated. We had to live the story and Priyanka and Mary interacted on the smallest details of the latter’s personality, habits and life.”

Omung raves, “For Priyanka, it was indeed a strenuous ordeal. She needed to train in boxing, and hit the gym to make muscles. So muscular a body does not really look good on a star, and she had to lose muscles for her other films and then gain them again as my film was shot in two schedules that lasted 20 and 37 days respectively.”

Adds Omung: “Priyanka mastered boxing within 20 days, after practising with real boxers for 15 hours a day. We took real boxers because actors playing boxers would not have looked genuine. In fact, when Priyanka did the RamLeela song, they had to both cover her muscles and conceal her facial injuries.”

The similar criterion of experience and ability applied to the casting of the other main characters — Darshan Kumar as Mary’s husband Onler, and Sunil Thapa as her coach among them. “You might recall Sunil as the thin ruffian in Ek Duuje Ke Liye 33 years ago,” smiles Omung. “He has since become a big star in Nepal.”

Mary, who attended Omung’s film’s music release, has loved the film, says Omung with a mix of pride and relief. “While watching it with Onler, she cried. And she told me that no one could have played her role better than Priyanka,” adds the director triumphantly.

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