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Blurring the difference: Art imitates life in Yellow
TANUL THAKUR  17th May 2014

Mahesh Limaye and Gauri Gadgil

auri Gadgil was 16 years old when she first enrolled for swimming classes. The sport was meant to be a form of therapy to help improve her hand-eye coordination. Gauri had Down Syndrome, and the disorder's most debilitating effect — delayed physical and mental growth — had shackled her. But neither her parents nor her coach could anticipate how seamlessly Gauri would take to the water. Quite quickly, swimming's meaning changed for her — it ceased to be just a coping mechanism; it became a sport, and soon she was in it to compete. She began conquering the milestones: district and state-level championships and, seven years later, a victory at the national-level championship saw her representing India at the Special Olympics World Summer Games 2007 in Shanghai, where she won a silver medal. Gauri had overcome crushing challenges to become a renowned sportswoman. But if someone had told her then that six years later she would find herself acting in a role that would fetch her a National Award, she would have dismissed the idea as ludicrous.

In December 2012, Uttung Thakur, the producer of the acclaimed Marathi film Balak Palak, planned to produce a Marathi film centered on differently abled children. Mahesh Limaye, a cinematographer, who had shot Thakur's Balak Palak, was brought on board to direct the film. With the basic idea in place, the core team, including Thakur, Limaye, and a few writers, began researching the film. They visited a lot of schools for "special children", and interacted with teachers and parents. It gave them a basic idea on how to approach the subject. "After speaking with them, we figured out that they don't like when people look at the kids with sympathy. In fact, they hate it," says Limaye. During the process of finding a suitable story, Thakur, Limaye, and Riteish Deshmukh (one of the co-producers) chanced upon a newspaper article, which had Gauri holding a silver medal for swimming. They had found the film's story — it would be based on Gauri's life.

Limaye auditioned a lot of actors to play Gauri, but none of them convinced him. He met Gauri to understand what he should be looking for in his lead actor. "When I met her, I found her to be so full of life," says Limaye. "She's so innocent, and has a completely different vibe." Limaye asked her if she would like to act in a film. Gauri's reply was quite uncluttered: "Yes, why not?"

Limaye didn't want to conduct any acting workshop with her. She was playing herself; a "trained" performance would have defeated the purpose. But on the first day of the shoot, he realised the need to brief her on at least some essential specifics: "I noticed she used to close her eyes while talking," says Limaye. "If you see the scene post-interval, she's clapping, and her eyes are closed. So I had to tell her about it." The film chronicles Gauri's journey — from her childhood till the time she becomes a swimming champion. Limaye wanted to cast Gauri to play her younger self as well. "I thought we will chop her hair to make her look the part," he says. "So I asked her — Gauri tuzhe kes kami kale pahijet (we will have to cut your hair short). 'No, no, no,' she said. Her mother said she's very particular about her hair." Which meant Limaye had to find someone else for the part. But instead of casting an actor to play the role of younger Gauri, he chose to cast Sanjana Rai, an eight-year-old child with Down Syndrome, whom he found in a school for "special children" in Virar. "Had I cast an actor, the facial expressions wouldn't have been the same as Gauri's. If you don't have correct actors in films like these, people won't believe."

If one sees Gauri in Yellow, the most striking facet of her performance is that she seems blissfully unaware of the camera, as if it doesn’t even exist. Actors try their best to lose their identity once the camera starts rolling, but Gauri had to do exactly the opposite — retain her identity; be herself at all times.

In Yellow, the film based on her life, Gauri is often up to her playful shenanigans, having scant regard for orders or instructions. The easiest way to make her listen and respond is to engage her in a story — one revolving around "a princess". The film also frequently mentions how one has to be patient with these children as they take time to absorb. Similarly, Limaye couldn't have just "directed" Gauri.  Their interaction had to break the confines of a conventional actor-director relationship. "For me, it was a mammoth task, at first, to know and understand her. I had to spend a lot of time with her," says Limaye. "I used to chat with her for hours." Slowly, their relationship evolved, accommodating Gauri's frivolities. "I would be standing at one corner of the set and she would wave at me from a distance," says Limaye. "I would come to check on her, and she would just crack a silly joke. Her mother used to tell her: 'Gauri he's working. You can't behave like this.'" Moreover, whenever Limaye found her concentration wavering, he would come up to Gauri and have a word with her in a way she would easily respond: "You see actors such as Aishwarya Rai, Katrina Kaif, Salman Khan. They are so famous. Why? Because they dance so well, they act so well, but mostly because they concentrate. If you have to be like them, you will have to concentrate."

If one sees Gauri in Yellow, the most striking facet of her performance is that she seems blissfully unaware of the camera, as if it doesn't even exist. Actors try their best to lose their identity once the camera starts rolling, but Gauri had to do exactly the opposite — retain her identity; be herself at all times. A film such as Yellow, which endeavors to capture the painful truth and joyous liberation of someone's life — by casting someone who's not unknown to similar daunting challenges in real life — cannot be shot the way other films are: by employing a conventional "lights, camera, action, cut" methodology. Hence, the shooting process for Yellow was a little life-like, allowing moments to be captured unfiltered. "Sometimes we had to keep the camera rolling for half an hour to capture Gauri's correct expression," says Limaye.

Gauri and Sanjana are not the only actors playing themselves in the film. Gauri's trainer, Vilas Majumder, is a swimming trainer in real life who has been mentoring the differently abled kids close to three decades. The students in the special school in the film, the other differently abled kids who compete with Gauri are all playing themselves. By bringing together both experienced actors — Mrinal Kulkarni (Gauri's mother), Mahendra Limaye (Gauri's coach) — and untrained actors playing themselves, the film also sets up a compelling concoction: showcasing the relationship between the real and the reel, where the former exists for its own sake (unstructured, unbound), while the latter tries to inch closer to the former by skilfully making use of the art-form's resources.

On 16 November 2013, the last day of the shoot, Limaye and his team were at the Ameya Classic Club in Virar. One of the members of the film's production-unit told Limaye, "Sanajana is out there swimming. Let's go out." When Sanajana (who plays younger Gauri in the film) had begun shooting for Yellow, she didn't know how to swim. Most of her swimming scenes were shot using a body double. "When I went there, she was swimming with a float, and her mother was so proud. She said, 'Dada, she wants to swim now. She wants to become like Gauri. That's her aim now.'" A few weeks ago, both Gauri and Sanjana won the Special Mention for their roles at this year's National Film Awards. It was only fitting they got this award for a film, which asks questions about abilities and limitations, and how they shape our perceptions about people. Films usually see consummate actors portray the roles of people with special needs; acting is not a profession one typically associates with the differently abled. Maybe because we have already unfairly decided who's capable of accomplishing what; there's almost always been a line separating the "normal" from the "special". By stepping into and excelling in a domain, which is considered, alien for them, both Sanjana and Gauri have helped blur the distinction a little.

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