Vaibhavi Merchant on choreographing Prabhas for Saaho, and reuniting with Salman Khan for Dabangg 3
National Award-winning choreographer talks about why she signed a multilingual film like Saaho amidst all her recent movies by Yash Raj Films and Salman Khan.
In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.
Telugu superstar Prabhas and Shraddha Kapoor's multilingual action thriller Saaho released earlier this week on Friday. Besides the action, the film was lauded for another technical aspect. Co-produced by Bhushan Kumar's T-Series, four songs were unveiled before the release of the film. National Award-winning choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant has choreographed all the song sequences. Firstpost caught up with her for an exclusive interaction, where she talked about how she landed Saaho, her long equation with Salman Khan, and whom she had the most fun working with in her career so far.
Prabhas has said, on multiple occasions recently, you are the best choreographer he has worked with as you really encouraged him to pull up his socks in the song sequences. How did you achieve that?
I met him for the first time at the set in Hyderabad. Obviously, I'd met Sujeeth and the entire technical crew beforehand. But I hadn't met Prabhas in the past, and the only film I've seen of him was Baahubali. After I got to know the screenplay, I visualised him in a certain way. We had to beat his shyness. I had to reach out to him a lot more because I understand how the South Indian heroes operate. They're very coy, shy, quiet, and respectful towards technicians. I'm aware of this culture. With him, it was one day at a time. It was one schedule at a time. The first schedule with him was for the song that was released recently, 'Baby Won't You Tell Me'. It's the longest sequence I've shot. It was spread over six months. It started from December 2018 and ended in June 2019. But Prabhas made all of us very comfortable. He doesn't carry his weight around. He's unaffected by his success. Also, technicians and actors collaborate on a different level vs actors and the fans or the media. For us, it is a nine-to-nine job, if not nine-to-five. I love to study actors, their strengths and their weaknesses. I design the choreography not only around the character but also the person. I think he recognised that. I didn't want him to feel or look uncomfortable.
You have worked with Shraddha before in the 'The Hamma Song' in Ok Jaanu. How did you recreate a song that already has an iconic precedent in 'Hamma Hamma' from Bombay?
Shaad Ali, the director (of Ok Jaanu), and I go a long way back. We've worked on Bunty Aur Babli and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom before. We've also set a benchmark with songs like 'Kajra Re'. So I agreed to do 'The Hamma Song'. I've seen Ok Kanmani (original Tamil film from which Ok Jaanu was remade) so I understood how the song fits well into the narrative. I knew Shraddha is an excellent dancer. She is very good with expressions. I had a ball working with her because she got how much namak and masti and other nuances she needs to bring. At the same time, Adi (Aditya Roy Kapur) was very nervous because he never considered himself a dancer. But I camouflaged it really well by making him look hot and suave. I wanted girls to swoon for him. Overall, the song had to cater to the story. I had another version, more pacey, which I had choreographed. Four days before the shoot, Karan (Johar, co-producer) told me, 'Babe , you're gonna kill me. But please listen to this version also.' I thought it was a damn cool version. Of course, I had to redo the choreography. I told everyone that the new version needs to be much cooler. It needs to have a vibe.
Your filmography recently has mostly been either under Yash Raj Films (YRF) or Salman Khan Films. Then how did Saaho happen?
There are those few people who call me a few times, and I'm there for him. Not just YRF or Salman, but even Excel Entertainment. I'm really fond of Farhan (Akhtar) and Ritesh (Sidhwani). Similarly, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, with whom I've worked with so many times. Shyam, who is his brother-in-law, was co-producing the film in North. He asked me if I'd be interested, and I said why not. Going into Saaho, I was a bit skeptical because I had to carry forward Prabhas' legacy, immediately after Baahubali. But we got along really well later.
You recently choreographed for Allu Arjun's Telugu film Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India. Did that experience open you to the South film industries?
I get a lot of offers from the South. I love the culture. I'm a quarter Telugu (sic) myself. My mom is half-Telugu, half-Rajasthani (Jaipur). My dad is a Gujarati. So I have a lot of India within me. I also have family in Hyderabad. I was born in Chennai but brought up in Mumbai. But I'm a huge fan of Mani (Ratnam) sir and K Balachander ji. But over the past two decades and a half, I've been so busy because of the work I'm doing in Bombay that I haven't been able to travel there to do more work.
It has just been the same. He's not changed at all. I can shamelessly say I'm biased towards him. My journey with him started when I was an assistant in the song 'Jai Maa Kali' in Karan Arjun. I recently shot a song with him in Jaipur. I requested him to be at the location at 11 because then we need to shift the location. At 11:05, that man was in my frame. My jaw still drops when he does such things. You have to see his body right now! He randomly took his T-shirt off. I was amazed by this man who can give anyone a run for money. That's why he's a superstar. His stardom does not affect him at all. The Salman I know from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam is more mature and wiser today. He has also developed a keen sense of business acumen. He keeps very busy but is never too busy for the ones he loves.
There have been a couple of instances, of him being credited by the media for designing the 'Rangtaari' song in Loveyatri, and coming up with the 'Jag Ghoomeya' hook step in Sultan. How do you react to these reports?
I take it very lightly. For me, it was a joke. People don't know what technicians actually do. I'm not coming up with dance steps. I'm actually the director for that particular sequence. You reduce it to a dance step so I become a little upset. I had mentioned it also to Salman is quirky in a way. He knows his audience so he experiments sometimes. He'd come up with something very magical with a few steps. I love that about him! In Dil Bole Hadippa, Rani (Mukerji) and I would ask the lightman to dance to see how he'd react to it. If I like it then maybe I'd draw something from it for the song. So there's no ego that if it's my song, then it has to come only from me.
You recently posted a picture with Dabangg 3 director Prabhu Deva from the sets. How has his dance and choreography affected your career?
Prabhu, Salman and I also worked during Wanted. But he wasn't available on the set when we shot my song 'Le Le Maza Le'. But he always kept a track of my work, and liked it. Obviously, the nation loves him, and he's India's answer to Michael Jackson. I know when Jackson came to India, Prabhu was invited to perform on the same stage as him. I was extremely excited about how talented and how humble he is. There's a lot of respect for him as both a technician and a person.
You have worked with a lot of great dancers, like Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Katrina Kaif, and Shahid Kapoor. Whom did you have the most fun working with?
I had a lot of fun working with Ranveer Singh because he's mad. I did his first film, and then we also did Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl and Befikre. He didn't feel Band Baaja Baaraat was his first film. It was totally up his alley. There were times I had to tell him to reduce his energy. He also understood he has to be in the frame because the camera won't go flying with him. Then Rani is my best friend. I just have to tell her how to do it, and she says, 'Take!' There is no rehearsal. I've shot some of the best songs of her career, from Bunty Aur Babli to Dil Bole Hadippa to Aiyya to Hichki. She was never known for her dancing skills even though she's a good dancer. Because she is a powerhouse performer so that part got highlighted more. But I always told her: 'Let's bring out the dancer within you.' So when I work with her, it's smooth sailing. There's no glitch, she's always on time. I asked her how are you doing it! She has every right to take undue advantage of me but she doesn't.
All images from YouTube.
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