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The making of ‘Razia Sultan’

MUMBAI: About 800 years ago, Razia Sultana (Razziya al-din) broke all conventions by becoming the first queen of India, the first queen of the Delhi Sultanate.

It is this inspirational aspect that piqued the interest of Swastik Productions’ Siddharth Tewary. Basking in the success of his recent mythological ‘Mahabharat’ for Star Plus, Tewary and his wife writer Gayatri sat deep in discussion on their next venture when the name Razia Sultana cropped up.

rajia-sultan-inside-styRazia apparently refused to be addressed as Sultana because it meant ‘wife or mistress of a sultan’. She would answer only to the title ‘Sultan.’ Interestingly, the character of Razia Sultana, or Razia Sultan, as she preferred to be known, is one such that has not been explored much by filmmakers or TV producers and programmers.

In 1961, ‘Razia Sultan’ was essayed by Nirupa Roy and the film reportedly had strong performances. This was followed in 1983 by Kamal Amrohi’s ‘Razia Sultan’ starring Hema Malini in the lead role. Although not a commercial success, the movie was widely appreciated for its screenplay, dialogues, and direction.

Now, 32 years after Amrohi’s film, Razia has made her way onto television. To make the story look more authentic, Tewary did not see the films made on the queen previously.

Sid Tewary“I didn’t see the film on the subject released in 1983. I just saw some parts on YouTube and forwarded it. I don’t like to get coloured because then you are constantly comparing it and I don’t want to do that,” he states.

According to Tewary, it is a challenge to make a Muslim historical. “I think this is the first Muslim historical after Tipu Sultan. When you get into the Muslim world, there is a different way of telling the story and there is a lot of learning involved. There are nuances like speech and behaviour that make it very risky as anyone can take offence.”

The production house has thus taken a very different route in presenting the character of Razia. She is not a regular warrior who takes out a sword and fights. The show is about the making of a queen; a girl who had normal dreams but slowly realised that women need to be stronger. How she stands up for her people and changes things, until her father turns around and tells her she is better than his sons.

Of the two films made, the Nirupa Roy version showcased the Altunia-Razia love story, while the Hema Malini film presented the Yakut-Razia love story.

“There is a lot of discussion on her love story as well, so we are doing the Altunia-Razia story. Yakut will also come. That angle is there but it will come in later,” mentions the producer.

Razia Sultan (Pankhuri Awasthy) shows us who's queenSketching the character of the queen, Tewary and his team didn’t want her to be shown strong from the very first day, or as someone who wants to be the queen and save the world.

“I didn’t want to take that route as some stories have been made already. That seemed a bit improbable to me from the stuff that I read, so I felt it should be the making of the queen, the journey of a girl who realises that she needs to do it for a larger cause,” he says.

Casting was a key element here and that is how the young girl Pankhuri Awasthi was roped in for the role. Born in Lucknow, Awasthi grew up in Delhi and moved to Bengaluru for a marketing job, but acting was always topmost on her mind.

She then moved to Mumbai. Having been a part of a couple of shows, she landed this role after three to four auditions. The young actor did a lot of research for the role and put in hours of practice learning sword fighting, horse riding, poise, and diction. In fact, she drew a lot of influence from Hema Malini’s character to prepare for her role.

 Hema Malini’s Razia Sultan

  • The movie had big sets, battle scenes, glittering costumes, and musical score.
  • It was claimed that for a banquet scene 45 lambs, 251 fish, 455 chickens, and one and a half tonnes of biryani were prepared so that the actors would be stimulated by the aroma of real food.
  • Fake props not being good enough, a sulphur-crested cockatoo had to be specially imported from Australia.
  • The ending, in which Amrohi wanted to depict Razia and Yaqut’s illusion of immortality as they meet their death on horseback came to nought after three years of effort.

Besides her, the show also features Seema Kapoor as Shamshad Begum (Razia’s grandmother), who Tewary roped in because of her strong eyes which the character required. While Sooraj Thapar plays Altamash (Razia’s father), the show also sees controversy queen Sambhavana Seth make her debut in the fiction space as the vamp Shah Turkan.

With such a strong casting and storyline, &TV was only looking for the first push which it got from Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.

Rajesh IyerThe actor lent his voice to the opening narrative of the show and &TV business head Rajesh Iyer states, “We were deliberating about roping in a strong voice to set the context of Razia Sultan in the opening episode. It was during one of the shoots of ‘India Poochega Sabse Shaana Kaun’ that we bounced the idea to SRK and he loved the concept.”

The show was planned to be launched at the 7:30 pm slot.

“Most women who are the core target audience have access to television early evenings. The slot also has a higher skew towards younger audiences besides help increase the reach base for other shows,” reasons Iyer.

Keeping up to the expectations, the show also has two directors—Mukesh and Hasnain Hyderabadwala to shoot in the 16:9 cinemascope format. This enables them to capture the grandeur of the set and the performances of the artist, balancing the two in the frame.

 Nuggets from the set

  • Siddharth Tewary: We had to shoot one sequence with a tiger but we didn’t have a tiger to shoot with. Hence, we shot the sequence without it and put the tiger into the scene later through VFX.
  • Hasnain Hyderabadwala: When I saw the set first, I was completely zapped seeing the grandeur and size of it. While shooting, its tough to justify this huge set so we have to balance the grandeur and the performance of the artists. Being a Muslim, I could help in terms of the language and dialogue corrections, way of living, way of reading the namaaz and so on.

The set in Umergaon has been designed by Omung Kumar. It is a visual artistry, elaborately designed across 3.5 acres and has a crew of over 200 members working round the clock.

The set structures are designed on the lines of Turkish/Morrocan architecture, the blue domes of Afghanistan’s Jami Masjid and Samarkand (Uzbekistan). It also features Persian influence of heavy blue and green hues, ornate/mosaic work on ceilings with props from Turkey and Egypt.

razia--sultan-3-4-34

It has a 68,500 sq ft of exterior space with an average height of 40 feet. Moreover, all the props used are real in terms of material-glass lamps and chandeliers, ceramic planters and pots, wooden seating with velvet upholsteries custom made from Jaipur and Firozabad. The zardozi handwork on the upholsteries and drapes are done by artisans of Jamnagar, while metal and brass filigree artefacts are from Moradabad and Jodhpur.

Apart from a grand set, a historical show needs to have a feel of that era which can now only be done through visual effects. Thus, the team created old Delhi through VFX. Also, Razia was born at a time when her grandfather Qutub-ud-din-Aibak was making the Qutub Minar. Thus, the monument too was created through VFX.

 Costumes by Shweta Korde and Neerusha

  • It took around 4-5 months to lock down on the look of the characters.
  • Considering that the show is set in the 13th century, the team didn’t want to alienate the audiences with a burqa, but at the same time wanted it to look grand.
  • Yet again, Hema Malini’s film played an inspirational part to the designers as it helped them in fabric choosing and discussing what they could add to make it better.
  • One of the team members even visited Egypt to see what the culture is there as it is quite similar.

Witnessing the team capturing the performances, one cannot help relating Pankhuri Awasthi to the young Hema Malini. While Malini in the film had a very regal and warrior princess sort of a look since the very beginning of the film, Awasthi, on the other hand, comes across as a docile girl but with the fire of a warrior in her eyes.