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A nose for the truth: Amole Gupte on ‘Sniff!!!’

Writer-director Amole Gupte talks about working with children and his preparations for the Saina Nehwal biopic

‘Sniff!!!’ star Khushmeet Gill and (right) Amole Gupte.
‘Sniff!!!’ star Khushmeet Gill and (right) Amole Gupte.

Amole Gupte loves working with children, and has strong ideas about education and learning. This was evident in his script for Taare Zameen Par and from his first two films as director, Stanley Ka Dabba and Hawa Hawaai. He has so far preferred working with amateur child actors, who have often outshone the adults in his films. With his third film, Sniff!!!, Gupte sticks to the world of pre-teens and tells the story of an eight-year-old detective with a heightened sense of smell. Simultaneously, Gupte is also preparing for a biopic on badminton champion Saina Nehwal, starring Shraddha Kapoor. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Unlike your first three films, ‘Sniff!!!’ was an idea that was brought to you. What attracted you to the story?

I normally write my own stuff. But Eros was keen that I work with their young writers’ team. And that excited me. I heard four concepts out of which three were trash. But I got a good smell from this concept, which was about an eight-year-old boy who can’t smell. I was already on (the) Saina (biopic) by then, so I agreed to do it only if I could write it my way, in a milieu I know.

How did you find the actor who plays Sunny Gill?

I conducted an acting workshop in my office, for which I also approached the local gurdwaras to send children for a free arts and theatre workshop. The idea is to show some (Charlie) Chaplin, some (Majid) Majidi, talk, act a little, do some voice and expression exercises and have fun. That’s how we found Khushmeet Gill.

I found out much later that he has been acting since the age of 4 and is very experienced. He’s worked with Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar. He hoodwinked me, but he’s a sweetheart. What actually attracted me to him is the way he speaks. He doesn’t speak like a Mumbai boy with an anglicized accent. You feel he has come straight from Punjab. He is the most experienced actor, but there are others who were quite a revelation.

What is it about the sense of smell that makes it an interesting theme?

When you can smell nice things, you can also smell bad things; that is the nature of the screenplay. When the nose gets overactive and becomes a superpower, it could land you in trouble. This is where the detective business comes in.

Not having a sense of smell would be disastrous. I have a cousin who, along with many other things he lost in an accident, also lost his sense of smell. When I watch him eating I feel he is doing it as a drill, there is no soul. I also have a friend who didn’t have a sense of smell from birth. Poor fellow, they make him do all the dirty things in the house. It’s an olfactory dysfunction, a kind of disability from birth. What makes that worse is that when the olfactory sense is non-existent, the taste buds also lose their sheen.

Does Sunny’s superpower make him a superhero?

Sunny is born without a sense of smell and then, when he suddenly gets it, it is very acute. What is a superpower, though? America is a superpower, but is America superheroic? When you have a superpower, but don’t wield it correctly, it can be perceived as meddling for political gain —that is not superheroism. For superheroism, you need a philosophy.

Our hero’s philosophy opens up in the climax and that is something you should carry home. That’s very important to me, because I want to make films with children, but I am not interested in making childish films. Adults are foolish enough to think children don’t have minds, and that’s a very wide gap.

Does Sunny have a sidekick, like Watson is to Sherlock or Robin is to Batman?

Yes, yes. When Enid Blyton wrote about Fatty, it was The Mystery Of The Burnt Cottage that started the association (referring to the Five Find-Outers series). So we have looked at this film like Burnt Cottage and not given them all the firearms from day one. This is an origin story.

From here you go on to the Saina Nehwal biopic, moving into an older age bracket.

Actually, even in that she is eight years old. My interest is in Saina’s childhood, and her origins. Here is a child who showed promise and a family that rallied to help make her into world No.1. That’s an inspirational story. She was the junior world champion at the Czech Open at barely 13, a child.

At the same time, I am interested in exploring the impact of her parents on her choices. Were their decisions fair or unfair, because the girl had no childhood? I am examining the phenomenon of Saina. And her family is on board because the beauty of being an achiever is that, having stood on the pedestal, you don’t mind what you have lost on the way. Shraddha is training hard for the part of the older Saina.

Is there anything else brewing?

Yes. I have just made a short film called The Return Of One Idiot. I’m taking it to schools and colleges. It’s a fictional story based on real experiences and examines what happens if you don’t have financial security. I explore what happened to those who gave away all they had to their children and look where they landed up. Others continue to work into old age in order to be self-sufficient. It’s based on real stories but performed by actors.

Sniff!!! released on Friday.

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