Mumbai — And who is Omung Kumar — actor, model, television host, art director and production designer, or a film director?
Incredibly, he’s all.
As actor, he did vintage Doordarshan shows like “Magic Lamp” and “Khel Khilone.” He has been a model for a few ad campaigns, including for Godrej. He was host in “Ek Minute,” a Zee show that ran for 12 years. He acted in films like “Na Tum Jaano Na Hum” and “Ishq Vishq.”
As an art man, he not only has done the sets of “Ek Minute,” but also television shows like “Sarabhai Vs. Sarabhai,” “Bigg Boss,” “Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa” and “Just Dance” but also of movies like “Dil Hai Tumhaara,” “Ishq Vishk,” “Fida,” “Masti,” “Chameli,” “Black,” “Waqt – The Race Against Time” and “Saawariya.”
And now he is set to turn director with “Mary Kom,” his bio-pic on Chugneijang Mary Kom, the five-time World Amateur Boxing champion, and the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each of the six world championships. Kom is also the only Indian boxer to have qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics, winning the bronze medal.
The half-Punjabi-half-Irani Omung is soft-spoken, and his office a funky delight in its décor just like an art director’s should be. And on the peculiar spelling of his first name, he admits that he has been “okay” with his initials “OK” even though he has always been called “Umang.”
Son of Sabha and Vipin Kumar Bhandula, both Film & Television Institute (FTII, Pune) alumni from the same batch as Shatrughan Sinha in the late ‘60s, neither of whom hit the big league as actors, Omung kept doing stage shows since childhood. As he was good in drawing and painting, a natural corollary to schooling was joining the Bandra School of Art. A First Class First result led to an instant offer from Hindustan Thompson Associates, the advertising giant.
Omung met Vanita, his wife, in college too, and now, while he is the art director, Vanita remains his production designer. On that note, we begin our interview:
Q: Could you let us know the actual difference between art director and a production designer, since these terms are used interchangeably?
A: An art director designs the basic sets. A production designer is the one who decorates them, like choosing the props and their colors.
Q: Your first set, for “Ek Minute,” which you also hosted, was a sensation at that time. We are sure you must have got television acting offers with your looks.
A: I flowed with the tide, but took the right decisions too. I am now 46 and “Ek Minute” was 22 years ago. I was getting great work as an art director, and TV would have blocked me.
Q: When did you decide to turn director?
A: Five years ago, I realized that I had made money and got a nice share of awards, so when I asked myself what I should do next, the answer was clear: direct a film!
I prepared for two big movies, both acting-oriented, as writer and director. But a little later, I thought that I should make a smaller, female-oriented film first, and then, for no particular reason, I thought of a biopic.
My friend, writer Saiwyn Quadras, asked me if I would consider a film on Mary Kom, and today, I am ashamed that I asked him, “Who is she?” But I realized that if I had been ignorant about this girl from Manipur, so would be a huge chunk of Indians. This was a story waiting to be told. And I had to tell it.
Q: And what happened next?
A: Vanita, Quadras and I went to meet Mary at Imphal, Manipur. She turned out to be a simple, average-looking girl who sported glasses. And the first question she asked me after I told her what I had in mind was “Are you insane?” (Chuckles). And I asked her whether I would have come all the way to meet her otherwise. But we clicked from the start and she agreed!
Our next step was to find a producer. I never thought of (Sanjay Leela) 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, as I had stopped taking up 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!
Q: With someone of Bhansali’s stature, it is easy to presume that he has ghost-directed the film, especially since he has been billed as “creative director.”
A: To tell the truth, he has been on my 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 experience, he did give suggestions off the sets and that’s why we have billed him as creative director.
Q: And now for the big one. Why Priyanka Chopra?
A: Who else? 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 to Mary, and Priyanka was the only choice! 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 Mary’s personality, habits and life.
Q: What about Priyanka’s grueling physical training?
A: Yes, it was a strenuous ordeal. Priyanka needed to train in boxing, and hit the gym to make muscles. Such a muscular 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. She mastered boxing within 20 days, practicing with real boxers for 15 hours a day! We took real boxers because actors playing boxers would not have looked genuine and we would have had to teach them boxing too. Actually, when Priyanka did the “…Ram Leela” song, they had to both cover her muscles and conceal her facial injuries!
The other casting was done along the same lines — Darshan Kumaar as Mary’s husband Onler (Onkholer), and Sunil Thapa as the coach. You might recall Thapa as the thin ruffian in “Ek Duuje Ke Liye.” He has since become a big star in Nepal.
Q: Normally, bio-pics face trouble from the person being documented. Your experience is completely different.
A: Yes, Mary Kom, while watching my film with her husband Onler, cried often as memories came flooding back. And she told me that no one could have played her role better than Priyanka. We spent 18 months on the research, and even when she was pregnant, she was just a call away.
Q: When you made the film, bio-pics were a commercially dicey proposition, though sports films had been appreciated.
A: I am a sportsperson myself — I play tennis, badminton and other games. But yes, at that time I fervently prayed that “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” would do well!