Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994) is a moving account of a family in Mumbai that has been split down the middle by the Partition. Fayyazi (Surekha Sikri) lives with her grandson Riyaz (Amit Phalke), and a frequent visitor is her feisty sister Mammo (Farida Jalal) from Pakistan, who frequently runs into visa troubles with the Mumbai police.

The film stars two acting veterans, but Phalke holds his own as a petulant 14-year-old boy who cannot always comprehend the troubles that plague the adults in his life. Phalke had already proven himself with his debut in 1992 in Mujhse Dosti Karoge, for which he won a National Film Award as Best Child Actor. Mammo boosted his career, but he chose to go behind the scenes instead of staying in front of the camera in his adulthood.

Mammo is being telecast on May 20 on the Epic television channel as part of a month-long celebration of National Film Development Corporation productions. In an interview, Phalke, who works at the Star Pravah television channel, spoke about his brief but memorable acting career.

How did you get into films?
My first film was Mujhse Dosti Karoge, which was produced by the Children’s Film Society of India and was directed by Gopi Desai. I had been performing on stage since I was a kid. I grew up in Pune where I was actively involved in children’s theatre.

In 1991, I replaced a kid who did not show up for a couple of plays by the National School of Drama repertory which was performing in the city. The director of NSD, Ram Gopal Bajaj, requested my father to allow me to travel to Mumbai with the troupe. In the Mumbai shows, Gopi Desai spotted me and that is how I got the film.

Ashok Mehta was the cameraman, Irrfan Khan was my father. Habib Tanvir was my grandfather. Khan’s wife, Sutapa Sikdar, did the costumes for the film. It was an excellent set-up. I won the National Award as Best Child Actor for this film. It was a National Award coming to Maharashtra after almost 20 years.

Amit Phalke receiving the National Film Award from President Shankar Dayal Sharma.

How did ‘Mammo’ happen?
Mr Shyam Benegal had seen the film, or so I believe, when he was preparing to film Mammo. I was called for a narration and script reading. I went and read it and I was signed for the film.

Were you aware of his track record?
Absolutely! I was very fortunate to work with him so early in my life. He is so subtle in his direction with a sound knowledge of his craft, Mammo turned out to be one of his best films. I was 14 in 1994 when the film released and it won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi in 1995. We shot the film in 38 days. We had a bound script and Mr Benegal shot the film without a hitch. I had a tough time pronouncing the chaste Urdu and English but he made it so easy for me, and it’s because of him that I learnt how to communicate in English since I was from a Marathi medium school and wasn’t fluent in it.

Mammo (1994).

There was a four-year gap after ‘Mammo’ and ‘Kareeb’ (1998).
Yes, I was Bobby Deol’s friend in that film.

You never returned to films after ‘Kareeb’. What happened?
Actually, early success went to my head. I didn’t want to do anything else. I did nothing for a year. I just wasted my time, but today when I look back, it was the right thing to do. That one year of doing nothing made me decide that I needed to go behind the camera. I think it was Gulzar saab who once said, “Theraav ki badi zaroorat hoti hai,” [It is important to harness stillness] and it is probably true. I learnt editing and camerawork, and I began working in television and enjoyed the process of being behind the camera. I worked at a studio in Pune, producing videos and film stuff.

What about acting?
Acting is not something I have learnt. It is a learning process for every character. One must learn something for a role and unlearn it for another and that’s something I can pick up when I chose to. When the chips are down, I can come back to acting. When I was a teenager, I wanted to do something other than acting. I moved to Mumbai later and produced content for corporate films and events and got into line production for small films. On and off, I would dabble in acting in theatre, but not actively.

When did the big switch happen?
In 2006, Nitin Vaidya, who was business head at Zee Marathi, called me and I joined the channel at a junior post level for the launch of a new channel called Zee Talkies, for which I acquired Marathi films to be telecast on the movie channel, such as Saade Maade Teen and Natarang. Then I moved on to Viacom, where I headed programming in non-fiction for their Marathi channel. I always wanted to work with a multinational organisation and that happened when I got a call from Star television network two years ago, where I now handle the non-fiction programming for the Star Pravah channel.

Amit Phalke.