He is the maker of classics films in Marathi cinema, like, Jait Re Jait (Mohan Agashe, Smita Patil), Umbartha (Smita Patil, Girish Karnad), Simhasan (Nana Patekar, Shreeram Lagoo, Reema Lagoo)  Some of his other films are, Mukta, Ek Hota Vidushak, and Musafir(Hindi). His most acclaimed film is Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar released in 1999. He won the 1995 Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration for his Marathi film, Mukta.
Born in 1942 in Pandharpur in Maharashtra he was earlier a paediatrician. He founded the noted Marathi experimental theatre group, 'Theatre Academy', which stage Vijay Tendulkar's Ghashiram Kotwal in 1973, followed by, 'Teen Paishacha Tamasha', an adaptation of Brecht's Threepenny Opera in 1974.
For eminent Marathi theatre personality and film director Jabbar Patel, tackling a political subject is not something new. Whether it was Umbartha, Jait Re Jait, or Simhasan for the silver screen, or Ghasiram Kotwal for the stage, this paediatrician-turned-director has created a ripple with his handling of political subjects. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, his celluloid biopic on the Dalit leader, which has been in the making for the past nine years, is now finally seeing the light of the day. The film which fetched Malayalam superstar Mammooty a National award in 1999, however took a while to reach the audience .
Talking to visibly relaxed Dr Patel at his Nehru Centre office in Worli, the first question that popped into one's head was regarding the delay in the release of the film. According to the director, after the English version received the award, "the decision was taken to go in for different dubbing versions. It was decided to dub the film in eight languages. So it needed time to write the script, go for script approval from prominent Sahitya Akademi winners," he said. That entailed going for different dubbing teams and a series of different voice trials. Mammooty is doing the Malayalam and Tamil dubbing but not the Hindi .
Besides these technical hitches, there was also the problem of distribution as the film needed the approval of both the governments of Maharashtra and India. (The National Film Development Corporation did not have the infrastructure to release the film). So the terms and conditions of both pairs of governments had to be worked out. Approval had to be sought from different government departments like finance and culture before the release happened. But Dr Patel is a relaxed man today and is grateful for the support and cooperation that he has received from the various governments which were in power at the state in centre .
Talking about how he got hooked on to the subject of Dr Ambedkar, Dr Patel said: "Dalit literature has created a lot of awareness in Maharashtra. It is extremely rich and powerful. So any sensitive Marathi knows what the Ambedkar movement is. In Maharashtra, you can't avoid the influence of Dalit literature," he explained .
In 1989, Dr Patel was approached by the Films Division to make a documentary on Ambedkar. His name had been suggested by many as the right man for the job. The director made it clear right from the beginning that it was not possible to make a film like that in 20 minutes. He told them that he would have to travel extensively, maybe even abroad, and get to know the man. He was given a carte blanche by the then Films Division head to shoot at Columbia University if he so wanted .
Describing his feelings on reaching the massive Columbia University campus, Dr Patel said that in those days no Black was allowed into the varsity and here was Dr Ambedkar, a man from a discriminated class studying at this prestigious university. To the right of the campus was the Black-infested locality of Harlem. "He must be walking through Harlem. So many dramatic things must have happened to him," he adds .
Deciding then to make a feature film on Babasaheb whenever he would be able to raise the money, Dr Patel found himself attending a meeting for the centenary celebrations of Dr Ambedkar. The director happened to be sitting next to Mrinal Gore and told her about his plans. When it was Ms Gore's turn to speak, she mooted the idea of a feature film on the Dalit messiah. The then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar sanctioned Rs 1 crore for the project and the Centre five crore. Incidentally, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi made in 1980 had a budget of 18 crores. Dr Patel was expected to give a similar touch to the life of Dr Ambedkar on a budget of six crore only !.
Commenting on the controversy raised over the manner in which Mahatma Gandhi was portrayed in the film, Dr Patel said: "See, the film is on Dr Ambedkar. Only those portions of Mahatma Gandhi will come which are related to Dr Ambedkar. This is what Mahatma Gandhi was in his life. Whatever Mahatma's views, they are there in the film. He wanted to remove untouchability but he had his own way of doing things which Dr Ambedkar didn't have. Let time decide. Ultimately, time will tell whether what Mahatmaji was saying was right or what Ambedkar was saying was right. People are watching today what happened in the 1930s, 40s. We should be healthy enough to debate on it. And after all, the same right of expression has been given by Dr Ambedkar in the Constitution," he argues .
Anyone who has seen the film will agree that Dr Ambedkar could not have been possible without Mammooty. How did the filmmaker settle on him? "I was making a film in English and I went all around the world, met and saw actors in Canada, United States and Britain. Physically, many actors in America came close but I was not sure about how they would portray the whole sensibility and inner turmoil. I was also not happy about the gestures. I had shortlisted 2-3 people and knew that it would be troublesome as I would have to get them here and train them. So I was not really happy. Then I decided to do something about Mammooty, who was hiding in my mind for a very long time." So started the entire exercise of doing computer graphics on Mammootry's face. The results showed that physically he came very close. When the director approached him initially through a third person, the southern superstar laughed off the idea.
But once Mammooty agreed to do the role he got into it wholeheartedly. He made several physical changes like shaving off his moustache and his hair to get the receding hairline. "He gave a terrific performance. He not only had to look like Ambedkar, but had to smile and get angry like Ambedkar. One can act emotional, show anger and all that. But how do you show that you are intelligent." And Mammooty achieved that so easily in the film
According to Dr Patel, the actor "listened to me very carefully, read the script very carefully. He also requested that we should not take too many rehearsals. So we were very particular to can the shot in one or two takes. Mammooty's journey was from inwards. He was trying to construct a role from within with a cerebral support. You will notice that he doesn't have many big speeches in the film. But he's still so expressive in silence," says Patel
One final question. Why was the film so long? Dr Patel is at pains to explain: "It's the life, not the film, the person which is so important. We have so many preconceived ideas of Ambedkar, as if he is responsible for many evils in this country. I'm not overexplaining. Just putting it in proper perspective. So it needs footage. I think each and every scene has a bearing on his life. I have tried to keep the relevant points. In seeing the film, you come to pay tributes to this great man. This is his life. You can't do injustice to this life," he says, defending the length of the film.
As a director
- Samna (1974)
- Jait Re Jait (1977)
- Simhasan (1980)
- Umbartha (1982)
- Musafir (1986)
- Maharashtra (1986)
- Mi SM (1987)
- Pathik (1988)
- Laxman Joshi (1989)
- Indian Theatre (1990)
- Forts of Maharashtra (1990)
- Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (1991)
- Ek Hota Vidushak (1992)
- Mukta (1994)