Once Just Romantic Fiction, Far Pavilions Comes to Life in a Fabled Corner of India

updated 04/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/11/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is early morning in India, and as the sun beats down on the camera crew and the actors, the local villagers creep up for a better view. Slowly the chant goes up. "Zeevago, Zeevago, Zeevago," they cry out, recalling the name by which they know Omar Sharif best, from his role in the memorable 1965 movie Doctor Zhivago. But it's a long way from Mother Russia to the hot, desolate plains near Jaipur, where Sharif, 51, and co-stars Amy (The Competition) Irving and Ben (Chariots of Fire) Cross have been filming M.M. Kaye's best-selling, 955-page historical romance The Far Pavilions, a novel that takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century colonial India.

On the set of the movie, which will air as a six-hour special on HBO early next year, there were only minor inconveniences from heat, snakes and some adverse local press about the casting of Irving, an American, as an Indian princess. Sharif shrugged off the hubbub: "I'm having a good time." So is author Mollie Kaye, 70ish, who visited the set and offered Sharif the ultimate compliment: "When I saw him die, I burst into tears."

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