Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a film that reflects how I feel about cinema today
Filmmaker Kabir Khan began his journey making documentaries. In 2006, he shifted to fiction feature films and made thought-provoking average grossers to monster hits. 2015 saw him delivering the warm-hearted highest grosser, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, followed by a taut political thriller, Phantom, which was also widely loved by fans of the genre. Here’s an excerpt (Part 1) of the EXCLUSIVE chat with the brilliant writer-filmmaker talking to us about the sweet smell of stupendous success.
Let’s begin with the most clichéd question – how does it feel to have delivered two hit films in quick succession?
The last two years have been non-stop work on these two films (Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Phantom). When I look back at the shooting it all blurs into one schedule, though they were separate processes. Honestly, at times I thought I had bitten off more than I can chew. Having said that 2015 is definitely going to go down as a very significant year in my career. I have made two extremely different films. Bajrangi Bhaijaan has turned into a monster hit and everything in my life is now looked upon as before Bajrangi… and after Bajrangi… I don’t know what kind of pressure that puts on me for the rest of my life (smiles).
Phantom is a film which I think was a new-age commercial format, where a thriller is not diluted by song, dance and a love story. It was made for a niche audience and has strongly appealed to them. As long as you can do that and make sure everybody involved breaks-even, it is good. I have never taken the pressure of doing films for the 100-crore or 200-crore clubs. But, of course, when you work with a superstar like Salman (Khan) that pressure comes on and I will take it up. If I take box office pressure with every film I make, I will fall into the danger of doing the same kind of films. That would bore me as a director. I am glad that two diverse films have done well. And the one that has done exceptionally well is closest to my politics…
Politics – what do you mean by that?
I don’t mean the politics that political parties play. By politics I mean the way I would shoot a girl in a bikini or how I deal with a social issue or a comment on it in a film. The politics of a film is very important to me. One can forgive a bad screenplay and bad acting, but will never forgive bad politics. I feel mainstream cinema is THE most powerful platform in this country. So, you need to be careful about the politics you represent. What I find disturbing is that wrong politics is sometimes portrayed inadvertently, not deliberately, because people are not paying attention to it. I have seen films made by people who don’t have a communal bone in their body but the politics that is represented in their movies is so communal that I find it surprising how they do it. I won’t take names, but even progressive thinking people will make a film that is sometimes extremely regressive or misogynistic or does not associate with that person’s ideology. I feel one’s ideology has to be represented correctly through their films too. So, Bajrangi Bhaijaan was really close to my heart.
What probed you to make Phantom, a fantasy version on a factual event?
Honestly, Phantom came out of the blue. Post (Ek Tha) Tiger I had taken six-months off and was working on ideas. Around that time Hussain Zaidi (author) approached me with a biography on Abu Salem. It is a contentious topic because he is all about the film industry and I have friends here. So, he suggested another book idea, about retribution for 26/11, that he hadn’t started writing yet. I said it is interesting as long as it is not very jingoistic.
I am a very political person and seriously follow it. Anywhere you see – on TV channels, debates, social platforms, newspapers – 26/11 attacks is a festering wound. There’s always the question of why we can’t do something about the attacks, after all we are the fourth largest army in the world. Of course, I recognize that there are certain reasons our government will not indulge in such cowboy adventure. So, I am not advocating to do what I did in Phantom, but as a filmmaker you can sometimes do something in cinema that you can’t do in real life. It provides an emotional catharsis. I am strongly against people who use religion in politics and organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba. In New York or Kabul Express I provided a kind of redemption for people involved in such activities, but Lashkar doesn’t deserve redemption as they stand for hate and nothing else.
From Kabul Express to Phantom, every film of yours is set against the backdrop of terrorism. Is it an organic element in the story or because you strongly feel about the issue?
This question is often asked to me. My body of work has it (backdrop of terrorism) but it was not like I decided to make a trilogy on terrorism or India – Pakistan, etc. I have always tried to put a real political context to my films. As a mainstream film audience, I struggle while watching movies that don’t have bearings on reality. My favorite filmmaker is Mani Ratnam, who has always set his films in a real world.
Films are about characters, but in an attempt to lend a real political / conflict backdrop I end up weaving in terrorism and India-Pak hostility because, unfortunately, we are constantly surrounded by it. Even as a documentary filmmaker I have explored stories in conflict zones. Also, I feel human relations and reactions get played out in a certain way in conflict zones, which makes for engaging story-telling.
In that sense, it is not coincidental. Terrorism bothers me but I won’t say I had planned to set every film in it. At the beginning of Bajrangi… a lot is spoken about India and Pakistan, but for me it is more about the borders within. The invisible borders that divide us – what we eat, how we pray and look at each other. I very strongly feel that the secular fabric needs to be protected more than things like economy, development, etc. Those are cyclical things and dependent on the world economy. Somebody sneezes in America and Sensex prices fall in India. It is all interlinked. But what we can really protect and take pride in is what makes India what it is. The greatness of our country comes from its composite culture, eclectic mix and secularism.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan was an emotional drama and Phantom was a thriller. How do you mentally switch as a filmmaker when you work on films that are in different zones and levels of emotional quotient?
There is a holistic approach when I am writing it but when I’m executing, it is pretty much coming from what has been internalized. When I film a scene, I approach everything with a gut feel. When I go to a set on location I just know where the camera needs to be, it is probably years of training as a freelance camera person and documentaries. I don’t overthink and let it come from within. I react to locations, light, people and depending on it all change scene settings and lines every day. Thankfully, I make mental notes and know it will affect something in the film later.
Maybe your documentary filmmaking experience lends to the strong need of realism in your films but mainstream Hindi movies are very larger-than-life. How do you balance these two extreme aspects in your stories?
I very strongly believe that every story demands its own treatment. When I hear a story I feel this is the treatment I want to go for it. Touchwood!, till now it has been working and people have reacted positively. When I heard Bajrangi… I knew it had to be real but a little Utopian in its setting as it would set the tone of the film. The story is about looking at the good side of things. I am not saying that if you find a girl who belongs to the other side of the border, then you cross the border to drop her back. Similarly, I can’t make a Kabul Express the way I made Tiger or vice versa. I first write the story, lock the tone in my head and write the treatment.
As a filmmaker have you ever had to mold your story / film into a commercial zone for business purposes?
In Ek Tha Tiger I faced some pressure since it was mainstream cinema. That was a learning process. Adi (Aditya Chopra), who has seen me struggling with mainstream cinema since Kabul Express, called me after watching Bajrangi… and gave me the best compliment. He said it is probably one of the best mainstream films he has watched in his life. He felt that every single note in Bajrangi fell correct. As a story Bajrangi… allowed me to dabble in the mainstream space and yet let me to do what I am. I would like to repeat – what I had said even before the release – I stand by each cut, each note of music and each performance in Bajrangi. This is the way I would want to make a film. With almost every film I felt I wish I could have done it better. Bajrangi is really a film that reflects how I feel about cinema today and appeals to a pan-India audience. Nowadays, we are not able to make many films that will be equally appreciated by a rickshaw puller in Meerut and a south Mumbai banker. But everyone has loved Bajrangi.
Fortunately I have never had producers who’d ask me to make amends in the script for commercial reasons. Otherwise I would have not done things that I wanted to do in Bajrangi. Conventional wisdom says that if Kabir Khan and Salman Khan are coming together, then they should make Tiger 2. It will be sold before the release and everyone will go to bank laughing. But we did the anti-thesis of Tiger. The only action scene in Bajrangi… is of 20 seconds, which is more about Salman crying than beating up people. We instinctively felt it was correct for the story. Also, I’ve always struggled while writing songs, but with Bajrangi it was very organic. It was not because someone said bechne ke liye we need six songs.
In your films the leads are known for their star power rather than acting prowess. Do you think it is important to cast stars to make the film a success?
It depends on the budget. Stars do get you a good start. If it is a big budget film then not having a star and attempting it can be risky for the producers. So, yes, in that sense a star is important to get the start to a film. But I also think our industry is changing. We are seeing films minus stars also getting support and recovering money. Baahubali – not taking away from the actors but they are not superstars – has done unbelievable business. S. S. Rajamouli, the director, and the story are the superstars of the film. A well-told story has the possibility of pulling through a certain number without a star. But let’s not fool ourselves by saying that if we take away Salman from Bajrangi it will do 300-crore business. It won’t! It will do good numbers but not what it did with Salman in it. On the flip side, a star can’t make a bad film work, it will do basic minimum, but that isn’t good enough. Today, if a superstar’s film does less than 200-crore then it is not a super hit, unless it is an alternative / different film catering to a niche audience. 100-crore collection is a passé.
Coming soon: Kabir Khan reveals the transition from documentary to fiction filmmaking and movies that inspired him.