Hero is a producer’s film while Katti Batti is a director’s film
Just after the release of Hero, we caught up with Director Nikhil Advani who almost preempted the interview, asking questions and answering them too. A soliloquy of sorts, he had a lot to say about films, Salman Khan, animation in India and classic world cinema. As you read on, you’ll hear the anxiousness and expectations he had for Katti Batti, his straight-from-the-heart-project.
You must be occupied with all that feedback for Hero pouring in.
A lot of things that people are praising the film for, falls under the purview of the Director. Whether it is the brief given to the DOP or the Production Designer or even the performances of the actors. I think everyone has reacted to the screenplay not being adapted to the current day and age. The point is that you cannot adapt that screenplay. It is a 1983-based film. Or you make a brand new film, like Baz Luhrmann made Romeo and Juliet. So you could take the classic piece made by Subhash Ghai and then change everything about it and interpret it in a totally different way. But Salman Khan, the producer, had not envisioned it to be like that. He wanted this and that’s what we gave him.
Well, you don’t sound too pleased about it. Are you happy with the output at all? What comes across is that you gave what was expected of you.
Exactly. The numbers for the opening three days were very positive for a newcomer film but I don’t know whether they will hold up during the week. Hero is a producer’s film while Katti Batti is a director’s film. So Katti Batti will tell the audiences where my heart really is, in terms of the kind of cinema that I may want to do. A lot of Hero is mine, the way the film looks and the performances by Sooraj (Pancholi) and Athiya (Shetty) but the screenplay is not mine.
The pressure of making a remake is immense.
OBVIOUSLY. I don’t mind remaking a film as long as I am allowed to interpret it. The script of Katti Batti was sent to me by UTV. It was not a brief but more like – see-what-you-can-do-with-it. I reinterpreted it. I sat with the writer and turned it around completely. You will see a lot of me in Katti Batti. People who know me will recognize my aesthetic sense. Katti Batti reeks of this kind of aesthetic where nothing matches, everything is picked up from the road but it still comes together. There is a certain amount of comfort in it.
Even though Hero received a good opening, it got mixed reviews. But I am taking solace in the fact that the boy and girl have been appreciated. That is the reason I got into making this film. I really feel that there is a dearth of talent in this industry. Whether Sooraj and Athiya will be the next Vyajanti Mala and Dilip Kumar? No I don’t think so. But at least, tomorrow, you have another choice of actors to make a film with.
That was candid, And how! I read another interview, where you said, “Of course, it is not better than the original.”
(vehemently) It can never be better than the original. I can never claim to be better than the original because it is not original.
My question was, then why do it?
Because Salman asked me to do it. I feel indebted to Salman because he was there for me at a time when no one else was. Should that mean that I make a film for him and rob three hours away from your life? May be not. But then, I cannot say no to Salman. Had he not called me and anyone else from his company would have approached me, I would have refused.
Did he have to convince you?
Not at all. I would have said yes to whatever he would have asked me for at that time.
Why do you think that he picked you?
Salman felt that there was a certain scale in Salaam-e-Ishq, despite the screenplay being faulty, which he wanted for Hero. In fact, when I started working on Hero, I wanted to make it like a Nishikant Kamat, Marathi, small budget film. It was about a boy in a chawl who has a sense of loyalty to this guy who has raised him since he was a child and as a result, goes and does the unthinkable. I wanted to make it like Satya.
I can’t imagine that.
I wanted to make it like Shashilal Nair’s Angaar or Rahul Rawail’s Arjun.
Given a chance, would you?
Of course! I wanted to do that.
Has it turned out the way you envisioned it to be?
The film has turned out to be the way I imagined it keeping in mind the treatment as per Salman’s brief. I would have liked to do a ‘Dhan Ta Dan’ from Kaminey where five guys go into a club and freak out. But this is a zone of a girl and a boy in a club dancing and that’s how I shot it. Once we came to a consensus that this is what we wanted, we worked hard on the photography and other aspects.
Do you think this mixed review will affect Katti Batti?
The audience doesn’t know that the same Director has made both the films. The normal audience has no clue. They just know six directors in this country – Karan Johar, Sanjay Bhansali, Yash Chopra, Subash Ghai and Raju Hirani. To people, Hero is a film that Salman Khan produced to launch these new actors and Katti Batti is Kangana Ranaut’s next film.
Bang on. So what was your brief to Kangana?
The script. Katti Batti is Anshul Singhal’s script, which I worked on and hence share screenplay credit for it. Kangana met me with the intention of saying no for the film. But she was blown by the script, the character, the intention of the film and ended up saying yes. It is the script. The starting point of the film is the script which is what works in Katti Batti.
Did you really tone down the dialogues as per Aamir Khan’s suggestions?
No way!! There was no toning down. There was a lot of F***k you-F***k you in the film. He (Aamir) asked me why the dialogues were in English and not Hindi. I said, that’s because I write in English. He said that doesn’t mean they speak it in f*****g English, right?
Who is the target audience for Katti Batti? Is it your Bandra crowd or the younger lot?
Anybody who likes good cinema, anyone who likes a good love story and anyone who likes a great cry. The promos don’t show that because there is a large part of the film we didn’t want to let out. When you watch the film you will know why Kangana Ranaut played the girl-next-door in this film and you will see why she actually did this film.
Why Imran Khan?
Because he is the best person for this film. I would have made it without Kangana but I would not make this film without Imran. I made D-Day with Arjun Rampal and would not have made it with anyone else. I think Imran works so beautifully for Maddy because he is a guy who is struggling to find out what happened to this girl who everyone said was out of his league. Right now, in his career too, everybody is out of his league. He is the quintessential loser in the film. And at the end (of the film), you will CLAP! If you want to know the definition of ‘hero’ please watch Imran Khan in Katti Batti.
Going back to Delhi Safari. How did that happen for you?
We had just finished Salaam-e-Ishq in 2006. Ayesha Takia’s father Nishit used to publish a tech magazine and was in touch with the Krayon guys. Rather than pitching for work just on the basis of a visiting card, they wanted to invest money and make a film which could act as a showreel for them. They hardly imagined that it would take me seven years to make that film.
How different is it than making a full-fledged live action film?
Delhi Safari is the most honest film I have made. I was making Patiala House and Chandni Chowk to China at the same time, which is why I wasn’t there to influence the animation directors. They were in Pune while I was in Mumbai. I didn’t interfere too much in their craft and that is why the film is what it is.
What kept you going? Seven years is a long time to be working on one project.
I didn’t work on just one project, the animation guys did. I worked on three. In my mind it was very clear that if it did not have an international standard of animation, I didn’t want to do it. When I did Chandni Chowk to China, we had quotes from all over the world for VFX. I insisted on Prime Focus because I thought that if we didn’t show that India can do this kind of VFX, then we would be doing injustice to the industry. Similarly, Delhi Safari did outstanding business in China, South Korea, Turkey, France but dismal business in India. Why? Because in India, we still treat animation as cartoons and call it cartoon picture. In the States, an animation film is given the same marketing budget as Transformers. They don’t market it as if it is an apology.
Do you think this mindset will ever change?
NO! How can it change? The number one film that this country has watched was 3 Idiots, then Dhoom 3, then Kick and now it is Bajrangi Bhaijaan in terms of footfall. But that is just one percent of the population. The remaining 99% has still not seen the film in theatres. They wait for it to come on television or watch it on pirated DVD’s. The audience that is in the theaters wants to see Hero. Hero opens at 6.85 crores. Delhi Safari’s lifetime income is not close to that.
When you signed up for Delhi Safari, you were already facing flack for Salaam-e-Ishq. Didn’t you feel it was a risk to take up an animation film at that stage?
Earlier I would feel bad about the criticism. I have got a zero star in Hero. What have you criticized in the film? All I have to say is, if you loved Masaan, don’t go and watch this film.
But the number of people who have watched and loved Masaan is miniscule.
(almost yells) But then why are you watching Hero as if it were Masaan?. Rajeev Masand is a friend of mine. He gave me four stars for D-Day and two stars for Hero. CORRECT HAI! HERO IS A TWO STAR FILM. If I had not got the kind of accolades that I got for D-Day, I would be upset. It was made with the intention that everyone should see what Indian Cinema can do. We can also make an Argo. We created a genre. My whole point with Hero is that it is a two star film, not a zero star film. Tushar Kanti Ray’s work is outstanding, for that you need to give it one star. The music is brilliant and deserves one star. After that don’t give anything else.
Would you ever do another animation film?
Of course but would anyone allow me to do it? I don’t think so. I am not here to do Chhota Bheem. Given the popularity of that show, they should work hard to make it look better. It is not a question of budget. It is a question of intention.
You seemed to crack it with D-Day. After Kal Ho Na Ho, that was probably the second time you got good reviews.
A lot of people told me then that D Day was a story of vendetta and called it a BJP right wing piece.
You have different kind of movies to your credit. As a normal viewer, I don’t know what a Nikhil Advani film is. What is a Nikhil Advani Film?
What is the skeleton of a Stanley Kubrick film? Full Metal Jacket, Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Lolita? What is common in all these films? Why are they still considered to be Stanley Kubric films? Why is he still an A grade filmmaker? Take Spielberg, Schindler’s List and Jaws?
You do have moments in your films but your films in their entirety seem scattered.
For me it is human relationships. Bajrangi, the monkey of Delhi Safari, or the parrot played by Akshay Khanna will move you. That is my forte. Somewhere or the other, the characters need to connect with you. Whenever they’ve not connected, you’ve not liked the film.
What were the challenges you faced as an Assistant Director?
There were no challenges. I have had a divine ride. Which filmmaker has two films releasing back to back? I assisted because I was disillusioned with Chemistry as a subject. I took a train, went to Saeed Mirza’s office without even knowing who he was. I saw his films only after I met him. Dharma happened two years later. I wrote Iss Raat ki Subah Nahin before that as I was getting married and I needed money. But I couldn’t just be sitting in Sudhir Mishra’s office and talking about adrak ki chai for the rest of my life. I had to move on.
How easy was it to move on to being an independent Director? A lot of people find it difficult to let go of the comfort zone and security to go independent.
I never moved out of Dharma. I made my first film for Dharma. Shah Rukh Khan said he wouldn’t do another film for Dharma if I didn’t direct it. That was his decision. He read just three pages of Kal Ho Na Ho, the first page, interval and the last page and agreed to do it.
But you had to move on sometime right?
Yes it was very difficult. That is when Salman came into my life and I repaid his debt with Hero.
I read another interview where you said that Chandni Chowk to China didn’t work because you tried to make an Akshay Kumar film, while people wanted to see a Nikhil Advani film. When you sign a star that big, you have to make a ‘star’ film right?
We are producing a film called Airlift. It is not an Akshay Kumar film. Bajrangi Bhaijaan works because it is not a Salman Khan film. The minute the star understands that the director is making him play a character, it works. My first message to Kabir was that full marks to him for the fact that he managed to make a non-Salman Khan film for his first home production. In Chandni Chowk to China, I was fighting my instinct to Akshay’s instinct. In Hero, I followed just one instinct – Salman’s.
Are you more comfortable directing films that you write?
I hate writing films. I don’t like writing because people tend to get judgmental. When I am narrating my films and people go, ‘Accha really?’ I feel like slapping them. What do you mean by ‘Accha really?’ I have gone through this. I am a default writer because I don’t understand this notion of writers who need to get into the mood and write. Likho yaar (Just write).