I came to mainstream cinema to reach out to a wider audience
In PART TWO of our EXCLUSIVE interaction with talented filmmaker Kabir Khan, who is riding high on the success of Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Phantom, he talks about his transition from documentaries to feature films, movies that made an impression on him as a child and a lot more.
Your first film Kabul Express was more in the documentary zone, whereas your biggest hit Bajrangi Bhaijaan was a hardcore filmy fare. Why and how did the evolution in your storytelling style happen?
Kabul Express is a very special film as it gave me a lot (in terms of appreciation). And I think the closest film to it is Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Bajrangi has exactly the same kind of humor like the one liners and banter between Arshad (Warsi) and John (Abraham) in Kabul Express. Both films are road journeys and exploration of countries. A lot of people told me that they noticed the similarity between both films. I traveled a lot with Kabul Express to film festivals in Toronto, London, Busan; it got me the National Award. But it didn’t reach out to as many people as I thought it would in terms of the audience. Sadly, it had a limited release because of various reasons. I wondered why and that’s when I realized that there is something about mainstream cinema, which is why your idea goes further and reaches out to people who are not necessarily in sync with you ideologically.
With Kabul Express I felt it reached out to people with similar ideologies, a syndrome that I had already gone through with documentaries. In Delhi, India International Center screens documentaries and the same set of people come to watch it and pat on your back. I had come to mainstream cinema to reach out to a wider audience. So, with New York I decided to make it more mainstream. Conventionally politics has been a taboo in cinema. I just felt that if I make the audience feel for the characters then they will follow the politics. Thankfully, Adi (Aditya Chopra) was ready to back me. Luckily, the film became a surprise hit. That’s when people realized that politics works. I had producers calling me and asking me to make a New York type film. It opened a way for me to bring in real politics in cinema and I feel today’s audience enjoys and engages with it.
What made you shift from documentary to fiction film-making?
When I was making documentaries – I was doing very well as a documentary filmmaker because I was getting international commissions from foreign networks and was offered good budgets. I was making these films in Afghanistan that were being well received internationally. But there was this growing frustration as I wasn’t getting an audience in India. Even today there is no space for documentary, whatever little was there is also dwindling.
And I started noticing that in my style of docu filmmaking, I had started recreating situations. So, I thought that I need to tell a story in a fictional format. These are the two reasons that pushed me towards the larger screen. I knew that if you want to tell a story in India, it has to be on the big screen format. And that is what pushed me to write Kabul Express which happened to me and my friend in Afghanistan. I felt it would be easier for me to start with it as it is about Afghanistan, a place which I understand well and I have my network there.
Given that making documentaries and mainstream movies are very different, did you have difficulty adapting the diverse styles?
Till date I struggle with it because as a documentary filmmaker we are a 2-3 people crew. Whereas in Hindi films there is an invading army that takes over the entire place and tries to control everything, even the sun. So, even today when I reach the set, I ask my line producer why there are so many people on the set. I have gone through this exercise every time and every time am told that these many people are needed to do a certain function. I now tell myself to not get perturbed by so many people and concentrate on my work.
Also, earlier I used to have a problem delegating work. While making documentaries, I would shoot and edit my own films. My team yet complains that I don’t let go. It is something that I still can’t do easily. I have to sit on everything, like even the last button on a costume has to go through me. But I am learning to ease up.
Is the documentary background also a reason you extensively shoot your films on real and unexplored locations?
I hate sets. Something on a set just stops my creativity. As a filmmaker I feel it (real locations) brings a certain edge to my filmmaking. People may or may not agree, but at a subliminal level, locations do add to the film. The climax in Bajrangi could have been played out anywhere in a valley by a river. But the Thajiwas glacier (near Sonmarg in Kashmir) and the magnificence of snow-clad mountains gave the film a bigger mounting. One of the pleasurable parts of pre-production is searching for real locations. I don’t like to use them as scenic backdrops. I need locations as characters. Kabul Express can only happen in Kabul, New York can happen only in NY, Ek Tha Tiger can only happen in Cuba because the place is off the radar. I think it comes from the fact that I have traveled extensively for my documentaries and enjoyed it.
Have you figured what you will work on next? There are rumors that you have been talking to Hrithik Roshan…
I have been speaking to Salman (Khan), Hrithik and other actors because that is my job. But nothing is final till the script is locked. And I don’t want to lock anything yet because I feel I need a breather and clarity of thought. Two back-to-back films sits heavy on you and I want to just enjoy the ride. I am going to Busan for Bajrangi. I have not even had the time to enjoy the success of Bajrangi because seven days after its release we began Phantom promotions.
Do you always like to write your own stories?
My dream is that someone comes with a bound script and I read it and say, “This is what I want to make”. But it has never happened. Kabul Express was autobiographical and I wrote the first draft and thought that once I get a producer we shall get a professional writer (because back then I didn’t have the money to pay a writer) to put down the final draft. When Kabul Express reached Adi (Aditya Shopra) he told me he wanted me to make it the way I had written it. So I became the writer by default. But after that I realized that writing the screenplay gives me ownership on the material and an understanding of it. So it is a process I maintain with all my films. I get a co-writer after the first draft and bounce ideas of each other. I also like to write dialogues. But I am open to story ideas. Bajrangi and Phantom were other people’s story ideas. New York began as a story idea from Adi, but it had a completely different world.
When will we see you make a film like Kabul Express?
As far as I am concerned Bajrangi is Kabul Express revamped.
What films did you enjoy watching as a kid and that inspired you as a filmmaker?
I have grown up on an eclectic mix of films. My mother’s a film buff. My father was nominated to the parliament and we used to live in Delhi. There was this theater, Vigyan Bhawan, where they would show movies to MPs (Member of Parliament) and their families every weekend. They screened cinema from all over the world. So, my mom would take my sister and me to watch the films. We watched (Francois) Truffaut and (Jean-Luc) Godard. As kids it was a torture but with time we started getting used to it. Luckily, we also saw every Amitabh Bachchan film, Shyam Benegal film as he was a family friend… So, back as kids we watched all kinds of cinema and my love for cinema comes for my Mom.
After I did my film school I was really inspired by Mani Ratnam. He gives a very energetic backdrop and real context to his films with larger than life storytelling. When I saw Roja I felt this is the kind of movie I want to make. I had done so much work in Kashmir that I really loved the humane story weaved in it. And in contemporary times I love the way Raju Hirani combines humor with strong social/ political commentary in his films.
Many of your documentary film fans wonder if you will ever make a documentary or a docudrama like Kabul Express again.
There is a work-in-progress idea which is more in the Kabul Express zone. With the success of Bajrangi I feel more settled as a filmmaker. It has given me that little comfort as it is exactly the way I wanted to do make it and it did well. Now, I’ll try to dabble in more things that are different. I might be producing some films that are smaller and more in the Kabul Express zone, which will be helmed by trusted assistants and people I know.