Transition from an Assistant Director to a Director
Director Ashish Mohan tells us about working with Rohit Shetty and butterflying out of the assistant directors cocoon.
Where did the story of ‘Welcome to Karachi’ begin?
I had been working on a few scripts and Irrfan Khan had agreed to do the film too. Arshad Warsi came on board next. I had worked with him on four films earlier as an assistant director. It was much easier to convince him. However, a few days before the film went on the floor, Irrfan had some date issues. Vashu Bhagnani ji had already put in a lot of money into the pre production and we had to go ahead without Irrfan. Kushal, my co-writer and I have gone through quite a few struggles to make this film happen. Today the film is ready and it all seems worth it.
How did you go about working on this script? As much as I have known of you, you are not a writer, in the sense that you would pen down a script. But you have ideas and are extremely clear of what you want.
I am very clear about what genre I can and cannot achieve. As far as comedy goes, I have worked on several comedy films as an assistant director. I know I can put my script down on paper. However, if it’s a romantic film or a thriller, I would definitely engage people who have the required expertise. Being a director, I have to bring everything together and look at the bigger picture. All I have to focus on is what will work or what will not. I can’t wait to try my hands on other genres but I need a story that touches my heart. Once a story has done that, I have to go out and tell it. Kushal Bakshi is part of my core writer’s team but I am open to working with new people since they bring in their own perspective.
What changes have you seen in yourself as a Director, from your first film, Khiladi 786 to Welcome to Karachi?
During my first film, I remember, I would get excited about everything. I am much calmer now. As far as film-making goes, I will let people decide. While I was working on WTK, I had left Khiladi 786 behind. That was not my benchmark. I would like to wait and see how people receive this film before I take the next step.
What is your expectation from them film?
I just want people to love it. I hope the stakeholders recover their money and make more. Since I am one film old, I have a responsibility towards my current audiences. I don’t want to disappoint them. All I want is for them to enjoy my film to the fullest.
You have been an assistant director for the longer span of your career. Were you always focused and clear that you wanted to become a Director?
Yes. I started off with theatre but I remember someone telling me that theatre was an actor’s medium while films was a directors’ medium. When I was around fourteen years old, I got the opportunity to see Mr. Vidhu Vinod Chopra shooting for Kareeb in Shimla. When I saw the kind of respect he received on sets, I knew that I had to be a Director someday. He was a great influence on me. At the age of 18, I landed in Bombay. Within two months I had a job at Ajay Devgan’s office. Rohit Shetty was making Zameer and I used to visit his sets often. When he was making Golmaal, I asked him if I could be a part of his team. Next thing I knew, we had already worked on five films together. I did the post-production of Singham. I was always focused that I had to be a director.
A senior, not-so-famous director once said to me that the biggest threat of being a good assistant director is that you may remain one all your life. There are a lot of AD’s who are still assisting as they wait for their big break. What did it take to actually achieve your goal?
If you are an AD with a goal to become a director, don’t think about money. Keep working. Keep making short independent films. That is what gives you a sense of being the captain. The experience you gain while handling a team of six or seven will definitely be handy while you deal with a crew of 400 people. When you work for a director, the responsibility is not yours, but you take it up as your own and do your best. The key is never to lose focus. If you get lured by the money and get trapped in the EMI rut, you will find it difficult to break out. The minute you are content being in your comfort zone and enjoy a ‘salaried’ life, you lose the risk-taking ability needed to direct your own film… unless, of course, you have an influential father or relative who can support you in the industry.
Read: The Big Leap from Cinematography to Direction
Is it true that direction is the last thing that an assistant director gets to do?
If there are five assistants, there will be five different perspectives on the set. A director has to take care of everything. He is not the only creative person on the set. He is the captain of the ship in the true sense. All the actors and technicians have come together to achieve his vision. He has to focus on people management. He has to be alert as to whether his unit has eaten well, whether his line producer is spending money in the right places etc. The assistants need to understand that X number of crores are riding on him. It is his responsibility and not theirs. Every film is equivalent to the director’s DNA. The same film directed by someone else, will turn out completely different. One needs to keep learning the technical aspects of film making.
Its mostly logistics, making sure the props are in place, continuity is maintained, the art is as required and even sweeping the floor if needed.
Of course, it is needed. You have to do all of that and more. However, at the same time, you are watching films, you are writing your own scripts, reading books, meeting people, getting to know how different technicians work, how a camera is operated. I have met film school pass outs who have no clue how many frames per foot does a film have. You can learn these things only on the job. You will observe what decision a director takes when there’s unexpected rain while you’re shooting. You may have imagined your scene at the Taj Mahal but logistics allow you to shoot at a near by fort instead. No film school will teach you what to do in such situations. You need to understand how the director keeps the content intact despite these challenges. Some directors may compromise, others will not. You need to assist to experience all of this. When you move on to making your own film, you will direct it just the way you want to. It will be a reflection of your DNA. I am making comedies with a social message. My ex- colleague who assisted on the same films is making a romantic film.
You said your film has a social message. What is the message in Welcome to Karachi?
Borders make us inhuman. That’s all I will say.
Let’s talk about Rohit Shetty. What was the one thing you learned from him?
Passion. It’s the way he tells his story. He believes that the audience is everything. You don’t have to convince anyone else but the audience, neither the actor, nor the producer. Give the audiences what they like. You can’t do what your friend or your DOP or the actor likes. Rohit Shetty would take us to Gaiety- Galaxy as well as PVR to observe how single screen crowds react differently from a multiplex audiences.
What was the moment of truth when you decided to direct your own film?
I made a short film in 2004, which was selected for New York Film Festival. I was just 19 then. I thoroughly enjoyed that process. I knew I had a lot to learn before I made my own film. I kept directing short films on the side until Khiladi 786 happened. It did not happen overnight. From 2009 to 2011, we worked on the script, in 2011 we narrated it to Akshay Sir and 2012, we finally shot the film.
Going back to what you said about convincing the audience, how can you work without convincing a star like Akshay Kumar?
When you have Akshay Kumar on board, he has already brought in a certain audience with him. In that case my responsibility was not to disappoint his audience. If the actor respects my experience of a decade spent in the industry, I also realize that he has much more experience than I do. He definitely has a sense of what the audiences will like.
Both your movies have catchy music. In this day and age when music gets outdated sooner than ever, we still hear Balma and Hookah Bar playing in disco’s. WTK also has Lalla lalla lori and Boat Maa. What is your brief to the music directors?
The brief is simple – Give me hit music. I think the key is not to trap the music director in the situation. Himesh Bhai taught me that this was the only way to get hit music. I give them the basic premise and that’s about it. Lyrically it can all be tweaked later. But they should be allowed to make music freely. These days, our music composers have a bank of songs ready. It is usually a matter of getting the lyrics to fit into our situation.
I don’t give direct references. Rochak Kohli has done three songs in this film. His biggest hit was Paani Da but that was not a reference. I liked a song, which he was working on and asked him to tweak the lyrics a bit. That’s how Boat maa happened. Jackie liked Lalla lalla Lori and we all loved it too. One has to leave one’s ego aside and not bother about where the song comes from. If I am convinced it will work, I go with it. Very few people can give hit music and keep it situational like Imtiaz Ali. His film can have a Kun Faaya Kun, a Sadda Haq and even a Tum Ho.
You have worked with a diverse crew from all over. How did the DOP, Mark Nutkins, come on board.
We came across Mark in UK among the many technicians we met. Initially, he didn’t believe I was the director. He was surprised when we went back to him with an offer. He thought all Indian directors had grey hair. That’s when I told him that there are people younger than me who are directors. Only when he got his initial payment was he convinced that I was actually making a film. He brought a completely different learning for me on the sets. His style of working and perspective made this collaboration enjoyable. I learned so much about the nuances that technology could bring in. This is the first film I shot on a digital camera. Earlier we would worry about the tape and cut often. In this case, one can keep rolling and it’s a different feeling altogether.