When action is story-driven it is definitely engaging
He is one of the biggest action directors of Bollywood whose struggle and triumphs have made him such an important name that almost every leading filmmaker ensures that he is part of their project. Sham Kaushal has a long list of films to his credit and has trained the biggest of stars. The recently released magnum opus, Bajirao Mastani is a film where Kaushal seems to have played a major role. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Bajirao Mastani has been in the pipeline for more than a decade. When did you get associated with the project?
I have been associated with Bhansali’s life and projects ever since his first film released. From Khamoshi to Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Black, Devdas, Saawariya, Guzaarish, Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela; he has never worked with any other action director. I came on board the film in last January post Ram-Leela.
How has the experience of working on the project been?
Firstly the most important thing for me is to understand the viewpoint and the requirements of the director that I’m working with. As Bhansali is the man behind the entire film, I looked at it from his point of view and the canvas (of the film) got clear. The project kick-started with a couple of meetings with him as understanding the story is important to me. This was followed by discussions on particular fight sequences. I developed them according to the director’s vision and my take on it. We then did the story boarding of how each character would be involved in various fight sequences. Post that we held meetings with the different departments including cinematography, art, costumes, VFX, animal suppliers, production etc. to present the story board to them so that every department knew their work and role.
In such a film, you need to clearly tell people the requirements and only then can you expect results from them. Everybody was told about every minute detail, for instance, the costume department was asked to make light weight costumes for the war sequences so that they don’t create any hindrance for the actors. The art department had to make dummy weapons as it gets difficult for the entire crowd to pick heavy weapons. The production department also needs to know the exact number of people who are involved in the war sequence and the requirements that need to be made. They also need to know every detail about the animals who are part of the shoot. A discussion with the VFX department also helps us understand the parts we actually need to focus on. We made the animated version of the whole war sequence where we could see how the horses or elephants would appear in it. The horse had to be shot on the location but the hand combat was shot earlier in a studio. All this saves a lot of time when we go on shoot as the team knows about the actual requirements. The same details are then shared with the actors and they start getting trained for it.
What brief did Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali share with you?
He is a perfectionist. Even the action sequences are not just action as the principal characters are involved in it. There is a story which moves forward through the whole fight sequence; a relation that develops between two characters. Bhansali wanted the emotions to be intact during the entire fight sequence. Emotions during the fights are very important for me as well. Also the scale and grandeur of the sequences had to be larger than life.
Did you come across any incident where the actors got so engrossed in the fight that they almost forgot about the emotions?
This has never really happened. But one always has the scope of retakes. Even the actors have a lot of responsibilities on their head – from coordinating the expression on the face to the physical movements. The actors rehearsed for a long time in order to give their best. For Bajirao, Deepika and Ranveer rehearsed a lot in order to save time on the set and give their best shots.
For how long did Deepika and Ranveer undergo training? Tell us about the kind of training that the actors underwent.
Deepika and Ranveer underwent extensive training of six months before the shoot began. This included training with the weapons that they had to use and learning punches and moves for the combat. They undertook horse riding practice along with sword fighting. Also the ‘Dan Patta’ is not an easy weapon. So Ranveer had to be really careful while using it because it can harm the other person. They kept practicing various forms and weapons. The actual fight sequence was also practiced.
What was the research that you had to do for the film?
The research team and writers shared the research through which we got to know about the weapons used by Bajirao during that time. I had to thoroughly read all the material but reading about the weapons is not enough because as a professional, you have to practice using the weapons. For example, the research team told us that the ‘Dan Patta’ was the main weapon at that time. Its usage was what we had to practice to understand how safely it could be used and what should be the training process for the actors. It is a very risky weapon. Similarly at that time, they had canons and not guns. And Bajiro used to mainly attack only during night hours with a great speed.
Were you introduced to these weapons for the first time?
No I already knew about them as I had done Asoka earlier. These equipments are part of my profession. There is a certain amount of research that one does for any film – reading lots of books, going through various old pictures etc. – to help understand things better.
When it comes to female actors, how easy or difficult are action sequences with them?
I don’t think it is difficult because strength is not in your body but in your brain. When any person thinks that he/she wants to do something and is dedicated towards achieving it, he or she can do it. Deepika is so motivated that she gives her heart and soul into it. When Ranveer performed any action scene he had to look ruthlessly angry, whereas for Deepika it was more challenging. She had to have a softness on her face and perform the action scenes simultaneously. She had to look vulnerable yet fierce. It was a strange combination.
You have previously worked with Ranveer in various films. How difference was the experience on this film?
I call him sher puttar and have worked on all his films. Ranveer has given all his energy into every shot. I have to often motivate other actors to perform but Ranveer is such a bundle of energy that I have to keep telling him to control his energy (laughs).
How many stuntmen have you worked with in the film?
Around 200 stuntmen have worked on the film because that was the only number that we could source from Mumbai. We took 20 horses from Mumbai and the rest were from Rajasthan where the sequences happened. The animal supplier from Rajasthan gave us good horses and riders for the film. But those riders were not stuntmen. So I had to smartly merge them with stuntmen so that they looked professional.
How many animals have been used in the film?
For a two day shoot, we used 500 horses and 25 elephants. We continued shooting with 200 horses but when you see it in the film they appear to be a large number which was created with the help of VFX.
Was the overall shoot of the film smooth or were there any kind of hiccups?
Dealing with a crowd of around 1000 people, 500 horses and elephant is not an easy thing. Anything can happen – be it a human error or an accident with an animal. I had 200 stuntmen in the film while the others were normal people whom I had to motivate and get things done in such a way that everything looks similar. In such shoots, some hiccups are always expected. But it all depends on how you handle these situations.
While shooting there was one unfortunate incident that took place during the war sequence in Rajasthan. In the last shot of the sequence and of that day, Ranveer fell from the horse. Though the location was shooting-friendly and even the shot wasn’t very tough but he accidentally fell and hurt himself. That was very sad and an unfortunate incident.
Is there any scene in the film that you are really proud of?
I’m proud of the whole film. Deepika amazed me a lot in the entire film. She is a wonderful actor. There is a sequence where she is holding a child and fighting. Deepika brought such amazing emotions in the film. The shooting went on for 12 hours and even if a scene had ten retakes, she wouldn’t crib about it. She would sweat but never let her smile go away.
Over the years, how have action sequences enhanced in period films in particular?
When you do a period film, you can’t play around much in the presentation of the action. We can’t show Bajirao flying in the sky or doing karate. During the time of Mughal-e-Azam there were very few facilities. Also actors these days are physically fit and understand the importance of action. They rehearse extensively to give their best.
How do you differentiate between action and engaging action?
When action is story-driven it is definitely engaging. But when action happens just for the sake of it, then it gets boring. The story has to move along with the action sequences and your emotions should change with it. Then it becomes more interesting.
Tell us about your team and how many people work with you.
There are around 15-20 stuntmen who work with me and have been in my team for more than a decade now. I know them inside out and even they understand me very well. I have always felt lucky about the fact that my team is very hardworking. Incidentally they all are from Punjab so we converse only in Punjabi on sets. They are all members of the Movie Stunt Association.
What kind of scope do you presently see in the action industry or to become an action director?
There is no specialized institute in India for this. If one wants to be an action director he has to be a stuntman for about eight to ten years because there are lot of things that one has to learn in this profession. Since it involves risks, one has to be careful and perfect in it. You are fortunate when you come across any director who’ll give you the chance to do any film independently. Coming across good scripts is also important because only then can you showcase your work.