Flying High

Producer Rakesh Banga; Sanjeev Lamba, CEO, Reliance Entertainment; director Vibhu Puri and leading man Ayushmann Khurrana of Hawaizaada, in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): Let’s start with Vibhu… How did the journey of Hawaizaada begin?

Vibhu Puri (VP): About four years ago, I read about this gentleman Shivkar Talpade. What got me really interested in this story was that there was not much information available about this guy. I realised that if educated people like us have not heard of this man, I was pretty sure that most people in the country had no idea either. The fact that no one knew about this guy was very intriguing. It was even more interesting for me to go back and research this guy. I would wake up every morning and, for the first 10 minutes, remind myself that this had actually happen. The story was too fantastic or too inspirational to be true.

It was hard to believe that he went missing from the pages of history despite the things he did. It took me almost a year to write this story and another year to get an actor and a producer on board. Then it took another two years to finish the film. I began this journey on January 11, 2011, and now we are in January 2015.

BOI: How difficult was it to convince Ayushmann to play the part. Or was it easy?

VP: It was not at all difficult to convince him.

Ayushmann Khurrana (AK): Vibhu met me just after Vicky Donor and told me about Shivkar Talpade. I was flabbergasted that I had not heard of this person and did not believe him. I Googled Shivkar Talpade and learnt that there was this flight that took place at Chowpatty in Mumbai in 1895. It lasted 18 minutes and there were 500-odd people present including Bal Gangadhar Tilak. But there was no proof or maybe it was based on a conspiracy theory. But even if it was based on a conspiracy theory, it prompted a filmmaker to think about making a movie based on it.

BOI: What was it about the script that made you agree to play the part?

AK: It is a completely out-of-the-box concept. We have used references from mythology, from the Vedas. Of course, there are also scientific references and the kind of language used is quite novel for an Indian film.

BOI: Sanjeev, how did Reliance come into the picture?

Sanjeev Lamba (SL): I had earlier met Vibhu for another project, perhaps five years ago, just after I had joined Reliance. We had a solid discussion about this one film, which was never made. So I knew who he was and the quality of that script was very interesting. Then I got this film with the script, and when I read it, I liked it from the get-go. Now the typical reaction was to go online to find out more about this person, and see if the things said about him were true. Usually, you have access to the same amount of information that anybody else had. What struck me was the story itself… that even if you have reason to doubt the events reported on the Internet, the fact is that there is no smoke without fire. When there is a community that believes that events like these had taken place, there has to be some truth to it. It is an appropriate script for our time. So here was this guy working with passion, ingenuity and jugaad since he lacked funds and lacked belief not only from his family but society at large.

He had a mentor and they were looking for clues within our mythology, our sacred books, because there were many references to pushpak vimaans in the past and how his journey of being somebody in life, getting really obsessed about wanting to do something and then overcoming the odds to accomplish something that had never been done before. I think a story like that is very interesting. When you are making a film based on a story that is not mapped and not commercial, you are looking at an interesting peg to hang the story on. The script also dealt delicately with why we don’t know anything about this guy. After all, we were a colonial nation at that time and the British were ruling us, and the British had a far bigger reputation in terms of scientific inventions than Indians did, and they had characterised us as uneducated and as a land of snake charmers and fakirs.

So when you have someone who uses his ingenuity and knowledge to do something or set a world record, there might be an attempt by the British to suppress the event and not give Indians due credit. Everyone wonders why we don’t know anything about this person and I think the story handles this in a very credible way. Back then, there were only a few newspapers, there was no telephone… so if an event happened on a beach somewhere, how would the nation get to know about it unless it was reported. And reportage back then was controlled by the British. I think all of that made tremendous sense. And his passion for the script – he has written the film, the songs and directed it too… He was very deeply invested and Ayushmann being on board made a lot of sense.

From the very beginning, we knew this was a tough film because we wanted to make a small film, a period film, and a film that had a lot of VFX. We had to make planes fly. Usually, small films are shot largely indoors. But this film had an enormous canvas. In fact, it had a canvas that was three to four times bigger than its budget. We knew it was going to be a challenging film but we are very happy with the result. When my friends would ask me what I was working on, and at that time, I was working on Holiday, Singham Returns and a lot of other films, I would tell them we were working on this sweet film about these two guys who flew a plane at Chowpatty, and people would start laughing. So the immediate reaction was, ‘Oh my god! This would be an interesting story.’ There is a whole generation in this country that is young and looking forward. There is this belief that everything in our history is not worth getting excited about. Our future is going to be great and when there is actually this film which is mainstream and about our history, I think it certainly works well.

BOI: How tough was it for you to write the film since there was very little material about the protagonist?

VP: It was very difficult because I had to start from scratch. It was a very human story and, for all you know, it could have been about anything, like writing a book, running a marathon or about an accomplishment. That’s why we say it is just not a biopic but a true story inspired by true events. At heart, it’s a story about a young guy growing up in 1895 Mumbai, in a country that is ruled by a foreign power. He dreams of victory, and he meets a mentor and he sets his goal. And he gets completely consumed and there are lots and lots of obstacles in his way… family, friends, money, lack of knowledge. But there were also people who are very supportive and how he eventually achieves his goal.

SL: I think Vibhu is right. It is eventually a story about making a plane but it’s the journey of somebody who battled the odds to do something very different. That’s where it became an interesting story to tell. The fact that it has stumped historians and it is based on something real makes it even more interesting.

BOI: It is a story about two men, their journey and trying to achieve a goal. What is Pallavi Sharda’s character doing in the film?

VP: I don’t think there is any life without love. Love is a catalyst around which the world keeps spinning. Pallavi plays the love interest of Ayushmann in the film and how she is significant in the journey of Talpade going out and achieving what he wants.

SL: She is an amalgamation of characters that represent a particular value. Somebody who loves him, somebody who he wants to impress and somebody whose approval means a hell of a lot to him. When you love somebody, you get a tremendous amount of love and support because you are trying to do something that will make them proud. She represents that character, and in the context of Hindi cinema, she represents the love interest.

BOI: As Sanjeev was saying, the scale was large but the budgets were very limited. How difficult was it to pull it together from a production point of view?

Rajesh Banga (RB): It was as hard as it was to make the film. I have worked in so many films in the last 20 years but this is the first time I have actually made a plane for a film. More precisely, we made three planes for this film. It was a mammoth task, and knowing Vibhu, he hand-crafted all the planes, which were 70 ft x 50 feet large. They were huge. It was a tough film to make from the very start. Vibhu was adamant but luckily Reliance handled everything and we just lived the dream that we wanted to create. To recreate the era, we made a complete city set in 1895. We created Bombay of 1895. It took us two years to make the film but because we had a studio like Reliance backing us, we managed to complete it.

BOI: Ayushmann, how did you prepare for your character?

AK: I wanted to do a period film, a film where I could exploit most of my skills. It’s a great valuation of Hindi, Urdu and Marathi. While in college, I used to do theatre in Hindi and Hindustani. And I did not want to get out of that zone when we were shooting. The set was so beautiful, the era we created was so beautiful. The sets looked like a painting; the dialogue he has written was so beautiful. One of the lines goes, ‘Aap ko kya lagta hai badi kahaniyaan sach kyun nahi hoti? Kyunki hum bade hone ke chakkar mein bachchon ki tarah sochna chhod dete hain.’

It’s a very important line and the character I play has a childlike quality. He is vulnerable and a genius at the same time but he is innocent yet he accomplishes his dream of making the world’s first aircraft. And this is the first time I am playing a hero. He is the underdog but eventually he is an achiever.

BOI: Ayushmann, it is the first time you are not playing a contemporary character. Was that difficult for you?

AK: I was dying to play a character like Shivkar Talpade. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to get in touch with what I had done in my theatre days. I have read a lot of Hindi and Urdu literature and this film fell into place. The script read like a painting; everything was very visual.

BOI: Vibhu, did you want him on board because you saw the character in him or was it after you watched Vicky Donor?

VP: When I wrote the film, he was still doing television and was very popular on TV. While watching him on TV, I would often tell my friends that this boy is outstanding. Generally, when you write something, you don’t have anyone in mind but after I finished the script and I watched Vicky Donor… I remember telling him (Rajesh Banga), ‘I think we should approach Ayushmann’ and he called him up.

RB: No, he had signed an actor and an actress. And I was looking for scripts to produce for my company. For an entire month, all I heard was Vibhu Puri’s name, from different people. So I thought, let me meet this guy, let’s see who Vibhu Puri is. He gave me a narration, told me the stars’ names and the budget. I said the budget sounds a little too high but let’s work out something. Ayushmann was a friend by then so I told Vibhu I would talk to him. I met him in Jodhpur and said there was a script and asked him to listen to the narration. He told me, ‘Yaar, abhi main koi new director se script sunne ke mood mein nahi hoon, I am already a newcomer.’ He said we could work on some other project.

I told him we would get a big director for him as we really wanted to work with him as he was an asset. I tried to convince him to listen to the narration just once. It was a very brief meeting and I approached him once again to get him to listen to the narration. The meeting happened and the rest is history. Vibhu used to always to tell me that this guy is like Shah Rukh Khan; he is an actor and will become a superstar.

VP: I was attracted to Shivkar Talpade for his charm and like he (Ayushmann) said, he is eccentric but also very charming. When we made the film, Ayushmann was only 31 years old. He is a very promising actor from the young lot, and also the most charming from the younger lot. When I finished the script and was thinking about the casting, I felt that Ayushmann was best suited to the role. So when he told me Ayushmann might not do it, I was heartbroken.

RB: He was adamant about his star cast for every character. Like for Mithunda’s (Chakroborthy) character, he was clear he wanted him and no one else to play the part.

BOI: What was the fascination about Mithun Da for this particular role?

VP: Shastri is a fallen hero in the film. He is his mentor. Generally, when you write a two-hero film or there are two strong characters, they are usually opposites of each other, like Jai and Veeru. But when I wrote the script, Shivkar and Shastri (Mithun) were very similar. There was a time when I was confused about how Shivkar would react to something and how Shastri would. I had to have two characters who were equally driven, equally mad and could be equally charming. Looking at actors who were aged over 60, there was only one who I could think of who would suit the role of fallen hero, who was star in his day and who was very rooted, and that was Mithun da. As a first-time director, you don’t want to make mistakes, so I called him up and told him I was from the Film and Television Institute of India and gave him a small narration over the phone. He found the concept very interesting and agreed to meet. He said he would be in Mumbai three days later and we could meet then. I called my producer and told him we had found our Shastri. He was, like, are you sure? Will he call you back? I was, like, no he told me he would call me once he is back in Mumbai.

RB: I told Vibhu, ‘Dada (Mithun) will take his own time to offer his suggestions’. But he came back after three days and called him.

VP: Yes, just as he had promised, he called me three days later. We met, and he asked me about myself. We spofke about everything except our ilm and at the end of the conversation, he asked me what I needed for my film and when we had planned to start. He said, ‘I don’t want you to leave this room and call up another actor for this role. I am playing Shastri and that is final.’ From that day onwards, we had full support from him and Ayushmann as well.

RB: (Cuts in) Yes, their support has been outstanding.

VP: Yes, it has been immense. They stood by us while we faced all sorts of ups and downs like all first-time filmmakers do. We were an inexperienced lot and took our own sweet time to make the film. All through the journey, Mithun da and Ayushmann were like my right hand. I could call them and push them and literally bully them for their dates. Mithun Da works on a schedule but since Ayushmann is much younger, he is flexible. Mithun Da is used to doing television along with two films and he also does regional films and runs a business, whereas Ayushmann is from the generation where actors do one film at a time. So for Mithun Da to give us that kind of support was outstanding.

BOI: Ayushmann, what was it like to shoot with him?

AK: As a kid, I used to dance on the ‘I am a disco dancer’ song. At every birthday party I attended, people used to invite me to sing and dance. So there was this ‘fan boy moment’, when I met him for the first time on the sets. I met him and in the background, I could hear… ‘Say D say I say S say C say O’. But he was in his get-up for the film and didn’t look like a disco dancer at all! But more than acting, I have learnt a lot about life from him. He came to Mumbai with nothing; he had no place to stay and no money to pay rent. So he used to cook for his friend in order to stay in his flat. From there to becoming a superstar, and becoming a Member of Parliament, he has seen a lot of struggle. It has been a long and fruitful journey for him. I think it also goes with the arc of our film as it’s the story of a guy who is an underdog and about his rise and fall. Everybody is an underdog, whether Vibhu or me or even Mithun Da. If the cast and the core team had not seen any struggle in life, I don’t think they would have been able to relate to the film.

BOI: How happy are you with the film?

SL: I have watched the film but we are still trying really hard to finish it. It has been an extraordinary experience, very different from the kind you get when you do big commercial films. Then you have a lot of resources and you are generally working to a very different rhythm. Here, you had many challenges; number one being recreating 1985 Bombay. I mean, you cannot create that in Mumbai now. So you say you will recreate it on a set but there is no way you can keep a set like that going for so long. That requires a lot of ingenuity, to be able to go and find a look that would be good enough to pass off as 1895 Bombay. Secondly, the film is very beautiful to look at in the way it has been created and you can see that in the trailers. You can tell that it is an unusual film by just looking at it.

Usually, small films are not all that good looking but this film had a lot of props, which included planes. There were a lot of set and location issues so there was a very heavy VFX schedule. To make a plane fly, you need to create locations which no longer exist so we knew this film would be a tough one. And the film took a while to shoot. There has been a lot of passion and many arguments. We are now in the last stretch and we are very happy with the way it has turned out. We know we have an unusual film. People joke that sab bolte hai different film banao, aur jab different film banao toh log bolte hain arrey yaar yeh bahut zyada different ho gayi. What does ‘different’ mean? Some pretty good films don’t even get looked at because they are so different. So we are hoping we manage to do well.

We have put in a huge effort and we have worked together for almost two years, and that’s a long time. As we speak, people are still working round the clock to finish the film as the technical standards are very high. The VFX and the effects are being done by the best people at Reliance and Prasad (Sutar) obviously has a huge reputation as a VFX person. He has been involved with the film for almost a year. He has been on the sets, he has been directing to make sure he gets what he wants.

BOI: Are you excited for January 30?

AK: Of course, I am! I have put everything into the film, heart and soul. This is going to be my best performance.

BOI: Vibhu, are you nervous?

VP: The biggest reason for making the film was to make people aware of Shivkar Talpade and, today, when I switch on my television and see people debating about science and planes and all these people talking about Shivkar Talpade, I have won a bigger battle. The fact that people are talking about an unsung hero who they were not aware of till recently, is itself an achievement.

BOI: Rajesh, what are your expectations from January 30?

RB: I know we have made a good film, so I guess what will happen, will happen. But we have received a great response so far. We got a call from DAV School in Delhi and they said they wanted to show the film to their students. Then there is this foundation called Rajiv Dixit Foundation and they said they have around 80 lakh members and that they would make sure people get to know about the film. So the buzz is huge.

 

Sagorika Dasgupta
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As on 14th October, 2017
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