The upcoming film Daddy, based on Mumbai’s gangster turned- politician Arun Gawli, has been the most adventurous film to date, for both its protagonist Arjun Rampal and director Ashim Alhuwalia. While Rampal, who essays the role of the enigmatic Gawli, has stepped out of his comfort zone, Alhuwalia has stepped into a zone that otherwise leaves him ‘paranoid’ – Bollywood. In conversation with Shweta Kulkarni, Arjun and Ashim share some interesting nuggets about the man who they have brought to life onscreen and how they have managed to put this film together.
Judging by the trailer, Daddy doesn’t look like the usual Bollywood gangster film.
Arjun Rampal (AR): We are making a movie about a very unusual person, so it had to be unusual. That was the whole idea of collaborating with Ashim because he thinks like that. He was not going to make this film into a typical gangster film. Not that I have anything against those films. I mean, I have watched them and enjoyed them as well. But, with this film, we wanted to stay true to the story and the only way you can do that is by having an unusual approach.
Ashim, this is your first actual commercial, Bollywood film. What was your reaction when Arjun approached you with the project?
Ashim Alhuwalia (AA): The thing is, I don’t really come from a Bollywood space. My first film (Miss Lovely) was very indie. So when Arjun approached me, I was paranoid, I was afraid and I felt like running away. But we talked and we figured out pretty quickly that we had a very similar vision for the kind of movie that we wanted to make. He already knew my vibe and I think I was very direct about the fact that I didn’t want to do a movie with an item song or some miscast person who was wrong for the part.
When two creative people are collaborating, there is often a clash of ideologies. What made you so sure that Ashim and you were on the same page?
AR: I really like his style. I had watched his movie Miss Lovely and I really loved it. But, as he said, he was always paranoid about coming here and doing something which had already been done. With Daddy, I wrote the whole script and sent it to him to read, and told him this is the vibe, and this is the guy, and we can make a film on him. He liked the whole germ of it. Then we started working on the structure together and that’s the second part of the process, which kind of got us together on the same page. Also, I come from an experienced, commercial space, while he comes from a space of authenticity and a certain style, and he is very, very refreshing in his story telling. So we brought our experience together. We went through various exercises to get the script the way we wanted it but didn’t really have it the way we wanted it even when we started shooting. The only two people who knew exactly what was being made was him and me. Actually, there was nobody else who knew what we were making.
That must have been tough…
AA: Yeah, it was not the traditional style of shooting because we were working with a non-bound script. The script kept changing every day and that’s the kind of style I come from, and I was very happy that Arjun was open to that kind of working mechanism. So it was, like, ‘Hey, we wrote this thing, but now that we are here, it feels wrong. So forget it, why are we going to kill six hours, we are going to cut it in the edit anyway. Forget it. We’ve got this space, let’s go there and do something else with it…’ So there was plenty of improvisation, which is not standard in a Bollywood movie.
A working style like this requires a lot of trust from both the director and the actor.
AR: His style of working is very different because he has it all in his head, he knows exactly what he wants. He gets into the detailing of every single aspect of filmmaking and that’s why, every time I watch this film now, I discover something new about the film. I keep telling him that our film is so layered, and it is so detailed that it will be very unfair if people watch it only once. They have to watch it twice or three times because every time you watch it, you notice it has a different layer, you see it in a totally different light.
So, it is exciting on that level and at no point is it boring. But, yes, there is a lot of chaos before this stuff. But when you are in that space, when you are in the world he has created, which is the key to this film, that is, showing Mumbai from the ’70s to now, at no point is anything off. And to do that in this style is tough. Shooting it in Mumbai, where everything is being demolished… I mean, it’s sad that certain locations we have gone to no longer exist. I think our film was lucky to capture all that. And he knows South Mumbai like the back of his hand. So he has taken us to locations where nobody has gone to shoot.
AA: They are ridiculous locations to shoot at but you almost get an atmosphere of crime from that time, and you can’t recreate that on a set. Not only does it add to the authenticity of the film but it forces everyone, including Arjun, to come out of their comfort zone when he is performing, it even gets the crew to come out of their comfort zone. When you are at Film City, there is a certain malaise, there is a certain laziness. You have been there, you have shot there your entire life. It becomes just another job, when you shoot at the same place, again and again. But, here, when you are at a different location, it keeps you on your toes.
AR: And not a shooting-friendly location. I mean, when you take a character like Arun Gawli, who I am playing, and you take him to Nagpada, which is across the street, that’s his rival’s space. So when you go in there to shoot, you can imagine what happens. There are like thousands and thousands of people just there and they are all just watching you. And you don’t know what’s going to happen. So that stress is automatically there at that location, and when you are doing tense scene, it adds to it.
Speaking of Arun Gawli… what kind of research went into making this film? How many meetings did you have with him to make sure you got the story right?
AR: He is not an easy guy to meet because of the situation (Arul Gawli is currently in jail). So, before meeting him, it was for us to figure out who this guy really was. Moreover, there isn’t very much written about him. So we found people who were close to him, who were a part of his life, and we took inputs from them. We spoke to his family, people who he was fond of, people who worked with him. We even spoke to his rivals to get their perspective on him. We spoke to the police and asked them what they thought of him… and that’s what the film is about. That’s how you make a non-biased film. After that, we had to convince him that this was the kind of film we wanted to make, one that did not glorify him.
Was it easy to convince him about that?
AR: Not at all. We had to first speak to the family. They wanted to make it, but they were not sure about what they wanted to make. And they weren’t sure about this realistic way of doing it. We are used to biopics being larger-than-life and turning people into superheroes. We are so used to creating our own superheroes. But, as Ashim saw it, Gawli was an accidental don. That made it so much more endearing for me to play a character like that, and it makes it so much more endearing for Arun Gawli. You don’t have to come off like a hero because you are not a hero, you could be a hero to a few people, but not everybody is going to look at you like that.
At what point was he convinced and how did you go about it?
AR: We were honest enough to tell him our approach and I think that was what made him give it to us. It was two-and-a-half years of being there. Every time he got out (of jail), we went and met him and talked to him and tried to convince him, convince the family to get the rights. The fact is, when we started shooting the film, we didn’t have the rights but we went ahead anyway, or else we would have lost our crew. We had a DoP who had come from Canada, we had a female DoP who was available during specific of dates, we had the prosthetic people coming from Italy, we had the crew already lined up and if we changed our dates constantly, this film would never have been made.
As the producer, I had to take a call and start filming. I was, like, he had told us we could do it so, when he comes out next, and I get an opportunity to meet him, I will tell him. So we started shooting. And on the last day of our shoot, I got a call saying, ‘Hei s out on parole and wants to meet you.’ I went to meet him and he was, like, ‘Tune shooting chalu kardi?’ I said, ‘Aapko kyun lagta hai maine kyun chalu kardi?’ I said, ‘Peechle 3 saalon se hum saath mein the… aapne toh zubaan de di thi.’ He said, ‘Haan, zubaan toh de di thi, picture kya bana raha hai, woh toh bata.’
It took us two hours to tell him the whole story and, right there, he agreed. From that point on, there was a certain trust between him and us, which kind of consolidated. I think he has been extremely gracious to allow us to make the film the way we wanted to make it, otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible. Today too, his only concern is for us. He said, ‘I hope that, for all the work you have done, that this movie really works.’ He said, ‘Mere ko kya, tum logone toh picture banaya magar chalegi na?’
How tough was it to not glorify someone like Gawli, especially since he was so nice to you?
AR: It is tough but if you don’t do it, then you are not true to your film. The only way this film works is if we are true to the story and we have tried to stay as true as we can. Yes, there are a few things that are fictionalised but we did that to help the narrative move in a particular way.
The toughest part was to not make a documentary and keep it entertaining and appealing to a wider audience. Someone who lives in Dagdi Chawl (Arun Gawli’s home) should feel ‘Yeh apni picture hai’ and at the same time someone who is watching the film as a critic or as a member of the audience should also say, ‘Wow, we haven’t seen something like this before!’
So we told him this was not a film about a Robinhood. In fact, the film starts with him watching himself on TV and he asks his daughter, ‘Robin Hood, manjhe?’ The thing is, even when you sit down and talk to Arun Gawli, you can’t read him.
AA: Yeah, in a way, we still don’t know him and that’s what’s amazing about him.
AR: There is always mystery, and that became a great tool for me to play this character, and for him to design the film. Just to say that you don’t know what this guy is going to do. Another thing we noticed about Arun Gawli was that he doesn’t say very much. He is not very talkative, his sidekick does the talking for him. He is the listener. When he speaks, it’s only a couple of sentences and you have to figure out what he is going to say.
AA: He is observing you more than you are observing him. He is watching you the whole time.
That must be pretty unnerving…
AR: Oh, very.
AA: But that’s wonderful from a characterisation point of view. So, if you are playing him, you are playing with presence, you are not only playing with dialogue. I don’t come from a school where your entire character has to spout dialogue. It’s also about you as a body, physical presence. If the guy doesn’t say much, it is very challenging to play him because you have to play him with the way you move. And that’s what gives the character intrigue. It is the Godfather approach, where you have the lights, those lines. And it’s a very different kind of mystery with this guy.
When exactly did you come across Arun Gawli’s story?
AR: It wasn’t me; it was a producer who had come to us, a small movie producer who came to me to play this part of Arun Gawli. I was a little taken aback, wondering why someone would want me to play this character. But I was intrigued and I asked them to give me the script to read. It wasn’t a bad script but it wasn’t a script that I wanted to be a part of either. It was the same kind of treatment that a typical gangster film gets.
I said, I don’t know, let me think about it. And then I started researching him on my own and that is when I came upon a very interesting character and a story that was very intriguing. I tried to work with those writers but it still went into that very filmy space. Then I said, let it be, let me lock myself in a room and write this thing about how I want this film to be like. That’s when I sent it to Ashim and I asked the producer if he would do the film with Ashim. That’s how he came on board.
He knew whom to hire and everything and that is how we started putting a structure to the film. And, in that process, after we hired everybody, our producer ran away. So it was Ashim and me left with a script and a crew and no producer. We had a script, we had a crew but no rights. That was the first challenge. We were, like, what do? I was, like, give me two months, let me see if I can do it myself. After two months, I decided to produce it and we started doing the film.
AA: In any case, it would not have worked out with that producer, his vibe, the kind of film he wanted to make was so not what we wanted to make. It would have been a disaster if he had done it. He would have ended up saying, why aren’t they adding an item song? Why are we not doing this and that? He wanted to go back to that typical way of making a gangster movie.
Ashim, we’ve established that Arun Gawli is not someone who talks a lot. How did you perceive him and create his character onscreen?
AR: I never wanted him to look different from the people who were in the film or the other people from his gang. He was never even the main guy in the gang. Arun was actually the third wheel. It was very important that we equalised him. It’s not the typical character actor you see as a cop, or the typical guy who is the judge. Here, I was mixing Marathi actors, Tamil actors… mixing them in one space with Arjun and everyone else.
I think it’s very important that everybody seems like they are a part of the same world. One guy doesn’t look like he has just stepped out of the car… and that’s what makes it very authentic. But yet Arjun’s presence is there in the film throughout. You don’t have to be wearing Dolce and Gabbana to have the presence. I think we get caught up in this thing that only if I wear designer clothes I will be a hero. My point is that, finally, it’s about performance. The greatest actors in the world are great because they can play those roles.
Did Arjun surprise you with his performance in the film?
AA: I think I have had a very antagonistic relationship with the industry. To be very honest, I never thought much of it and I also thought that people here were very narcissistic. They are so full of themselves and I don’t find many people that one would consider very talented. So my first assumption was that Arjun was going to be one of those guys. He will be, like, ‘Ya, ya, we will do this’ but finally be like, ‘No, no it’s about my hair.’ And that’s where he surprised me. He was, like, we are going with this.’ And, sometimes, I would be, like, ‘Are you sure?’ But the minute we started the pre-production process, I realised that we were making the same movie and there was no doubt about that.
Ashim, now that the film is complete, are you still paranoid about Bollywood?
AA: Yes, I still am. There are very few people you can collaborate with, where there are no power dynamics. I don’t think it’s very healthy for actors either. This is primarily an actor-driven industry, not a director’s industry. It’s sort of like the Emperor’s New Clothes. When you have an A-list star and you don’t have an equal power dynamic, you are not getting any feedback. What happens is, you end up doing the same thing again and again, and everyone says, ‘Amazing!’ And no one is actually telling you anything.
For me, to make a movie, it doesn’t matter who it is, you have to be direct and honest. There can’t be this reverence… ‘No, no, he will get upset’ or ‘He doesn’t want to tell me something because I am this diva director that doesn’t want to hear it.’ I think that’s where things go sour.
If it is possible to collaborate with people who are on the same page or people wanting to say the same thing, this would be a much greater industry. I think actors should feel like they want to be directed. If I were an actor, I would be super-frustrated.