Producers Ahmed Khan and Shaira Khan, director Bobby Khan, leading men Jay Bhanushali and Mohit Ahlawat, and leading lady Sunny Leone of Ek Paheli Leela in conversation with team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): Let’s start with how did Leela begin?
Ahmed Khan (AK): It all started when I started my own production house. I asked Bobby what kind of film we should make. We had three to four scripts and one of those that Bobby had seemed more like a documentary. (Laughs)
Bobby Khan (BK): (Cuts in) No, let me tell you what happened. We had an idea and it was a documentary that Dilip Mehta was to make into a film. That documentary was about Sunny’s (Leone) life from Canada and then how she comes to Mumbai.
AK: Let me continue… I won’t lie to you but I had no dearth of options which were pitched to me by other people. But when he narrated the idea to me, it was only the germ of an idea, which I thought I could scale up to become an anaconda. My second priority was to have Sunny in my film. We had spoken to Daniel (Weber) already and I had shot one song earlier with Sunny, which was the best song.
Sunny Leone (SL): We were having a bad day and we were quite stressed, and the article in the newspaper came out with the first look of the film. I was just so happy.
AK: We had so many dancers on the sets, it was raining and we were having a bad day. Then she came running to me with the article and she said, ‘Look, this will cheer you up!’ The idea of the film was so engaging that it’s a reincarnation done in a different format. I was apprehensive about pulling it off. There were crucial things like the performances and the detailing. When one shows an era that is 300 years old, one has to create an era no one has seen. It’s a huge challenge. Then, there’s present-day life in London, Mumbai and Jaisalmer. So we needed some really good R&D on every era. But Bobby was quite prepared with his research and had done the prep really well. That’s how it all started.
I knew Sunny but I didn’t want to pull any strings. I wanted to cast her but I told Bobby to go ahead and call her.
SL: I had worked with Ahmed before but I knew Bobby. So it all started when he called me.
BOI: Bobby, why did you want to cast Sunny in the film? Or did you write the film with Sunny in mind?
BK: I wrote Leela 12 years ago. I couldn’t start the film then because Sunny wasn’t around back then. Then Sunny came into the industry five years ago and still I didn’t start the film because she was busy with Bigg Boss, Jism 2 and so on. I didn’t have Sunny in mind but we met for coffee and we bounced off some ideas. It was a very tough film not only at the script level but also because there are so many characters from so many different eras and she was the only one to work out. She was shooting for Ragini MMS 2 back then and we didn’t know if we could take that film to that level. We did have a chat with Ahmed and we became confident. The other apprehension was whether Sunny could carry off a performance-oriented role like this one.
People think Sunny Leone is all about beauty and looking sexy but she is extremely sharp and smart too. She is very intelligent.
SL: (Cuts in) Can I please tell these guys about that conversation where there was another script which I really wanted to do, and he was, like, ‘No, you can’t play this character; maybe you should do this one instead!’
BK: No, but I must mention that I would love to give you that film because I know you will give it your heart and soul. But I think maybe after Leela, people will start accepting her as a mainstream Bollywood actress and doing good performances in films. When I bounced the idea of Leela off her, she was kicked and told me just one thing – just stand by me, no matter what. After that, we became good friends.
BOI: Sunny, he just said you are very intelligent. Let’s ask you what is so special about Leela?
SL: There are three characters. Leela has these different looks. The first is the London look, where she is very young and fresh and likes to shop and wear new clothes. She also has a carefree attitude and can stop everyone in their tracks when she walks into a room. Somehow, she gets tricked into going to Rajasthan, where she meets Jay and, there, a whole new character starts developing – that of a princess. This character was not tough to play because there is an inner princess in every girl. My first-look poster took six hours of folding, tucking, tugging, taping and painting to create that look. There was so much back and forth, and I heard a lot of ‘I don’t like this’, ‘let’s redo this’, ‘this is exactly what I want’, ‘no, change all of it’… I had to draw on my inner patience, and, after six hours, we came up with the first look. It was the most beautiful and elaborate look I had ever done.
It used to take two to three hours to just get into Leela’s role because we had to spray paint me as we wanted Leela’s skin to look dark. It made sense when my director pointed out that I was living in a desert in the middle of nowhere with sand dunes all around. So we painted my body and my hair. But the hardest part was the dialogue. There is this one line that you must have seen in the trailer, where I say, ‘Leela, naam hai mera.’ Ahmed was, like, ‘Thump your chest and say it with vigour!’
AK: She was initially patting herself and mouthing those lines. Sunny is a modern girl, so she was doing it politely. I told her that Leela was a rural girl and she had to be really rough and say it with vigour. We did that take several times.
BOI: Why is the film called Ek Paheli Leela?
Jay Bhanushali (JB): We are doing several interviews and someone asked me why Leela is a paheli (riddle)? I made it very clear that the film is titled Ek Paheli Leela; I am the ‘Ek Paheli’ and Sunny is ‘Leela’. (Laughs)
SL: Our story begins with Leela. Since paheli means ‘riddle’, you have to figure out who she is and Jay’s character takes the story forward. Why don’t you explain it from here, Jay?
JB: We have decided not to discuss or divulge too much about the story because we want the audience to enter cinemas with a blank slate and solve the mystery themselves.
SL: Jay’s character takes the story forward. He is the one having all the bad dreams. He is the one trying to figure out who Leela is, where she is, where she came from, and why he is having all these crazy dreams. The film is mainly about his quest to find out why he is having these dreams.
SL: There’s Leela’s love interest, which is the character Ranveer played by Mohit Ahlawat, Shravan, her past love and a few more.
BOI: There are nine songs in the film…
AK: There were 10 and we deleted one. Strangely, there is something that even Sunny doesn’t know. Earlier, there were no songs in the film.
BOI: And then Bhushan Kumar came into the picture?
AK: (Laughs) No, even he wasn’t there. But I had told them that if I came on board, I would like to make a Sanjay Leela Bhansali-like film. So we started adding songs in certain situations. I saw the potential to add songs and I started making Bobby listen to Coke Studio. But we decided not to venture into that zone and I thought we should bring Bhushan on board. I met Bhushan and I can vouch for the face that, as a producer, he works from the heart. If he knows you and has a rapport with you, he doesn’t think twice. We spoke in the morning, locked the film at night, and locked five songs the next day.
SL: I remember that meeting, Bhushan made me meet the artists from India and other countries.
AK: After all this, we needed just one song, which was in Sunny’s previous life. We needed a Rajasthani folk song. We went to Rajasthan… You have songs like Tu cheez badi hai mast… and a song about Bulle shah, and Pardesi pardesi jaana nahi, and Padharo mhare desh. I realised that even Dholi taro is a native song. I suggested to Bhushan that we ask SLB for his permission. But Bhushan said he had the rights to the song. Next, we shot another song with Jay which was again a T-Series song, which goes Main hoon deewana tera. We ended up with nine songs because we realised that every time we introduced a song, it didn’t jar with the film. Jay plays the character of a music producer in the film.
BOI: Is it modelled on Bhushan Kumar?
AK: (Laughs) No. He came up with five more songs! So I told him, ‘Nanu (Bhushan Kumar’s nickname), picture bhi banana hai.’ That’s how we ended up with nine songs. There was one song by Uzair Jaswal, called Jaan, which was a big hit on YouTube. We deleted that song because there was no space for it but there is a funny story behind it. In the song, Jay is looking for a broken ruin. And he wants to go and look for it. So he decides to go to Kulu Manali, in the snow and then he travels by bus to Punjab. I told him, Jay, we will start the song with you on the bus and then cut to snow-capped mountains. Jay was sold on the idea. Then I said, from there we will come down to Punjab and you will be in the sarson ka khet, and then you go to Kutch with destroyed terrains, then Maharashtra amid black stones, and finally hunting in the jungles. He went, ‘Wow, wow wow’!!!
JB: Ahmed goes into visual mode the moment you make him listen to a song. He told me, I can picture you in the fields now, and now in Kutch.’
SL: And it got reduced to what, Jay?
JB: It was completely edited out! (Laughs)
AK: Wait I am coming to that. We planned all this and I told them the film would be a grand film, Subhash Ghai-style. The stage was set and then our writer Jojo Khan suddenly says, ‘Ahmed bhai, one question.’ I was, like, don’t come up with an idea when we are about to leave for Nepal or North East of India. But he said, when we were making a film set in 2015, why were we following the ’90s? I was, like, ‘Correct’. He pointed out that there was no Internet in 1991-92 in India but that everyone was tech savvy in 2015. So why should this guy travel? He can simply Google on a computer. That’s how Jay’s travel was cut down and, in the end, he is searching on a laptop!
JB: There were elaborate plans. Bobby suggested that we do a road trip and I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting so many different places. Then, suddenly, he says ‘we will do it this way’. So all those road trips came down to a scene in a room where I am searching on a laptop.
BK: On the script level, the song was never based on travelling. But Ahmed wanted a visual trip and who would argue with him?
AK: A few days ago, I was at Whistling Woods shooting for a song and I met Subhash ji (Ghai). I wanted to show him the trailer. We went to his office and told him we had made a film called Ek Paheli Leela, and he said, “Leela film na, market mein bahut garam hai. The songs have become very popular. My younger daughter keeps listening to the songs.” After we showed him the trailer, he clapped and I told him Bobby Khan had directed it. He was so happy to hear that and was, like, it looks like a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film! He loved the way it was made as it looked like the larger-than-life films he used to make.
He complimented us by saying, “This is called cinema, where there are horses running, top shots, chopper shots, everything is very exciting. Do you know why this film works for me? Because it has cinematic vision. It is a whole pack of entertainment. You have blended reincarnation with modernisation and you can’t go wrong with that. Also, today half the audience has forgotten about reincarnation.”
SL: When Bobby told me there were nine songs in the film, I wondered how Ahmed would make each one different from the others. It’s like listening to an album and from the album, it’s like watching a story. And he hasn’t forced any of these songs into the film; every song is connected. It’s like watching Jay growing in his journey through the songs. It’s the same with me and the other characters. When we go into past lives, each song takes the movie forward, and that’s the best part.