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Team Samrat & Co. – producer Kavita Barjatya, director Kaushik Ghatak, leading pair Rajeev Khandelwal and Madalsa Sharma – in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): Why did Rajshri decide to make a detective film?

Rajeev Khandelwal (RK): I think there is no one better to ask than the director, Kaushik dada, because he wrote the script meticulously and developed it, and then took it to Kavita (Barjatya).

Kaushik Ghatak (KG): I was keen on making a detective film since the beginning of my career. Being Bengali, I have grown up with Feluda and Byomkesh Bakshi and, of course, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. When my television career took shape, I was trained under Anurag Basu. Due to the fact that I had directed Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, I was labeled as a maker of love stories and family dramas. Sure, I love those genres and have directed the film Ek Vivah Aisa Bhi.

But after that film, I thought, why not a detective story? So I started writing the story with Manish Shrivastav, my co-writer. We took four years to write the script and never expected Rajshri to produce the film! I had worked with Kavitaji (Barjatya) when we were writing the film and even before that. We’ve worked on a lot of shows together. At that time, Kavitaji told us that she wanted to produce a film. So I began pitching several stories to her.

Kavita Barjatya (KB): (Cuts in) He narrated about 20 stories! We even began work on one of them, a love story, but my father was unwell and we put it on hold. Then, one day, we were discussing work and my father gave me some Agatha Christie books and suggested that I make a detective film on those lines. I told him, ‘Papa, you are the stalwart of romantic family dramas. Are you sure?’ My dad had given up his studies to join my grandfather’s business of film production because he was so passionate about films. I happened to share my dad’s suggestion with dada (Kaushik Ghatak).

BOI: Not many know that Rajshri produced Agent Vinod more than three decades ago.

KB: See, that’s the thing. Not only Agent Vinod, Rajshri also made Jeevan Mrityu, a revenge drama. The thing is, my father is the Managing Director of Rajshri Films and he always wanted us to make commercial films. He supported this idea as it was very different.

KG: When she told me this, I thought that agar Rajshri mein aisi films dekhi jaati hai, phir toh chance laga lena chahiye. So before I narrated my story to her, I showed her a few Sherlock Holmes films too.

KB: They were so gripping that I wanted to watch more. He then narrated this story to me, which was so complicated. It was one of those ‘bring your mind to the cinemas, don’t leave it at home’ kind of story. It was very interesting and full of suspense.

BOI: Did you have to simplify the story?

KG: I was used to reading the detective genre but Kavitaji pointed out that the audience might not be exposed to the genre, so we had to take a simple approach. Many times, during the narration, Kavitaji would ask me why Samrat did a certain thing. I would tell her the clue was in one of the earlier scenes. But she would insist on explaining it to the audience and we could not take it for granted that they would understand it. So we have stayed very true to the genre while presenting the film in Bollywood style.

BOI: How did you zero in on Rajeev to play the title role?

KG: That was the big question. We were very impressed with Rajeev’s work including Soundtrack and Table No. 21. He is an excellent actor even though he is one of the most underrated actors we have in the industry. There is a lot more potential in him that is unexplored. I think he improves his performances and surprises the audience with every film he does. And so we thought there was no one better than him to portray Samrat’s character.

BOI: Rajeev, you have always portrayed these unconventional, offbeat roles. Was this one of the reasons you signed the film?

RK: But this is not an offbeat film. It’s a very massy role. If you look at my work in the past, even Aamir was not offbeat. My definition of offbeat is that it’s meant for a niche audience. But when a film like Aamir runs to packed houses, how can that film not be commercial? I remember it was the third Friday of Aamir, and Vikas (Bahl) and I would go to cinemas to gauge the audience reaction. I had asked him on the third Friday of the film’s release what the box office verdict was. He said it was running to house-full shows even in the third week at PVR Juhu.

For all my films, whether Aamir, Shaitan or Table No. 21, I rarely come across people who say that they were bad films. So when a paanwalah, a rickshawwallah and a corporate guy enjoy a film, it means it has mass appeal. Since these films had limited release, they were probably perceived as off-beat films. Let me put it this way… When Vidya (Balan) did a Kahaani, the film was ‘commercial’ because she is a commercial actor. When Rajeev does a Kahaani, then it is viewed as ‘off-beat’. Samrat & Co. is a commercial film.

BOI: What was your reaction when you heard the narration?

RK: I was zapped! I have rarely heard a narration and said ‘yes’ to it. To be honest, I instinctively said ‘yes’ because it was a Rajshri production. Although it was not a typical Rajshri film, I wasn’t disappointed but intrigued as to why they wanted to produce it. The most they would experiment with was an intense love story but this was a 360-degree change for them.

During the first narration, I was stumped. I had never worked with dada when he and I worked in the television industry. But there were a few directors who were sought after like dada and Anurag Basu. These guys were the heavyweights who knew how to mount large-scale shows. And then they would move on. So I knew that this man was someone who knew his job and was very good at it. But his narration… a narration speaks volumes about a director. I was confident that he knew his craft inside out. He had all the answers to my questions barring the climax which he had not revealed. The process was so engrossing that I said ‘yes’.

Then, during the workshops, I realised how passionate he was about filmmaking and his subject. There are very few directors who come with three scripts. One was the film script, the second was Samrat’s script and the third was the script for the characters. There was so much detailing, not only about Samrat but also about the other characters. The workshops were supposed to be six weeks long but went on a little longer. (Smiles)

BOI: Why was that?

KG: I was sure no one would understand Samrat’s character better than I did. I had worked so hard on his character that I had made a world out of him. I had detailed how he would sit, stand and everything. After the extended workshops, when I saw Rajeev perform, I was astonished at how well he portrayed the character… even better than I had formulated!

RK: I didn’t want him to feel disappointed that I had not met his expectations. The detailing was so good that I never thought the film was about Samrat but about Samrat in a situation instead. So I had to work really very hard. In the end, I said to him, ‘I hope you got your Samrat.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’

BOI: Madalsa, you have done films in the South before this one. How did you come to be associated with this film?

Madalsa Sharma (MS): I have worked down South and done a German film too. And then Samrat & Co. came my way. When I was still in school, I had visited the Rajshri office with my mother. Back then, Kavitaji met me and launched me in television. But I was very young and things didn’t work out. So when Samrat & Co. was announced, I got in touch with Kavitaji.

KG: When Kavitaji first told me about a girl called Madalsa, she said, ‘Dada, ghar ki ladki hai’ and we instantly felt the connection.

MS: (Cuts in) Actually, my mother Sheela Sharma is also an actor, and she started her career with Rajshri, and now I am making my Hindi feature film debut with them. So, things have come full circle. So when I learnt of Samrat & Co., I went and met Kavitaji and she asked me to audition. That’s how dada finalised me.

BOI: Kavita, how different are the production dynamics between television vis-à-vis films?

KB: There are a lot of differences and similarities too. For TV, there’s a lot of pressure in terms of deadlines so you sometimes compromise because you have to telecast the episode on time. With films, there is no pressure to announce a release date. You finish your film in a given schedule and the release date is only known to the trade. Thus, you can change your release date if you wish. Also, if someone is unwell, you can cancel the shoot or shoot something else on that day. Also you can do a lot of patch work whereas, with television, everything is happening at the same time. There are maha-episodes and maha-confusion! (Laughs)

BOI: Why did you foray into films?

KB: Working 24x7 on TV episodes was too much for me. TV is very satisfying and also the money keeps rolling in. Once you set a show, you don’t have to worry whereas, with films, it’s either good or bad.

KG: She was more of a creative producer as she always came up with ideas and suggestions but she has also given the work its due importance. Cost-cutting ke chakkar mein film ki creativity kharab nahi hone di.

BOI: You have catered to the TV audience. How different is the film audience?

KG: The film and TV audiences are very different from each other. Today, they are almost mutually exclusive. I am talking specifically about the GEC audience, not the MTV or sports audience. For example, in a daily soap, a character like Tulsi (Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi) will repair a blown fuse because the television audience is dominated by women. They like women-centric shows. In contrast, films always have the quintessential ‘hero’. But things are changing in films, where we now have women-centric films. Films like Kahaani and Queen are doing well but the audience is very different from the TV audience.

Housewives, which constitute a large part of the TV audience, will not spend Rs 250 to watch a film on the big screen. They are happy watching daily soaps. Moreover, now everyone has big LCDs and projectors at homes, so the appeal of cinema is that much less. The content has to be appealing enough for people to spend that much money to watch a film.

Another important point is that our promos do not run on GEC channels but on channels like sports, MTV, Channel V and news channels. Apart from this, if you’re technically inclined, people say only the camera changes. I would say the world of imagination changes. Films are larger than life; television is louder than life. Why does the music grow louder during important scenes on TV, or show one face three times? Because the women watching these shows are listening to the show while doing housework. So whenever there is a sound, she looks at the screen. That’s why television is louder than life.

Television is like a newspaper whereas films are like books. Both have their own importance in our lives. Without newspapers, humara subah nahi hota. Books will always remain on our shelves and the next generation will read them and they create an impact on one’s mind.

When I was doing television, I wanted to switch to films but it took me a year to unlearn television. If you want to play football, you can’t play it with a cricket bat. The rules are different.

BOI: Madalsa, like Rajeev had to undergo extensive workshops, did you also have to attend workshops and work on your role?

MS: Yes, all the interactions we had with Samrat in the film had a different side to the situations with different kinds of emotions. So it was important that we do workshops as we had extended lines in the film. More than acting per se, I had to learn how to react to Samrat. So while shooting, that was all I was doing.

RK: (Cuts in) The workshops were also very important because there was no scope for improvisation. The script simply left no room for that. It was so watertight that when I added a few words while saying my lines, I felt as if I had committed a crime! The workshops for my character were very important also because the other characters had to realise that my character was not the routine kind of guy who would chit-chat. It was very important for the other characters to understand this so that they didn’t get startled on the sets and start to improvise. It was a huge challenge for me as he had written every nuance of my body language.

BOI: Wasn’t that limiting for you as an actor?

RK: Not at all. Being Samrat was like stepping into a different world. It was not even close to any character I have done before. That’s why I was so happy that we had extensive workshops. Since I was stepping out of my comfort zone, I was anxious about whether I would be able to play the part. Everyone thought I was dedicated but no one knew I was actually anxious.

KG: (Cuts in) I am hearing this for the first time. (Laughs)

KB: But, Rajeev, I heard otherwise.

RK: What? That Rajeev was very confident?

KB: No, after one workshop session, dada said, ‘Rajeev kya sochta hoga main us se baat nahi karta hoon, kuch bolta nahi hoon workshop mein. With everyone else, I need to make them understand their characters but Rajeev is already very much into his character. He is confident and he is better at being Samrat and knows Samrat better than I do now’ Dada was concerned that Rajeev would wonder why the director was not saying much to him.

KG: She’s right. I used to pay attention to every actor at the workshops but I never once commented on Rajeev.

RK: That really helped build my confidence. On the sets, he would never say maza nahi aya but he would always say acha tha, acha tha, ek aur kar lete hai. Mere kaan mein bolte the. So I knew what he wanted from a scene. I believe this is a fantastic approach to use with actors. When I turn director, I will use the same approach.

Coming back to your question about it being limiting for me… It was not. For a change, I just wanted to hand over myself completely into someone else’s hands. I have always believed that the director is the captain and everyone should fall in line with the director’s vision.

RK: I have to say that the entire unit was fantastic. It’s been a year since we started working on this film and every unit member has the same passion for the film as they did back then. That is rare. They are eagerly waiting for the film to release with that same enthusiasm.

BOI: Apart from yours, there are three other films releasing on April 25. Does that worry you?

KB: The film was actually supposed to release on May 1 but…

RK: (Cuts in) But we were all so excited (Laughs).

KB: But things didn’t work out. To be very honest, we would love to have got a solo release but that wasn’t possible. Yes, it’s a risk.

KG: We are a nation with a population of 100 crore. With three films releasing, even if 1 crore people watch each film, it won’t be a losing bet.

BOI: But then you will get limited shows.

KB: There has been an increase in the number of multiplexes. Revolver Rani has a lot of mass appeal whereas our film is not exactly a mass-audience kind of film. Every film has its own place and, at the end of the day, it’s the content of the film that matters.

KG: When a big- film budget releases corners 3,000 screens, it is justified. So, when you have three films of this scale releasing, I don’t see a problem with all of them releasing at 1,000 screens each. Like Kavita said, content should be good for a film to sustain.

KB: Julie Andrews’ films Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music released on the same day. Both enjoyed a long run at the ticket window and both had the same actress. Yes, at the end of the day, it’s content that sells.

RK: Jis range ki film humne banayi hai, us range ki release ho rahi hai humari film. So there’s no problem.

KB: I agree.

BOI: What next for all of you?

KG: For all of us, toh Samrat 2 (Laughs)

RK: I think this is the kind of a film that deserves a sequel, and when I signed on, I was told that they were thinking of a franchise. The film was written with a franchise in mind. They were very certain about this film, from the very beginning. When I visited their office for the first time, I saw a huge timer counting down the days to the film’s release.

BOI: Rajeev, you just said you might direct a film. Any plans on that front?

RK: Not right now but I have a feeling I will some day. I have a lot to learn about filmmaking.

KG: He has a very good sense of filmmaking and he is a director’s actor to the core..

RK: I have made some documentary films but it feels good to get approval from my director.

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