Mahesh Bhatt and Vijay Singh with the lead cast of Khamoshiyan, Ali Fazal, Sapna Pabbi and Gurmeet Chaudhary, in conversation with team Box Office India
BOI: Bhatt saab, since you are launching two new faces and one relatively new face in Khamoshiyan, why don’t you ask the questions?
Ali Fazal (AF): Their dictaphone is perched on a big stack of blockbuster magazines called Box Office India, so I think we have a lot of promise before we even start talking! (Laughs)
MB: And the silence on my right screams of something, which if put in words could reach people in distant lands. So Ms Sapna Pabbi, can you put words to your silence, my dear? The same question is seeking an answer from you.
Sapna Pabbi (SP): Definitely, the feeling of it becoming a blockbuster has deepened!
MB: This was your first exposure to the media and getting the media in Mumbai to say something positive is like getting a piece of meat out of the mouth of a tiger. How did you feel recently when you guys had an encounter with the entertainment media in Mumbai? And please say things you normally don’t say. I am tired of this thing where everyone has all the right answers yet we are all so f*** up! Let’s talk about our stumbling, our inadequacies, our nightmares, our nervous bouts. Let’s make this communication with this magazine interesting because ‘you are what you hide’ is also the motto of the film. Now live that. I want all you young boys and girls to speak from that place, from where you normally don’t speak. How charmed were you by this first experience with the media?
Gurmeet Choudhary (GC): It was amazing, Bhatt saab. Ever since I began working in television, it was always my goal to work in films. So when I started my journey in films and faced the media for the first time, I wouldn’t say I felt amazing. I felt nervous and scared and went through the same feeling when I faced the entertainment media when I began my first TV show. It’s what a newborn probably feels when he or she opens their eyes and looks at the world for the first time. Similarly, I am approaching this new journey into films like a newborn. I am elated, excited and I am nervous and scared. In fact, the fear quotient towards the medium is more because it’s an entirely new experience for me.
MB: But did you feel that you would be able to make an impact in their hearts based on what you showed them?
GC: Of course! I am very optimistic about the film. When you give something 200 per cent and work hard with your heart and mind, there is no way your work will go unnoticed. All of us have given our best to this film and our effort will pay off.
MB: Ali, how about you?
AF: I slept very well, Bhatt saab. I went back from the launch thinking I have nothing to lose. They knew very little and I was happy that from that little that the media knew, there was so much buzz.
SP: I felt good and happy. As a girl, who doesn’t want to be on stage and introduce these two guys who are her co-stars in these big glass jars? And while she is doing this, people are smiling at her and clapping for her and clicking pictures of her. Which girl wouldn’t want that? It was an amazing feeling. But I was also wondering whether I wanted to reveal this for them or whether I wanted them to see some other parts of the film. So when I went home last night, that’s what I was trying to analyse. It was a great feeling but still discovering what I wanted them to see and what I didn’t. Hopefully, during this journey, I will find it.
MB: The entertainment industry is very unforgiving of failure. In fact, oblivion is almost guaranteed in these times. You are hurled into those times where your heartbeat will surge. So, if the narrative fails, you will be thrown into an abyss from where it will be impossible to emerge. And if you make it, there is no limit to the possibilities that will open up for you. So what is that one lesson that you think you have learnt during the course of the film that will help you cope with this anxiety of being forgotten and deal with this expectation of courting the audience and how high the experience of making this film has been?
AF: It has taught me to shed my pride. I remember talking to you one day about this, which was also part of the making of the film. I think I got to become closer to my animal side. Once you have achieved that, it’s like winning a huge part of the game because at the end of the day the making of a film is a whole other film. During the next 20 days, I will be playing a completely different character which is this person that I don’t know very well, or maybe I do. So, for me, it’s about shedding my pride and shifting away from my normal schedule. I still go back into these pockets of my comfort zones and I feel very intellectual.
BOI: Bhatt saab, what is your take on the publicity rigmarole that a film has to go through these days?
MB: That’s how I get to know the pulse of the audience. This is the most important phase where we can see their anxiety. These actors will be all dressed up in the personas they want to flash to the cameras, but what you can’t see is their anxiety. I celebrate this phase because it gets me very close to the audience and this brings about a change in me. It brings their understanding to me and acts as a cleansing agent for my mind. I sincerely feel that they are the young people who will journey towards the tides that will come. But like the madaari, he may have a great monkey who can do many tricks magar jab dugdugi hi nahi bajegi toh audience nahin ayenge. I am no different from that madaari who comes with his monkey and his bag of tricks. I use innovative tricks to engage people to come and watch my films. So I try and connect with people in many ways. You may not like what I say or may dismiss what I am saying, but at least I am able to connect with the audience, even with what is unacceptable to them which is better than not connecting with them at all. They should come and watch the film and then say it’s not their kind of entertainment. But you need to get them to the cinemas and let them make their choice.
MB: So, guys, on the Friday when the film releases, you will probably wish that the sun hadn’t risen at all because you don’t want to face judgment day. But what do you think you will do on that Friday?
GC: Sir, on that Friday, we will be hiding in your lap! (Laughs)
MB: Shankar Jaikishan used to say, ‘Filmein banni chahiye release nahi honi chahiye’. My first experience during a film’s release was in 1970 with Raj Khoslaji. Do Raaste was a do-or-die film for him. And he had sent me to the cinema hall to watch the first day, first show. I was very excited that the first show of the film was nearly house full. I came running to him and I was panting and I couldn’t tell him what I was feeling. He looked at my face and asked me what I was trying to say. I excitedly told him the film was doing very well! He was a seasoned director and even he was frightened on the day his film’s was to release.
When I used to direct, we used to gauge a film’s potential from the lowest common centre. There was a saying that CP, CI mein jo picture chalte hain, woh picture hit hote hain. There was an ad for Anancin whose tag line was that ‘four out of five doctors recommend Anancin.’ I used to always have the stomach to ask that fifth doctor what he recommended. His opinion was of utmost importance to me. Once you have inoculated yourself against the worst report, you can stomach anything. But, in our industry, the reverse is true. Everyone wants to hear only good things. But there is also a flipside these days, where there is sadism due to things like the tyranny of the Twitter age. It is a trend to hurt people but you have to psychologically arm people.
This industry is not for the faint-hearted. It’s really tough and I am not surprised that actors become bitter and are lonely and have barely any genuine friends. There is so much cynicism because they know people are pursuing them not for themselves but their success. But having said that, it’s a great business to be in and I wouldn’t change a single line in the script of my life.
BOI: You are one of the few producers of your time who has kept away from the stars. Was that deliberate?
MB: It was always a deliberate decision. We all talk about self-reliance but nobody actually practices it. Stars cannot make or break a film. Na toh woh film ko hit karate hain na woh fail karte hain. It is always the filmmaker, the story and the performances the filmmaker could draw out of his talent that makes a film a superhit. When I gave up direction, my brother couldn’t understand why I had done that at the age of 50. I knew there was a new breed of directors that needed to be brought into center-stage. If I hadn’t done that, our company wouldn’t be where it is today. Now, everyone understands why I pushed for new directors. I discovered back then that we must rely on the most important thing and that’s the story. We are ready to tell a story but we concentrate on it more and can get good music and we have done it. But knowing that we will not have stars, we chose a genre that was democratic. Then people started saying ‘Mahesh Bhatt who made Saransh and Zakhm, how he can make a Murder or a Jism or a Raaz?’
But India has changed and you fools are not wise enough to see the change. Technology has stepped in and has changed the world. Youngsters were consuming content from the worldwide web. You were pretending to be something that you were not. And the success of those films proved this. People didn’t wear a mask to watch those films; they paid from their pockets and that’s success. Also, we make films on a very tight budget. In the last decade, we made more muscle by making films which had newcomers. The concepts were the introduction of the erotic thriller and with this film (Khamoshiyan), we are kind of revisiting the erotic thriller. It’s made in a space which has supernatural components.
So we worked with new people and that gave us our own identity. When everyone was running from pillar to post for stars, we were relegated to the B-grade category. I am not calling it B-grade cinema; I meant newcomers. So our films didn’t have ‘A Grade’ stars; they were entertaining the people of this country. I don’t make films for National Awards; I am here to make money. I am not a sacrificial lamb. First, they wanted me to make cinema which nobody wanted to watch. All my initial directorial films received National Awards but nobody watched them. You attack Jism or Murder but you come to watch it. We live in a hypocritical country, where you are one thing in private and another in public. Why is Sunny Leone the most-frequently searched actor on the world wide web? We were asked questions like why we brought in Sunny Leone. Because, jokers, you wanted us to! When the lights are off at night, you go there. That’s why I always say ‘You are what you hide.’
GC: Yes, even when I was doing television, was hoping that someone would notice me and cast me in a film. Finally, Neelu aunty, Mukeshji’s (Bhatt) wife, noticed me and recommended me for this role. After that, I met Mukeshji and Maheshji and things worked out.
MB: (Cuts in) He was very nervous. Ekdum paseena-paseena ho gaya tha. He couldn’t even speak properly. I asked him to sit down and take a deep breath and relax. He walked in in such a hurry and went back also in such a hurry that all I noticed was his fear. I couldn’t even see him properly. The second time I met him, I noticed his face.
GC: I had a meeting with Mukeshji and he told me come and meet Mahesh. When he told me I had to meet Bhatt saab, I grew nervous instantly. I had no idea what I would say to him and what he would ask me. When I entered the room, I sat down without anyone telling me to. And when he saw me, woh nazar aisi thi jaise unhone mujhe aar-paar dekh liya. I was very nervous.
MB: (Laughs) He was sweating, fumbling and couldn’t speak.
BOI: Sapna, can you share your experience on meeting Bhatt saab for the first time?
SP: We share a strange chemistry. I went to meet him in his cabin and he said, ‘Sapna, sit down. You’re crazy in your eyes!’
MB: She has crazy eyes.
SP: I sat in silence for five minutes. Basically, we were talking to each other through our eyes and trying to figure out what the craziness was. After five minutes, he asked me, ‘What do you want?’ That was the first conversation we had. When I was leaving, Pooja Bhatt entered the room and he said to her, ‘Look… look… she has craziness in her eyes!’ I didn’t know what to say.
MB: She has this plea of insanity in her eyes.
SP: To date, I get that look.
AF: You will have to ask Bhatt saab. I remember him saying, ‘Yeh sochta bahut hai, Aamir Khan type ka hai.’ But it was quite an eventful meeting.
MB: What I remember about you is those long legs. I was wondering how someone could have such long legs.
AF: You’re eye level starts at the couch, naa… (Laughs)
BOI: Bhatt saab, what did you see in these actors to cast them in the film?
MB: It was Karan (Darra), our director, who spotted Sapna in a television show. The young breed keeps looking for something new and they keep their eyes open. I might be more experienced, I might know more about narrative and storytelling but there is something I don’t know, which he (Karan) does. He speaks today’s language, he is young and he thinks young. I have the ability to deconstruct myself every time, I have the ability to accept the change but the young director saw Ali, the young director saw Sapna. Karan was suffering from dengue and was in hospital when he was switching channels and saw the Indian version of 24. Then he told me he had seen this actress wanted me to meet her. That is what a young mind does… he takes on board people he feels are an extension of his own sensibilities.
By burdening him with my likes and dislikes, I would be forcing him to pretend to be himself and actually imitate me. And I always encourage all my youngsters by telling them, ‘It is you who is making the film and I will give you a barometer to help you operate. Once you’re there, it is you who have to take it forward.’ Apart from him (Gurmeet), he was cast because Nilu had spotted him. She liked his performance on television and recommended him to me. I saw him and felt he was right. Even Karan said ‘yes’ to him instantly because he has that talent; he suited the character.
BOI: Vikram Bhatt had written the story. Why didn’t he direct the film?
MB: If Vikram was there, we wouldn’t have Sapna and Ali in the film. And we wouldn’t have a young star cast. There is something that a young director can bring to the table, which an experienced director cannot. Vikram was there to mentor. Jab bachcha naya naya cycle sikhta hai toh papa ko pakadna padhta hai initially. Fir ek lamha aata hai jab papa chhod deta hain aur bachcha khud balance karke aagey nikal jaata hai. That moment comes in everyone’s life and people like us are ready to pass it on to the new generation. Vikram too is like that and always encourages new directors. We once stood behind Vikram and now he is doing that. He mentored Karan on the sets. Filmmaking is team work and takes place in a democratic environment where everyone has a voice. So I would say that the sensibilities are current but the film was Vikram’s brainchild. It’s team work.
MB: It was a dream come true for us. When we were young, we used to watch 20th Century Fox films and we never once thought we would be working with Fox one day. We never imagined that, one day, a Hollywood biggie would tell us, ‘We want the partnership to go on.’ After that endorsement and partnership, we have come a long way. That would not have been possible without our partnership with Fox. There is so much a partner contributes to you, not necessarily though visible action but by just being there. My company is blessed to have partners like them. We have understood the work culture, despite being insiders. We were like a mutton shop, where my brother looked after the money and I looked after generating ideas. What Fox brought was their commitment to audacious, new ideas. They gave us the liberty to make a film the way we wanted to and that has helped improve our partnership.
Vijay Singh (VS): In Bollywood, people work in a certain way and when we started working closely with them, what really amazed me was that Bollywood was a very small community and everybody worked in a certain way in their closed network. Once our relationship started and we grew popular, we moved towards the goal of making high-concept films. We have been working on budgets and their ability to generate new concepts, film after film.
MB: When we were finishing Jannat 2, Vijay told me we needed to go beyond the already established genres. That is the attribute of a creative mind… to move away from certainty and to reconstruct established formulas. Due to this, Vishesh Films made a film like CityLights, a far more emotionally superior film than Metro Manila was. That creates a spark… when a Mahesh Bhatt, who made Saaransh, can make a CityLights. It makes people look at you as bankable once again. So I kept making films like CityLights or Khamoshiyan or Hamari Adhuri Kahaani. They are films made with conviction, with a certain clarity about what kind of projects we should do. The title song of Khamoshiyan is in the thriller and erotic space. I dare even the mighty poets to write a song like Khamoshiyan. Who would have imagined a song like that in a supernatural, erotic thriller?
VS: Vishesh Films is the only studio, which goes against the tide. When everyone is going after stars, they do not go that way. I believe our best association lies ahead as the market is changing. I think the audience is willing to watch high-concept films and is very open to new kinds of films. They want younger talent and I believe that we will continue.
VS: First, there is a very clear definition of the target audience – the film is going to be an A-certified film. Sony is the music partner and the songs of the films are already on the charts and are doing very well. And, of course, unveiling these three actors in front of the media.
MB: I saw them when they walked down the stage. There was something luminous about them. I just loved them. I had this great feeling that they had made their way into the hearts of the audience.
BOI: Bhatt saab, given your stature and your track record, there must have been people who tried to woo you away from Fox.
MB: I don’t think anybody has tried to woo us away from them. But there have been people who have asked us to work with them also. But I don’t think they have the kind of work force at hand. I mean, they are already doing three films a year.
BOI: Vijay, what plans do you have for this film in terms of distribution and marketing?
VS: It’s a good thing that we are starting the year with this film. Since it is a product of Vishesh Films, the music is very strong. Phase two was introducing the three of them to the media.
BOI: What about the three of you? Now that the film is all set to release, what are your expectations from it?
AF: I am expecting a great start. I am very happy and content.
MB: (Cuts in) I am very happy with the sound of the film. I went to meet Vikram last night at 11’o clock and these boys were very expectant and looked at me for approval and asked me what I thought. I told them that we have a winner on our hands!
GC: The film has everything. It is a supernatural, erotic, thriller, and all three of us are excited. Also, half the battle is won when the music of the film is appreciated by the audience and the music of this film is already a hit. We are confident that our hard work will pay off.
AF: I am all charged up; an actor is never just content. We are starting the year with a bang. What we have is something very new. I am actually confused when people ask me what the genre of the film is. It has no specific genre. I am still new but I have been a part of a few films and they tell you it is a love story or a comedy. But this film is a mix and the audience has a lot to take back from it.
VS: The audience is hungry for young talent, and I am glad we are starting the year with a film that caters to the changing audience.