Team Koyelaanchal, producer-director Asshu Trikha and leading man Suniel Shetty in conversation with team Box Office India
Asshu Trikha (AT): After finishing Baabar, my writers came to me with the story which had coal fields as the backdrop. This film is about how coal operates, how the coal mafia operates, about the inhabitants of those places, how they survive and how everyone who lives there is trying to gain control of land where coal is available. Coal is rich and coal makes people rich too. Everyone therefore wants control over this fossil fuel and the people who live in those areas.
It is a very interesting plot and one that’s very different from other stories. It’s a completely different world. When someone explains what goes on in the coal fields, it sounds very bookish but when I went there, it was a whole different experience. We would shoot in the morning and the moment the sun went down a little; we would see flames coming out of the earth. We would see cracks in the earth and fire coming out of the cracks. So I asked my cameraman to shoot it; the moment the lights would go out, the flames would disappear. So that’s how potent the land there is.
Suneil and I did Enemmy, and I bounced the idea off him. I told him he was known for action films but, here, he would be playing a vulnerable man. He was to play an IAS Officer. He wasn’t apprehensive at all and said it was interesting. Once we locked on to what we needed to do, we had to figure out somebody to play the imposing character. Since I had worked with Vinodji (Khanna) in Deewanapan, I called him and told him about this role. He immediately agreed to do the role. Once these two actors came on board, everyone else did.
BOI: What about you, Suneil sir. What made you say ‘yes’ to this film?
Suniel Shetty (SS): I guess the backdrop of the film. Whenever you come across a setting which is very different, you can’t help but say ‘yes’. The coal mafia is probably the oldest mafia in the country. Even before gun-running began or the drug cartels started, or even the land mafia. It’s a typical zamindar-like situation but these are zamindars who don’t grab land for agricultural purposes but for an even bigger reason. This film is about power, greed and people who join unions to get their way. It s a very interesting film, there are a lot of layers. It is also about the difficulties an IAS officer faces in a situation like this. He doesn’t have control over the police as he is an administrator.
So when he reaches that area, he realises that Vinod Khanna (Saryu Bhan Singh) is the Godfather there, and to bring him down, he has to prove him guilty. But when he gets down to the paperwork, he realises he has nothing bad recorded against his name. The film is about how he manages to find this one loophole in the system and holds on to that.
My character wants to make people believe that Saryu Bhan Singh is not God. It’s also about his entire journey, how he has a son, a one-year-old boy, his wife, whether he should quit, turmoil. I had to abandon my usual body language. It’s easy when there are 25 people, and the action director takes over, you beat up all these people, and you move on. This is entirely different. He has to back off under such situations. Is it his fear, what is it that is making him pull back?
There were many things in the script that I found interesting. In films of yesteryear like Mackkena’s Gold and One Man Army, there is a backdrop just like this. Only, here, it’s like an active volcano. It is burning hot, 5,000 trucks of coal are removed and they are filled in with 5,000 trucks of sand. You have to be very careful when you walk in these areas as the ground can cave in any time. Apart from the local language that they speak there is another – coughing due to the toxic gases they are inhaling. You constantly people coughing inside their homes as if they are communicating with each other.
It’s a very complex script. Sure, there is a commercial angle but it’s not commercial like the jhatka and the matkas. This one might be one of the slow starters and word-of-mouth will give it a commercial impetus. It is important that I do good films, than only for the sake of doing it.
AT: Yeah! Tough and arduous terrain. Tough because there was no infrastructure for shooting but the roads were better than those in our cities.
SS: Except for Maharashtra, the roads are good everywhere else! (Laughs)
AT: We were staying in a place called Ramgarh, which I had of only heard of in Sholay. We used to travel up and down from there. On location, there was coal dust everywhere. Imagine inhaling coal dust on a regular basis. We were coughing black dust, sneezing black dust, our clothes would turn black in no time. We shot in the cold during November and December, it was biting cold. The sun would set by 3 pm. By 4 pm, it was pitch dark.
From the perspective of a film shoot, we would start at 10 am and finish by 3 pm. People don’t understand the significance of a call sheet. So many times, my actors and crew would be present but the supporting cast of locals wouldn’t show up. They would be drinking and would wake up only by 10 am. Eight and 10-year-old boys get drunk at 10 in the morning. How do you get all these boys to work if they are drunk?
So it was tough but we had the administration behind us. The DC told us we didn’t need permission to shoot. Every day, there were around 5,000 people who came to see the shoot, and the police would arrive on their own to maintain security. The government of Ranchi gave us all the support we needed.
SS: You have to ignore it. In fact, sometimes, it helps you. In films like Border, people appreciated my character and my performance, the energy, the power. It was the energy, the power of 2 degrees, or minus 2 degrees and shooting in the sand. Snow is OK, it hits your head, but at night, when you shoot in the cold and 15 bullets burst inside you, it’s so cold that you have to shout to get your energy going. And that came across on screen.
But there are moments when there are difficult scenes. During the climax, there is an explosion and you feel warm during an explosion. You have to use it to your advantage and also learn to switch off. During my career, every time I have cribbed, it has looked better on screen, whether sweat, pain or blood. That’s the excitement of doing this character… the backdrop of the film gives you that feeling.
AT: (Cuts in) We had a crowd of 20,000 people on the sets but we managed very well.
SS: Every evening and every night, they used to be on the sets to watch the shooting.
AT: (Cuts in) It was scary at night; our climax was shot at night and the terrain was rocky. The cameraman had to use a green, laser light. He used to move that light and the entire crowd would move accordingly and they knew they couldn’t cross that line.
BOI: Suniel, you have worked in this industry for 22 years. What has your journey been like?
SS: It has been a wonderful journey. I have no regrets. I have made a lot of mistakes but I have learnt from them. I chose to do what I wanted to do. And I am very proud of the films I have made that will release soon. I have to feel satisfied with the projects I take up. I have no hang-ups and am accessible to friends.
When I do well, I don’t shout about it from the rooftops. Sure, I went through a phase when I went into production, where I messed up big time. But I realise that if I have been at it for just three years, it will take a year to settle things because you owe people money, your company is run by professionals. Then, I have been suffering from migraines since a year. So I lost some more time but now I am back on track I have a few releases lined up.
BOI: Considering how much things have changed in the industry over the years, do you think a film like Koyelaanchal could have been made many years ago?
SS: Only for the chosen four or five actors who could get a release (Laughs). Good films were made but they were not released. Today, there is a so-called mafia who controls the release of films. This will affect the industry in a very bad way because today it’s probably a distribution chain or corporate houses who are controlling releases. Trust me, two years down the line, chains that own multiplexes and cinemas will be controlling it. They will say filmein tum banao, release hum karenge. I say there is a huge gap between making a good cinema and making money.
P&A is about earning money, tu idhar adjust karle, everyone is very happy. All this adjustment is making everyone happy. Things were less complicated in earlier times, when there was genuine involvement of a director and producer. Today, only ticket sizes matter and only films with a certain ticket size are released. Mithun Chakraborty produced Enemmy but it didn’t get a proper release. I was promoting the film in Punjab, Indore and Bhopal and distributors there were asking me, ‘Release ho rahi hai kya? Saat baje ka show diya multiplexes mein. How can you do it?’ I believe the industry believes only in churning out numbers and there is no productivity.
SS: It doesn’t exist at all. Shoots today are drier than the Bikaner desert. There is no life or soul in them. He (Vajir Singh) has witnessed it. Whenever we went outdoors, we would do crazy stuff, everyone was having fun together. Today, it’s bizarre. It’s a totally different world out there. We may have ‘progressed’ but I come from the old school.
BOI: Is that the reason you chose to work only with close friends and people you know?
SS: I did that earlier too. I have done 100-125 films and I accept only good scripts. It could be Asshu’s (Trikha) third or fourth assistant also. If I and Asshu make a successful film, I am not the kind of man who will say, ‘Asshu, plan another film.’ He would chose a script he will narrate it to me. Even if he wants his assistant to direct it, I will do the film if I like it, in the belief that we can make a good film. And we have made good films but the producer didn’t have that kind of money and he couldn’t distribute it properly. Filmmaking is not about having a dai maa at home; there are so many other things to look at. That’s how I work. And I know I messed up but I have no regrets.
BOI: So many of your films which started like Ek Hindustan, Kashmakash…
SS: (Cuts in) Yes, films like Ek Hindustan, Kashmakash were good films with first-time directors but somewhere down the line, the financers and producers would end up fighting. I have spent so much time simply settling other people’s problems and disputes. But someone will benefit somewhere down the line, maybe my daughter or my son, who wants to do films.
AS: The credit has to go to the writers. They needed to create the balance. In many strange way, the location is real, the feel is real, and the characters are real. So they had to create a real world. I think styling also comes in, and locations in terms of indoor and outdoor. So visually it’s all real. How you shoot it, how you edit it, how you package it and how you present it is where styling comes in. That’s where you make it contemporary and promote it. Besides, the film has a vision, the film has a hero, a common man. The film is larger than life, the relationships, the drama, there is a one-year-old child in the film.
SS: (Cuts in) The kid plays a very important part in the film. You have to balance the emotions perfectly. And Koyelaanchal is a perfectly balanced film. It’s like a David Dhawan and Priyadarshan film. Priyadarshan made Hera Pheri as real as it could be and David always makes films that are larger than life and which have their own audience, music and comedy. Whereas Hera Pheri is a situational film, it is also very well made. Our film is a mix. The backdrop we used is real, which is why films like Gangs Of Wasseypur worked like what Gulzar saab did in Mere Apne and in most of his films.
AT: Also, we want to tell you a real story but the characters are fictitious and we are still trying to entertain you with elements you find in commercial films.
BOI: Talking about the government’s responsibilities… we also have many producers’ organisations. Do they help with films like Koyelaanchal?
SS: They were the first to stop Asshu from promoting the film the way he intended to.
AT: (Cuts in) I had a tagline ‘Sabse bada mafia Bharat sarkar’ I even got the green signal from the censors. They said, ‘Bharat nikaldo and make it ‘Sabse bada mafia sarkar’.’ This is also a line in the film. The rules say you have to have your publicity cleared by the association before applying to the censors. I did and they refused. They said, ‘Isme ek question mark dal do.’ I asked why and they said you are saying sabse bada mafia sarkar hai, kal court mein chakkar aap maroge aur sath mein hum bhi. They simply refused to clear it.
I said I don’t understand, you talk of being with us and helping us to release our films. Is this body actually helping us or are we on our own?
SS: Because everybody thinks individually. Sab sochte hai ke mera kya hai isme. And how many producer bodies do we have? Idhar yahan ye president hai kisi aur jagah koi aur. Roz election ho raha hai and, in the end, the people in those bodies are not even making films. We don’t have proactive producers.
BOI: Asshu, you started your career with Vinod (Khanna) sir and now you are working with him again. What was that like?
AT: When I told him this was a film I wanted him to do, and I told him a little about the character, he asked me what the role was. I explained that it was a negative character. He was astonished that it was a negative role but was intrigued to know more. He eventually said ‘yes’ over the phone as he had done a film with me earlier and he was familiar with my work. I later gave him a narration and went with my writer. During lunch, his wife said, ‘You are doing a negative role?’ To this, he said, ‘No, I am playing Godfather.’
It was amazing to see that he was so completely involved with the film. It was intimidating to have him around but he was never imposing and that’s how he approached his part as well.
BOI: How happy are you with the final product?
SS: Very, because there has been a definite growth in the character. His level of frustration and the way his mindset changes. Once he is in that situation and how important it is for him to believe and stay there. Even when his transfer orders arrive and despite all the other odds, he doesn’t give up and stands for change. Having someone like Vinod ji playing such a powerful character is unreal, and for me, after Dayavan, this is Vinodji at his best. I believe the film is impactful. There is no action per se but the anger and the aggression along with the progression of the character itself is action enough for the character to make an impact.
AT: I am very satisfied. There were many places where I feel we have risen above the script. It is very gratifying. We are presenting a different world and it is not the kind of film you would see nowadays.
SS: If this was in any country in the West, they would have turned it into a tourist destination.
AT: There was a National Geographic photographer who was shooting along with us. It means the world is watching this place. And we have had the courage to present this place the way it is. You asked me earlier that how commercial the film will be. Well, it has fictitious characters and is not a documentary.
SS: If it was a documentary, we would have used the usual, film festivals and awards route and then put the stars on the hoardings. But this is a commercial film.