Team Rocky Handsome – John Abraham, Sunir Kheterpal and Nishikant Kama –in conversation with Team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): How did Rocky Handsome came about?
Sunir Kheterpal (SK): It’s fairly simple. We were starting Azure Entertainment and we wanted to do a film that would raise the bar of at least one element. So we bought the remake rights of this Korean film, John Abraham got into it, Nishi (Nishikant Kamat) got into it and adapted it in his way. And that’s how Rocky Handsome happened.
John Abraham (JA): I fell in love with the story and, I always say this being a fan of Nishi… he is one director who handles emotion very well. That is very apparent when you watch Dombivali Fast or Mumbai Meri Jaan, and all his other films. I think the three people seated here have been taking all the decisions while making the film. If we have to give credit to anybody for how Rocky Handsome happened, it’s the three of us.
Whether or not it becomes a huge success, doesn’t matter. Making the film happen was the most challenging part. All three of us have literally driven the film right from the beginning to it marketing strategies. Azure Entertainment has been absolutely fantastic. Sunir has that thing… he listens to you, then he offers ‘the point of view’. And he has done a fantastic job. And I believe it’s his first baby, so it’s very close to his heart, which is why he is pampering it a lot. And with Nishi, it’s like sitting in a Rolls-Royce. It’s like, you have a good director, so enjoy the ride now.
BOI: Whose idea was it to call the film ‘Rocky Handsome’?
Nishikant Kamat (NK): It all started when we were doing the costume trials. I saw him (Abraham) in a black suit and told him ‘Yaar John, you are looking very handsome.’ So it all started with the word ‘handsome’. There was a film called ‘Johnny Handsome’ in the late ‘70s. But then ‘Johnny’ and ‘John’ were too similar. One day, the name ‘Rocky’ came to mind and it was an apt rhyme… ‘Johnny-Rocky’. And he (John) is a big fan of the Rocky film series, so he loved the title. But Sunir was quite apprehensive about it. (Laughs)
JA: I think the time clicked for all of us.
NK: That is also an integral part of the story. Like the neighbour’s girl, a kid who always calls him ‘handsome’. He doesn’t talk to anyone, doesn’t interact with anyone. So she keeps talking to him and saying, ‘handsome, call me’, ‘handsome, get me this, get me that’. So the word ‘handsome’ works as a synonym for the film. Then there is another world, he is a very strong man, he is a kill machine, he is a tough man. In that world, people call him ‘Rocky’. So both words were apt and that’s how ‘Rocky Handsome’ became the title of our film.
BOI: This film is an official remake of a Korean film. What changes have you made to adapt it to the Indian audience?
NK: When you make a remake it has to match the taste of Indian audience. You have to think pan-India. Then there are tons of changes you have to make so that the film appeals to Indian tastes and sensibilities. It’s not easy to take a film and make it in Hindi. You can’t just translate the language and make a film… the emotions and the background, every aspect, has to do justice to the film. We all want the film to do well in West Bengal and in Gujarat, in Jaipur, the South, everywhere.
Like, when I did Drishyam, it was a Malayalam film. Vajir (Singh), remember, I had spoken to you about it? I had to change the story completely as I was catering to 24 states. It was a region-specific film, and we made a whole lot of changes to make it a pan-India film. If you are making an official adaptation, you need to spend time on the story and give it its due respect. Since someone else has made the film, we should not go wrong.
BOI: John, you play a dual role in the film, in terms of being the actor and also its producer. How did you juggle both tasks and where did you make the switch?
JA: To be very honest, when the script came to me, I wanted to be part of this film as the producer. Sunir and I were fortunate enough to have an understanding on the things we wanted to do. Then I became the actor in the film. And Sunir actively produced the film. After that, with the marketing strategies, all of us stepped in.
BOI: There is a lot of hand-to-hand combat in the film. Where did that come from and was there a lot of thought that went into making that decision?
NK: Definitely, a lot of thought went into the action. John and I made Force in 2010 and it did pretty well. And we used a particular kind of action. For this film we needed to use that action as a yardstick and ask ourselves how we could come up with a new kind of action. We finally concluded that that best action India had not yet seen was hand-to-hand combat. We decided to use a mixture of martial arts in a serious zone. We didn’t want to use cars or villains flying in the air. I am not saying that is wrong; I did that in Lai Bhaari but I wanted to showcase a new form of action. That’s how we locked the action.
It was Sunir who mentioned this team in Thailand who did this kind of martial arts. He showed us their show reel, and after watching it, I told him to call them. They are called Zaika Stunts; Kesha is the main guy, who teaches. I told him about my film, the story and the kind of action I wanted. He asked for a week’s time after which he would send us a video. He went back and choreographed five action sequences that I wanted in a particular style. They shot it with their fighters and sent it to me. Then I met John and told him, ‘You have to do this.’
JA: (Cuts in) And I was, like, you want me to do all this?
NK: (Laughs) Yes, that’s when the hard work started for him (John), more than for me. I was adamant about the action as it looked brilliant but I was also wondering how he would achieve it. He went to Thailand and attended a rigorous workshop there. He totally learnt it and even got injured in the process. But when he returned, he looked like a macho man. Then the team too came over here. But when we started shooting, we had to train an Indian team of fighters and an Indian fight master because the film is Indian. It’s been a labour of hard work. We set out to achieve something and we have.
SK: Not to take any credit away from Nishi but whenever we made suggestions, he would only buy into the one where he saw logic. All three of us were working for the film. I was familiar with Zaika Stunts because I had worked with them in Billa 2, where it was all hand-to-hand combat. He is also a very meticulous director, which is why John went to Thailand to learn the action, so that once we started shooting, he would know the moves.
BOI: Nishikant, you play the main villain in the film. First, how did you step in? And, second, will we see you two doing some action together?
NK: That’s the trick I played, I write my own scripts. (Laughs)
BOI: But wasn’t your casting very last-minute?
NK: Yes, I was cast purely by accident. One of my friends has a very unique look; he is not an actor but his look caught my eye. I approached him and he agreed but developed cold feet and backed out. I couldn’t get angry with him as he was a friend. Since we were about to start shooting in Hyderabad, I didn’t have the time to return to Mumbai and audition again.
Also, every time a film of mine releases, I shave my head and Lai Bhaari had released four days earlier. The moment I walked onto the sets of Rocky Handsome, my assistant said, ‘Sir, aap hi kyun nahi kar lete?’ I gave it a lot of thought but somebody had to play the part, and we were to start shooting in two days. I had dates from all the actors. It is very scary to act and direct at the same time and would not do it again. So, things kind of just fell into place.
JA: When I first time saw him in his get-up, I couldn’t recognise him and wondered whether he was the one who would be going up against me in the film. Suddenly, I realised it was Nishi! When you see Nishi in the film, you will realise he is outstanding. He has a killer look on screen. I think it is even more exciting to have an antagonist that is so dangerous.
BOI: Sunir, were you excited as you got the villain for free?
SK: I was very excited. The action was sorted, we had a hero and everything was moving as planned. So when he agreed to play the villain, I was happy that we had saved money and also because he is a very good actor. Plus there was no need to be worry about dates. You don’t see him doing any action but what he does is outstanding. He had been true to the character while creating it, so when he had to play the part, he did full justice to it. A lot of people who have watched the rushes of the film ask, ‘Who’s this guy?’ Imagine their surprise when we tell them it’s Nishi!
BOI: This is the second film for both of you. How much easier is it to work together, second time around?
NK: John and I have been friends since 2006-2007 and had been planning to do a film together since then. Then Force happened, and we shot for around 100 days. We were like husband and wife! When you hit it off, you form a solid friendship. So, after Force, we became very close pals.
That’s why, when we worked together this time, we dispensed with the formalities. For instance, he didn’t have to treat me as a director and I didn’t have to treat him as an actor or producer. After every shot, he knew if I needed another take by simply reading my expression. Since he knew what I wanted from every shot, I didn’t have to narrate entire scenes to him, just two lines were sufficient. It’s the kind of relationship that grows over time. It’s been a decade.
JA: What he said is very interesting because, when he used to walk from
assist to the sets after one take, I knew whether he was okay with it or not from his expression. We were on auto-pilot. There is a scene that only Nishi and I could have pulled off the way we did. It’s our song Aye khuda, where I am crying. We must have shot it in just five minutes because the light was fading. Shruti (Haasan) was flying out on that day, so we had very little time. So we shot that song in five minutes and today everyone says it’s looking very nice. The credit goes to the director as he knows how to handle me.
BOI: John, you are both an actor and a producer. How do you decide which films to act in and which to produce?
JA: There are two verticals – content and the director. These are the most two important factors in any film. You need to get your content right and get a fantastic director. I have been fortunate in this regard.
With Rocky Handsome, I have Sunir as a co-producer and he has been the driving force behind this film. And I can say on Sunir’s behalf as well that we are very lucky to have got Nishi.
BOI: Is it very difficult to get Nishikant?
JA: There are only a few honest directors left and Nishi is one of them. He is very honest, he is clean, he is unadulterated, he has not been corrupted by the system. I say this as an actor because I have seen directors who are corrupted; they move on; they fall badly; and then they move away. Nishi is not corrupted, which explains his track record, his credibility, and the kind of films he directs.
BOI: John, you have been labelled as an ‘action star’. Does that worry you?
JA: In our country, we are terrified of being typecast. So, let me put it this way. Internationally, the biggest action stars are stars who can barely do any action, honestly but they have the best attitude. Whether Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger… Bruce Willis saying ‘Go ahead, make my day’; or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line ‘I’ll be back’.
NK: (Cuts in) Even Vin Diesel.
JA: Yes, Vin Diesel, also The Rock. Being an ‘action star’, I take pride in getting the attitude of the action hero right. There is a certain physicality that comes to play but it also calls for the right attitude. I think that is most important.
BOI: Do you deliberately seek out roles that are not action-based?
JA: No, I go purely by content. If the content excites me, I will do it. Honestly, I am a big fan of slapstick comedy, which is why I liked doing Welcome Back. I love it when an immigration officer at the airport says to me, ‘Sir, kya hasaya apne, woh kabristan wala scene main itna maza aya.’ But, as a producer, I concentrate on content. The content should be credible because you are either an actor who is a flash-in-the-pan producer who centres everything on himself or you are a producer who creates content for other actors. I am probably the latter kind because l like to create content for other actors, I like to present Nishi with a script where he says, ‘The guy we cast will fit in really well in it.’ I would like to be a producer on movies like that.
BOI: You did Vicky Donor.
JA: Yes, and I would like to do a film like that in future too.
SK: When this film releases, people will say ‘we haven’t seen this kind of action before’. I don’t think we have had a Hindi film with real hand to hand action. What is going to surprise people is the emotional quotient of the film. I don’t think I have seen a film where action and emotions coexist.
NK: I mean, just watch Rahat’s (Fateh Ali Khan) song. I think that’s the scene he is talking about, the one when the song starts.
SK: It is not just an action film. Action is definitely an integral part of the film but it is very emotionally charged too. In fact, the handful of friends of mine who have watched the film came out heavy hearted and said, ‘Arey tune toh bola tha action, yeh toh badi emotional film hai.’ The emotional content is very important as it sustains the action. Otherwise, bam bam action after while just falls flat.
BOI: Since the songs and promos of the film have released, what kind of feedback have you received?
JA: I know this is going to sound very clichéd but I am very grateful that everybody who has watched it loves the teaser, the trailer, the songs, the digital campaign, the press. There is nothing that people have not liked. It is scary when I have to make a statement and say, ‘With due respect to the teaser and trailer, the film is far better than this.’ I hope people don’t think I am being overconfident because it is just my belief in the film. I have my co-producer Sheel Kumar, who is hard as nails and was ready to smash the monitor while watching the film. He stopped and he cried. When a film can get you down, you know you have done a good job.
NK: We have done an incredible job.
BOI: And you are lucky to get a solo release.
NK: Actually, we were very adamant that we would release on March 25. In fact, when we started, there were two or three films… there was Superman and another one.
JA: But we stuck to our guns.
NK: We said that, with due respect to the other films, we were very confident about our film as long as we were not clashing with very big Hindi films. In this case, we are releasing alongside Superman V Batman: Dawn of Justice.That film has a niche audience and we will still have the entire family audience, so it will not impact us. I have a very strong feeling that apart from watching Superman, they will still watch this film. Yes, it is good to have a solo release.
SK: Coming back to marketing, if five people say nice things about the film to John or me, we would feel happy because of the blood and sweat that went into making the film. But I think the most unadulterated feedback comes from one section – the YouTube views for our films. Our average ratings is in the range of 96likes and 4 dislikes. I have watched a lot of campaigns but it is very difficult for a film to continuously score that well at the teaser level. After the teaser, the trailer releases and you go from 90 seconds to 125 seconds. I think that speaks for itself because it is not unadulterated, it is not fabricated.
Second, we also believe that the exhibitor is in closest proximity to the audience. So we monitor exhibitor feedback, and sometimes they say, ‘Arey woh poster lagao.’ We take that feedback into account because we are distributing the film on our own and are directly in touch with them.
JA: Sunir is right. Even the feedback from the trade is very encouraging. Let’s put it this way, we are on a positive track and I don’t think, at least in terms of our strategy, we have taken a misstep. There was a poster that I liked and I said ‘this is the best poster’.
NK: (Cuts in) It’s our favourite poster.
JA: It was my favourite poster and it came out now, so I was, like, next time I’ll do what my gut tells me. So Sunir’s reaction was, I was saving the best for last.
SK: I was driving and I had parked my car to send John a text message. The guy in the car next to mine said, ‘Koi baat nahi, aap kyun takleef le rahein hai, ghar jake kar dena message. I was, like, ‘No.’ We had just left and, I am not kidding, this is what I did, I was typing, ‘John, there is a strategy…’ For every strategy, there is a long-term, and a medium- to short-term thing. You have to build your campaign and peak at the right time.
JA: This poster has become epic in North India and has been loved by the audience. People are crazy about it. And it was my choice, but Sunir didn’t listen to me. Half the things should have come a little earlier.
SK: Sometimes, we go wrong; all of us do, so it’s fine. What is important is to stay focused on the feedback.
JA: (Laughs) No, he has been absolutely fantastic!
SK: No, I am sure something will go wrong, this is my disclaimer… that something will go wrong and he will come back and say ‘I told you,’ right?
BOI: What is Azure Entertainment like as a production house?
NK: Superb and we had a lot of fun. Honestly, Sunir has been very supportive because, in between, I did Drishyam. After I had shot 70 per cent of Rocky Handsome, there was a month-long gap and Ajay (Devgn) asked me if I would do Drishyam. I asked John if it would be all right to postpone the film by two months and he said ‘Yes, no problem.’ I was, like, ‘Drishyam will be a quickie, ho jayegi and I will immediately resume Rocky Handsome, I promise.’ And he was all right with that.
In this business, this is the kind of support you need. This is the kind of thing that makes the rumour mills spin. People start talking, ‘Arey yeh kya ho gaya, kaise ho gaya, yeh kyun rukhi hai.’ But, here, I requested two months and fortunately Sunir supported me. In fact, we had a big set… fortunately, John didn’t get into the production side because he was concentrating on acting. Sunir hardly visited the set, I think he must have done that five or six times only.
JA: Twice in Mumbai.
NK: He came on the set twice and was always on the phone.
SK: We had people who were experts at their jobs. I don’t believe that the producer should be visible. I chose what value I could add after the script was locked and after everything was confirmed. There are people who are handling specific things. As a director, Nishi knew exactly how things would pan out 24 months ago, when we started the shoot. He is fantastic.
NK: When the break happened, he said, ‘Okay’. Then he came back and would tell me, ‘Meri film, meri film.’
SK: John used to say ‘Welcome Back, Welcome Back.’ (Laughs). But you work as a team. Once you started working, it is important to give each other space. They knew what they were doing.
JA: The two of us would literally message each other 10 times a day. We discussed the digital campaign way before it started.
NK: After the film was ready, all three of us sat for three to four hours planning what we would do till March 25. Everything had gone according to plan.
SK: Except that we didn’t go into details about the poster… which poster would release and when.
JA: No, but we worked as a team.
SK: When two or three people together oversee a film, there is a particular vision, a particular story and a particular approach. Obviously, we are handling marketing and distribution but he has a background in marketing. It would be stupid not to take inputs from him. After all, it is everybody’s film. Besides, one has to improvise all the time because new things keep cropping up. It is good to see the lead actor of your film spreading that kind of enthusiasm.
BOI: So, will we see Rocky Handsome 2 in the coming years?
JA: I swear that, on the way here, I asked Nishi the same question. Without batting an eye, he said, ‘Yes.’ I asked why and he said ‘because now Rocky has to solve larger problems in the world.’
SK: As far as we are concerned, we are very clear that, whatever the numbers are, those numbers are going to be on the opening day. People will watch the film and say good things about it. I have no doubts in terms of the likeability of the film. We don’t have any doubts about the emotional and action aspects of the film, the songs are doing well. Sometimes, to do the bigger things, you need to push the envelope. This is our first film and we want our film to be grander, the best in action etc.
So we pushed the envelope and have tried to make this a franchise character. It will not be the same kind of franchise like Jurassic Park 1, 2, 3 or Dhoom 1, 2 and 3, where everything is different. As far as Rocky Handsome is concerned, the name ‘Rocky Handsome’ is a franchisable character.