Ajit Thakur, CEO, Trinity Pictures, Director Amole Gupte, and lead actor Sunny Gill, talk about their upcoming film, SNIFF, in an exclusive interview with Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): What made you give your film an intriguing title like SNIFF?
Amole Gupte (AG): SNIFF has nothing to do with drugs as it is a children’s film. It’s got to do with your senses, not just about sniffing and the nose. I think it’s a clutter-breaking sound and it suits the content of the film. There is a value system which is opening out, the curiosity and all. Dekho koshish karne walo ki kabhi haar nahi hoti.
Sunny Gill (SG): Sir, you said koshish karne walo ki kabhi haar nahi hoti… aur mehnat ka fal hamesha meetha hota hain.
AG: Which fruit?
SG: We have worked so hard to make this film. We have worked so hard that it will be loved by the audience too.
Ajit Thakur (AT): You will understand the title in the context of the film. We are making a film for young Indians, so since we are not making a dumb film, why give it a dumb title? We discussed the title for a long time and it finally came from Amole sir. When you watch the teaser, you will understand the layers it has. We are just not targeting seven-year-olds; our target is from seven to 70. You get a sense of SNIFF from the genre we are talking about. We have tried to create India’s first spy superhero. He is a spy and a superhero.
SG: A hero who can catch a thief with his sense of smell, like a dog can.
BOI: Trinity Pictures believes in making franchise films. Where does SNIFF figure?
AT: This is actually our first franchise and there is a reason it is our first project. Nothing like this has been done in Hindi cinema before and yet it is as big a franchise as a franchise can be. We have Tiger Shroff in A Flying Jatt and Hrithik Roshan as a superhero in Krrish. It just happens that the protagonist is young.
The collaboration was very simple. We have set up a writers’ room where we develop subjects. There are three subjects that interested us and this was one of them. And we could think of only one director to helm it since nobody directs a children film like he does.
We presented those ideas to Amole sir, and he picked up this story and said, ‘Ismein maal hain’ and then he started working on the screenplay. That’s how it all started. So he was the only director we had thought of approaching. I have no idea whom we would have approached if he had said no.
This is a huge franchise as we are already thinking of a second and third film. We have already started working on the comics and a game.
BOI: How was it working with Trinity Pictures’ writers room?
AG: It was a bull run. To have so many young minds under your umbrella… just listening to their sound. And everybody is wanting to focus on one value system and that is creativity. Nobody is ‘productifying’ it, it is content that is supported and sponsored. The way Ajit is doing it is great. People usually say things like, ‘Mera writer aa raha hain.’ Bhai, hain kaun tera writer? The Hindi film industry has lost poets, shayars, because you don’t give respect to your writer. You say, ‘Mera writer aa gaya.’ Bhai uska naam hain. There was a time when Raj Kapoor’s friends were Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Shailender Singh. Guru Dutt’s close friend was Abrar Alvi. These were the people who used to create content and this was the kind of relationship a director-writer or composer used to share, one of love and respect. These are the people who will give you the laddoo…
SG: (Cuts in) Laddoo…. (Laughs) Sir was very funny and he used to entertain us so much. If I asked him, what is your name? He would say ‘Mera naam frog hain.’
AT: Working in a corporate office is different but working with him was a totally different thing… The way he is and the kids are, it was totally different. So Amole sir had cast 100 kids in the film but not through any audition, it was all through workshops. He gives them space. We cannot shoot on Saturday and Sunday. They cannot miss school. It’s like a Master Class that he conducts with great passion. One should attend the workshops he does with these kids.
BOI: When you work with kids, you have lots of raw energy. How did you manage to shoot with them?
AG: Because I am a bully. They understand me, I understand them. They love me, I love them. I am not an uncle; I am your friend. That’s how I work with them. I don’t manage them, I hate managing people. You manage people when you work with elders. This world I am working in is very honest and simple. They understand my honesty, I understand their honesty. And believe me, there is still hope for honesty. When you sit with them and chat with them, you can literally hear the honesty. We never worked with a script in hand. We never had a script on the sets. We are halfway through the film and he has never once seen the script. He remembers all the names of Pokemon, and that’s how we work in the film.
SG: Yes, I know Pikachu…
BOI: Sunny, tell us about the first time you met your director and what that was like.
SG: We met him in the workshop.
AG: It was at the workshop. I had called random children and there were 54 of them in my room. We accommodated them in every available empty room.
SG: And we used to play football whenever we got the time. We played lots of games on that first day.
AT: It was like a one big fun classroom where Amole sir was the teacher.
AG: I can’t ask kids to give auditions. How would it look for a child to say his name, phone number and other details? How can a single child be surrounded and hounded by adults? We turned it around right after Taare Zameen Par.
BOI: While you were doing these workshops, why did you choose Sunny from all the kids?
AG: I can’t choose; the child chooses himself. You’re just an instrument. I just knew without us exchanging a single line. I had received his image and I knew he was the one.
AT: It was my older son’s birthday and Amole sir sent me a video message in which he wished my son for his birthday. In his message, he said, ‘He is your hero.’ I showed this birthday wish to Jyoti and Kishore (Lulla).
AG: When I met him, he spoke with his heart. I loved that about him and didn’t want to taint that innocence.
BOI: Did you make up your lines on the sets?
AG: You don’t know how quickly they learn and understand what you say. You say it once, you say it twice, and the third time, the child has understood it. It could be 7-8 lines in a row but they own it then.
SG: Sir was very chilled. He used to say, we don’t have to catch a train; we all have to say our lines with patience. He used to look for natural expressions, he wanted natural reactions.
BOI: Sunny, which was your favorite day when shooting with sir?
SG: What do you mean? Every day was my favorite day when I was shooting with sir. But the most favourite day was my birthday and I got to celebrate it with Amole sir. The best thing about sir is that if we want a break, all we have to do is whisper it in his ear and he gives us a break. He told us that we should feel free to approach him if we need a break. But I haven’t asked sir for a break to date.
AG: (Cuts in) I feel very sad about that. I feel sad that he is carrying baggage from somewhere else into my life. And I can’t tolerate it and it is unpardonable, that kind of pressure of not having any control over your daily life. That is not good.
SG: Sir, I haven’t asked for a break as I have the energy to work. If I didn’t have the energy, I would have told you. Still, sir has done so much for me. He had booked a hotel room for me on location so that I didn’t miss out on my sleep. I had the energy to work and I did my job properly because I got enough rest.
AT: Earlier, you asked about improvising the dialogue on the sets. I want to add that the beauty of all his kids is that they are a part of an organically growing story. So you don’t need to work very hard in terms of building the next sequence. It is such a natural, beautiful story that by the 20th minute, it’s guaranteed that you will feel like crying and feel for the character. The character grows taller and taller, organically.
When we started out, we didn’t intend to make a small film. This is our first franchise and there is a lot at stake for all of us. From the day we started to where we are headed, it has become a bigger film as sir lets the story and the characters grow organically. There is a big action sequence and it is effortless. Nothing has been planned just for effect. In the end, you will see a hero who is larger than any hero I have ever seen.
BOI: Would you say that the way Amole is making this film is influencing the other projects that Trinity Pictures has?
AT: I think it is affecting me and I assume it will affect some of the things we will do. As far as the process of how to collaborate in writing goes, Amole Gupte has opened the door. Many people are saying, ‘Amole has picked up a subject from there’. So it has already given us a boost. So, Amole sir, for the first time, I am officially thanking you for giving a boost to an experiment in the lazy studio system.
There was a lot of discussion about the script. He came and presented and narrated a script to about 20 of us. It was one narration, so I called everybody, so there were a lot of inputs. I gave him all of them and about 20 days later, he came back and addressed every one of the questions but didn’t take any of our suggestions. He found his way to address them and came out stronger and stronger.
It was so tempting to make the film bigger as it was looking so big already. But he said, ‘No, don’t make it bigger, let the character and the story grow.’ Not only the making of the film and the production, but even in terms of how to develop a character for a franchise. Now we even have a comic book happening, a game and an animation query. I am sending everything to him because everything has to be built consistently on the same world.
For instance, if you enter the society where Sunny Gill’s character lives, you would want to be a part of that society. When you see his first challenge, you will feel for him. As the story unfolds, you will clap for him and by the end of it, I am hoping the audience will say, ‘Hey, one more!’
Amole sir makes one film in three years but I want him to make one film a year. This film could have been shot in 45 to 50 days but we are shooting it over seven to eight months because we are making sure nobody misses school and everybody works for six hours only. This is the only way it will work. Yes it is more difficult, more complex and more taxing but that is how it is.
It also makes it more fun, I mean look at this super-charged, hyper-charged eight-year-old we have here. So, yes, it had a lot of influence on Trinity and an incredible influence on me. So, thank you, officially, publically, for getting us to start with Trinity. And one thing we will acknowledge is that Sunny leaked by mistake that Amole sir makes a guest appearance in the film.
BOI: We definitely have an audience for children’s films in India but we still don’t make films for them.
AT: Yes, that is true. I think the last children’s film was Hawaa Hawaai and look how Hollywood is taking the market. We are just saying that we will make films for our youngsters. I think this film will appeal to 16-year-olds and 60-year-olds too.
AG: And there is a formula. In other countries, films for adults attract only adults but films with children’s content draw adult plus children. So, making a children’s film is a good business proposition in, say, Europe. But, in India, when an adult takes a child to watch a U/A film, they first think of their own entertainment and then the kid’s. So, when a film like I Am Kalam releases, parents don’t think that since a children’s film has released, let me take my child to watch it.
It is such a tricky business that I have decided never to fall into the trap of answering when I am asked whether I am a children’s filmmaker. They expect children’s films to have childish or over-the-top characters. So now if a film has childish things and is meant to be for kids an adult has no use to see it, this is their thinking because they don’t pay attention to their own children. Unfortunately, in India, communication is a one-way street between parents and their kids.
BOI: Conducting workshops is a good way to select child actors for your films but how do you go about casting for adult roles?
AG: I have been there, done that and been around forever, 30 years at least, so theatre.
AT: (Cuts in) Almost all the adult actors in our film are from theatre.
AG: It’s an adaptation of what I have seen. For instance, I have worked with an actor or have written for an actor. There are a few surprises you will get once we complete the film. It’s a completely out-of-the-box casting and I also have an assistant director who does casting for me. Besides, things are very easy today; all you have to do is download an acting piece by somebody. But, at the end of the day, I would rather audition the person to know what they can and cannot pull off.
BOI: Who are the adult actors in SNIFF?
AG: Of course, I didn’t dare audition the great Surekha Sikri, who plays his grandmother. She is awesome. Manmeet Singh, who plays his father, is also a very good actor who I auditioned. And I have cast according to the character’s DNA, so if a character is Punjabi, then I have cast a Punjabi actor. The film has a fabulous ensemble.
BOI: Have you already started working on the next instalment of SNIFF?
AT: We know that we want Amole sir to be a part of that one as well. Right now, we are already thinking about what part two and part three could be about but we won’t start writing till this one is over. Right now, there’s a lot more to be done on this one.
BOI: The film will release next year. Why release the first teaser now?
AT: Everyone is, like, why are you promoting the film six months before its release? We just want to put it out there that this is not a kid’s film but a spy superhero film. It is a very special film.
The last film we did this for was Bajirao Mastani, where we released the teaser in June and the film was a December release. I believe that films are larger than life and therefore you have to expose the audience to the film early enough for them to start making up their mind as there are trailers of other films releasing every month.
Second, this is a franchise so all we are trying to introduce the character and the concept of the film early enough and based on this, the rest will be revealed. I believe that the film needs this kind of showcasing and since this is a franchise, the character needs to be put out there. You will notice that Marvel is one studio that does it very regularly. Is it more expensive but we believe it is a special film for us so we are starting early.
It is a small film but we have built it on a large canvas. You will see that in the second teaser which we will hopefully put out in January, and as you see more of the content, it will intrigue people. The first teaser introduces Sniff and Sunny Gill and it introduces intrigue. It is about exploring and discovering the layers it has. For me, Harry Potter films are not children’s films; they are meant for everybody. In that sense, we want to create a whole world.
AG: And we have him here… our Hari Puttar. (Laughs)
AT: The interesting thing is that we want to create our own superhero genre. This film is of the spy genre with Indian sensibilities. When you watch the film, you will realise how novel the concept is. The concept makes for the superpower and for the spy but it doesn’t need VFX as it is based in a natural, real world. And that is what you will see in the film’s content. It has the emotional signature of Amole Gupte with a larger-than-life hero.
BOI: And what’s next for Trinity after SNIFF?
AT: SNIFF 2 and SNIFF 3. We have three other films too but I picked a que from the last interaction sir and I had. In December, our other film goes on the floors, a story between a man and an elephant, again, a very socially relevant film. But that’s an altogether different story.