Team Tere Bin Laden: Dead Or Alive – director Abhishek Sharma, producer Pooja Shetty Deora, and actors Manish Paul, Sikander Kher and Pradhuman Singh – speak to Team Box Office India about their upcoming spin-off to Tere Bin Laden
Box Office India (BOI): Let’s start with how the idea of the spin-off of Tere Bin Laden came about. After the first film, you were not planning on making another instalment, right?
Abhishek Sharma (AS): I am really glad because you are the first person to call it a ‘spin-off’, not a ‘sequel’. We were never thinking of making a sequel, at least not me. When I was writing the first Tere Bin Laden, I was not thinking about continuing the story because you can’t really take it forward after Ali’s (Zafar) character is in America. When Osama (Bin Laden) died, there was this prominent journalist who wrote an article saying that since Bin Laden was dead, the chances of its sequel is dead too. I guess that was the starting point. Bin Laden’s death was so prominent that it not only affected America or the Middle East or the terrorist world but Bollywood too, as we are all reacting to a very small film. Tere Bin Laden was an independent film, which was worth barely a million dollars. It wasn’t a film that could be linked to a global political game. But it did and that was the point.
So I started thinking about a spin-off. Basically, this spin-off is action and reaction to Osama’s death. So this is the post-Bin Laden world… Just like the first Tere Bin Laden was about the post-9/11 world, this spin-off starts after the death of Osama. I must say here that this film has strong parallels with the Hollywood film, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.
Basically, there are three forces – Good, represented by Manish (Paul); Bad, which is Sikander (Kher); and Ugly, not in terms of looks but in the sense of the convoluted point of view, which is of the terrorist represented by Khaleeli played by Piyush Mishra. Osama is symbolically the pot of gold in that particular analogy. That’s what the film is all about… the post-Osama world and how these three forces descend on our pot of gold, one trying to prove he is alive, one trying to prove he is dead and one, like myself, who is a director, trying to make his living out of it… just like me, who is still cashing in on Osama’s death!
BOI: Given that the topic is Osama Bin Laden, it would spark a serious mood. How did you bring in a zany feeling, a comic take and then add satire to it?
AS: I think my problem is, which Pooja here knows, that I don’t have a filter in my head. So when I am in a certain situation, I laugh and look at the funny side of it. So when I read the newspaper, every day, I tend to read between the lines to find what is funny. I think the creation of Osama Bin Laden and America’s war on terror is very funny, in a way. Someone once said that comedy comes from the things you see with your brain and tragedy comes from seeing things with your heart. I don’t see things with my heart, I just analyse them.
BOI: Pooja, as a producer, what made you back both films?
Pooja Shetty Deora (PSD): When I heard the one-liner of the first part in 2007, when Abhishek told me this is what he wanted to make, I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. But I also sat up in my chair and said this is fantastic provided we can cast someone who looks exactly like Osama Bin Laden and we are able to pull off that part of the film.
AS: (Cuts in) And, for the longest time, they pursued me to say yes to playing Osama in the film.
PSD: According to me, Abhishek is one of the finest creative minds I have encountered in a long time. At that time, obviously, we didn’t know this as he was making his first film. When I was looking at the screenplay and also at the way it was shot, I realised that it was a difficult film to make. But its success and the support we received from the people who saw the film encouraged us to make the second film. The second one was actually an idea which we discussed at the Goa Film Festival. Pradhuman was also there and we talked about it. We were actually working on another screenplay together at that time. Together, I mean they were writing…
AS: (Cuts in) Yes, Pradhuman was doing the dialogue for that one.
PSD: So we were talking and suddenly Abhishek said ‘I have this idea’ and it was the only possible spin-off idea that could have come out of a film like Tere Bin Laden. I am quite happy and proud to be associated with a film that is not a run-of-the-mill, low-level comedy. It is very intelligent and it goes into a space which is absolutely outrageous and yet manages to appeal to a larger segment of our society, the Hindi film watching audience, without making it either too intellectual or dumbed down.
BOI: Coming to the actors… Pradhuman, you are present in both parts and you are the most important link as you play Osama in both films. What were the challenges you faced and what was your reference point for the character?
Pradhuman Singh (PS): As they said, this whole thing started back in 2007, when I was working in Kolkata. Abhishek called me and said, ‘I am making a film, will you be interested in it?’ I asked him what I would have to do and if I would be assisting him. He said, ‘No, you have to act.’ I came to Mumbai and he showed me a video and said that this is what I want you to do, play Osama Bin Laden. I was, like, ‘No man, I don’t want to do this!’ I freaked out and said I was not going to be part of a biopic on Osama Bin Laden and that too in my first film, which would then become my last too! Abhishek narrated me a one-liner and told me that I have to play an Osama lookalike and that he was a poultry farmer from Pakistan. That is what got my attention and I thought it was very interesting. I think Vikram Gaikwad, the make-up artist did a fabulous job. A lot of credit goes to him as he was the first person to give Abhishek the confidence that I could look like Osama. And that test shoot kind of got us there. When I look back, I thank Abhishek and Pooja also because it is one of the finest characters that has come alive on the big screen. Nobody had imagined anything like this. Not because I have played it but because I can compare this character to a Gabbar or probably Borat in some sense, and what Sacha Baron Cohen does because it is as big and he created it.
BOI: How different was your life after you played the character?
PS: That’s a very good question. It was very different.
AS: (Cuts in) In the second part, he was the star. (Laughs)PS: (Laughs) Yes, in the second part I gave them a hard time. On a serious note, I believe that in Mumbai, and especially in the film industry, you have to go through your share of struggles. You don’t get anything on a platter. I thought my struggling days would be over once this film released and then, all of a sudden, this film came about and it was a massive hit. I am meeting the who’s who of the industry, thanks again to Pooja and Aarti (Shetty). Everybody is telling me what a great actor I am. I thought I would do my next film with Anurag Kashyap or probably Dibakar Banerjee, YRF is not that far off either, six pack abs… here it goes. Get a PR person and get a nice haircut. I thought that’s the deal now. But none of that happened, to be honest, except the accolades that I received.
Sikander Kher (SK): And the haircut. (Laughs)
PS: …which was expensive, at the time. All my life, I went to a barber who charged Rs.80 to cut my hair and now, all of a sudden, Aalim (Hakim) takes Rs.2,000 for the same haircut. They cut my hair in such a fancy way, with clips and all that…
PS: Yes, and they give you hair products that also cost Rs.2,000.
SK: With free coffee!
PS: Green tea, not coffee. But, honestly, nothing of that sort happened. I didn’t get much work. But I think it is not the industry’s fault. They didn’t know who I was and they just couldn’t picture me in any part. I did get a couple of offers but unfortunately some of my films didn’t take off. And the ones that did, I wished hadn’t. My struggle started after my first film.
One great thing is that I am respected wherever I go. As an actor, people look up to me and tell me that I am a brilliant actor. That helps keep the fight going every day. It makes me want to be better at my craft. I still have that zeal. If I didn’t, I might as well go back and get back to my job, which I was also pretty happy with. But I am getting there again thanks to Abhishek and Pooja, who gave me an opportunity to write also, so that helps.
AS: This time around, he came on board also as the screenplay and dialogue writer. We created this beast together. That is something I am very proud of because I have always called him my protégé as I have launched him as an actor and now he has also written a film for me for the first time. He created the character in Tere Bin Laden and now he has recreated the character and this time it was easy for him because it was in his DNA. This film is in my DNA too, so to recreate Tere Bin Laden or that mood is easier now for both of us. But for me to crack the story and for him to write the screenplay and the dialogue was tougher than last time because this film has a very complicated structure, which we needed to simplify because the audience cannot see something they have to intellectually analyse. I think that is one of the major contributions and achievements of this guy.
BOI: Introduce us to your ‘good’ guy and ‘bad’ guy. How did the rest of the casting come about?
AS: In the world in which this film is set, Ali cannot play Sharma, the part Manish is playing. This film is not autobiographical but it’s based on me. So Aarti, Pooja and I were wondering whom to cast. We wanted a fresh actor. You need a certain energy for this character of the protagonist because he is a wannabe and also there is no love angle in the film as this guy is so focused on his work. Usually, when I write, I don’t think of an actor. One night, Pooja called and she asked me to switch on my television and watch Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, and she said, ‘Just watch the show. This guy Manish Paul is crazy.’
There was this other script we were working on and she thought this guy would suit one of the major characters in that film, but not the protagonist. That film is called Sharma Ji Ka Atom Bomb, which we will hopefully make. For the first time in my life, I watched that show, celebrities dancing and judges clapping. Suddenly, in that boring set-up, there was this guy doing his bit. I called Pooja and told her that I love this guy. Then I said I didn’t want him for Sharma Ji Ka Atom Bomb but the lead in the Tere Bin Laden spin-off. She took a minute to reply and then agreed. We fixed up a meeting on a Sunday. He was supposed to meet me, and this is a guy who balances television, advertisements and weddings. So he forgot.
MP: (Cuts in) That is the only meeting in my life that I didn’t keep. He called me and said in an angry tone, ‘Hello Manish.’ I said, ‘Haanji, Manish.’ He replied, agitated, ‘Haanji, Manish kya! Main office mein baitha hoon, mainAbhishek bol raha hoon yaar.’ I started wondering which Abhishek, maybe Bachchan, so he told me Abhishek Sharma and that he had been waiting for me in his office for a long time. I apologised and told him that I didn’t know about the meeting. He angrily disconnected the phone, saying we will meet later. I called my manager and fired him, and then messaged Abhishek to meet me again.
AS: We met the next day. I always get my writer on board and since Pradhuman was also playing a character in the film, they jammed for three hours. Manish was brilliant and his audition was done in 30 minutes. But I was greedy and wanted to see him perform and also main apni bhadaas nikal raha tha for him being late. (Laughs)
MP: They gave me a scene and kept making me do more scenes. Then I thought, now yeh badla le rahe hain. (Laughs)
AS: He kept performing for three hours and I called Pooja and told her we had found our guy. And now Sikander… and that’s another story! Our problem is that we want to do things that are not easy. So when we were writing this character, he is called David Dosomething, an American agent, and I wanted the Texan American accent for the part, aur jitna right wing aur racist hota, utna acha. Then there is a transformation in the character when he comes to India on an undercover operation to get his Osama Bin Laden, and for that, he has to be a Punjabi guy. So he becomes David Chaddha. Initially, I was thinking that we would cast two different actors and match their faces. But I kept bumping into Sikander at parties.
One day, Pooja told me that Sikander had a very good accent and that I should consider casting him. She was talking about only one of the Davids (Chaddha) and suddenly we looked at each other and she was, like, he does an American accent and I was, like, haan… and then it was an ‘eureka’ moment for both of us. We were, like, can one person do both characters? That had never happened before. We thought he could do it but who would rein in his energy because he is always so excited.We called him and again we did an audition and he was very good with it. Surprisingly, his American accent was much better than his Punjabi accent. I was, like, you are Sikander Kher… what happened to your Punjabi? And he was, like, I don’t know Punjabi. We figured we could teach him Punjabi, Pradhuman also helped with the accent. After that audition, Pradhuman and I were sitting in the car and we were sitting in silence for 10 minutes, and then Pradhuman suddenly said, ‘I am nervous, this actor will upstage all of us, he is a very dangerous actor.’
PS: He is amazing.
BOI: Manish and Sikander, tell us about being part of the spin-off.
MP: Honestly, part two is very different from part one. Several people have been thinking of it as a sequel but it is a spin-off. When I received the script, I didn’t care what was going to happen in part two; I was just happy to be signed as the hero. For the first 10 days, all I did was party after signing the film and then everybody told me I should think about the pressure because part one was a huge hit and Ali was the hero, and there would be comparisons. That’s when I began to think about it seriously. I think it is the first time a film has been made in this way. Some people think it is based on Osama’s life but there is no Osama in this film… only his lookalike, who is Sharma’s find.
Abhishek makes you rehearse a lot and he inspects everything so closely that it makes you want to ask him if he can see ghosts! He wants everything in order. For 20 days, from 11am to 4pm, we rehearsed constantly. I think we actors were so grateful for those workshops because by the time we went on the sets, we all knew our scenes inside out. We also improvised together and that was very nice because it didn’t become just about one actor or character; it was about the entire film.
BOI: What about you, Sikander?
SK: Tere Bin Laden has been the best experience of my life. Before this, I had done five films and they are of the serious kind. Also, about seven people watched those films and they were my family, who then disowned me! (Laughs) Honestly, I always wanted to do comedy my whole life. Pooja and I go way back, much longer than I have known this blokes. I have always been quite insane.
PSD: I have known Sikander for over 15 years. The casting of Manish was while Aarti (Shetty, sister) and I were watching Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa in Aarti’s room. We were watching JDJ and we called Abhishek, telling him that we had to look at Manish as he is amazing. A few weeks later, at night, Sikku, Aarti and I were at my home and he was doing these imitations.
SK: I was making stupid faces.
PSD: Yes, we were laughing and rolling off the bed. I called Abhishek while he was doing this and I said, ‘Listen, please audition Sikku for Chaddha’s role’ because Abhishek never casts without auditioning. Sikku does justice to comedy like nobody else. Sorry to interrupt…
SK: No, not at all! Acchi baaton ke liye karte rehna chahiye. Now I will tell you how it happened. We were sitting in the room together and I was doing my usual stuff and for years I have been doing that as Aarti and Pooja’s home is like my home. I was doing my thing and they were laughing and suddenly Pooja looks at Aarti and she suddenly goes, ‘Chaddha.’ And I was, like, ‘What do you mean, ‘Chaddha’? She asked if Abhishek had called me I said, ‘Yes, like every day!’ She was, like, ‘No, I mean Sharma.’ So I was, like, ‘No, Abhishek has not called me.’ And my antennae went up and I was, like, ‘Yes, work is coming from somewhere.’ Suddenly, I became serious and I asked her to give me his number but she was, like, ‘No he will call you tomorrow.’ And, sure enough, he called me the next day and I knew him because he had made the first part and then we used to meet at these celebration parties.
I met Abhishek and he gave me the one-liner and for the longest time I wanted to do comedy, I mean look at the way we are, look at the way Abhishek is. He is a very weird person! I mean, look at his get-up. Then he comes up with strange comedies. He has an amazing sense of humour and the one-liner was genuinely funny. I really wanted to do something crazy. So he told me about the character and I was, like, this is it. I want to do it, come what may, because a role like this has never been written in cinema. I mean, it is such a rare chance where a brown guy has to play a white guy who becomes a brown guy. The first thing I did when I entered the audition room was to tell Abhishek that I didn’t know any lines but he then told me that he didn’t want me to do the lines but rather just act it out, and Pradhuman was there too. That was the most amazing audition and I felt something was happening. Pradhuman, being an actor and also writing… and for him to be part of this film and give away this awesome role to somebody else… he was just so helpful and generous and I say that for Manish and I say that for every actor in this film. I was so lucky to be part of the film. I discovered myself as an actor because of the confidence they had in me. Actually, I don’t like saying so many good things about Abhishek because he literally looks at you like ghosts are roaming around but he is so much more than that. This happened because of everybody’s support, 15 days of workshops and we nailed it. And I wouldn’t have got this opportunity if it wasn’t for Pooja and Aarti. Abhishek has given me the confidence in life. You go through so many things in life and you don’t succeed and you have grown up in this industry and you are around the biggest stars. I mean, I have literally grown up among the kings of this industry and you yearn for it. For me, I was lucky to have my father and mother, they always say stuff bluntly and they always told me that I have to be strong and it is a tough place and it is never going to be easy. Aditya Chopra always says, ‘Dude, if you want to be in this industry and if you want to stay here, then treat it like a boxing ring. You will get knocked out but you’ve got to get up again and when you decide you can’t take any more knocks, then you are done.’ So somewhere in my head, I believed I was going to keep doing something or the other. I literally owe Abhishek, I am a different person today and people who have known me for a long time know that I was not always like this. But when I look back at life, I don’t regret anything. It was the path to me becoming the man that I am today and a lot of it comes from the confidence that this man instilled in me.
PS: (Cuts in) His confidence and his looks. (Laughs)
SK: You sent me my money, right?AS: Yes, I have. (Laughs)SK: Even our promotions are so much fun, I look forward to just hanging out with everybody from the film. Just look at the energy in the room that we all share!