As our country celebrates Independence Day next week, Batla House director-producer Nikkhil Advani, producer-actor John Abraham and lead actress Mrunal Thakur talk to Bhakti Mehta about the need to tell this story, the research behind it and the emotions in the national incident that caught their attention
Bhakti Mehta (BM): Nikkhil, you said that writer Ritesh Shah brought this script to you. When you read it, what was the first emotion that caught you?
Nikkhil Advani (NA): The first thing that came to my mind was that I did not know enough of it. I did not know enough things about the Batla House encounter. Yes, I did know a few things about it like there was an incident, an encounter that took place in 2008. I knew about the Delhi serial blasts, about the involvement of Indian Mujahideen and that some students had been targeted. I have certain biases myself but when I read the script that Ritesh brought, I asked myself if we are telling everything that needs to be told. I asked Ritesh about the kind of research he did and if there was something that he might have left out. Then we got down to it and then we thought maybe we had not said enough. We need to possibly balance it a little more. And it was very important for us to approach Batla House from several viewpoints, whether it is the encounter or anything else related to it. The reason behind that was that it was not just about the encounter; it is also about everything that happened after it. It was about three years of the life of a man who was the most decorated police officer in India and still remains that. And along with that, it was the story of a woman who was not just the wife of a decorated police officer, she was also a top anchor in a news channel. The story is about what happened to these people, how their lives changed, what happened to those five boys. These are the things that I had to deal with. So, my first reaction was that I did not have enough information about the encounters and for me it was a revelation while reading the script.
BM: John, you have been known to bring those stories on screen which people do not have much knowledge about. You did it with Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran and now Batla House. What attracts you as a producer and actor to such films? Why the need to tell this story?
John Abraham (JA): When I read the script as an actor, I found it fantastic. And as an actor when you read a script, it has to work for you whether you know about the incident, in this case the Batla House incident, or not. Then I put on the lens of someone who understands the geo-political nature of our country, I say that let us dwell a little more into this incident. You know, I saw a film called The Schindler’s List and when I got out, I was disturbed for two days. I kept thinking about it. And I felt that our film is one which should make you think. Even for someone who does not care about Batla House, it will still work because it is an edge-of-the-seat thriller. But for someone who has started reading about it, it would say that it is an interesting incident. The minute you read about it, you want to ask questions. And I think that Nikkhil has done that so beautifully in this film, he has actually presented this film from all perspectives. From the terrorists to the victims to the special cells to the court’s perspective, it has all been covered. So now, when you walk out of the theatre, you are empowered to say ‘Listen, I do not agree with this end.’ That to me is just fantastic.
BM: So, you are saying that the film has been presented in an objective way.
JA: Yes! And it is amazing that it gives you the power to make an opinion.
NA: (Cuts in) And I think it will do that. I really think so. I think this film will result in people coming to all of us, John, Mrunal and myself, all the players who are associated with the film, and these people are going to tell us that we did not talk about this and we did not talk about that. But I think we have spoken about a lot of things that most people have only been whispering about. We just came back from our Delhi press junket and everywhere we went, people kept talking about how they were the first, second or third person on the scene when this encounter took place in 2008. Then they would say that someone they knew was on the scene before them and they are working with them and how the people who were reportedly on the scene told them things about what went on.
JA: There was someone who said that he actually brought the cop down.
NA: Like in Mumbai, there are people who keep saying that I was here and I was there when the 26/11 attacks happened, it is just like that there too. They keep talking about where they were when the Batla House incident happened. It is like a before crisis and after crisis kind of scenario there. Like John says, Delhi more or less changed after Batla House. People were no longer afraid to voice their opinions. But then what happens is that the voicing of the opinion sometimes get confused with fact. So, where is the truth? The truth cannot just be someone’s opinion, right? That was very fascinating as a filmmaker.
JA: What works for this film is that….see people did not know about Airlift, they did not know about Parmanu or about what happened in Pokhran. Similarly, they don’t know about Batla House. And because of this, the film has the propensity to do great business especially in a place like Bombay. You guys call it the Mumbai and Gujarat circuit, the film will do very well in these places. The film is a gold mine at these locations because the people are hungry and they just want to absorb information. Of course, in North India, in places like Delhi, people will come in and have an opinion of it.
BM: They will have a different perception?
JA: Yes, exactly! Here, people will be like, ‘Wow! We did not know this existed.’
NA: A lot of people whom I have shown the film to, shown parts of the film to, they have called me to suggest things. If I have shown the film to them at around 11 in the morning then they would call me in the evening and say that we have been reading about this on the internet and they tell me that I haven’t put this in or have not been fair to certain people. When we announced the film last year, a lot of journalists and asked me whether I knew this had happened and that had happened. They told me that if I am not putting in this or that part in the film, then I am doing an injustice to the boys. They asked me if I have seen the photos available somewhere or the post-mortem reports available somewhere else. It was a treasure trove of information.
BM: So how did you pick and choose what to put in since there is so much information out there? Did you draw the line between fact and fiction?
NA: The one thing that needs to be understood right now is that this is fiction. We don’t draw the line. It’s a fictional account of a real incident. It is inspired by that. There are large portions of the script that are not even in the public domain. I could only get the information first hand from the people involved in it. We chose not to do that because we realized we are not here to make a docu-drama. There is a scene in the film where Sanjeev Kumar Yadav, played by John, crushes a phone. Did he really do that? I doubt he did. There are places where we have dramatised and taken cinematic liberty. But yes, as far as the relationship between John and Mrunal’s characters is concerned, we had the ability and opportunity to speak with the players who went through that. Most people will say that the encounter looks very real in the film but ask why I fictionalised the love story. But I can proudly say that I did not fictionalise it. And actually, fact is stranger than fiction.
BM: Mrunal, you said that regardless of screen time, your role needs to be significant to the story. How did Batla House fit into your thought process of selecting films?
Mrunal Thakur (MT): I think I am really blessed to have films like Love Sonia, Super 30 and Batla House in my filmography. Performing different characters is something that really excites me. If you see, in one film I played a victim and in the other I played a girlfriend. But now, I did not really just want to play a housewife but also someone who needs to have her own identity. Playing a journalist was really challenging for me. I remember watching the 9 o’clock news on DD1 and Neelam Sharma used to be the news anchor and she was so good. When I went back and when I started reading the same news, I was scared. This film, this role became all the more challenging because I was not just reading the news, she needs to understand that she is the wife of the cop whom the news she is presenting is all about.
NA: She is actually reading out the news which is about her husband. And she has been instructed by her superiors that she has to go on air and say that this person whom this news is about is her husband.
MT: This was done just to sensationalise matters.
NA: Can you believe that! The producer asks her to say that. He asks her to say that he is a murderer. It is written on the teleprompter and she has to say it.
MT: But again, we do need women like Nandita and hats off to Shobhana Yadav as well. For me, I started watching her videos and the personality she has was so inspiring. She is naughty but at the same time she is very firm. She is not going to do something which she is not convinced about. The best thing is that she has the power to say no and she does that effortlessly.
NA: She is a perfect foil to him. If you see both of them in real life, they will become pretty well-known as far as the film is concerned. There was a big reason why John and I had chosen to do the film. He is right now still a serving officer. The encounter happened in 2008 and it’s been more than nine years today. He is going to have to deal with his fair share of fame as well as infamy because both things are going to happen to him. He is very quiet and very cautious in what he says. He knows that what he says can be misinterpreted or misused. If you meet them and if they are sitting together, you ask her a question and she answers.
JA: And he agrees. He will just look at her lovingly.
NA: He actually lights up when she talks about terrorism and when she says my boys did that and my boys did this.
JA: Nikkhil you remember, when we went to his house? I must tell this. When we went to his house, I asked him if he can show me his guns. He agreed and then he called his Z security and they placed about 10 guns; AK56, AK47, Glocks and everything. I was shocked and then Shobhana, his wife came. She said, ‘Kya kar rahe ho ye, chalo guns nikal do yahan se.’ He simply replied, ‘Theek hai.’ (Laughs). The relationship was so lovely between the two of them and I think that has come across on screen.
BM: It is also important to show the human side of the law officers…
NA: We tend to forget what is the human side of a police officer. We just see a uni-dimensional person who is supposed to protect us because we think that this is his duty. We don’t even see the human side of a journalist. We think that this person is only making this thing up, what does she know? We don’t think that she may be involved somewhere or the other. She might have her own point of view, she might have been asked to say something else. These are the things we have dealt with in the film very effectively.
BM: John, you said you have your personal opinions as does everybody, especially when something is related to the nation. When you say that the film has grey areas, how do you keep your personal opinions aside and then play a character with full conviction?
JA: I think I overheard Nikkhil saying this in one of his interviews; he said ‘I had to keep my personal biases aside to make this film.’ It is something that is very important for all of us when we do a film. You have to keep your personal biases aside and the best way we have covered our backsides is that we have shown the film from all perspectives.
NA: I would not have made the film if I could not have told the story of these students. For me it was very important.
BM: As producers or directors, how important is a holiday release?
JA: I think a holiday release makes all the difference because more people come in and watch it. You are Box Office India, you know better than me. We have got 5000 screens and there is enough of business for two films on that day. You have got `45-50 crore worth of business on that day. The business is great and of course this time it is on Thursday, so we expect a bit of a drop on a Friday and then it goes up on Saturday and Sunday. But if the film is good and it holds up well then we get a fantastic strong extended weekend. That is why a holiday weekend works much better than a vanilla weekend.
NA: But for a particular type of film. The trade pundits will of course tell you that the two highest grossers of the year so far are non-holiday films whether it is URI or Kabir Singh. I differ. I don’t like anybody telling me how to take a shot and so I don’t want to tell anybody how to do their job. But my question is, had Kabir Singh released on a national holiday, would it not have done 40 per cent more on that day when it opened? It opened with more that `20 crore, don’t you think it would have done may be `28-29 crore if released on a national holiday? I am very skeptical about this whole number thing because I think that we were fans of Amitabh Bachchan, and we didn’t care whether it was 50 days, 100 days, platinum jubilee, golden jubilee or silver jubilee. When his films used to release, no matter where we go for the film or how much time we stand in queue, we would just wait to get into the theatre. At that time numbers never came to us. If you are a fan of John Abraham or Akshay Kumar, why would you bother about numbers? Just go and watch the film and be a fan.