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Love, Actually

Sanam Re producer Bhushan Kumar, director Divya Khosla Kumar and DoP Sameer Arya chat with Team Box Office India about their soulful love story

Box Office India (BOI): Let’s start with Airlift, the first hit of the year. Were you expecting success on such a large scale?

Bhushan Kumar (BK): Not really, because of the kind of film Airlift is and it being based on a true story. All of us, including Akshay (Kumar), were initially talking about how this was real cinema that we were making. We never dreamt it would get such a great response commercially too. What the audience usually wants in a film is a heavy dose of commercialism even if it is based on a true story. With films like those, you take many cinematic liberties; you then add some masala and then some action.

But we didn’t want to do that in this film. Since the character was in a war zone, he could not play ‘Akshay Kumar’ as he is in other films. We were not sure how our Indian audience would react to us taking the situation forward realistically and making it unlike a typical Hindi film, where the hero fights 50 people.

It was a very big step and we felt that we may not be able to reach the `100-crore mark and we should target `50-60 crore. But everyone appreciated true cinema and the fact that the film didn’t look like a docu-drama.

This is a big achievement for our film industry and, as we speak, the film has crossed the `100-crore mark. It is a huge achievement, especially as the film was made on a very realistic budget. More than money, it has earned our production house a lot of respect. Since we started actual production two years ago, after Aashiqui 2, this film, after Baby, has earned us plenty of respect other than just money.

BOI: Do you think this also shows that the audience has evolved?

BK: Absolutely. After Airlift, every film based on a true story will benefit because now we know that there is an audience that wants to see this kind of cinema. So I would say the audience has evolved by leaps and bounds. The primary aim of films is to entertain, and while watching Airlift, people were applauding. That means they were appreciating what they were watching on the screen.

BOI: You started the year with a bang with Airlift, and your second film is Sanam Re, which is in many ways more than a home production.

BK: Correct. (Laughs)

BOI: How did it come about, Divya? After Yaariyan, how did you zero in on Sanam Re as your next directorial?

Divya Khosla Kumar (DKK): For me, cinema is not about making money, it is more about my passion as a creative person and how I grow and keep learning. Since I am very creative, it gives me a lot of satisfaction when I make a film. Yaariyan was of a completely different genre. It was a college adventure film. Of course, I wanted to challenge myself as a director and try something I had not tried before, and Sanam Re is a soulful love story. I cracked the script with my writer Sanjiv Dutta very quickly. Yaariyan released in January last year and by March-end, we had cracked the script of Sanam Re. I think it is also destiny because with Yaariyan, it took a lot of time to get everything together, from the script to casting to training the actors. I shot the film in 2-3 months but the pre-production of Yaariyan took a lot of time.

With Sanam Re, everything worked so swiftly so I believe that destiny wants this film to come out and reach the audience because it is a very pure story. It answers a lot of questions relating to love, about finding happiness, what soul mates are, whether it is all destined, and how love becomes stronger. So this is a very emotional and sensitive film. The film takes you on a rollercoaster ride, it makes you laugh and it also makes you cry.

BOI: Is it easier or more difficult to make your second film?

DKK: Filmmaking is always tough. I always say it is like a war zone. You have to be like soldiers and you need to be constantly fighting because the challenges keep coming. For instance, this time, I was shooting in Canada and I arrived there a few days before our unit was to arrive. Our line producer in Canada had nothing in place, no permissions and no hotel bookings. My unit was arriving within 10 days so I got the shock of my life. I was especially worried about the budget going haywire. I hate doing production but I had to run to various offices there and get everything sorted before the unit arrived.

So sometimes you have to step into production and it is extremely tough. I enjoy direction because it is more satisfying but obviously, as a director, I need a right-hand man who would keep everything ready so that all I need to do is direct. Obviously, it doesn’t really happen that way and you have to be involved and take charge of everything, and you have to keep the team motivated especially under the circumstances I shot in. Sometimes, there was snow, it was biting cold and we were living in tents. We stayed in hotels in Kalpa, where there was no electricity and no water. So your unit gets demoralised. All these things go into making a film even though reviewers decide the fate of a film in just one word.

BOI: Sameer, technically, how difficult was it for you to shoot the film?

Sameer Arya (SA): It was very difficult. We ran into a lot of trouble with the weather. There was so much wind that sometimes five people had to hold one light. When we look at those scenes now, it seems very funny but only we know how we shot this film. We ended up wasting so much time as the weather was just not allowing us to proceed as we wanted to. Time is money and we had a tight budget.

BOI: What about the understanding between the two of you about the vision of the film, in terms of colours and…

SA: (Cuts in) After Yaariyan, she was very clear about her colour schemes and her vision. She is clear about every scene, how the first half should look and how the second half should look. So when we execute things, there is no waste of time. Once she explains what she wants, I am prepared for it.

DKK: (Cuts in) I think we have developed an understanding, of sorts. During Yaariyan, we used to communicate a lot but now that he knows what I am looking for, we barely spoke while filming Sanam Re.

SA: (Cuts in) That’s so true.

DKK: Sameer reads my mind and he knows what kind of shot I am looking for. So he used to frame the shot exactly like I wanted and sometimes he also took extra shots, which he thought I might like. You have to be compatible with your team, especially the writers, DoP and editors. These are the three senapatis who should be very strong when you are making a film.

BOI: What was Bhushanji’s reaction when you narrated the script to him?

DKK: When I finished narrating the script to him, he immediately said, ‘Wow’ and he instantly gave the go-ahead! We have an abundance of rom-coms being made in our industry, but there are very few love stories. Aashiqui 2 was one and now we have Sanam Re. The film is very strong on emotion and he (Bhushan) felt really connected to it. And, of course, after Yaariyan became a success, he obviously… (Laughs)

BOI: He couldn’t say ‘no’ to you?

DKK: Yes.

BOI: You understand the commercial aspect of business very well. From the trade point of view, what makes Sanam Re hot property?

BK: First of all, when you make a musical love story, the music has to be very strong. And by ‘very strong’, I mean it has to be top of the charts. If you don’t achieve that, there is a serious problem. With Airlift, you don’t need music to get an opening; all you need is good music to market the film, which we got in Airlift, whose songs went on to top the charts. But in a love story, you need to have blockbuster music, like we had in Aashiqui 2. If you don’t, it becomes very difficult to get an opening.

If you look back at all the love stories with great music, all those films got good openings and those which didn’t have good music, didn’t open well. I am talking about pure love stories, not films like Piku or Airlift, which worked because of their content. For people to come and watch your love story, which you are not even making with a big cast, you need great music to bring the audience to cinemas. In fact, recently, there was a big film with a big jodi but because the music was not so great, it didn’t open as expected.

But having said that, while music is very important in a romantic film, content is equally important because aap opening lagaa do ge music se, then how will it survive if the content is not good? People say that a film has worked because of its music. But that’s not right; you can’t fool the audience. It might open well because it has great music but it will survive purely on its content. That is why, for a love story like Sanam Re, I look at the great visuals that Divya and Mr Sameer Arya have given. The songs are beautiful and it has a little humour in the first part but then it becomes an emotional journey.

The love story has been tackled very well, with beautiful screenplay, and Sanjeev Datta and Hussain Dalal have done a great job with the dialogue. I believe she was inspired by Yash Chopraji. So many people have told me that the scenes which we say we have been shot in Ladakh were not really shot in Ladakh. We are telling them that we have shot those scenes very much in Ladakh!

DKK: (Cuts in) Several people are calling it VFX work.

BK: Yes, but it is not VFX. They were shot in our very own India even though nobody believes us. So visuals make a difference, the dialogue is working, the music is working. And although Pulkit didn’t have a blockbuster before this film, the pairing is working today. We have received only positive feedback on social media sites. Usually, when you have a fresh pair, people have differing opinions but here everyone is responding only positively.

BOI: Sameer, how much has she (Divya) grown as a director from Yaariyan to Sanam Re?

SA: Oh, it is quite a lift! One thing, for sure, is that she was very confident during Yaariyan and she is very confident with this film too. She is very clear about what she wants. Of course, she has matured because everyone matures with every film, as a person and as a director, and it is very evident in this film too. Yaariyan and Sanam Re are poles apart. That was a college film and this has so much emotion in it, and to tackle and execute emotions the way she has done is a big deal for a young director like her.

BOI: What was the experience of shooting Sanam Re?

DKK: I shot in a lot of places. I started with Chandigarh; then Simla and Kalpa; and then the next schedule was in Mumbai; then I shot in Ladakh; and finally in Canada. We completed the film in 64 days, we weren’t given bigger budget… thoda hi bada tha… from Yaariyan.

SA: (Cuts in) Sirji badhaate nahin hai…

DKK: Maybe next time, so it is always a challenge. Even when I cast Pulkit, it was challenging because I thought he had seen success in Fukrey but after that, he wasn’t presented well. So I haven’t cast anyone who has achieved a lot of success. I did several workshops and look tests with him and thought about how I should present him so that he looked extremely attractive. Even with Yami, she was all over the place with her fairness campaign, so I had to make her look fresh, for which there were workshops too.

I do a lot of preparation on paper so that everything is sorted during pre-production and so that the entire team knows what we are going to do. Obviously, you have to be a little flexible when you are on the sets but, essentially, everything was pre-planned. I think that’s the best way a film should be shot, just like a Hollywood film, you can’t leave it to the last minute. I see that everything is in place before I begin shooting: going to the locations, doing a recce, having the pictures ready, having the storyboard for the framing ready, being clear about the costumes in each frame or the art direction, including the set colours.

BOI: Divya, your first film featured only newcomers but in Sanam Re, you have more established actors. Does that make your work easier?

DKK: Yes, it does make it easier because they have the experience of four to five films, so they understand everything and I don’t really have to teach them. I didn’t have to teach them how to act. They already knew their best angles. It is a lot better if the actors are trained, it definitely helps. Since it is a love story and I wanted deep emotions; I wanted them to have a grip on things. They have both done television, so they were up to it.

BOI: Since it is a love story, were there any workshops you did to get the chemistry right?

DKK: Yes I did, to get them into their respective characters. In the story, they are shown as six years old, and even the children who are playing Pulkit and Yami have a big role. Then they are shown as 16 years old and then as adults. So we had to maintain the continuity. I was presenting the ‘80s and ‘90s and then the present age, so the film is non-linear and keeps going back and forth. Their character graph, the kind of facial expressions they have, all the small things had to be maintained throughout, for which we did workshops. I remember telling Yami once to observe the six-year-old girl who is playing her and to copy one of her expressions.

BOI: How happy are you as a producer now that you have watched the film?

BK: I am very happy but since it is her film, I am a little nervous as well, in terms of how much will it work. And I don’t mean this from the business point of view. We have sold the film, the satellite rights were bought the moment trailer released, we have sold it overseas and all-India. So the film has already made a profit. So I am not talking from the business point of view; rather, that it is her second film and there is a lot of buzz and people want to watch the film. It has gone into that league where nobody knows how far it will go but there is still a minimum expectation and if it goes to maximum then… very good!

BOI: Sameer, how happy are you with the final product?

SA: I am very happy. The good news is I am happy that my director is happy and now I know that my producer is also happy. What else could I ask for? It is good that people all over are really like the promos, the visuals and the content of the film. That is what you work for and it feels good to get a pat on the back.

BOI: You guys are releasing your film on the Valentine’s Day weekend.

BK: It was just an idea because it is a love story. Although Valentine’s Day is a Sunday, it meant that if on Sunday, 100 people were going to watch it, then 120 people will go and watch it because it is Valentine’s Day. That was the idea.

BOI: Finally, Divya, this is your baby. How satisfied are you with the film?

DKK: I am very satisfied because it was a challenging process for me and I think I have overcome that challenge. I was telling him (Bhushan) as well that, as a director, I am really satisfied with this film. When you watch it, you will see my growth as well.

BK: I think after Aashiqui 2, this is a pure love story and like Aashiqui, we have got a ‘U’ certificate for this film as well. Today, it is very difficult to get a ‘U’ certificate; they are not even giving an ‘A’ certificate easily.

DKK: We got ‘U’ certification without any cuts. I had decided that if we need to make any cuts for a ‘U’ certificate, we would do it.

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