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Debutant director Aditya Dhar, who has struck gold with URI: The Surgical Strike, talks to Team Box Office India as the film continues to rule the box office

Vicky Kaushal told us the story of how URI: The Surgical Strike came to be. He said you were working on some other film prior to this…

Yes, I was working on a film called Raat Baaki that had Fawad (Khan) and Katrina (Kaif) in it. This was in 2016. We were set to go on the floors in October, and 20 days before that, the Uri attack happened. Four terrorists entered the Uri base camp and 19 of our soldiers were martyred. When that happened, all the Pakistani actors were asked to go back, so Raat Baaki was stuck in limbo. We were still trying to figure out whom to cast when, about 10 days after the attack, the surgical strike was carried out. My office was fretting over Raat Baaki, but I couldn’t stop wondering about exactly what had happened in those 10 days. I really wanted to know how they pulled it off.

There were two reasons for this. One was that I had always been interested in the army. I wanted to be a soldier, as a kid. I was not very good at studies (Chuckles). Second, I am a Kashmiri Pandit. I’ve been hearing about terrorism since I was a child. This time we actually stormed their camps and hit back. I couldn’t stop thinking about the strike. On October 1, 2016, I started my research. It was very difficult because this was all classified information and very few people knew any details. It was literally like investigative journalism. I met a lot of journalists, intelligence analysts, war veterans and retired army officers. Bit by bit, I started gathering little clues about how it must have all unfolded.

Six months after I started my research, on March 1, I felt I was done. The funny thing is that on the same day, one of my friends called me up and said that a producer from Bollywood was planning a film on the surgical strike. I was a bit scared. A few months earlier, one of my films on the verge of being shot, got shelved. I knew I had to move fast. I realised the only way I could convince a producer to let me do the film was to go in with a fantastic script. I started working on the script at breakneck speed. Fortunately, I finished writing the screenplay in 12 days.

I was confident about one thing – that nobody else knew the story in as much detail as I did. 12 days later, I gave the script to a very dear friend who also manages me, Chaitanya Hegde, and who runs a company called Tulsea. The moment he read it, he said that we needed to move fast because it had a lot of potential.

He really liked it. He immediately sent the script to Sonia Kanwar, who works with RSVP and would eventually be the associate producer of URI. He told her to read it fast because someone else was also trying to figure out the rights. Sonia read it in two hours. She immediately called up Ronnie (Screwvala), who was boarding a flight to Vizag. She mailed him the script and asked him to read it right then. Ronnie normally takes from 15 days to a month to read a script and respond with his feedback. The moment he landed, he called up Sonia and said that we should do this film.

The funny thing is that I was supposed to direct a film in 2009, then in 2011, in 2013 and in 2016.  I was just waiting for somebody to give me a chance. 10 years after it was first meant to happen, it happened within four hours. Within four hours, I had an answer. When it is meant to happen, it just happens amazingly.

It happened and how!

(Laughs) Thank you so much!

The film is doing tremendously well at the box office. When you started to shoot, did you have any idea that it would fare this well?

Definitely not! We knew that we were making a special film. An important film, based on an important event. We were representing the Indian Army. Our intention was to give it 100 per cent. There is no way we could have taken it lightly; we knew we should not take it lightly, and we didn’t. The average age of the people on my set was 25. This was a crazy bunch of youngsters who wanted to prove their love for their country and for the army. Everyone gave their heart and soul to this film.

We knew we were doing something special. But we did not know that it would go on to rake in such numbers. It is phenomenal, surreal and really overwhelming. We are getting so much love. It is actually not so much about the numbers. We went to theatres and met people, we met army officers and their families – many of them were in tears. They said that for the first time, somebody had represented them in the right way. I had these 15-year-old girls and boys coming up to me and saying that they had initially planned on becoming engineers and doctors, but now they wanted to join the army. It is a phenomenal feeling. I understand the importance of box office numbers. But as a filmmaker, when you receive so much love, that is what feels really great. 

You signed Vicky in 2017, a year before he became a sensation. What was it about him that made you feel he fit the bill?

Why would I not cast him (Laughs)? I have known Vicky ever since Masaan. I was amazed by his performance in that film. I knew he was a Mumbai kid, and yet he played the role of Deepak so beautifully. Not once did I feel he was from a bit city. He became Deepak. I left the theatre after watching Masaan and got Vicky’s number from a common friend. At about midnight, I called him up and told that I thought he had done a phenomenal job and that one day, I would want to do a film with him. Little did I know that my first film would be with Vicky!

The reason we chose Vicky was that I was very clear and practical that being a first time filmmaker, it would be very difficult for me to get an established actor. Even if I got a meeting with one of them and they liked the script, they would likely give me dates for two or three years later, because their schedules are so packed. And I wanted to make this film quickly. If I had not made it, somebody else would have. This was one of the best covert operations ever pulled off by the Indian Army.

The subject was time-sensitive. So I had three prerequisites. One, I needed a fantastic actor. Two, it had to be an actor who could dedicate himself for about six or eight months before the shoot, to prepare and get into character; to become Vihaan. Third, I wanted whosoever came on board to be hungry to imbibe that role and get into that character’s skin. He wouldn’t just need to train for the film; he would have to dedicate himself to it – the way everybody on my crew had, be it my DoP, production designer or costume designer. Everybody there wanted to prove themselves. It was a young team, so everybody had untapped potential. We wanted that madness in our actors also.

If you look at the cast – Vicky, Yami (Gautam), Mohit (Raina), Kirti (Kulhari), Pareshji (Rawal) – you will see that this was a case of anti-casting. You have always seen Yami play the sweet, simple girl. Nobody has seen her in a strong, intelligence officer kind of a role. The same goes for Vicky. He has always played a nice, sweet boy. Nobody had imagined him in the role of an army officer, that too a Para (Special Forces) Commando handling a battalion, killing people and leading a team of 80 soldiers.

Vicky fit perfectly into the scheme of things. Hats off to Ronnie! We were having a meeting at his house and he asked me who I was looking at for the film. At that time, Vicky had started shooting for Raazi. When I am writing a script, I don’t think about which actors are going to play the roles because then that starts to affect my writing. But the moment Ronnie asked me about the cast, I realised I couldn’t think of anyone else for this role but Vicky. When Ronnie asked me why, I told him that I felt Vicky was hungry to prove himself.

Within five seconds, Ronnie said, ‘Yeah, okay.’ I told him that since this was a war film, the budget might be slightly on the higher side compared to what people were spending on Vicky Kaushal films. Ronnie said he would figure it out. He believed in a first time director and an actor who had never done a solo commercial film. There was definitely pressure on me, but it suddenly it gave me great confidence that I had a free hand to do this and to prove myself. And we knew we couldn’t disappoint Ronnie and his faith in us, no matter what. That obsession really helped us make a great film.

In fact Vicky says that he feels grateful that he was your first choice.

For me, he will always be my first choice. He is such a fantastic human being and a fantastic actor. He is one of the best of his generation. And I keep saying that he is one of the best things that has happened to the Hindi film industry. Very good, very talented.

Major portions of the film were shot in Serbia. How did you zero in on this location?

Actually, we were looking at places in India. We had gone to Dehradun on a recce, looking for places that looked like Kashmir. We were finding the locations but not the guns and gear – the helmets, the armour, the equipment. We weren’t finding that in India because this is the Special Forces. They have very specialised equipment. I wanted to be really, really authentic, really faithful in my representation – in terms of the guns and gear as well as the body language, the way they talk.

During our research, somebody suggested Serbia to us saying the topography almost matches Kashmir’s, and we might find the right kinds of guns and gear there as well. So we did one recce in Serbia. In my childhood, I had been to Kashmir. During this recce, we went to this village about six hours from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. We got there and I felt like I was back in Kashmir. It was surreal. It was beautiful. I said, we have to do it here.

Then we had to figure out the guns and gear and everything else. Some stuff we had to order from India, some from China and some from Germany and the UK. Somehow we got everything in so we could start the shoot on time.

We spoke to the action director and DoP of URI last week. They said it was a difficult shoot, especially in the jungles of Serbia, with their heavy and continuous rain. They also said that you kept your calm throughout. How did you manage that?

For us, it was like a surgical-precision operation every day. It was very difficult. The topography, the climate, that fact that we were shooting an action film, a war film, on a shoestring budget. We had to be very, very innovative. There was no scope for wasting time. We were shooting 14, 15, 16 hours a day. And then prepping for the next day for another four or five hours. So we were literally working 21, 22 hours a day, sleeping 2 hours and then starting all over again. And this went on, non-stop, for 50 or 60 days.

The funny bit is how everyone came up with really ingenious ways to save money. It was a policy right from the beginning that we would not do two takes of any shot, especially not the action sequences. So if there was a blast scene or a gunshot or hand-to-hand combat, there would be only one take. That meant we had to be supremely precise and the action had to be extremely well-choreographed. Agar ek baar blast ho gaya, toh uske baad kuch nahin kar sakte. Whatever the take, we had to use it.

That is very risky.

Yes, we have taken all sorts of risks. So, in URI there are five big action sequences. There is Chandel, Myanmar, Uri, and then there is B1 and B2, during the surgical strike. Now this is a funny detail and I don’t think many people noticed, but there are only nine stunt people in Serbia with the training to use firearms, be close to blasts and do hand-to-hand combat. So in all five action sequences we have used the same nine people! Vikramdada, who was doing the make-up, and his team would give them a pagdi, a beard, a mole or a scar on their faces. Every day they would change their appearance.

We didn’t have a budget for lights. Mitesh (Mirchandani), who is my DoP, my production designer and I, we all figured that we had to work with practical lights. The night sequences had a lot of outdoor shoots. We had to cross through Chakoti village in the film, we had to cross some bridges, some roads. So what my production designer did was he got these 12 street lamps made. And those are the exact same 12 lamps that you will see throughout the film. They are in B2, outside B1, in Chakoti village. We would just pull them out and put them wherever we needed them, and start shooting there.

We came up with the most ingenious ways to save money. The beauty of it is that we were able to pull it all off in that budget. If it had gone higher, there would have been a lot of pressure on me as a filmmaker, also on Vicky and on Ronnie. The fun bit was that we took it as a challenge. Our producer, Sonia Kanwar, was fantastic. There are some producers who will randomly try to cut expenditure without realising what is important and what is not. Sonia has the background of an assistant director as well as production-in-charge. She knew exactly what was important for the film. If we were saving money somewhere, she would see to it that it was utilised somewhere else where it was needed.

My production designer was fantastic. I remember we were shooting the house sequence, Vihaan’s house. And we were calling random relatives saying, hum ko dinner set chahiye, aapka photo frame chahiye or dining table de dijiye or sofa de dijiye! Everybody was so charged to make this film happen, everybody went out of their way to pull it off.

For my action director Stefan Richter, we couldn’t afford an assistant. He has done all the action sequences himself; he was the only guy. I told him right at the beginning, ‘The day you are shooting, I will be your assistant.’ It was Serbia; not everyone understood English. And Stefan is from Germany, so uski English toh kamaal ki aur Serbians ki English toh mashaallah thi! But somehow we managed. The most important part of the action sequences was that we had to ensure safety. There were so many blasts, and everything you see in the film is live. So that was our priority, Stefan’s priority. Keeping that in mind we had to communicate what we wanted to say, correctly.

It seems like you had a very strong team which had the same vision and passion as you had.

Mitesh (Mirchandani) shot most of the film using a handheld camera. That is because we did not have the money for a jib or a dolly (Laughs). It was a heavy camera. He did a phenomenal job. He is a phenomenal team player. He is not just about what he is shooting. He keeps tabs on everything else too. He knows exactly what the production designer is going to use as the next change or what the AD is going to do for the next sequence. One day he would be working as an assistant, one day he would be the assistant editor.

My editor, Shivkumar Panicker, was remarkable. We came and dumped the entire film on his head and asked him to edit the entire thing in a month and give us the final cut. He worked day in and day out. He is a very ruthless editor. He has no emotion (Laughs). If a scene is dragging and becoming a bit slow, he will simply chop it, irrespective of how brilliant the performances are.

My music director, Shashwat (Sachdev), is 26 or 27 years old. He didn’t want to do the background score. I kept telling him he had to do it because he had the potential. He was worried he wouldn’t be able to pull it off because he had never done it before. I got so irritated after a point that I told him that he would not be allowed to do the music for the film if he didn’t agree to do the background score. He got a little scared and started working on the background. He has done a brilliant job. The kind of research he did and the kind of music he came up with is amazing.

He, along with my sound designer Bishwadeep Chatterjee, lifted the film and took it to another level. The turnaround was six months. The shoot started in June-July, 2018 and we released the film in January 2019. Bishwadeep had a total of eight days to master the entire film. It’s a sound-heavy film. Everyone keeps saying that they can hear things like the sound of the shell in the gun, and that’s great to hear. Because to get that sound right, it took days. It took days to get the punching sound right. The foley has done a great job.

Everyone – from Rohit Chaturvedi the costume designer to Aditya Kanwar the production designer to Stefan Richter the action director, every HoD and assistant, my VFX team, my DA – everyone was brilliant. We could not afford another DA. He was handling everything in post-production. Every time I went to Red Chillies to check the DI at 4 o’clock in the morning, this boy would be lying on the sofa, half-dazed, hoping to go home someday (Laughs). The VFX was done by Yash Raj Films. They started working on URI immediately after Thugs of Hindostan. Thugs Of Hindostan had 2,500 VFX shots. We had 2,000 VFX shots. Thugs of Hindostan’s budget was 15 times ours and 98 per cent of the audience won’t be able to say what those 2,000 shots are. They have done an incredible job. The turnaround period for them was about a month or a month and a half. Most of the choppers are unreal. The garud is VFX-based. The same goes for the mountains in the background. They are actually images pulled from Getty, because we didn’t have the budget to go and shoot mountains anywhere!

Do you think the success of URI has added pressure when it comes to your future projects?

I enjoy working under pressure. If I am in this industry and not pushing the envelope, then there is no point in me being in this industry. As a filmmaker, it is my responsibility, my duty, to create something nobody has seen before. This is something that I want to do in every film I make. So I am very clear that even I want my next film to give the audience something they haven’t seen before. I enjoy that pressure because it pushes me to create something beautiful, unseen and unheard of.

With URI done, have you started working on something else?

Not yet. The turnaround time for URI from production to release was six months. That doesn’t happen in films. For a war film, it is a crazy timeframe. We were working constantly. I haven’t really slept in six or seven months. I would really like to sleep. Once I am refreshed, I will figure out what I want to do next. Right now I haven’t decided. I am taking it easy, keeping my head down and getting some rest. But whatever comes next will be good… like I said, something I haven’t done before.

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