As his fifth film, India’s Most Wanted, hits cinemas, director Raj Kumar Gupta gets candid about featuring unsung heroes, his fascination with real-life stories, his lead actor Arjun Kapoor, and turning producer with this film. Here he is in conversation with Bhakti Mehta
Summers prove to be very exhausting for you. Your last release was also in summer.
Oh yes! I think my last film released during spring but, in Mumbai, we don’t have spring. We started our screening since May 16.
This film has been written and directed by you. Where did you get the idea of these unsung heroes?
I think it was something we see and that I had heard about. Somebody had told me about this and I start reading up on it and researching it. One thing led to another and I was inspired by this story of these five unlikely men coming together and who go out on a hunch and capture ‘India’s most wanted’ without firing a single bullet, without any support, spending their own money on this mission and getting into a country which doesn’t allow arms and ammunitions because their enemy is based there. I think it was very inspiring and very human and it appealed to me on a very emotional level.
In this film, they go on a manhunt and it’s exhilarating. How do you keep the thrill factor alive without any action or bullets?
That’s the most fascinating thing throughout the film. We have seen so many films with guns and bullets, so many films where one person kills 200-400 people (Laughs). For a change, one should give this film a chance, a film that shows how people in the intelligence agencies work, they are real people with real emotions, facing real danger, working under conditions that are not conducive, and who are very human. They have a personal life and they have families. But they can’t tell their families where they are going or what they are about to do. They end up telling them that they are going on a ‘boys’ trip’ and go and catch one of India’s most wanted terrorists.
After they return, their families will probably never know that they are responsible for saving the lives of people. When I say that crores of people, it’s a figure of speech but it could have been you, me or anybody for that matter. This is the story that fascinated me. The most fascinating thing about the film is that you don’t see bullets flying, you don’t see people flying around. You only see real heroes and how their minds work. That’s what this film is all about. That’s what fascinated me to tell this story.
If somebody tells you that this is what happened, and we went with guns, we shot people, we did this… you wouldn’t be surprised. But the moment someone says something like this happened without the use of any bullets and without fights, you will be curious to know more. You stop and think… and that’s what happened to me.
You have always been fascinated by these human stories. During Raid, you said you were very interested in the daily life of tax officers who go out there and who too cannot tell how long they will be gone. You seem very interested in bringing that part into the limelight.
Because that is what happens… as they say, reality is stranger than fiction. As soon as you say you have gone to catch a terrorist, the fiction writer in you sees guns, bullets, martial arts etc. The fiction writer in you is armed to do that. That’s why, then you hear a story like this, without all those elements, it is unbelievable. So reality always presents you with certain facts that are unbelievable and that is what you pick up on. That is what strikes you. Here, the unbelievable factor is not one person killing 20 people with just one gun. Instead, you will think, ‘I had never thought about it this way but it is possible.’ It makes you stop, notice it and tell you that it will be interesting to watch and do something like this. You latch onto that emotion and hope it takes you forward, and you are able to tell a story that resonates with people.
A film like this could so easily have been jingoistic. Since you have written and directed this film, how did you make sure you did not cross that line and become overly patriotic or preachy?
You go by your instinct. So, for instance, when you sit with police officers, Intelligence Bureau officers or military guys, all of them greet you with ‘Jai Hind’, not ‘hi’ or ‘hello’. This is their greeting, to both subordinates and superiors. It’s not something people are not aware of but it is your representation of it that matters.
Your representation can be the regular way that they speak. Whenever they pick up the phone, their first words are ‘Jai Hind sir’ and it is the same when they put down the phone. It’s just protocol. That is not something you do for jingoism; it’s their protocol which you want to represent. Their passion, their love for the country is unparalleled, it is what motivates them to join the forces, to work for the country and to risk their lives for it.
There will be situations where they say I want to do this for the country, when they pool their own money on a mission like this. What is the reason? They are doing it for the country. That doesn’t make it jingoism. It reflects the emotional connect to their job and the passion with which they do it. So how you represent it is something that differs from filmmaker to filmmaker.
If there is realism in the message they are sending out, I am sure it will resonate with the audience.
Audiences can now see through everything and hence they can spot sincerity when it’s there. They can differentiate between jingoism and true patriotism.
Arjun has never done a role like this before. He has done action, comedy and thrillers but not a role where there is no larger-than-life element. How did you see him fitting into this particular character?
First, isn’t it interesting that the most unlikely people do the most unlikely roles? That goes with the theme as well. It was very instinctive. After the Raid trailer launch, he had called to congratulate me. We had been talking about doing something together since his first film Ishaqzaade. I had this script in mind and I had finished writing it. I told him that I had a script and asked him to just read it and see how he felt about it.
I sent him the script and he called me back the same evening, and he was passionate and excited about doing this film. We came together for the love of the script and the passion for the project. I saw how sincere and hardworking he was, even during the shoot. He looked like somebody who could pass off as a regular guy. Intelligence people do not come in any specific size. They are regular people and you cannot measure bravery by the size of your abs! I have seen regular-looking people being braver than people who look like they can rise to the occasion. That is what was required in the film and it suited me.
This film has been shot in places like Patna, where no major star has shot before. It has also been shot in Nepal very extensively on highways and on some risky bridges across rivers. I required an actor who could go all out. In many places, we didn’t even have a vanity van, so he had to change his clothes in a Scorpio and sometimes he had to ride a Scooty to travel. He was prepared to do these things and I really needed that kind of collaboration for my film.
When we spoke to Arjun, he told us how there is a certain spontaneity when shooting at real locations.
The thing about real locations is that you cannot think that you want the scene to look a certain way because real life will always give you surprises. In real locations, you get what you get, and you have to convince yourself that what you get is what you wanted in the first place. There is a lot of spontaneity and imperfections in real life.
For example, we were shooting for No One Killed Jessica on a road that was connected to another path behind. You could see the winding path in the frame, and while we were shooting one of our scenes, an elephant just walked in from there. There was no way anyone could have imagined that. Similarly, for this film, we were shooting with Arjun on a terrace by a lakeside, and during the shot, we saw a flock of birds in the air enter our frame. It looked so beautiful. There are things you cannot plan for.
This is your fifth directorial. What made you launch Raapchik Films with this movie?
This step has been very organic and my partner Myra (Karn) and I thought it was a good time for us to take this step. Before this, we had produced a short film with Amar Kaushik, who has assisted me in films like Aamir, No One Killed Jessica and Ghanchakkar. He directed the hit film Stree last year. The short film, Aaba, won many prestigious awards and went on to become a show reel for Amar, on which people trusted him with Stree.
We turned producers with that, and with this film, you can call it is baby steps into this industry. I am primarily a writer-director. The whole intention is to watch good stories, and being a part of it as a producer. That’s where it came from and now we are looking to tell good stories, through short films and feature films, and see how we can move forward. I have always believed in doing things slowly, and our attempt is to get involved more and take on more responsibility. That part is handled by Myra. I am primarily a writer-director and I handle that.
Does your production house also have plans to produce content for digital platforms?
I am a cinema person, like we all are. We all love this space. That way, I love to continue making films. But it is good for storytellers, writers and directors that there is this other medium also available. I think it is amazing that these platforms are giving opportunities to artistes and if an opportunity presents itself, we would like to get involved with production or personally direct something. If the subject excites me, I would take it into consideration because I am guessing it will be time-consuming.