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Neeraj Pandey, the ‘Thriller King’, returns with another adrenaline-pumping drama titled Aiyaary. Here’s the director along with his two leading men, Manoj Bajpayee and Sidharth Malhotra, in conversation with Team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): The first question is for all of you, starting with Neeraj sir. How did Aiyaary begin for each of you?

Neeraj Pandey (NP): For me, it began while I was working on Baby. I had interacted with so many people from the armed forces at the time that we had material for about three or four films. There was one story that stuck out, and after I finished my commitment to MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, it was a given that I would go back to that particular story.

BOI: Is it a true story or is it based on something that happened before?

NP: No, it isn’t. Think of it this way… Sometimes, you hear things and you fictionalise them in your own way. This is a work of fiction but it is as rooted as can be.

BOI: Manoj sir and Sidharth, tell us about your journey with Aiyaary.

Manoj Bajpayee (MB): I was shooting for Naam Shabana and it was a night shoot. I was talking to Neeraj and he suddenly said he had something very exciting for me. He said, ‘You just book two months, March and April, for the shoot.’ That’s how it all started. I didn’t know what exactly he was coming up with. I only had an inkling when he gave me the first half of the script. After that, he took some time to finish the entire story.

NP: I received many calls from him asking about the second half of the script. He kept saying, ‘You can’t do this to me. You gave me the first half of the script and there is no second half coming.’ (Laughs). I said I needed some time to finish it as I was travelling a lot at that point and I needed a good window to finish this story.

Sidharth Malhotra (SM): I had met Neeraj sir a year before that film. It was a very casual encounter and I told him that I wanted to work with him. Luckily, a year after that, we had a script and I was very interested as well as intrigued to know what he was making next. I found the script and the character so new and in a zone I had never been in before. The whole experience was new for me.

BOI: Neeraj sir, what was the thought behind this particular cast?

NP: Well, Manoj is playing a colonel in the Indian Army who is of a certain age, besides having the acting chops. Sid is playing a young major in the film. We wanted someone young who was both vulnerable and could look tough at will. He fit the bill. And then we did the readings like we do for every film of ours and got the DNA of the characters while they were reading the parts and preparing for it.

BOI: The scale of the film is clear from the trailer. It shows how the film has been shot across authentic environments. What was the actual shoot like?

NP: I’ll let Manoj answer this one.

MB: Logistically, it was tough. We shot in Kashmir for a week. A place like Kashmir has its advantages and disadvantages. Then we came to Delhi and shot non-stop for 20 days. And while everyone knows about the Delhi summers and winters, no one really knows about the Delhi rains. They are very unpredictable. The rain ruined around five days of our shoot.

Each and every location had its own advantages and disadvantages, whether Mumbai, London or Cairo. We were excited that we were going to Egypt where none of us had ever been to, a country of great historical significance. But we were going there to shoot and that was quite a tough task.

Other than that, I must mention that Neeraj did not keep well throughout the shoot and it is also a huge challenge to keep everybody, all the departments, on the same page. Kudos to him for pulling it off without complaining.

NP: He mentioned the weather problem… When a movie has a huge ensemble cast like Aiyaary, while it has its merits, it takes you through a rough time too. If you spread the shoot over too many days, and if you get a cancellation in between by chance, like what happened to us in the first schedule in Delhi where we lost five days, then getting the dates of the actors and getting the same combination again is a nightmare.

And the thing is that getting Manoj or Sid was relatively easy. But the guys who play the character roles, their dates are far more difficult to juggle. They are doing television, plays, rehearsals, various other assignments. Just getting them back on the block is a huge challenge. That was the learning… if you are working with a lot of characters, the sooner you crack it, the better.

SM: For me, the challenging part was to focus on the details and make it look authentic. This is my first film for which I have not been on a set. We shot at actual locations. Everything is real, from our uniform to the styling. I would call it a spy-thriller between two different generations. I have never seen actual spies or the military intelligence; it is their lifestyle that has been depicted in the film. It is by far the most real and relevant film that I have been a part of.

BOI: Getting the chemistry of the two central characters right is the key to this film. How was that achieved?

NP: We just threw both of them inside a room! They had to meet each other regularly. And when you have just two people in a room, chances are that they will come out smiling. That’s what happened. They bonded.

SM: We met for the first time at Neeraj sir’s office. We read the entire script. The film not only talks about the characters’ bonding but also about when they are not together or do not agree. It is a very distinct relationship. Then what happens is a disagreement between the two.

As we started shooting, we started spending more and more time together. He (Manoj Bajpayee) made me consume many more calories than I am supposed to. He barely ate anything but would always order a platter of different foods. And I had to finish the next 20 or 22 dishes! He is fond of ordering and I am fond of eating.

BOI: The trailer shows the character in various disguises. How long did it take to make each disguise look authentic?

MB: We must thank the prosthetic guys, who did such a great job.

SM: We had a team from both India and the UK. We spent almost four hours doing the make-up.

MB: I used to freak out. The Indian prosthetics team… the guys were scared of me as I was throwing tantrums all the time. It was a very tedious task.

SM: It is one of the highlights of the film and I believe it will pay off. We have many more looks which are not in the trailer. We are pretty excited.

BOI: Neeraj sir, the titles of your films are very unusual. Is that deliberate?

NP: Having a title that is inquisitive and pertinent to the film… these are criteria that I go for and Aiyaary is no exception. It has a fabulous sound. It stays with you and is very relevant to the film. It evokes curiosity. Also, the film explains why the title suits its content.

BOI: All your films have a large canvas. Here it is the army. Is this deliberate?

NP: Essentially, these are big stories. A Wednesday was confined to two definite spaces. It was a big issue at that time and we were struggling to put it together. I like to chase big stories. Nowadays, there is an influx of content, you have digital platforms and you have television, and consumers can decide on the basis of a trailer whether they want to go to the theatre or stay at home and watch the movie on Netflix or Amazon. It is necessary for us storytellers to scale it up in terms of both content and vision, to generate enough curiosity for the audience to go to cinemas and experience the film.

BOI: What does Aiyaary have for the younger generation?

NP: The film is for the youth, and that is why we have Sidharth in the film. The makers are all older people; the other guy in the film is slightly older (Laughs). Jokes apart, the conflict between the central characters represent the point of view between two generations of soldiers. At one point, it is Sid’s character who asks, ‘What have you handed down to my generation in terms of inheritance? We did not ask for it; this corruption was thrust upon us.’ It is about questioning the credibility of the preceding generations. It was all about the youth’s point of view. The reason I chased this story is because we easily blame the youth for their reckless behaviour, but this is what they have inherited from preceding generations.

BOI: Sidharth, you worked with a team that has worked together before. Did you have any apprehensions?

SM: No, not at all. I always enjoy meeting new directors and actors. Each of my films has a different cast. Here, I feel it is the content that is a newer space, everything is close to reality, there is no song and dance. I think getting into that zone and keeping it as authentic as possible was something I really enjoyed doing. Neeraj sir shoots really quickly because he has so much clarity. All of us got along so well. During the last leg of the film, I felt so connected to the team.

BOI: Manoj sir, does it help that you worked with Neeraj Pandey before?

MB: Definitely. He knows me inside-out, as a person and as an actor, and I know him really well. After working in two films together, you get a sense of what he is looking for from you, or what his expectations are of you, when he offers you a film like this. I have interacted with him on many occasions, personally and professionally. It definitely helps when you are familiar with the dos and don’ts of the director.

BOI: Manoj sir and Sidharth, when you work on a character like this, do you draw inspiration from within? Does your character resemble you or is he different?

MB: I am often asked this question. The most difficult thing to do is to play yourself because nobody knows how to do that. All of us have our biases when we look at ourselves. There are common factors and, in that way, every character might be similar to us. There are certain elements which are very essential to showcase in a film, and these might not be the elements that are common to the character and myself. These are the things that my director might expect me to improvise in my character.

SM: I think it all begins when you are cast for a particular role, when your director sees you in his story. He comes with a vision. I think half the job is done when you speak to the director and discuss the reason you are here. That is when you start finding similarities between yourself and the character. I think it stems from the director and the writer, and in our case, it is the same person. The more time I spend with Neeraj sir, it helps me understand those few key words which I hold on to, and as you keep shooting, the character keeps growing with you. It is a long process.

BOI: There is this perception that movies like this are male-dominated, character-wise. But Neeraj, your movies have always had strong female characters as well. How do Rakul Preet and Pooja Chopra fit into the characters in this film?

NP: Rakul and Pooja’s characters are very relevant to the film. In fact, Pooja’s character opens the film. She is a captain. She is a part of the same unit that Sidharth and Manoj’s characters work for. She is the only female member in the unit and that forms the crux of the film. She is an integral and indispensable part of the script.

The same goes for Rakul. She plays a hacker in the film and there is a reason Sidharth’s character and she get together. I do not want to come up with a character that is ill-sketched, so the attempt is to do something relevant.

BOI: From the audience’s perspective, will it look like a male-dominated film?

NP: This film is not about male characters; it is about a theme, which can revolve around a man or a woman. It is not gender-specific. The question is – is the story coherent and engaging enough for the audience? What’s important is that the issue or the corruption we are talking about comes through. Just because Sidharth and Manoj are doing this film doesn’t make it a male-dominated film.

BOI: What was it like, working with Rakul Preet and Pooja?

SM: I have interacted much more with Rakul because her character interacts with my character a lot. She is very hard-working. She has come back to Hindi cinema after a while and I had a wonderful time working with her. I think we also connected on being from Delhi. In fact, we have lived in the same housing colony. Pooja, on the the hand, was one of the boys; she is a part of the military unit in the film. She has done a fabulous job and carried the essence of a female officer well. She always had the right body language for this part.

BOI: The trailer suggests that the film has a patriotic theme while also being a spy thriller, of sorts.

NP: Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) bhai’s theme, where he plays the whistle-blower is a very integral part of the film. It is also a story about the relationship between a mentor and a protégé, on a second level. There are three strong storylines converging in the end to form the answer to the puzzle that we are talking about.

BOI: Do you think shifting release dates like you did impacts a film’s prospects?

NP: It gets confusing, of course. The marketing and the social media teams have their jobs cut out for them, with these new release dates. It was shifted to February 9 and that was unavoidable. Of all the three films, ours was the smallest in terms of budget. Even if we harped on the fact that it was the biggest story of the three, the truth is that ours was the smallest of the three in terms of budget. I wish there was clarity from the other parties as this would have made everyone’s lives much simpler. But here we are, waiting for February 9.

SM: Also, we were the first to announce the date, which was January 26. Since our film is about the army, it would have been great to have this film release on that date. I think we spoke about the date during the first meeting itself.

NP: Whether its release has been postponed or not, the merit of the film doesn’t change.

SM: The good thing is we got more time to promote our film. Also, this is hardly the first time films are clashing during their release. But these are two very different films, of different genres. I do not think they are similar in any way; the audience will have different experiences watching each film.

MB: A clash is inevitable but this is not our doing. We have no option but to take it head-on, with hope, not only for us but also the other parties. At the end of the day, everybody should come out smiling and have a great experience watching both films.

BOI: Sidharth, was there any physical training you had to undergo while prepping for your character?

SM: My character doesn’t have any action sequences that require martial arts to be performed. It is a spy action thriller. However, on location in Kashmir, for example, there was this sequence where my character loads a gun and does army drills. I had to train to hold and use a gun. I got to learn about the attire that they wear. There was also a lot of time put into getting the body language right.

BOI: We saw your character being trained under Manoj sir in the film. What was your learning from him, off-screen, as an actor or as a person?

SM: Lots. When you work with actors like him, you get to learn something new every day. I was very keen on his acting workshops and very intrigued to know about his classes. He was very sweet and gracious to take the time to discuss acting, performances, dialogue and poetry as well. I have great respect and love for him as he gave me his time, only because he cared.

BOI: Neeraj sir, if we look at the collections graph of your films, every film has higher collections than the last one. Does that put pressure you?

NP: Not at all. I realised that it would be the biggest trap if I fell prey to that line of thinking. I always knew that this was a different kind of story, just like MS… was different from Baby. Every story has a different bandwidth in terms of its audience. You can either succumb to that trap, and then start making films that are similar to each other, stay safe and be content with that, or you can choose newer stories and explore your own boundaries. I prefer the latter. I know it might not be bigger than MS…, numbers-wise. At the same time, I felt the story needed to be told. That’s the type of motivation you look for as a storyteller.

BOI: You have been producing your own films for a while. As a director, when does the producer take over?

NP: I let Shital (Bhatia) do the taking over bit. When I see him scratching his head, I know we are in trouble. When I see him smiling, I know things are just fine. I leave that job to him; he is the producer. My job is more about looking at things from the creative point of view.

BOI: What are your expectations from the film?

MB: There is only one expectation, that people go and watch the film in large numbers. I hope they are enthralled, intrigued and entertained by the pace of the story. We have made this story with a lot of passion. We had our share of ups and downs while making the film but we were determined to meet our deadlines. Now, we are very happy while promoting the film. We are looking forward to our visit to the Wagah border and Chandigarh.

SM: Everybody wants the film to do well but even though this is a mentor-protégé spy thriller or a film with a cat-and-mouse chase, it still speaks about a very relevant subject that I cannot talk about right now. It hits you hard during the climax. I was very moved by it.

NP: I have always made films for the audience and this film is no exception. I expect the same love and warmth that I have received for my previous films. We have always made films that are off the beaten path and this film is no different.

BOI: You always take on films with weighty issues and serious messages. Can we expect you to do a fluffy, comedy film after this?

MB: One cannot change one’s DNA.

NP: It all depends on the faith of the subject. I mean, I would love to make a romantic film. My first script was supposed to be a love story. We never made it and now I feel we missed the bus on that.

MB: We have done a short film called Ouch. If you have any doubts about this other aspect, you must watch that film.

SM: I think everybody has their own space. These films are equally in demand, especially business-wise. I think they open to the same numbers.

BOI: What projects are you working on?

MB: I have worked in Baaghi 2, which is coming out in March. It is a small but significant part. Ahmed Khan is an old friend; he made me dance in Satya and I enjoyed the experience. After that, there is Gali Guliyan, which is an independent film. I will make a special appearance in Abhishek Chaubey’s Son Chiraiya.

SM: I am only committed to the biopic of Captain Vikram Batra, in the Kargil war, again with an army background. We will probably start in summer. It is the story of a brave soldier.

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