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Sunny Side Up

Producers Ahmed Khan and Shaira Khan, director Bobby Khan, leading men Jay Bhanushali and Mohit Ahlawat, and leading lady Sunny Leone of Ek Paheli Leela in conversation with team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): Let’s start with how did Leela begin?

Ahmed Khan (AK): It all started when I started my own production house. I asked Bobby what kind of film we should make. We had three to four scripts and one of those that Bobby had seemed more like a documentary. (Laughs)

Bobby Khan (BK): (Cuts in) No, let me tell you what happened. We had an idea and it was a documentary that Dilip Mehta was to make into a film. That documentary was about Sunny’s (Leone) life from Canada and then how she comes to Mumbai.

AK: Let me continue… I won’t lie to you but I had no dearth of options which were pitched to me by other people. But when he narrated the idea to me, it was only the germ of an idea, which I thought I could scale up to become an anaconda. My second priority was to have Sunny in my film. We had spoken to Daniel (Weber) already and I had shot one song earlier with Sunny, which was the best song.

Sunny Leone (SL): We were having a bad day and we were quite stressed, and the article in the newspaper came out with the first look of the film. I was just so happy.

AK: We had so many dancers on the sets, it was raining and we were having a bad day. Then she came running to me with the article and she said, ‘Look, this will cheer you up!’ The idea of the film was so engaging that it’s a reincarnation done in a different format. I was apprehensive about pulling it off. There were crucial things like the performances and the detailing. When one shows an era that is 300 years old, one has to create an era no one has seen. It’s a huge challenge. Then, there’s present-day life in London, Mumbai and Jaisalmer. So we needed some really good R&D on every era. But Bobby was quite prepared with his research and had done the prep really well. That’s how it all started.

I knew Sunny but I didn’t want to pull any strings. I wanted to cast her but I told Bobby to go ahead and call her.

SL: I had worked with Ahmed before but I knew Bobby. So it all started when he called me.

BOI: Bobby, why did you want to cast Sunny in the film? Or did you write the film with Sunny in mind?

BK: I wrote Leela 12 years ago. I couldn’t start the film then because Sunny wasn’t around back then. Then Sunny came into the industry five years ago and still I didn’t start the film because she was busy with Bigg Boss, Jism 2 and so on. I didn’t have Sunny in mind but we met for coffee and we bounced off some ideas. It was a very tough film not only at the script level but also because there are so many characters from so many different eras and she was the only one to work out. She was shooting for Ragini MMS 2 back then and we didn’t know if we could take that film to that level. We did have a chat with Ahmed and we became confident. The other apprehension was whether Sunny could carry off a performance-oriented role like this one.

People think Sunny Leone is all about beauty and looking sexy but she is extremely sharp and smart too. She is very intelligent.

SL: (Cuts in) Can I please tell these guys about that conversation where there was another script which I really wanted to do, and he was, like, ‘No, you can’t play this character; maybe you should do this one instead!’

BK: No, but I must mention that I would love to give you that film because I know you will give it your heart and soul. But I think maybe after Leela, people will start accepting her as a mainstream Bollywood actress and doing good performances in films. When I bounced the idea of Leela off her, she was kicked and told me just one thing – just stand by me, no matter what. After that, we became good friends.

BOI: Sunny, he just said you are very intelligent. Let’s ask you what is so special about Leela?

SL: There are three characters. Leela has these different looks. The first is the London look, where she is very young and fresh and likes to shop and wear new clothes. She also has a carefree attitude and can stop everyone in their tracks when she walks into a room. Somehow, she gets tricked into going to Rajasthan, where she meets Jay and, there, a whole new character starts developing – that of a princess. This character was not tough to play because there is an inner princess in every girl. My first-look poster took six hours of folding, tucking, tugging, taping and painting to create that look. There was so much back and forth, and I heard a lot of ‘I don’t like this’, ‘let’s redo this’, ‘this is exactly what I want’, ‘no, change all of it’… I had to draw on my inner patience, and, after six hours, we came up with the first look. It was the most beautiful and elaborate look I had ever done.

It used to take two to three hours to just get into Leela’s role because we had to spray paint me as we wanted Leela’s skin to look dark. It made sense when my director pointed out that I was living in a desert in the middle of nowhere with sand dunes all around. So we painted my body and my hair. But the hardest part was the dialogue. There is this one line that you must have seen in the trailer, where I say, ‘Leela, naam hai mera.’ Ahmed was, like, ‘Thump your chest and say it with vigour!’

AK: She was initially patting herself and mouthing those lines. Sunny is a modern girl, so she was doing it politely. I told her that Leela was a rural girl and she had to be really rough and say it with vigour. We did that take several times.

BOI: Why is the film called Ek Paheli Leela?

Jay Bhanushali (JB): We are doing several interviews and someone asked me why Leela is a paheli (riddle)? I made it very clear that the film is titled Ek Paheli Leela; I am the ‘Ek Paheli’ and Sunny is ‘Leela’. (Laughs)

SL: Our story begins with Leela. Since paheli means ‘riddle’, you have to figure out who she is and Jay’s character takes the story forward. Why don’t you explain it from here, Jay?

JB: We have decided not to discuss or divulge too much about the story because we want the audience to enter cinemas with a blank slate and solve the mystery themselves.

SL: Jay’s character takes the story forward. He is the one having all the bad dreams. He is the one trying to figure out who Leela is, where she is, where she came from, and why he is having all these crazy dreams. The film is mainly about his quest to find out why he is having these dreams.

BOI: There are so many male characters in the film. What is their connection with Leela?

SL: There’s Leela’s love interest, which is the character Ranveer played by Mohit Ahlawat, Shravan, her past love and a few more.

BOI: There are nine songs in the film…

AK: There were 10 and we deleted one. Strangely, there is something that even Sunny doesn’t know. Earlier, there were no songs in the film.

BOI: And then Bhushan Kumar came into the picture?

AK: (Laughs) No, even he wasn’t there. But I had told them that if I came on board, I would like to make a Sanjay Leela Bhansali-like film. So we started adding songs in certain situations. I saw the potential to add songs and I started making Bobby listen to Coke Studio. But we decided not to venture into that zone and I thought we should bring Bhushan on board. I met Bhushan and I can vouch for the face that, as a producer, he works from the heart. If he knows you and has a rapport with you, he doesn’t think twice. We spoke in the morning, locked the film at night, and locked five songs the next day.

SL: I remember that meeting, Bhushan made me meet the artists from India and other countries.

AK: After all this, we needed just one song, which was in Sunny’s previous life. We needed a Rajasthani folk song. We went to Rajasthan… You have songs like Tu cheez badi hai mast… and a song about Bulle shah, and Pardesi pardesi jaana nahi, and Padharo mhare desh. I realised that even Dholi taro is a native song. I suggested to Bhushan that we ask SLB for his permission. But Bhushan said he had the rights to the song. Next, we shot another song with Jay which was again a T-Series song, which goes Main hoon deewana tera. We ended up with nine songs because we realised that every time we introduced a song, it didn’t jar with the film. Jay plays the character of a music producer in the film.

BOI: Is it modelled on Bhushan Kumar?

AK: (Laughs) No. He came up with five more songs! So I told him, ‘Nanu (Bhushan Kumar’s nickname), picture bhi banana hai.’ That’s how we ended up with nine songs. There was one song by Uzair Jaswal, called Jaan, which was a big hit on YouTube. We deleted that song because there was no space for it but there is a funny story behind it. In the song, Jay is looking for a broken ruin. And he wants to go and look for it. So he decides to go to Kulu Manali, in the snow and then he travels by bus to Punjab. I told him, Jay, we will start the song with you on the bus and then cut to snow-capped mountains. Jay was sold on the idea. Then I said, from there we will come down to Punjab and you will be in the sarson ka khet, and then you go to Kutch with destroyed terrains, then Maharashtra amid black stones, and finally hunting in the jungles. He went, ‘Wow, wow wow’!!!

JB: Ahmed goes into visual mode the moment you make him listen to a song. He told me, I can picture you in the fields now, and now in Kutch.’

SL: And it got reduced to what, Jay?

JB: It was completely edited out! (Laughs)

AK: Wait I am coming to that. We planned all this and I told them the film would be a grand film, Subhash Ghai-style. The stage was set and then our writer Jojo Khan suddenly says, ‘Ahmed bhai, one question.’ I was, like, don’t come up with an idea when we are about to leave for Nepal or North East of India. But he said, when we were making a film set in 2015, why were we following the ’90s? I was, like, ‘Correct’. He pointed out that there was no Internet in 1991-92 in India but that everyone was tech savvy in 2015. So why should this guy travel? He can simply Google on a computer. That’s how Jay’s travel was cut down and, in the end, he is searching on a laptop!

JB: There were elaborate plans. Bobby suggested that we do a road trip and I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting so many different places. Then, suddenly, he says ‘we will do it this way’. So all those road trips came down to a scene in a room where I am searching on a laptop.

BK: On the script level, the song was never based on travelling. But Ahmed wanted a visual trip and who would argue with him?

SL: When you watch the film, it does justice to the script. You realise why he is not travelling.

AK: A few days ago, I was at Whistling Woods shooting for a song and I met Subhash ji (Ghai). I wanted to show him the trailer. We went to his office and told him we had made a film called Ek Paheli Leela, and he said, “Leela film na, market mein bahut garam hai. The songs have become very popular. My younger daughter keeps listening to the songs.” After we showed him the trailer, he clapped and I told him Bobby Khan had directed it. He was so happy to hear that and was, like, it looks like a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film! He loved the way it was made as it looked like the larger-than-life films he used to make.

He complimented us by saying, “This is called cinema, where there are horses running, top shots, chopper shots, everything is very exciting. Do you know why this film works for me? Because it has cinematic vision. It is a whole pack of entertainment. You have blended reincarnation with modernisation and you can’t go wrong with that. Also, today half the audience has forgotten about reincarnation.”

SL: When Bobby told me there were nine songs in the film, I wondered how Ahmed would make each one different from the others. It’s like listening to an album and from the album, it’s like watching a story. And he hasn’t forced any of these songs into the film; every song is connected. It’s like watching Jay growing in his journey through the songs. It’s the same with me and the other characters. When we go into past lives, each song takes the movie forward, and that’s the best part.

BOI: From the way you talk about the film, the script, the songs… it seems you have lived Leela’s life through the making of the film.

SL: I was involved with this film emotionally, mentally and physically. Yes, you’re right, I have lived the life of Leela, also because the team had become very much like a family. We have all put our sweat, blood and hard work into the film. We were loving each other, hating each other, loving each other and again hating each other, laughing together, having a good time, having a bad time, having dinner together, the girls having fun on the sets… it was literally a family movie. We were working like a family on the sets. It wasn’t a production house, where everybody is busy in their own life; we were having a good time together.

BOI: You mean there was no bitching?

SL: (Laughs) Like I said, we loved each other, we hated each other but in the end we all were together, just like a family. After the shoot, the entire wives’ club used to meet and do our girly chats and gossip.

AK: I have worked with many actresses and will say that Sunny needs to be doing something at all times. And she is bang on time. Also, you need to brief her on the day’s shoot only, or else she may lose it. There was this action sequence we were shooting in the heat and I told Sunny we would call her in the next 20 minutes. After two hours, I realised I had given Sunny a 20-minute break! But I spotted her having a blast with the girl gang. I didn’t even disturb her because everyone was doing their job.

BOI: Tell us about your journey, Shaira.

Shaira Khan (SK): My journey was absolute fun, whether I was doing Paathshaala or Leela. l was involved in everything, from costumes to the look. I enjoy the process of filmmaking. This film was special because, as Sunny said, we had become like a family. The last ten days of the shoot were very emotional as we had grown very close to each other. On the very last day, I messaged Sunny, saying I was feeling very bad that the movie was over and that I was very emotional. There was no more Leela, no more sets; only memories. You make memories and then you move on.

The day after the trailer launch, I told Ahmed, ‘Shucks, we don’t have any more schedules of Leela. How we will all meet?’

JB: (Laughs) Now we will shoot the travel song.

SL: True but we also worked very hard, shooting for 14-15 hours every day. We shot in summer, in the desert. We will move on to another film but memories and our friendship will always remain.

BOI: You mean Leela Part 2?

SL: (Laughs) You never know!

JB: I would like to say something here. The sets were beautiful and every shot had made huge sets. We were shooting in Rajasthan, were you find camels, sand and every animal other than elephants. Still, we had elephants on our set! They actually brought in elephants from a neighbouring state for just one shot. Instead of dispensing with that scene, they chose to keep it and bring elephants all the way to Rajasthan.

SL: Whenever a foreigner walks into this country, the one thing they want to see is elephants. So when I saw them on the sets, I became very excited. It was a well-planned shoot because the elephant they had brought in was well trained. We were shooting with a huge crowd and loud music and he was very tame.

BOI: In the end, we want to know how happy you all are with Leela approaching its release.

SL: I am beyond being overjoyed. This film is very close to me and we have worked really hard on it, mentally and physically. I would even go so far as to say that this film is the closest to me of all the films I have done. We shot in Rajasthan in summer and we all suffered in the heat together. When you watch the film, you will realise how detailed our director’s work is. It was just not me in the frame; when you look at a frame, you see me, you see matkas, you see background dancers or a crowd, you see domesticated animals, you see camels sitting in the backdrop… he created a zoo out of nowhere for the film. The scenes shot in the sand dunes look amazing. There was a natural oasis too. Every scene has been shot wonderfully. It’s a visual treat.

JB: My character in the film is new to me, even to my television career. It was a challenging role and I was excited about the reincarnation factor in the script. It all happened by chance. We (Ahmed and I) were working together in DID (Dance India Dance) and I was shy and nervous to show him the first promo of my show. I was confused as I didn’t know how he would react to the promo as his films are different. Everybody on the sets of DID was talking about Hate Story 2, and suddenly he comes up to me and says, why you didn’t show it to me? So he saw the promo. That night, when we all were leaving and we were in the parking lot, he came up to me and said, ‘I am producing a film called Leela. Will you be interested in being a part of It?’ I jumped at the offer. It was an offer I had dreamt of… Ahmed Khan choreographing me. I would always beg him to choreograph me and here he was offering me a film at the parking lot!

SK: This is another feather in the hat for our production. We made Pathashaala and now Leela. And if Leela becomes a hit, we will make Leela 2. For me, this film is very special as I was very closely associated with the look and costumes.

AK: A producer always wants a few things in return when making a film. One, either the film should be critically acclaimed or clock great numbers at the box office. Since I am sitting at Box Office India right now, I want great box-office numbers. We have given this film everything we had – money, emotion and hard work – and that applies to all the actors, including Sunny, Mohit, Jay, Jas Arora, Rajneesh Duggal, and our crew. I have worked with actors, I have worked with them in sand dunes before and Sunny told me only once that she thought she was going to melt. That was before we went to Rajasthan. We shot in Rajasthan for 16 days. Apart from saying that, she didn’t say anything else like that during the entire shoot. And, for one song, I made her stand on top of the dunes. I knew if I pamper her a little, maybe… I know how to handle my actors…. If I had pampered her even a little, she would have said, ‘I told you, na.’

Nowadays, a film releases in three parts – first it releases on YouTube; then there’s the television release and finally the theatrical release. We are at the YouTube release stage and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I will also enjoy the television release. About the theatrical release… Let’s see what God has in store for us. Chal jaye toh great as this film could launch the careers of many people. I am a veteran and am at retirement age.

SK: (Cuts in) You will never retire. That is why everyone wants to do something new with you.

AK: There are two people I really want to thank. One is Shaira, who got the look of the film, Leela’s look. Then there was this one guy but I was not confident that he would be able to pull it off. His name is Nitesh, the designer of the film. That boy shocked me with his talent. The other guy is the DoP of the film, Bashalal Syed. I cannot shoot with the sun overhead, especially in Rajasthan, but this guy shot in top light at 1:30 pm. He has absolutely killed it. And we completed the film in 49 days. Whereas everyone was saying 100 days or 80 or 70 days, I said I had a plan of 44 days, which turned into 49 days… the whole thing with patch work and nine songs. Now you can understand how he must have shot.

SL: This film is a labour of love for everybody involved in it. We all put ourselves on the line for the film. The world hasn’t seen it yet, only a glimpse, but they will soon see all that hard work. Whether they like it or not or they love this film or not and even if they hate the story, every single person who is a part of this film gave their guts, their soul and their heart to it. It is a film we should all be really proud of.

AK: There’s one last thing I want to say… Nanu (Bhushan Kumar) was on the sets for two hours of these 49 days. (Laughs) I said, ‘Aaja, Nanu, watch the shoot.’ And he said, ‘Ahmed bhai, you’re there so I don’t need to come. Bobby bhai is there, I don’t want to come.’ Can you imagine that man wasn’t present for even one entire day during the shoot? And he had no idea what we were shooting. The one time he came on the sets, he asked us when we had got all that done. He asked us how we had pulled it off. He didn’t even know about the climax set.

SL: They had built this massive set. When I walked in, I was speechless.

JB: Since I was from a television background, I was unaware of how the things would go. I kept hearing about ‘set making’ and wondered kitne set banenge. And actually jitna maine socha tha the sets are way more than that and the detailing in each one was so precise. I have never a set as massive as the one we constructed for the climax scene. Each statue was 30 feet tall!

AK: Statues that were 6 storeys high and we used 12 statues.

MA (Mohit Ahlawat): I thought my action sequence was going to be a regular sequence but when I went on location, I saw the huge sets. And I arrived three days before my shoot was to start, so I was totally charged up after I saw the sets.

SL: I think the audience will think that the climax sequence has the coolest shots.

BOI: Bobby, how happy are you?

BK: For me, it is a dream come true. First, I have become a director after a really long journey in the film industry. Having one’s film release is a very emotional experience. I would like to thank my brother and Bhushan, who is also like my brother, who supported me throughout. I am also grateful to all my actors, starting with Sunny, for being a part of Ek Paheli Leela and becoming Leela and delivering such an amazing performance. People will see Mohit (Ahlawat) in a different avatar.

MA: (Cuts in) I got this film three days before filming…

AK: I got to him three days before we were filming.

MA: I was very nervous and I was, like, every time she said one thing and also my father told me one thing a long time back, don’t be like this and just work.

AK (Cuts In): He didn’t have any time to prepare.

SL: He wasn’t in the on-set workshop that we did.

AK: He didn’t have any time at all. I am also grateful he agreed to be part of the film and to doing such a horrible role. He is used to playing family roles.

MA: It’s a horrible role.

AK: A horrible character who becomes the hero in the end!

BK: The role calls for someone who is 6 feet tall and has attitude… a certain charisma and presence. But I cast him because he is loved by everybody including kids.

AK: Arey nahi, when he was cast, he was a very young boy, bada cute tha. Aaj, woh daadhi moochh mein aaya hai. But if you actually shave off the beard and moustache, and give him a school bag and water bottle, he will look like a school kid. (Laughs).

BK: That’s why he keeps his beard, so that people take him seriously.

AK: You should watch the song… In the jeep with Sunny, he is clean shaven. He looks 12 years old and people could say Sunny Leone is with a kid. What is this? But then Rahul Dev is a very dear friend of mine and he is very brave. He came on board to play a character. He is a very busy guy down South.

SL: He is a charming guy and his body language is amazing. I had one sequence with him and he is a strong man. You work with people and you have to work with the posture and everything. I was, like, ‘Wow, okay, he actually makes my body look good. He is strong.’

BK: And let’s not forget there is one more guy, Rajneesh Duggal, whose character in the film is genuinely like Rajneesh Duggal.

SL: Actually that is where the story begins. He is my love interest and he is the person I married. Working with him was such a nice experience. Everybody has seen the sand dunes sequences. We were shooting at night and there were huge insects all over!

BK: They attacked 10 to 15 times. I don’t know why they liked us so much!

SL: I was screaming and I would run behind Rajneesh and shout for help. Since he was a part of Fear Factor, he would just pick it up and throw it away. And in between all this, we would shoot a very beautiful technical scene.

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