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Walking On Air

Nikkhil Advani, one of the producers of the runaway hit, Airlift, talks to Team Box Office India about the challenges and rewards of being part of the Akshay Kumar-starrer.

Box Office India (BOI): Was it easy to convince everyone of the vision that you guys had?

Nikkhil Advani (NA): No. It took time to convince them (Raja Krishna Menon and Akshay Kumar) and to make them understand what each one wanted. Raja used to weep every day. He used to say, ‘What are you doing with my film? It’s not a commercial film.’ Sometimes, Akshay would say, ‘Thoda documentary hai yaar.’

BOI: Are you relieved now?

NA: I am very relieved. It’s been a very tough year.

BOI: Did you expect a response of this kind?

NA: We hoped for a response like this but it exceeded all our expectations. If any of the producers or anyone else attached to this film claims they knew this was going to happen, they would be lying. To see a genre like this being accepted, and the way it has been accepted, is inexplicable but there are a few factors that could have influenced the response, one of them being the Pathankot attack, which left the country looking for patriotism. Also, as Indians, we are looking for that one story that would make us proudly proclaim that ‘we are Indians’. And this story satisfied that need. I was expecting the film to run in multiplexes, and then Raja suddenly called me and said, ‘Just hear the reaction at Chandan Cinema.’ At that point, I asked him, when did he, of all people, become a commercial director! People loved the film.

BOI: It has been a long association between Akshay and you. From Chandni Chowk To China to producing Airlift.

NA: Yes, we go back a long way. In fact, the day Salaam-E-Ishq released in 2007, Akshay called me and asked me to make a film for him. Our association began on that day. Akshay is someone who literally puts his money where his mouth is, especially with Airlift. In 2013, I was discussing another film with him and he told me, very politely, ‘Sethji aapko nahin lagta, main zara old hoon iss role ke liye.’ Then he said he wanted to hear the story we had been discussing over dinner the previous night. Vikram (Malohotra) had told him about the idea. Since he is stubborn, he wanted to hear that story. I remember, we were at the Four Seasons, just Vikram, Akshay and I. I told him the story in 10 minutes and after that, it became difficult.

BOI: Why?

NA: Raja didn’t want Akshay Kumar. It was a big deal to convince Raja to cast Akshay. He had his doubts about whether Akshay would be able to pull off the character and whether Akshay would submit to him as he comes from a different school of acting. Akshay is such a big star. Raja was looking for actors like Irrfan. So it was a huge challenge to convince him to sign Akshay. I told Akshay that he would have to do readings and convince Raja that both of them would be on the same page.

BOI: Did he agree?

NA: Yes, for 20 days, from 5.30-7.30 every morning, we used to do readings. We used to discuss the script, how we would shoot, we used to fight but he (Raja) finally agreed. The way Akshay gave himself to the script was superb. He even came on board as a producer. I told him I could not afford his fees, so Vikram had that conversation with him. Akshay told us, ‘Aap log mujhe raw deal de rahe ho.’

BOI: What was the conversation between Akshay, the producers and the director on day one, when the film released?

NA: It was actually ‘day minus one’, when the reviewers watched the film. I came and met you guys before the trial started. I used to do that as the moment my film would get over, reviewers mere upar patthar phekte hain. I was not supposed to come back but our PR person, Nilufer Qureshi, called me and said I needed to come to witness the energy during the intermission. I believe you (Vajir Singh) spoke to Vinod (Bhanushali), so he called me and said you loved the film and are giving it four stars. Then Siddharth (Hussain) called me, jisne Chandni Chowk To China mein mujhe phaad diya tha. He called me at 1.30am to say, ‘Thank you for making this film.’ This was a hint that something good was happening. But we still didn’t expect the numbers to be what they are. We were happy that we had got a very good teaser, and a very good trailer. We also knew we didn’t have songs in the film, so we were pushing the dialogue. That’s when we decided to put out the trailer.

BOI: Were songs part of the script or they were added later?

NA: I convinced Raja to include three songs. One was the final anthem, which was scripted, and the interval bhangra song, which was the song of hope. Then, obviously, we thought ki ek party ka gaana hona chahiye. I inherently like songs in my films, and whether my films have been bad or worse, my music has always been good. I told Raja, ‘You do your music and then we will decide and just imagine you are approving Bhushan Kumar’s music!’ These were some of the challenges. You know, they feel at every step ki meri picture mere haath se jaa rahi hai and that too many people are advising me. So I used to be the wall for Raja. I used to tell them to come to me with their problems and issues and that I would convey them to Raja.

BOI: Is it because you too are a director and you therefore understood the issues he faced?

NA: I wish I also had that ‘wall’! Yes, because I am a director, I understand what a director goes through. Every day, you arrive on the sets with a particular vision for the scene. But your production team says that the location was not available and they have got something else. You have to adjust. Then your costume designer says they don’t have the costume that was needed and they have something else. So you adjust again. Then the actor sees the scene in a completely different way, so as a director, one is constantly adjusting and fighting.

I believe Aditya Chopra was a superb producer when he did Chak De! India, Karan Johar was an outstanding producer when he did Wake Up! Sid as he allowed Ayan Mukerji and Ranbir Kapoor to make the film on their own. Those are very interesting examples of producers. Finally, I could be that wall for Raja so that all he needed to do was concentrate on making the film the way he had seen it. I had just told him to cast Akshay as we would get money to make the film. I also asked him to get writers Ritesh (Shah) and Suresh (Nair), whom he didn’t want initially. So I had to convince Raja to take them as writers and I told him that I would come for a narration only when it was ready.

BOI: You were the wall but there were other producers too. What are the pros and cons of having so many producers on board?

NA: That is going to become the norm, especially when you want to make films like this, so-called niche films, but if you want to make it on the scale it deserves. In that case, one person cannot produce it. Hollywood works like this. There is a studio, an international studio; a US studio; and a studio which represents the director as the director could loan down with the film. Then there is a guy who is putting out all the money. So there are three teams. In our case, there were four, my production company is pretty small. We have done four films, among which three have been directed by me and this was the first film with another director.

We are open to everyone, we are open to writers and we keep our doors open for new ideas. We are always looking for that one film. For instance, Raja came to us with a different script; he had done Bas Yun Hi and Barah Aana, and he thought he would be only allowed to make that particular genre. And I looked at him as a new director. I was editing D-Day at that time. I asked him to give me a film which everybody would allow him to make and one that he thought nobody would allow him to make as it would take us the same amount of time to convince a studio.

So things are changing. There will be people who will be involved in the creative space but I don’t want to call myself a ‘creative producer’ because I am a producer. And I think a producer’s job is to be creative. I learnt that from Yash Joharji. The producer should be able to manage the money and use it where it is needed. I believe Ritesh Sidhwani is an excellent producer. To be able to understand that a script is good and that we should make the film, and then if you can put in the money, then you don’t have to divide the pie. But one has to look outside too, someone who can finance and someone who can look at marketing. Basically, one needs to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. Vikram is brilliant at marketing and he has an eye for films. Look at the kind of films he green-lit in his Viacom18 days – Queen, Gangs Of Wasseypur, Kahaani, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. So Vikram also understood that he should let me handle the creative and he would look at the marketing aspect. So somebody took charge of marketing, someone else took charge of production and somebody brought in the money.

BOI: Akshay Kumar also went all out to promote the film. Was he sceptical about the film or confident about it?

NA: Nobody knew what business the film would do. All of us pegged that at `75-80 crore and that too because Akshay was starring in it. His fan base would allow you to make that much, after which the film has to run on its own. But he was very proud of the film and he went all out and showed the film to his family and friends. Even his wife said this was his best performance to date. With this film, he has shown what he can do when given a good script.

BOI: He has evolved as an actor.

NA: I think he discovered himself as an actor when Raj Kumar Santoshi made Khakee. I think Santoshi turned around and told him that he could do so much more. He had great comic timing. Then Priyadarshan took it forward. He says Priyan and Santoshi are the two people who made him understand that he was just not a stunt actor and that there was more to him as an actor.

Here, 98 per cent of the film has him in it. I was once watching the rushes. During the scene where he is crying, he told me that Raja wanted to keep the scene. Akshay didn’t want that scene as he had a runny nose in the scene. But I told him, ‘You said yes to the film and you had said yes to the vision, so it is okay’. There were times when his sensibilities were ki isko kaato. The scene where he is driving a car and the camera is chasing him – he used to say ‘Cut the scene as it is looking very boring’. But we convinced him to keep that one too. I believe it was a challenge for him to hold back and let Raja do what he wanted to do. Like you said, he evolved as an actor, he knows the zone is different but he believed in the director’s vision.

BOI: He has entered a new zone with Special 26, Baby and now Airlift.

NA: Yes, but Neeraj Pandey’s films move very quickly and he doesn’t complain as he loves that pace. Raja was a little slow, he wanted to explore other actors, like George (Prakash Belawadi). Akshay and Raja had to literally marry each other. It was a little difficult in, at first, but both of them understood each other eventually.

BOI: You have received an outstanding response in India but what about the international market?

NA: The film was given a phenomenal reception in the Middle East and the US. The UK doesn’t have that kind of audience yet, they still like bubble-gum kind of films. But the US audience has changed. And, nowadays, with social media and smartphones, you get to watch everything. A few days ago, I got a message from INS Hamla, where the cadets threw their caps in the air when the plane lands during the climax. It did well in Australia, the US and the Middle East. Apparently, it’s Akshay’s biggest film in the overseas market.

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