It’s a balmy Sunday afternoon. Director Nikkhil Advani steps out of a sound mix for his film Hero, and points up at the logo of Rajkamal Studios. “Yash Chopra used to love this place. Of course, then this complex did not have so many residential buildings,” says Nikkhil. “We shot some scenes of Mohabbatein in that studio,” he says wistfully, pointing to a locked studio gate. Advani’s schooling as an assistant to Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Sudhir Mishra led him to direct six films, from Kal Ho Naa Ho to Salaam-E-Ishq and D-Day. This September presents him with a curious situation — two of his films (Hero and Katti Batti) are releasing in consecutive weeks.
Your last film was D-Day. What was the significance of that movie in your career?
It made me relevant once again. As did my earlier animated film, Delhi Safari. I used to laugh when I read reviews that said the director of Kal Ho Naa Ho (KHNH) has made a film like D-Day. I laughed because suddenly, after 10 years, I was finally being credited for KHNH. I made Salaam-E-Ishq out of arrogance and defiance, wondering why no one believed I directed KHNH. But now D-Day had made people sit up and take notice. That was personal gratification. Professionally, however, it allowed me to set up my production company, so when I told Salman I would like to co-produce Hero, he did not scoff at it, nor did UTV, and I could go to Akshay Kumar with Airlift. D-Day was life changing.
Hero is a remake with two newcomers, and it is produced by Salman Khan. How much scope is there for you as a director with such a project?
I realized early on that Hero is not my film. I was asked to make a film that is Salman’s vision, his instinct, his baby. So I decided to follow his vision and park myself behind him. I learned this after Chandni Chowk To China, where the film was being pulled in four directions, one of which was mine. I did try to rework Hero and bring my take to Subhash Ghai’s screenplay, but it kept coming back to the same spot. When I shared that with Salim Khan, he said “Why are you trying to fix it? It’s not broken.” So I focussed on getting the locations right, making it modern. I brought my aesthetic and technique to it and groomed Sooraj (Pancholi) and Athiya (Shetty). I made it look big.
Hero is a violent, frantic, formulaic masala film. Katti Batti is very urban. Both are love stories.
I describe Katti Batti as the D-Day of romcoms. It’s edgy, funny and has surprises. I had nothing to lose with D-Day and I have nothing to lose with Katti Batti, but there’s a lot of my energy in the film. There’s a lot of all of us in that film. Any urban, middle class couple will look at it and say this has happened to me. Where all love stories end, that’s where Katti Batti begins. It’s about two people who love each other so much they cannot be with each other. Hero, on the other hand, is a remastered version of every love story that has played out in Bollywood — boy meets girl, they cannot be together owing to some conflict and there’s a happy ending.
While Sooraj and Athiya came with Hero, you have the unusual pairing of Imran Khan and Kangana Ranaut in Katti Batti.
When the script of Katti Batti came to me, I was sure I wanted Imran for Maddy’s part. But when we sent feelers out to actresses saying it’s a love story directed by Nikkhil Advani and starring Imran Khan, we didn’t really have them jumping at it. Salman recommended Kangana, but I never thought she would do it. As someone who has worked for 21 years with everyone from Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol to Amitabh Bachchan, Dimple Kapadia, Rishi Kapoor, Irrfan and Huma Qureshi, what you look for in your actors is for them to surprise you. That’s what an Irrfan or a Kangana do, and what an Imran has done constantly through Katti Batti.
You once said you want to make simple films. Expand.
By simple I don’t mean lowest common denominator. What I mean is that everybody who is attracted to the film should watch it and understand it — as simple as that. When Salman asked me to do Hero I asked if he was in it. He said no, so I agreed. He later asked me why I asked him that. The reason is that I cannot start with the knowledge that I have to make a Rs 300 crore film. I cannot do it. I don’t have the ability. I enjoy being under the radar and being able to do what I want to. Salaam-E-Ishq and Chandni Chowk To China taught me that.
What else have you got going on after this crazy September?
Airlift, with Akshay Kumar, is already underway. Three of my assistants are graduating to becoming directors. My company will produce their films. I am committed to Bazaar, which is my version of Wall Street. You and I were born here, in Mumbai. We have nowhere else to go. But I am enamoured by why people want to come and live in this city, which is built on sewage. What pulls them in and keeps them here? And that is being able to stand in a chawl, look up at a high-rise and say that one day I am going to reach there — and so many people have reached there. The film is about that rise. I want to bring back that Deewar, Trishul, Kaala Patthar kind of intensity into a mentor-student relationship. There is another script about a serial killer and a female cop. These are things I really want to try. UTV has asked me to do a Disney film, which I am particularly excited by because my daughter has so far not seen anything I have done.
In such a fickle industry, where relationships change after every Friday, how do you stay grounded?
Your best friends have to be from outside the industry. These are my friends from school and college and they are the guys who keep me sane. My friends from the industry would be Saurabh Shukla, Vikramaditya Motwane, Rohan Sippy, Sunhil Sippy and now Imran. And my ‘in case of emergency contact’ would be Salman Khan!
I realized early on that Hero is not my film. I was asked to make a film that is Salman’s vision, his instinct, his baby. So I decided to follow his vision and park myself behind him.
Nikkhil Advani, 44, has already had an exhausting day when we meet around 5 pm at Yashraj Studios in Mumbai’s Andheri (West), where he is completing the mix for his upcoming film Katti Batti, an “edgy, Dharma Production vibe” rom-com starring Kangana Ranaut and Imran Khan. Before that film releases on September 18, he has Hero, a remake of Subhash Ghai’s 1983 action drama starring newcomers Sooraj Pancholi and Athiya Shetty, releasing on Friday.
This is a rare occurrence, given that it’s uncommon for filmmakers to have more than one release per year anywhere in the world, much less over two consecutive Fridays.
Hero has been delivered, seal and all, and Advani doesn’t find the prospect of back-to-back releases all that overwhelming. “Hero was supposed to release in July,” he says, taking a sip of black coffee. “But then Arbaaz, Sohail, and Salim [Khan] saw the film and really liked how the film had been mounted and how well Sooraj and Athiya had done. So it was Arbaaz who suggested that it should piggyback on the success of Bajrangi Bhaijaan and release it soon after. Meanwhile, Katti Batti was always scheduled for a September 18 release. It was just a coincidence that Hero ended up coming one week before.” Salman Khan Films, the actor's home banner that made Bajrangi Bhaijaan, has also produced Hero.
Advani’s last release was the well-received spy thriller D-Day (2013), which he says was the film he made when he realised, after the critical and commercial failure of Chandni Chowk To China (2009), that he was going about things the wrong way. “When people asked me about that film, I would say, ‘I was trying to make an Akshay Kumar film.’ And they would reply, ‘But why? We came to watch your film.’”
Before D-Day, he’d made the ambitious, bilingual animated film Delhi Safari (2012), which was rejected by critics and audiences everywhere but went on to win a National Award for Best Animated Film the following year nevertheless. “I spent seven years on that film, whilst making two other films on the side,” he says. “So I didn’t really have the time to ghusao my insecurities into it, which is why I think it turned out to be the most honest film I’ve ever made.”
At the same time, he has this firm belief that Indian audiences are generally only aware of the names of perhaps five directors at any given point of time. “Only Bandra-to-Andheri crowd knows the names of filmmakers,” he says, with a grin. “For the rest of the country, it’s ‘Salman ki film’, or ‘Kangana ki nayi film aa rahi hai’.”
These parallel convictions are evident in the differences between his two upcoming films. Hero features two newbie star kids (Sooraj is actor Aditya Pancholi’s son; Athiya is Suniel Shetty’s daughter) who “didn’t know how to stand in front of a camera” when they began shooting the film. Katti Batti, on the other hand, features two-time National Award winner Kangana Ranaut, on whose performance(s) Tanu Weds Manu Returns banked upon to become one of the biggest hits of this year, as well as Imran Khan.
He did Hero for two reasons, he says: one, because Salman Khan asked him to (“I cannot say no to him,” he says); and two, because it was a remake of a film he loves. “Will it match up to the original? Of course not. You can’t reinvent the wheel,” he says. “But yes, we’ve tried to make it look glossy and cool… basically, we’ve updated it for a whole new generation who’ve never seen the original. For them, Jackie [Shroff, who debuted with the ’83 film] is Tiger Shroff’s dad.”
Katti Batti, on the other hand, is more of a director’s piece. “It’s a very honest film and we've tried to keep it as real as possible,” he says. “It’s also a very Bombay film and I’m a South Bombay guy myself. So I really didn’t have to do much preparation for it. All the situations shown in the film… I have been part of them, I’ve seen them.”
Despite Hero having all the elements of a typical ‘star kid launch film’, Advani says that they’ve tried to break the template at places. “I believe that if you have the resources, as a filmmaker and an artiste, you must try and do something, even if it’s just one scene, that pushes existing boundaries,” he says. “If you aren’t doing that much and just sticking to the formula, you’re being lazy.”
He’s trying to do the same and more with Katti Batti as well his other upcoming films: Airlift, which he is producing; Bazaar, a film centered on the world of stock markets, and an as-yet-untitled murder mystery.
But for now, after two years, he’s looking forward to having not one but two releases and is eager to see how the audience reacts. “I think the line I’ll be looking for in the reviews for Hero is that it doesn’t look like it’s their [Pancholi’s and Shetty’s] first film,” he says. “For Katti Batti, I’m hoping that Imran Khan’s performance gets noticed. I think he’s done a fabulous job.”
We all have enjoyed seeing the romantic, comical, action & also the patriotic side of Akshay Kumar and once again we will get to see khiladi's patriotic side in his upcoming film AIRLIFT.
Ask producer Nikkhil Advani about his upcoming film AIRLIFT and he says, “I have seen about 82 minutes of the film. I think there is one last schedule that is going to happen from 20th of October onwards and then they'll release on 22nd of January.”
We had seen a photo of Akshay Kumar from AIRLIFT and after seeing it we thought Akshay was portraying an older character in the film. When we asked Nikkhil about the same, he said, “There is no first look as yet. He isn't playing an older guy, he is playing his age, he's playing a man who is 45. It's a very different role for him, it's a very different space.”
Furthermore ask him if this is going to be on the similar lines as BABY or GABBAR IS BACK and he says, “This is going to be very different from his other films primarily because BABY & GABBAR IS BACK were extremely physical and AIRLIFT is not. AIRLIFT is more about great performance and outstanding story. It is a true story of how 170 thousand people were evacuated from KUWAIT.”
Talking about the patriotic angle, he further said, “This is an extremely patriotic film. It creates a very patriotic emotion so it's different.”
Whenever Akshay has done patriotic films, he has been really loved by the masses. So let's hope this works for Akshay Kumar this time as well. But we will have to wait a little longer as the film releases on 22nd January, 2016.