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.”