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With barely two days left for a film to hit the marquee, you would expect its maker to be crunching numbers and experiencing sleepless nights, especially when the said film is one of the biggest festive releases of 2017 and features one of the biggest superstars of this country- Salman Khan.
Instead, 'Tubelight' director Kabir Khan is all calm and composed when we settle for a quick chat with him.
Excerpts from the conversation...
'Salman Khan Is A Very Charming Person'
Q. This is the third time you are working with Salman Khan. Do you see any change and how was it working with him?
A. I see an evolution in his approach. I think in Ek Tha Tiger he was a little relaxed. From there to Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I saw him getting involved with characters. Bajrangi came easily to him because we were tapping into his inherent charm. He is a very charming person when he wants to be.
Tubelight is far more complicated than that. It is one of his toughest roles till date. He's like a man-child in the film. You can never look normal or look off. It's very easy to go a little over-the-top with these kind of portrayals which is often seen in both, Bollywood and Hollywood.
I think it's doubly difficult for Salman because it's him playing a man-child. He is an epitome of maschosim in our industry. He is an epitome of action films who is suddenly playing a vulnerable, sensitive boy-man.
'It's The Industry Which Actually Limits Itself By Saying 'Yeh Audience Ko Nahi Chahiye'
Q. How did you get Salman on board and was it difficult for you to convince him to play someone vulnerable?
A. I think the journey started when he decided to take up Bajrangi Bhaijaan which was an anthesis of what he had been doing since the past eight-nine years and it was successful.
Ek Tha Tiger which we did together was one of the most successful action films. We could have easily done another film in the same genre (action) and that would have been a safe bet. But he said no and suggested that we should try something different.
The journey started with Bajrangi and especially with the commercial success that it achieved, we realized that the audience is open to accept different cinema. I often say that it's the industry that actually limits itself by saying 'yeh audience ko nahi chahiye'.
In fact, the audience is whole-heartedly accepting anything which is new, refreshing and has a good story. The story today is the king. It's definitely bigger than any of the stars and all of them put together.
It's ultimately the story which matters. For Salman, it's not the character but what the character stands for is more important; what are the values that this character is sending out to the audience.
'I Saw Salman Prepare For A Role For The First Time In Tubelight'
Q. Any preparation which Salman underwent to play a man-child in Tubelight?
A. Preparation is not something Salman will admit to, because I think it's not cool enough to do that but this is the first time I saw him prepare for a role. This is the first time I saw him struggling to, in a way, to get hold of this character.
He would start calling me in the middle of the night saying ki "arey koi reference de" and I said, "main kahan se reference doon, reference hi nahi hai." He said, "Hollywood mei koi reference hai," to which I said, "nahi hai". There was one person who he knew of which was probably close to this character.
He would keep asking would the character do this or that, so that was his preparation. Just sitting and thinking about this character much more than I have ever seen him do. Even today, he goes by gut instinct. But in this, I could see him do that."
This I realized on the first day of the shoot. I was a little cruel to him because, on the first day of the shoot, I made him do the climax scene. I said I will throw you in the deep end aur phir dekhenge. On the first day of the shoot in Ladakh, when we were about to shoot, he disappeared.
I kept looking for him and he came after 40 minutes, he came in a zone which I have never seen in him because he is someone who would be whistling and laughing and the moment we say action he will start crying.
We rolled, that is a single take scene, which has gone as it is in the edit, I didn't tell him anything, he just performed something and I realized where he was for the last 40 minutes. There were lot of elements in that scene which I hadn't told him.
For me, that was very heartening as the director because this made my journey simpler because I realized that he is taking care of his own character, I just need to make sure that the consistency remains and he doesn't go overboard."
'The Dynamics Change The Moment You Have A Superstar Onboard'
Q. You just mentioned that the story is the king. Having a superstar like Salman Khan changes the economics of a film completely. Do you think that the film (Tubelight) would have been different if there was some other actor in place of Salman?
A. Absolutely right. The moment you have a superstar onboard, the dynamics change. The opening becomes bigger but expectations also become bigger. If Tubelight stops at 200 (crores) it would have made money, but people would still say, ‘yaar bakwaas'.
However, if any other star makes 200, they will be proclaimed king. So the dynamics definitely change, but our audience has very clearly shown us now, that ultimately it is the story that is king.
I don't want to take names, but there have been films with superstars, which have not delivered business as they were supposed to do. People came in huge numbers on Day 1 and with the same speed, they exited on Day 2.
The stars of Baahubali were not big names in our world (Bollywood), we didn't know them that well. We knew Rajamouli, so if anybody is the star of that film, it's the director, which is a very positive development.
Even in Dangal, it was more about the girls. I told Salman that he was a supporting actor in Bajrangi Bhaijaan; it's Harshaali Malhotra's film. The audience took to these films in a huge way, much more than they would in what we think otherwise are commercially sound films.
Q. What has been Salman's influence on you and how have you influenced him?
A. Sometimes I get stuck in the rut of finding logic and context to everything. Both, Salman and Aditya Chopra would tell me to 'just sometimes fly'.
They would tell me to take cinematic liberties and not get so disturbed by it. This I think has definitely helped me. He has helped me sometimes maybe approach a scene with more flair and throw a little bit of logic outside the window (not completely illogical though). Sometimes it doesn't matter. Earlier I used to argue that it does matter and would not let it go.
What I have contributed to Salman is reverse of this. I have told him that dude, it does matter after a period. So, I think it's the blending of the two sensibilities that's worked well. He allows me to fly a little and I don't allow him to fly too much!
'After Ek Tha Tiger I Was Offered Remake Rights Of A Lot Of Hollywood Blockbusters'
Q. Why did you choose to do an adaptation of 'A Little Boy'?
A. Our film is an official adaptation and there's something about the story that I really like.
After Ek Tha Tiger I was offered remake rights of a lot of Hollywood blockbusters. I was so excited and was like 'wow, my next ten years is taken care of'. For two months, I went through all the scripts and I couldn't pick up even one film.
I suddenly realized that none of them were fitting into the Indian context properly. Some of them were subsequently made by other filmmakers and they didn't work. So, I just felt that it's very difficult to take a story from other culture and have it seamlessly fitted into your culture and historical context.
One day out of the blue, one of my assistants told me to watch a film which was about the teachings of Bible. I saw that film and found that apart from the Bible aspect, there was something about the story which I really liked and I could see this film setting into my context even better than the original.
So, we called up the filmmakers and told them that we wanted to adapt their work and not remake it. They were more than happy to sell us the rights. That's how the process began.
'By Taking A Blockbuster From Hollywood, You Ain't Guaranteeing That It Would Be Hit Here Too'
Q. But 'A Little Boy' wasn't a hit film. Was that a point of concern for you?
A. If that was the concern then I would have taken up to remake those Hollywood blockbusters. Honestly, by taking a blockbuster from Hollywood, you ain't guaranteeing that it would be a hit here too.
We need to understand that we are two different cultures. There is a universality of language of cinema. But at the same time, you have to be aware if it fits into your culture well because only then it would work in another culture.
'A Little Boy' is a unknown film. All of us know about it only because of Tubelight. Nobody had seen this film. In US too, it was a complete flop if I may say so.
But what attracted me to this story were points. I realized that this could be set very well in my context.
'Whether You Like Tubelight Or Not, Salman's Scene With Shahrukh Khan Will Be Loved'
Q. Shahrukh Khan has a cameo in this Salman Khan starrer. So, how was their camaraderie when they were on the sets?
A. "It was beautiful. These days they [Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan] are close friends. There was a lot of warmth and affection over there. I have known Shahrukh for a long time now, he was the first person I knew when I landed in Bombay.
I didn't know anybody in the industry except him because we studied in the same college. He was my senior in film school and I have studied from his notes. And of course, I knew Gauri too.
Gauri and I danced together in a stage production. So, when we went to him and I told Salman that we should get Shahrukh on board for this, Shahrukh instantly agreed.
That day the entire crew became an audience. Because, just the energy of the two of them, they both are powerhouses and to see them together after 20 years it's going be a treat.
Whether you like the film, you don't like the film, that scene will be loved because it is one of the most important scenes, shooting it was a treat."
'Salman And Shahrukh Don't Over-prepare Their Scenes'
Q. Even if it was a cameo, what was the difference between directing Salman and Shahrukh Khan?
A. I found actually a lot of similarities between the two. In that one shoot, I found that both of them do approach the scene instinctively. They don't over-prepare.
For Shahrukh, I read out the scene to him, explained him and he did not ask me too many questions. When we were on the sets, he then brought in what only he could bring to the scene very instinctively.
That's the same with Salman, he doesn't like to over-prepare. I myself don't like to over-prepare."
'Tubelight Is A Film Dedicated To The Soldiers'
Q. Tubelight has a backdrop set against the 1962 Indo-Sino war. You said that it's very contemporary and fits very much into what's happening today in country. Was it completely coincidental or did you sketch it that way?
A. It wasn't coincidental. I don't think I would have been attracted to this story if it was limited to what happened in 1962. The reason why I was drawn to it was it is based in 1962 but it's so relevant today. The war is strictly a backdrop in our film.
Tubelight is a film actually dedicated to the families of soldiers; it's the war and battle that they are fighting when their loved ones go to war.
Within 5 mins you will forget that this film is set in 1962 and will start looking at things which is relevant today in our society and in what's happening in our country.
'We Tend To Overexpose Our Films Before The Release And I Don't Like That'
Q. We haven't seen much of Zhu Zhu in the film's promotions...
A. That's deliberately so. I am one of those filmmakers who have seen that we tend to overexpose our films before the release and I don't like that. There is a lot about the film which we should discover only while watching it.
There are certain things that you should keep close to your chest. During Bajrangi Bhaijaan I was very adamant that I am not going to let anybody see Harshaali before the film releases and I think that worked because there was certain enigma and mystery around this girl.
Zhu Zhu is that enigma in this film. We haven't revealed much of her in the trailer too. But she is very stong and integral part of Tubelight. I would like the audience to discover her in the film. I don't want to demystify her before the film.
I didn't wanted to demystify Matin Re Tangu also. But we decided that he's such a bundle of joy that chalo, ek jhalak uski dikhlaa hi dete hai.
Q. Was she aware of Salman Khan's stardom here?
A. She did her homework beforehand. She probably wasn't aware initially. But the moment she got to know what's the project, she researched over it.
Q. Matin has been receiving a great reaction...
A. I knew that would be the reaction. He is unbelievable as a kid. There are some people who enter a room and own it in five minutes. He is one of those boys. He owned the workshop for kids.
I went into the room and he stood out from everyone and I was like it has to be this boy. I knew that reaction would be there and that's why we introduced him in an event. We did get a point in saying that let's get a last burst of interest in the film.
Imagine on that stage Salman Khan was sitting, but you were only watching Matin!
Q. You are also entering into the web space. Our superstars already have a huge fan following. What is it about the web that attracts not just them but even the filmmakers?
A. Web is the future. We might talk about it but ultimately it's the content. Our films are being watched much more on the web through piracy. In the west, they have changed the game.
Today, Hollywood makes two million dollar films like Spotlight, Moonlight and they make two hundred million dollar films like Avengers and the big franchises. The middle ground of drama story-telling has completely shifted to the web platforms like HBO, Netflix and Amazon. That's the future what's going to happen here also.
For me, I am basically the content creator and it doesn't matter where you watch my content. 70% consumer of my products are anyways on the web. The subject which I have about the Azad Hind Fauj is better said as a mini-series than as a film.
Secondly, it's an international story which will release through Amazon in 404 countries worldwide on Day 1. There is certain liberation of story-telling. On the other hand, when we do films, there is a certain Bollywoodization of the story.
Q. Any plans of casting Salman in your web-series?
A. I doubt it but nothing has been confirmed yet.
'Of All The Characters That I Have Created In My Films, Tiger Is Probably The One That Should Have A Sequel & I Am Glad That Ali Abbas Zafar Is Doing It'
Q. You are not directing Ek Tha Tiger sequel 'Tiger Zinda Hai'
A. I don't do sequels. That's something which I have famously said, I don't react to sequels. Having said that, out of all the characters that I have created in my films, Tiger is probably the one character that should have a sequel and I am glad that Ali Abbas Zafar is doing it. And whatever I have seen about it, I think it's great.
Q. There were reports about you doing a film with Hrithik Roshan..
A. I am definitely in talks with Hrithik as I am speaking with a lot of other actors. That's our job. Nothing has been confirmed yet. The day there is a script on which Hrithik and I agree upon, then we will work together. That's goes for any other actor as well.
'My Web-Series Will Be Far Bigger Than Two Of My Biggest Films Put Together In Terms Of Scale And Budget'
Q. Do you think that web-series could afford to have big stars like Salman and Shahrukh Khan?
A. In our country we still feel that web is somewhere between TV and films. They are far bigger than our films. My web-series whenever I end up doing it will be far bigger than two of my biggest films put together in terms of scale and budget. Mind you, with newcomers, they don't even need stars. That's the most refreshing point.
Q. What's your take on film promotions these days?
A. I think we overdo promotions. There is no empirical evidence that will show me that this leads to more ticket sales. It just feeds media, advertising and TV channels. I honestly believe that we over-market our films.
As long as you are able to tell the audience that this is the date my film is coming out, trailer, few scenes and maybe a few informational interviews, that's it! We overdo these things. There are a lot of films that have proved that.