Switching from making documentaries to directing some of Bollywood’s biggest entertainers, including the recent 83, Kabir Khan reminisces about his adventures, challenges, and how they have shaped his journey.

It is 2001. Post 9/11. America is shelling Afghanistan with a vengeance. All the regular ways to enter the country are shut. A new and aspiring documentary film-maker has bribed a Russian military helicopter to reach the capital city. But 40 minutes into the ride, the pilot unceremoniously announces that the film-maker to deboard; in fact, he needs to jump off the airborne copter. It is a leap of faith and once on the ground, he is confronted by a six foot four inches guy with a Kalashnikov. In a frantic bid to save his life, he keeps repeating his nationality ‘Hindustan, Hindustan’. The man stares at him for a few seconds, and then breaks into a song ‘Mere sapno ki rani’. The Kalashnikov-wielding Afghan is a Bollywood fan. The film-maker not only dodges a bullet, but the incident makes him recognise the power of mainstream Hindi cinema.

kabhir khan

“It was about 15 years back when I made the shift. I was getting a bit frustrated as a documentary film-maker because we had no audience for it. Although I was doing a lot of international documentaries, the space was dwindling in India. Unlike today, there were no platforms back then. Even TV channels weren’t picking up too many documentaries. I realised that the strongest medium in India is mainstream commercial cinema. If you really want your stories to travel among people or issues you want to talk about to reach a wider audience, you need to be part of that,” this film-maker explains.

Today, he is one of the most successful commercial film-makers in Bollywood, having helmed some of the biggest blockbusters. Meet Kabir Khan, the two-time National Award-winning filmmaker, whose recent movie, 83, has managed to charm even the staunchest of his critics.

83

83, a movie based on Kapil Dev-led team India’s stunning maiden world cup win at Lord’s, England in 1983, serves as the origin story of a game that would become a religion in the country spawning a pantheon of gods — gods that would, in later years, trade their halo for lucrative dandruff shampoo commercials. At a time when a spat between two of India’s most successful captains, legends in their own rights, has got the country’s cricketing community divided, bringing forth yet again the ugly politics that gets played off the field, the movie becomes even more poignant.

But what makes it an interesting film in Kabir Khan’s oeuvre and possibly the most important one so far, is how Khan draws from his experiences as a documentary film-maker, as well as that of helming mass entertainers like Ek Tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, to set the tone of the movie. While it is an out-and-out entertainer replete with some rather melodramatic dialogues, it also has an almost documentary-like feel to it. “A lot of those dialogues are verbatim; maybe the way they are spoken in the movie is a bit more dramatic. But 60 per cent of the scenes in the movie are exactly how they happened in real life. The perfect blend of reality and its dramatic retelling was crucial to me.

kabhir khan

“In no other film has my documentary film-making experience and training come so much to my assistance as in 83,” says Khan. But for him, more than the iconic events that unfolded on the cricket pitch, it was the emotional and inspiring human stories that compelled him to say yes to this film. “Of course, 83 was an iconic event but as a film-maker, you need to see what is the story that you are trying to tell, what elements of storytelling would reach the audience who might have no clue about what had happened in the summer of 83 in England,” he points out.

83 is a film that oozes patriotism — something that one finds in varying degrees in all of Khan’s movies. But his version of patriotism always steers clear of jingoism, and even in 83. The West Indies cricket team, although shown as brutally aggressive and competitive, is never made into conniving villains, a trope copiously used in Bollywood sports movies. “In sports tournaments, there are no enemies. I didn’t want to play it to the gallery by making the West Indies team evil or villains. My version of patriotism has no space for jingoism. Patriotism is about loving your country and feeling proud of it, and you don’t need an outside enemy to do either. Patriotism is also about speaking up about what is not going right in your country instead of sweeping it under the carpet. No country is perfect,” he says, adding, “The idea of patriotism has changed over the years; today we are more aggressive. In fact, what we are seeing today is nationalism instead of patriotism. I think in nationalism you need a counterpoint or an enemy. Today, even in movies, we are seeing patriotism increasingly turning to toxic nationalism.”

forgotten army

Khan’s movies have a subtle but potent dose of messaging. While Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) showed the humanity bond between people of India and Pakistan, New York (2009) highlighted the rampant Islamophobia in post 9/11 America, while Phantom (2015) showed the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Similarly, 83, apart from being a story of the underdogs taking on the giants, is also about how cricket united an entire country during those 25 days. “My films will always have politics. Politics is not just about political parties, it is anything and everything a film-maker does — the way s/he approaches a story, shoots a character, edits a film, inserts certain words/lines. These all show your perspective. My films are always about human drama on a political backdrop. But the film cannot be about politics; it has to be about the human story. Politics need to run in the layers beneath. Those who catch those layers will always enjoy the film more and find it to be profound, but those who don’t want to access those layers should also be able to enjoy the movie at face value,” says the director.

bajrangi bhaijaan

The Jamia Millia Islamia alumnus, who had landed in Mumbai with the script of Kabul Express, has today finished his seventh film and in 2020, he also made his web debut with the Amazon Prime original, The Forgotten Army-Azaadi Ke Liye. But the journey wasn’t easy. “I did not know anyone except Arshad (Warsi). His wife Maria (Goretti) and my wife Mini (Mathur) worked together at MTV. I also knew Shah Rukh. He was my senior in Jamia. In fact, I had studied for the finals with his notes, and topped the class because he was also always a very good student. But at that time he was such a huge star that I didn’t approach him,” he reminisces.

It was then no less than a miracle that he not only made his debut movie under one of the biggest banners in Bollywood, but also got a three-film deal with them, strongly securing his foothold in the industry. “Today a script like Kabul Express, which had no love story or songs, would fly. But 15 years back, things were different. Everyone who heard the story said that they loved it, but no one was willing to put money on it.”

kabul express

By a sheer stroke of luck, he got a meeting with Aditya Chopra, who instantly took it up. And just like that, Khan went on to make three very different films for YRF — Kabul Express, New York, and Ek Tha Tiger. The last one would give him his first opportunity to work with Salman Khan, and with whom he would go on to collaborate in two more movies, Tubelight and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, with the latter becoming one of the biggest Bollywood hits of all time. Now, talks are on for a sequel to Bajrangi. “K. V. Vijayendra Prasad is writing the script. The story has to speak to me. I would give my right arm to work with Salman again, but whether it would be Bajrangi part 2 or something else, I don’t know.”

And his right arm has now got another contender in the form of Ranveer Singh; Khan can’t stop gushing about his 83 actor either. But, he is equally comfortable working with ‘non stars’. “In The Forgotten Army, I had no stars. In fact, a great advantage of OTTs is that if the story doesn’t demand a star, you can go without one, but in a theatrical release, you always need a star, otherwise the studios will not back you,” he explains.

However, he is categorical that OTTs will not kill the stars or the mass entertainers or the theatrical releases. “Some stories need a longer format, and those are a better fit for OTT/web series. But there are certain stories that lend itself to a spectacle. However, it is not an either/or situation as it is increasingly made out to be. After a film has run its course at the theatres, it will eventually come to reside on OTT,” he signs off.