You must be extremely busy and excited these days. What is your state of mind?
My state of mind is comfortable these days. There is a lot of work because we have had a tight schedule and we are racing towards the release date. I am really happy with Bajrangi Bhaijaan. It is something I have been trying to do for a long time in mainstream cinema, to put a real context as a backdrop and make an engaging and entertaining film and Bajrangi Bhaijaan has all the elements in place just the way I wanted them to. Sometimes, when you are making a film, you realise that it is slipping out of your hands but in Bajrangi, every single note and line is just the way I wanted it to be. That is something I feel very fortunate about. This is quite an ambitious project and there are so many extraneous factors.
Which film would you say slipped out of your hands?
There are bits and pieces of every film, in retrospect. Ek Tha Tiger, for example. It was my first mainstream commercial film and it was also the first time I was collaborating with Salman [Khan] and our sensibilities and approaches were different. By the end of it, we became good friends and were on the same page, but during the process, there were a lot of things that should not have been the way it is. In New York also, there are places… see, the problem is that, six months down the line, I will find flaws in Bajrangi also. But as of now, I am really happy with the film. I have been able to achieve the tone that I wanted, that balance between real context and mainstream storytelling, with slightly heightened emotion and drama also in the right blend. That is why I am also curious to see how people react to the film.
I have seen your documentaries and I was blown away by Kabul Express, but I don’t understand this progression into commercial cinema. Ek Tha Tiger was not a Kabir Khan film. Why this move?
True, true. It has not been a conscious move, but what I did want to do was increase the scale of my films. After Kabul Express, when we were setting up another film, I remember Adi [Aditya Chopra] asking me whether I wanted to do something on a bigger canvas. He narrated a two-line story and I asked him if I could take that and explore it around the subject of post 9/11 illegal detainees, something I was researching for a documentary then. That is how New York happened. I think we unnecessarily believe that politics is taboo in mainstream cinema. We underestimate our audience, and Ek Tha Tiger was a story that I had with me from my Kabul days.
I had a vision and I wanted certain elements to function in a certain way, but a superstar film will have a dynamic of its own. Honestly, of all my films, my strongest political statement was in Ek Tha Tiger, but people took it more at face value and the glitz and sheer mounting of the film. This was a whole new experience for me too, because people think documentary film-makers will only make small films. That’s not true. You make a film a certain way because the story demands it. So I really enjoyed setting up that scale, but I do feel that with Tiger I did not get that same level of satisfaction that I have with Bajrangi.
Did a lot of it get lost in translation?
Yes. See, it is a collaborative effort, but what happened is, by the end of Tiger, both Salman and I understood each other. He got where I come from and what I stand for. And, we really wanted to work together again, but this time I was very clear that we would collaborate only if there was some story that both of us react equally to. Not just the story, also the treatment. And in all our conversations after we wrapped Tiger up, I realised he has a lot of depth and intensity of feeling for issues which are never heard or channelised. For example, he feels really strongly about secularism. That is the most important issue our country is facing today. So, when Bajrangi happened, I knew that this was a story that he would feel for. He loved the story and the treatment from the get-go, and his character is the antithesis of the Salman Khan of the last ten years.
But every Salman Khan film becomes about him – the director is hardly noticed or given due credit.
This is a Kabir Khan and Salman Khan film. I cannot be pompous and believe that people will say that this is a Kabir Khan film. But yes, the Kabir Khan style is written all over it. This is one film I totally stand by and this is the kind of storytelling I have always wanted to do in the mainstream space. I come from a documentary background and I am tired of preaching to the converted. You have a limited audience who anyway believe in what you are saying and agree with you. The platform in this country is mainstream cinema and that excites me. I felt that limitation of audience was frustrating and hence, I made this shift. And with Bajrangi I have been able to use a treatment that does not alienate the audience. This film has six songs, and I have always been uncomfortable with songs.
Even the style of music used in the film is different from your previous films.
Yes. The songs don’t stick out like a sore thumb, though. When I was writing the screenplay, they just flowed organically. All the songs are contextual. Even a song like Selfie Le Le Re is a part of the narrative and you will enjoy it more when you see the film. The songs do not stop the narrative. Often I have seen a good film destroyed by a misplaced song. Even in Tiger, I struggled with the songs and I don’t think I was able to blend them into the narrative.
That was evident. Mashallah looked so out of place.
Yes, it was an end credit song too and I think that is the biggest disease in this industry. Mashallah did what it had to do for the film. It looked beautiful and had Katrina [Kaif] dancing and everything, but end credit songs are unnecessary. In Bajrangi, we were very clear that we will not have an end credit song or a separate song for promotional purposes which is not a part of the film.
Let’s talk about Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) now.
Nawaz is one of my favourite actors. We had worked together in New York too, and that was one of the first mainstream films he got noticed in. His audition had blown me away, and a lot of people had thought that he was a real life illegal detainee and not an actor. That was the authenticity of his portrayal. I was clear that if I ever get an appropriate role for him, I would cast him. I didn’t get an appropriate role in Tiger but, in Bajrangi, his role has been tailor-made for him. We really enjoy working with each other. He really brings in that extra something which is difficult to bring in a Salman Khan film.
I can’t remember the last time a Salman Khan film had a strong supporting actor.
Absolutely. And that is something Salman should also be credited for, because he is so secure with himself that he is really appreciative of other actors. He would get excited watching Nawaz and ask me to give him more lines and stuff. He knows he is Salman Khan and no one can challenge his stardom, but he is encouraging of the rest of the cast, too.
Quick question: Which film-maker do you enjoy watching the most?
Raju Hirani. He is able to get that balance and speak about an issue in a profound way through humour. It is important to also allow the audience to enjoy the film at face value.
What was the last film you saw?
Arshad Warsi is a close friend, so I went to watch Guddu Rangeela. Before that I saw Dil Dhadakne Do.
Which film-maker’s work do you hate?
I won’t go on record with that but I will tell you this: I can forgive a bad screenplay, bad dialogue and bad film-making, but I cannot forgive bad politics in a film. When I see film-makers introducing politics in a film that they do not believe in, I just lose it.