Shashank Khaitan has had some experience with teenage romance: his high-school sweetheart is today his wife. So, when I accuse him of turning Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, a searing love story between an upper-caste girl and a lower-caste boy, which he’s adapted to Dhadak, into a Disney movie, he says, quite rightly, “It is a love story of 19-year-olds, and when young kids fall in love, they believe this is the greatest love story; they believe they’re going to rule the world. And when you believe, everything looks bigger, brighter and more colourful. You’ve only seen the trailer; in the film, you’ll see the streets and realise it is as authentic as Udaipur can get. We’ve been authentic to the land we’re shooting in. It is not going to look similar to Sairat, because they (the leads) were belonging to different regions of Maharashtra.”
Khaitan, who hails from Nashik, got his break in Hindi films “by writing a lot.” He wrote six screenplays in two years, 120 pages each, with scenes and dialogues, which he kept pitching to Dharma Productions. Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (HKSD) was his seventh script. “Karan [Johar] read the script, liked it, he called me in for a meeting and that 15 minutes changed my life. Varun Dhawan walked into the room, [and Johar said], ‘Varun really likes your script and would like to do your film.’ And that’s exactly how Humpty happened. After 13 years of entering the entertainment business, working a lot, assisting a lot, writing a lot, it happened in 15 minutes.”
After HKSD, Khaitan directed Badrinath Ki Dulhania, with the same easy-on-the-eye leads, Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt, and both films did reasonably well. His sensibilities as a film-maker lie somewhere between his lessor, Manjule, and his producer, Johar. He ensures that the dialects, clothing and geography are authentic to the plot, and he understands the people of small-town India. But, as a film-maker associated with Dharma Productions, he also tends to lean towards extravagance, Holi songs and cinematic locations. It’s possible he’s the sweet spot between the two — more glossy than Manjule, less glitzy than Johar — and, therefore, the right man to adapt Sairat. He says, “When I saw Sairat in a theatre in Nashik with my mother, I was really moved and inspired. I felt I wanted to tell this story, in a different way, all across the country.”
Rumours have it that Khaitan has done away with the caste angle, maybe in entirety. Khaitan responds in a gentle, non-defensive tone. “For that, you’ll have to see the film. I can’t give away much. I haven’t shied away from it completely, but have been a bit more careful. Unfortunately, it’s not just about what we want to do. The minute we make a Hindi language film, a lot of other restrictions and censorship are imposed upon us because we are reaching out to more people. So, I’ve tried to find the correct balance of this love story. I believe I have made a balanced film.”
The other newsworthy thing about Dhadak is its leads: the film is the launch vehicle of Janhvi Kapoor, the late Sridevi’s daughter, and Ishaan Khatter, Shahid Kapoor’s half-brother. In fact, Sridevi passed away during the making of the film. When I ask Khaitan how it affected the film, he defers: “Can we skip this? This is a question I won’t want to answer.” But, to Mumbai Mirror, he said, “In the wake of the tragedy, we tried to keep the atmosphere on the set as normal as possible, knowing that the more we tried to sympathise with Janhvi, the more the situation would affect her. We kept the focus on work.” Kapoor and Khatter may have had an easy entry into Hindi films, but both have certainly had to work their pretty backsides off on Khaitan’s watch. “They became the part because of all the hard work they put in: six months of workshops, rehearsals, committing to the movie every day, going on recess with me, living in the places I wanted them to live in, talking to the people. I think, because of that, I am just proud that both of them are a part of the movie.”
There’s another unspoken ingredient in favour of Dhadak: Khaitan sincerely believes in love. “I met my wife, Nalini, in the eighth grade, when we were 12 years old. I was moving from a boys school to a co-ed for the first time, where my sisters, who were scholars and also popular, had studied. I was 5ft tall, and had a 5.5ft girl approach me and say, ‘Hey, are you Parul’s brother?’ And, I’m like, ‘No, she’s my sister.’ I don’t know whether we fell in love on that very moment or much later in life, but we became best friends, then dated in college, and a few years later, with some lows and highs in life, we were married. I’m a believer, and I know that ultimately true love does stand a chance.”
Dhadak may not be Sairat, but if we were to set comparisons aside, it could be its own, beautiful film.