It’s a balmy Sunday afternoon. Director Nikhil Advani steps out of a sound mix for his film Hero, and points up at the logo of Rajkamal Studios. “Yash Chopra used to love this place. Of course, then this complex did not have so many residential buildings,” says Nikhil. “We shot some scenes of Mohabbatein in that studio,” he says wistfully, pointing to a locked studio gate. Advani’s schooling as an assistant to Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Sudhir Mishra led him to direct six films, from Kal Ho Naa Ho to Salaam-E-Ishq and D-Day. This September presents him with a curious situation — two of his films (Hero and Katti Batti) are releasing in consecutive weeks.
Your last film was D-Day. What was the significance of that movie in your career?
It made me relevant once again. As did my earlier animated film, Delhi Safari. I used to laugh when I read reviews that said the director of Kal Ho Naa Ho (KHNH) has made a film like D-Day. I laughed because suddenly, after 10 years, I was finally being credited for KHNH. I made Salaam-E-Ishq out of arrogance and defiance, wondering why no one believed I directed KHNH. But now D-Day had made people sit up and take notice. That was personal gratification. Professionally, however, it allowed me to set up my production company, so when I told Salman I would like to co-produce Hero, he did not scoff at it, nor did UTV, and I could go to Akshay Kumar with Airlift. D-Day was life changing.
Hero is a remake with two newcomers, and it is produced by Salman Khan. How much scope is there for you as a director with such a project?
I realized early on that Hero is not my film. I was asked to make a film that is Salman’s vision, his instinct, his baby. So I decided to follow his vision and park myself behind him. I learned this after Chandni Chowk To China, where the film was being pulled in four directions, one of which was mine. I did try to rework Hero and bring my take to Subhash Ghai’s screenplay, but it kept coming back to the same spot. When I shared that with Salim Khan, he said “Why are you trying to fix it? It’s not broken.” So I focussed on getting the locations right, making it modern. I brought my aesthetic and technique to it and groomed Sooraj (Pancholi) and Athiya (Shetty). I made it look big.
Hero is a violent, frantic, formulaic masala film. Katti Batti is very urban. Both are love stories.
I describe Katti Batti as the D-Day of romcoms. It’s edgy, funny and has surprises. I had nothing to lose with D-Day and I have nothing to lose with Katti Batti, but there’s a lot of my energy in the film. There’s a lot of all of us in that film. Any urban, middle class couple will look at it and say this has happened to me. Where all love stories end, that’s where Katti Batti begins. It’s about two people who love each other so much they cannot be with each other. Hero, on the other hand, is a remastered version of every love story that has played out in Bollywood — boy meets girl, they cannot be together owing to some conflict and there’s a happy ending.
While Sooraj and Athiya came with Hero, you have the unusual pairing of Imran Khan and Kangana Ranaut in Katti Batti.
When the script of Katti Batti came to me, I was sure I wanted Imran for Maddy’s part. But when we sent feelers out to actresses saying it’s a love story directed by Nikhil Advani and starring Imran Khan, we didn’t really have them jumping at it. Salman recommended Kangana, but I never thought she would do it. As someone who has worked for 21 years with everyone from Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol to Amitabh Bachchan, Dimple Kapadia, Rishi Kapoor, Irrfan and Huma Qureshi, what you look for in your actors is for them to surprise you. That’s what an Irrfan or a Kangana do, and what an Imran has done constantly through Katti Batti.
You once said you want to make simple films. Expand.
By simple I don’t mean lowest common denominator. What I mean is that everybody who is attracted to the film should watch it and understand it — as simple as that. When Salman asked me to do Hero I asked if he was in it. He said no, so I agreed. He later asked me why I asked him that. The reason is that I cannot start with the knowledge that I have to make a Rs 300 crore film. I cannot do it. I don’t have the ability. I enjoy being under the radar and being able to do what I want to. Salaam-E-Ishq and Chandni Chowk To China taught me that.
What else have you got going on after this crazy September?
Airlift, with Akshay Kumar, is already underway. Three of my assistants are graduating to becoming directors. My company will produce their films. I am committed to Bazaar, which is my version of Wall Street. You and I were born here, in Mumbai. We have nowhere else to go. But I am enamoured by why people want to come and live in this city, which is built on sewage. What pulls them in and keeps them here? And that is being able to stand in a chawl, look up at a high-rise and say that one day I am going to reach there — and so many people have reached there. The film is about that rise. I want to bring back that Deewar, Trishul, Kaala Patthar kind of intensity into a mentor-student relationship. There is another script about a serial killer and a female cop. These are things I really want to try. UTV has asked me to do a Disney film, which I am particularly excited by because my daughter has so far not seen anything I have done.
In such a fickle industry, where relationships change after every Friday, how do you stay grounded?
Your best friends have to be from outside the industry. These are my friends from school and college and they are the guys who keep me sane. My friends from the industry would be Saurabh Shukla, Vikramaditya Motwane, Rohan Sippy, Sunhil Sippy and now Imran. And my ‘in case of emergency contact’ would be Salman Khan!
I realized early on that Hero is not my film. I was asked to make a film that is Salman’s vision, his instinct, his baby. So I decided to follow his vision and park myself behind him.