When Indian National Army (INA) legend Lakshmi Sehgal passed away last month, Bollywood’s twitterati noted it largely in silence. A rare exception was director Kabir Khan who recalled their journey together from Singapore to India via Malaysia and Burma as they tried to recreate the route of Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA for Khan’s documentary The Forgotten Army. “She was 86 when we made that three-month journey. For everyone else she was Nani ji, for me she was always Capt. Sehgal. What a woman,” enthuses Khan when reminded of his tweet.
Sitting at the spacious office of Yash Raj Films, Khan is busy with media interviews for Ek Tha Tiger, his third film for the banner. An Independence Day release, the movie marks the coming together of the oft-attempted union between Salman Khan and Yash Raj Films. It is also the first time that Katrina Kaif is pairing with the actor after a much-speculated upon relationship and break-up. But if Kabir Khan has battle scars from such onerous responsibility, he is not showing any.
Instead, he tackles the media blitz methodically. Stocky and affable, he is on guard only when it comes to the plot of his new film. “Unfortunately, I cannot say much because of the nature of the film. It is obviously about a RAW spy who is codenamed Tiger. In a way, it is the deconstruction of an agent from a perfectly trained machine to someone who discovers he has a heart and how that starts interfering with his missions.”
As with his previous film, New York, Tiger too was spawned from a short concept by Aditya Chopra, frontman for Yash Raj Films. “With Adi the way it works is that he gives me a very brief one-line story idea and says ab is ko apni duniya mein le jao. Take this into your world.” That is how a story of three friends came to be set against the backdrop of post-9/11 illegal detainees, a subject Kabir was researching at the time for one of his documentaries.
What was the one-liner from Adi? “It would give away the story,” Khan fields. Instead, he says his work on his first feature, Kabul Express, and his prior life as a documentary movie maker was the chalice for his material. “I had experience with elements from the world of intelligence because I had worked extensively in Afghanistan, especially in 2001 when Kabul was really a den of spies. In there somewhere is the seed of the story of Tiger.”
Giving context to his films is evidently a hangover from his documentary filmmaking days. “My characters must have social or a political or historical context. I find it hard to write about a character unless I know what’s his salary,” he elaborates.
He was shaped, he says, as a young media person by his years spent with TV journalist and close family friend Saeed Naqvi. The unabashed Dilliwalla (“I still am, though I stay in Mumbai”) joined Naqvi after training as a cinematographer at the Jamia Milia Centre for Research and Mass Communications. “Saeed used to be called ‘head hunter’, he would go around the world and interview heads of state, including Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela,” Khan recalls.
In four years he had travelled to more than 60 countries with Naqvi, doing soft features. “It was a great training ground, especially when you are 24 and meeting world leaders in exotic countries, getting under the skin of these countries,” says Khan.
After his stint with Naqvi, Khan began to work independently. One of his first solo documentaries and The Forgotten Army followed. “When you remind people, they get into the historical politics of it all (Bose’s alignment with the Japanese who were fighting the Germans in World War II). Who gives a rat’s ass who they aligned with. I am telling you to get to know the story. Judge them later,” he exclaims.
The thrill of making the film when he was “all of 26” lingers as he talks about convincing the INA survivors to retrace the expedition. “Capt. Lakshmi Sehgal was 85 at that time, Gurbaksh Singh Dhillon was 86. I asked them if they would come with us. They thought I was mad. ‘At this age we are not going to go back to Burma.’ But they did and what unfolded was pure magic.”
How did a director who might have attracted the dreaded label of a jholawala, never mind the sharp jeans and T-shirts, end up in the song-and-dance ocean of Bollywood? “I took the decision to tell my stories in the mainstream space because that is the only powerful medium in this country,” he replies. “I don’t want to preach to the converted. I call it the IIC and the IHC syndrome (India International Centre and the India Habitat Centre, liberal leaning cultural centres in Delhi) where the 80 people who are already on the same page as you are going to watch it.”
Foreign audiences were seeing his documentaries but not the people he was interacting with. “The battle that has to be fought has to be fought within mainstream cinema and the attempt is to try and get more and more of a real context in mainstream cinema. After Kabul, New York was another step and with ETT I have got the two biggest stars of Bollywood in a story” — he catches himself in time — “right now the promos are more market-friendly, with the songs and humour, but there is a really solid film over here. Among the three films, ETT is the most political.”
What has helped is his “very good working relationship with Adi. I have been very lucky. He has trusted me blindly. Even with New York.”
The current flak for ETT in Pakistan over the controversy about the RAW-ISI angle, he feels, is partly “the price we are paying for the jingoistic vulgar films that we as an industry have been doing. I don’t blame them. If I see a big star (Hindi) film coming, saying RAW and ISI, the preconceived notion is that there is ISI-bashing till thy kingdom come. I will be upset if after seeing the film they don’t allow the film to be released. My film has nothing derogatory, all my life I have fought against that,” he insists.
The fact that Tiger was a Yash Raj production only bolstered that stand. “YRF films have been clear about this too. Look at a film like Veer Zara. Actually, Yashji has been a very political filmmaker,” Khan says of veteran director and head of YRF, Yash Chopra, whose chiffon-Switzerland romances tag often obscures his legacy. “His Deewar was one of the most political films I have seen. But that is also the fun of mainstream cinema where a large audience can watch your films at face value. The way I have made Tiger, 90 per cent of the audience will enjoy it at face value. If 10 per cent gets into the layers beneath, I am happy. Ultimately, it is up to the audience to search for the politics beneath.”
He recalls how an Arab journalist stood up and congratulated him for avoiding cliches in his film New York, which opened at the Cairo Film Festival. “He said it is the only film with the backdrop of political Islam and jihad in which the word ‘Allah’ was not uttered even once. And there is not a single shot of a man praying. I was so happy because it took this guy in Egypt to tell me that. It gives me goose pimples,” Khan chuckles.
In a short span of six years, Khan landed a three-year contract with YRF, has rolled out three feature films and was entrusted with the direction of the much-awaited pairing between the banner and megastar Salman Khan. One would say Khan has had a dream run without any of the struggle associated with an outsider’s efforts to conquer Bollywood.
Khan agrees that in the “classical context of struggle” he has not had to. He was earning, his wife Mini Mathur, was a successful TV host, they had a good life. People laughed when they heard it took less than a year to get a producer like Yash Raj for Kabul Express. “For those 11 months I thought I was really struggling. Nor is there a time when I have felt I have made it, not even if ETT was to be a success,” says Khan with a certain caution.
From a John Abraham to a Salman Khan, how did he manage the mercurial superstar? The director brushes off reports of interference and input as a matter of semantics. “It has been a surprisingly good journey. I learnt early in the course of the film that, amazingly, Salman has no ego. His suggestions never come from a position of power. And if your main lead is not giving suggestions, either the guy is brain-dead or not interested.
Casting Katrina Kaif in the role of Zoya was a foregone conclusion. It was written with Katrina Kaif in mind. “She has definitely grown in strength from New York to now in terms of craft,” says Khan of his heroine.
Khan’s father, Rashiduddin Khan, was a founding professor of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He came from a Pathan aristocrat family associated with the Nizam of Hyderabad and fell in love with Leela, his anglicised student nine years his junior. The family moved to Delhi after Khan’s father was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. Leela who stays with her son in Mumbai remains the “culture-vulture of the family” who would drag her children to see international films.
Khan met his wife when both arrived at the same time at the now defunct Home TV channel to turn down a series. “We had common friends in Delhi but had never met. I realised she was presenting and she realised I was shooting it. We ended up saying ok, we’ll do it. By the end of the project we knew this is it,” says Khan.
Now firmly entrenched in Bollywood terra firma, Khan confesses he “still finds myself a complete outsider. I am not at all filmi. What is filmi anyway?”