Salaam Bhaijaan

How Bajrangi Bhaijaan director Kabir Khan finally became friends with Salman Khan and why locations are his item numbers

  • Published 14.07.15
Salman Khan and Kareena Kapoor in Friday film Bajrangi Bhaijaan

In the last two years, Kabir Khan has wrapped up two big films — Bajrangi Bhaijaan with Salman Khan-Kareena Kapoor and Phantom with Saif Ali Khan-Katrina Kaif. The first of the two releases this Friday; Phantom is expected to follow soon. When t2 met the former documentary filmmaker in his 17th-floor office in Andheri West, Mumbai, recently, Kabir seemed as cool as the proverbial cucumber.

“I thought my life would be crazier than it’s turned out to be. I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew when I signed up to direct two really big films. But it’s all almost done now and I am very happy with both the films. I don’t think either film suffered because of the other. It’s been quite a fruitful two years,” he says with a laugh.

Under a huge spotlight in his office, we sit down to talk about why he respects Salman, what he’s learnt from Katrina, and more...

What is it like to be at the helm of a Salman Khan film releasing on Id? 

Everyone around me is talking about how much pressure I must be under, but I am not. Releasing a Salman Khan film on Id just makes a lot of sense. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter. 

Let me explain where I am coming from. When I did Ek Tha Tiger (his 2012 blockbuster with Salman), I had just done two films (Kabul Express and New York) before that and I had no sense of box-office collections. I never expected the film to make Rs 200 crore! [Ek Tha Tiger made Rs 199.6 crore in the domestic market] I am not obsessed with numbers. New York was a sleeper hit. I remember speaking to the head of distribution at Yash Raj (Films, producer) on that first Saturday and when he told me the first-day collection figures, I didn’t know if it was good or bad. Since then, I have learnt to understand the trade part of this business, thanks to my dear friend Katrina (Kaif). She knows the trade really well and can rattle off collection figures for random films. 

With Bajrangi..., I have managed to find that balance I am always looking to strike, of a mainstream film with a real context. The background has very real politics and in the foreground, there is a very entertaining story. On Bajrangi, I had control over every word spoken and every note of music. It’s exactly the film that I set out to make, which is very rare. Also, this is truly a pan-India film. I know it’ll appeal to both a rickshaw-puller in Meerut and a banker in south Mumbai. That’s why I am not feeling any pressure. 

Kabir with Salman

During the making of Ek Tha Tiger, you were very open about how Salman and you had differences… 

Look, there was a clash of sensibilities. I come from a very different world. Also, he is a superstar, so he couldn’t understand why I’d tell him something he was doing was wrong, or that I wanted a variation. It took us some time to get on the same page. Honestly, if I didn’t have discussions and debates with my actor, I’d be very worried. I’d probably have a brain-dead collaborator who wouldn’t contribute to the film at all. One of the reasons why I respect him so much is that never during that tussle did he pull the ‘I-am-a-superstar-so-you-have-to-listen-to-me’ card. He always argued, then sulked and finally did the shot!

By the end of the film, Salman and I had become friends. We discovered that there is a lot we have in common. One of the things is how we feel about issues like secularism. He feels extremely strongly about the secular fabric of this country. 

Then why Salman again?

To begin with, after Tiger, I made Phantom... so it’s not like I am working with Salman in back-to-back films. When the story for Bajrangi came to me, I couldn’t think of anyone better than Salman for this role. When I narrated the script, he not only wanted to act in it but also wanted it to be his first production. The experience of this film was nothing like Tiger because from day one, Salman knew exactly what was needed for this character. 

Salman has always played variations of himself on screen. How do you work around that as a director?

It really depends. In Tiger, I did want to perpetuate and take that image forward. We just decided to make the character a little more real and coherent. For Bajrangi, he knew that this character was the antithesis of the Salman Khan he’s been playing for the last decade. Pavan (Salman’s character) is nothing like the Salman Khan we’ve been seeing. He took to the character instinctively. Which is why we managed to make Bajrangi in such a start-to-finish schedule. This film was a piece of cake.

Why are locations so important in your films?

I think it’s my background in documentary filmmaking. I feel very uncomfortable on a set. My creativity gets completely blocked. It’s only when I am on real locations that I can think.

I’ll tell you exactly what I told Salman before Tiger. He is not very fond of travelling and the thought of going to seven-eight countries for one film didn’t make sense to him. So, I explained to him that when you see a film like Bourne Identity... if you dissect the action scene, it’s not very different, but it’s exciting because he is running on rooftops in Tangier (Morocco). Interesting locations add a subliminal message that this film is big. I could have done that opening scene of Tiger in any city, but the fact that I shot it in Mardin, which is on the border of Syria and Turkey, makes it that much more exotic and larger than life. 

Locations are the item numbers of my films. I don’t choose locations for their scenic beauty, but because they take my story forward. I like to think of locations as characters in my films. Both Kabul Express and New York wouldn’t have worked in any other city in the world.

For Bajrangi, you went to Kashmir...

When you see the film, you’ll see how important Kashmir as a backdrop is to the film. I am really happy that I got to shoot in Kashmir. It’s a place I have trekked in extensively as a student and I have also shot documentaries there. Today when everything is normal there and we can shoot there, I feel upset that more people don’t go there. If Salman Khan can shoot all over Kashmir for 40 days without a single untoward incident, Kashmir is safe enough for all of us to travel to. That’s the message I want people to take away from this film. It would make me happy if people started travelling to Kashmir more after watching this film. 

We shot the climax of Bajrangi on the base of the Thajiwas Glacier, which is at a height of 11,000 ft. It would take us an hour to climb up to the location every single day but when you see that climax, you can see the difference that location makes. 

What’s the plan after these two films release?

I am going to go on a long holiday. 

Karishma Upadhyay
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