• Published 13.10.17
A moment from Secret Superstar

As a kid, Advait Chandan watched a movie every Friday, without fail. At 12, he started attending theatre workshops at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre and at 17, he dropped out of school to start working with adman Prahlad Kakkar. After years of odd jobs on the sets of filmmakers like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Shoojit Sircar, Farhan Akhtar and Reema Kagti, Advait spent seven years as Aamir Khan’s manager.

This Diwali, Advait makes his directorial debut with Secret Superstar, the story of a young  teenager (played by Dangal girl Zaira Wasim) beating all odds to find fame as a musician, on the Internet. Advait’s former boss — Aamir — who has an interesting cameo, is also the producer of Secret Superstar.

Where did the idea of Secret Superstar come from?

I’ve always been writing. Even back in school, when I look at my notebooks, there’s a lot in there. So for example, I watched Casper and tried to adapt it into a school play. I would keep coming up with ideas that would either end up as unfinished screenplays or story drafts.

It was when I was working on Satyamev Jayate (Aamir’s TV show based on social issues) that I had an epiphany. A real hero doesn’t have six-pack abs. A real hero is a 14-year-old girl in Baroda living alone with her mother. Through SMJ, I saw real heroes like Rani Tripathi and Shanno driver. There was a story where a daughter tells her mother that she would go and work so that the mother could learn driving. Or, the doodhwala’s son who became a golf champion by watching YouTube videos.

These got me thinking about how I could sit in my home in Borivali and watch a video essay on (Stanley) Kubrick’s camera movements. At the same time, there are people who’ve just uploaded their videos and they’ve found an audience. The Internet has brought democracy to us all and is so empowering. So all of this was playing in my head when I came up with this mother-daughter story based in Baroda, and I believe a 14-year-old Indian girl is going to dream and is going to do whatever she can to follow that dream.

Unlike our generation where we still had to convince our parents, daring to dream and figuring it out is what millennials stand for — that is what Satyamev Jayate did for me.

Is it true that Aamir’s wife Kiran Rao kept egging you on to finish this script?

(Laughs) Yeah! Over the years, she’s known that I have collected quite a few unfinished scripts. Kiran heard my idea and said it was really good, and then would ask me once a week whether I’ve started writing it out. I was always with Aamir so she would ask me regardless of whether I was on a set with him or if all of us were on a holiday somewhere. She kept pushing me to finish it.

You were Aamir’s manager at the time, so was it understood that he would produce it?

Not at all, nothing is understood with Aamir Khan! The only way to turn him on is with a good script and I didn’t know if I had one. There were no guarantees till I narrated it to him and fortunately, he liked it. That’s when he came on board and said he’d like to have the script, but he wasn’t sure if I could direct it. He asked me to direct a 15-minute portion of the film. This was the best he could do for me.

I stopped managing him and I put together a cast, found a crew through friends who’d work for free, and made a 15-minute cut from five different scenes of the film. And when he watched it, he liked what he saw. Until I did that test shoot, even I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to direct a film. 

What was that moment like for you, when Aamir not only said he’s producing your script but you’re directing it too?

I went down and threw up on Carter Road! It was all too much for me. I’m 30 now, and I started working when I was 17. This is the only thing I’ve wanted to do. But I have to say that I threw up on set as well. On the first day, I was really excited, nervous and anxious. My friends keep joking that on October 19 (the day the film releases), I’ll be throwing up!

At what point did Aamir step in to play music director Shakti Kumar?

I wrote that part for him. His only concern was what if the film gets disbalanced because of him. I didn’t think he disbalanced Taare Zameen Par or Dhobi Ghat. He wanted to be screen tested. We did the audition in this room. [Aamir’s seafacing office on Mumbai’s Carter Road] There were five of us here and everyone was laughing so much! Once he “passed” the audition, he put together the look. My wife (Priyanjali Lahiri) is the stylist of the film and she got him these really tight and garish T-shirts. It’s so much fun to see him play this tapori. It’s been a while we’ve seen this avatar of his. 

Aamir has been your boss for years and you are a self-confessed fan. What was it like to direct him?

He really helped me make that transition. We went to Panchgani to work on the character. During that time, he made me feel like the boss… like I had the final call on the character. By the time we started shooting, we were in sync with what we needed him to do. I knew that if he hadn’t put me at ease, I would have been very nervous to direct him. 

Tell me one thing that would surprise people about Aamir...

It is impossible to wake him up! His boy (man Friday) and I have had to throw water on his face at times! I don’t know how Aamir Sir would react once he knows that I have outed this secret. (Laughs)

I’ve heard that you wanted Zaira so desperately for your film that you didn’t want her to do Dangal!

(Laughs) I remember narrating the film to  (director) Ayan Mukerji and his question to me was, ‘Who’s going to play this girl? Can’t she be older so someone well known can play her?’

I didn’t want to age her. So, we waited for a long time to find the right girl. One day, Aamir Sir told me he’s found someone for Dangal and that she might be terrific for my film. After I met her, I called Aamir Sir and told him not to cast Zaira for Dangal!

I was really desperate to start my film immediately and Zaira doing Dangal (in which she played the younger Geeta Phogat) meant that I would need to wait until she finished shooting that film. I tried everything possible — I begged, cajoled... at one point, I thought I’d brainwash Zaira and sabotage Dangal! (Laughs) I even called Nitesh Sir (Tiwari, the director of Dangal) to suggest other options, but clearly nothing worked. I sat at home for seven months just for her to finish Dangal because she is terrific.

Karishma Upadhyay