Filmmaker Abhishek Kapoor may be known for Rock On!!, Kai Po Che and Fitoor, but he has been there, done that. A flop actor and a terrible debutant director, nobody would have expected him to rise from the ashes of failure — something not taken too kindly to in the film industry. But he kept writing and asking existential questions. That’s how there’s an evolutionary path that all his protagonists embark upon in his films that have worked simply because they touch our hearts somewhere. Now he is back with a love saga, Kedarnath, that is born from the ruins of destruction and is a metaphor for healing and hope. Here, he shares his pilgrimage diary with Rinku Ghosh
What inspired you to come up with Kedarnath’s tagline ‘Love is a pilgrimage” because we feel there is a bit of Rumi there too?
I’ve done many trips to Vaishno Devi as a child, but then you do not understand the essence of a spiritual quest and you are swamped by the arduous physicality of the trek, the many sights, sounds, colour, and experiences around it. When you grow up, you see everything differently. So I had my own self-desire and self-realisation. These faith shrines — be it Kedarnath, Amarnath, Badrinath or Vaishno Devi — are all really hard and difficult treks that have existed for hundreds of years and tested human endeavour and will, challenging our limits, physical and metaphorical. That faith improves and elevates us. People don’t really understand Hinduism; it is a life philosophy that is being misinterpreted and being confined to religiosity. Little wonder then that everybody gives it their best shot, not for himself/herself, but to realise another person’s dream and hope. The porters at these shrines are all Muslims, there are so many vendors to keep the local economy going, yet all get pulled by tidal faith to help pilgrims reach their destination. It is such a multi-faith exercise towards God-realisation that the mind boggles. The local Bakarwals carry the oldest and weakest of pilgrims, taking them one step closer to hope. I thought that defines us so beautifully as a community, as a nation, as Hindus, and who we are. This is just the right ingredient for a story to be told in today’s times.
Besides these shrines are far away from civilisation, in the remotest pockets and near wayward villages. Yet they have the most progressive people with the most evolved ideologies and a sameness of purpose. I was able to grasp the magnitude of this idea on my last trip to Vaishno Devi. So the story of the film birthed from this experience. While in Mumbai, you are always surrounded by people in the business and are talking shop most of the time. Which is why I travel frequently to broaden my horizons and understanding of life. And I find these beautiful Indian stories that need to be told for my people. What better way to understand the core of India than to travel through every inch of our country?
The film is set in the backdrop of the floods of 2013 that wreaked mammoth devastation. Is the tragedy an equally important character?
I chose it because of its epic scale and to amplify the contrast between the enormity of devastation that one could still override with a thread of hope. Around 6,000 people died, 50,000 people were rescued by the armed forces and 100,000 people went missing. Bodies kept flowing downstream for many months after the calamity. The destruction was mammoth, perhaps the biggest this century, but in India lives are cheap, so we tend to disregard the scale. During recces, I have seen how the entire topography was changed by the brute force of nature. By some mystic force, a boulder saved the waters from hitting the shrine. Everything around it changed our memory of it. There was a vacuum of human loss — of lives, memories and sustenance — that I could only comprehend while revisiting it. This film is an attempt to heal that loss and restore faith in humanity. No matter how we may try to rewrite our destinies, we don’t know what the universe has in store for us. We cannot beat that immensity, but we can attempt our own recovery.
Do you ever think that the more exposed we are to a knowledge society, the more revisionist we have become? Would you say that the inter-religious love story would have attracted the same attention a few years ago as it does today?
This divide is a man-made construct. This has been sharpened deliberately over the last 40 to 50 years for various reasons, but we as a people lived honestly before. When I talk to my grandparents and some of my older relatives, they talk of our eclecticism and absorptiveness in a celebratory context. My grandmother told me, “Hum saath saath rehte the, khaate the, peete the, kabhi poocha nahin koi Hindu hai ya Musslaman.” I try to revive this essence in the film, though I must clarify that it has nothing to do with love jihad, as is being alleged. Besides, in these days of instant opinionating, people are reacting after seeing a one-minute teaser or a two-minute trailer. They are manifesting their fears before watching the film in its entirety.
Very few people know you are a Shiva bhakt. What is your concept of Shiva?
So much has been spoken about Lord Shiva, be it from the religious or spiritual perspective. Somebody like Sadhguru has so much to add on what Shiva is as a concept. But the most essential, beautiful and simplest part of Shiva is that he generates the desire, willingness and the compassion in you to sacrifice something of yours for the betterment and good of humanity. Kehte hain agar aap mein seva karne ka bhaav hai, toh aap mein shraddha hai, chaahe aap Hindu, Muslim, ya Christian ho. (If you dedicate your life in the service of others, you are a true seeker, irrespective of which religion you belong to.) This is the universal belief system, our civilisational truth. We as a people are born inclusive and the world knows us for our immense capability of absorbing diversity. I feel this needs to be celebrated.
After Rock On!!, you are back with an original story. Both Kai Po Che and Fitoor were book adaptations. Yet for you, Kedarnath is the story you have been looking for?
This is an Indian story to its core because nowhere else in the world will you find the idea of yatra as a metaphor for self-ascension and God realisation. There are all kinds of journeys being made simultaneously, outward and inward. This kind of faith is difficult to find. When we go on a pilgrimage, some of us introspect during the walk, some of us get taken in by the amazing beauty of the landscape, but once we reach our destination, there’s a different sense of fulfilment. Not only do you feel the presence of God, you feel the divinity inside you. One can sit over there in absolute submission to whatever shrine is in that place. And a lot of answers come to you because you are so humble at the end of this quest. When the bell rings, it’s so beautiful. This wisdom is beyond our normal comprehension. It is easy to espouse words like: “If you set out to seek God, you will find him”, but to understand and live that, you need to really have an open mind.
Would you say you went through that very crucial transition phase personally?
When I went there after the floods, I had a different perspective. The mountains were just as huge, gigantic and beautiful around the dots that we had become. Right in the middle was the temple standing like an eternal sentinel; nothing had happened to it. Yet around it was the most devastating impact of nature’s fury, in the scars of the rocks violently torn down, in the complete decimation of old human settlements, in the complete annihilation of what humans had ever achieved at these heights. Yet some rocks girded the shrine during the cloudburst and the waters just split around it. It is mystic. I stood there at that exact point. You may be a believer, non-believer or seeker, but you will be reassured about the continuity of life as it is meant to be, not what we want it to be. I got my answer. Miracles happen to remind us of some cosmic force. By strategising, planning and being argumentative, one doesn’t get anything. I do believe in science, but I think it hasn’t reached the level to explain such phenomena. If you get into science, you’ll find multiple dimensions and see that we all actually exist in molecules. We are just particles colliding with each other, operating within a humongous energy field.
The backdrops of your films are almost characters themselves, be it the Gujarat culturescape in Kai Po Che or the Kashmiri backdrop in Fitoor. How deep-set are your reference points?
It’s all organic. The idea is like a living organism and if I really believe in it, then it starts breathing. So, whatever that idea demands from me, I just follow it and fill out the details. I am then prepared to do anything to get it right. Physicality is no challenge but my story-telling has to be honest. The process is much like cooking biryani on dum. You’ve got to let it sit nicely after cooking, it is well-rounded and has many layers to it. My story shouldn’t be superficial. Everyone who comes to the theatre should get it that in every shot and scene, there’s a reason why that shot has been taken. So it begins with a scratch, then becomes a whirlwind. There’s no defined process.
You faced a lot of hurdles too while making Kedarnath. You had to change producers mid-stream and attracted a lot of bad press for not being cooperative with the first one. What’s your side of the story?
The making of Kedarnath, too, is a lot like life imitating art and, like a pilgrimage, was beset with hurdles. Anyway, suffice it to say that I got caught up with a certain set of people who were new in the industry but were already being promoted by some big stars. So I kind of bought into that idea. I am sure it’s legitimate. But once I started working with them, I found them being very dishonest to the story. They were blatantly cheating and there was no transparency. I was going through a lot of pain and they were sucking the life out of the film. They had come to a point where they had sold it to multiple people without my knowledge or thoughts about it. The film belongs to me in the end. So to get out of that equation, I wanted to pay them back. But they wanted to choke the movie and kill it and started planting stories in the media slandering me. At that point, I could do nothing but just keep my mouth shut. I had to secure my film first. I thought completing the film and bringing it to the theatre would be the best answer I could give anybody.
You have a production company but to finance a film like Kedarnath, you need co-producers. And while some independent producers want to make an honest film, most will have to traverse the market imperatives like distribution and satellite deals, finding overseas markets and showcasing at festivals. How can you reconcile all this as a producer?
It all depends on every producer and what he wants to become. There are producers backing filmmakers, who are doing films that sail only on star power. Then there are those who have faith in filmmakers like me who have developed a certain amount of credibility down the line as a storyteller and as one who can work with new actors too. I have very simple rules. I have my own pace and I don’t get into a mandi-like zone ki aapne kya becha aur usne kya becha (who sold what and to whom). I don’t do this comparison. I don’t connect on that level. Luckily, content-oriented films have created their niche and let me tell you, the audience is evolving constantly. As a filmmaker, you have to be two steps ahead of your audience and anticipate their mindset if you have to be relevant.
It is because of this far-sighted vision that I could get through to someone like Ronnie Screwvala. We had done Kai Po Che and Fitoor. I got a call from him while I was in the middle of deep trouble. He then came to the edit room and saw what I had. I told him that the earlier producers had created such a negative vibe that nobody would believe that I wanted to still go for it. He told me what could be done to see it through. Ronnie Screwvala is actually a great guy, he is a visionary. More than anything else, he is a mentor, a teacher. And then there was my other producer, my wife, who stood by my vision. She was five months pregnant then.
So you are saying that the business of production is as much personality-oriented?
Of course, absolutely. Large corporations work like machines and with Excel sheets. The people working for them are job-oriented, so they don’t take a risk. They may know better but they don’t want to be pulled up when a film tanks and justify or explain why they didn’t go by the playbook. So they operate within ‘this sells, that doesn’t’. They churn out crap but they secure themselves first. When their books tally, no senior can say why did you or didn’t sanction this and that? There is no human participation in this regimented drill. There are no mavericks and you need them if the industry is to touch greatness. We need more people who can say ‘junk the Excel sheets, let’s go with the vision’. Ronnie Screwvala is that guy. He has money and he knows the business and he seldom goes wrong. Fortunately, when it comes to work ethics, we’re always on the same page and have never had a difference of opinion. He’s a creative person himself and we value his inputs too.
With the studios coming in, the structuring of the business has been undoubtedly great but I feel studios need to be instinct-driven. If you have the power and if you’re not strong enough to take risks, then this business can become just like the petroleum business. There’s an opportunity to enhance the cultural heritage of our country and bring it on par with what’s happening the world over. But we are too scared to do it. I wish the decision-makers would gather more courage.
So how did Sara Ali Khan happen to you?
Not by design. Most of the time, new people get work because the older ones are busy. And I am not big enough to tweak schedules. In fact, I even chanced upon Farhan Akhtar during Rock On, not sure if he would indulge his acting chops at all. It helped though that I had known him for so many years. I asked him if he could sing and the next day he came with his guitar to the studio and sang 8-10 songs of Coldplay. I was like, ‘Wow man, couldn’t have asked for better’.
For Kai Po Che, I was looking for new actors because no A-lister wanted to share space. In a story of three friends, everyone wanted to be the main hero and treat the others as flunkies. That was not to be. This time around, I needed to make the film fast. So I met Sandeep Khosla and he’s related to Sara. When she came to meet me, I knew she had a personality. She wasn’t a regular starlet, was sure of herself, well-spoken, articulate and knew what she wanted. I sussed her out and saw that she had the potential. On a comparative scale, if any film is a 100-metre race, here it’s a five-km marathon. So actors had to prepare mentally, physically and psychologically for this level of intensity and, more importantly, team work. She was up for it and she has worked very hard because she’s had no experience before.
Sushant Singh Rajput, of course, is a talented actor...
Yes, and we have a rhythm. His role demanded a physical discipline.
How come you have not forayed into the digital space yet?
I don’t write stories because there is a medium to say something. The stories should have something to say. There’s no competition about who has the maximum platforms. And there’s no end to how much money one can take home. I am only interested in leaving behind a legacy of quality work.
Do you think we should also gather courage to tell Indian stories, tapping into our folk literature?
Absolutely, there is so much. A lot of filmmakers are also diving in but they do not get exposure or the box office muscle, the latter being dictated by stars. If you are looking to make a great film, everybody should think what they can do for the movie. But a star thinks what it can do for his/her stardom. A big star can get a project green-lit but he’d work towards fortifying his brand value.
After the failure of multi-starrers like Thugs of Hindostan and even Salman Khan’s last few films not doing too well, would you say that stardom is crumbling in popular perception?
I don’t think it’s crumbling. See without a star, every bit of that one hour 50 minute film has to be engaging and flawless. With a big star, you have to devote one-third the amount of work on the script. If you give a star five good lines, he can carry 20 minutes and fans are thrilled. When you don’t even have those five lines in the script, the film completely collapses.
However, I think stars are more models and brand ambassadors than actors today. Other than acting, they’re doing everything else. But that is a result of a lot of insecurity. There is never going to be enough money, no surety that fans that love you today will love you tomorrow. So they’re feeding the public with social media posts and updates and want you to think of them all the time. There’s nobody who can afford to say, ‘Okay, I will hone my craft, act and then build a repertoire’. He/she would have lost out time. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, it is what it is. I am not going to judge but I can say what it is.
Do you feel the pressure to be relevant all the time?
I don’t feel the pressure because I have spent too much time in failures. I found my balance before I became a director. I set out to become an actor, having been born to an industry family. Aditya Chopra and I were best friends from school. I did Aashiq Mastaane, Uff Yeh Mohabbat and a few didn’t even release. Then I did terrible TV work. Being an actor was the easy way out, but that didn’t quite work out for me. Then I moved to direction. But my first film with Sohail Khan called Aryaan didn’t do well. That was another huge struggle in my life. I kept on writing till I got better with practice.
Do you expect a PIL on Kedarnath?
We just have to take it as it comes. There’s nothing to offend anyone. We have not been informed. The film is about healing and love.