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Exclusive | Atul Kulkarni on Laal Singh Chaddha, Aamir Khan’s performance and film’s messaging: ‘Disruptions due to religion in India needed to be addressed’

Atul Kulkarni dissects Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor starrer Laal Singh Chaddha, which released theatrically in August.

Actor-writer Atul Kulkarni has opened up about writing Laal Singh Chaddha, the August release starring Aamir Khan. (Photo: Atul Kulkarni/Instagram, PR handout)

If love fought hate, who would win? Traditionally, and more so cinematically, always the forces of good — which is what actor Atul Kulkarni says he attempted with his screenwriting debut Laal Singh Chaddha, featuring Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor. After years in the making, the ambitious Forrest Gump adaptation Laal Singh Chaddha had a muted theatrical release in August. The Advait Chandan-directorial could not translate its mostly favourable reviews to box office figures, as it opened in cinemas following an uninspiring marketing campaign and battled social-media negativity drummed up by the right-wing ecosystem.

But Atul Kulkarni looks back at the film’s journey with only happiness and satisfaction. “We made what we thought of making, we could achieve what we thought we should and convey what we should.” In an interview with indianexpress.com, Atul Kulkarni opened up about writing Laal Singh Chaddha, the criticism Aamir Khan faced over his gimmicky performance and how he wrote a film about love in the volatile climate of the country.

Edited excerpts:

The film has found new love since its Netflix debut. The sentiment is largely ‘we missed this in cinema halls, it’s a beautiful film.’ Are you reading these reactions?

I am! I have been receiving these messages constantly. We make films for people and when they like it, you feel good. The film is about love, innocence, about not having any malice. It makes me happy that a film about love is getting a lot of love too.

Aamir had said before the release that for him Laal’s innocence is what forms his core. As a writer, what is Laal to you?

When I saw Forrest Gump and thought of Laal as a character and as a story, I thought it is a wonderful device to say what the film wants to say about the journey of a nation. Not exactly through the eyes of the character, but a person going through the entire journey, which the nation is also passing through. I also knew that it was a very, very difficult film to make. The easiest part of making the film was actually writing it! (laughs)

But how? Wasn’t adapting a beloved classic challenging?

I wrote this script in 12 days. When I started writing it, I didn’t know that I was writing a ‘script’. It was in the ‘Let’s see where this goes’ phase. The first time I called Aamir to say that I have written something, I uttered the word ‘script’. I am not a professional writer, but this was something I felt that could be made. I’ve been a keen student of what’s happening around- not only in our country but around the world, socially and politically. I am interested in people, inter-personal relationships, how one behaves with different entities, like your country and communities. I was absorbing all these things, so it was just a matter of putting all that together. Those 15 days of writing was a journey I never had before and haven’t had since.

Were you drawn towards Forrest Gump because it observes a nation’s history and its people?

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Absolutely. That’s the reason why it is such a cult film. Rarely we have looked at the world or the people in a certain time in this manner. There is no comment from the protagonist. He is just there, floating like a feather. That’s exactly what attracts everyone to Forrest Gump.

One of the complaints from those who had seen Forrest Gump was that unlike the original, Laal doesn’t accidentally alter India’s history. Was that conscious?

It completely depends on how history flows. America was the nation of new inventions. In that period, everyday there were inventions. It is a matter of how you fit things. It wasn’t conscious, but if people have felt it, fine. It is an adaptation, we never claimed that we are remaking Forrest Gump. There might be many things that are not there in Forrest Gump but are there in Laal Singh and vice versa.

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For a lot of people in the audience, Laal served as a beautiful nostalgia of what we used to be as a country, and a reminder of what we need to be today. Do you feel this was also your purpose?

When you are adapting such a film to your scenario… There are certain things which exist in our country which weren’t there in the US. Like religion or terrorism is not that strong a thing there. Here, naturally, those things would be addressed. We have seen the disruptions for a couple of hundred years, disruptions due to religion especially in our country. That needed to be addressed. According to me, the answer to any kind of hatred–not just related to religion–is love, mutual respect, compassion, forgiveness. It was a very obvious answer according to me. It is not rocket science.

In Forrest Gump, I believe only in pockets these issues were addressed: Alabama university accepting Black students, or Gump meeting with a member of the Black Panther Party. Laal Singh Chaddha has a running theme of unity and love.

Yes, our history, our social scenario gave it to me. It was there to just take. I am not surprised by my choices, so to say. I just had to choose; I didn’t have to create.

Where did the phrase ‘Bahar Malaria phella hua hai’ come from? It was such a beautiful way to summarise violence and unrest.

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It has been so many years, so I can’t remember how exactly the phrase came to me. But it fell into place beautifully.

There is a wonderful track in the film, about the friendship between Laal and Muhammad Paji— a Pakistani commander. How did that come about?

It was also just there to take. We all know Kargil; we know what happened. The Pakistanis we found were dressed in local clothes. They quite matched with the locals there of that area, who were Indians. All these facts were right there to choose from… Laal doesn’t get into any reason, it doesn’t even occur to him, politically, that ‘Why should I do it.’ It occurs to him on a humanitarian level, that if a person is injured, he should save him. He is not getting into politics because it doesn’t even touch him. What he cares about is love.

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At any point of writing the film, did fear play with you over how this would be received in an increasingly volatile India?

Not really. I, while writing the film and us while making it, were clear that the values that we are trying to portray are universal values, which India is known for, traditionally. Now, there are periods in all nations across the world, which is fine, but the core value doesn’t change. No one, at any given point, even when the second world war was being fought, would have said that hatred is good. The core values are indisputable. We very well know at our core, what would take us through, make us survive through anything that’s bad.

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Looking back, don’t you find a crushing irony that a film about love was in the middle of a hate storm?

I don’t want to comment on that.

Can you talk to me about the Shah Rukh Khan cameo? It was a scene that was also widely loved.

There was a group who had made an excel sheet, because they were kind of doubtful, that there was some liberty being taken–historical timeline wise– in what was shown in the film. They prepared an excel sheet, calculating what could be Laal’s age at that particular time (when he meets Shah Rukh). I think Advait was telling me that they told him, ‘Everything falls in place’. I was lucky to get that timeline. It was all there. Shah Rukh is from Delhi, there is an iconic style associated with him. If the timeline would not have matched, I would not have been able to take it in, even if I had thought it.

Was the scene always there in the original draft?

What I wrote in those 12-15 days, almost 99 percent is the same!


What came first, the name Rupa or the plot devise of using ‘Rupa underwear’?

When I started writing the story, the name was different. But when I reached that point, where I had to think what business he (Naga Chaitanya’s Bala) would want to do, I realised, ‘Oh! If the name could be Rupa, it could make great sense, make the story so much real’. There is a lot of fun in that. But the ‘chaddi-baniyan’ thing was not on my mind when I was writing the initial scenes, when they were children. Once I decided that he could do ‘chaddi-baniyan’ business, the name was changed. Rupa was earlier called Maya!

Aamir’s interpretation of Laal was a talking point. Many had felt before the film came out that it looked gimmicky. Was this the tone that was mutually agreed upon since the beginning?

Between Aamir and Advait, yes of course. I hardly went on sets. I just went twice. Of course, it was the director’s and actor’s choice. But what people were saying before watching the film, it kind of mellowed down after they watched it, for most of the people, because the way the character grows later on… I absolutely understand if some people feel like that. That’s also because they have kind of seen glimpses of it before in some other films. It is reaction to the memory rather than what he (Aamir) did. It was more driven because of the memory of his characters rather than Laal itself.

Were you surprised with the reactions?

See, it is still the same person. An actor is using the same body. I am an actor and I always say, my instrument is the same. I have only those ‘saat surr’. The most important thing is, ‘Have I been able to convince the audience that this is Laal?’ by the end of the film. If they have cried–for example, when they are watching the scene on the grave–with Laal, laughed with Laal, that means we have been able to convince them. If Aamir has been able to involve people, so much so that they have cried and laughed with him, then that is what acting is about.

You can analyse, of course. There are hundred ways of doing any character. I will never say, even Aamir will never say that this was the only way Laal could be played. If you give him the same script five years down the line and ask him to do the same character from Dhoom 3 or 3 Idiots, he will do it differently. Has Aamir been able to get people involved in the character, hold their hands and take them through this journey? He has done that successfully. But I absolutely respect, if some people felt that at some point. Fair enough.

Are you in a position today to analyse what went wrong with the film at the box office?

No. I’m actually not a numbers man. So, Aamir and the producers would be in a better position to comment on that.

There is a touching scene when Laal–years after his mother had chopped his hair to save him during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots– with hair finally grown, wears a turban. It was a poignant moment.

It is losing something and getting it back. In India, when you talk about religion and through this character… When he loses his hair, it wasn’t his choice, and he didn’t even know what he was losing. When he gains it back, it was not for any religious purpose either. He stands in front of a photograph and says, ‘I had started resembling my grandfather’ and starts wearing a turban. That is the beauty of this character and of Forrest Gump as well. He is not preachy; he is not commenting on anything that’s happening. It’s not his choice to not comment, it just doesn’t occur to him! We have lost all that innocence, not that we had it anyway.

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There’s this character of fool in Shakespearean plays, where we look at the world from the fool’s perspective. But this film goes beyond it because a fool’s perspective is still a perspective. But Laal and Forrest don’t have one. Their only gaze is: ‘I love these people.’ I think that’s a great comment to make even on religion— someone loses it, someone gains it, but the goodness is always there. It doesn’t matter to Laal what his attire is or what he’s considered now. His innocence is the beauty of it.

First published on: 27-10-2022 at 07:54 IST
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