Did you expect this kind of a response to Bajrangi Bhaijaan?
Creatively I was absolutely satisfied with the film so I knew that people would like it but I didn’t expect this kind of an overwhelming response. My background is documentaries but I want to make commercial films so my struggle has always been to strike the right balance. With Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I knew I cracked it.
The film packs some strong political statements wrapped in commercial jaadu ki jhappis. How did you navigate that with India’s current political situation?
I feel strongly about unity, secularism and people-to-people friendship. I’m a product of a mixed marriage. Growing up, I saw the celebration of both cultures. How can right wingers claim Bajrang Bali as theirs? He’s mine too. I played the role of Lord Hanuman in a school play. It bothers me to see how we are becoming increasingly intolerant. Why can’t a Muslim say Jai Shri Ram? Or why can’t a Hindu say Assalamualaikum? I will not become a lesser Muslim if I say Jai Shri Ram. We can harp about progress and development but if the secular fabric of our country gets damaged, then nothing can sustain us. I wanted to discuss the Hindu-Muslim issue and in order to bring it all out in the mainstream consciousness, I needed Salman’s superstardom. He also feels strongly about secularism and instantly agreed to the film.
You had to fight for your film’s title, right?
Yes, VHP sent me letters that we won’t tolerate Bajrangi Bhaijaan a title. I told them that India is the only country where you can have this title. I fought for this title. I knew the baggage Bajrangi carries. Today, the first image that comes to mind is Babu Bajrangi and it’s the most negative association you can have with the film. I wanted Bajrangi to stand for what he is—the most fun god. I was not going to let the right-wingers appropriate Lord Hanuman as their own. Hanuman doesn’t belong to only one community. Bajrangi is a symbol of our ethos. And the way the audience has taken to the film, it proves that he belongs to entire India.
The chicken song is a loaded political song.
Yes, this song is subversive politics at its heart. We designed it as a fun song but I wanted it to have the political undertone. Films shouldn’t be about politics; they should be about characters and entertainment but the politics should be a layer which the audience should discover on their own. The genesis of the song was the beef ban in Maharashtra. I mean, what society are we living in? Who is to decide what to eat and what not to eat?
The idea to have Nawazuddin’s character on the real Chand Nawab, how did that come about?
I saw his famous video and there on, I knew I would use this character. I was clear that I wanted to do Nawaz’s opening scene frame by frame as it was in the video. My legal team tried to dissuade me but I went with my gut. I was sure that any normal, rational guy should not have a problem with it. I was on a TV show recently where they linked me up to Chand Nawab in Pakistan and he is so happy with the film and the way he’s portrayed. He is even getting acting offers.
Some feel this is an “agenda film” made with the intent to clean up Salman Khan’s image. React.
It’s really unfortunate but we live in a time where self-styled columnists are actually lobbyists and they can’t comprehend that someone could be without an agenda. I find the entire thing to be distasteful.
Why did you use the term ‘Mohammedan’ instead of Muslim in the film?
Because in North India that’s what they call Muslims. I’m from Delhi and all my life I’ve heard ki aap Mohammedan ho?
There are caste-ist lines about ‘fair’ Brahmins, and meat-eating ‘Kshatriyas’. Isn’t that too stereotypical?
Exactly the reason we placed it in the film. Caste is so seeped in our conscience that that’s how we talk. That’s the stereotype. Bajrangi voices what we all think. We had to take the risk. It hits you yet you don’t realise it.
The attack on the Pakistan Embassy was slightly far fetched?
My father was a Member of Parliament. Having grown up in Delhi, I’m familiar with the Diplomatic Enclave area. There is some morcha happening everyday outside the Pakistan High Commission. I’ve seen it. Two trucks are always parked outside the Pak High Commission.
In a way Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a tribute to Manmohan Desai’s school—what with the lost and found formula and strategic meetings at places of worship?
(Laughs) Well, the film is utopian. I wanted to tell the story in as plausible way as I could. Every story dictates its treatment. My aim was that the audience should come out of the hall with a smile and moist eyes.
What kind of a pressure is it to write a Salman Khan film?
I don’t take the pressure. If you do, then you will go wrong. Even if I were writing Bajrangi Bhaijaan for some other actor, the script would have been the same. Of course, Salman brings in his charm and his superstardom ensures that the big moment becomes bigger but I don’t write to cater to his image or to his fans. This being a ‘Bhai’ film on Eid, the temptation to go crazy with the action scenes was always there but I resisted because that wasn’t Bajrangi.
The film is majorly devoid of the token Salman-isms like his bracelet and even the crowd pleasing dialogues went to Nawazuddin Siddiqui. How did Salman surrender to you?
I wanted him to be without any trappings. He’s shirtless only once and that too in a crucial scene. It’s credit to Salman that he went with what I asked of him. We had some creative tussles during Ek Tha Tiger but that journey made us earn each other’s respect. I’ve realised that Salman is strong minded but he listens and a great thing about him is that in an argument he never takes the position of a superstar. He loved the character of Bajrangi and then onwards there was never a tussle on approaching the role. Salman internalised Bajrangi totally and brought his life’s craft to it.
But the narrative of Salman’s life does collude with his reel image. How do you navigate that?
Look, he never lets his problems come to the set. He internalises his stress. When the verdict came out, a lot of people made statements to show their solidarity with him but they actually harmed him more. You cannot be so insensitive. But Salman doesn’t talk about his problems. He was Bajrangi when we were making the film.
What is the one trait Salman made you discover about yourself?
I’ve become more patient after working with him. Salman comes a little late on sets while I like to start early.
The last shot of Munni and Bajrangi standing in No Man’s Land, was that deliberate?
Yes. While writing the screenplay, we were heading towards it. I wanted it just like that.. with the man and child caught in their moment in that space between the borders and the river flowing by. This is a seasonal river and I knew I wanted it for the climax. I made my crew climb a mountain of 12,000 ft to get that view. I remember Salman wasn’t too happy with the hard trek but once he reached the mountain and he saw how the valley just opens up with that view, he didn’t say a word. Except to tell me a couple of days later that, ‘agar tera kabhi statue banega toh it would be with a finger pointing…ki wahan chalte hain’.
Harshaali Malhotra has been a big find.
It was my biggest challenge as a director to get her to emote. We must have auditioned some 1,000 girls not only in India but also in Kabul and Tehran. My safety net was always my daughter Saira even though I knew that she’s so strong minded that it would be tough to shoot with her. Since the day I met her, Harshaali would say, “Yeh film main hi karungi Kabir uncle.” I needed someone with this kind of drive and motivation because shooting the film was going to be a logistical nightmare. Her performance has been my greatest challenge and joy.
What can we expect in your next release, Phantom?
Phantom is a different world but the same zone. I’m taking on the Lashkare-e-Taiba head on. Phantom takes a strong stand against those who don’t allow people-to-people friendship and unity. Once again, only those people who think Lashkar is Pakistan will think Phantom is anti Pakistan. The same elements who engineered 26/11 also killed Kabi200 school children in Peshawar.