It’s hard to figure out if underdog stories happen to Kabir Khan or he is always on the lookout for them. The director admits there is a pattern in his films, but at the risk of looking repetitive, he listens to his gut and picks stories of fallen heroes. So, no wonder that even as he prepped for 83 (with Ranveer Singh and Pankaj Tripathi), he signed on to tell the story of the fall and the rise of Indian cricket icon Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s IPL team Chennai Super Kings after the 2013 spot-fixing scandal.
In an interview to indianexpress.com ahead of the release of the Hotstar Special titled Roar of The Lion, Kabir shares why this story deserved an unscripted format, the similarities between MS Dhoni and former Indian captain Kapil Dev, and how the director cannot overlook the politics of a film or a person.
Q. Was it because you were in the zone of a sports film (83) that you felt naturally inclined to Roar of The Lion?
No. Even if I was not working on 83 and this story had come to me, I would have said yes. One because I love the unscripted format. My roots are there. Maybe that is one of the reasons why Hotstar Specials reached out to me because they must have felt I can put together the whole unscripted storytelling.
The story gave me gooseflesh because Chennai Super Kings goes away, and fans wear that yellow jersey and come out even when there is no CSK. Then two years later, the team comes back. I felt I wanted to tell this story. And honestly, I am just a small part of it. It is not like the story is being told by me. It is told by Dhoni and he is the show’s USP. We have never seen him speak the way he is speaking on the show. It is a great thrill to see him talk about it. This is the story behind the headlines. We haven’t seen what happened to ‘Captain Cool’ when these headlines came.
Q. As a storyteller, how do you remain objective when the person you are telling the story about is also your source of information?
It is very difficult. You can try to remain and believe in your head you are being objective, but I believe there is nothing as being objective. The moment you place your camera in a certain sense, you have changed the reality. You have taken a side. Yes, we have tried to be as objective as we can. We are not trying to take any legal side and not trying to analyse it in a technical and legal manner. We are just trying to get the human side of the story to you.
You can still sit and make a judgement about it but at least get to know what they went through and what did the fans go through. Suddenly, people they used to worship were now at the receiving end of all sorts of allegations, and then they just disappeared. The people, who were an integral part of CSK, were playing against each other in different franchises. How did they take it? It is the human emotional journey.
Q. The timing of the show is particularly interesting. What are your thoughts on it?
It was a conscious decision because like I said it is the rise, the fall and the rise again of an IPL team. So, you need to bring it on before the next IPL because you don’t know how this IPL turns out. So, the validity of the story is of certain importance right now. It is best to bring it out when the story is really relevant and people want to watch it.
Q. When you bring a story on screen, you are influencing the audience to think in a particular way. Does this make the process challenging when you have such a sensitive subject?
It does, but seriously, you are making it at a time when those allegations have been legally cleared. So, in that sense, you don’t have to do a whitewash job. It has already been done. You don’t need to influence. Now, that it is already in the past, it is the correct time for me to bring out a certain perspective. And again, you can still judge them. It is not being force-fed or said in a certain way. There is no narration that is forcing you to think a certain way. These are just the voices of the people.
Yes, of course, there is a larger motive. As a filmmaker, I feel this is how it should play out. That in itself takes away the objectivity for me. The moment I choose a certain sound byte and reject another, I have stopped being objective. So, you have to be very aware of the fact that you cannot be 100 per cent objective in any form of filmmaking.
Q. So, would you agree makers are lying when they announce biopics and call it an ‘objective take’ on the life of that person?
You can try and present both the sides, but there are always grey areas, moments of contention, which don’t necessarily fit into the image that person projects. You should be aware of that and try and bring those layers in. Don’t live under the illusion that you will totally be objective. You have to have that social responsibility that you are taking a stand and presenting a certain story.
Q. Writers and directors often argue that they are showing what happened. But I believe even while showing it as it was, as a storyteller, you still critique it through your gaze.
Absolutely. Your perspective has to come out. If it does not, then why are you telling the story? Every decision taken on the edit table, every time you pan the camera left or right, that is a subjective call. Going close or keeping it wide, it is subjective. ‘Oh he is getting emotional, let’s take a close up,’ why am I doing it? Because I want the audience to be moved a little more than it would be if I keep a mid shot. So, these are all subjective calls, So, I am saying be aware of it and don’t shy away from it. I will have to stand by my films, good or bad.
Q. The criticism against MS Dhoni: The Untold Story was that it shied away from presenting some of the controversial aspects of his career. Did that play on your mind?
No. For me, this is a completely new project. I am not taking its success or criticism on me. This is a new story, which hasn’t been told before, and I want to say it in this format. This is the greatest format for this story to come out. I wouldn’t do it with scripted actors. It was decided in the beginning that Dhoni would be its voice. It was meant to be unscripted. In a certain sense, when we started filming, even we didn’t know how it would pan out. I really didn’t know how Dhoni would speak, what he might not want to speak out.
We, of course, had discussions but when you start rolling, ultimately he is not reading off a script. And each interview would go for five-six hours. A person cannot be guarded for that long a time. That moved me. I did see a certain sensitivity and the man behind Captain Cool.
Q. What is with you and fallen heroes? From New York to Tubelight, and now, we have Dhoni as a real-life example.
(Interrupts) Actually, even in 83! (Smiles) But it is not thought through. I am not picking up because of the reasons you mentioned, but what happens is filmmakers tend to like a certain kind of material. Maybe, my gut instinct picks them up. So, I am not thinking it through and saying, ‘This is what I want to pick up,’ but my gut is telling me to pick it up because it is something I am going to enjoy saying.
Many filmmakers get accused of repeating their stories. I don’t think that is thought through. They get naturally drawn to that material, and they say it, at the risk of sounding repetitive. There is a commonality between Roar of the Lion and 83. But I realised that only when I started working on the former. In a way, both the films became research for each other because there is a strange commonality between how Kapil (Dev) and Dhoni looked at things. The way these people looked at things when the chips are down. There is a certain attitude they have.
Q. After Kabul Express, all your films were mounted on a big scale. When a filmmaker is used to massively mounted films with top stars, is it difficult for him or her to go back to a modest setting?
Maybe. But it really depends upon the story. If I were to make a Kabul Express today, I would make it the same way like in 2006. I wouldn’t narrate it the way I narrated Ek Tha Tiger. The story will demand its treatment. Again, 83 will be a huge film, but that is because of the external factors. It is the world cup in London, but the story is very intimate. It is really about a bunch of boys thrown into this larger-than-life stage and how they believed in themselves.
Q. Your films are political and so are your personal opinions. In the last five years, there has emerged a clear divide in the industry regarding who believes in what. Do political ideologies affect equations in the industry?
Sometimes they can if driven beyond a point. I would not disrespect a person if his or her ideology does not match mine. But yes, if it is an ideology that is pushed to a point where their beliefs are, I feel, detrimental to the whole society at large or the whole country, then I will not be able to be friends with that person because how can I be friends with someone, whose ideology is toxic to the country? I can’t ignore it.
Politics is something that I am extremely and acutely aware of. I have always said that I have always been aware of the politics in a film. A lot of times I see our so-called critics only talk about the screenplay, the dialogue or the editing and never talk about the film’s politics, which is the most important thing. In the recent past, we have seen well-executed films, whose politics are all wrong. How can you not address the politics? In fact, if it is well-made, it is even more dangerous because it will go a long way. Sometimes, a critic is not even able to call out propaganda, then I have no respect left for those critics.
Q. Can one like the technical aspects of a film and still call out the propaganda?
Yes, you can. You can say that it is a well-made film but guys, the politics sucks. There are many (such examples). As a filmmaker, unfortunately, I can’t take names, but of course, you should do it.
Q. Can you separate an artiste, whose ideology you feel is harmful, from his or her art? Can you work with such a person because he or she is good at the job?
I think it is difficult for me. I am maybe overly-politically sensitive, and I tend to feel that the politics (of that person) will ultimately reflect in some part of their work. It is difficult for me. I get very happy when I find collaborators, who are ideologically on the same page with me.
It is the first time I am working with Pankaj Tripathi. We were just chatting about the film, and we went on to other topics. I was so happy when I heard about his ideology and the way he thinks about things because we are going to live together. It is a journey we will be going on, and I want somebody with whom I can share things.