Karan Malhotra: Shamshera has no reference point in its complete form!

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Karan Malhotra directs Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Vaani Kapoor in his most ambitious film, Shamshera. Photo: Yash Raj Films

He began with a bang a decade ago—his maiden film Agneepath, a remake of the iconic 1990 film of the same name, was a hit and entered the 100 crore club. Director Karan Malhotra’s second film, Brothers (2015) was a smaller, more intimate film about a family, which though appreciated, did not do well.

This week, he is set to release his next, Shamshera, an actioner set in the 1800s, and we catch up with the filmmaker for a look into how he works and what makes him tick. Excerpts from an interview follow.

Firstly, the two big changes since your first two films: one, the shift from mentor Karan Johar to Yash Raj Films, and two, the change from composers Ajay-Atul to Mithoon.

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I would not call them changes. They were not done deliberately. I would call them patterns of destiny (Laughs)

Coming to Mithoon, he is not a guy usually associated with the big, commercial actioner my film is. But he has done a phenomenal job, and has created the era of Laxmikant-Pyarelal for me! And I am a sucker for that kind of music. I enjoy it with its live instrumentation. It is music that makes you feel like a king, even if you are sitting in home-clothes—such was its strength! Mithoon flew with my vision. He has also composed the background score.

The way I make my films, I need my crew listening to my music on sets, and would keep playing whole album on sets non-stop to maintain the mood and energy.

Your father, late producer Ravi Malhotra, was very close to Ranbir’s father, Rishi Kapoor, and made four films only, all with him. That included Rishi’s dual role in Raahi Badal Gaye, and now you have Ranbir in a double role too. Besides you worked with Rishi in Agneepath. Could you tell us something about your family bond?

Yes, dad and Chintu uncle were very close. And I am lucky to work with both father and son. They are professionals, who are very similar in their work ethic—very committed to the vision of the director. They come in to add strength to a film, not for themselves alone. Ranbir is subtle, calm, Chintu uncle was loud, a livewire with a certain flair, an exciting personality. After Agneepath, there is not a single day that I have not missed his crazy energy!

Frankly, in our childhood, Ranbir and I barely met, and then we went our different ways. We reunited here!

There was this story about Rishi and Neetu Singh, and an engagement ring…

(Laughs). Yes, dad told me about it! It was dad’s ring that was used for Chintu uncle’s engagement ceremony because the original ring was misplaced, and dad possessed a gold ring with the letter ‘R’! That’s how close they were!

So were you slightly nervous directing Rishi during Agneepath?

I was very scared of Chintu uncle! (Laughs) When I approached him, he asked me, ‘What is the role?’ I said it was that of a butcher, who also trades in drugs and girls. He asked me, ‘Paagal ho gaya hai kya (Have you gone mad)?’ And I am giving you the censored version of all he said! He added that he was known as a chocolate hero. I told him those days had long gone, and this was the time to do something different. By evening, he was on board. But at night, when he was a couple of pegs down, he called me and announced that he won’t be doing my film. The next morning I had to convince him again, and by next night it was the same story! This went on for a month!

On sets, too, he was giving me a high, challenging everything I told him about how his character Rauf Lala walked, talked and looked right and left! He wanted to shake my conviction. It was a daily test, and I had to talk to him in his same loud volume as he doubted and questioned everything I said. I realized he was just trying to make my conviction  stronger, like a parent!

Ranbir Kapoor in Shamshera. Photo: Yash Raj Films

And Ranbir?

With Ranbir, I took all my revenge! (Laughs) I tortured him mentally and literally threw dust on him during the shoots to make him look authentic! Ranbir, once his shot is over, would be back on his word-game on mobile. I saw that he wanted to be in his own world, into his character, and thus had another process of working. But he is magic once the camera rolls, and then you see not Ranbir but Shamshera or Balli, the two characters he plays. That is his brilliance!

What about Sanjay Dutt, the only actor you have repeated so far?

Sanjay enjoys doing villainy on screen! He brings in an aura and his energy is very contagious. Having said that, the two characters he has played for me—Kancha in Agneepath and Shudh Singh here—are completely different. As Kancha, he was absolutely dark and evil, here, he has a funny side. Physically too, there is a major contrast.

Do you believe in casting against the grain? Whether it is Hrithik Roshan, Rishi earlier or Ranbir here as well as Akshay Kumar in Brothers, you never went with their normal images.

The idea is to cast an actor who does justice to a role, and yes, I enjoy presenting actors in the light never seen before. I don’t like restricting an actor in one grain, I need to explore that new area and actors too need such opportunities.

Why did you begin your career with a remake instead of an original film?

I was excited with the core idea and thought it was a good opportunity. I wanted to show my best craft and I was lucky to collaborate with those who understood me. The same holds true with my later films.

How did Shamshera happen?

Shamshera as an animal has no reference point in its complete form! It is a period film, it has Angrez (Britishers), horses, dacoits and all but it is still like today’s films, just like a Bravehearts or Last of the Mohicans, and I enjoyed its crafting and mounting.

When I met Adi (producer Aditya Chopra), he tossed me some ideas, and I picked Shamshera. As a viewer, I enjoy such films and as a filmmaker, it was challenging to create that world. My wife Ekta and I started developing the script. I look for an idea I can latch on to, which keeps me excited for a long.

What was your aim or ambition while making it?

I remember that while making the film Adi would frequently mock-chide me saying, ‘Karan, kabhi to chhota soch liya kar (Think small at least sometimes)! But every story demands something, like Agneepath was big at that time, and Brothers more controlled and intimate. Shamshera is meant to be an experience in its fullest glory, nothing small but a spectacle. I had confidence that if the soul is pure, the world creation would be easy, and that world becomes the invitation card.

In short, the idea was to make a magnum opus! I wanted to offer a film to celebrate the cinema I have grown up on. I am not a crusader making any statement. I want my audiences to come, enjoy, celebrate and walk out!

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