The team of the upcoming film Khajoor Pe Atke – director Harsh Chhaya, actors Manoj Pahwa and Vinay Pathak and producer Amrit Sethia – talk to Team Box Office India about their passion project and why Bollywood needs to make room for small films
Box Office India (BOI): The trailer suggests that this is a pretty unique film. Harsh, what inspired you to write a story like this?
Harsh Chhaya (HC): The answer is actually very dicey because there were some incidents that had taken place in my house.
Vinay Pathak (VP): Now that you have become a filmmaker, you shouldn’t be hesitant to say it.
HC: Yeah, I guess you’re right. Basically, it is a slice-of-life film. The scripts that we see today are the ones where the stories are picked from real life. I heard things happening in my friends’ homes or a neighbour’s house and then there were some things happening to me. I took all that and saw a story forming. I wrote the script and then started looking for a producer.
You narrate it to someone, they come on board, they like it, things don’t work out and they back out. This cycle keeps going on and a lot of people listen to the script. In this cycle, you eventually meet with people you fit with. So, I met Amrit and Surjit Singh. Actually, I was acting in a film that they were making. I was chatting with the director of that film one day, when he told me that the producers of that film had just started a new production house and they were looking for a new, fresh script. That’s how it all started. They liked the script and came on board.
Amrit Sethia (AS): The first go-ahead we gave was when Harsh gave us a narration for this film. The passion and belief in their narration came through and convinced us that this story was a strong one. Like he said, the story actually originated from his own family, and the conviction of him having lived that story came across. It helped us believe that this movie, which sounded so good in a narration, would be a better experience on the big screen.
BOI: Manoj and Vinay, Harsh just said that he was inspired by people around him for the film. Was it the same for you when you were playing your characters?
Manoj Pahwa (MP): Yes, that is the right approach for this kind of role. You are inspired by the mannerisms of people around you. For the roles like we have in the film, you don’t have to go above and beyond to get the essence right. It comes from your surroundings.
I play the elder brother in this film and since I am the eldest in my family, I could relate to it very well. When you are the older sibling, even at the age of seven or eight, you will always be told, ‘Arre tum toh ye mat karo. Tum bade ho na.’
A kid does not understand that kind of responsibility but since it is told to him right from the beginning, he uses this older-sibling status throughout life. And I used that in my performance.
VP: I play the younger sibling and, incidentally, I am the younger one in my family. However, unlike Pahwaji here, in real life I am quite unlike my character in the movie. Since this a movie based on Harsh’s real experiences, there is a sense of realism and you do not get the full import of it while reading the script. I realised that this is not a filmy film and I really enjoy this kind of script. Since this was Harsh’s first film, the script was so good, there was Pahwa sahab, with whom I have wanted to act with for a long time - all this made me say yes to the film.
This film also reminded me of another film which I was a part of - Khosla Ka Ghosla. It was a truly ensemble film without any hero or heroine, and this film has that same quality. Another good thing is that it has situational comedy. There is no deliberate slapstick element. If there is physical comedy, it comes out of a situation. All this was a great revelation for me after I read the script. So to be associated with this film, I was actually prepared to pay money to Harshji. (Laughs).
BOI: Harsh, you talk about the sense of realism in this film. Do you all think that films today need this aspect to connect with the audience?
VP: Now that’s a very controversial question. (Laughs)
HC: I want to say that this is my very first film as a director and that is why I shouldn’t speak too much. (Laughs) I have just started out and shouldn’t be giving lectures on the subject. When I make three to four films and if those films become superhits, then I will give this gyaan.
VP: I think content should be of all kinds. If we only talk about realism in a movie, then what would happen to fantasy films, which are so wonderful? People will stop making science fiction movies and we won’t be going to theatres to watch films like Avengers: Infinity Wars.
HC: Yes, I agree that when the story is good, it doesn’t matter where it is based or which genre it is from.
VP: There is a place for films that have some level of imagination that people want to connect with. Films like that too are important.
BOI: The title of this film is very quirky. Is there a story behind its origin?
HC: It is actually straight from the saying ‘Aakash se gire, khajoor pe atke’.
VP: Initially, we thought we would call it Aakaash Se Gire but we found that Khajoor Pe Atke was even more apt. Also, our friend Aakash was not happy with the fact that we were making fun of his name! (Laughs)
HC: Jokes apart, as I said, it is inspired by the saying. And the characters in the stories show you the significance of it because woh log bhi kahin atke huye hain. The phrase just came to me because it goes so well with the script.
AS: We were going back and forth between two options for the title. One was Khajoor Pe Atke and the other was Kuch Keh Nahi Sakte and we unanimously agreed that Khajoor Pe Atke was the best option.
VP: Also, if we had called it Kuch Keh Nahi Sakte, the audience just might have said that toh phir kyun keh rahe ho, ghar pe hi baitho. (Laughs).
MP: Yeah, maybe they would also say that film dekhne aayenge ya nahi, hum kuch keh nahi sakte.
HC: Vinayji, did you know there is a bit of trivia associated with you and this film? Right, Amrit?
AS: Oh yes, it is quite a funny story.
HC: Vinayji, you were actually a part of this film before you were even approached for it. When we were casting, we thought that if the elder brother was cast first, the other would follow. At that point, it wasn’t suitable for you to come on board as the younger brother because of the actor who was finalised to play the elder brother. Amrit might have not told you this but he is very impressed by you and had asked right from the beginning that why weren’t we casting you in this film.
VP: Thank you so much, Amrit. Don’t worry, we will make a sequel on this too. (Laughs)
HC: The reason I didn’t choose you before was because you wouldn’t look like the brother of the actor who had already been finalised for the elder brother’s role.
MP: Colour match nahi ho raha hoga.
HC: (Laughs) Yes, I did not want to say it but that is the reason. This debate of whether to cast you or not went on for quite a while and escalated to a point where Amrit said that main ja raha hoon sab chod ke. After that, the cast went through a lot of changes and Manoj came on board. That was the green signal to take you on board because you look like brothers. So, Amrit was very happy.
VP: I am also very happy that Amritji stood up for me like that.
BOI: Harsh, this is your directorial debut. Was it challenging to get an ensemble cast on board? How was it working with the entire cast and managing their dates?
HC: There is an entire production unit to help you manage things. And then sometimes, things fall into place. This is one of those cases when all the actors gave us their dates at the same time. Often, you kind of have a wish list of actors you want to work with but what if they do not have the time to work on your project? We didn’t have that problem in this film and finally everything dovetailed very well.
Making the film was a challenge in the sense that I come from a totally different space as an actor, where you stay in a different world. If someone goes overboard, you can shut them up. You are engrossed in your work and the other people around look after you. They bring your coffee on time, for instance.
As a director, you need to be concerned about a hundred people. It is your responsibility to make a film. As an actor, you often tend to take your scenes for granted. Here, if you find out that your spot boy is upset, then you need to coax him, because in a set of 40 people, even if two spot boys are absent, you can feel the difference. You need to take care and work in tandem with everyone. So, the whole thing turned inside-out. It was pretty much a life-changing experience and a beautiful one too.
As an actor, we go to the sets and shoot for 12-13 hours. After that, you get to sit back and rest. Even, emotionally, it is not all that disturbing as you are basically operating on a mechanical level. At least, I used to do that. You only do as much as is required and then sit back.
But, here, you are a director. You need to be behind the camera throughout the day because you are in charge of 50 different things at the same time. You are a part of everything on the sets. Of course, the exhaustion that arises out of contentment, where you feel that you can happily go back to bed, feels amazing.
It was satisfyingly tiring every day. You just want to go to sleep and get up again. And you are a part of everything – be it music, costumes, sets, posters, publicity. It is an altogether different world.
BOI: This film was shot in a limited period and on a fixed budget. How challenging was that for you as a first-time director?
HC: When you set out to make a film, you need to know certain things. First of all, you need to take a look in the mirror. You need to know all your old limitations and that another set of new limitations will be added to those. Only then should one make a film because it means you are prepared.
Plus, you also know the issues there can be in a film, you watch people, you watch films, you have friends in films. There is no luxury of extending a film beyond 50-60 days. If you already know these things and then make a movie, then there will be fewer challenges. So, I was in a better space because I knew what I was getting into.
BOI: Amrit, as a producer, what kind of elements do you look for in scripts to back those projects?
AS: The most important element is the content. In this film, there is no slapstick comedy. It is a well thought-out and well-written situational comedy. Even when the narration took place, there was a constant smile on my face. There were ample sequences in the film where we were laughing out loud. This was my reaction, both during the narration and when I finally watched the film.
That is something I look for and not only in comedy films. Even my first film, which is yet to release, is content-based. It is again something that has not been done before and is fresh in terms of content. As a production house, the only thing we look at is content – something that is good and worthy of being told to the audience.
HC: The producers I have worked with are the kind we need in this industry at this point. We should nurture and take care of them. We usually assume that whenever there is a new producer, usko bottle mein utaarna hai and then we will make a film. This attitude must change. We have to work side-by-side with these producers.
VP: The liberty and creative freedom that a producer gives to a director and the actors is important. I don’t remember seeing you on the sets after our first meeting.
AS: I visited the sets for just 2-3 days.
VP: This speaks volumes about somebody.
AS: I came to the sets to see you, not to work or change anything.
VP: He gave so much creative freedom to the actors and the director. I think it is very important for a small film like this to have such support.
BOI: Vinay, you said you had been waiting for a chance to work with Manoj Pahwa. What was it like on the sets?
VP: I want to tell all future directors and producers that Pahwa sahab and I have decided to give you all 10 per cent off if you cast us together. We bring our mark too. There is a handmade sandbag where we have put a mark. We have it at home. It won’t be visible on camera. We are camera-friendly, producer-friendly, director-friendly, script-friendly actors and with your grace, we will hopefully be box office-friendly actors too. We will charge 10 per cent less together.
HC: 10 per cent off for the both of you. Will think about that.
BOI: What is that one thing the audience will take away or relate to most in the film?
HC: The response has been very good and very encouraging so far, which is also scary because expectations are also high. But, this is exciting.
MP: Audiences will definitely come. These days, it is very expensive to watch a film at a multiplex, so you want your money’s worth. I can assure you that you can watch this film with your family, girlfriend or neighbour and you will be entertained. The film is a complete package.
VP: There might come a moment in the film when one may think that a certain aunt was caught in a similar situation. As Pahwa sahab said, the element of relate-ability is very strong.
HC: The more people you bring to watch the film, the more fun you will have. Even if there are 15 people watching the film, all of them will be able to relate to the characters.
BOI: In recent times, we have not seen fun-filled family dramas too often. What is your take on this? And how do you plan to promote or market this film?
HC: Right now, the films being made, whether Subh Mangal Saavdhan or Bareilly Ki Barfi, fall into the same category. The responsibility of filmmakers has increased to make good films. If we say we are making different films but the content turns out to be useless, nobody would watch them.
Speaking of the marketing aspect, it is still a fight, and I believe the change will come after a few years. If we keep making films like this, it will be regarded as a habit, and this can happen only when we make good films. Other filmmakers will follow the success of the previous film. In fact, the cover on your magazine right now is a statement; it doesn’t have any of the commercial superstars. That’s a huge statement about how times are changing.
BOI: What are you expecting to happen on May 18?
HC: I have to think about this before I discuss it because, all this time, I was expecting to make at least one film before I die, and I did. I can’t think beyond this right now.
VP: What are you saying? We still have to make a sequel to this. Our expectations are that a huge number of people will go to the theatres and watch the film. Aur apna kimti vote humein de. (Laughs)
HC: Yes, that’s what we want but I am already very happy that the film has been made and people will get to see it. Now, I really can’t tell how many people will watch the film; that depends on audience. But, we are kind of thinking of taking the family in the film to a wedding and then a vacation.
VP: I think it should be Thailand then! If this family goes to Bangkok, toh phir wahan pe kaand hai! Every member of the family will have a different picture of Bangkok, respectively.
HC: I can almost imagine the scenes in my head. So, see, we have already started working on a sequel!
BOI: As a producer, director and actors, how important are box office numbers?
HC: They aren’t really important for us; they are more important for the market. But, if the film does well, it will get us more work and eventually we will get producers who will back our films.
MP: I don’t really follow box office numbers but I believe that everyone should feel rewarded and that producers should recover their investment, so that they are encouraged to produce more films, which in turn benefits the industry. It is rare to find producers who are willing to invest in different subjects, away from mainstream, commercial subjects.
VP: I feel box office numbers are very important for any actor, director or producer. When I was in drama school, I was taught that regardless of my training in acting, or how good I am as an actor, how good you really are directly proportionate to your box office returns. It indicates how many people want to watch you. If a lot of people are willing to watch you, it doesn’t mean you are a successful actor; it means you are a good actor. The truth about an actor depends on the box office numbers.
I also believe that box office numbers are not everything. People tend to believe that if one’s film does not make a hundred crore, it isn’t a good film. That is very debatable. All things considered, box office returns are important because we want to be encouraged financially and inspired to do it again.
Also, when films like this do not make a lot of money at the box office, one shouldn’t be discouraged because these are different kinds of returns altogether. It is like… is the book a bestseller or a good read? A good read should also sell. Bestsellers will always sell.
HC: Yes, a lot depends on box office numbers but that doesn’t mean we won’t make films like this.
VP: It is important to make more and more decent stories like this.
HC: This film went to one of the stars for a role and he liked the script but wanted to make some changes, which is fine. When you have written a story, you don’t want to go back to the drawing board and write again. But, since it was a big name, I thought why not? I asked the producers if we could make a few changes so that we could get the star, and I never heard from anyone around me after that. The producers insisted on making the film based on what I had written. It is very important that we get people like that.
VP: It is laudable when a producer says, ‘No, I wouldn’t necessarily go for a hundred-crore film, I would rather make a good film.’ And if it is a good film, it will make money.