Indian filmmaker Kabir Khan, who’s riding high on the success of Bajrangi Bhaijaan these days, is better known for taking terrorism as his favourite topic (Kabul Express circa 2006 and New York circa 2009) and running with anti-Pakistan themes in films like Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Phantom (2015), which was released the same year as Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Phantom became particularly controversial after its lead actor Saif Ali Khan carelessly commented on Pakistan’s inability to fix itself and was subsequently banned in Pakistan. Ironically though, Phantom followed the release of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a film that was criticized by right-wingers in India for being too generously pro-Pakistan.
Kabir Khan definitely is a risk-taker, whether it comes to his films or his decision to come to Pakistan, given the level of dislike he generated for himself post-Phantom. He even encountered a small and unfortunate standoff from a dozen emotional men at Karachi Airport, who heckled him for making anti-Pakistan films. Explaining his choices, Kabir Khan sat down for this Instep exclusive (obviously before the airport incident took place), and spoke about all this and more…
Instep: Most of your films revolve around issues of terrorism; does politics interest you or are there underlying messages that you’re trying to convey?
Kabir Khan: Basically I try to put a real context to my films and use real politics as a backdrop. Obviously India and Pakistan dominate the proceedings when we look at politics in the subcontinent so invariably that finds a way into my films.
Instep: Your films do tend to generate controversy. What do you feel about Phantom and the kind of ill will it created in Pakistan?
KK: Unfortunately, some comments in the marketing of the film were incorrect; they were not in the film and were there only for marketing purposes. It’s unfortunate that Phantom got perceived as being an anti-Pakistan film, which it definitely wasn’t. I just feel that criticizing a certain section within a country does not mean that you are targeting the whole country. I strongly believe that terrorists have no nationality; they are enemies of society at large, no matter what country they belong to. It (the film) was a work of fiction that was based on a book by Mr Hussain Zaidi and, at that point, I thought of addressing an issue that rides very heavily on the Indian psyche. I think it was misrepresented and misunderstood. The purpose of Phantom was to show that there are some factions in both countries that will always try to prevent people-to-people contact but when a Chand Nawab and a Bajrangi meet, there will always be a feeling of warmth. Pakistan is an important market; it’s a market that we would like our films to release in. Unfortunately the politics of the two countries ensures that every other film comes under suspicion. My first film Ek Tha Tiger was also banned even when there was no such thing in it; it was a love story between an Indian and a Pakistani.
Instep: Where did the idea for Bajrangi Bhaijaan come from? What feedback did you receive on the film from Pakistan?
KK: When Salman and I were working on Ek Tha Tiger, we used to have numerous discussions, which led to this idea to make a film on something we both feel very strongly about. Hindi films are the most powerful platform and as a cinematic tool, the masterstroke was bringing in this beautiful little girl Shahida and that is what actually moved the film. In my films there is always an exploration of the definition of an enemy and people from across the border don’t necessarily have to be your enemy. It was very interesting to explore how Bajrangi, who comes from a right-wing background that we have in India, reacts when it ultimately comes to human emotions. During the journey that he undergoes in Pakistan, he realizes how wrong his ideology was and this is what moved me and Salman. I am
totally overwhelmed with the kind of response my film Bajrangi Bhaijaan got over here. I started getting so many messages from Pakistan the day after it released; it was
Instep: Were you expecting the film to be this successful?
KK: Nobody can expect a film to be as successful as Bajrangi Bhaijaan; it has become an all-time blockbuster. I was really overwhelmed by the kind of success it got worldwide and in a certain sense it became a buzzword. People started talking about Bajrangi Bhaijaan diplomacy between the two countries. So that’s heartwarming and definitely it’s a learning process for me as a filmmaker that a film can have such a huge impact on people.
Instep: Do Indian filmmakers keep the Pakistani market in mind when they are making films?
KK: I think they should. Right now, in terms of revenue, it might not be a very big market because of the limited number of screens but it’s a market that we definitely want to nurture. It’s not just about revenue, it’s an emotional connection. Potentially this can be our biggest market. If the number of screens grows here, what a huge market it would be. And if it happens, that itself will put pressure on Bollywood filmmakers to be sensitive and make conscious efforts to make the release of the films successful in both the countries.
Instep: Bollywood films do great business here but there appears to be reluctance in showing Pakistani films in India?
KK: In the past four to five years there have been some serious attempts to release Pakistani films in India but at the end of the day distributors only see the bottom line. If they don’t see money being made, whether the films come from Pakistan or any other country, they won’t care. India is a very crowded market and so there has to be a really concentrated effort to make their position. If it’s done in the form of co-productions, it will be much more helpful.
Instep: Pakistani actors like Fawad Khan are now working in mainstream Bollywood films. What are your thoughts on the cross-border exchange?
KK: Today there is an excitement among Indian directors and producers for Pakistani actors and Zindagi channel has played a major role in that by showcasing these actors through your TV plays. At the end of the day they all are actors when they show up on screens, no matter which country they belong to. This is something that both the industries should work towards; the more collaborations and co-productions we’d be able to do, the better it would be for both the industries.
Instep: Do you see Indian actors working in Pakistani films too?
KK: It would be great but realistically I would say that there would be a bit of struggle to raise funds. If you bring big stars from India, their fee is so high that they make films unviable. So I think right now let us receive all your talent and create an atmosphere where people can see that there are true co-productions and collaborations happening in filmmaking. Once that barrier is brought down then there can be a free flow of talent from one side to the other.
Instep: Have you thought of working on a collaboration?
KK: I would love to; I think that’s a way forward and we should definitely do that. The more collaboration there is between the two industries, the closer people will feel. Unfortunately, our media also focuses only on the negative aspects and it influences people. As far as signing on Pakistani actors is concerned, there are already two, three of them who have made a mark in India. Fawad is there, Mahira Khan has been signed for Raees, and there is this girl called Mawra who has also done a film. Right now I am just exploring a couple of projects and am definitely looking at a few actors. It’s too early to say who and when but I will definitely collaborate.
Instep: What do you think about the new wave of Pakistani cinema?
KK: I think it’s a great development for the industry here as now there will be more support for the local cinema, in terms of increasing the number of screens, which is very important. There are a few industries in this world that have been able to survive the onslaught of Hollywood and I think Pakistan has a potential because your dramas are really good and are highly appreciated, even in India. If the same talent is replicated with more resources into films, there is no reason why your films will not do well.
Instep: Your next film also features Salman Khan in the lead role. What’s the film about?
KK: Yes, I have signed Salman for my next film and we are still working on the script. It is in the same space as Bajrangi in terms of human drama and emotions; it’s a lovely, warm story with a lot of humour and lot of emotions. I haven’t finalized the female lead though.
Instep: Tell us about your future projects.
KK: I am in talks with Hrithik as well for a film but I haven’t signed him as yet. There is one more film that I am making with Eros which is going to be a co-production between India and China.