I had never met Nikhil Advani. Not even spoken to him. But half an hour in D-Day, I knew I had to meet him and talk to him. I had many questions. Like was this film ghost directed (kidding, kidding!) I wanted to know how a director who made big budget bonanzas like Kal Ho Na Ho, Salaam-E-Ishq, Chandni Chowk To China and Patiala House went on to make a gritty film like D-Day.
I was keen to know why and how he thought about making a film about a secret mission to Pakistan to get a dreaded terrorist back home. America made a film called Zero Dark Thirty, which was about the Black Ops that went into Pakistan and terminated Osama. D-Day is a fictionalised version of killing India’s enemy number one, who lives across the border. Not a subject for the weak-hearted maker for sure, and he doesn’t pussy-foot around. The result is a film that is gripping, suspenseful, and brilliantly crafted. Here the director talks about how this film is indeed in his comfort zone, his struggle and finally being lavished with praise by his wife....
Judging by your previous record of soft rom-coms, D-Day is very different. Why such a sudden shift?
There are various factors. First, I felt that it was the right time. All my contemporaries from Sujoy (Ghosh) to Anurag (Kashyap), are doing films like this. Even Karan (Johar), who’s always been an extremely strong influence on my cinema, has done a film like Bombay Talkies. The people who are taking a call in the finances of the film, like studios and corporates, are not backing away but walking a different path with such cinema. Yes, films like Dabangg and Rowdy Rathod are working but we also have a Kahaani and Barfi! along side.
But a factor which is more personal for me was that when you have nothing to lose, it sets you free!
Why do you say that?
I had reached a stage in my career, where I felt that I had manipulated so much in my earlier films, keeping in mind audience expectations, that I felt it was time to be honest. Every film is personal but it’s how much you end up manipulating your film for various reasons, whether it’s the actor image or market forces... At the end of the day you are taking two years of your life as a filmmaker and every single day of those two years you are only fighting with yourself.
There’s a part which tells you to compromise while the other part says don’t! So you end up being almost like a schizophrenic. I realised this post Delhi Safari where I felt I gave it step-motherly treatment. Though I sat in on the edits, etc, the process was more by the animators. During the time it was being made, I went and made two more films — Chandni Chowk To China and Patiala House.
After that I felt whatever I do next, should be as real and honest as possible.
You have stepped out of your comfort zone for this one...
(Laughs) You will be surprised to know that D-Day is more of a comfort zone than my previous films. Before Kal Ho Na Ho, I wanted to write a thriller and even before Salaam-E-Ishq, I had gone to Salman (Khan) with a thriller. People who have seen my rom-coms and family dramas feel that it’s me. But people who know me, like Karan, know what I am capable of. I had shown D-Day to him more than a month ago, and after seeing it he told me ‘who told you to make a love story? THIS is what you were born to do!’ I don’t know whether D-Day is my comfort zone. All I know is that I want to be a filmmaker who makes stories like Imtiaz Ali, Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Basu are making today.
I am willing to do anything that is entertaining and inspiring. Tomorrow if I get a kickass comedy or horror I would like to make it. I feel my core strength lies in human relationships and though D-Day is a high-octane action thriller there’s a very strong human core in it. That is my comfort zone.
Explain the title of D-Day...
Many people think I have punned on it as Rishi Kapoor looks like Dawood, but it’s a fictional story. The writer of the film, Suresh Nair came up with it. As he said, D-Day means the day of reckoning — when change happens — it can be Doomsday also or a day after which everything becomes better.
Were you wary about making a film on a most-wanted terrorist in Pakistan?
No. In fact, that is what attracted me to the script in the first place. The idea came to me when Osama Bin Laden was killed and everybody, including my driver to people on Facebook were saying, ‘When they can, why can’t we do it?’
We (the writers) met at a restaurant in Bandra to discuss the story. At first, it spurred us on to write, the change in script came when we decided we wanted to be real and not show just a simple action-mission film.
It’s easy to say it but more difficult to show it. So we are showing what happens to those four soldiers when they are sent to neighbouring hostile country to carry out an impossible mission and what happens when everything goes wrong. That became the exciting point in the story than the wanted terrorist.
Even if you don’t say it, the mind goes straight to Dawood. Did you know that while making the film?
Of course I did! But I don’t think that something like this has ever transpired in his life in that sense. D-Day is a completely fictional film.
Did you get any queries/threats during the making of the film?
No. None at all. At the end of the day it’s a fictional film — whether his name is Iqbal as called by people here or Goldman as RAW calls him. When you see the film everything else becomes incosensequential. Rishi Kapoor’s character ends up standing for every terrorist act. It’s not important who he is...
Were there people who advised you not to make this film?
No. We were under-rated on the radar and non-consequential than the other big films. Luckily for us, we realised that we were the underdogs and decided to let the film do the talking. We said let’s just work hard.
Were you ready to take the risk, knowing fully well, it is not really a 100-per cent commercial film?
Yes. When I was putting together the film I knew this would be my make or break film and hoped that I would get it right this time. When I got the script I knew the content I was dealing with. I knew I had to choose actors who were not afraid of pushing the envelope or going against the grain of a certain image they had. It’s been very challenging working on D-Day. Everybody who has seen it is loving it now, but it has been a very difficult climb till here. That’s why the appreciation tastes sweeter today.
What were the challenges that you faced?
I worked with a crew that was brand new. Except my DOP. We had to compromise on the budget and the number of shooting days as I wanted an action director from abroad. It’s an action film and that’s something I knew I wouldn’t compromise on. I started my own production house with my sister and close friend. They told me I have only 65 days to shoot. I completed the film in 64 days. At every step I pushed myself to meet the target because the budget was tight and yet we had to make a good film.
The casting is interesting. Tell us about the process?
I didn’t consider other actors for these roles. I wanted Arjun, Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor and I got them because of the script. For Arjun’s role I required someone who was very vulnerable and yet could push the envelope, if required. When I met Irrfan with the script he thought I wanted to do a romcom like KHNH or SEI with him. He kept asking me if I would be able to keep it as real as the script promised.
Finally, I had to arrange a meeting with him and Anurag Kashyap, who is a very good friend. I asked Anurag to explain to Irrfan that I was serious. When I asked Mr Kapoor to play Iqbal he was initially hesitant. But I had seen Agneepath and thought he was amazing as Rauf Lala. We did some look tests and by the third one he was completely blown!
Is it difficult to get actors to take you seriously when you don’t have a mega hit behind you?
I didn’t face that problem and for that I have to thank Mr Yash Johar and Karan for the break they gave me in KHNH. Thanks to them I have wonderful goodwill in the film industry. I can still pick up the phone and call any actor and they will answer the call. People know that I have certain films so they want to give me a chance. Of course the process of filmmaking has been a struggle. I would often feel that I was in the wrong profession. I would then find the strength to get up and go to work. One has to find relevance in what one is doing.
Is it more difficult to cope with struggle before your first film, after a hit first film or after a flop?
The struggle is always there whether it’s your first film or after a flop. It’s just that it’s a different type of struggle. The struggle varies but it’s always there in all ways — financially, emotionally, creative and physically. Though the struggle takes it toll, it has its own highs too. There’s an adrenalin rush and that keeps you going. When people love your film you feel the struggle has been worthwhile.
Who has been your source of constant support during the last few years?
My wife. She has been very patient and supportive.
The best compliment you have got for this film?
My wife! She said, ‘Finally you made a good film!’
How satisfied are you with the film?
I am very satisfied. The film reeks of teamwork and passion.
How did you draw such a phenomenal performance from Arjun?
I think it was the script and the belief in what I was trying to do. That’s important for the actor. It happens when you come to some kind of agreement. When the actor can see your vision and what you are triyng to achieve it just falls into place. Just like Akshay had done in Patiala House.
There is a song in the film that is romantic and yet sends chills down your spine. Comment.
The Alvida song for me was the most difficult scene to shoot. It is a long song but has so much pain and was dificult to shoot. I had to reach inside somewhere very dark and deep inside me to shoot that song the way I wanted. I had to convince everybody that was the best way to shoot the song as lots of people on and off felt I was pushing it too much. It was Arjun’s most difficult scene too but when he heard the song he loved it.