Badrinath Ki Dulhania director: Varun, Alia have grown up but are still kids

Shashank Khaitan gets candid about how he went from aspiring athlete to filmmaker after almost becoming an actor.

Shashank Khaitan with producer Karan Johar and his lead pair. Picture: Shutterbugs Images

Keyur Seta

Normally, all those who have assisted Karan Johar are given a chance to direct a film under his banner, Dharma Productions. But Shashank Khaitan is an exception. He got a chance to make his directorial debut with Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014) without having been an AD, industry lingo for assistant director, with Johar. Now, he is back with the second film in the franchise, Badrinath Ki Dulhania, with the same lead pair, Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt. 

In a hilarious conversation with, Khaitan shared some anecdotes from his life and the reason why Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) turned him from a sportsperson to a filmmaker. Excerpts:

What is Badrinath Ki Dulhania about? Is it based on real-life incidents or characters?

The core of the story is based not on my life, but I have seen a lot of such conflicts around me and always wanted to tell a story about it. The core is about man-woman and love-respect and what roles they play in a relationship. I have tried to be non-judgemental. Today there is so much talk about men, women, the role of women, women's empowerment, feminism, non-feminism, chauvinism, etc. As a storyteller, I wondered, how can I bring it out in the most normal way without judging either? You know, it’s easy to point fingers at everybody, but it is very tough to tell a neutral story and let people decide what is right.

I have had the good fortune of having strong women in my life. When I see other women, I feel why can't they be treated the same way as they are treated in my house? Then you realize that the circumstances around them, the upbringing and education, are different. I have used all of that understanding, whatever limited understanding I have of that life, and tried to tell a story of two characters, Badri and Vaidehi.

Badri is the one we love to hate – a chauvinist. Vaidehi is also one we love to hate, this feminist. I have tried to get them to a level of love and ask how these two will fall in love. How can they ever make a life which is not complicated? And it can be simplified. Of course, it is done in the most commercial way I can by telling it not with any sorrow but with a lot of joy.

How challenging was it to make sure the film turns out differently from Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania? The genre and lead actors are the same in both films.

It wasn’t a challenge, honestly, because it is a different film at the script level. The story in itself is so different and the characters too. You have all seen the trailers. Right from the first time he [Dhawan's character] smiles with the tedha mooh [crooked face], you know it’s not the same character. Same is the case with Vaidehi and her language. So, I was never challenged that it will be the same film or people would come out comparing the two films. Comparisons are bound to happen when you make two diametrically opposite films also. 

What is the special reason for keeping your characters desi, rooted? You did that with Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania too.

It happens by default. I have been an athlete all my life. I used to play tennis and cricket. Since the age of 13 I have been travelling to play in the Nationals at places like Lucknow, Chandigarh, Kolkata, Chennai, etc. I have lots of stories from these places and the characters. Even 13-14 year-olds used to speak with that flavour.

Talking about Humpty, I was in Chandigarh playing one tournament. I lost the match to my opponent who was from Chandigarh. After the match, when we shook hands, he patted my back and said, ‘Arre koi baat nahin yaar, tu haar gaya, koi baat nahin [Don't worry, mate, you lost, never mind].' I was like, I don’t know whether you are insulting me right now or what. But then I realized he was saying it in the most simple, happy way possible. He was just trying to make me feel better. Later on he came up and offered me biscuits.

It also happens in places like Lucknow and Jhansi. Their language is different. They say things that make you initially think, ‘What are you saying? Isn't it offensive?’ But then you realize it comes out of great love. They are very simple people. They don’t have complications in life. They will eat this samosa and won’t try to be diplomatic about it. They will say, ‘Achcha nahin laga. Bohat kachra samosa hai [Didn't like it. That savoury was rubbish].' That is how they think. So, one of the reasons why I go back to these regions is because I feel those simple emotions really help you connect to the character. You don’t want to see diplomatic characters. You want to see characters that don’t have a filter. You can read their emotions right from day one. 

Would you like to try any other genre apart from a love story?

When I was in film school, a Hollywood writer came and said, ‘Every film is a love story.’ The genre does not matter because a thriller is love for something and a revenge drama is love for revenge. He said, never shy away from love because love gives birth to passion and that’s the one thing you want to see in any film. So, if I come across a character in my script who loves the Kohinoor, I may end up writing a thriller.

Right now I am trying to figure out my own characters. I am a very character-driven writer. I figure out my characters before figuring out the journey. But right now I am very happy with what I am writing. 

Khaitan and Dhawan. Picture: Shutterbugs Images

You seem to be greatly influenced by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. How many times have you seen the film? Do you go to Maratha Mandir [a theatre in central Mumbai where the film is still running] to watch it?

I have been to Maratha Mandir only once, but that was a long time ago. But I remember when the film was released in 1995, I saw it 12-13 times in the theatres. My parents were ready to throw me out of the house; I was only 12-13 then. They were like, are you mad? At that time, going twice or thrice to the theatre [to see the same film] was a bit unheard of for children. Adults would have done it but as a 13-year-old, imagine if your mom asks, ‘Aaj kya kar rahe ho [what are you doing today]?' and I would say, ‘Aaj soch raha hoon DDLJ dekh ke aa jaaun [I think I'll watch DDLJ].’ They were like, are you losing it a little bit? As I was an athlete at that time, they felt I have given up sports for movies. But yeah, that has definitely been a great influence. 

You were so much into sports. How did your interest tilt towards the movies?

It was DDLJ. The film made me believe in the magic of cinema. I had seen some amazing films before that too. When we were younger, we were not allowed into cinema halls so easily. It’s different now. I remember there used to be research to find out whether this film is fit enough for me to go and watch it in a theatre. Before DDLJ, I remember seeing only a few films in the theatre. One was Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin (1991) and the other was Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (1994). Of course, everyone was allowed for HAHK (laughs). I loved these films as well.

But there was something about DDLJ. Maybe because it brought out the hero in all of us. We all believed we were Raj. We used to think, ‘Haan yaar hum hi hai [Yes, that would be me].’ It was a time when we were growing up. Whatever it was, I felt this film is magical, the range of emotions it took you through. So I kept thinking that if I don’t succeed as an athlete – and I was very driven and wanted to be an athlete – maybe I will pursue my passion for movies. 

Only those who have assisted Karan Johar have got a chance to direct a film under his banner. But you are an exception. You have never assisted him. How did it happen?

I knew someone in the company called Ryan Stevens, who is a creative developer. I had directed a film called Sherwani Kahan Hai. It was a small feature film which I and my friends had made. The [Canon] 5D cameras had just been launched and everybody was making experimental cinema. I produced the film with an uncle of mine on a very small budget. I showed it in the industry to release it. It didn’t happen, but everyone appreciated my work.

Stevens saw the film and said he really liked it and asked me to pitch a script to them. I started pitching scripts. It started in 2011. Every time he would tell me that I am writing very well but something is missing. Then Humpty happened, which was my sixth script. While writing the film, I had a feeling this is going to get made. Stevens also felt it sounds good. 

Then he pitched it to Karan in early 2013. And three weeks later I met Karan. He said, ‘I really liked the script. Let us make this movie.’ It was as simple as that. He didn’t ask me anything.

I really don’t know what he saw in me or the script. He only asked whether I had assisted someone. I told him all I had done. He decided to meet a month later and rectify some problems in the script. My ending was slightly different. He said this is what he felt as an outsider and asked me to tell him what I feel a month later, so I have time to work on it. After a month when we met, he liked the script and said, ‘You direct the film.’

During the trailer launch, Karan Johar had said he wants to develop this film into a franchise. Have you planned the third part? Or will it all depend on the box-office performance of Badrinath?

No, I haven’t yet. I mean, I am assuming a little bit of that. But I am not going to be entirely dependent on that. Also, now we need to step back and again get a good story in place. Because as the franchise will again have Varun and Alia, I would again make them do something different. So I would have to make sure their characters are challenging for me as a director. When I crack that we will take the franchise forward. 

What difference did you find in Varun and Alia this time?

They have grown up, yaar. Their understanding has improved so much. Between Humpty and Badri, they must have done 2-3 films each. They have worked with such good filmmakers and come here. Their conversations have changed. The good part is that they are still kids. They still have the energy, enthusiasm and passion they had when we were discussing Humpty. They haven’t changed one bit. They enter a room and still appear like a boy and girl who want to take over the world. But when they start talking work, cinema, character arc, and journey of the character, you realize they have started understanding cinema much better.

You were training to become an actor at Subhash Ghai’s Whistling Woods institute. Would you like to act too?

I started training as an actor but as default. I used to dance a lot. In all these family weddings, you have these uncles and aunties who want to destroy your future forever. They would come up and say, ‘Arre tu kitna achcha dance karta hai. Tere expressions kitne achhe hain [You dance so well, your expressions are so good].’ So, I entered Whistling Woods and said, ‘Actor’! But two months into the course and I knew I was going to be a director.

I realized that I love telling stories and writing those characters. And, in fact, Naseeruddin Shah, who was my HoD [head of department], used to keep telling me (mimics him), ‘Tu baaki sab cheezon ke bare mein bahot sochta hai [You think too much about other aspects of filmmaking].’ He used to tell me to focus on acting. But I was like, I don’t understand acting. So, no, I haven’t thought about acting. I am very happy directing and I hope I keep doing that successfully.