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Interview Hindi

Aamir paved way for small films, says director Raj Kumar Gupta – 10th anniversary special

In an exclusive interview, director Gupta speaks about the film's journey, the reasons that led him to take up the subject, and the similarities with Cavite (2006).

Mayur Lookhar

Terrorism is undoubtedly the biggest threat the world faces today. But what remains something of a mystery is: what makes a terrorist? Is it simply religious indoctrination or poor economic conditions that drive people to terrorism?

Director Raj Kumar Gupta gave us another perspective with his film Aamir — one can also be coerced into committing an act of terror.

Aamir was Gupta's first film as director. He had earlier assisted Anurag Kashyap on Black Friday (2007) and No Smoking (2007). The film was appreciated for its intriguing plot and the intense performances by the cast led by television star Rajeev Khandelwal. This was Khandelwal's film debut too.

The word 'terror' often brings to mind the image of Islamist terrorism, further associating it with men with long beards. However, Gupta's Aamir showed us how a common man, irrespective of caste and creed, can also be compelled to take up arms.

Celebrating Aamir's 10th anniversary today (the film was released on 6 June 2008), we spoke with director Gupta about the film's journey, the reasons that led him to take up the subject, and the film's similarities with the Philippines film Cavite (2006). Excerpts:

Raj Kumar Gupta 

'Kaun kehta hai aadmi apni kismat khud likhta hain [Who says we write our own destiny]?' —This line may be true for Aamir, but hasn’t Raj Kumar Gupta penned his own destiny?

That is an interesting first question. Yes, I have, but there have been circumstances which have worked in favour, and those that have not worked in favour. But as someone who doesn’t come from the film industry, I can say that [I have written my own destiny]. It is a dichotomy in that sense.

Aamir completes 10 years. Apart from being your first, how do you look back at the film?

I think it is a film that I wanted to make and I could make it the way I wanted to. A lot of times, when you are making your first film, the energy is different, something that I don’t think is seen in subsequent films. The chaos, madness, spirit, and passion of making your first film is something that can’t be repeated in that sense.

Aamir is a film that kind of paved the way for me. In a way, it has also paved the way for small films. It brought a lot of things to not only me but also to filmmakers who were making small-budget films, trying to tell stories that depended more on story-telling than on anything else.

Being a first film, it also gave hope to a lot of other filmmaker friends of mine who were trying to make their first films then.

The film is said to have been adapted from Cavite (2006) by Filipino-American filmmakers Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon. Was the film commissioned to you by UTV Spotboy or were you inspired after watching Cavite?

Not at all. It was neither adapted nor inspired or taken. It was just a mere coincidence that something ... (pauses) I haven’t seen that film yet. People started to compare the two films.

As soon as I got to know that Aamir had certain things similar to Cavite, we approached the makers [of Cavite] and told them about the similarity. They graciously said, 'The same idea can come to different filmmakers, we have no problem.' When you watch the film, you will see that we have thanked them in the opening credits. I had this script since 2005, while Cavite was released in 2006.

Given the cultural diversity of India, wasn’t a story like Cavite a natural fit for an Indian adaptation?

Since I haven’t seen the film, what are the references points, it is difficult for me to pinpoint. I can tell you what my inspiration was to write this story. After 9/11, the world has changed completely. There were so many things that were happening in and around us. People of a certain community were looked upon in a certain way. I have a lot of friends who belong to that community. They used to tell me about their ordeals, especially when travelling abroad. So, my inspiration came from there.

It was a first film for Rajeev Khandelwal, composer Amit Trivedi, lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, cinematographer Alphonse Roy, and also the first film under the UTV Spotboy banner. How did you guys all come together?

I think all of us were destined to come together. When I narrated [the story] to Vikas Bahl, who was heading UTV Spotboy then, he saw the potential in the film. We were able to get a brilliant team together. The energy was different.

Were you instrumental in getting together the likes of Bhattacharya and Trivedi or was it done by UTV Spotboy?

No, it was all organic. The team was of my choice. When it is your first film, you want people who want to work with you. Usually, you won’t find many people wanting to work with you because it is your first film. You can’t have names, choices, budget, or the daddy who gets you actors, music director or whatever. You have to make do with whomever you get.

In a first film, you are trying to hire an assistant director and they will look up to you with a question mark on their faces. Why should I assist you? You are not a well-known person. When you are making your first film, it is more about passion, about who is ready to work with you.

Were you aware of the talent of Trivedi and Bhattacharya?

At that point, you are only judging by what you are listening to, and hoping that things will work out. There is no prophecy. You can’t gauge, it is more about feeling that this might work. You feel they are nice people and you go ahead with them.

With so many rookies making their debut, I guess there was never a need for motivation, for you guys must have had the hunger to succeed. 

Success would be a wrong word. Everything with Aamir came from the script. Everyone from the director to the producer to the cinematographer to the music director, all were very moved and excited by the script.

Of course, you are trying to make a mark in any sphere of life. When you work with likeminded people, you are giving your best. You want the film to work, and you give in your best. Everyone was giving their best.

At that point, it was important for all, including myself, that they were really worth it. As I said before, the passion in your first film is something that is unparalleled. I was sure if we gave our best, people would notice this film.

Rajeev Khandelwal's character does not convince us much with words, he lets his eyes do all the talking. Your thoughts?

He really turned out to be great for the character. Khandelwal brought a sincerity, innocence and certain believable factor to that character. That was a major reason for the film to work. If your character doesn’t work, then anything you do will not save the film. Everything centres on that character in that story. Rajeev was a great partner in the film.

Once your character sketch was ready, and you guys started looking out for potential actors, was Khandelwal among the first people you thought of or were there other names in the fray?

Of course, when you are starting out, there are names suggested by people, but you don’t have many options. You are not someone whom people are waiting to work with. You are non-existent. You have a wish list, but those in the list don't even know you exist.

Not that I had tried, but when you are in the industry you feel that this script suits a particular actor. There were names suggested, but when Rajeev’s name came up, I thought it would be good to have him. It was one of the line producers who suggested his name. I wasn’t aware of Khandelwal’s popularity on television.

Terrorism is considered a by-product of religious indoctrination or even economic conditions. But Aamir showed us that coercion could also be a factor. Did you ever come across a person like Aamir in real life?

The inspiration was from real-life incidents. There were many bomb blasts happening, sleeper cells being discovered. I believe indoctrination is also a form of coercion. At that point of time, there wasn’t much visual reference, there weren’t too many documentaries then, or real-life footage. All that was available was through media text or news.

The film originated from the situations, circumstances around us between 2000 and 2004. After 9/11, the world had changed, the place had become more hostile. I came across stories where people were indoctrinated, they were told something else but actually things turned out differently.

There was this one shocking incident in Afghanistan, of a five-year-old who was strapped with a device and told to go to an American army base and push the button. The child was not even aware of what was going on. He ended up at the army camp and told the Americans what he was asked to do. Luckily, he survived and that is how we learnt of the story.

In hindsight, had you conceived of Aamir after the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, would it have been difficult for people to accept the film?

I don’t know. It’s a fair question, but very hypothetical. Things change, situations change, of course, films like Aamir come out of experiences. Maybe it would have been different in some way. I don’t know how much of the core story would have changed. The circumstances might have been different.

But do you think producers would have backed this idea had the film come out after 2008?

I hope so. I don’t know.

Most of the first-timers in Aamir have gone on to establish themselves in the industry, but I’m not sure I can say that about Rajeev Khandelwal. As the man who launched him, are you surprised he hasn’t progressed as much in his career despite being appreciated for his act in Aamir?

It would be wrong to say that. I think he is doing well for himself in his professional and personal life. As far as his films are concerned, I wish him luck. He is good-looking, a fine actor, has all the attributes to be a popular Hindi film actor. As you are aware, our industry is a great place. Nobody can predict anything. I hope he does more films.