Interview Hindi

10 years of New York: Kabir Khan recalls shooting a mainstream political film

As New York, starring John Abraham, Katrina Kaif and Neil Nitin Mukesh, completes a decade, filmmaker Kabir Khan looks back at his first mainstream feature project.

Keyur Seta

After making quite a few war documentaries, filmmaker Kabir Khan took the first step on the road to becoming a feature filmmaker with Kabul Express (2007). It was an experimental film taking place in a war zone in Afghanistan. But Khan’s entry in the mainstream sphere happened with New York (2009).

Produced by Aditya Chopra for Yash Raj Films, which studio had also produced Kabul Express, the film starred John Abraham, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Katrina Kaif and Irrfan Khan. It told the story of three college friends Sam (John), Omar (Neil) and Maya (Kaif) whose lives are overturned after the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York on 9 September 2001.

Seven years later, Omar reunites with Sam and Maya, who are now married. They are unaware that he is spying on them on behalf of Federal Bureau of Investigation officer Roshan (Irrfan), who believes Sam runs a sleeper cell. 

Despite the unusual topic, New York went on to become a commercial success and also earned positive word-of-mouth notice. The film completes 10 years today (26 June 2019).

Kabir Khan

Director Kabir Khan went down memory lane in a telephone conversation with from Scotland where he is currently shooting for '83, based on India’s 1983 cricket World Cup triumph.

Speaking about the story of New York, Kabir Khan said, “I was in America when 9/11 happened. So I had seen and heard things. After that I was also researching for a documentary. Illegal detentions had taken place after 9/11. At that time Adi [Chopra] told me there is a story about three friends. I decided to put it against the backdrop of this world and see how it plays out.”

Khan said that back in the day the mainstream belief was that political films ought to be avoided. “Plus this was the politics of another country,” he said. “All credit to Adi. He stood by me like a solid producer and said that if I feel this is worth exploring I should do it as long as I am able to explain the politics. Even if a film is about politics, the audience will follow you into any world once they identify with the characters.”

Neil Nitin Mukesh and John Abraham

Shooting a big project like New York was a major shift for Khan from Kabul Express, which he said was made in just Rs4 crore. New York also had one of the longest single international schedules of any Hindi film. “We were there for 100 days and shot for about 80," he recalled. "Now, '83 is going to be the next film I am shooting for 100 days outside India.”

Despite New York being Khan's first big mainstream project, the shoot turned out to be an enjoyable experience for everyone. “Anybody connected with New York till date says this was their most enjoyable shoot because the energy on the set was very good," the director said. "There was no expectation or pressure. We made the film happily. It took a lot of passion and hard work. We came back to India with an absolutely complete film.” 

Asked how he went about the casting, Khan said, “It was my first mainstream film, so I depended a lot on Adi’s advice. With John, of course, I had worked in Kabul Express. I had seen the way he operates. I thought the character of Sam would be ideal for him. He is somebody who is very popular in college. He readily came on board.” 

New York was the first time Khan worked with Katrina Kaif. He felt she was ideal for the role of a character who was born and brought up in New York. “She brought a sense of realism to the character. And I dare say I still find her performance one of her best. There were no trappings of clothes, looks and style. Most of the time in the film she is wearing regular clothes — jeans, shirts and T-shirts. Also for Neil, this is one of his best performances ever.” 

New York had some popular songs like ‘Hai Junoon’, ‘Maine Jo Na Kaha’ and ‘Mere Sangh Toh Chal Zara’. But none of the songs had the artistes lip-synching. “I was coming from a documentary background. There were not even background songs in Kabul Express. So for me it was the process of evolution. Slowly I got used to using songs in my films,” Kabir Khan explained.

“Conventional wisdom used to say mainstream films shouldn’t have politics, should have lip-synch songs, and one shouldn’t kill one's protagonist," he continued. "Maybe we were naive, or maybe we just wanted to make a story which was very honest, and went ahead and made it and it went on to become a huge commercial success also.” 

New York had an extended cameo by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The scene where he emotionally describes how hellish life has become for Muslims like him in the US after 9/11 is moving.

“That scene was his audition,” recalled Kabir Khan. “I didn’t know Nawazuddin at the time. I saw his audition and felt nobody could be better than him for this role. It was the first time he was travelling to the US, so he was also excited.”

Irrfan Khan with Neil Nitin Mukesh

It was during the making of New York that Kabir Khan and Siddiqui struck up a great rapport. "He just has a ten-minute role, but it leaves such a strong impact," the admiring director said. "After New York, I remember telling Nawaz about collaborating with him again if I have a role. That happened with Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). Nobody could do Chand Nawab [based on a Pakistani news reporter of the same name] better than Nawaz.” 

Asked if he was sure New York would work at the box office, Kabir Khan responded, “No, not at all sure. I just wanted to make this story. I just thought it’s a great story. I always believed that conventional wisdom is good, but if we don’t break it, we won’t be able to evolve. Honestly, I have never thought about what would happen to my film at the box office. I just happen to like a story and if producers and actors agree, I make it the best I can.

“Some become hits, some don’t. But that’s the journey. I don’t think you can be a true storyteller if you start thinking of the commercial outcome of the story. I think everything came together [in New York]. A film is a collaborative effort. One person can’t claim full credit for it.”