Reinventing Salman

It was billed as one of the biggest films of the year and now Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a mega blockbuster. Apart from smashing box-office records, this Salman Khan-starrer has also won the heart of a nation by presenting the superstar in a new avatar. Here’s the winning duo — director Kabir Khan (Kabul Express, New York, Ek Tha Tiger and now Bajrangi Bhaijaan) and co-producer Amar Butala (Chief Operating Officer of Salman Khan Films) – in conversation with Team Box Office India

Box Office India (BOI): How happy is Salman Khan Films and director Kabir Khan?
Kabir Khan (KK): Thrilled! We were always very confident about the film but there was no way one could have expected a response like this. It is unbelievable and it’s not just the figures but the sheer overwhelming response and love from people. I mean, the figures for Ek Tha Tiger too were very good but I am not able to keep pace with the response to Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Many people think I have lost my mind but the truth is, it is impossible to reply to the number of messages I am receiving.

Amar Butala (AB): It is our first film with Salman (Khan) turning producer. There is this misconception that actors cannot be producers, they cannot think clearly and they are biased, so it was very important for us to get this film right.  I think it also gives him the confidence to make more films and it tells the team that we are doing things right. So the numbers are secondary because the fact is that Salman Khan is also a blockbuster producer.

KK: And it was a very tight schedule. We started in November and were preparing for an Eid release. Besides, we shot this film all over the place, from Kashmir to Punjab to Rajasthan to Karjat and Delhi. It is on its way to becoming Salman’s biggest film but, on paper, it probably wasn’t the safest film. On paper, if Salman and I had teamed up again for Ek Tha Tiger 2, that would have been a very safe bet. Also many people may have wondered why Salman backed a story like this since it doesn’t see Salman in his action avatar. And his action avatar is at its peak. As it happened, he put his money where his mouth is!

BOI: Was it a deliberate decision to make a film that was very unlike Salman’s typical films?
KK: No, we did not deliberately decide to make a film that was unlike any Salman Khan film. When I was working on this film, I though we should do something interesting as the action genre did not excite me at the time. One, if I had to do an action film with Salman after Ek Tha Tiger, I would have had to raise the bar probably five notches higher than my last film, and that would have been exhausting. That’s when K V Vijayendra Prasad narrated this film to me, I loved the idea and Salman jumped right into it. The film had its heart in the right place. From identity to secularism, it played to Salman’s sweet spot as he lives by these ideals. Salman said he wanted it to be his first production and he, Amar and I wanted to follow our gut.

AB: I was at UTV and I had gone with Sid (Siddharth Roy Kapur) to meet Kabir as we had heard he was planning to make another film with Salman. We heard the one-liner of the film and we absolutely loved it. Sid and I walked out of the elevator and said, ‘Man, this guy is totally gonna kill it.’ The film did not happen at the time but it stuck with me. When I started working with Salman, he asked me what I thought. I said this was the right film to do. Last year, films with original content have stood out and worked. If you take the biggest stars of our industry, take the most successful filmmakers, and you put content between them… that is the recipe for success.

KK: It’s the content that worked. In fact, I feel that Bajrangi is a story that can stand on its own, even without a star. If we had done the film with a newcomer, it would have attracted the essential response but with the superstardom of Salman, things went through the roof.

AB: Salman is obviously the lead but I think Kabir’s idea of getting Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) to play the journalist and then the girl (Harshaali Malhotra), is what really put things in perspective.

KK: I thought of getting a cast that was not from Salman’s world. These guys brought credibility to the film and also made Salman look new and fresh. Besides, we wanted the audience to see unknown faces so that they felt that they had travelled to Pakistan. The locations made it appear as if Salman was in a foreign land. So I think all those decisions worked very well. Even characters who had just two lines are being remembered, like the border officer, the bus driver and even the last officer at the border, who had barely three lines to say. It is amazing that little-known actors are shining and holding their own in a Salman Khan film.

AB: We pretty much just stayed glued to Kabir’s conviction. Of course, Mukesh (Chhabra, casting director) did a superb job. I remember a lot of conversations happening because Kabir loves to shoot in real locations and that’s not the easiest thing to do with Salman and Kareena (Kapoor Khan). Still, we shot in the heart of Delhi. Kabir was certain that things like these would add value to the film.

BOI: There were some action scenes but you didn’t show Salman bashing people. You kept things very subtle.
KK: To me, the action that is in the film is not really action; they are emotional scenes. The first scene that shows Bajrangi fighting is the point where he becomes a hero. He is a complete bumbling fool till then. Babuji says something to him, Kareena says something to him, and before that, you are stating that he doesn’t even fight and even if he wrestles he gets ticklish. But seeing the little girl in a brothel… that wasn’t only an action scene but an emotional one. I wanted to pitch it on emotion because if I got into action, it was never going to be enough as I would have to extend it to a six-minute fight sequence.

AB: And the set-up was a room.
KK: Yes, we would not have been able to show him chasing people and beating them up. So I felt this wouldn’t work and instead decided to stick to the emotional gratification that he gets in those 30 seconds because, at that point, even you want to kill those guys. The second action scene takes place when he gets enraged when someone manhandles Munni. So the action in the film lasts a total of 45 seconds.

BOI: Given Salman’s box-office records, especially on Eid and even with your previous partnership with him in Ek Tha Tiger, how much pressure did you feel?
KK: There was never really any pressure but both of us were very happy that we were doing a story that was heartwarming. I never felt any pressure and, anyway, I am not a numbers person. Jab aate hai toh mazaa aata hai but I don’t keep tabs.

AB: Kabir has become a numbers person only in the last few days. I have worked with filmmakers and actors who talk numbers on a day-to-day basis. But the thing here is that neither SK (Salman Khan) nor Kabir does. They are just not interested, neither about themselves nor about how other films are faring. It was very refreshing.

KK: Ek Tha Tiger was probably the first film that taught me something about numbers. And even that was due to Miss Box Office Katrina Kaif, who has all the numbers at her fingertips. When New York released, someone from Yash Raj Films called me on its first day. I don’t remember the number but he said, ‘Friday is this much’ and he paused. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or not, so I asked him. And he said, ‘These numbers are fantastic!’ I said ‘You have to tell me that as I have no idea about numbers.’ (laughs).

I still don’t understand the break-up of CI, CP, East Punjab and all of that. Once your film has released, you get a gist of it and you know that word-of-mouth is really strong. For Bajrangi Bhaijaan, what really hit me was that Monday was as big as Friday. I understand enough to know that a Monday cannot be equal to a Friday. Adi (Aditya Chopra) used to say, ‘For me, I will only know how a film is doing on Tuesday morning because Monday’s business actually speaks. If Monday is half of Friday, I know I am good and if it’s little more, then it’s superb.’ So when I saw the Monday’s collections for Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I knew this film was doing very well.

BOI: When did you know you were home and dry?
AB: When I watched the film for the first time, I knew we had made a damn good film. I knew it would connect with people. I guess a film in the range of over Rs 250 (crore) has to be really loved. When we were making the film, I thought that since there was not enough action, Salman’s fans might miss it. We were releasing during Eid, which is a time of celebration; we also had Salman in a very different avatar; and he was also beaten up in the film. Maybe Kabir wasn’t thinking about these factors but I was. But as soon as I watched the film, all my doubts vanished. Given the emotional high the film provides you in the last 20-25 minutes, the payoff is incredible whether you are a hardcore Salman fan or not.

BOI: Usually, people start marketing a big film three months in advance. But with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, you guys set aside only a month.
AB: If you look closely at the other big films, you will realise that everyone is taking marketing a little slow. Now, less is more. Our first look was tweeted by Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, so we jumped off with that. The teaser was received very well and so was the trailer. The first song we released gave the impression that the character is a Hanuman bhakt, so everything fell in place. That song gave us all the material we needed for the trailer. With Salman, you don’t need to go all out. All you need to do is announce that his film is releasing.
KK: I have always felt that we, as an industry, go overboard with promotions. I don’t see the point of going to TV shows unless it’s a small film, which needs to be promoted. Marketing should only be done for awareness.

AB: Thank God you’re saying that now! If you had said that earlier, Salman wouldn’t have attended any of the shows. He would have said, ‘Baraabar hai, baraabar hai, Kabir ne bola na.’

KK: (Laughs) But someone needs to scale it down. Someone needs to decide full-page ads coming down, no hoardings or less hoardings, no Media Net. I have watched people spend too much on marketing. As long as people know your film is releasing and when it’s releasing, that’s enough.

AB: We cut down on marketing because this time we went digital. We were very tight and did only a few television shows. We launched Adnan Sami’s song digitally as well as Mika’s song. We did lots of events but we also realised that sometimes it’s better to hold back. For instance, we didn’t open out our film all that much. We didn’t show the Chicken song at all, also Chand Nawab’s entry, which has become so popular now. We didn’t open the Tu jo mila song at all and today it’s a chartbuster. So the audience had an entirely new journey while watching the film. They also saw many new things that they hadn’t seen in the trailer and in the songs, although they were already out.

BOI: The Adnan Sami song reminds you of Manmohan Desai…
AB: (Cuts in) Yes, everyone is saying that! I knew Kabir was shooting in the dargah but I didn’t know he had shot the part where the girl’s mother was also present. When I saw that part, I couldn’t imagine Kabir shooting something like the entire scene, where they see the video, the mother passes by, and then they zoom in and find the mother.

KK: (Laughs)

BOI: Was it a deliberate decision to merely announce the film as an Eid 2015 release and reveal the date only at the last minute?
AB: I think the goodwill that SK has on Eid is big. Also Eid is a rolling date and you don’t know exactly when it will fall. Also, our priority was to get the point across that Salman Khan’s film was releasing on Eid, and that just created a lot of buzz around the film.

KK: There was a slim chance that Eid would fall on July 16. So instead of first announcing the release date and then changing it, we decided to announce it only when we were sure. 

You need to announce the date only 10 days before a film releases. No one makes plans to watch a film a month in advance. So we announced the date once we knew that Eid was definitely not on the 16th but on the 17th. 
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