Madgaon Express Came Out of Kunal Kemmu Feeling He Wasn’t Getting His Due

After years in the industry as an actor who felt “underutilised”, Kunal Kemmu has the credit of delivering a hit with his first film as a director.
Madgaon Express Came Out of Kunal Kemmu Feeling He Wasn’t Getting His Due
Madgaon Express Came Out of Kunal Kemmu Feeling He Wasn’t Getting His Due

Who would have thought that the cherubic kid from Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke (1993) would later helm a rollicking comedy about the misadventures of three friends on their Goa trip, complete with drag, drugs, and enough jokes to leave you in stitches? Actor, writer, director, songwriter, singer—Kunal Kemmu truly wears many hats. After spending a large part of his career being part of cult comedy films like Go Goa Gone (2013) and Golmaal 3 (2010), Kemmu has now embarked on a new journey behind the camera to write and direct Madgaon Express

Kemmu spoke to Film Companion about growing up on film sets, staying patient in his career and developing a discipline in his craft. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

You started as a child actor. What got you into acting when you were younger? 

I grew up in Srinagar, and both my parents were in the creative field, in the performing arts. I remember when we moved to Mumbai where they were doing a show for DD National called Gul Gulshan Gulfaam (1987), which was being shot in Srinagar. My first appearance on TV was a small cameo in that show, which was accidental because I used to just hang out on the set every now and then. One day Mr Ved Rahi, the director, asked me if I wanted to be in it. I just basically wanted to see myself on television (laughs). But when we came to Mumbai, he was making another show on Doordarshan based on the Amar Chitra Katha stories, which were different episodic stories. My mum was going to be in it and they needed someone to play this kid who lies a lot. They asked my parents if I would do that, they asked me and again, I like the idea of seeing myself on television.

I think a year later, somebody from the casting team of Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke must have seen that and they reached out to my dad and my dad said, “He actually doesn't really want to be an actor. He was just doing this because he enjoyed it.”

But they insisted because Mahesh Bhatt ji really liked it and they wanted me in the film. I remember I was on my summer vacation in Delhi, and I got this call from dad. I remember watching Dil (1990) on television and my dad said that this film has Aamir Khan and a bunch of kids. My dad asked me, “Would you like to do it? And I just remember thinking that, a) I liked Aamir Khan, and b)This would mean that I could see myself on a big screen in a cinema hall as opposed to just being on TV. I think just because of that, I said yes.

Kunal Kemmu in Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke
Kunal Kemmu in Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke

With Madgaon Express you have transitioned from acting to writing and directing. What inspired this pivot?

It's always been driven from a place of wanting to create something new, wanting to maybe create opportunities. … Maybe it was the lack of opportunities and the anger that I had within me towards what was happening around because I felt underutilised. I tried to not mope about it beyond a point and tried to do something creative. Whether it was picking up the guitar and playing with music or taking off on a bike or picking up a new hobby of photography. I always had stories to tell. I grew up on a film set, practically. I did a lot of theatre. Because I had also had the experience of being a writer and a director also … I’ve learned on the job. I think life is a school where you learn. For me, cinema has been my life because cinema has been such an integral part of my life. 

Are there any specific people, places or things in Madgaon Express that you’ve added as hat tips to those who have inspired you? 

There are a couple of hat tips in the film to certain things that I've liked or certain references. Whether it's Go Goa Gone, you see this guy who's at the bar, the cameo that I play, or even the car crash that happens in the beginning was a hat tip to 99 (2009), there's a car crash in that. Influences of all the directors that I've worked with have come into play like a climax with all the characters is something which Priyadarshan sir's films have. Then I wanted to shoot comedy at a scale which I have learned by watching a lot of Rohit Shetty films because he started making comedies at a bigger scale.

But I never intended to do this. I wanted to tell the story of these three guys. It was just an instinctive call when you're on set and you improvise. 

Kunal Kemmu, Vir Das, Saif Ali Khan in Go Goa Gone
Kunal Kemmu, Vir Das, Saif Ali Khan in Go Goa Gone

What advice would you give aspiring writers and directors who are trying to break into the industry? 

For writers, it starts on paper. … That's the only place where you're free, where you can just let your thoughts flow and let your instincts guide you. Always trust your instincts. What may be a bad idea today may be a good idea tomorrow, but don't limit yourself. 

Breaking into the industry and finding a chance is not always dependent on how good or bad you are. It's not always proportional to your talent. There are also a lot of other factors that are at play. You call it luck. You call it timing. You call it being at the right place at the right time. You can call it a lot of things that are in nobody's hands, but I think the creative place that you are in is your freedom. That's your space. 

… I never wrote this film because I was commissioned to write this film. I wrote this film because there was a story that I thought I wanted to tell. I didn't know where it was going to go. It took a long time for it to find its place. Patience is the name of the game. … It took me 18 days to write the first draft and then it took five years to pull it together and actually make the film.

Kunal Kemmu directing Madgaon Express
Kunal Kemmu directing Madgaon Express

How do you stay optimistic even when things are not panning out? 

There's no formula. In hindsight, it is easy to say “Be patient” but when you're going through it, I don't think patience is the exact way that you will define it, because there is a lot of heartache, there is a lot of sadness at times, there is a lot of anger at times, and then there are times when you just feel numb towards it. That's how you mature. 

Madgaon Express is available to rent on Prime Video. 

Related Stories

No stories found.