Secrets of the Trade will document the chaos, madness, magic, heartache, and love that goes into making a film through a series of free-wheeling chats with industry veterans
Filmmaker and producer Nikkhil Advani has had an eclectic group of movie mentors. He’s been schooled by Saeed Mirza, Sudhir Mishra, Yash Johar, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar. As a filmmaker and producer, he’s worked with young, upcoming actors as well as massive stars. And from his days as an intern on 1942: A Love Story to creating the recent web shows Empire and Mumbai Diaries: 26/11, he’s witnessed and survived some of the biggest changes of Hindi cinema over the last few decades. Here he shares with us some of the best memories he’s collected along the way.
Mohini Chaudhuri: How would you describe the movie industry to someone who is completely unrelated to this world?
Nikkhil Advani: Organized chaos. When I say organized chaos I’m discounting all the hard work that it takes just to get onto a set. But once you’re on the set, you could have prepped for a year, and still anything can happen. Like right now the pandemic happened and everything is up for grabs. It’s great that you’re doing this kind of a feature because people don’t know what it takes. Everyone talks about the shark in Jaws and how you actually don’t see the whole thing which made it more scary… but the truth is that they tried using a mechanical shark and it kept drowning. So it is organised chaos meets magic. The audience only sees the magic and not the chaos it took to create that world for them.
MC: Let’s start at the beginning. For how many years were you an assistant director before you got to make a film?
NA: About 10 years.
MC: What’s the most menial errand you’ve run on a film set?
NA: Jackie Shroff used to have this box in which he used to roll his tobacco. My job on 1942: A Love Story was to follow him around with that box. That’s all I did.
MC: How much did you get paid?
NA: I was paid 250 per week, so about 1000 bucks a month.
MC: Did you learn anything from that experience?
NA: I made life-long relationships. Today if I need Jackie Shroff in a film I can reach out to him. The thing is, when we started as ADs, there was a way to make a feature film, which was to work with a well-known director so that you came in contact with a ‘star’ and created some kind of bond with him. During that time you can pitch your idea or your script to the star. It gave you access. I would not be where I am if it wasn’t for Shah Rukh Khan. Later I was loaned by Dharma Productions to Aditya Chopra to assist him on Mohabbatein.
There were a bunch of us who had become some sort of ‘star ADs’. Vikram (Motwane) was with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Shaad Ali was with Mani Ratnam, Reema Kagti and Zoya (Akhtar) were with Excel, and Tigmanshu (Dhulia) was with Shekhar Kapur. Everybody was talking about us and saying that even if they don’t ever become directors, we should get them to assist or associate on our films, because you’ll be able to make the film the way you want to.
MC: You had also approached Ram Madhvani for work and he gave you a list of films to watch before you were eligible to work with him.
NA: Ram asked me if I had seen masters like Fellini, Bergman, Bertolucci, Ray, Ghatak, Shyam Benegal… And I actually went back and saw everything. I borrowed a lot of DVDs, spent a lot of money on VHS cassettes and attended the film appreciation course at FTII. By the time I was done I said now I want to make features, I don’t want to do advertising.
MC: You’ve said that for 7 years, the first and last person you spoke to was Yash Johar. He trusted you implicitly and you had the authority to sign vouchers at Dharma. I’ve often heard people say in their interviews that they don’t make producers like him anymore. Why is that?
NA: First, because he had this unique quality of being unfazed. I remember he and I went to Mauritius for the recce of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and I told him how for the first time in the history of any film, 100 dancers will be taken overseas for a shoot. When we reached there, there was crazy rain. It rained, rained and rained. Those dancers were playing table tennis and having a party. I ran to him and said I can’t believe this is happening. He said, ‘You told to me you want to bring 100 dancers. Koi nahi karta hai. But you said, so I did it. Ab main baarish kaise rok doon?’ So he was unfazed.
The second thing was that he treated everyone on the set like they were Shah Rukh Khan. On the set you have the A crew and B crew. B crew is the costume dadas, light men… The most wonderful thing was that he would go the airport to receive the B crew, like he would go to pick up Shah Rukh.
I would say that he has written the rules of production. Somebody once asked him for a black bull, which was near impossible because in India you get only white bulls. But he made it happen. Next day on the set there was a black bull standing, and then someone touched it later and all the paint came out! But he could make anything happen.
MC: Coming to the vouchers you could sign, what is the wardrobe budget of a Dharma film. Those clothes in K3G especially…
NA: I’ll tell you a story about Yash Johar that a lot of people in the industry know. We had all heard the narration of K3G and the star cast that Karan (Johar) wanted. One Sunday, Yash Johar called me to office. It was just me, the associate producer and him. He asked us what we thought the budget of the film should be. I had no clue what to do. I took an A4 size paper and put down some headings like actors, crew, costume, art… and I think we calculated a budget of 24 crore. He took that piece of paper, folded it and kept it in his pocket. Cut to the first day of ‘Bole Chudiyan’, we have 200 dancers, 500 junior artists and the 6 mega stars on set. Karan has fainted out of stress and he’s lying on a bed in a make up room and directing on a walkie talkie. My ADs are flying all over the place. It was insanely hot. Someone was wearing an outfit from some antique Banarasi sari that Manish (Malhotra) had cut up and it was now falling down.
All this nonsense was unfolding and Yash Johar called me outside the set for a chat and took out that A4 size paper. He said, ‘Do you remember how much you had kept for the art budget of the film’. I said, ‘I don’t know. What was it? Don’t irritate me now. Karan has gone and fainted.’ I could talk to him like that. He said your entire art budget for the film was 3 crore, and this set alone is more than that. He tore up that paper, handed it to me, and said, ‘Now go make your film’. Later, we went to shoot ‘Suraj Hua Maddham’ in Cairo in a private jet, which at that time was unheard of. No one did things like that. So at some point we just stopped counting. To answer your question, when Karan makes a film, there is no budget for art and costume.
MC: I once interviewed Pappu ji, who hires the junior artists for most movies. He said you really gave him a hard time on K3G because you asked for young, affluent looking people in the background and none of his top category junior artists were good enough.
NA: Yes, I remember this. In fact, it all began with Kuch Kuch Hota Hai when I needed young kids for the ‘Koi Mil Gaya’ song and all the junior artists looked older and jaded. So I told my team to go to all the Bombay colleges — Mithibai, NM, Andrews, National — and find kids and tell them we’d pay them. No one had done this till then. I remember having to go to every college and taking permission to allow the students to attend the shoot for a week.
For Mohabbatein, again I couldn’t find the kind of boys I wanted as students for this elite boarding school so we actually auditioned each and every boy standing behind Uday (Chopra), Jimmy (Shergill)… And then what I did was that we divided them into groups of 20 and gave each group a letter. So there was A, B, C, D…and so on, and each group had a team leader who we paid more than the others.
NA: Just to make sure the other 19 show up. It was his responsibility to get them to show up and stand in a line. Basically we used the concept of a class monitor. And I must tell you that in Dharma Productions, there’s now a person called Sumeet, who is the head of production. He was one of these group leaders. He came up to me and said can I work with you on the production. I hired him as an intern on K3G and now he’s the head of production at Dharma.
MC: Let’s talk about actors. In your recent web show Mumbai Diaries, you directed some talented fresh faces. But you’ve also directed massive male stars – Shah Rukh, Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar. What are the rules of directing them? Are you weighed down by their image, or what fans expect of them?
NA: I think you have to be aware that when they approach a scene, they’re thinking of that 200 crore they’re going to bring in. They’re thinking of that opening day figure. If you’re working with any of these actors, they expect that you already understand this. You can’t be under some misconception that it will be any different. Like writers will come to me with a story and say ‘I have a great script for Akshay’. I hear it and I can immediately say he won’t do it.
NA: I just know. Maybe it’s not heroic enough. I’ve had so many conversations with him so I can tell. But I’ll also say that every star, once in a while, will surprise you. Like I once went to narrate a film to Akshay and he immediately said, ‘No this is not for me’. He asked what else I was working on. I said there is this other film that I’m not directing. A director called Raja Menon will make it, it’s based on a real story. It was Airlift. Next morning he said, why won’t you offer this to me. I said because you’ll never do it. There’s no song, the director’s earlier film was Barah Aana… the numbers just don’t add up. Also Raja wants Irrfan for this part. He said can you please speak to him, I really want to do this.
MC: On set is it harder to push them out of their comfort zone?
NA: So sometimes when I’m the producer and the director may be new, they would want me to be more hands on. If they feel the director is not getting them, they’ll call me and say, ‘Samjha de yaar. I can’t do something like this’. They have read their fan base so well that they know exactly what is expected of them.
MC: When I was growing up, the death scene in an SRK film was crucial. Kal Ho Na Ho also had one…
NA: Yes, but Shah Rukh absolutely hated the death scene of Kal Ho Na Ho. He kept saying, ‘You’re too irreverent, not giving it any respect’. He was also shooting Devdas at the same time in which he had a spectacular death scene. He kept saying, ‘Usse kehte hain death scene’. I explained to him that I was looking at death as a comma, not a full stop.
MC: Who is an actor who needs least direction?
NA: Irrfan Khan. What I am today post D-Day is because of him. He taught me how to approach my work. He said stop taking everything so seriously. ‘Tu monitor ke peechhe baith aur mazze le, and we’ll do our thing. Just enjoy yourself’. Now that’s how I work. It’s how I made Mumbai Diaries. I’d come to set and figure. It’s very unnerving for everyone around me!
MC: You said in an interview that even after three decades of working in the industry, the struggle is pretty much the same. It’s just that now you hope that because of past successes, you’ll have to compromise a little less on whatever you’re making next. Is there a creative compromise that you feel especially bad about?
NA: Yes, it has to be the second half of Chandni Chowk to China. I thought the first half was great. So Mr Prayag Raj, who has written all the great Manmohan Desai films, and was 70 plus at the time, saw the film and called. He said the first half is so good and the interval scene was so brilliantly dramatic – Hojo has cut off Mithun Chakraborty’s head and has urinated on the hero. It felt like the hero is now going to rise, but the hero never rises. If the bad guy has urinated on the hero, the hero has to urinate on the villain. He said Jeevan spits on his shoe and he makes Pran clean it in Amar Akbar Anthony, and then Pran makes him do the same thing. That payback must happen.
MC: So what happened?
NA: There were too many captains. Akshay and I were pulling the film in one direction, Ramesh Sippy in another, Rohan Sippy and Sridhar Raghavan in another. I just gave up after a point because because I realised I’m on the back foot. I had just made Saalam E Ishq. I was just grateful to have work and I thought my voice doesn’t matter.
MC: Lastly, in the three decades that you’ve been here, what would you say are three most game-changing Hindi films?
NA: In the 90s it was DDLJ. 2000s it was Dil Chahta Hai and Lagaan. Lagaan changed everything not just because it was a legendary film but also because it changed the way we approached the production of a film. In 2010… since this is Hindi can I still say Baahubali? Because there were great Hindi films like Rang De Basanti but probably nothing that had the same impact as the others. Baahubali shook up the entire investment model. We thought the market was only for 200 crore and here was a ‘regional’ film clocking 500-600 crore.
MC: Thank you for the stories.