It’s hard to put filmmaker Nikkhil Advani in a specific box. He’s had such a varied filmography, it’s difficult to tell the same person has made all these films. Whether it’s his debut Kal Ho Naa Ho or the star-vehicle misfire in Chandi Chowk To China or one of the only large-scale animation projects to come out of Bollywood over the last decade in Delhi Safari.
Then in 2013 came his impressive espionage thriller D-Day – widely considered his ‘breakout’ film, showing signs of a director finally making a film they want to. Post-D-Day, just when we thought we had him pegged, he followed it up with two forgettable 2015 releases within weeks of each other – the rom-com Katti Batti and the Salman Khan-produced Hero. Aside from directing, Advani has also produced a slew of films through Emmay Entertainment, ranging from the commendable Akshay Kumar-starrer Airlift to the unabashedly commercial Satyameva Jayate from director Milap Zaveri. In short, you don’t quite know what to expect from a Nikkhil Advani film, something he considers a strength.
Now Advani returns to the director’s chair with the John Abraham-starrer Batla House – based on Delhi’s infamous 2008 Batla House encounter case. Two weeks before the film’s release Advani looks drained. Ask him if it’s because of the impending release and he’s quick to respond that the film is ready and done. He’s now already lost in the next few projects with Emmay Entertainment slated to have multiple film and web series releases in 2020.
When discussing his turbulent career Advani is candid and forthcoming about the highs and lows along the way. He spoke to me about Batla House, the importance of making films for the right reasons, his upcoming web-shows and why he considers himself a better producer than director.
You’ve had such a varied filmography. What film do people most know you for when they come up to you?
D-Day. It’s funny because when we wrote D-Day, we went to every studio and everybody said ‘we can’t do this film, it won’t release in the Middle East, it won’t release in Pakistan, it’s too niche’. And then the film released and everyone wanted a part 2.
Do you feel the downside of that is not being known for something specific as a filmmaker? Not having a niche as such?
I don’t know. I hope not, because most of my contemporary filmmakers are constantly wanting to try and break that. If you look at Vikram (Motwane), whether it is Udaan or Lootera or Trapped or Bhavesh Joshi, they’re all very different. But still, you know there is a stamp to everything that Vikram Motwane does. Shakun (Batra) for that matter, has done Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu and Kapoor and Sons. Both are very similar, but they are very different at the same time.
For me, I like the whole idea of against-all-odds. Nobody thought that the guy who made Kal Ho Na Ho could make D-Day. I think I am leaning more towards that genre. Whether it’s D-Day or P.O.W. which I did as a show for Hotstar, which was an adaptation of Hatufim. It went on to become Homeland in the States.I think it was also a very natural fit for us to do Airlift and now Batla House. There’s another film that we’re going to be starting early next year which is again an espionage film that is based in the 1980s, which I won’t be directing, it will be directed by Ranjit Tiwari.
Looking back at the films that landed and those that didn’t, you get a sense that there’s been a struggle between two kinds of films – those you wanted to make vs those you felt you ‘should’ make. Would you agree?
Of course, every filmmaker has to. If they don’t agree to that, they’re lying. I saw an interview with David Fincher where they asked him ‘if you made a film like Fight Club, why would you make a movie like Panic Room?’. And he said that ‘you answered the question, one is a film and the other is a movie’.
You’ve said with Chandi Chowk To China you wanted to make an ‘Akshay Kumar film’ and Hero was Salman Khan’s vision, not yours. Do you feel part of the reasons those films and others didn’t work is because you were making them for the wrong reasons?
Yeah, totally. Rohit Shetty sets out to make Golmaal. He sets out to make Singham and Simmba and Sooryavanshi. He sets out to do this larger than life, so there is no dishonesty in that. Raju Hirani sets out to make the kind of films he makes, so there is no dishonesty in that. Every time a filmmaker has been dishonest, he has failed. And it has nothing to do with me also. You take my contemporaries also. I can make out when somebody like Kabir (Khan) is not completely into the film. Because we are the kind of filmmakers who need to be completely into the film, we need to buy into it and dedicate two years of our lives into it.
When I think of a Nikkhil Advani thriller, I instinctively think of D-Day. But when I saw the Batla House trailer, I got a sense of a more conventional action film, between the fight scenes and that shirtless scene of John Abraham. Was there a pressure to make this more conventional?
When you’re saying conventional, does it have the commercial tropes that are required to speak to a larger audience? Yes. But still, does it stay true to its material? It does. I have been very conscious of that fact that I have made a film like D-Day and most people who are in my fraternity love it. But I wish more people had watched it. I think the story of Batla House deserves more people to come to theatres. If that means that I have to work hard with a Nora Fatehi and do acting sessions with her so that she can be not just an item number but a character in the film, then I’ll do that. If it means that John, who’s playing a cop suffering from PTSD and is almost suicidal, looks in the mirror without his shirt because he’s just come out of a bath, then that’s fine. So, it’s a balancing act but I think that you have to be a little clever at it, which I think we have been.
‘Patriotic films’ get a bit of a bad rap these days. Do you feel like we’re putting the wrong kind of patriotism across in our films?
For me, patriotism is the ability to ask questions. And I think Batla House asks a lot of questions. Most people in the North know it was the infamous encounter case in Delhi. But really it’s also about the Chinese whispers and the power you have with 280 characters to creates noise. Between the WhatsApp groups and column space in newspapers to screaming and shouting on the news to political spins, the truth got lost somewhere. And that’s what the film is about. It gave me the chance to tell the story from three points of view. It’s not very Roshomon, it’s just that there were three versions of this story and it’s interesting the way Ritesh Shah wrote the three versions while keeping the linear structure going.
With your show P.O.W you really tried to push the envelope of TV in India. Do you feel like you just missed the digital wave with that show?
I get that a lot. I’m not the one who’s saying it, it’s you guys who are saying it. Everybody on the 26th floor and above at Star keep saying ‘we wish we had doneP.O.W two years later’. It could have been the show they launched Hotstar with. I thought it was great material, and everyone from Star backed me when I said I want to take the top actors of theatre and serious cinema for a series. But P.O.W should not have been made for TV. It was too graphic, it was layered and it was non-linear in its storytelling.
You’re also working on web-series Moghuls and Hasmukh with Vir Das. What do you make of the streaming space today?
It’s a very exciting time. But it also needs to stabilize. Right now, there’s an explosion. Once that explosion settles down, that’s where the standardising will happen. Reality needs to set in slightly in terms of the numbers that are being thrown around. It’s very easy for people to say ‘my show got so many million views’. People are just throwing numbers.
Delhi Safari is one of the few attempts in the last decade of a mainstream Bollywood animated film. Why does the industry disregard animation? Are audiences not receptive to it?
Because we still call it a cartoon. We don’t take it seriously. We don’t treat the material the way Pixar treats their material. Toy Story 4 is the film to look out for as a summer blockbuster. For them, Toy Story 4 is a big event film. The minute you stop calling animation ‘cartoon’ and start looking at it as a genre, then there will be seriousness.
For someone who’s worked on such a wide spectrum of projects, do you ever think about what you want your legacy to be?
Whatever comes out of our company, nobody should turn around and say ‘what did they do, that was just nonsense’. I want to be proud of anything that comes out from us, whether it works or doesn’t work. We pride ourselves on being very strong producers more than directors. We will not venture down that road of making a film which depends on that day 1. We try to be agnostic of that Friday. If we are not making money for the studio before that Friday in terms of the budget vs non-theatrical revenues, we don’t do the film. It’s about being sensible as producers.