Writer-director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s hit Telugu film Arjun Reddy was hot on the remake market soon after it became the blockbuster no one saw coming in 2017. It changed two hands before eventually landing up with Murad Khetani of Cine 1 Studios. Reddy jokes that by the time Khetani laid his hands on it, he had to dish out a fair bit of money for the rights of his debut film. By this time Vanga was busy writing his next Telugu film, but he put that on hold when he was asked to make Arjun Reddy again, this time as Kabir Singh. He says the opportunity to direct Shahid Kapoor was too tempting to pass up. Here he talks about what it takes to recreate the magic of the much-loved Arjun Reddy.
When you were making Arjun Reddy you had spoken about producers falling asleep while you narrated it and ultimately your brother had to bankroll the film. This time around was it a more peaceful filming process?
It was good. I mean, the team was big and things were looked after. First time around it’s wasn’t just about it being my own money and my own production. It’s your first film, you will be overcautious.
Did you get to fulfil certain things that you couldn’t the first time around because you didn’t have money?
No no. When I was making Arjun Reddy aisa kuch nahi hua ki budget nahi hai toh mein idhar hi shoot kar doonga. For a first-time writer and director, the major problem comes with selling the film. We are very clear on paper, very clear in the mind, but releasing it was a pain. Now in Hindi, I’m not even peeking into it. So that way it’s a big luxury. I don’t have to deal with the distributors, I don’t have to check how many theatres, whether the sound is good. I don’t have to speak with a bunch of distributors and bargain the price.
Did you choose to direct this because you didn’t want to trust anyone else with it?
Actually what happened was that this remake talk was buzzing around after the release of Arjun Reddy. So obviously people will advise you to hit the iron when it’s hot and all that. So I sold the remake rights to X person, that person sold it to someone else and that person sold it to Murad sir (Murad Khetani of Cine1 Studios). And after six months again I got a call from producers saying that Shahid is interested and asking me if I wanted to direct it. So I came to Mumbai. One month after Arjun Reddy I started writing a new Telugu story and in the middle of it I got this call so I jumped onto it.
Wow, that’s quite a journey. So the film changed so many hands?
It cost a bomb for Murad sir because of the demand and the process of changing hands!
The trailer looks like you’ve stayed faithful to your first film. Creatively, what is it like to make the same film twice, that too in quick succession?
Actually, it’s really a tough job to do a remake because as a writer/director you need to revisit and relive the film and make the actors also perform it again. I strongly believe that making the audience believe is all you need in a film like this which has a character-driven screenplay. Also it was offered to me with Shahid Kapoor and I just loved his performances in films like Kaminey, Udta Punjab, Haider. When you get a chance to work with an actor like that, with that range, you feel like doing it. So the feeling of, ‘Oh, my god I have to redo this film!’, will not be there when you get a chance to work with an actor like Shahid.
How did you direct Shahid on this film? Did you ask him to reference Vijay Deverakonda’s performance which was so fantastic?
I’ve kept the story and the soul similar. We’ve changed only the topography, the region, and the outlook of the character. There it was Arjun Reddy, here it is Kabir Singh – so the difference between the South and the deep North. I feel that nobody can play exactly like what is written on paper. There will be a blend of that particular person who is playing it. I think when you see Kabir Singh, you’ll give it the same love you gave Arjun Reddy, yet you’ll feel that this is a little different. Like what happened with Ghajini, which was made both in Tamil and Hindi. Except both those films had a gap of a few years between them.
Did you consider a lot of names before zeroing in on Kabir Singh? It needs to sound powerful because it’s the name of the character as well as the title of the film.
No. Initially I thought I’ll just title it Arjun Reddy because I have friends who are Reddys, who are born and raised in Delhi but then I thought let’s not take chance with the title. Somehow I had an inclination for this name Kabir. Kabir Singh, like Arjun Reddy, is 5 letters and 5 letters. On the poster also it looks good. There is something attached to that name that I thought will be nice.
When I titled the first film Arjun Reddy I knew that when they see the poster or a glimpse of this person, the name will add to the character a lot. When it is a character-driven film and the character’s name is also the film’s title, it has to be powerful.
Are there advantages to remaking your own film? Do you get to correct mistakes?
When you’re making it for the first time, there will be 2-3 scenes you’re not clear about and you can’t shoot it again, maybe for budget reasons. Finally when we cut the film on the edit, it was fabulous. So when we were remaking it, we did planned mistakes rather than the unplanned ones. When you’re making the first film, as a writer/director, you will know your limitations, you will know your strengths and weaknesses. I know it sounds like a staged interview but I really felt that. I don’t think I would have felt all this if I had made another fresh film in Telugu.
While directing the scenes did you have a moment where you were trying to remember the brief you gave your team the first time around?
Yeah, there are scenes. There’s one scene where Vijay is on the phone and he’s talking to his dad. Vijay said that, ‘Sandeep, I think that if I look at Preeti while I’m talking on the phone, I think it will be good’. I said yeah, let’s do it. The same thing Shahid told me on set. He said, ‘I want to look into the classroom and see the girl when I’m talking to my father’. I told him that the same thing Vijay had told me while shooting this. I felt very nostalgic suddenly.
But yes, I’ve called my executive producer and an actor who played the senior in the college. I called them to Mumbai and showed them the film. I told them to just watch it for what it is and not to think of it as an Arjun Reddy remake. They came out and said, ‘You took it 2-3 levels better than Telugu’.
That’s a great compliment!
They were a part of the film so I thought that if there is a slight mistake or anything going wrong, they will react five times more. A first-time viewer of the Hindi film might not identify those mistakes but they would. My brother also saw the film one month back. Even he felt the same.
Are you looking forward to making your next film and telling a new story now?
Yeah, yeah. Obviously. I have one film commitment in Telugu. I’ll do that and come back here.
Will you make more Hindi films?
Yeah, that is one of the reasons why I picked this opportunity to do it in Hindi – it’s a new territory to explore. I know it’s not artistic to say things like ‘exploring the territory’. But we have three big industries- Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi; Hindi being the bigger industry. Getting a chance in the bigger industry with more footfall, more audience is great.
Arjun Reddy is available on Amazon Prime and people can access it at any point. Aren’t you afraid people will watch it before they see Kabir Singh?
True, true. That’s the crowd we always calculate as 9% crowd; the young generation, the internet/tech-savvy generation. But there will be a percentage of the audience who will go and watch the film and most of them will be non-Telugu guys. Writers, directors, people from the industry in Mumbai might have already seen it.