In War, Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff play impossibly muscular, duelling spies who run, punch and dropkick their way out of Kerala, Australia, Portugal, Valetta, Malta, Marrakesh, Morocco and the Arctic Circle, even squeezing in a quick Holi dance number post one mission. But for director Siddharth Anand (Pathaan, Anjaana Anjaani, Bang Bang!), this is his "most non-filmy film ever". He says he knew the film would be a career-best even before it released and so the record box-office success (it not only had the biggest opening day figures ever, but also the biggest weekend earnings of 2019) comes as massive validation. Anand and co-writer Shridhar Raghavan spoke about striking a balance between the subtle and the commercial and whether there were homoerotic undertones to the protagonists' relationship:
Siddharth, you've spoken about how much you dislike the writing process. You're one of the co-writers on War, how did the idea develop?
Siddharth Anand: The idea came from a lot of books that I read. It's a huge departure from the kinds of films I'd been making. The way that I started I looking at Hindi films or my films is very different compared to how I'd seen them right up till Bang Bang! (2014). It's subtle and still commercial. I'm paying a lot more attention to the writing, the story, the conflict than I would normally. I would treat films in a very fun and commercial way. I'm doing Rambo next and approaching the character and conflict differently. That comes from a lot of reading that I've been doing over the past four to five years. I read a lot of fiction, thrillers, spy genres, following a lot of commercial writers.
I had to write War completely myself first, bring it to a point where the entire beat sheet was ready. All the beats were in place before I took it to Aditya Chopra. He loved the story, came on board and that's when we fleshed out the dynamics between Khalid and Kabir a little more in terms of what their relationship is, their history. Then we approached Hrithik and Tiger for a narration. They loved the script. Then we brought in Shridhar (Raghavan) to flesh out the screenplay. His contribution was invaluable and he brought in so much authenticity. Then Abbas Tyrewala came in and did dialogues.
"The fact that Hrithik looks the way he does is also why you feel that homoeroticism. Even the men who are looking at him are going, 'Oh my god, how good looking is he?' You can't help but look at him with lust," says Siddharth Anand
You mentioned authenticity, but this movie is almost fantastical in its scope. Were you looking for ways to ground it during the writing process?
Siddharth Anand: The film deals more with relationship dynamics, but my research was on defence satellites, what would happen if one of them was taken out. I wanted to make the villain's purpose a little more believable. But then we brought in that element of fantasy and put the ship in the Arctic Circle, just for the visual spectacle. There's a mix of fantasy and realism in War, which should be the case in any action spectacle.
Did you have any references for the film? Face/Off is one a lot of people brought up.
Siddharth Anand: People brought up Face/Off because of what happens in the movie. But it's a technique that's been followed in a lot of films. There's nothing from Face/Off in War apart from that technique, which was not inspired by that film. It's in every film – the spy's mask being taken off. What I drew inspiration from was a lot of Daniel Craig Bond films and the Mission Impossible series. Apart from being great action money-spinners, they're also great in content, conflict, characters, building antagonists. I thought, 'Why don't we have those kinds of films here on almost that scale?' War lived up to that.
The face replacement was actually the scene that was the hardest to crack. I truly believed that it would make or break the film. I wanted people to buy into it. We had written it as: The face replacement surgery happens. But it was never on paper as to how we were going to achieve it. So it was very tricky and took me a lot of time to come up with this idea of how to do it. I got a lot of VFX input, did a lot of brainstorming before we came up with this one-shot idea, where we see Tiger in the foreground and then we do a half-round trolley. There's a time-lapse shot and then the other guy becomes Khalid.
The opening scene set the tone for the rest of the film. How hard was it to crack that?
Siddharth Anand: I was very clear that I didn't want the opening scene to be a big-scale action scene. It could've easily been the typical large-scale introduction of the hero turning rogue. For example, something like a plane chase and you're like, 'Oh my god, it's Hrithik Roshan on top of a plane.' I didn't want a heroic entry. I wanted a subtle and impactful entry of a rogue. It's a great start to the film, it's unexpected, it sucks you in. The 'Hotel Lotus' with flickering lights reading 'Hell' in the background is something I've been wanting to do for a long time. I didn't know where to put it. Here, it just fell into place.
Shridhar Raghavan: What was particularly fascinating for me was playing with the preconceived notions we have as an audience that we are following the "hero", the "good guy" and "his story"…but what if we're not? After all, every villain is the hero of his own story. That was great fun. The movie plays little games with you.
Tiger's introduction scene is all in one take. There's no background music either, which was an interesting choice.
Siddharth Anand: Tiger Shroff is a very commercial superstar. There's a certain expectation that his fans have from his introduction – music, sharp dialogues, high-speed action shots. But I wanted to portray Khalid and not Tiger. So there was a lot of discussion and debate on how to make it different. I stood my ground. I said I wanted to do a one-shot introduction sequence and I didn't want any high-speed shots in that. No flourishes. I wanted it to be a hard-hitting Jason Bourne kind of sequence with no music. Everything was the opposite of a commercial Tiger Shroff introduction sequence. It was a big gamble but this was there from the conception stage. There were times when we thought we'd give it up. When Tiger was punching, we wondered if we should cut to the impact of the punch on the other guy's face. There was a lot of debate. But I wanted us to push ourselves.
"The face replacement was actually the scene that was the hardest to crack. I truly believed that it would make or break the film. I wanted people to buy into it. We had written it as: The face replacement surgery happens. But it was never on paper as to how we were going to achieve it," says Siddharth Anand
How do you design action on paper? The film has four action directors. Do you write 'insert action here' and trust them to do their thing or are these stunt sequences planned in detail on paper?
Siddharth Anand: Some of it is 'insert action here' but some of it is detailed. Tiger's introduction wasn't detailed. It was just: Khalid takes down a group of people single-handedly. And then we devised what to do. The plane sequence and bike chases were basic ideas at the script level. But then again you flesh it out with your team, bring in action directors who specialize in that sphere and jam with them. The ship in the Arctic was something that I always had in mind. My wife had gone to Finland on vacation and sent me videos of the ice cracking when she was on it and I found that so unique. That visual stayed with me and I wanted it in the movie. So the ship breaking the ice was there at a script level.
Shridhar Raghavan: We wrote detailed action sequences, and graphed many variations for the action sequences with reversals and twists. Beyond that, Siddharth sat with the fab action directors and designed the sequences further on paper for maximum impact and adrenalin rush. There were also many sequences – like an extensive section of gruelling training and bonding and test-drive missions between the team members and some more cat and mouse moments – that we wrote for months and months, but decided were putting brakes on the momentum so we left those out.
Vin Diesel proposed a numerical system on the set of 2015's Fast & Furious 7 that made sure he was not being hit more than his co-star Jason Statham – we don't have such systems here but are these things you had to think about while writing? Whether one star looked like he was overpowering the other?
Siddharth Anand: You do have to keep that in mind because Hrithik and Tiger are heroes and they have a certain fan following. If you want to cast two superstars, you have to justify their presence in the film. You have to keep this in mind while writing. Fortunately, I didn't have to think much because once they got the script, they knew exactly what was happening at what point and they're both smart enough to know that it's the characters who are going through stuff and not them as actors. It's not Hrithik or Tiger getting beaten up, it's Kabir and Khalid. It helps to have smart actors.
Both Hrithik and Tiger get battered, but very aesthetically – Hrithik's shirt is strategically torn during the first mission so we can see his muscles, Tiger tears off his shirt during the climax. Do you consciously have to write these 'playing to the gallery' moments?
Siddharth Anand: Not at all. If I did, they would've torn off their shirts much earlier in the film. Hrithik is not shirtless in the film. So it's just this organic decision of, 'I need to show how big Tiger is and how hard it'll be for Hrithik to take him down so let's show his body.' It's not playing to the gallery at all.
"You can like the film or dislike it, find it good bad or ugly, but you have to view it for what it intended to be – a mainstream masala family entertainer, a fun romp through the espionage genre with two damn cool actors sparring off each other," says Shridhar Raghavan
How did you approach Vaani Kapoor's role in such a testosterone-heavy film? She has an interesting backstory but ultimately only exists to propel Kabir's arc from spy to father figure.
Siddharth Anand: Her story is not a typical one. And it's not about Vaani, it's about the character, Naina. She's pivotal in the film. The entire motive of the film is revealed through her character. These things have to come organically. This film doesn't really cater on many levels. It's very honest and true and that's why there are only two songs. Hrithik doesn't dance much. Even in 'Ghungroo', I cut out one antara and didn't shoot it. There's not much of a commercial plan in this film, it's true to its genre. Even with Naina, the character is a mother of an eight-year-old. She's not just there for glamour and sex appeal. It's not this design of: Let's bring in a girl to add glamour to the film.
Shridhar Raghavan: The Naina character is absolutely integral to the film – her track triggers and propels the plot, lights the fuse. Not just plot, she also triggers Kabir's conscience. She raises a mirror to Kabir to question what he is doing and his reasons. She is the one who reminds him how relatively easier it is to be like him, when he has no one to go home to. She is pragmatic, a realist, doing whatever she has to do to protect her child, not for any larger heavier cause. And she pays a deadly price. When she becomes collateral damage, on a plot level Kabir tries to figure who sold her out, but on a character level, that's when he starts to question himself and everything he took for granted. She is not in the film just to add colour, in reality she brings the grey in his black and white world.
A lot of people have picked up on homoerotic undertones between Khalid and Kabir – the way Khalid looks at Kabir the first time he sees him getting out of that chopper, Khalid saying, 'Get in line' when a female agent says she'd like to marry Kabir. Was there a subtext there or are people reading too much into it?
Siddharth Anand: It's because Khalid looks up to Kabir that you get that vibe. I wanted to portray Kabir as a little larger than life and you can only do that through the eyes of another protagonist. If Khalid looks at him with awe, you as the audience will look at him with awe. So that's what we had to do. He's looking at him like a fan would. The fact that Hrithik looks the way he does is also why you feel that homoeroticism. Even the men who are looking at him are going, 'Oh my god, how good looking is he?' You can't help but look at him with lust. I'm glad it's a talking point but it wasn't intentional at all.
Shridhar Raghavan: I totally enjoyed reading some of the pieces – once a film is out there everyone has a right to interpret it as they wish. It might be someone's idea of fun, or an intellectual exercise, in viewing the film from a sexuality or any other prism, but no, there were no such things intended on paper.
Another criticism of the film is the stealth Islamophobia – here the Muslim has to prove his loyalty to the country. The twist subverts this of course, but how do you react to this criticism?
Siddharth Anand: That's fine. What I wanted to portray is that not all Muslims are not stereotypical, they're not traitors. You have a guy who's doing everything for his country and giving his life for the country. It's intentional. Everybody becomes equal in their service towards the country.
Shridhar Raghavan: Extremely surprised if anyone thinks this. The film has no religious angle, and if anything, indicates that terrorism is beyond religion. Sometimes money and greed are more at play. I am a strong believer in the Manmohan Desai kind of secular storytelling. You can like the film or dislike it, find it good bad or ugly, but you have to view it for what it intended to be – a mainstream masala family entertainer, a fun romp through the espionage genre with two damn cool actors sparring off each other, with twists and turns that hopefully engage you and keep you on the edge of the seat all through and stop you taking any bathroom breaks in case you miss some cool moments. You might find some stuff fun, some stuff too audacious, but nothing is intended to hurt.
"I wanted to do a one-shot introduction sequence for Tiger Shroff. There were times when we thought we'd give it up. When Tiger was punching, we wondered if we should cut to the impact of the punch on the other guy's face," says Siddharth Anand
Speaking of the twist, stars won't usually take up films in which they're playing the bad guy or the traitor. Is that why there's so much exposition about how the bad guy isn't really Khalid but someone who's just taken his face?
Siddharth Anand: On the contrary, a lot of the actors I know are dying to do roles that are negative. Even if the character was straight-up negative, a lot of actors would do it. The face swapping twist was the point of the whole movie. Otherwise it would've been so banal. Khalid coming to avenge his father would've been so banal. A 'baap ka badla' angle would be the worst thing to ever happen.
Shridhar Raghavan: Shah Rukh Khan did Baazigar and Darr for example, so many actors played the Joker. I think actors revel in playing bad guys.
You've spoken about plans for a sequel.
Siddharth Anand: There's definite potential and possibility there. The kind of love that the film has got, we have no choice but to take it forward. The reason for me to take up Rambo was because I found a very contemporary story to tell. The character is iconic so I don't need to invest much into the audience knowing his skillset. I can dive into the story straightaway. Being a fan of Sylvester Stallone and his movies, this is my way of paying homage to him for how much he's contributed to my childhood. Tiger has a similar fan following with children and I want them to grow up with this character. Hopefully the first film will do well, we'll do many more Rambos and they'll grow up with him as an iconic character.