While he's arguably one of India's most successful commercial filmmakers (New York, Ek Tha Tiger, Bajrangi Bhaijaan), Kabir Khan has decided to explore the vast expanse of the Internet, with an 8-part mini-series for Amazon Prime Video. With this move, he'll be one of the first few Indian filmmakers to venture into the web-series space. Khan, an outspoken filmmaker, has never shied away from taking a political stand. He was amongst those from the industry who ran a campaign to vote for a 'secular party' in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, 2014. In this interview with HuffPost India, the director talks about looking at the internet to escape censorship, responding to jingoism through films, and more.
Your films, although decidedly mainstream, have always explored the idea of India from a socio-political perspective. Now for Amazon, you're finally directing a war drama that documents the role of the Indian National Army in our struggle for freedom. Where does the fascination for these stories come from?
In India, this genre is under-represented and it is an unbelievable story. When I was shooting the documentary -- The Forgotten Army, I used to get goose bumps. I was shocked that a story like this hasn't been told. Through my conversations with people on the location of our documentary, I realised some of the fascinating aspects and chapters of our history that we don't know anything about. It;s a great mix of passion, romance and adventure.
I'm glad that I didn't make this into a film because I feel that an online mini-series is a better option. It's a mini-series comprising 8 episodes of 40 minutes each. In terms of length, it is like 2 films. Other than external, the platform liberates you from a lot of self-imposed restrictions. There is no language barrier and over-simplification of things because you aren't just catering to a Bollywood audience.
Also, the problem with Bollywood is that if you have the requirement of a 100 crore budget, you need to get a big star. For the same story if you don't get a star, your budget goes down to 20 crores. Here (on the digital platform), it makes no difference. Of course we'll try and get well-known stars, but if you don't and decide to go with a newcomer, it'll still be the same because the story has become the king. You do everything to make the story look big. The story can be told the way you want it to be told and without necessarily falling into the star-trappings. It's a liberating experience in itself.
In terms of scale, this is way bigger than of any of the films I've made so far.
To be free from the shackles of censorship must be another high.
When you're shooting a war film, you've to tone down the violence as you can't really get too graphic with it (like it is in real life) but in a platform like this, you can. You can be really true to your subject which is really exciting for me as a storyteller.
From what I gather from my conversations with directors, a whole lot of them have internalised this culture of censorship. So much that they try to pre-empt it (the anticipated backlash) by not writing anything that could even vaguely 'hurt sentiments.'
True. Because of the times that we're living in, we say 'Arrey screw it yaar! If the guy smoking a cigarette is not really important, we'll remove him.' These are the small things which we have to do. This is the scary result of the time which we are living in.
This is the result of the reactions we are getting from the censor board or other self-styled fringe groups. Everybody is ready to attack the film for something or the other. You just don't know what you'll be attacked for. Sometimes people tend to take a wildly different spin to a subject and get offended.
It's unfortunate that this is happening. I've noticed this and sometimes I try to curb it myself by thinking, 'Oh! Will this create a problem?' They are completely conditioning you and your thought process. It's dangerous.
I won't be surprised if tomorrow they say: "Arrey! This man is eating meat in the film and this should be censored.' The way we are going, they might even stop that. It makes me so, so angry.
Why does the filmmaking community not come together and organise a sustained campaign this hyper-nationalism. Why not demand stricter penalties/legal action for those disrupting film shoots or sabotaging a film's release?
People do speak out but it is difficult to organise them. But you must understand that sometimes people have to succumb to the demands of the fringe elements because there's too much of financial and third party pressure.
You see the kind of pressure which was put on Karan Johar days before the release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Some 100 crores were at stake besides careers of other people. He just cannot say, "Screw everything, I am gonna be on a crusade."
But it's exactly this involuntary compliance which empowers them to do it all over again.
I feel that one should speak out whenever something like this happens. We should have systems in place that do not allow them to get away with it. But you are right. The more we allow these things to happen, the bolder they will get. That's why I am saying I won't be surprised if someone stops us from showing a man eating a mutton kebab.
That doesn't sound far-fetched at all. (Kajol recently issued a 'clarification' when a private video of her eating a beef dish went viral).
A few years ago, if somebody had told us that James Bond kissing for a minute will destroy our culture but if it's for seconds, it'll be fine, you would have thought it to be a joke, right? But it actually happened. They timed James Bond kissing and said that 20 seconds is fine for our culture. Our culture seems so fragile that it'll break with 30 seconds of James Bond kissing. It's ridiculous that these people are becoming moral police and we're allowing them to become the moral police.
In such times, when the freedom of thought and expression are facing a threat by self-appointed moral guardians, cultural institutions like theatre, literature, and cinema have an even bigger responsibility of registering dissent.
Absolutely. We must hit back through our films. I think we managed to put across a certain point with Bajrangi Bhaijaan. We might be able to put across a certain point with Tubelight as well. As progressive thinkers, this is the way we should fight because cinema a very powerful medium and we should be able to utilise and exploit its potential by sharing the liberal thought process with the masses. We should be able to make our point without sounding offensive and yet getting our point across. It's disappointing to see our society going through something like this but at the same, like you said, all filmmakers should come together and raise our voice. But the problem all over the world is also that the progressive and the liberal voice is always the meeker one. Maybe the progressive voice needs to shout as loud as the right-wingers do.
You've never done a mini-series before. You come from a documentary background but you've largely made hardcore commercial films with a unique aesthetic sensibility. Are you worried about how you'll pull this off?
I think of it as a very exciting challenge. Nothing has changed in the way I approach it. I am approaching it as a film; I'll shoot and edit it like a film. The only thing that has changed is in my writing. I need to create more interval points. 8 interval points to be precise. You need to leave the story at a high point at the end of every episode. That's a first for me.
This will obviously mean that you won't be directing a film for a while.
I am going to start filming this in October and finish it by March or April in 2018. By the end of next year is when I am going to start my next film after Tubelight.
With the credibility that you bring, it won't be difficult to attract A-list talent to lead the cast.
We are speaking to some of the actors who know what this platform means and are aware of the power and influence of the platform. It is very important because some of them are very ignorant about it. Some already know what a show on Amazon Prime Video means and I think they have realised that these platforms are game changers.
How do you think people perceive this medium as?
Unfortunately, many people are not aware about it here. They are looking at it as, 'Is it a country cousin of Bollywood in films?' or 'Is it somewhere between television and films?' They don't realise that streaming companies have actually gone far beyond films. So I think our actors today should take the first movers advantage. The one who will be the first mover will reap the maximum benefit.
Look at Hollywood. Hollywood either does a two million dollar production or a 200 million dollar tentpole production. The mid-budget drama has all shifted to Netflix, Amazon and HBO. That's why you've got Moonlight and Spotlight winning at the Oscars. That is also the reason Hollywood is only doing those superhero franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy, Wonder Woman or Thor.
A mainstream Bollywood director embracing the online mini-series culture is a big sign of change in the industry.
A lot of people are getting in as the producers, but for me it's important that I get in as a director as well as a producer. Let's see how it goes.
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