Aurangzeb might be his first film as director, but Atul Sabharwal says he is not new to filmmaking

Atul Sabharwal is not new to filmmaking. He isn’t new to Yash Raj Films either. Little wonder then that when his debut film Aurangzeb was underway, none on the sets felt they were dealing with a newbie. “I think I should take that as a compliment as even I didn’t feel I was directing a film for the first time. You could say that it was a result of my presence in filmmaking for almost a decade now,” says Sabharwal. Atul has written Darna Mana Hai (2003), Phir Milenge, a sensitive and law-questioning film on corporate ostracism of HIV employees (2004) and My Wife’s Murder (2005), before directing a content-driven and stylish crime thriller mini-series under the Yash Raj Films’ television arm in 2010 titled Powder.

“The concept of Aurangzeb came from an assortment of thoughts running through my head. Adi (Aditya Chopra) and I were discussing dramas, Greek tragedies, Salim-Javed stories and classic plays one day and I started to pick out stories from the past. The greatest storyteller Shakespeare had taken the lives of monarchs and made them into interesting tales. I wondered if he had written about Caesar and Henry IV, and whom would I like to write about and the answer was: Aurangzeb. Ambition and power play within the palace intrigued me about this story,” says Sabharwal, whose twin characterisation of Arjun Kapoor in the film has been inspired by Charles Dicken’s Tale Of Two Cities and by Shakespeare.

Atul says that he enjoyed casting for his ensemble-cast film, especially because in the two-layered star cast, even those with a few scenes could satisfy the actor within themselves. “Arjun came on board first. I think he is a very intelligent and hardworking actor,” says the director, adding that it was Prithviraj’s casting that required a lot of legwork. “We did the usual rounds of Bollywood actors but none of them were comfortable and secure about working with Arjun who has a double role in the film. Prithvi’s name came up because he had just done a film with Rani Mukherjee. But we had to conduct a screen test to check on his Hindi and to see how he related to the script. Once he was on, I gave him references of Thevar Magan and Agni Natchatiram to draw from. I especially mentioned Prabhu’s character in Agni Natchatiram and his relationship with his father to Prithvi and he completely agreed,” says the filmmaker.

About casting Jackie Shroff, he says, “Adi was not convinced about casting Jackie Shroff in the pivotal role of Yashvardhan. He thought that even though Jackie had several good films to his credit, he was not in his best form currently. Thankfully, Jackie had done Aaranya Kaandam and I showed him a trailer of the film. That was quite convincing!”

A lot of parallels are being drawn with films such as Trishul and Don, but the filmmaker is not perturbed. “We had anticipated this. I mean, even when I used to follow films at the age of 12, I liked to play this guessing game. It’s good to let the people lean a certain way and hopefully surprise them with what you have,” he smiles.

Sabharwal, who had nurtured a script (tentatively titled Hero Heroine) for seven long years which has not worked out, says that letting go of something is the most difficult part of his profession. “I guess I hung around with that one for a very long time. If I hadn’t let go of that, Aurangzeb wouldn’t have happened.”