With his most ambitious film Ek Tha Tiger set to release on August 15, Kabir Khan spells out the parameters that define success for him. harshikaa udasi listens in

Sipping a soft drink, Kabir Khan can regale you with stories from the interiors of Afghanistan, of the Taliban and of Pakistani and Indian spies. Untold tales from Iran, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and other keep-away-from destinations across the world come to life as he speaks with the passion of a child who has just spotted the first cuckoo of the monsoon. Yet when it comes to Bollywood, where he has made two movies (one fairly well received and the other declared a hit) with YashRaj Films, arguably one of the country’s most respected production houses, the man considers himself an outsider. “I am quite the outsider around here,” he says, shrugging his shoulders after speaking at length about his upcoming film Ek Tha Tiger (releasing on August 15) with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif. Touted as the biggest film the production house has ever made (the budget is reported to be around Rs.117 crore), the film has been shot over three continents, five countries and nine cities!

Much of Kabir’s ‘estrangement’ from Bollywood comes from the fact that he doesn’t understand numbers and commercial cinema doesn’t function without them. “In fact, till I had New York out on the screens and people told me that it falls in the ‘hit’ category, I didn’t understand numbers at all!” he confesses. “Moreover, I am more comfortable with my camera shooting from dawn to dusk. Given a chance I would escape to Cuba right now with my camera and shut myself from the world for a month,” he says.

What’s ETT about?

But Kabir most definitely can’t. Up for release in less than a week, is his most ambitious film till date — Ek Tha Tiger (ETT). Lots of excitement about this one with Salman and Katrina coming together after their reported split, Salman’s first film with YashRaj and a spy story reportedly inspired by a real case. “ETT is a passionate love story whose narrative unfolds as a thriller,” says the filmmaker. “In fact, most of my debates with Salman would be when he would say, ‘let’s do this certain thing this way, it is an action film’ and I would tell him, ‘No, remember this is a love story’!”

ETT is a about a RAW agent codenamed Tiger who leaves on a secret mission to keep an eye on a scientist. He falls in love with the caretaker of that scientist. The story unfolds with Tiger having to handle the mission as well as his love. “It is unnerving that people are already saying it will hit the Rs. 200-crore mark! Hype is good, but too much is dangerous, even fatal for films. Personally, I am very confident the film will do well. But if its collections stop at Rs.185 crore instead of Rs. 200 crore, I might be receiving condolence messages,” he laughs.

Kabir spells out the parameters that define success for him. “I would ask myself — has my film redefined cinema? Has it pushed the boundaries of filmmaking? Has it successfully reintroduced a megastar at the height of his glory in a totally new space? Has it managed to capture beautiful moments between Salman and Katrina? Will it be remembered five years from now?” he asks.

Stories that lie in the gap between reporting of events and the actual truth fascinate this man. When asked if Tiger’s is the story of RAW agent Ravinder Kaushik who reportedly married a Pakistani woman while on a mission and reportedly died in jail, the director says, “Kabul Express, New York and even ETT lie in this space. ETT is an interesting story based on one we have heard. But the entire truth was never put out so we need to fill in the blanks with creative licence. I think we’ve managed to walk the fine line between real life and larger than life characters.”

Formally trained

This documentary and feature filmmaker could well have been a journalist or a cinematographer if not a director/screenplay writer. He has received formal training in cinematography from the Jamia Millia University in Delhi. He personally does the recce for all his films and emphasises that his visuals have character and are part of the story. He even does rewrites once he has locked the locations for his project. “Cuba is definitely not ‘beautiful,’ I could have shot in the Bahamas or in Miami if all I wanted was a scenic locale. I shot in Mardin in Turkey as the entire city is brown — monochromatic. This will appear stunning to you when you watch the film. I wanted an eye-catching backdrop,” he says.

And, of course, he’s got enough beauty and brawn on the screen to add to the backdrop. Talking about Katrina, he says, “Katrina is hard working besides being an absolute delight to watch on screen. She always goes the extra mile asking for reshoots even when none are required. I suppose this comes from the earlier part of her career where she was constantly rapped for her one weakness — Hindi diction. Do you know she’s the only actor in this industry who requires her dialogues to be written in Devanagari script and despite the technological hurdles we need to give her that? She memorises her co-star’s dialogues too!”

What about reported differences with Salman? “Not many know that I had narrated the script of Kabul Express to Salman before I put it out to anyone else. I was talking to a friend about it who told me that ‘bhai’ would like to hear it. I narrated it to him and he said ‘good’. Two years later, when I approached Katrina for New York, she took Salman’s advice about doing a dark political film from the house of YashRaj and he heard my name and told her to sign with her eyes closed. Finally, when we met for ETT, he asked me why I hadn’t ever gone back to him with Kabul Express! I was stunned,” he says, explaining how much he is in sync with his lead actor. “I definitely would take offence if my lead was not offering me inputs — either he’d be brain dead or plain disinterested. Salman offers inputs and vociferously so, but ultimately lets the director rule,” he says.

Part of a three-film deal

ETT is Kabir’s last of a three-film deal with YashRaj and the director says he will play it by ear when it comes to doing more movies with the studio. “Of course, Adi (Aditya Chopra) is a great guy and we get along well. But I don’t want to get comfortably numb in this environment that is now almost like home to me,” he says. The man is much in demand and has reportedly been approached by Ekta Kapoor and Sajid Nadiadwala. “There have been offers but nothing’s been finalised yet,” he says.

What’s on top of the mind currently for Kabir is not just ETT but a script he is ready to work on next. “This story is the reason I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he says, eyes lighting up. “It had to wait as it is a huge film that requires large scale mounting, on the lines of a David Lean. But it is a story waiting to be told; it is one of the most fascinating chapters of India and will have a blend of contemporary and the past,” he says.