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Smriti Kiran: There is nothing sexier than a political lens that is humane, sharp, clear and inclusive. In a sea of ‘I am apolitical’ chanters, filmmaker Kabir Khan stands out. He is successful, he is mainstream and he wears his politics on his sleeve. This is one of the reasons it is a pleasure to speak to him. Kabir grew up in a family where politics and policy were dinner table conversations. He studied in some of the best educational institutions in Delhi: Kirori Mal College, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University, where freedom of expression and dissent is almost part of the syllabus. His formative years were spent shooting and directing documentary films like The Forgotten Army in 1999. Having a sharp political sensibility and honing that sensibility consistently came with the terrain. He made his feature film debut in 2006 with Kabul Express. After Kabul Express, he delivered some of the biggest blockbusters with some of the biggest stars in the industry. But despite the budgets, the scale and the staggering success, Kabir’s films have always managed to have a strong ideological foundation. Kabir has said this in interviews earlier that the decision to shift from the documentary space to mainstream was a very conscious one. He didn’t want to preach to the converted. He wanted his voice to go beyond the people who shared his ideology.

In this session of Dial M For Films, I chat with Kabir about politics in cinema. Politics is often confused with electoral politics. That is not the politics we discuss. We speak about ideology – the moral and ethical code of a person that informs their beliefs, their ideas, and how these ideas and beliefs permeate into what they create.

Kabir, you travelled to more than 60 countries, visiting places of unrest, places ridden with conflict, worked with reputed journalists like Saeed Naqvi and met some of the biggest political leaders and dissenters of our time. Doing work of this nature during your formative years, what kind of impact did it have on you?

Kabir Khan: It completely and totally makes you the person you are. For me, those four years were definitely the years in which I have, in a certain sense, established my ideology, understood the world, looked at different perspectives and deeply thought about them. Working with people like Saeed Naqvi was an invaluable experience because it opened up my horizon and my eyes to the fact that there are perspectives to everything.

Saeed Naqvi and Kabir Khan

Saeed was a journalist who, at that point in time, was obsessed with exploring news with an Indian or a South Asian viewpoint. He felt very strongly that everything we consume in terms of international news is only through the prism of BBC and CNN, and it’s only that perspective that we are constantly fed. If something is happening in China or Japan or in South America, we only understand those events through an American or a British perspective. That’s essentially what BBC and CNN stand for. And he said, ‘Why should a country like India not have its own perspective?’

“A realisation dawned upon me that there is always a gap between the story that’s being told to us and the story that should have been. That gap in the story has fascinated me for years.”

Unfortunately, in those days, our news channels did not travel for stories. I’m talking about the time when there was just Doordarshan. The other channels had just about started. They didn’t have the financial muscle to be able to travel and place correspondents in different parts of the world. Today, we do.

Also, there were no counterpoints. There was no Arab counterpoint, like Al-Jazeera; no Russian media covering events in the English language; no Chinese networks. It was only BBC and CNN. So, I latched onto Saeed straight out of film school. My main aim was to travel. I saw a passport in him to travel the world for free.

Saeed Naqvi and Kabir Khan

The very first trip that I made with him was to Central Asia, travelling through the Republics in the erstwhile Soviet Union. This was post the break-up of the Soviet Union. What triggered the idea of going to these places was Saeed observation of how Islam was again coming back to these Central Asian Republics. Historically, they were Islamic countries, before they became a part of the Soviet Union. But Western media had begun to portray how the Russians were now being forced to flee this region because of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. We made a series of documentaries on that.

I will never forget this. We landed in Tashkent, which is the capital of Uzbekistan, and Saeed bhai just asked me to pick up the camera and go to the streets. He went onto the streets and he asked a very simple question to everybody: ‘Can you point me to the nearest mosque?’ Because there, he felt he might be able to meet people with whom he could begin his discussion about the rise of Islam.

It took us an hour and a half of asking around, and yet nobody could point us to a mosque. They appeared doubtful themselves about where it may be located and sent us in different directions. This was a country which, according to Western media, was being overrun by Islamic fundamentalists. And right there a realisation dawned upon me that there is always a gap between the story that’s being told to us and the story that should have been. That gap in the story has fascinated me for years. In retrospect, when I look at some of my films, almost all of my films explore that gap. That gap between what should have been told to us and what was actually told to us.

Smriti Kiran: I like what you said about creating counterpoints. We believe so many things to be the gospel truth simply because we are conditioned to believe them. Questioning the hypothesis is cardinal. How does a filmmaker create counterpoints in an atmosphere of misinformation and lack of political awareness? How do you cut through the noise?

Kabir Khan: In my case, of course, I was very lucky that I got that exposure early on in my life; I got that training to be able to look at the news and question it. A lot of times we don’t do that. You just consume it straight away. At that point in time, news coming from the foreign press was something that we never questioned. So, how do you develop that, now, if you’re not travelling or reading?

I guess we just have to seek them out. Today, it’s very easy to seek out the counterpoint. It’s easy to Google an event looking for another version of the same event, or get another perspective of the event.

Having said that, there’s also a trap there.

“There is always a human story behind everybody. That was very important for me – to keep finding the counterpoint. That’s also what makes compelling storytelling.”

That’s why, whenever I’m doing research with my assistants, I always make them double-check facts from non-online sources. We have lost that training of accessing a newspaper or a book in a library to get information. Pardon my language, but there is so much bullshit on Google that if you look something up and read the first three hits that you get, chances are that they may be wrong, factually incorrect, or even somebody’s propaganda. So, that training is very important. I’m not saying don’t use Google. It’s a great tool, but you have to cross-check facts. You have to cross-reference and, if possible, always try to get a primary source for research.

I can take the case of my last film, 83. Fortunately, the film is based on an event which happened only about 37 years ago, and there are still people around who were there and know the facts. However, I cross-checked everything, despite the fact that I could reach out to the players and ask them to speak on things. I did not even trust them. I realised in our research that some of the things that they had remembered turned out to be wrong. It’s very important to cross-check.

As a filmmaker, I get very excited about the counterpoint view.

I can also tell you about my first film, Kabul Express. Of course, we were being told that the Taliban was an army of about 60,000 to 65,000 most dreaded terrorists in the world. But what I also wanted to understand was what gave rise to them. Who are they? What is the human story behind them? There is always a human story behind everybody. That was very important for me – to keep finding the counterpoint. That’s also what makes compelling storytelling. If I’m going to just repeat, and bring to you what we already know, it’s not going to be exciting, right? It’s only going to be interesting if I’m trying to bring a counterpoint to which people say, ‘Hey, we didn’t think of it like this.’ Therefore, I feel the need for me, as a storyteller, to keep picking at the other narrative, or the alternate narrative, or the counterpoint.

Kabir Khan on the sets of Kabul Express

Smriti Kiran: A film is the director’s vision but it is also a collaborative process. Do the collaborators need to have the same politics as the director?

Kabir Khan: In an ideal world, yes. For me, it’s very important that the key collaborators have the same politics. I would be very uncomfortable if they didn’t share my ideology. I’ve often said that I can forgive bad screenplays, shoddy dialogues, shoddy shot taking or bad editing, but I cannot forgive bad politics. That’s the first thing that hits me as an audience. That’s the first thing that I take away.

Every film says something. If that makes me uncomfortable, I can’t access the film. Then I can’t enjoy that film. It might even be the most brilliantly crafted film, but if the politics are not going to resonate with me, then that film’s not going to live with me. So, for me, politics is very important. Therefore, as far as my key collaborators are concerned, I would definitely like to work with people who believe in the ideology of the film. Thankfully, until now, I have worked with people who have believed in the ideology of those films.

I try and really make an effort to get as many people as possible in the team to actually read the script, talk about it, discuss it and have them believe in it because I think that’s the only way that they’d give that extra effort to the film.

Smriti Kiran: This brings me to the frequently used term ‘apolitical’. What does it mean when an artist says they are ‘apolitical’?

Kabir Khan: Forget artists, I don’t know how any human being is ‘apolitical’. I do not understand that word. Of course, this is my personal view. There might be people who might explain what being apolitical means. Do these people mean that they are neutral? There are two things that I have to say about such people. One, when someone says that they are apolitical, they mean that they don’t vote. It’s unfortunate that politics is also defined in a very narrow sense. Let’s first start by defining what we mean when we say ‘politics’.

“If you’re in a position of privilege, then you can afford to be apolitical. But for the normal everyday common man, they will never be able to say the same.”

Talking politics doesn’t mean the politics of political outfits or parties or affairs of the government. That’s not the politics we’re talking about. For me, simply put, politics is the way individuals in a society look at each other, behave with each other, and perceive each other. Those dynamics are what make politics. They are a set of values, a set of messages, and a set of viewpoints. That’s what politics is. Every single human being has a viewpoint. Nobody can say that they don’t possess one. So, that’s one.

Second, if somebody says that by being apolitical, they are being neutral, I don’t understand that either, because when you say that you’re apolitical, that itself is a viewpoint. Being political doesn’t mean that you have to become an activist. It does not mean that you have to post on Twitter and Instagram all the time, and criticise or support things. It means that you’re living in a society where there’ll be a lot of chatter happening around you. Now, if we were to take contemporary times, you will hear a lot of noise, part of which will be sexist, communal, Islamophobic, homophobic, and classist. If you’re just going to hear this offensive material and not say anything, then you’re not being neutral. Then you are actually perpetuating those bigoted ideas. So, don’t say you’re apolitical because you choose to remain quiet. You’re not apolitical. You’re perpetuating those points of view. And, as I said, being political does not mean I want you to go and fight with those people or start broadcasting your viewpoint. It could be as simple as telling that individual on a one-to-one basis that you don’t agree with their view and find it offensive, that you don’t think what they’re saying is correct.

So, I absolutely don’t understand what ‘apolitical’ means. I’ve never understood it. Headphones can be apolitical but I don’t think a human being can be. It’s not possible because everybody has a viewpoint. If you’re crossing the street and if you see garbage and say, ‘Shit, why is this street so dirty?’ that, too, is a political statement.

I don’t think there’s anyone who is apolitical. It’s just a convenient thing to say. And the only other thing I want to add is that I think it can only be said by somebody who’s very privileged because, unfortunately, the politics that are playing out is not affecting them in the little bubble that they’re living in, because they don’t have to fight for certain things. If you’re in a position of privilege, where you’re getting your food, you’re getting your earnings, getting everything that you need, and not getting affected by what’s happening in the country, then, yes, you can afford to be apolitical. But for the normal everyday common man, they will never be able to say the same because politics is affecting them on a daily basis. Either they’re being looked upon in a certain way, or they’re not being able to get their food and earnings, and so many other issues that they face on a daily basis.

Smriti Kiran: In the last few years, narratives that distort history are being pushed. How do you work in an environment where propaganda is gaining ground?

Kabir Khan: Mainstream filmmakers have to be aware that they have a very powerful medium at their disposal. We need to, in a certain sense, be responsible for that because our job is not just to entertain. Our job, within that form of entertainment, is to also educate, provoke, shock, challenge, inspire, and trigger you, to make you think about something. And that’s very important.

“Every single decision that is being taken in the process of making the film is a political decision.”

The point is how to make something entertaining, and have the politics and the layers within it have a lot of subtext, as well as have your ideology coming through. But the trick is also, I feel, that if a film is successful it reaches out to a large number of people. Unfortunately, if a film is not successful, it won’t reach that number. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, for instance, reached out to four crore people only because it was successful. The politics could also reach those people because the film was successful.

It’s very important to also make films in mainstream cinema that can be enjoyed at face value. There are people who will be able to dig in deeper and get the subtext and the layers within. And, for them, the film will be that much more enjoyable, that much more profound. But, if somebody does not want to dig into those layers, and just enjoy it at face value, let it be so, let them enjoy it like that too. Maybe in time they will think about it and get the point.

I just feel that mainstream filmmakers do need to have that responsibility. I don’t want to, again, sound moralistic or sound like everybody has to have an agenda or have to say something, but at least be aware of the politics that you’re putting in your film, because you are putting politics into your film, right? Every single decision that is being taken in the process of making the film is a political decision. All these things like: Who are you casting? What are they wearing? What is a woman wearing in your film? How is she behaving with the male characters? Those are all political choices to make.

You could be making a complete laugh riot, but don’t be fooled into thinking that there is no politics there. The politics is there, too, and sometimes that politics can get very dangerous. I’m saying a simple thing that every filmmaker needs to be at least aware of what politics one is putting in their film.

It’s not for me to say that those qualities are good or bad, because I can only judge from the prism of my own ideology. Like, for me, it might not be good, but it’ll be good for them. But, at least, be aware. Sometimes the most dangerous politics in films are there inadvertently. I know certain filmmakers who are not at all in any way prejudiced or bigoted, but sometimes what you see in their films is highly communal. These things happen not because the filmmaker wanted it to look like that, but it got in because the filmmaker was not aware of the politics going into it. When you take certain decisions for the drama or a thrilling element but are not aware of what that is going to say, it can become dangerous. This is exacerbated by the fact that they’re mainstream films, and have a very large audience, and the filmmaker is not even aware of the politics they are letting out into the world.

Smriti Kiran: You are not being preachy. I think we need to stop being apologetic about these things. For instance, every time I have a conversation about feminism, I feel like people want me to start by stating that I don’t want to be ‘unharmonious’, ‘I love men’. If you are intelligent enough, obviously you will realise that this is a given.

Kabir Khan: In the context of these last four-five years, you’re seeing a lot of films which also distort history. This disturbs me a lot. I am a keen student of history. I’ve been seeing a lot of medieval battles in films that were fought between various kings which are now being seen through the prism of religion. A lot of these battles had nothing to do with religion. Just because one king was a Muslim and the other a Hindu does not mean they were fighting over religion. They were fighting because of a piece of land that they both wanted. Chances are that the kings’ forces actually had soldiers from both religions in them.

There is also demonisation of the Mughals, for example, that’s being sustained. I don’t know why some filmmakers are doing this – are they deliberately distorting history or are they just going with what society has been currently talking about?

This demonisation of Mughals has become cool now. They are making for great villains. But we need to remember: The Mughals came in by fighting the Lodis, who came in by fighting the Tughlaqs. There were numerous smaller battles fought along the way. But none of them were over religion. This distortion of history is really unfortunate.

Smriti Kiran: Audience might or might not be aware but what is particularly disturbing is the lens of the gatekeepers of cinema like film critics and chroniclers of cinema. They need to be vigilant about problems like these and point out how dangerous this can be. They are expected to come from a place of knowledge and expertise.

Kabir Khan: That’s my biggest grouse with the critics. They seem to not catch the politics of films. They are always busy talking about slow editing, or bad screenplay, but the heart of the matter is something that escapes most of them. They rarely ever talk about the politics, and that’s not done.

That’s essentially what we should be discussing. We don’t really need knowledge of technicalities. Most of the time I don’t even understand how they can see where it was bad editing and where it was a bad screenplay that affected the film; all I’m saying is that the politics never gets discussed.

Smriti Kiran: Speaking about mainstream films, how did the transition from making documentaries to working with Yashraj on your first film happen?

Kabir Khan: That was a very interesting journey. You could make an entire film on that! Let me take you back to what actually triggered Kabul Express.

In the early 2000s, I was based in Delhi, and we would show our works at the India International Centre and India Habitat Centre, to people who are ideologically on the same page as me. There were a lot of international networks that were commissioning me, and we were planning to send our films to NHK in Japan, Canal+ in France. Documentaries did not have any distribution available and couldn’t reach a larger audience. Though I was making these documentaries for international networks, they were not really finding an audience in India.

But there was a frustration building up in me. It was what I call the preaching-to-the-converted syndrome. At the end of the day, any storyteller wants his story to reach out to the largest number of people possible. That was around the time that I was doing a lot of work in Afghanistan.

The kind of experiences that I was going through as a documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan were sort of building in my mind as a script. I strongly believe that, in India, mainstream cinema is the strongest medium with the greatest available access. That’s where I wanted to tell my story.

In 2001, the Americans were still bombing Afghanistan. By the time I landed, the Northern Alliance had more or less taken over Kabul, and the Taliban was already on the run and had been dismantled. So, all the foreign mercenaries fighting in the war were caught and sent to a prison in Doab, which is situated in the mountainous region of Panjshir near the Afghan-Tajikistan border. It’s called Doab because it literally means two rivers. It’s a little island surrounded on two sides by rivers which were surrounded by mountains. It was like an actual fortress, which became a prison. In fact, Doab was the place which was the sorting ground for a lot of them to be thrown into Guantanamo Bay.

Every journalist wanted to go there. It was a goldmine of information. And, of course, at the time was chequebook journalism, the Americans were paying loads of money. Every 50 km the warlord would change, and all of them wanted money. So, every 50 km you had to pay and go forward, otherwise there was no guarantee of your life. But we knew that there was a lot of goodwill for Indians among the Northern Alliance Mujahideen. So, we went up to them and said that we would like to visit the prison at Doab. They put us in a jeep and we drove for eight hours. It’s not very far away but there were no roads because they were all bombed out of existence.

So, these guys just open the gate of the prison, and my friend, Rajan (Kapoor), and I entered, and in front of us are 30-35 guys from Al-Qaeda and Taliban sitting all shackled up and chained, and they are looking at us like we are some animals from a zoo, and we are looking at them the same way. And we were like, ‘What the hell do we do now?’ There were guards standing on a rampart at a distance which gave us some sense of comfort, but it was a very awkward moment. A lot of them were Arabs, Chechens and Chinese. We naturally started gravitating towards the ones who were from Pakistan because they understood our language and we understood their language.

“I strongly believe that in India, mainstream cinema is the strongest medium with the greatest available access. That’s where I wanted to tell my story.”

We ended up spending two days in prison, sleeping there with them. They cooked for us and we ate there. We were trying to get them to speak on camera and a couple of them agreed. There was specifically one guy, (Salahuddin) Khaled, who was the most articulate among them. Of course, it wasn’t really successful because every time the camera was on Khaled would become this proper Taliban ideologue but every time the camera was off, he would start abusing them. I found him very interesting.

Finally, after two days, when we were leaving, Khaled came running towards us asking if he could make a call from our satellite phone. That was the only way you could communicate in those days. Now that made me a little nervous because the Americans were tracking them, and if they knew that this guy was Taliban, the next thing we would know is that cruise missiles were coming towards us. I was a little hesitant. But the Afghan jailer also said, ‘Karne dijiye.’ So, I gave it very reluctantly.

I realised that he called his family in Pakistan and this was probably the first phone call in two or three years. The family till that time thought he was dead and with this call they realised that he was alive. Khaled was a big built man who crumbled into a sobbing father when his daughter came on the phone. That, in a certain sense, for me was the seed of the idea for Kabul Express because it made me realise that there is a human story behind everybody. Now, you don’t have to agree with them or what they’re doing. You don’t have to empathise, but it’s important to understand their story. That is how I started writing Kabul Express, which essentially is autobiographical where John and Arshad are playing Rajan and me.

John Abraham, Kabir Khan and Arshad Warsi on the sets of Kabul Express

I wrote that story and landed up in Bombay. I was always thinking of moving to Bombay but because I was pretty successful as a freelance photographer in Delhi, I wasn’t getting that push. My wife, Mini (Mathur), did the MTV VJ Hunt, got selected, and started spending 15 days a month in Bombay. So, I said, ‘Let’s take the plunge and go to Bombay.’

That was a time when things were changing a bit. So, there was a lot of talk about new cinema, which is a little different from the mainstream, more real, but nobody was really putting their money where their mouth was. Now, the only studio that I did not go to due to conventional wisdom was Yashraj Studios, who, according to conventional wisdom, did not make films like these at all.

Unknown to me, at that point in time, one of my friends had taken the script and given it to Adi who knew that he was looking for a script outside of his comfort zone. Out of the blue, after a year of struggling and having these kinds of encounters, I got a call saying that ‘I am calling from Yashraj and Aditya Chopra wants to meet you.’ I thought that somebody was pulling a prank on me.

In those days, when Mini was at MTV, there was a very popular show called MTV Bakra. Everybody knew that I was struggling with my script, and these VJs all knew each other really well. I thought it must be Cyrus Broacha’s bakra on the phone. But something in the tone of the lady who was speaking to me made me realise that this could also be true. Eventually, she gave me the time and date of the meeting.

On the day of the meeting, I am on my way and half-expecting Cyrus to jump out from one of the bushes in front of the gate and shout ‘Bakra!’ Fortunately, he wasn’t there. I entered and was directed to Adi Chopra’s office. I still remember, he was standing next to the window and cleaning his reading glasses. He greeted me as I entered, and said, ‘I really liked your script. When can we begin?’ And that’s it. That’s how it happened.

That’s why I always say that we should respect conventional wisdom but we should not follow it beyond a point because you’ll never evolve. From there on, of course, I ended up doing three films with them. When I look back, I do feel that my journey was not as tough as other people. Also, when I put in a year of struggle, I didn’t feel it was too much because I had put in a number of years in documentary filmmaking. I did feel frustrated, but, in retrospect, a year is nothing. And that is something all budding filmmakers need to realise. A year is nothing. If you have a script that you really want to pull off, it could take two or three years before you could get it done.

Smriti Kiran: When you work within the framework of mainstream cinema, there are big stars and big budgets, and stakeholders want to minimise risk. Do you feel that there’s a certain dilution that happens because of these variables, and does it stop you from pushing the point a little harder?

“Once audiences connect with the character, then they follow them into any world you take them in.”

Kabir Khan: It can. I won’t say it will be a dilution of ideology, but it can sometimes be a dilution of facts, or certain information that might need to be included, which helps the audience follow things better. That does happen, and it’s a struggle that I’ve always faced in mainstream filmmaking. Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I’m not able to solve the problem. That is something that with every subject, with every story that you pick up, is a journey that you go through, where you realise that you don’t know how to crack this.

But should I do this at the cost of drama? Should I retain drama at the cost of letting essential information slip? That’s a constant struggle, I think. And that’s a struggle that I will keep confronting all my life. Adi (Aditya Chopra) himself had said that he wasn’t really following what was happening in Afghanistan, he wasn’t very aware, but he said that I gave him the context, whenever he needed it, to follow the scene. And if I could do that, then I could follow the drama of the character and not get lost.

That is something he told me when we decided to make New York, which is a highly political film. It was the politics of another country; it wasn’t even something that was happening here, and it was an expensive film, my first mainstream film because it was being shot in the US, in New York for a very long time. So, he said the same thing. He said that if I let him access the politics as and when he needed to understand the scene, then, you know, that’s the trick. That was a great learning for me too as a documentary filmmaker coming into the mainstream. I realised that’s what I needed to do. I just need to understand. You just need to understand the character’s journey at that point in time. Once audiences connect with the character, then they follow them into any world you take them in. That’s really important.

So, to answer your question, there’s no real clear answer, but it’s an ongoing struggle, I would say.

Smriti Kiran: What was fascinating for me about New York was the fact that no character is shown praying in the film, there is no mention of Allah — and we are talking about post-9/11 America. The film deals with a protagonist who crosses over to the other side because of loss of dignity and faith. Was this a conscious decision?

Kabir Khan: Totally. I mean, that was the main aim of the film. I’ll tell you where the thought began. I had done some work in Bosnia with Saeed Naqvi. If you go back and see how the Western media reported the tripartite civil war when it began, you’ll find it very interesting that it would name the nationals of erstwhile Yugoslavia as Serbians, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. I wondered why they called them this way. Why did they not say Orthodox Christian Serbians, Catholic Croats and Bosnian Muslims? If they had, I would have said that maybe they were trying to put some context into the conflict. But the only part of Yugoslavia where they would mention the religious identity of people was in the case of Bosnians. Croats were Croats, Serbs were Serbs, but the Bosnians were Bosnian Muslims.

That’s where the thought began. And as you rightly said, that all of these films, where they were talking about the post-9/11 rise of Islamic fundamentalism, pointed to the Muslim identity of these people to say that it is actually the religion that is the main problem.

My whole take on this was that it’s never really the religion. The battle is always larger. It’s about dignity. It’s about respect. As I said, you don’t have to agree with their viewpoint, but the point is you cannot force it onto them and say this is only about religion.

When I was working on New York, this was something that I spoke to Adi about. I said that I am not going to show a single shot of anybody doing namaz over here. There were also these films back then that I used to get very upset about, which showed Islamic sleeper cells. The way they would dress and walk around, they might as well have worn a T-shirt that said ‘We Are Sleeper Cells’. At the drop of a hat, they’d offer namaz and drink Rooh Afza – just that classic sort of stereotyping that goes into it. So, for me, that was a very important point.

Surprisingly, New York was a commercially successful film in India. This point was never picked up by any of the critics here – the way the representation was done, the way these actors had been shown. They were talking more about edit and screenplay only.

Kabir Khan and John Abraham on the sets of New York

“The battle is always larger. It’s about dignity. It’s about respect.”

At the press conference in Cairo, a senior journalist got up and said: ‘We’ve been seeing so many films about the rise of Islamic terrorism post-9/11. But this is the first film that does not have a single shot of anybody offering namaz. There are no dialogues about jihad and Allah. It’s all about your dignity and how you’re, in a certain sense, fighting for the dignity that you’ve lost’. So that was very important for me, that context in New York. And I’m glad that it finally got reported back home then – in the Indian Express, Hindustan Times. But when the film came out, that, again, was a layer that wasn’t spoken about.

Smriti Kiran: I want to go back to two incidents from your early years that altered the course of your life. The acting offer you got that did not work out and the almost fatal encounter in our desi Badlands. We might have a fourth Khan in the industry and we might have lost you in Bihar instead of precarious Afghanistan…

Kabir Khan: It was the first decision of my life and it didn’t happen! That’s all thanks to Shah Rukh Khan.

Shah Rukh landed in Bombay and became the new big thing, and everybody’s darling. So, everybody started wondering where Shah Rukh was from, which is Delhi, and looked up MCRC Jamia (A.J.K. Mass Communication Research Centre). People started thinking that actors were being trained at Jamia like they do at FTII. But at Jamia, we only acted in each other’s films as ‘talent’. So, a lot of producers thought that Shah Rukh had come from this institute, which means there must be more actors.

So, a gentleman landed up when I was in my first year. He went to our chairman, A.J. Kidwai, who was the founder-chairman of MCRC. He said, ‘I need actors for a film that I’m launching. I need a new boy.’ Kidwai saab didn’t understand what the hell he was talking about. I don’t know why he took my name, but I suppose maybe because I was acting in a lot of my seniors’ films as talent. So, he just said, ‘Yes, there’s Kabir Khan. You can go speak to him about it‘. With Salman, Aamir and now Shah Rukh, all Khans, coming to rule the industry, I think that inadvertently prompted Kidwai saab to take my name.

At first, I did not recognise him. I was extremely ignorant. I barely had any idea about what was happening in Bombay. We were watching Truffaut and Godard in MCRC, so we were least bothered about whatever was happening in Bombay.

So, he came and told me that he’d like me to do the film that he’s making, shooting starts in three months and he’d like for me to be there next month. I said I couldn’t because I still had an entire year left at Jamia; I could only come after my Master’s got over. He responded by saying that there will be workshops and training to do before the shoot. And I rejected it.

He got very disturbed by the fact that I was turning the lead role in a film that he was keen to make. But I remained adamant, saying that I would come down once my Master’s was over, and if he’s still looking for an actor, I’d happily work with him. He got a little pissed off, then, with me. As he was about to leave, I asked him his name. In a very filmy way, he turned around and said: ‘Bombay aake kisi se bhi pooch lena… Faruq Nadiadwala mera naam hai’. He turned out to be Sajid Nadiadwala’s uncle, who I have since worked and collaborated with. So, there I let go of the biggest film opening in my life to instead complete my course at Jamia.

Smriti Kiran: And the desi Badlands…

Kabir Khan: A lot of people used to get fascinated by the fact that I had travelled to Afghanistan and Bosnia, and I would always say that by far the most dangerous moment happened with me right here, back home, in Bihar.

We were doing this film for Channel 4 on gun culture in Bihar. That was the time when all the hired goons by politicians realised that they were becoming politicians because of them. They asked why couldn’t they be politicians themselves? That’s when, those who are familiar with Bihar politics might know this, people such as Pappu Yadav and Anand Mohan Singh, the strongmen of Bihar, started turning to politics.

So, this director from London came and said that he’d like to make a film on the growing gun culture in Bihar, and how there’s this nexus between the underworld and politicians. I said okay to it, and we went shooting there.

We went and met Pappu Yadav, and I told him that we were from Channel 4. He kept asking if we were from the BBC every time I mentioned Channel 4, and I finally conceded that I was from the BBC indeed. He was extremely excited because he thought he was finally getting legitimacy as a politician.

Pappu Yadav, on the day of the interview, asked all his gunmen to disappear. Generally, he would roam around with 30-40 gunmen, but on that day, he asked them all to vanish. He was dressed in kurta-pyjama, giving off a complete neta vibe.

So, without his gunmen, we decided to go roaming around in his district. He was showing us what good work he had done in this village and how he set up this village and how he got the irrigation system set up. Now, he didn’t know that his rival gang noticed that Pappu Yadav was roaming around without his army.

We went into this little hamlet in the evening, which is just these mud embankments through paddy fields, where he was talking to the villagers, and they were singing his praises. All we had throughout was one gunman with Pappu Yadav. We didn’t know that the village had been surrounded by Anand Mohan Singh’s gunmen. The sun was setting and it was getting a little dark. That’s why the film got renamed as Shootout at Sunset.

“By far the most dangerous moment happened with me right here, back home, in Bihar.”

We were driving out. I was in the first car, and I suddenly saw, and this was for the first time, till then I had never been to conflict zones like that, eight-nine spots go off in the dark. I wondered what they were and within a second, 10 bullets slammed into our car. It turned out to be really bad because the first bullet went through the driver’s neck and he died on the spot. We realised that the rival gang had attacked, so we jumped down and went under the cars, and these guys kept firing. The villagers came out with bows and arrows, can you imagine, somehow from under the car, three or four guns came out which had been hidden, and suddenly we were stuck in the middle of a gun battle. Bullets were literally flying inches away from my head.

So, it wasn’t Kashmir, Bosnia or Afghanistan, my most dangerous incident was right here in the caste wars of Bihar, between Pappu Yadav and Anand Mohan Singh.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Facebook

Shivam Rastogi: How do you navigate around politics when you choose to represent someone else and tell their story? How has your documentary learning come into play to inform your decisions in mainstream fiction films?

Kabir Khan: Completely and totally. My entire base is documentaries. Until date, I’ve always picked elements and stories directly from my documentary experiences. Kabul Express was my story as a documentary filmmaker. New York actually started as a documentary research project which then found its way to become a fiction feature. I approached my latest film, 83, which is yet to be released, through the medium of my documentary training – the way we researched it for two years, the way we kept going back to London, trying to meet people, conducting primary research, not just internet-based research. All that training really comes to your help when you’re putting together your film.

For me, my documentaries have totally prepared me for what I am today as a filmmaker. It has given me my worldview, given me my ideology, given me the way I approach a film, the way I research and write the film. It has been my training ground for sure. Yes, the logistics or the way we shoot is obviously different, but documentary or mainstream is ultimately storytelling. It’s the story that is important.

Viraf Patell: How did you master the craft of screenplay writing to an extent that was good enough to mask the politics of your film into human stories? What are your influences that led to that writing process?

Kabir Khan: As far as screenplay writing is concerned, I really don’t know if it can be learnt as such. I think what we can do and what we all do is try and read different screenplays and then see films and learn from them.

Your screenplay is by far the most important element of your script because a good story can be destroyed by a bad screenplay. So, the screenplay is what I work on the most because that’s the way the story is going to unfold for the audience.

I would say go by your gut instinct. I really don’t have any set rules apart from the basic ones that you can pick up in books. Simple things like ‘enter a scene as late as possible and exit as soon as possible’. All those little rules that we have. It’s there, you know, ‘start with drama and then explain it’. Having said that, it has to be your gut feel. It has to be how you are reacting to it. In that sense, it’s a very personal journey. You can’t really write keeping in mind rules or what you’ve learned because what you’ve learned has to be internalised. You can’t consciously think of it when you’re writing. So, what you do when you see good films is that you internalise those good films. And when we are writing, sometimes things start coming out subconsciously. Ultimately, what are we? We are an amalgamation of all the experience, all that we’ve seen, and all that we’ve heard.

Every film that I write or shoot has something in it that comes from Gandhi because that film had a very deep impact on me at a very young age. And it’s the first film that I tried to see again and again to analyse. And, now, I might not even be aware of it, but if I were to sit and go through all my films, I’ll be able to say this shot is because of this shot in Gandhi. I did this because I’ve seen that in Gandhi.

Gandhi (1982) by Richard Attenborough

When you see a good film, a good screenplay, you just internalise it and then it flows out of you when you’re writing it. And when you’re writing it, you’re not really consciously thinking of the rules or what you must do. It’s storytelling at the end of the day. It has to come from within, and it has to engage you first before engaging anybody else because you’re not going to write it for somebody else. You have to write it for yourself because you’re the only person you truly know. And if it works for you, then you can keep your fingers crossed and hope it works for others as well. But if you try to write for somebody else, chances are it won’t work because you don’t know that person.

Sulagna Chatterjee: In times when stories about minorities – Dalits, Bahujana and queer people – are starting to find its way into the mainstream, do you think that the writing/creation of such stories should be helmed by the minorities themselves so as to normalise the tonality of the narratives that we’re setting?

Kabir Khan: Representation should obviously be there. I feel we should have conditions conducive for everybody to be able to come and say their stories.

My problem with the representation of minorities has been that there’s always a reason in the plot for them being there. So, if a Muslim character is in a film, there’s a reason in the plot that his Muslim-ness will solve or create. For me, true representation is when a Hindu character is changed to a Muslim character and not one thing changes in the film. That, for me, is true representation. If Jai and Veeru were Jai and Arif and nothing changes in Sholay, that’s true representation. I don’t like it when minorities are brought in for the purpose of the plot. And it’s not that I have managed to do it, even I have not managed to do that. Even in my films, there’s always a reason why somebody is who they are. For example, take a film like Dostana. Between Abhishek and John, if one of them was a Muslim and not one-word changes in the film, that would be true representation.

We should just push that and see what reaction we will get. My gut feeling is that it will not change because I don’t think an audience is going to sit there and suddenly sort of start dissecting it.

Ghania Siddique: Do you think that the image of the Muslim man which has undergone a change in the past six to twelve months has affected their representation in mainstream cinema? Also, do certain stereotypes have different meanings today that can be skilfully used in your stories?

Kabir Khan: The representation of the Muslim man has changed over the years. It has always been according to what state our society has been in. Let’s be very clear about one thing – the film industry is a part of our society; it will always reflect what is happening in our society because filmmakers are all part of that society. They all come with their own unique ideologies and perspectives. They are not people outside of society. I will have a certain viewpoint on the way I want to show my character, somebody else will have a diametrically opposite way of showing certain characters. I can’t say he’s wrong and I’m right. And he can’t say that about me conversely, but ultimately you have to decide what you think is correct.

Post-independence, when there was an effort at nation-building and, as a country, we had just come out of partition, there was always this benevolent Khan chacha, who was the good man, the man with his heart in the right place, somebody who would stand up for you, in films in the fifties and sixties. I think that was partly because of the fact that we were trying to build a nation which had all been fractured by the partition.

Then post-9/11, a big change came because suddenly this whole Islamic terrorism became a cool subject to be working on. Like thrillers after thrillers would have these Muslim terrorists who were completely stock characters, cliched and stereotypical Talibans or people with beards and spouting words in Arabic. That continued for a long time.

Today, there’s a very strange sort of representation that’s coming in a lot of films because of the polarisation that’s happening in our society. I don’t think there’s so much of those ‘ugly Muslim’ happening in contemporary films as it is happening in films set in history. That for me is becoming the most dangerous representation. I think the ugly Muslim is being shown much more than in those films set in medieval times than in contemporary times.

As filmmakers, it’s totally up to us to be responsible for the way that we are showing characters. If you’re making a film tomorrow and you have certain characters, that character has to come from whatever you stand for. I’m not saying that every character has to be good. When we come to characters, there’s one very tricky part that needs to be negotiated.

We can’t make films where everybody’s politically correct because we’ll end up making the most boring films. Characters can do all kinds of wrong, but at the end of the film, what the filmmaker’s point of view is should be clear. Ultimately, it’s what the filmmaker does with the character. When I get up from the film, do I think that the filmmaker’s sympathies are with that character, or, no, the filmmaker pointed a finger at that character and showed me his faults? That’s very important.

A lot of times there’s this argument that whatever the character does rests in the realm of fantasy, of make-believe, that all kinds of characters do exist, and we should be free enough to show anything. I agree that we should be free enough to portray these characters. But at the end of the film, what’s your comment on the character is very important. That’s what I am going to get.

I don’t think stereotypes should exist because that just makes storytelling boring. Right? Because the basic inherent quality of a stereotype is that you know what he or she is going to do and how they’re going to behave. That inherently makes the storytelling boring because then there’s nothing that is unexpected. So, stay away from stereotypes. You can start with a character looking like a stereotype and then break it. That becomes a discovery. It’s always important to keep breaking that.

For me, it has always been an attempt to not try and show a stereotype and not show them the way you would expect them to be seen, that there should always be this element of surprise. For example, let me tell you about Om Puri’s character in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. There was a lot of discussion within the censor board on that. Om Puri was playing a very stereotypical looking Maulana from a masjid in Pakistan. At one point when Salman Khan and Om Puri’s characters are bidding each other farewell, he says, ‘Khuda hafiz’ to Salman. Salman’s character has been shown to be extremely uncomfortable with anything Islamic. He doesn’t know how to react, and he’s silent for a moment. Om Puri’s character immediately sees that and asks him, ‘Arre aap logon mein kya bolte hain?’ And Nawaz Siddiqui’s character says, ‘Jai Shree Ram,’ and so, Om Puri says ‘Jai Shree Ram’, despite being the Maulana of the masjid.

Om Puri in Bajrangi Bhaijaan

Now, looking at this scene, the censor board flipped. They said that I’d have to remove this at all costs. When I asked them why, they said that it would create a lot of problems. I prodded them further, asking what exactly would be the problem. To which the censor board said that the Muslims will feel bad. I asked them, ‘Mera naam kya hai?’ They fell silent. I said, ‘Main bhi Musalmaan hoon, mujhe to bilkul bura nahin laga.’ I told them that I felt extremely happy that the maulana was open to incorporating what Pawan had brought with him and ready to say ‘Jai Shree Ram’ without being bogged down by any other considerations. It shows his large-heartedness. They protested saying that it will cause a problem for sure anyway. I stood my ground and said to them that never in my life will I change this.

Anyway, I won that battle and that scene was in the film. So, I went to this theatre in Bombay called Gaiety Galaxy, which is supposed to serve as a test case. You always go on Fridays to see that because working Muslims comes to the theatres on Fridays after work to catch a film in large numbers. And this was on Eid when I was watching the film. The scene came where Om Puri says ‘Jai Shree Ram’ and the yell that went up in the audience, the way they enjoyed that, I wondered how the censor board could tell me that these were the people who would get offended.

So, you have to decide how you want to represent. You have to decide what you think is correct. Nobody else will tell you what is correct or not. You have to decide for yourself. You have to have that confidence in your gut feels and go for it.

Zainab Jawadwala: Does it feel like the onus is on you, specifically, as a Muslim to tell the lesser told story?

Kabir Khan: I never get into defending myself on anything that is thrown at me or not. I’m not very active on social media, and that is the only way that people can actually throw that thing at me. If you’re saying something, which is against Islamophobia, it’s always ‘Oh, it’s because you’re a Muslim.’ It’s not because you could be just a normal thinking human being.

And I, honestly, have never thought of myself as a Muslim. Recently, I was thinking about it and I said that I’ve never been more aware of my Muslim identity than in these last four or five years. I’ve never thought of myself as Muslim. That’s why I’ve always been outspoken when it comes to things like secularism. I can attack Muslim fundamentalists and Hindu fundamentals equally. Now, suddenly they think maybe it’s fair game for me to attack the Muslim fundamentalists because I’m Muslim but if I’m attacking the Hindu fundamentalists, I have to be careful because I happen to have a Muslim name. But I try not to get that into my mind. Yes, I know that the awareness is there. For every statement that I make, Mini, who is more voluble, is being sent to Pakistan every second day because she is married to a Khan.

You’re definitely right about the fact that today you’re being always categorised by your religious identity. As I said earlier, films looking at everything through the prism of religion is a very sad development in our society. But I think you just have to stay true to what you believe in and how you want to present things. Don’t change yourself because you feel you may be looked at from a certain lens.

Kapil Varma: Should we self-censor our content to get our first films out? And if not, how would that affect the commerce of the film?

Kabir Khan: Don’t self-censor your content. You should ask yourself, ‘Self-censor for whom?’ If you remove something, it might work for X, but it might not work for Y. So, how do you know where it’s ultimately going to get acceptance? You have to stay true to yourself. That is something I say to everybody – a lot of my juniors from MCRC come to me for advice, and I always say that. Stay true to yourself. It’s very important, especially in your first film. If I’m watching your film, I should be able to say that it is your film. I should not see a film which does not have your voice in it, because then there’s no point. The only way you will get noticed and the only way you move forward is when somebody says there’s a new voice that has come.

So, don’t start self-censoring yourself at all. Of course, having said that, you need to be able to look at it and decide if something is required, or if I’m doing just to create a bit of sensation or is it something very intrinsic to the plot? Is it needed or not needed? Just don’t throw in unnecessary stuff like how some OTT shows throw in a few gaalis, and you realise why are they even saying it in the first place, because it’s fun and we get little laughs out of it. But sometimes you can point out that it has been overly done. So, I’m saying that don’t do it for effect. But if you believe in it, please don’t self-censor yourself.

Abhishikta Bhattacharyya: Given the current political climate, how do you see films, all kinds of films, find their voice? Also, given the financing comes from bigger conglomerates who mostly want to be apolitical, how does one navigate through that?

Kabir Khan: You just have to find a way to say what you want to say. Subversive cinema is the most thrilling cinema. It’d be amazing if you can find a way of saying it ina way which escapes their radar, but yet manages to say the point. Whenever I’ve managed to try and do so, it has fallen flat on its face. Sometimes I’ve done it and it’s really worked for me and I get a real extra thrill out of it. That’s the way you have to do it. I’ll give you an example from Bajrangi – The Chicken Song.

The Chicken Song is actually the most political and subversive song of the film. At face value, the song is a favourite of all the kids. You ask kids under ten to pick their favourite from Bajrangi Bhaijaan, they’ll say the Chicken Song because Salman and Kareena (Kapoor Khan) are dancing funny in that. But the Chicken Song was written in the face of the beef ban.

What it is saying simply is that this is Choudhary dhaba: ‘aadha hai veg, aadha hai non-veg; aap batao aapko kya khaana hai’. And everybody can sit here and decide what they want to eat. Now, this is a song which I did not put into the marketing list because I knew somebody might recognise this as being a subversive song. So, we managed to hold on to it. And then, only when the film came out, people saw it. A lot of people missed this point completely. But those who did catch that bit do tell me till date that it is by far their favourite song and the most delicious piece of subversion that took place in mainstream cinema. So, I think we have to find that.

It’s easier said than done. It’s really difficult to do it. But, I guess, if you want to say something that you are wary of, or you’re afraid that it might not pass through certain filters, then you have to think of ways of being able to do this. Having said that, don’t fear. Just go and put your viewpoint as strongly as you can. There are enough takers. There is this whole fear that people are not going to allow the film to be made, but you’d be surprised that there are people who are seeing it as it is. It’s not that people are not seeing it. There are voices coming out and reaching out and being accepted and finding funding. So, it’s a battle that you will have to keep fighting. And you will find collaborators who are on the same page as you. There will be some people who will not agree with you and will not want to do your film, but there will be someone who will agree with you and will be your collaborator and help you put the film together, whether it comes in the form of an actor, producer or studio, there are people there who will agree with what you’re trying to say.

Gaurav Bose: I was concerned about the bi-polarization of politics in the current political scenario of India. First, how do we get to a more subtle way of representing politics? Second, how do we tackle the censor board?

Kabir Khan: The answer to the first part of the questions is exactly what I said earlier. Don’t bother about what’s happening there. You have to stay true to what your ideology is. Whether it is left, right or centre. What are you? What is your ideology? What is it that you want to say? Stay true to that. Don’t worry about what others will say. Again, if you know, by the time your film is made you would have passed many filters. When I say many filters, you would have passed through a number of people having read your script.

So, there’ll be a lot of bounce back sometimes. You’d be doubtful about what you want to say, or if you should say something. Then you’ll have these discussions maybe with your producer, maybe with your co-writers, maybe with your actor. That itself will help you understand that. There could be some things that are contentious. You have to then decide if it is important enough for my film to fight for or is it not? One thing is very important in getting a film out: there will always be battles. You have to decide which battle is worth fighting for and which are the battles not worth fighting for.

I’ll give you an example of what happened during Bajrangi Bhaijaan. That was a battle worth fighting for. They told me that my title was blasphemous because the VHP had filed a PIL in the high court against the title. How can you put the name of the lord with bhaijaan? The censor board was following suit. They said, ‘Take your pick: Bajrangi or Bhaijaan’. This was a battle worth fighting for. I asked them to give it to me in writing that constitutionally I cannot use Bajrangi and Bhaijaan together. They could not do that.

I stood my ground. They were pushing me against the wall because it was just a week before release. They were trying to push me to, in some way, compromise and give in to them to give whatever title they deemed fit. And I became a little filmi at that point, and they knew that Eid was coming, and Salman has an Eid release, I said, ‘Jab bhi hum hamari film release karenge, tab hamari Eid hogi’. I told them not to worry about Eid, and that I just wanted them to give it to me in writing that I couldn’t use Bajrangi Bhaijaan as the title. Eventually, they had to allow me.

So, you have to decide which battles you want to fight. Don’t fight every battle because, trust me, not every battle is worth it.

Anu Singh Choudhary: Was The Forgotten Army your attempt to dig deep into the politics of nationalism which today has a whole new definition to it – that you love your nation only if you love your sarkaar. In 20 years of The Forgotten Army as a documentary to a television show, has your understanding and definition of nationalism changed too?

Kabir Khan on the sets of The Forgotten Army

Kabir Khan: Nationalism is something that has evolved over the years and we have seen it evolving to the extent that today I’m uncomfortable with that word because I feel that there’s a difference between patriotism and nationalism. I think patriotism is a very personal emotion that you feel for your country, which makes you proud of your country and makes you want to do something for your country. When something good is happening, you’re happy about it. But, at the same time, in the face of something bad that is happening, you want to speak up against it and say that this is not right.

Nationalism is almost like beating your chest and saying I’m an Indian and I’m proud to be an Indian and nothing can be wrong in India. But that’s not true, right? If you really love your country, then you have to be able to speak up when things are going wrong in your country. So, the discussion between nationalism and patriotism is an evolving discussion. In today’s times, I would be uncomfortable to be labelled as a nationalist. I would rather say that, yes, I’m very proud of my country and I definitely love my country, and I love it enough to speak up when I think something wrong is happening.

The internal revolution that needs to take place is a never-ending process because, as individuals, it’s constantly evolving. I think I’m not the person I was 20 years ago and I won’t be the person I am today 10 years from now. There will be little corrections and changes in understanding, I’ll probably understand something deeper and better as I go along. I will look back and look at some of the mistakes that I’ve made.

So, of course, from 20 years ago to now, there’s always a sort of evolution of your thoughts. Having said that there are some things that are fundamental to you as a person. Those, I don’t think change. That’s why we often say that this person’s heart is in the right place. That’s basically what you mean. Things can change, but a person’s heart has to be in the right place. Or at least that’s what we would like to believe in because that’s fundamentally you. That will fundamentally help you process what is happening around us and all that is constantly changing around us. We are seeing the quality of this country changing. We are seeing the society of this country actually undergoing a change in front of our eyes. To navigate all that, to understand all that, we really need to understand who we are because there’s so much stimulation that you can’t start reacting and have major reactions to things. You have to be fundamentally very secure and confident about who you are to be able to survive this.

Nasreen Munni Kabir: Why do you think Hindi cinema does not have many examples of political films? And, if you look back, which for you is a strongly political film?

Kabir Khan: Talking about the mainstream, I think till the seventies we were very political. I think all of Raj Kapoor’s cinema was political. Guru Dutt was spectacularly political. In fact, some of his cinema, for me, would be the most political films. I think we started losing it in the eighties and the nineties. Though I must say that even Yash Chopra was political.

Somewhere down the line, and by the time I also joined the industry, I was always told that don’t tell people you’re a documentary filmmaker. Like the ‘D-word’ was a word not to be uttered. Because it meant politics. It meant boring. It maybe has to do with the fact that we all grew up on documentaries that the Films Division would show, which were mandatory before our films for 10-15 minutes, which was basically state propaganda. We started feeling like ‘documentary’ was a bad word.

Now, I would say that a lot of mainstream cinema is becoming political. If I were to mention, in the last three-four years, a filmmaker whose work I’m really enjoying, it would be Anubhav Sinha. He came from cinema which was completely escapist, and now, suddenly, the work he’s picking up is so deliciously political. Mulk is one of my favourite films in the last 10 years. I always say that Lage Raho Munna Bhai is the best political film in the mainstream to come out in a long time. I think in between we had lost it. We had it through the seventies. Then I think for 20 years it all disappeared.

Viraj Khadsey: In an interview, Anubhav Sinha said that while making Mulk he was constantly questioning himself on whether he was taking sides. Is it possible for an artist to not take sides? If yes, then how?

Kabir Khan: I don’t think it’s possible. You might believe that you’re not taking sides but I don’t think it’s possible. Everything is political.

You can try as much as you want to present both sides. That’s great. You want to present two viewpoints as dispassionately as you can but, ultimately, you will come shining through in the film and what you stand for will come through in that film. A film is a two to two-and-a-half-hour long product where there are so many decisions you’re making about how you’re shooting people, how you’re showing them, what dialogues they’re saying, how you’re editing it – it’s nearly next to impossible that your viewpoint will not shine through.

So, I don’t think that for any filmmaker it’s possible to make a film where his or her viewpoint does not come through, and make something which is completely and totally able to present both sides equally. It’s very difficult.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Kabir Khan in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

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