Berlin:“I’m thrilled to have Kai Po Che! selected by the Berlin Film Festival,” said director Abhishek Kapoor. “It’s my first film there.It deals with an Indian subject and Indian issues, but at the back of my mind, I was hoping it would also have a world audience. So this is a huge victory for me.”
A section of the Berlin International Film Festival’s audience is addicted to Bollywood and, more specifically, Shah Rukh Khan. So Kai Po Che! is a different kind of triumph, a Bollywood film at the sixty-third Berlin festival, even if it doesn’t have the star or masala item numbers. The title refers to the Gujarati victory cry during kite-flying, when one kite string cuts another. It is about three friends in Gujarat who start a cricket academy venture; the film both celebrates and tests their friendship,against the backdrop of the Gujarat riots. Selected in the Panorama section, the film’s world premiere is on 13 February, at the spectacular Friedrichstadt Palast in former East Berlin, with 1,895 seats, bigger than most Indian theatres. The production team in Berlin includes Kapoor and Disney producers Ronnie Screwvala and Siddharth Roy Kapur. “We are incredibly proud that Kai Po Che! has been selected for a world premiere at Berlin,” said Roy Kapur, managing director, Studios, Disney UTV. “For a film dependent entirely on its strong storyline,rather than its line-up of stars, this is a huge achievement.” Kai Po Che! will be released in India on 22 February.
Kapoor, who previously directed Rock On!!, has adapted the film from Chetan Bhagat’s bestseller The 3 Mistakes of My Life. It features Raj Kumar Yadav, Sushant Singh Rajput, Amit Sadh and Amrita Puri, with music by Amit Trivedi. “The film has a much wider appeal than Rock On!!,” Kapoor said. “It deals with friendship, business, the earthquake and riots, so it appeals to the middle class and diaspora, whereas Rock On!! was about rock music and aimed at an upper class audience. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone.”
It is the first time Kapoor is adapting a book for a film he has directed. Along with Kapoor, screenwriting credits include author Chetan Bhagat, Pubali Chaudhuri and Supratik Sen. “I’d never adapted a book before and it wasn’t easy,” Kapoor said. “The book has a lot of material, and it was a challenge deciding what to keep and what to leave out. We wanted to fit in new ideas, but filmmaking has certain rules too. But the final script stands alone independently of the book, and adds value to it.”
Kapoor seems to have matured as a filmmaker, moving from a rock music theme to friendships set during the 2002 riots. “Having failed before (referring to his acting career and debut film Aryan), I’m not afraid of failing. For Kai Po Che!,I didn’t go by the Bollywood rules, stars or item numbers. I’ve made the film as pure as possible,” he said.
The director certainly shows his pedigree by taking risks—both in casting actors rather than stars, and exploring the communal riots in Gujarat, that a lot of the media seem to have papered over in the discussions for Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as India’s next prime minister. But Kapoor prefers to keep it low key. “I am not politically inclined, I don’t understand politics,” he said. “I don’t have a stand. I only understand the pain of my characters.”
What was it like shooting filming aspects of the riots in Gujarat? “When shooting in North India, crowds can get rowdy,” Kapoor said. “But when shooting in Gujarat, the people seemed so gentle, docile and kind, it was hard to imagine there was so much anger, as was evident during the riots.”
Dil Chahta Hai and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara were two recent Bollywood films also on the theme of male bonding, but Kapoor sees his film as occupying a different niche. “Kai Po Che! is dealing with more middle class issues and is not escapist,” he said. “The common youth can relate to its realistic aspirations and emotions. It is not only urban-centric, but pan-Indian.”
Is he especially concerned about Kai Po Che!, given how Kamal Haasan’s Viswaroopam was banned in Tamil Nadu for two weeks,even after the censors cleared it? “When a filmmaker’s film is up for release, it is no different from molesting a woman who cannot defend herself,” he said. “It is the system that acts like the Taliban. It is screwing him. What can Kamal Haasan do? Shame on us! But one can’t live in fear and assume things. What can I do? My film does not touch upon sensitive matters; it is about characters and events that affect them. It is purely about friendship, so I have nothing to worry about.”
There is a lot of media support for Narendra Modi’s campaign for investment in Gujarat, and Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan is brand ambassador for Gujarat Tourism. As his film is about friendships and enterprise set in Gujarat, could it be seen as an endorsement of Modi’s campaign? “That is not the intention of the film,” Kapoor said. “It is a simple story set in 2000-2002, there’s no propaganda, no undertones or subliminal messages. It is a film with a heart.”
Raj Kumar Yadav, the superb actor from Love, Sex aur Dhokha, Gangs of Wasseypur and Shahid, plays Govind in the film. “It is a big thing for me to have the film at Berlin,” Yadav says. “Shahid had also travelled to Toronto, Dubai and the Mumbai film festivals, and got a very good response. The biggest challenge in Kai Po Che! was speaking Hindi with a Gujarati accent. I worked out the back story of my character from the time he was born till the present, to understand him better. I’m not worried for the film at all, since it is based on a book that has sold millions and everybody knows the story already.”
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals and Curator to festivals worldwide. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.