MUMBAI—They have collaborated in the past: Nikkhil Advani had directed John Abraham as one of the seven heroes in his “Salaam-e-Ishq” way back in 2007. The film was a dud. Last year, however, they had a hit to their name in “Satyameva Jayate” (2018), which Advani co-produced. During the making of this film, Advani and his writer Ritesh Shah narrated a (real event-based) script, and Abraham knew he had to be a part of it. The result is “Batla House,” based on the incident in Delhi in 2008.
The film now clashes for release with another big-ticket patriotic film in “Mission Mangal,” just as Abraham and the latter film’s producer Akshay Kumar had clashed last year in “Gold” on Aug. 15. Both films were hits, but Abraham’s movie had fared better. Regardless of the clash and result, Akshay Kumar and John Abraham are very close friends.
Over to Abraham and his director, who have no time to meet the media separately, and so they sit together for a no-holds-barred chat.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: This is probably the most magnificent clash we have seen in a while.
John Abraham: Yes, it is very good that two credible movies are releasing together. On this day, there is enough potential for two films. And both Akshay and I know this.
Nikkhil Advani: The winners will be the audience and the film industry. People will want to watch both films, which are solid on content. Our film is not the tent-pole action drama but also has a powerful story. After “Parmanu,” I think John was ready for another such film in a year.
Q: How challenging was it to play someone who is still alive?
JA: There is a lot of pressure. Nikkhil and I are eager that the man whose screen version I play, ACP Sanjeev Kumar Yadav, watch the film and put a tick against the box and tell me, “Hey, listen! You played me right!”
Q: “Batla House” was an incident of an encounter, but what happened later was very controversial.
NA: Yes, what happened later was more important. The country was polarized – journalists, politicians and the police. Some said that the students involved were not terrorists; others said they were. ACP Yadav, a six-time Presidential Gallantry medal winner, went in to destroy the nation’s enemy and came out labeled as a murderer! There were arguments, discussions and so on, and soon, opinions became facts.
Then a court case happened, and a verdict was passed, but even there, whatever the court accepted was considered wrong by some. So my film is not about one person or one event, but about society.
JA: And Nikkhil also told me that what we are making was not just an encounter drama but a love story. As we made the film, I realized he was right!
NA: My films opens with my hero’s wife telling him, as Sanjeev’s wife Shobhna did that she was leaving him as she did not want to be second fiddle. Sanjeev’s first marriage, he would openly say, was to his country. This was on the very day he sets out on the Batla House mission, having agreed that she should leave him because from his side his priority for his country would never change. So he goes in thinking that a divorce is happening, and happy that she is leaving him because he might die too.
JA: And this man is thinking of it even as he makes repeated crucial decisions in a fraction of a second – before he opens fire, he has to think – is this person I am shooting a terrorist? He must be someone’s son, might be someone’s brother…
Q: And did you meet Sanjeev, John?
JA: Yes, I did and studied him in detail. His wife says that he never speaks to her or to anyone for more than five minutes, and we have used that line in the film. Yes, she never left him.
NA: She was a television anchorperson and covered the Batla House news on that day. She decided to stand by her husband, even though for two years after that he was pushing her away, saying that he did not need her! We men can be so egoistic and stupid!
JA: Shobhna stood by him as Sanjeev went through the turmoil of a complete wipe-off of his years of service when he was termed a murderer. He went through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and she stood solidly with him all through.
Q: How much in the film is real, and how much is fictional?
JA: Let us say none of us are interested in the real incident. Even then it will be an edge-of-the-seat thriller. And when you leave the movie hall, you will scratch your head and say, “Wow! This is true as well! This actually happened!”
NA: The whole film is fictional but inspired by the real event. The characters have different names like Shobhna is Nandita in the film. But we have taken real incidents and a lot of facts. Everything we have taken is in the public domain – we have based our story on four very big articles. Ritesh Shah has written the film and married real and fictional so well to create his own world; it is so fabulous.
Q: Nikkhil, you made one of the most extraordinary thrillers, “D-Day,” six years ago, and it flopped badly. What are the things you have not repeated or avoided after that in this film?
NA: People praising me and “D-Day” have actually begun to prick me because no one watched the film! (Laughs) All I have changed here is included “Saki Saki,” the re-created song, but since I am not someone who believes in item songs to make a film work, I actually got a part written for Nora Fatehi, as someone without whose song, the hero will not be able to achieve a certain objective. She has a role in the film.
Q: And how did you home in on John for this film?
NA: I don’t think we have chosen him – I would say HE has chosen Ritesh, me and the film! At his level, he decides what is important by way of scripts and also subjects. Both Ritesh and I are lucky he listened to our narration and happily accepted the film.
Q: John, what have you to say about your co-star Mrunal Thakur?
JA: What a fantastic actress she is! What a fantastic actress!
Q: When will you come back to occasionally be the bad guy or do comedy?
JA: I am playing someone really bad in “Mumbai Saga.” And “Pagalpanti” is a comedy. An actor must do whatever makes him or her happy. I like to do different kinds of films, and I am also doing “Attack” with Sujoy Ghosh.