Apoorva Lakhia with David Wilentz
Bollywood is built on spectacle: epic scope, song & dance, chop-socky action, farce, romance, and overripe melodramatics all meld into a mind-boggling pastiche. But a recent trend towards realistic crime films (reflecting the volatile high-crime rate of Mumbai) has ushered in a new wave of Indian cinematic hysteria. Director Apoorva Lakhia, a rising star of this new generation of filmmakers, combines brutal frankness with explosive action. The eighth Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council (MIAAC) Film Festival this November featured Lakhia’s breakthrough blockbuster Shootout at Lokhandwala. While previous Indian crime films were inspired by the headlines, Shootout is based on a harrowing, real life cops vs. robbers bloodbath. Mr. Lakhia, who lives between India and Brooklyn, graciously took time between screenings and moderating panels to speak with the Rail.
David Wilentz (Rail): How did Shootout at Lokhandwala come to be?
Apoorva Lakhia: I used to live in NY and when I moved back to India, people kept talking about who was there at the shootout—“somebody else was there,” “we were there,” “were you there at this time?” It was pretty much a topic of conversation when it came to any police encounters. So I started researching into it and thought it was a very interesting concept of just mammoth scope. In broad daylight these cops surrounded the building and shot it apart. They blasted about three-and-a-half thousand rounds of ammunition just to kill these five boys who were willing to surrender. I started hanging out with the cops, for example Kahn’s character and the other cops, and started getting their side of the story. In the beginning I thought I would do a film which would be totally fictional, about the life of these five boys hiding in the apartment. Then I thought it wasn’t really interesting because I was enclosed by walls and my script started feeling a little claustrophobic. Therefore I took it outside and started to do it from a cop’s point of view, and that became too biased, so I just decided, okay let me mix the two scripts together and get enough research done and basically that’s how Shootout came about. Also we really don’t know what happened inside the building. Whatever happened outside is factual but I couldn’t take on the police wholeheartedly because the cops are still alive and I live in India, so there are subtle nuances in the script.
Rail: From your film, and Ram Gopal Varma’s Company, I learned how ridden with crime Mumbai must be.
Lakhia: There was a time when the crime was so bad that the government decided to call these cops—they were almost “Dirty Harries of Bombay”— but they were called Encounter cops. Encounter was a term used for the police killing of criminals. These cops became larger than life when they started clocking in anywhere from 80, 90, 110 killings. They almost became demi-gods. A lot of movies around that time were made about these cops, glorifying what they were doing. Now obviously India’s changing, politics are changing, there’s not so much crime, so now these cops who were superstars then are also being prosecuted.
Rail: What do you think all these killings say about good and evil?
Lakhia: In a society like India, which is very diverse, where there is a great disparity between the rich and poor, and even the semi-rich and super-rich, you have to take life with a pinch of salt. There is definitely going to be crime. For example, it’s cheaper to kill someone in India, or pay someone to kill than to get someone beaten up. Life is almost that cheap. But at the same time, if you see Shootout, I tried to balance it. I’ve left it to the audience to decide whether the cops were right or wrong.
Rail: Tell us about your latest film, Mission Istanbul.
Lakhia: I got this idea when I was reading the Economist in the Heathrow Lounge, and there was a very interesting article about whether Osama was dead or alive. So I thought I’d make a film based on that. The main protagonist gets a job with Al Johara, which is based on Al Jazeera. He goes to work for that news channel in Istanbul and realizes that Osama’s actually dead and Al Johara is actually Al Qaeda and whichever country they open the TV channel in they screw up with terrorism. He gets a copy of a CD with the proof, goes on the run and finally escapes to India and brings it all out. It was expensive compared to Shootout, which cost US$4 million, including all the actor’s fees. This one was about US$12 million. A lot of stunts. It’s a high adrenaline action film.
Rail: What are you working on now?
Lakhia: A film called Hide and Seek about three super-rich friends who are bored of life, bored of jets, and they’re sitting around doing cocaine. And one says, “my father owns a mall. Let’s go there when it’s closed. We’ll put $100 million in one account and play hide and seek with one condition: One person has a gun with five bullets and if you find that person you can kill him.”
Rail: Please talk about working with Amitabh (Bachchan)?
Lakhia: He’s great. For a young director like me who’s just made four films and had him in two of them, we consider him a god [BR note: Bachchan is a star of seminal Bollywood titles Sholay and Don]. Most of us young directors wonder why he’s not on the face of an Indian stamp. Working with Mr. Bachchan is just like going to school. You cannot compare the fan following an Indian actor has to that of an American or other Western actor because films are all we had. We only had films, cricket and politics. These are the three things that every young person wants to get into because that’s the ticket to make it big. I remember I was shooting with him in Bangkok and there was some dialogue he had to say about Bangkok. It was derogative, not rude, but he called me aside and said “Apu, this is only your second film but I just want to tell you when you shoot in another country never put down that country or your country and you’ll go a really long way.” I thought that was just amazing.
Rail: The handsome star Vivek Oberoi made quite a mean criminal in Company and was even more irredeemable as the lead villain Maya in Shootout. I heard there was going to be another Maya movie.
Lakhia: We were thinking of doing one because there was another incident where these gangsters went and shot up the parliament house. After Shootout’s success people came to me with scripts basically based on Shootout, and unfortunately I’ve been tagged as a big action director, which I’m trying to lose very fast, because it’s fun to do different kinds of films.
Rail: Indian films have seemed to branch out into a very gritty, almost post-John Wu Hong Kong sort of style.
Lakhia: India’s changing as a country, and as the change is global India becomes more confident. We have an extremely talented young generation, plus the economy is doing well, people can afford to travel all over the world, we have 150 channels blazing in without paying for them. The young people see so much more of the world and come back and get their ideas and make films. The young generation is really moving the country forward. I think when a country as a whole is happy you see progress in every field. It’s a good time to be in India, to be Indian, to work in India, because even globally the respect Indians are getting is pretty good.
Rail: I was curious how you incorporated the traditional musical numbers into the gritty action.
Lakhia: I never want to have songs but my producers force me to put them in. I made Shootout without any songs and the producer said “no, no, no, we get a lot of money to put the songs.” So I shot three songs in six days after the film was edited. My current film has no songs. At 90 minutes it’s the shortest film I’m ever going to make. Indian films are usually at least two hours and 15 minutes because the cinemas plan accordingly and the films need an intermission so people will buy concessions. The minimum is two hours so for my new film they’ll put a few more ads and a music video before and after, stuff like that, so the total will be an hour and 50 minutes or so which is still safe.
David Wilentz dreams in color.