The Hindi film industry’s obsession with scenes that resemble picture-perfect postcards is well known. Switzerland, for instance, remains a favoured backdrop. Kabir Khan, however, likes his locations more grungy. Kabul Express, his first full-length feature film was shot in Afghanistan. Phantom took him to Lebanon, and the climax of Bajrangi Bhaijaan was shot at the base of Jammu and Kashmir’s Thajiwas glacier. The likes of Salman Khan willingly step into freezing lakes for Khan, but the empathetic director does give them deep sea diving suits before they take the plunge. Having travelled to over 70 countries as a documentary filmmaker, Khan knows the hacks that make difficult destinations navigable. Today, he travels to write. Being a Bollywood director, he confesses in this interview to NGTI, has fringe benefits.
Let’s start with a joke everyone knows about you. It is said that when you want to travel to a new destination, you write a script around it. Is this true?
[Laughs] My answer would have to be ‘yes’. If you’re writing a script that needs a particular setting, if your story can only unfold in that one place, you do have to fight your hardest to get there. New York could only be filmed in New York, and Kabul Express could only be made in Kabul. In Ek Tha Tiger, I needed Tiger and Zoya to run away to a place where people could not find them. That’s when my childhood fascination with Cuba came in. It was perfect because it was somewhat off the grid. We filmed there for a month. So when there’s a choice of location, I guess I do include places I have always wanted to go to.
So, locations, you’re hinting, are of paramount importance?
As a documentary filmmaker, I travelled to 70 countries, and I had a distinct advantage. Compared to tourists, I got to spend a lot more time in these places. I went into the interiors. I spent time with people and was able to get under their skin. That’s why locations have become such an important element for me. Despite all the visual effects technology makes available, I don’t like digitising my locations. Much to the dismay of my cast and crew, I still want to go to the top of a mountain and shoot. I don’t want to bring the mountain to my studio. My creative juices dry up if I’m sitting on a set, and if I’m not on location. My next project is set in Burma and Thailand. I can easily recreate those jungles in more comfortable places, but I feel the project will be truer if I go there and shoot. I always want to go there.
You shot the climax of Bajrangi Bhaijaan amidst hailstorms and in sub-zero temperatures. You might have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, but are members of your cast and crew as ready for such adventures?
Sometimes, I do get very excited and I want to shoot in places that would otherwise be considered impossible. But then again, I do feel I shouldn’t push my cast and crew through brutal hardship. In the end, though, I have realised that as long as I’m not doing anything stupid, and the shoot is logistically possible, my crew also enjoys being in those areas. Ultimately, what you see on screen pays off. If I am taking my crew into difficult locations, I make sure that they are completely prepared in terms of clothing. They’re all acclimatised. So, when we went to the base of the Thajiwas glacier to shoot Bajrangi Bhaijaan, I knew the kind of conditions I was stepping into, but I also knew how the shot would look on screen. I felt the pain was worth it. We got hundreds of snow shoes, socks and gloves. And once you are fully equipped, no one complains about the weather. There was a poster I had once seen outside a store in Dublin. It said, “There is no such thing as bad weather. There is only bad clothing.” That’s so very true.
Did your gaze change when you moved from making documentaries to commercial films? Does the socio-political context matter less?
No, it didn’t. And that’s why my initial two films—Kabul Express and New York—are embedded so deeply in the socio-political context of a given place and a given time. Kabul Express is of course autobiographical. It is the story of what happened to me and a friend in Afghanistan, and the political situation in the country was a constant backdrop to that story. You find that same political significance in New York. Even today, when I’m going to my location, or when I’m dealing with a subject that is country-specific, I do try and bring in that nation’s subtext. Ultimately, that’s what makes a difference.
Some journeys are, of course, more difficult than others, say the ones undertaken by the characters in some of your films like New York and Bajrangi Bhaijaan. How do your actors cope?
For my characters these journeys are difficult, yes, but they’re not as difficult for my actors. For Phantom, we were shooting in Beirut, and Lebanon, as you know, is affected by the war in Syria. That brought with it its set of challenges. But having said that, I feel the ground reality is very different from the images you see from afar. Headlines can make places look more dangerous than they are. When you do actually reach the location, you realise that there are problems, but thereis a population still living with hardship. And if you’re careful, you find a way of operating within those confines. Life does go on.
You’ve said that for you travel and work are always intertwined. Is there ever a time when you see a place through the eyes of just a traveller, not a filmmaker?
Absolutely, and I must admit that I do that consciously sometimes. Earlier, I used to travel for work mostly. I used to start feeling uneasy the minute I saw the sky was overcast. I was worried about my shot. So, when I was holidaying in London and the sky was overcast, that sense of uneasiness would again come to me, but I was only walking, not shooting. I have now learnt to disengage, though. Because travel has always relaxed me, I leave the country or the city to write. I am always more productive then.
You say you have visited 70 countries. Is there any place still on your bucket list?
I have never been there, but I was told there is something called ‘The Club 100’ in London. You only get membership to that club, if you have travelled to 100 different, unique countries. That’s still the dream.
How far are you from 100?
I’m still in the seventies unfortunately.
You had a Kalashnikov pointed at you in Afghanistan, and it was the song “Mere Sapno Ki Rani” that broke the ice. You were, quite literally, saved by Bollywood. When you travel today, are Hindi films as much of a common denominator? Do people recognise you when you travel?
Sometimes I am surprised when I get recognised. Since places like Dubai and London have a large South Asian population, I do expect to get noticed. But sometimes I get recognised in places that I would normally think are far-off. Actors are recognisable, but if a director is also known, it means that the country is invested in news about Bollywood. For instance, I was in Germany once, and this man came up to me in a department store. He looked at me. He smiled. I remember thinking, “He looks Italian.” He then said he would like a photo with me. I found it hard to believe he knew who I was. “I’m Afghan,” he said finally, “and I’ve seen your film.” He turned out to be the manager of the high-end department store, and he extended his employee discount to me. Before I knew it, I was getting 50 per cent off on anything I could lay my eyes on. I felt then that there are fringe benefits to being a Bollywood director!
What made you interested in scuba diving? Which are your favourite diving spots?
I have been a bit of an adrenaline junkie from my school days. I did a lot of rock climbing and trekking in college. In a way, the next frontier was water, and I decided to go scuba diving. Mini [Mathur, Khan’s wife] and I went to this beautiful island called Boracay in Philippines, and this place had 50 kilometres of white sand. Strangely, this place was discovered by a film scouting unit who were looking for these pristine islands. That’s how we started scuba diving. Once you go down and see what is lying 50 feet underwater, you really are hooked for life. The kind of colours you see below the water, you can never see on land. It is the closest you ever come to flying because you are literally gliding through the water.
What do you never leave home without?
I always carry my camera. I would never travel to a place without it.
Shreevatsa Nevatia never travels without his headphones, coloured pens and a book. He is particularly fond of cities, the Middle East, and the conversations he has along the way. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India.