'It would have been easy to make a small film with Tiger in a basti or an action film like Pushpa which was all mud, grunge and a repeat of what I had done before.'
From the moppet in Mr India to one of the Hindi film industry's biggest action film directors, Ahmed Khan has come a long way.
As Heropanti 2, shot during the pandemic, explodes on screen, Ahmed, who is lining up his next production Om: The Battle Within, for a July 1 release, takes some time out from his packed schedule to talk movies with Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya.
The first of a two-part interview:
Heropanti 2 had been announced before the pandemic brought life to a standstill, but took off only in June 2021. How did you keep the spirits high through the endless weeks of lockdown?
It was difficult with depression and death all around us.
People were out of work, many were ill and couldn't get hospital beds or oxygen cylinders...
I lost my mama in Delhi, and a cousin too.
I couldn't meet my actors and producer in person and share their energy.
How much Face Time can you do?
It would have been easy to make a small film with Tiger in a basti or an action film like Pushpa which was all mud, grunge and a repeat of what I had done before.
But with Sajidbhai (producer Sajid Nadidawala) constantly urging me to think big, we took a new route, went niche, put Tiger in a suit, even changed Nawazbhai's (Nawazuddin Siddiqui's) look, got ourselves Ferraris and Lamborghinis and scaled up the project.
That was a courageous move at a time when people were cutting corners.
Sajidbhai and I have been in this business for over three decades now and whatever we have earned is because of this industry.
We couldn't step back when the industry needed us to survive.
Having come up from the grassroots, I was used to working without DI (Digital Intermediate), walkie talkies, the works.
In the '90s, we did not even have proper cameras. All of us changed in one room and you yelled for 200 junior artistes at the top of your voice, 'Chalo aa jao, shot ready hai' instead of whispering into walkie talkies.
I guess that's where the courage came from and let me tell you, though it looks like we spent a fortune on the film, Heropanti actually cost way less because I finished it before time.
You're kidding! You couldn't have, not while filming during a pandemic?
I was allotted 85 days by my big-hearted producer, I finished it in 65 days.
For every day you save, you are cutting down on not just shooting costs, but DI, background, printing, editing and so much more right up to the day of release.
Heropanti was to be shot in 10 countries. Were you able to stick to your plan?
We had seven countries in mind and while we couldn't go to the US, we managed to shoot in the UK, Russia, the UAE, Africa and Thailand.
I even managed to shoot with a second unit in China for a day, but it was really difficult. We had to shift the monastery scenes to Thailand where we filmed with real Shaolin fighters.
It was difficult with no tickets and visas and all the rules and restrictions, which were particularly stringent in Abu Dhabi.
Egypt was also tough.
Thailand had yet to come out of quarantine.
But everything was open in London and in Russia, they laughed at us for wearing masks.
(Laughs) We stayed positive despite all the negative, though in my fear to not fall short, I overshot the action scenes.
How cooperative and combative was Tiger Shroff?
He was always high on adrenaline rush, working out and practicing his stunts diligently all through the lockdown.
While other heroes were telling their producers, it wasn't safe to step out just yet and they should wait another six months, Tiger was impatient to step out, all guns blazing.
(Laughs) Sajidbhai and I had to tell him to relax.
Your film with Sajid and Tiger, Baaghi 3, was racing towards a century when the nationwide lockdown brought its box office run to an abrupt stop. That must have been disappointing.
It was like promising a six-year-old child a picnic to a resort and its swimming pool and badminton court booked, apples, soft drinks, football and friends loaded in the car, gaadi ghar se nikalti hai aur phir, bang, tyre puncture!
Baaghi 3 released on March 6, 2020.
Holi came three days later. No one played that year because they believed that if they touched each other, they would be infected.
But they continued to watch our film, till the sixth day of release when theatres in Delhi, UP, CPCI (the Hindi movie distribution circuit of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Vidarbha) started downing shutters and we took the bullet straight in the chest.
We had a four-five days run, but still crossed Rs 95 crore (Rs 950 million)
We could have easily made Rs 230-Rs 250 crore (Rs 2.3 billion-Rs 2.5 billion) had it not been for the pandemic.
The next Hindi film to make that kind of money was Sooryavanshi a year later.
Couldn't you have pushed the release, like Sooryavanshi did, to a more opportune time?
That wasn't a decision for the producers to take and at a time when countries were uncertain about taking a call on lockdown, we were just film-makers trying to second guess the future.
The idea with Baaghi 3 was to scale up Bollywood action to Hollywood standards. We created a huge set in Serbia, got real Russian tanks, pulled off some death-defying stunts.
If at some point, because of films like Baaghi 3, I can sneak into the Top 100 action list, even at No 99, I would think I have done something with my life.
Is the script of Baaghi 4 ready?
(Laughs) No, I was busy with Heropanti 2 and Om: The Battle Within.
Tiger has other commitments, like Rambo and NGanpat. He needs to work with other directors.