'The reviews have been generous and overwhelming.'
'But unfortunately, it's not shown in the numbers and technically, you would call it a flop.'
'I don't understand what to take from it... I am at a loss...'
Following a gruelling promotional run for his directorial debut An Action Hero, Director Anirudh Iyer says he will spend the remaining days of the year with his family.
The Mumbai-born director received rich reviews for the action-comedy thriller, but the film fell short at the box office when it released on December 2, something he is trying to wrap his mind around.
A crackling exploration of the toxic relationship of film stars with media and fans, the movie follows superstar Maanav (Ayushmann Khurrana), who, after getting caught up in an accident while filming, tries to save his skin from murderous municipal councillor Bhoora (Jaideep Ahlawat).
"I am going to take 15-20 days off because I haven't been spending time with my family. I am going to take it easy. On January 1, I'll come back and start working again. Hopefully next time, we will do well in both aspects -- reviews and box office," Iyer tells PTI.
The film-maker, who worked as an assistant on Aanand L Rai's Zero and Tanu Weds Manu Returns, said that like his first movie, his next will also have topical undertones.
"I have a few stories I have been working on. I want to open my books and pick something that makes sense to be told at this time," he adds.
As a first-time director, Iyer said he was a bundle of nerves before An Action Hero went on floors.
"It isn't just for first-time directors. Even when you are making your 10th film, I am sure the feeling that goes through your mind is that you have seen the whole film in your head 10 times before you even start shooting."
Once the shoot begins, things start changing, he said.
"It starts becoming real, so the whole perception that you have in your mind, it starts changing. It's a scary feeling. But after you get past the first three-four hours, it starts to settle. You become more at ease," the 33 year old says.
As he waited in the wings assisting Aanand L Rai, who backed An Action Hero via his Colour Yellow Productions, Iyer always dreamt of the day he would direct his first film.
"You always dream that one day you will make your own film. In that process, you end up writing a lot of stories. I had created a bank of stories that I wanted to tell, when I eventually got there," he said.
An Action Hero was also one of the many tales scribbled in his notebook.
The director said he revisited the story of the film with writer Neeraj Yadav during the pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020 at a time when the Hindi film fraternity was making headlines for the wrong reasons. From allegations of having links with the drug mafia to the insider versus outsider debate, Bollywood has always been a soft target.
"I took out that story again, sat with Neeraj and started writing. It seemed like the most topical, relevant, story to be told at that point. There are a few more stories that I have. Some are timeless, some can be told little later. But this felt like it has to be said now. That is why we picked this film," he explains.
While the film mocks the current state of TRP-hungry TV news channels and hate-fuelled social media, it also shines a light on the insecurities, tantrums and vulnerabilities of a film star.
Iyer is as clear as day about what his job entails -- entertainment -- but he won't shy away from contributing to society through his work.
"We are artists, not activists. Our job is to somehow, through entertainment and fun, show a little bit of a mirror too. Art is supposed to be ahead of its time. I feel if enough of us are ahead of their time, that is how society evolves over the years. We can contribute to that aspect."
What An Action Hero also details is the complicated equation between celebrities and fans, and how they complete each other.
The director, who started his film career making corporate films for brands like Cinthol and Godrej, said he ensured he didn't pick any sides while crafting the narrative.
"I made sure there weren't any biases. I didn't tell you what is right, what is wrong. I just wanted to tell you a story. Now it is up to you, as an intelligent audience, to pick what you want from it. My job was to tell you that this is the story, you have fun. If you want to take something from it, please do, otherwise just have fun, so the idea was to always keep it like that."
Working with Khurrana and Ahlawat was a "fantastic experience", added Iyer, who said characters played by the duo represented the celebrity and public, respectively.
"The chemistry was important because that is the relationship that the stars have with people. It is a love-hate relationship. It's so complicated, weird. We just wanted to crack exactly that. I told them to have fun with it."
But the underwhelming box office response is something he is still trying to process. Mounted on a reported budget of Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million), An Action Hero was able to raise Rs 16 crore (Rs 160 million) at the ticket window. While the word of mouth publicity around the movie was positive, it was unable to generate higher collections.
Every film-making experience regardless of success or failure comes with a lesson, believes Iyer.
"What has happened in this film is I am not able to find closure. Everyone who has watched the film, the reviews and the comments have been so generous and overwhelming. But unfortunately, it's not shown in the numbers and technically, you would call it a flop. I don't understand what to take from it, I don't know how to improve this. I am at a loss for closure."