The making of a road movie

Published On: 2014-06-27

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The making of a road movie

Source: Mans World
Date: July 2011

Superhero, anti-hero and regular Joe. Actors Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar and Abhay Deol are drawn to completely different characters. They talk to Rukhmini Punoose about getting into a character’s memories, the world of Amitabh Bachchan fans and their new film Zindagi na milegi dobara. Photographs by Jatin Kampani

It was a beautiful day in Spain. The sky was a melting azure blue. Craggy precipices surrounded Hrithik Roshan, Farhan Akhtar and Abhay Deol as they drove in a large SUV as part of a shoot for Zoya Akhtar’s new summertime blockbuster, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. Hrithik was at the wheel and he was supposed to drive the car to the very edge of a cliff, park it and get off. He did just that, only he forgot to pull the handbrake. The car started rolling forward towards the edge of the sheer drop as a stunned Abhay and Farhan watched. “We would have lost two actors that day,” says Zoya. But Hrithik leaped into action. He grabbed the monster of a car, Krrish-style, and started pulling it backwards to stop it from plunging below. Meanwhile, Farhan and Abhay gathered their wits and jumped out of the car and ran in the opposite direction. “Of course, he eventually pulled the handbrake but his first instinct was to become a superhero. We teased Hrithik so much after that,” laughs Zoya.

The film, co-written with Reema Kagti and directed by Zoya, is based on a road trip across Spain taken by three bachelors right before one of them ties the knot. Each of the boys challenges the other two to adrenalin-pumping adventure sports like skydiving, cliff diving and scuba diving. With Katrina Kaif and Kalki Koechlin also in the cast, the shoot was fraught with several hysterically funny moments that took place mostly off-camera. “Considering we shot action and adventure scenes at such different locations, from beaches and towns to mountains and the sea, it’s not surprising that so much insane stuff happened,” says Farhan.

Apparently, Abhay hated the scuba diving sequence because he couldn’t figure out how to do it. “They kept asking me to blow air from my nose but I never got it right and my mask would fill with bubbles,” he says. He didn’t particularly enjoy the skydiving at first either, as it made him nauseous. Farhan, on the other hand, is a trained skydiver who got his licence in 2007 after Don. “When I was very, very young, I saw Point Break and remember even now how exhilarating the skydiving sequence in the film seemed. I decided then I had to do this, which is why I went and trained. Jumping off a plane gives me so much joy, it’s something I dream about almost every day.”

Hrithik was equally kicked at the thought of skydiving. “I’m an adventurer and explorer at heart, so I was looking forward to it. Of course, at the precipice, I’m nervous, but that’s the energy you feed on. It makes you feel alive.” For Hrithik that’s the beauty of adventure sports, whether it’s skydiving, scuba diving or snowboarding. “It’s just your will, your body and your heart and soul, all together at once. It’s a beautiful thing.”

While all three actors enjoy adventure sports, Farhan’s idea of a great holiday tends to be a road trip. In fact, Zoya says the numerous road trips she’s taken with Farhan inspired the story of Zindagi… According to Farhan, the most memorable road trip he’s ever taken was in Europe with his wife, Adhuna, and his kids, which lasted five weeks. “We were in one car and my three friends in another car and we drove from Berlin to Munich, Salzburg, Milan, all the way down to Barcelona, then to Nice, Pisa and Rome. Shakya, my older one, was seven and my younger daughter, Akira, went from being three months to four months over the course of the holiday,” he says.

Farhan plans totally different holidays based on whether he’s taking his kids or not. “I think when you take children it’s really important that parents keep doing things with them. If they are just sitting around watching television, they get bored. I like to take them to fun places. There was this really nice place in Berlin, which had a large garden maze made of hedges. I let them loose in there. They loved it, it was like a big adventure for them.” When he’s travelling without family, he likes to take off on his own, especially after finishing a project, just to recalibrate. Then, he’s intrepid about experimenting with local cuisines. “I have no hesitation in trying anything, barring toasted bugs and other insects,” he says with a grimace.

Hrithik’s insane shooting schedules often come in the way of joining Suzanne and his sons on all their holidays, “They are just about to take off for a month-long vacation and I’m not going to be able to join them. I can’t say that I have achieved as much balance in my life as I’d like but I’m working towards it. So when I’m free, I’m just happy to be home with my kids, Suzanne and my parents. We just sit around and talk or I play with my kids. We fight like superheroes on the bed.”

While the fun of working with friends (Farhan, Zoya and Hrithik are childhood friends and they have all known Abhay growing up) was decidedly a lure for all of them to do Zindagi…, Hrithik says he found the script really refreshing. “When I read it, I knew that it was a complete departure from the kind of things that people associate with me. All the characters I’ve played have been larger-than-life and here I was playing just a regular boy who is not protecting society or his country or saving the world. There is no hero in the film. The three boys and the journey itself become the hero of the film. It’s been quite a leap of faith for me to do this,” he says.

In Farhan’s case doing the film was a no-brainer as his character was modelled on him. “Zoya wrote this character with me in mind. She knows that whenever I have any serious personal issues I tend to stonewall. I very rarely face them, and like to pretend they will solve themselves. She also knows that I just love entertaining people and making them laugh. And then, my character loves skydiving. So when I read it I felt like I was reading about myself,” he says.

Known to be really particular about picking roles that are both unconventional and high on content, Abhay says his respect for Zoya as a writer and director made him want to work with her. “It’s a nice, breezy adventure between three friends, it was well written, all the characters are strong, each one has a conflict to overcome and it all ties together really well in the end,” says Abhay.

While it was great to watch the boys get along so well, what was really interesting to Zoya as a director was how differently they prepared as actors. “Hrithik is extremely meticulous,” says Zoya. “He takes nothing for granted. He’ll come and discuss every aspect of his role with me. He wants a lot of input and he’s such a fine actor that if I ask him to tweak just one word in a monologue, he’ll do it and make it seem completely different. Abhay is just the opposite. He’s quite mad and is a very, very spontaneous actor. He just shoots from the hip. Farhan actually needed the least guidance from me as he translated the dialogues from English to Hindi for the film, so he knew the script inside out.”

But the actors say the way they prepare depends a lot on the script and what it calls for. “Different parts call for different preparation,” says Farhan. “I prepared very differently for Karthik Calling Karthik versus Rock On!!. For KCK, it was an alien world for me, so I had to learn a lot about schizophrenia and gradually understood the mindset of the character, what his mannerisms and body language would be. With Rock On!!, we made it a point that everyone actually learned to play the instruments and the four of us would go and jam with Ehsaan and Loy in the studio. When Ehsaan asked me to write the song we sing in the jeep, to me that was an extension of my character and I agreed. Everywhere I went, I took my guitar and I would even go to my friends’ homes and play. I started feeling like a musician. Sometimes I get so engrossed in the character’s world that I feel possessed. I find it very difficult to separate myself from that process. I know people who can do it. To me, it all gets a bit blurred. But in Zindagi…, I was me, so it was a lot of fun to do.”

Abhay was clear that as this film was a buddy movie, he wanted to focus on getting along with the others and having a good time together even off-camera. His acting methods created a bit of a stir at first on set as, unlike Hrithik and Farhan, Abhay doesn’t believe in much prior preparation and often improvises with dialogue on the spot. “Farhan and Hrithik would make fun of me, because I’d say silly things like, which scene are we doing today, and it would be five minutes before the shoot. Even Zoya nervously asked me one time if I was okay. But what’s important is, they saw that that’s how I work and were really supportive,” he says, grinning.

Abhay had to prepare for his character in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye though, because the accent was alien to him. “When the characters are more urban like in Dev D or Zindagi…, you don’t have to research them. But in Oye Lucky, I had to sit with someone who is from the area to understand the background of the people there and the way they talk. Anyway, my memory is so bad, if I learn my dialogue beforehand, I will forget it, so I may as well learn it on the spot.”

At the other end of the spectrum are Hrithik’s methods. He’s almost self-effacing when he insists that he’s not a very good actor and cannot improvise and be spontaneous and hence only accepts a role if he can relate to it. “I really need to identify with a character and bring my own experiences and feelings into it as I draw lot from my personal life when I’m acting,” he says. “When I was reading the script of Guzaarish, I had just seriously injured my knee. The doctors had given me a year of being able to use it, after which they said I’d lead a sedentary life. I used to have these heartbreaking dreams of my sons being 15 and not being able to teach them football or cycling. So I completely identified with the script,” he said.

Then, once his identification process is complete, the next part, which he calls an actor’s greatest ammunition, is information gathering. “The journey to know about the character. After which I sometimes lock myself up in a room for days and just sit and think and write down what I feel are the memories and thoughts of the character. Especially for a film like Guzaarish, it was very important for my character to have memories, so I had to create these memories for him. Once you have that, when the director calls action, you can draw from so many places and your mind is filled with so much information that you don’t need to think ‘how shall I say the dialogue,’ it just comes naturally.”

Not only are the three actors different in their approaches, their concept of the hero and what attracts them to a role in the first place is diametrically opposite. Hrithik, who struggled his entire childhood with an incorrectly formed spine and was constantly ridiculed for his second thumb and stammer, is drawn to roles where he plays a superhero, where the character has to overcome insurmountable obstacles and emerge triumphant. “Doctors didn’t think that with a genetic deformity in my spine I could ever act, much less dance, but I did. Joining the film industry, for me, was the scariest thing to do. I knew with my spinal problems, my stammer and extra thumb, I just didn’t have the tools to do it. But the more I thought about staying away from it, the more drawn I got to it. The decision to transform yourself and change your circumstances often starts off with one simple decision in your head. It’s like a Rubik’s cube, it’s just about opening the lock in your head. It may seem impossible but there is always a way. And because of my experiences, I am drawn to characters who go through a huge emotional graph but go on to achieve the impossible.”

Abhay, on the other hand, runs in the opposite direction from larger-than-life heroes. “It doesn’t attract me at all. Besides, I wouldn’t look good doing it because if I’m not convinced, I couldn’t convince an audience.” He loves roles where the hero is the common man. “Right from the start, I liked to play characters that are relatable, and anyone who is relatable, will not be larger-than-life. They will be tangible, real. So when it comes to my definition of a hero, it’s never the classic Bollywood muscle man who beats up a lot of guys and wins the girl. It’s the regular Joe, about whom there is nothing special, but as the plot unfolds you realise he is a real hero because he triumphs over something. It could be a little thing or something big. That triumph in itself, of facing obstacles and coming through, becomes the heroism of that character. He doesn’t do it with strength of muscle, but with the strength of his mind, his perseverance and conviction. That has always attracted me and dictated my choice of films,” he says.

In Farhan’s case, he tends to pick roles where he plays the anti-hero. In KCK, he played a schizophrenic. In Luck By Chance, he played a struggling actor who cheats on his long-term girlfriend and in Rock On!! he played a dysfunctional man who was completely emotionally out of touch with himself and his wife. The more complex and layered the character, the more exciting he finds it. And even though his family couldn’t be more mainstream Bollywood, it doesn’t affect his film choices. “I’m not going to choose roles based on whose kid I am,” he says. “I let my heart and my instinct dictate my choices.”

While Abhay and Farhan’s choice of film roles have been avant-garde, Abhay believes his future films will be even riskier. “I’d like to think I am part of a small group of individuals who are at the forefront of bringing about change in Hindi cinema. My fear, however, is that by the time the industry changes and matures, we will be too old and unable to be part of films that are going the distance. I find a lot of fear and insecurity in this industry and for me those kinds of insecurities can’t feature into my work because then I wouldn’t push the envelope. I want to go the distance so every artist from the film industry would look at my work and go, ‘wow, why didn’t I think of that’.”

Farhan has an exciting year ahead with Don 2 releasing at the end of 2011. His lifelong fascination with the character is being quenched now that he’s finished the sequel. “I was just in love with the movie and innocently and foolishly thought it would be so cool to remake it. I had no idea that I would incite such extreme reactions,” he says, chuckling at his own innocent assumption that the whole world of die-hard Amitabh Bachchan fans would be as excited about a Don remake. “I was also excited to show it to Amitabhji and he really got into the new end.”

As for Hrithik, who is currently working on Karan Johar’s Agneepath, he cannot envisage a world where he will ever hang up his acting boots. “The idea is to always be in service. I am in service to my filmmakers, to my fans, to my children, to God. I’m a labourer, I’m a worker and this is my occupation. It gives me a means to an end. When you start thinking, ‘I have made it, I am a superstar and now I’m invincible’, growth stops. As long as you look at yourself as having accomplished nothing, you will always keep evolving and that way you will never grow old,” he says.

Whatever their individual approaches, styles and choice of films, the one common thread that binds the three of them is a passion for creating film history and living life to the fullest, which is exactly the spirit and message of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. In their own way, each wants to change the parameters. Farhan says, “I want to do extremely challenging roles and try things that have never been tried before and I’m not going to live my life a certain way or follow a certain path just because people expect me to.” Abhay seconds that. “My dream is to be remembered as someone who took chances and gave it his all.” And Hrithik sums it up for all of them when he says, “Life is really about just sunrise to sunset. The idea is to wake up raring to go and push yourself to the limit to do the very best you can. That should be your life’s goal. Everything else is just an illusion.”