“The producers would come back to me and say that I needed to get a man or a hero to get into the film,” reveals director Nikhil Nagesh Bhat as he talks about his latest release Apurva. The film starring Tara Sutaria, Dhairya Karwa, Rajpal Naurang Yadav, and Abhishek Banerjee is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. In an exclusive chat, Bhat also opens up about film’s casting, his filmmaking journey and his next release Kill.
You wrote the script of Apurva more than a decade ago. Why did it take you so long to make the film?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat: I wrote it somewhere around 2009-10. And during that time, it was very difficult to get a film made with a woman as a protagonist. So, that was one big challenge. Three years after that, then came The Dirty Picture, Kahaani, and Queen. And then people started making films that had women as protagonists. But when I’d written, it was very difficult. The second thing was that the producers would come back to me and say that I needed to get a man or a hero to get into the film.
As a savior?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat: Yeah. And I was dead against that. I would wait for as many years as possible, but I will not do that because this is the story of Apurva who is facing those challenges and she has to stand up for herself. And she’s going to get herself out of this situation. It cannot be any other savior.
So, it took so much of time. Then in 2015, if I’m not mistaken, NH 10 came. When NH 10 came, the setting was similar and the fact was it was again a woman and a protagonist and a very well-made film. And more so the producers would not see the difference between a revenge story and a survival story. They would just keep looking at it from one point of view as if it’s just a woman-centric film and she’s in extreme circumstances, in extreme situations, and that’s what she’s doing, even this and even that.
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And I would come back to them and say all romantic films where a boy meets a girl, they fall in love and they have a problem and they’re all similar. Why are you not looking at it from that point of view? Or all superhero films, all superheroes in the world. So, why this discrimination when it comes to a woman who is being a protagonist?
And thankfully, then Murad Khetani from Cine 1 and Disney+ Hotstar saw the merit in the film. And not even once did they say that it was similar to that film. Even Akanksha Ashit, who is the creative producer of the film was very gung-Ho about the film. And I’m so blessed and I’m so thankful that they saw the merit in the film and that’s how the film got made.
Did your faith in the script get shaken at any point of time in these 14 years? Did you feel really down that, okay, I might have to compromise?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat: No. As filmmakers, we are so much in love with the script and with the subject that it’s very disheartening to change our thoughts. I knew that I would not be able to do justice to the film. If I have to make a film just because I want to make a film, and I should change it, then the core reason behind making the film gets defeated.
You said in an interview that people who commit these crimes look like ordinary people. So, how do you approach casting known faces for these parts?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat: I used to do casting way back when I used to assist ad filmmaker Abhinay Deo. And I learned over there during the casting time that if you can surprise people with your casting, your job is half done.
As for criminals, actually, they’re savages, they do not look like savages. There is nothing on their faces to look like savages. It’s their act, which makes them savages. They’re very ordinary-looking people. And the moment you have an extremely ordinary-looking person, you cannot predict their moves.
If there’s a person who is looking devilish, you know that he’s going to commit a devilish crime. But if you’re looking at a person who looks like a normal person, you are not expecting him to do such a heinous thing. And I believe that when people are good-looking or innocent-looking or people who do humour, the moment they turn a leaf, they will look very ferocious. In the history of Hindi film history, we never had a more ferocious villain than Pran Saab. And he was a good-looking, charming guy. And that’s where it comes from. It’s like an innocent person can be extremely devilish.
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What about Tara made you cast her as Apurva?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat: I wanted someone who would look vulnerable, who would look innocent, who would look weak and pretty, and a person who could not pose any threat to these four guys. And that is the reason why she gets picked up, because she’s not posing any threat. She’s just pleading them when she’s getting picked up.
And that’s where the power they come from, because these people think that she’s just a woman to pick her up, have some fun on the side, and that’s about it. They had no other thought when they were picking her up. They never in their wildest dream had they imagined that she will become a threat to their life.
And for Apurva to have that transformation from a girl who is pleading to a woman who is making others plead for their lives was something which was very important. It needed to surprise people. That surprise was very, very important that you could believe that she could stand up.
You need to believe that she is a helpless person. And at the same time, you have to believe that she can stand up and she can pose a challenge, which Tara did amazingly well. When you watch the film you’ll realize that there’s a very slow, gradual transformation happening.
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There have been long gaps between your projects. How did you keep yourself going through that phase?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat: That period was extremely difficult and extremely testing. So, I made a film in 2008 called Saloon and that was made for a direct-to-satellite release. And if you remember 2008, the satellite market crashed. So, my film never got released on satellite. But it went to different festivals. It got awards and stuff like that. But it never got released. And when a film doesn’t get released, you go back and stand in the same line.
I was doing ad films before that, and I left ads when I started directing a feature film. And because I left that, it was a gap of one and a half years by the time we finished Saloon. I couldn’t go back to advertising and I couldn’t go back to being an assistant. It was very difficult because I had two more scripts with me. And I would take them to producers. But because I’m not a feature film, it wasn’t possible for anyone to have faith in me that I could make a feature film.
In those eight years what I did was I just kept writing and writing and writing. And thankfully, because of eight years of that trouble and emotionally and financially turbulent time, I have a lot of stories. I have stories that are going to last me for the next five years, at least. So, yeah, I utilized that time. And I poured out all my helplessness, rejection, and frustration on paper.
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But now things are looking good for you. Apurva has been released on Disney+ Hotstar. And we have been hearing good things about your next release Kill too. What stayed with you about Kill’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat: As a director, I’m constantly scrutinizing my work. So, we were traveling on the 6th of September. I was watching the film on the 3rd of September. And when I started watching the film, I started feeling, oh, my God, this is what I’m taking. This is what I’m taking. And I was extra scrutinizing the film. And I felt like the film would not be received well.
But on the 8th, when the first screening started, it started sinking in. And then the reaction started happening. It was a midnight madness at TIFF. The audience started watching the film at 12:15 in the night. And then they responded and they were so vocal about the film and they were chanting, screaming, shouting, and asking for more. It just was so overwhelming for me I can’t tell you. It was so overwhelming. And it just felt so nice that… When we set out to make the film we never knew that it was going to travel and it was going to get appreciated internationally.
I’m so blessed and so thankful to God that I could make that film the way I wanted to make that film thanks to amazing producers like Dharma Productions and Sikhya Entertainment. I’ve never done an action film before. And they put so much faith in me to do an all-out extreme action film. It just shows how visionary they are.