Starting with making documentaries, Kabir Khan has come a long way as a filmmaker. Though only five feature films old, Khan has already made a mark in Bollywood and he doesn’t swear by the tried-and-tested formula for commercial success. More importantly, he is the only director to explore the India-Pakistan relations in most of his films—from Ek Tha Tiger, Bajrangi Bhaijaan to the recently released Phantom, which stars Saif Ali Khan and Katrina Kaif in the lead. The only exceptions were Kabul Express, his debut, and New York.
While Ek Tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhaijaan went on to become blockbusters, the box office fate of Phantom, which released on August 28, is yet to be decided. Phantom is about a covert operation that Research and Analysis Wing undertakes to kill the masterminds of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Considering its storyline, Phantom did create great buzz among moviegoers. It, however, was banned in Pakistan, following a petition by Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the attack.
“I absolutely expected some kind of reaction,” says Kabir Khan, as Ek Tha Tiger had also been banned in Pakistan. Saif’s Agent Vinod and Yash Chopra’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan, too, had been banned. “We were aware that the moment we put a political backdrop to the film, it may not make it to Pakistan,” he says. “But what took us all by surprise is that even before we could send the film to the censor board over there, it was banned because one of the most wanted terrorists in this part of the world—Hafiz Saeed—went and filed a petition in Lahore High Court. And, it is on the basis of his petition that Phantom got banned. It is sort of a surreal situation because 50 countries are demanding a ban on his organisation [Jamaat-ud-Dawa], including the United Nations, but his organisation is not getting banned. And, our film got banned. So it is quite amusing.”
Another controversy that kept Phantom in the news was the delay in its release. Initially, the action thriller was supposed to hit the screens in April but the makers ended up pushing it to August. There was too much speculation over the postponement: some media reports claimed that Kabir wasn’t confident about his project, some others suggested that he was waiting for Bajrangi Bhaijaan to release first.
Kabir says there was no such “dramatic” reason behind the delay. “The simple reason was that we were supposed to come out on April 3, but sometime in February UTV decided to shift it to August 28 because one of their other films—Jagga Jasoos—shifted and vacated the date. Also, it was a better weekend as it was rakhi.”
The idea for a film on 26/11 came three years ago, and the inspiration from S. Hussain Zaidi’s book Mumbai Avengers. “In 2012, when was I busy with Ek Tha Tiger, Hussain told me about the book that he was going to write,” says Kabir. “He told me that it was going be about a counterterrorist operation in the backdrop of 26/11 attacks and I thought it would be interesting material to make a film on. And, that’s how Phantom happened.”
But, he says, the film is not entirely based on the book. “Only the basic idea from the book has been taken into consideration. The characters are totally different in the film. The screenplay which unfolds is different from the book. But yes, the film and the book are similar in the spirit,” says Kabir.
Apart from taking the unconventional route, Kabir is known for walking the extra mile. For Phantom, the filmmaker took his team to war zone Beirut to shoot some important sequences. “You know, I have always liked shooting in real locations and that’s because of my documentary background. For me, it is important that the film should look authentic,” he says. “So Beirut was one place where we shot the film. I went there and met a few people. Of course, it is a difficult place to shoot. And, apart from Beirut, we were also shooting around the border with Syria, where the civil war was on. I went there a couple of months in advance and when I figured out that there would be security and it would be safe to shoot, we decided to go ahead and shoot there.”
When Bajrangi Bhaijaan released in July, Kabir was applauded in Pakistan as well as India. But with Phantom, things took a drastic turn. For Kabir, however, what matters is the subject, rather than the reaction it generates. “I think we have to approach the subject the way we want to and not really be thinking about if the film will get banned or not,” he says. “Yes, there has to be a holistic approach because India-Pakistan relations are very complicated. But when there is people-to-people contact, I have always maintained that it would be warm and friendly. However, when politics comes into it, problems arise.”
The reception to Bajrangi Bhaijaan was favourable because it is set in a utopian world, away from all the politics; it was about common people. But Phantom, he says, takes a more realistic approach and deals with the establishments that support and sponsor terrorist elements. “For me, Phantom is a reflection of public conscience in India and the way we think every time there is a terrorist attack,” he says. “There is a sense of despair, frustration and anger about when we will be able to avenge these attacks. I found the same reflection in Hussain’s book and that’s another reason why I decided to make this film.”
But why the fixation with India and Pakistan? “I think because of my documentary background, I have attempted to put a real context to all my films. At the end of the day, the story is about a human character, but I always try and put a real political context,” explains Kabir. “Fortunately or unfortunately, the times we are living in are dominated by India-Pakistan hostility and the equation that these two countries share. So I think in some shape of form, that’s what comes into my films. It is not a thought-out plan or I didn’t start my career thinking let’s make a trilogy on India-Pakistan. But I think it just has shaped up like that.”
Kabir has a tended to repeat his actors. While he has worked with Salman Khan in two films so far, Phantom is his third collaboration with Katrina Kaif. “See, there is of course a reason why one should work with an actor again. You share a comfortable equation with them and they become good friends. So if there is a suitable role then you would probably offer it to them first, but that doesn’t mean that every role will go to them,” he says. This is why, he says, he offered Kareena Kapoor Bajrangi Bhaijaan; he thought she was more appropriate for the role. “But, in Phantom, I felt the role was more suited for Katrina. So, I offered it to her. Even with Salman, I have worked twice and we share a comfortable equation. So if there is something appropriate, then I would offer it to him first, before going to anyone else,” he says.
Films, for now, will take a back seat as Kabir plans to take a well-deserved break. “I was shooting for two films back-to-back for the last two and a half years,” he says. “Hence, I need to take some time off and get some clarity. So there is nothing in the cards except a nice long holiday.”