There’s a scene in Vikramaditya Motwane’s new film, AK vs AK, where actor Harshvardhan Kapoor, playing himself, chases filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, who is also playing a version of himself, for a role that can wipe away the memories of his collaboration with Motwane himself—Bhavesh Joshi Superhero. “There’s no one the film does not take potshots at,” laughs Motwane.
AK vs AK is unsparing in the way it sends up everyone and everything—its director, the two heroes, Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap, other assorted characters around them, the Hindi film industry itself and its idiosyncratic ways, Taapsee Pannu, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Karan Johar, and even the Toms—Cruise, Hanks and Hardy. The only one who wins the day is the assistant director, the “AD”, otherwise one of the most overworked and exploited entities on a Bollywood film set.
The film is about the clash of a senior actor—Kapoor—and an arrogant, self-obsessed director—Kashyap—who kidnaps the actor’s daughter—Sonam Kapoor playing herself—to attempt something uniquely creative. In his own words, it’s “the first realistic film with a superstar not directed by Shyam Benegal”. On the other hand, the actor, who grew up in a modest home in Mumbai suburb, decides to channel his “andar ka Chembur (the street-smart Chembur ways within him) to take on the director.
The film, as well as the film within it, make for a lark, especially if you are familiar with contemporary Bollywood facts, such as how back in 2007 Kashyap was supposed to make Allwyn Kalicharan with Kapoor till the project came undone. Kashyap, also the dialogue-writer of the film, pens some snarky lines. Some early sequences—the Dindoshi Police Station scene and another at Kapoor’s own home—are superbly realised. It does lose the plot and steam a bit towards the climax, but what keeps making you chuckle is the fun Kashyap appears to be having in the film at the expense of the trolls he attracts for his outspoken anti-establishment way on social media. His character plays their perception of who he is and that makes it quite a riot.
Newsclick caught up with director Motwane on the making of the mockumentary a few days before it dropped on Netflix. Excerpts:
AK vs AK is the most fun film from you so far. It seems you had a ball at the shoot.
Despite the slightly darker mood towards the end, there’s a persistent mocking tone which makes one chuckle right to the end.
That was the whole approach, whether from the writing or acting perspective. Anil [Kapoor] and Anurag [Kashyap] were like, let us go and have a lot of fun, create a world which is very new and fresh, but fairly complex. But let us not over-complexify it.
Then there’s the form: the mockumentary and the ‘meta’ bit—of mockumentary within mockumentary. I was thinking of This is Spinal Tap?
Not to brag, but I don’t think I have seen a film like this. Not only is there this bit about what is fiction and what is reality; you are also taking real people as movie stars. Real stars playing a version of themselves, but at the end of it that is really not the reality because of what happens to Anurag in the film. The way we approached it while shooting was that the motion picture world that we were shooting at the beginning and end of the film—that was reality. The rest of it was fiction. It was very difficult to define it while shooting. It was in my head—that the cinema bits are real but the mockumentary is not.
The key idea of [writer] Avinash [Sampath] was that a filmmaker will shoot something in real-time and turn that into his next movie. We kept it as a key part of what we were trying to achieve. What is fantasy, what is reality? Sometimes, even we don’t know.
It’s a ringside view of contemporary Bollywood that people like us are familiar with. How did you visualise it for people who may not be in the know of these things?
We were very lucky to have wrapped up the film shoot on February 27. Otherwise, so many scenes would have been impossible—the dance on stage, the chase sequences... All the post-production was during COVID times. Normally, you edit a film and call in twenty people in your office at the same time and you throw it up in the air. During COVID this is very difficult, other than your crew that is seeing it. It is [also] very difficult to send it out to people. You never get that collective viewing. Luckily, I have family living in the same building, and we created our own little bubble. Towards June-July, when I was locking the edit, I would call them in and show them the film. And these are not filmi people.
For example, the MAMI [Mumbai Film Festival] scene is an eight-minute-long scene [at the start]. For filmi people like us, you don’t need it to be that long. You’ll get the gist in two minutes. But I kept it long because I thought that if someone has no idea who these people are, I need to establish it from the outset in a cold sort of way: That’s an established actor who is a big movie star. That’s the director who has gone and p****d off a few people in his life. This is just one fight they had, so even if you don’t know who they are, you are just setting up the problem between two people. When I tried, it worked for people. They were more confused about what is reality and what is fiction, but by the time they got half-way through, they were in it. They were flying with it.
Once you set up the conflict between protagonist A and protagonist B early, it doesn’t matter if it is Anurag Kashyap or Anil Kapoor, a movie star or a director. They just see it as a conflict between two people which plays out in the rest of the film. So, hopefully, people will come in from the cold and enjoy the movie for what it is. Yes, of course, if you know Anurag, you know Anil, you know the nuances and the history, then obviously there is a lot more to be gleaned.
There are so many seeming coincidences here. The film takes place on Xmas eve, which is also Anil Kapoor’s birthday. It has dropped on Netflix on the same date. So, you worked your way around the dates?
It was a coincidence. We shot the film thinking we will come out with it when we can. Just before the lockdown, I remember speaking to Netflix and they were like ‘what if we come with it on his birthday in December?’. You normally associate Xmas with tentpole movies and my reaction was ‘oh, I have made a tentpole film’. The date was 24 December, but when the lockdown started, we wondered if we should bring it on earlier. We decided to stick with that date which I think was a good call. It’s another meta thing in an already meta film.
I think, in retrospect, the promotions also fit in with the meta and mock nature of the film.
Another thought we had was, if we are releasing the film on 24 December 2020, then should we set the film on 24 December 2020. We all thought about it for a day and felt that people will get a headache if that actually happens. Let’s not go into ‘you are watching this live or this happened today or yesterday’. We thought it would get too much, so we let that go.
Coming to Anil Kapoor, have you been a fan of his?
In the eighties, you grew up with Anil Kapoor. It was Amitabh Bachchan and then Anil Kapoor and after that you gave up on Bollywood. Ram Lakhan, Parinda...I think especially these two films...And Mr India, of course. These three films towards the end of the eighties were very, very influential. We were making this film as AK vs SK with Shahid [Kapur] initially in 2015 and then it fell apart. Then, Avinash and I decided to rewrite it with Anil Kapoor in mind and I think that it was an excellent call because of the way it literally falls into place. Amazing about it is the way it is set up at MAMI initially—each one is telling the other that he is over the hill and it is for each of them to prove that they are not.
The end of the film is like, here’s the climax, and there’s a twist in the tale. Whether that twist matters or not is entirely up to you when you are watching it. It was more about the fact that you are over the hill and you have to prove that you are not. In a certain way, the film is telling you, “I can dance, I can do action, I can do emotion, I can do drama, I can do comedy, I can do everything that any other actor can do at this age.” And I think that’s exactly what Anil does. What’s wonderful with him is his lack of insecurity to say that ‘ok I can be the butt of jokes. I can take jokes and I can dish them out as well’.
We shot the film in fifteen days, doing six to eight pages a day. That was because both Anil and Anurag were so prepped. We did rehearsals, so when we were shooting, we were doing single takes and just running with them. They were hitting it out of the park. Anil gets that perfect balance between filmi and realistic. At no point did I ever feel when I was watching the rushes that he was out of the moment or ‘acting’, and I think that shows a lack of insecurity. Just giving in and playing it. I had a blast working with him.
The scene at the cop station is where you see the vintage Anil Kapoor of Ram Lakhan. Otherwise, he is in a realistic zone. How do you unschool an actor who comes from a certain school of acting?
That is his personality. When you talk to him or meet him, you find that he carries the larger-than-life persona unabashedly. There is no different Anil Kapoor in person and on screen. He is that guy. He is who he is. He embraces it. So, at no point does one have to tell him that you are not playing a different person. He asked me what is the key he has to keep in his head. And I told him the key is ‘this is the worst day of my life’. That’s what he went with, but using that personality. He has been doing this for years. When he goes to a police station, he has to play Anil Kapoor. He can’t play an average person because that’s what they are expecting in a certain way. He will have to be a bit of the star. That came very naturally. We brought those bits of his life and brought in the drama—that you are now part of the story. There was quite a bit of trial and error in the pitch we hit: How serious do you get, how filmi do you get?
How is Anurag as an actor? I was taken in by the satirical pitch. His character is like the trolls’ imagination of Anurag. He is constantly taking potshots at himself on their behalf.
He is the dialogue-writer, and in a way responsible for bashing himself. He is another person who is completely secure. He is not insecure about taking potshots at himself. I have to at times cut some bits he is writing because he and I can get the reference that others won’t. He is a fabulous actor and I think he relished the idea of playing the trolls’ vision of himself. When it counts, specially towards the last third of the film, he is fantastic. He is fantastic in the climactic scene in the warehouse. He went beyond what was on the page. He is actually a great actor which I saw for the first time in that one narration scene he does in Luck by Chance with Rishi Kapoor. He told me that he came to Bombay to be an actor. He was in theatre so it [acting] is already part of his DNA. He was waiting for this part, to be able to play himself.
The Kapoor family—I thought Boney and Harshvardhan came together really well. You didn’t get Sunita Kapoor [Anil Kapoor’s wife]?
I really wanted Sunita and Rhea [Anil Kapoor’s daughter] to be part of the film. There was a scene written with them in mind. Both begged me to not put them in front of the camera. They are happy behind the camera. In the scene [with Boney] I needed a figure of authority, someone who would be able to control the room. [I learnt later that] Boney actually started off wanting to be an actor. Achal Kapoor was his screen-name right at the beginning. He was more than happy to play the part [in AK vs AK] and I think he did really well. The cameo was written for Harsh and I think he was quite terrific