AK vs AK writer Avinash Sampath decodes film's hybrid genre, and how the screenplay evolved over six years
AK vs AK was always intended as primarily a thriller. I don't think we were on a high horse about showing a mirror to anyone,' says Avinash Sampath.
The world might be reeling from being homebound for a majority of last year, but Avinash Sampath does not sound particularly perturbed. His screenwriting debut AK vs AK released on Netflix India on 24 December, 2020, and good wishes have not stopped pouring in.
Connecting on video call, he tells me about his journey from Chennai, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Dubai, to finally settling in Amsterdam, where he has been living for nearly a decade now. Studying visual communication at Loyola college (Pushkar-Gayathri of Vikram Vedha-fame and Thiagarajan Kumararajan of Super Deluxe-fame are his juniors), Sampath made his foray into advertising. "I think until our batch, we did whatever we did, but the subsequent batches really took to film. One of the options after that course, would be to move towards film. But I came out of wanting to be a copywriter," he says.
Moving to Bengaluru for his first job, it took him three agencies and four cities to start getting disillusioned about his professional life. "There comes a time in advertising, where you're in boardrooms talking about it rather than doing the actual work," he says. It is during this period that he started jotting down ideas for possible scripts. Only after he started his advertising agency Lovely in 2011 that he really found time to start working on his "crazy" ideas. "It's a two-person agency. I work out of Amsterdam; my work partner is Swedish, and he works out of Ibiza (Spain). It's an agency run on Skype so we've been essentially living the COVID lifestyle for almost a decade."
It is around this time that Phantom Films also emerged as Hindi cinema's "new-age" production house, probably bold enough to even consider Sampath's idea. Starting out as AK vs SK in 2014, when Shahid Kapoor was in Anil Kapoor's place, Sampath's dream finally came to fruition when Vikramaditya Motwane's Andolan Films and Netflix India joined hands.
Below are edited excerpts of a conversation with debutante screenwriter Avinash Sampath on the rollercoaster of bringing his first script to screen.
What was the germ of the idea for AK vs AK?
This idea had been brewing in my head since 2009-10, but it was only in 2014 that I sent a five-pager to the folks at Phantom. It had a beginning, middle, and end but it was a completely different story at that point. It had the same premise — director kidnaps the wife/daughter of an actor, and then casts him in the movie. And the fun for the audience was — are they watching a film or the film that the director is making in the film? You would blur the lines, where you see the actor talking to their daughter, who is the actual daughter. But then you hear 'cut,' and you don't know if it was a scene or he was actually talking to his daughter.
The mid-point was that the woman behind the camera ('crazy chick' as we called her then) had the upper hand in the whole scheme because she had kidnapped the parents of the director too, and made him the fall-guy for the whole thing. I had a whole bunch of endings in the original story — one where the girl comes out on top. There was a version where these are a bunch of 21-year-old film school students, and how far would they go to break into the film industry.
The initial plan was that the search would be spread out over three days, and it had a lot more complexities. It felt like a plot, where there's no end to improvisation. For example, what if the next task would take you to another celebrity's house, and they were busy in the middle of something else.
I sent the five pages, and all I knew at that point was that it would need a real director kidnapping someone close to a real actor. And it would make more sense in a place like India, because we love our celebrities. We put them on a pedestal for no good reason.
The commentary on stardom — was that theme you wanted to tackle from the beginning?
I came to it quite linearly. I haven't studied screenwriting. So I just came at it swinging, thinking this is the craziest idea I have. And coming back to that thing that I knew this needed a real director. Now, the thing is we don't know most of our directors by face. Very few directors are popular. At the same time, there's the believability of this that here's a director who is mad enough to do something as absurd as this shit! Off the bat, I think I knew this would have to be Anurag Kashyap. If there was something that was set in stone even at the five-pager level, it was Anurag Kashyap. Which is why I even sent the pitch to Phantom, so that one part of this puzzle would be fixed, sooner than later. Fortunately for me, the guys at Phantom wrote back within seven to 10 days. I never wrote this thinking Vik (Vikramaditya Motwane) would want to direct it. I just sent it saying, "Here's an idea, but Anurag Kashyap will have to act in it. What do you guys think?"
So Vikram has always been in the picture?
Yeah, Vikram said he wanted to direct it. Hand on heart, once Vikram came on board, he took care of everything. He convinced Anurag Kashyap. I only kinda sorta knew Vik at that point, but once he brought Anurag on board, he told me to write a screenplay. I ended up writing the screenplay. It took its own fair share of twists and turns on its way to Mumbai, and Vikram at some point had decided that it would be Shahid (Kapoor) in the role of the actor.
This was around 2014, right?
Yeah, 2014. I spent a week in Mumbai, and that's when we realised that it needed to be tighter. We understood that it couldn't be this long drawn-out affair, there had to be a clock they would be running against. Why are AK and SK (at that time) fighting, what was the grudge against each other? It was kinda brave of Anurag, who had just directed Bombay Velvet. It was around then the film had come out, and it had tanked. So how it was supposed to begin then, was that Anurag bumping into Shahid at the wrap party of Bombay Velvet, when he's riding high on the adrenaline of what he considers is the greatest thing to happen to Hindi cinema. Then they get into an argument about what does he know about cinema. And then a week later... it tanked so badly.
I remember the 'demise' of Bombay Velvet. How everyone was writing obituaries within three days of the release.
True. And then they started shooting this film. The only thing I heard after that was that they had shot for a couple of days, after which the dates collided, and they had to stop. I was really excited at that point — first movie about to come out, everything seems to be falling into place. This was in 2015, and I'm like... this (a feature film debut) is the easiest thing in the world, and then poof! The whole thing crashes. And it ends with me back in my bedroom, walking around in circles, trying to think whether I'm a writer or not.
At that point, the film was pretty much shelved. Vik had moved on to Sacred Games, and it was lying dead, in all of our bottom drawers for a good three years after that. I was completely disillusioned, and was trying to chip away at something else. Then in August 2019, I heard from Vikram where he was like — why don't we do this with Anil Kapoor? Then Vikram came around to Amsterdam, where we spent a week trying to rewrite the whole thing. We figured it would need a different grudge, and we chanced upon the history behind Allwyn Kalicharan, which would be the Bombay Velvet here. I don't think we intended to write this as a comedy. I think it was always meant to be a thriller. But the comedy emerged out of our tendency to put actors on a pedestal. Why the film was interesting at that point, was that person's worst day, and the fact that we meet that person becomes our best day, was what was the heart of the film.
How do you ensure that the core idea does not become dated?
Luckily, no one made something similar in the last five years.
It would be horrible to probably call it a 'timeless' idea, but it's an idea you could have executed in the '60s, or even 20 years from now! We haven't lost our love for our celebrities. In fact, it might have even gotten better 2014. We're all so deep in social media.
We know exactly what Anil Kapoor wears for lunch, dinner. Anurag Kashyap's Twitter persona in the last five years, if anything, has only further amped up the drama.
What are the challenges of writing meta-fiction? Do you rein yourself at any point? Or do you let it run wild?
We genuinely never used the word 'meta' while writing the film, but it seems like I've heard the word more than ever, since the trailer dropped. I guess it's easier for the audience to box a film in a genre. Even then, I would maintain that it's actually a thriller first. We understood that it couldn't have a straightforward climax. We had to pull the rug from underneath the audience. We figured what if the story's seeming victim turns out to be the perpetrator. So this was Anurag's film, which Anil took over at some point. At what point do you start confusing Anurag to keep even the viewer interested — that was something we had to figure out.
The way I read Anil coming out on top is — how stars tend to sabotage the projects of these indie filmmakers. Was that something you had intended?
No, not really. It was always a simple, straightforward — 'who is more important? A star director or a star?' The last scene in the film where Anil comes to the hospital and says, "Anil Kapoor has been a star for 40 years, and will always be," and he goes "Cut." Initially, there was something along the lines of "Dude, am I the actor and you're the director? Or am I the director and you're my actor?" and *cut*. And that's how Anurag pieces it together in his head. Frankly, it's about how relevant anyone is in this world. Anil Kapoor is trying to relive the glory he once enjoyed, Anurag is perennially seeking relevance, Harsh (Harshvardhan Kapoor)... everyone is seeking their own moment in the limelight.
Were you ever tempted to make it into a full-blown mockumentary, holding a mirror to Bollywood and the country?
This was always intended to be a thriller. There's obviously the realisation that this won't be just the dark thriller that we initially intended. It's only after we began fleshing out scenes that we saw the humour. Like when you tell an actor their relative being kidnapped, the first thing they will do is go to the cops. You put a celebrity in a police station, that scene writes itself. I don't think we tried to write a comedy. It's just completely incidental. It all ends with a selfie with the star. I don't think we were on a high horse about showing a mirror to anyone.
One of the reviews picked up on this thing — how the film begins with Anil Kapoor saluting the Indian flag, probably meant to be a dig at the patriotic films these days.
I wish I had that much depth. The short answer is no. The only people it intended to take potshots at is Anil roasting Anurag, and Anurag shooting back at Anil. That's the start and end. If anything, there just happened to be a production designer who had a helicopter set. We just shot in that, which led to a series of choices. Even the controversy that emerged out of it, hand on heart, we didn't mean to offend anyone.
Yeah, that was silly...
A friend of mine, his father was in the air force. So I told him, "Listen, this thing has taken a twist. Please tell him that we didn't intend to hurt anyone's feelings." As it turns out, that the friend's father watched the film and recommended it to my friend. That was the only ending I could have hoped for.
In a movie like this — you can either go full gonzo or you can fully stage the whole thing. AK vs AK seems like a hybrid of the two styles. What was the vision going in?
Off the bat, I knew this would be a single-camera film. My one-line pitch was — "How far would a filmmaker go to make the most 'real' thriller," which was the logline, and it was also a lie... which we understand by the end of the film. The more we started discussing it, we also considered it to be a livestream on dark web, where people comment on who should kill whom... you've seen those kind of movies! We considered that like you know Anurag is livestreaming the film in real time to some of his devoted fan clubs somewhere, who are also characters of their own, but then we found that it was becoming too complex and indulgent.
Until then, the film (within the film) was called AK vs AK, but once we figured out the ending, we knew that this was going to be a different film. Anil is making it, and he is going to bring this out as a product. Hence the title, 'Once upon a time in Bollywood.' Once we knew that film was a different film in AK vs AK, that one is completely single camera. It's like putting brackets in the script. Once he pulls the trigger, he realises that he shouldn't have done this. Yogita (Bihani) puts the camera on the table and helps Anurag out. Technically, that's the end of 'Once Upon a Time in Bollywood.' In that film, Anurag is the villain, Anil is the hero. It's only in AK vs AK we realise that Anil is both the hero and the villain, while Anurag is collateral damage.
There is that great scene of Anil performing on stage. What was the genesis of that scene?
I think this film is majorly about the 'hero' wanting something, and he's asking the least person likely to help him — the general public. So people are constantly asking him for autographs and selfies, then you go to the hotel where the manager asks Anil to tweet about the hotel. Then he's going to a taxi driver, who asks him for his watch. In fact, we thought of having a scene where Harsh goes INSAAAF, and shortly after that, he goes back to the taxi driver and asks for the watch. I think the film is, also in terms of set pieces, in two halves. The first half is Anil's world, the lavish vanity van, the posh hotel, his house, and we see him as a true-blue Kapoor, living his best life. Then the second half is running you through the mud, which we associate more with Anurag Kashyap's movies. But Anil comes back, and tells Anurag that he's from f*cking Chembur. He's like, "Anurag, you're not the only guy who has slept on streets and struggled. We've all done it." Which is why Anil is fully game to put himself through the streets. And coming back to the scene, since we had taken so much from him... and there was this set-up of a community Christmas party... the initial plan wasn't to make him dance... but since we had a ready stage, musicians and the lights, we figured we might as well make him dance. That kind of is the essence of the film — the audience controls the power and its love for a star.
All images from Twitter.
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