Kunal Kohli on his MXPlayer show Ramyug: Gave Ramayana an update with in-depth writing, VFX, visually appealing direction
Kunal Kohli says his retelling of Ramayana will connect people of all ages: 'With #Ramyug the whole family can watch something together again. '
Filmmaker Kunal Kohli, known for his coming-of-age romances like Hum Tum and Mujhse Dosti Karoge!, and Fanaa (one of the biggest hits of 2006), returns to direction after a gap of two years. His last project was romantic drama Phir Se (2018), which also marked his acting debut.
He makes his his digital debut with MXPlayer's Ramyug, an adaptation of the Ramayana. Kohli intends to give the current generation a dose of the tale, but in his own style.
Ramyug was announced as a feature film sometime in 2018. However, with theatres shut due to the pandemic, the director decided to release it on an OTT platform as a series. Kohli is not complaining. “Digital is the biggest platform today, and any platform that one chooses for one’s work, whether film or web series, the ultimate idea is to get a maximum number of people to watch it. With OTT we get a large audience and that is the ultimate goal."
“In theatres we talk about footfalls, we don’t necessarily go by collection – Rs 100 crore, 200 crore, 300 crore..it is about how many people watched your product. Our footfalls are our viewers and reaching the maximum number of people should be the ultimate goal,” he adds.
In his career so far, Kohli has worked with some of the biggest stars of the Indian industry. After his 2002 directorial debut with Mujhse Dosti Karoge! (starring Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor and Rani Mukerji), he went on to do three more films with Yash Raj Production, including Hum Tum, Fanaa and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. Most of his projects remained in the romance or the rom-com genre, but Kohli always nursed the desire to bring an ancient epic. And one of the biggest attractions for Kohli was the availability of best technology in narrating the story. Hence, it doesn’t bother him when asked how it will be different from so many other versions of the epic (especially Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan) since it has been adapted multiple times on celluloid, or small screen.
“Yes, the story of Rama has been retold by some of India's greatest writers both in Sanskrit and regional languages. I am honoured to have been able to breathe life into this narrative for younger audiences with the help of in-depth writing, VFX, visually appealing direction, editing and post-production efforts. With the use of technology one wanted to update Ramayana visually. Every filmmaker at any point of time whenever an epic has been made uses the best technology available at that time to enhance the narrative and that is what we have done. So the content and text is obviously the same and it is more about the use of the technology to enhance the storytelling. For example, if you have a chariot going across the air, it will go a little smoother. The visual effects look much more realistic as compared to done years back. It is like seeing your pictures today and those that you clicked 10 years back...” he explains.
Furthers, talking on what inspired him to direct the epic, he says, “We have all been connected to Ramayana in some way or the other since our childhood, whether it was a school play, or grandmother, or a parent narrating the story and reading comic books like Amar Chitra Katha which are so educative. Every time in life when you read it, it teaches you a lesson.”
Kohli may be known for his contemporary romances in the past but he found Ramayana as the most progressive story he has ever come across. “There’s no story more progressive and modern than Ramayana. We think of ourselves as progressive because we speak a certain language but those thoughts and ideas (of Ramayana), how could they be outdated?” he says.
While Kohli believes that it could be the right time to present Ramayana to the youth today, he also feels that the youth in all generations remain the same. “I don’t think the youth is in any way independent of anybody else, they are the same. They are what I was yesterday, or what my daughter will be tomorrow. We are all the same people; it is not that they watch something that you and I don’t watch. Youth watches exactly what we watch. They like exactly what we like with few changes here and there which are individual. Ramayana is a universal story that connects people of all ages and the beauty in these times is that we can have family viewing. There is an audience for every kind of show but it has become a very lonely thing. You are watching the show all by yourself, on your phone, on your app, laptop..each one is watching something different but with Ramyug the whole family can watch something together again,” he says.
“I too haven’t sat with my family for a long time. Sometimes I am watching something and my mother, or daughter walk in and I pause it. Or my daughter is watching something and I just sit with her for the sake of sitting with her,” he adds.
Kohli might have worked with some of the biggest stars like Aamir Khan, Kajol, Hrithik Roshan, Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan but he says he never considered any known face for Ramyug. He has chosen to keep most of its cast relatively new, however, there are actors like Tisca Chopra, Dalip Tahil and Anup Soni who play an important role in the web series. “I just wanted the audiences to see them as the characters they are playing. I didn’t want to see them as X, Y, Z stars. The characters are known to everybody so that’s why I wanted the actors performing them to start with a clean slate and have no baggage on them. And then we always say why we don’t give newcomers a chance. It is nice to have new talent come out,” says Kohli.
What also got Kohli immensely excited is collaborating with Amitabh Bachchan and Zakir Hussain for the rendition of Hanuman Chalisa. “I got goosebumps when I heard it for the first time,” he says excitedly. “This was the dream that Rahul Sharma and I had which finally got realised. I was sitting in Rahul’s music room, we worked the first time in Mujhse Dosti Karoge! when I started my career and he was the music director for the film. We were sitting in the same music room and he made me hear the chalisa on his santoor. I told him it will be amazing if we get Zakir Hussain to play the tabla and Mr Amitabh Bachchan to sing it. We both laughed saying let’s not dream so much. I said let’s try, let’s request them, at the most they will refuse. It just happened and things fell into place. I am grateful that they lend their talent,” he says. Kohli is also happy about having late Narendra Kohli, an author and litterateur (credited with reinventing the ancient form of epic writing in modern prose) as the consultant to the project, and Kamlesh Pandey to have written the screenplay and dialogues. “Narendra Kohli was a literary giant. His knowledge, the way he guided us was a boon. If he couldn’t come on set, we could stay connected on the phone while doing certain scenes,” says Kohli.
The series has been largely shot in the forests in Mauritius and some parts of it have been shot on set in India. “If you go through the narrative of the tale one realises that 70 percent of the story is in the forest and there are some beautiful forests in Mauritius, whereas, a lot of set work was done in India. Every day was a challenge, learning and exciting. For the battle sequences we had a humongous number of people on sets. I think it is probably the first time that the battle has been shown next to water and that is how it’s originally written. There were hundreds of people running down the slope and controlling that was quite difficult but it was wonderful filming the epic,” says the director, who has been largely busy during the pandemic either creating, or spending time on post-production. “We have to use this opportunity to look inwards while working from home. I haven’t had the time to watch too much but I am trying to create more,” he says.
Kohli is someone who believes in adapting to the present times where the filmmakers have no choice in these pandemic times but release their films on OTT, or else wait for normal scenarios. “We have to adapt to the situation. The ones who have the sustaining power to hold, will hold. The ones who want to release will come. It is very difficult to not be in the person’s shoes and say why he didn’t hold on, he should have held on for the benefit of the theatrical but we are not in that person’s shoes, we are not paying the interest that he is paying, or the bill that is outstanding. It is better to let each person take their own call, whereas, the experience of enjoying it is relatively the same if you go by physics - the distance from the cinema screen to your home screen is relatively the same (laughs).”
And Kohli concludes saying, “Good content will be watched everywhere...in the theatre and it will be watched again on OTT, and perhaps will be watched yet again for the third time on satellite. You just have to make good content and it will be watched wherever you show.”
Ramyug will begin streaming on MXPlayer from 6 May.
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