'You are absolutely the most suitable boy': What Mira Nair told Ishaan Khatter after his audition for BBC series
Ishaan Khatter opens up on working with Tabu and Mira Nair in A Suitable Boy, his first masala flick, Khaali Peeli, in which he stars opposite Ananya Pandey, and dabbling in comedy with Excel Entertainment's next film, Phone Bhoot.
The excitement of working with Tabu is palpable in Ishaan Khatter and he can't wait to talk about it. He plays Maan Kapoor, who is infatuated with a Muslim courtesan Saeeda Bai (played by Tabu) in Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy. The actor says that it was "easy" for him to ‘romance’ Tabu. “Because she is mischievous, she is fun, and she doesn’t bring heavy energy on set,” he elaborates.
After acclaimed Iranian writer-director Majid Majidi’s Beyond the Clouds, and Karan Johar’s production Dhadak, Khatter is making his television debut with the six-part BBC drama as the rebellious son of a politician in Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel set in post-Independence India. The actor shot for A Suitable Boy (to be released in India later this year), between schedules of Khaali Peeli, his next Hindi film, a masala potboiler, opposite Ananya Panday. And he teams up with Katrina Kaif and Siddhant Chaturvedi in the recently announced Phone Bhoot, a horror-comedy.
Excerpts from a chat with the rising star:
How’s lockdown treating you?
Nothing much changes in my life with Unlock one or two (laughs). But now it feels that there is a sense of a little bit of mobilisation and there is some work getting done. For A Suitable Boy, I did dubbing from home during the lockdown. I was able to dub for all the episodes from my room at home. But yes, I also took to different things like meditation, binge watching and training.
How did A Suitable Boy happen?
I was called in for the audition before Beyond the Clouds had released. None of my work was out then and Nandini Shrikent’s (casting director) team contacted me. All I knew was that it was an adaptation of the novel A Suitable Boy that Mira Nair would be directing. That was enough to get me intrigued. I am a big admirer of Mira Nair’s work. I have never had the chance of meeting her before. They gave me a scene and that is when I was introduced to this kaleidoscopic character called Maan Kapoor. I didn’t have any reference since I hadn’t read the book. Audition happened pretty quickly and I did it my way. Soon I was called for the second round of auditions when Mira Nair was in Mumbai.
First time I met her she said that she was very keen on me to play Maan. Second audition was with her in which she read the lines with me and also directed me on that. Soon after I received an email saying, ‘You are absolutely the most suitable boy’. It took about nine to 10 months for the series to go on floors in which period I had heard and liked a couple of other projects and I was able to shoot A Suitable Boy between the schedules of Khaali Peeli.
Can you tell us a bit about the audition process?
It was the most conventional audition that I have ever done. My audition for my first film was pretty unconventional. We shot it in live locations and it was like doing a student project with Majidi Sir. But for A Suitable Boy they had hired a room in a five star hotel in Mumbai where I met a whole lot of actors because the series is such a large ensemble piece with 113 characters and probably more actors. The director was casting for many other parts, so there were young actors, senior actors and also the established ones who have really made their mark. It was definitely the most unique experience. I got to work with so many actors that I so admire in one series itself which was great. Actors like Vijay Raaz, Vijay Varma, Ranvir Shorey, Rasika Duggal…all in one track, so I got very lucky. We had a lot of time to interact with each other and even with the actors who we didn’t have scenes with.
How was the experience working with Mira Nair?
She is quite upfront. If she wants to communicate something, she communicates as she thinks. If she is not happy about something and expecting something more, she will be very blunt about it. Some actors get almost thrown out. There is transparency in her communication. But I was one of the lucky ones to get a lot of love from her. She is like one mother figure on set and everybody working towards pleasing her. She is also very generous and welcoming. It was an incredible experience because we also had the second unit which was constantly working. Lot of times actors would be going from one unit to the other to finish scenes. The second unit had Shimit Amin directing us who’s also fantastic, so I got to work with two great directors at the price of one (laughs).
Tell us about your character, the rebel Maan Kapoor that you play.
He has grown up in the house of a Revenue minister, who is fighting for the Bill against zamindari as the country is coming into its own post-independence. My character, even as he is privy to all this, isn’t really too bothered. He is so interestingly unpredictable and there are so many dimensions to him. He is a wanderer and goes anywhere. He is a very colourful character with many different shades to his personality.
It must have been really exciting working with Tabu..
It was a great opportunity to be able to play the Maan to Tabu’s Saeeda. I had my entire track with Tabu, which is so delightful. She is one of my favourite actors and it was even more rewarding experience to work with her. She is beautiful, magnificent on screen and when it comes to work she is probably one of the easiest co-actors to work with. It was very simple. We formed a certain synergy and then we kept feeding off that. It’s an uncommon relationship even in today’s time but it wasn’t complicated; there wasn’t much need for conversation between us to articulate things. There was an understanding and there was no need for any dialogue to get comfortable before any scene because it felt like two people know what they are stepping into.
Did you have to prepare for the role?
Large part of the groundwork was the readings and we had to do a lot of that. It is adapted from a 1500-page novel and there is a lot of context. When you are distilling that into six hours you are conveying multiple layers within every scene. It was important to understand the script in and out and then we had one long table read. Other than that it was largely understanding the social milieu and the world these characters come from. The period that it was, it was such a crucial time for India. There was, of course, this physical prep deciding the look appropriate for that time.
I had to do a little groundwork before I started because I had just two days to transit from the character in Khaali Peeli to Maan, and then again going back to Khaali Peeli was quite tricky. For Maan, it was largely a spontaneous process. But it was planned in advance so that we could execute that look change in two days.
How much of Khaali Peeli remains to be shot?
We want to do it as safely as possible. It is a demanding film, we have shot almost entirely in real locations in Mumbai and a few portions in the outskirts. Also, we have shot 80 to 85 per cent of the film in the night. Locations play a very important character in the film and therefore it is tough to plan that kind of shoot in the current situation. A year-and-a-half after my first two releases, I must have heard over 90 scripts but Khaali Peeli is the only film that I got excited about after hearing the narration. It has all the tropes of a cinema, theatre-wali Hindi picture, and it is my first hero role so to say. I didn’t play that typical hero in Beyond the Clouds and Dhadak but Khaali Peeli is that typical hero role and it is one of those films that strike a very unique balance between the mainstream and something that is artistic and cool. I am really looking forward to people seeing my pairing with Ananya. There’s again an ensemble of some very good actors and we have Jaideep Ahlawat sir who’s playing an antagonist. The film has a very fresh feel to it.
There are rumours doing the rounds that Khaali Peeli will have a digital release. Does that disappoint you? Your co-star Jaideep Ahlawat also mentioned that it’s a commercial Bollywood masala film made for the big screen.
Well, there are films that are meant for theatrical experience and Khaali Peeli is shot like that. We are all praying and hoping that sooner than later theatres start opening up and it would be possible to release in theatres. There have also been rumours that it is a remake of Vijay Devarakonda’s Taxiwala, which is completely untrue. I can confirm that it is an entirely original screenplay and script and doesn’t draw inspiration from any other film, regional or Hindi.
How do you see the current situation? What is your take on the ongoing debate between the direct-to-digital versus theatrical release?
OTT is a great platform, it also allows a certain democratic kind of approach as everybody has access and films will be judged on its merit and not on numbers. Good thing is that digital is paving the way for a lot of good and deserving talent. There are so many stories that you can’t tell in a two hour format and a six or eight part series is so satisfying to watch. You really get involved with the characters and at the same time so many good directors who have control over their craft get to showcase their work. It is also great to see an ensemble of actors.
For me, as an audience, the theatrical experience is completely different. So I don’t think either of them is interchangeable. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how people are able to recognise what kind of films should be released theatrically and what would benefit more out of being exclusively released, or shown on a digital platform because these two are completely different viewing experiences. It would be interesting to see after coming out of this lockdown period how it has impacted the industry and what kind of stories will be told now. It is definitely an interesting time.
Your recently announced film, Phone Bhoot with Katrina Kaif and Siddhant Chaturvedi, looks quite interesting.
It is a laugh riot and gives me an opportunity to stretch myself in a new direction. Phone Bhoot is my first foray into comedy and it is for the first time that I am working with Ritesh Sidhwani and Farhan Akhtar’s Excel Production. Gurmeet Singh is going to be directing it, he has done a lot of work but he is known for Mirzapur. It is my first time coming together with Katrina and Siddhant, who is a pal of mine, so it will be great fun to work with him. Honestly, it is one of the most hilarious scripts I have ever read. It is a horror-comedy and it is extremely funny. Hope we are able to do justice and I am super excited for that.
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