Kunal Deshmukh, 32, is patient, cool and loyal and totally consumed with only making films. He is more practical than emotional and is always in search for a story. While ambition is extremely attractive to him, he is excessively self-critical and finds it difficult to push himself. Over an hour-long conversation, ahead of his first con revenge drama Raja Natwarlal, he talks to Bombay Times about his mentor Mahesh Bhatt, his favourite star Emraan Hashmi and how he has grown up in the last one year. Excerpts:
How did you become a director?
I was 21 and had just returned studying filmmaking from NYU. One of my closest friends from school is Sahil (son of Kumkum Saigal, who is the executive producer in Bhatt films and is also Mahesh Bhatt’s real sister). Through Sahil, I met Mohit Suri who was his cousin. We were partying at Goa on one New Year, when Mohit said to me, ‘I am starting a film in a few months. It will be fun. Come work with me.’ And I started assisting Mohit and was his assistant for three films — Zeher, Kalyug and Woh Lamhe. And that’s when I met Bhatt sahab. He deconstructed Indian cinema for me completely, as I still had that chip on my shoulder of having gone to film school abroad and been exposed to international cinema, thinking that we should also make films like theirs. Bhatt sahab understands India and knows it from the grassroot level. I was so exposed and influenced by him from a young age, which is why my films have a touch of him when it comes to areas of human conflict. And while he broke me down, he also gave me the confidence to think that I could find my voice. I then made my second film Tum Mile that did not do as well as my first film. I didn’t know what I did right in Jannat that it did so well. I had got lucky with a lot of things, but I thought it was so easy to make a hit film and then when people didn’t like my second film, it was a rude shock. I remember walking down from the old Vishesh films office at JVPD and going to Contemporary Arts & Crafts and I just started crying. When I went back up, Bhatt sahab said to me, ‘I am glad you faced this failure and have owned up to it. It’s only when you own up and say that I am the director and the film did not do well as I failed, is when you can move ahead.’
Why did you move out of Bhatts to make Raja Natwarlal?
Bhatt sahab would often push me to have my own voice. And deep down, after doing three films with the Bhatts, I felt that it had stopped happening for me. I was making just a particular type of cinema and I was not challenging myself. I felt that I needed to move out and figure out things on my own, otherwise I would have been just another director in the Bhatt camp. Raja Natwarlal is a film that cannot be made with the Bhatts. If you look at the heart of Raja..., it’s a great con film. I don’t think they would like to make a con film. They have a tried- and-tested way to make a film that is budget-driven and they are very clear about what they want to or not want to make. And while my mentor still is Bhatt sahab, I moved out as I just wanted to grow up and be able to feel that henceforth, all success and all failures would be mine.
Talk about Mahesh Bhatt?
He is the strongest person with a voice, that I have ever met. At the same time, as a teacher, he is not trying to make you like him. He is this irreverential person, who is anti-establishment with path-breaking thoughts. He is constantly living on the edge. He never takes off for a weekend or a holiday. He is the teacher I was looking for, who helped me discover what I wanted to do. He is very young in his head, and emotional. He is such an intelligent person, but he just brings 15% of that into the producer Mahesh Bhatt. He can do great cinema and revolutionise it, if he puts his heart and soul into it. Every film that he has put his heart into has been a gem, be it Raaz, Murder, Gangster, Jannat or Aashiqui 2. It was a difficult decision for me to move out of the Bhatts to follow my own path. But he sat me down and had a conversation. He said, ‘Kunal, we were two people in life that met and had a particular journey together, and our paths will again cross in the future. If you ever need me, I am just a phone call away.’ And that he is. I have gone and pitched him my one lines and he has never made me feel differently, given that I am not doing a film with him. I played Mukeshji my songs and he was very happy.
All your four films have been with Emraan Hashmi. What is he like?
He is extremely reserved and does not let you in easily. I too, have only gradually got to know him. We didn’t do dinners till the second film. I didn’t hang out with his family until the third film. He is very fierce and people don’t see it, but he has this burning desire to shine through and that is what I love about him. No matter who tells him what, he doesn’t care. He is such a strong fighter. I love that he is not filmi and is not obsessed with Hindi movies and opening weekends. What I don’t like about him is that he is lazy. He can push himself and has started doing that. He is extremely talented and secure and can afford to sell himself better.
You are in a relationship with your associate director Sonali Rattan. Talk about her?
Sonali has been assisting me right from Jannat. She too, was in college with Mohit and is a year-and-a-half older to me. We were close friends for a really long time, but started dating only last year, post Jannat 2. We are still best friends and have a great working relationship. I always tell her that she is far more talented and much more natural at filmmaking than I am. What will take me 5 hours takes her just one hour. Even though I am extremely dependent on her, I have told her that there will be a point very soon when she will stop learning from me and that is the time she should be an independent filmmaker. I can’t give her enough credit, even though she is the one who is actually living the film with me every single day and it’s very hard to be in a relationship with someone like me, who does not switch off from work at all. She is brighter, smarter, emotional and naturally gifted. I am not egoistic at all and have told her that I don’t really mind producing or being an EP on a film that she directs. I love her for her love for life and that is one similarity I see with her and Bhatt sahab. They are just alive all the time. I am drawn to her clean heart and honesty. I love the fact that I feel challenged by her. Of course, she needs to be way more patient and less emotional in this line. Apart from our common interests, she loves me for my honesty. She doesn’t like the fact that sometimes I will not confront people and will try my best to evade a fight. She will pick a fight with even a rickshawallah if she has to.
Any plans of getting married?
We have just started dating and are right now very happy, but I do see myself getting married to her. Once this film gets done, sooner or later, I would have to figure out what next.
How difficult was it emotionally to be on your own?
I am a Maharashtrian and was born and brought up in Mumbai. My dad was in the merchant navy and my mom did theatre and a little television. He then got into his own shipping business and last year, my parents moved to Jakarta. This was also the time that I moved out of the Bhatts to be on my own. So, the last one year has been about change and finding myself. It was a good change and I feel that it should have happened to me a few years back. I was spoilt and I could just leave everything to my parents, right from food to petrol to everything else. I used to wake up and leave the house and never had any problems of running the house. My growing up happened in the last one year, and I am loving it. I love not being taken care of and all the messy problems that come with running your house, including paying your bills or seeing whether vegetables are there or not. This one year has really helped me understand who I am. In the Vishesh Films system, I was just a cog in the wheel. Now I am not. It took me a little time to find my bearings, feeling a little alone and a little scared on the way. I had the fear of failure and the fear that I would have to return back to Bhatt sahab with my tail between my legs and say, ‘I am sorry. Please take me back.’ But I didn’t want to do that. I did promise Mukeshji, ‘I would come back, but I would come back so successful that I would only add to you.’ I didn’t want to come back as a failure.
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