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BizAsia talks to Karan Johar & Guneet Monga Kapoor about ‘Kill’ at TIFF 2023

Dharma Productions and Sikhya Entertainment’s collaborative release ‘Kill’ is a wild ride. Set almost entirely inside a train, the film is a relentless experience of thrills, action, blood and gore. In a conversation with, Guneet Monga Kapoor and Karan Johar shared what it takes to create a genre-defining film like this one.

Why did you decide to start your collaboration as producers with such a polarising film?

KJ: Nothing safe is ever good. What comes out of a safe decision is a safe result, and no one wants a safe result. You want an extreme decision, to have an extreme result.

As I’ve always said, I want to diversify in the world of content. I’ve just never been able to get together a great talent pool that would be able to make something this bloody, this violent, this relentless, this kind of a genre film that India has never experienced. We’ve seen this in the international circuit with ‘Train to Busan’ (2016), ‘The Raid’ (2011), ‘Snowpiercer’ (2013), but India has never produced a film like this. And of course it takes the exceptional talent of a Guneet Monga to put a project like this together and bring it to me.

I think you should be asking her why she chose me, because I’m happy I was the chosen one. Maine socha yeh to kamaal hai. Itni achchi script hai, itna achcha director hai. Koi mere yahaan aayega bhi nahi aisi script leke. (I thought it was amazing. Such a great script, such a great director. No one would ever bring a script like this to me.) I thought she would go to someone else. Nobody has done this, I don’t know who Guneet could’ve even gone to.

I want to diversify in the world of content. I’ve just never been able to get together a great talent pool that would be able to make something this bloody, this violent, this relentless, this kind of a genre film that India has never experienced.

But we’ve had a relationship. We worked together on ‘The Lunchbox’ (2013), which is also a different film, and I presented that in India. It won global laurels all across the world, and is renowned as one of the finest love stories ever made. So when Guneet brought this to me, I was on for the ride. As violent as it is, I’ll never make a film like this as a director but I want to watch this.

So why did you choose Karan Johar?

GMK: I actually love Karan, for more reasons than one. As an independent filmmaker, with my body of work, as a producer I don’t have a peer group, so I learnt a lot during ‘The Lunchbox’.

There was no buyer for ‘The Lunchbox’. A decade ago, I met Karan in Cannes. He was there with a series of short films for 100 years of Indian cinema, as a delegation from India. I went, introduced myself, and I told him, “I’ve made this love story, can you please just watch it because you make so many beautiful love stories.” I’ve also grown up loving Dharma and the films they put out. So when he watched ‘Lunchbox’, came out teary eyed and said he loved it, it was my first piece of validation. In India, every distributor, every studio had seen it and everybody would say, “Ek gaana nahi hai. Yeh kya hai? Poori voiceover par hai. Iss mein itni angrezi hai.” (“There’s not one song. What is this? It’s all in voiceover. There’s so much English.”)  You’re constantly being reminded of the bad things. But when a Karan Johar comes and puts his stamp on it, people are like, “Oh this is beautiful.”

I’m not disillusioned about the fact that India marketing and distribution is something Dharma understands so well, and has been doing it over and over again. I learnt a lot while putting ‘The Lunchbox’ together, while making it, presenting it to the world, selling to the whole entire world except for India – my home country. My association with Dharma was very empowering, which was a decade ago.

We’ve discussed this for a decade, coming together and working on something. So when I found something so crazy and eclectic, I knew I could take it to Karan, because it is so adventurous and new. And so was ‘The Lunchbox’ in its own way. It was very successful in the way it was put out.

I can safely go make a film, because you have a studio that gives you complete freedom to go all out. I remember taking rushes to show Karan, and he said “No, just make the film and bring it to me in one go.” I told him we’re going full gore and he said “Go have fun. I know what you’re doing, we’ve signed up for it. Go full out. We’ve committed for extreme action, for a very bloody film, so do that genre and stay true to it.” When you have a director who is also a studio head, and has the capacity of being a financier and supporting a film, it’s the best combination, because then you can really speak to a filmmaker and say that we’re really going for it, we’re really leaning into that genre. At Sikhya, we really feel empowered.

Not only have you picked such a risky genre, you also have a relatively new director, a newcomer helming the film, and you’ve cast the nicest guy on TV to play the villain.

KJ: The nicest guy on TV is so not nice in the movie. And you have a new actor who’s facing the camera like a movie star. I takes a lot of… I think the word is faith. You gotta have faith – George Michael said it first, we endorse it – in everyone’s talent and ability. Nikhil’s ability to execute this absolutely out there film. Lakshya’s ability to stand like a movie star, deliver the action and look like a veteran at it, even though it’s his first feature film ever. Raghav, who you’ve seen in such a wonderfully nice, sweet, funny avatar,  suddenly becomes the most scary individual on this train. It’s faith in artistry, in actors and filmmakers that can pull this off. And I think faith comes with a certain amount of freedom. Freedom that Guneet and I can give them without any kind of intervention and interference.

My belief at Dharma has been – and I’m sure Guneet endorses that – you can’t delegate if you don’t trust. When you delegate a responsibility to a team, you’ve got to let them do it their way. Then you can provide feedback at the right juncture. So when Guneet said I didn’t want to see it (the rushes), it’s because I don’t want to see anything unfinished. My instinct is everything to me. That’s why I feel like you empower people by just giving them the freedom to do what they want, and then give them instinctive feedback which comes from both of our collective experiences. That’s how we worked in synergy with an absolutely new cast and crew.

GMK: 10 years ago we were on a flight together doing city tours for ‘The Lunchbox’, and I had a conversation with Karan which really stayed with me. Those moments of ‘The Lunchbox’ marketing were very impactful in my career as a producer. I remember telling him about how I’ve come in completely from the outside. I’m trying to make films with the access I have and the people that I know. I’m doing whatever I have access to, so I’m dealing with so many first time filmmakers and actors, with raising money from the world. So much hustle. And he responded “Yeah, so do we. We work with so many first-time directors”. That really opened up my mind, the realisation that Dharma also works with so many first time directors and actors.

KJ: And we’re also raising money from studios, we’re hustling as well.

GMK: But the positioning, marketing and distribution is a game changer. For over a decade, we’ve both worked with so many amazing first time directors and given them all their first films, be it in the independent space or the spectrum with more scale. But it’s always been faith in a lot of talent.

I’m doing whatever I have access to, so I’m dealing with so many first time filmmakers and actors, with raising money from the world. So much hustle.

From my spectrum it’s been Vicky Kaushal, Huma Qureshi, Richa Chadha, Ritesh Batra, Vasan Bala, Shlok Sharma. And from Karan’s spectrum it’s been Alia Bhatt, Varun Dhawan, Sidharth Malhotra, Lakshya and so many directors as well. These are two production companies who have been doing that in two spectrums, and it’s beautiful to work together and double down.

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This genre of film is not familiar to the Indian audience, and would probably appeal to a global audience more. Is this the reason why you brought it to TIFF?

KJ: No. Even if we hadn’t been selected at TIFF officially, we would’ve very much introduced our film to the Indian audience and marketed it in the right way to position the film right. I don’t think this is a niche film. I look at it as going on an amusement park ride, though there’s no amusement, there’s just anxiety and an adrenaline rush. Why do people get on to roller coasters? They want to feel an adrenaline rush. Why do people go to horror films? They want to have those jump scares, they want that communal thrill. Similarly, ‘Kill’ is that and much more. There’s a love story embedded in it, but it’s eventually a non-stop actioner, which has gore that will make you squeal, scream, shout. And that’s an audience anywhere. Whether it’s in India or in Canada, it’s the same. The fact is, we’ve never tested a film like this with an Indian audience. So you have to tell them, come at your own risk, don’t have a meal before (laughs), and make sure you’re ready for this ride. This is not a regular train ride, it’s going to be embedded in your memory forever. And every time you get on a train the next time, you’ll wonder if you’ll go through what Amrit (Lakshya’s character) went through on that ride. So I’m all guns and glory, pun intended, to release this film theatrically in India and make it a breakthrough cult film.

GMK: You cry with films, you fall in love with films, you enter the cinema to experience an emotion. We are tapping into a whole new separate emotion. This is a thrill, this is a rage, and everything is for love. This film definitely pushes the audiences to experience something.

What attracted you to this script personally?

GMK: I love the relentless energy of it, and 42 kinds of unique kills. I’ve experienced these films. Bohat sari English films Hindi mein dub hokar bachpan se TV pe chal rahi hain (Lots of English films dubbed in Hindi have been playing on TV since childhood). My father used to watch them on mute, just because of the action. When I grew up, I experienced ‘The Raid’ here (at TIFF). I’ve seen ‘The Raid 2’ (2014) at Sundance. I remember the audience and I’ve always wanted to be able to do something like that in India.

It’s expensive to do an action film. The choreography, the prep, the landing of the energy; it’s not a simple drama. You’re in the same space, the continuity of the blood and the wounds – it’s extensive. Jitna aap shoot karte ho, utna aap rehearsal karte ho with the camera (You rehearse with the camera just as much as you shoot). It’s double the work, so it needs a lot of faith, a big budget, and it needs that kind of hard work across from director to actors to everyone involved. Getting those moments together is a rarity. It’s definitely an opportunity that I’m really grateful for, so I’m really happy that we’ve come to Toronto and it’s at Midnight Madness.

(To Karan Johar) What appealed to you in the film?

KJ: Guneet. She appealed to me, her conviction, her energy appealed to me. Her enthusiasm to create everything new and her positivity for the outcome – that appeals to me. I love front-footed people, who believe in their product so much that they’ll come and tell you that this will be a game-changing film. And she doesn’t say this out of even a tiny molecule of arrogance. It just comes from passion. I feel like this kind of passion is rare and that’s why she’s rare.

It’s expensive to do an action film. The choreography, the prep, the landing of the energy; it’s not a simple drama.

The film was made very quietly. There was no production buzz, we went straight to a premiere announcement. Why this strategy?

KJ: This is what we wanted. Half-hearted buzz is not buzz. In a clutter of information that floats our industry on a daily basis, yeh humare naye actor ki pehli picture, genre film mein, agar bikhar jaati, bhatak jaati (if our new actor’s debut in a genre film had gotten scattered, lost) and would just land nowhere, that’s no fun. You want to wake up in the morning and say “What was this? What is this movie? Where did it come from? Why is everyone talking about it?”

Iske baad, hum galaa phaad phaad ke iss film ke baare mein baat karenge (After this, we will speak about this film at the top of our lungs.) but let people have their say first. Let them say “Oh my god, this film out of India is crazy. We’ve never seen a film like this”. That’s when we go back and start the noise for its Indian release.

It was strategic that Sikhya and Dharma kept this under wraps. And it was easy because there were new actors and a new director. We didn’t tell anyone. We even titled it only recently, it was a nameless film for very long. We feel like no buzz has been our biggest weapon because now that absence of buzz will transform into Toronto buzz, which will hopefully translate into global buzz.

GMK: Also, this film is not about us. It’s about the film itself and celebrating the genre. We wanted to complete the ride and then come out there with a bang. Before this, we would be celebrating us. Now we are celebrating the film and that’s how it should be.

Production houses in Bollywood are striving to define their own action styles. Is ‘Kill’ the direction you are taking?

KJ: It’s one of our franchises with its unique style. But that’s not to say we won’t make others. We are making a film called ‘Yoddha’ right now which is also going to be a franchise. I’m excited to make many, each one should be different from the other and not emulate anybody else’s franchise. We should be individualistic in our approach to even action.

GMK: Also, how amazing it is to put out an action star who is now going to be celebrated.

KJ: That’s why we’re excited for Lakshya. We want to position him as the next breakthrough action star because for one, he’s very easy on the eyes (laughs). And second, he delivers the chops in terms of his performance. To hold that action is not easy. We take that for granted because we think action is not acting. Action is more acting than sitting in a room and delivering dialogues. It’s a lot of work.

GMK: You know this is Lakshya’s launch film. But at the screening yesterday and buyer meetings this morning, people were just saying “He’s a star! He’s a big star!” Because he feels, looks and holds the camera with his gaze. People sign up for that. It doesn’t feel like a first time actor. This is definitely the launch of a big action star in the making.

‘Kill’ is doing the festival rounds as a part of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2023 and will soon be screened as a part of Fantastic Fest in Austin. The producer duo’s next project is a science fiction web series called ‘11/11, directed by Umesh Bist.


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