Director Abhishek Kapoor is all set for the release of his film Kedarnath, starring Sushant Singh Rajput and debutante Sara Ali Khan, on 7 December. In a tête-à-tête with Guardian 20, he talks about his thought behind the film and the controversy that surrounds it.
Q. How was Kedarnath conceived?
A. As a child, I didn’t really understand the religious beliefs of people. But as you grow older, you develop new perspectives and you start looking at things differently. Travel also helps you gain a better perspective. So after a couple of my last films, I decided to travel a bit and come up with new ideas. As an Indian filmmaker, I realised that the heart of India is at religious places such as Kedarnath.
On my trip to Kedarnath, I noticed that people from various parts of the county, rich and poor, visit. And most of them are older people. But because they are not very fit, they can’t do that journey on their own. For this reason, a lot of them take porters and horses to go up. And some of these porters are Muslims. It is very fascinating to see this. In today’s time, when the country is so divided over the politics of religion, a Muslim helping a Hindu to meet his God is such a beautiful thing. And that is the thought that initiated the film. Also, in 2013, on 16 June, there was this bad flood that hit Kedarnath and so many people died. About 50,000 people were rescued and 100,000 went missing. That was one of the biggest disasters this country has ever seen… So I also wanted to bring attention to the magnitude of the disaster and pay respects to all those people who had lost their lives there.
Q. The film is facing the ire of a fringe group right before its release. How does that affect you?
A. The idea behind making a film is to communicate a particular subject matter to a target audience. It is not for people who get offended and have their own agendas. I’m talking about the masses and I want to reach out to the masses. These ideas are so big and so pure that they have to be made. So I am not really thinking about these repercussions when I am attempting any film. Because I know that my intent is clean and pure. I love my country and I am a Hindu and I love Shiva. I’m just trying to bring this out for the audience. It is not for the fringe elements who are going to take advantage of it. It is something that I don’t think about. There is the law of the land, there is a censor board and I have faith in that system.
Q. Can you tell us about the research process that goes into making films that are based on real-life events?
A. It is a very intensive research process. We have a team that picks up the idea and we just get into it. A lot of time is put into it. Like months go into it and multiple trips go into finalising locations and meeting the people who have experienced that. My film Kai Po Che!  also revolved around the 2001 Gujarat earthquake and the riots that had hit the state in 2002. And this is also a very sensitive topic. But one has to be cautious and one needs to ensure that the film is not offensive to anybody. So the idea to make films like this is to heal those who have suffered and not to instigate anyone. You want to make sure that the people are touched and hit the right spot with topics like these.
Q. Most of your films feature new and young actors. Has that been a conscious decision for you?
A. No. There is no conscious effort to launch anyone new and I don’t want to be a “launchpad” for anyone. I’m just trying to make a movie. And coincidentally all these movies require young actors. And the movie’s primary audience is like between the ages of 16 and 22. So we need young and new actors as per the demand of the story. And then I’m just fortunate that I’ve been successful in casting new actors and so the business and the trade also support me when I want to go out and take new people. So this is just a coincidence.
Q. You have already worked with Sushant Singh Rajput in Kai Po Che! But you are working with Sara Ali Khan for the first time. How was your experience working with her?
A. She is great. I remember when I first met her, she’d come to my office. She has a personality, she is enthusiastic and she has a good command over language, and she is a very bright girl. So when I meet any actor I think if the person will allow me the kind of submission I demand from him or her. And this is because I can be quite a taskmaster when I’m making a film out of the stories that I pick. And I want to make very difficult movies. They are not simple rom-coms or just pretty clothes, pretty locations and song-and-dance. They are very demanding on me and on the actors who are going to work and for every crew member. So everyone has to level out and be equal and work for the movie. There are no favourites. I’m not going to sacrifice a scene so that the actor can come out with it. These are fundamental criteria that are very important for me. And Sara was a perfect fit.
Q. You started off as an actor. What made you shift to filmmaking?
A. Oh, that’s so many years ago. I just didn’t find that success as an actor and I quit because I didn’t want to do mediocre work—if you do not sell at the box office then you start getting work that’s not good enough…
Q. Tell us about your 2006 directorial debut, Aryan. What was the idea behind the movie?
A. Aryan was really way back. It was right after my acting career didn’t take a flight and I was sitting at home and had no work and I was very depressed. And I would have a fight with my father [Prasan Kapoor, veteran producer] all the time… So I started sitting most of the time in his office and I tried to write. And the story itself was about an aspiring athlete who was not getting to do what he wants. So somewhere I got into that story and the story got into me, and it just connected in such a way that I felt like it was my salvation. I had to make it otherwise I would have sunk.