She is the actress everyone is talking about right now, known for taking on radical roles and making a huge success of them. He comes from a breed of experimental actors, not afraid to try different genres for size, even if it means smaller screen time, dance moves optional.
Together, Kangana Ranaut and Imran Khan represent a very different Bollywood, one where content is king, where a new breed of players are trying to shake off years of putting out hackneyed storylines and formulaic filmmaking.
So when director Nikhil Advani, known for films such as the massive hit Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) and D-Day (2013), first approached the pair for his new-age romance drama Katti Batti, he was met with apprehension.
“My first reaction was to avoid it,” Ranaut recalls. “Initially it looked like a film where the hero and heroine played equal parts and I was at a point where I was trying to focus on female-centric films with strong female characters. So I hesitated.”
Often called the Queen of Bollywood, a reference to her hugely successful film Queen last year, for which she also won the Indian National Award, Ranaut is rumoured to be one of the highest paid actresses in the industry right now. Her rising star — her May release, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, is already one the year’s biggest grossers — means she’s able to pick and choose her films. And she’s definitely not afraid to speak her mind.
But Advani persevered, and managed to convince Ranaut he’s got just the story.
“The more he narrated the film to me, the more I saw myself in the character,” she says. “It’s told in this very non-linear way where we start off with a character whose life has fallen apart and he’s trying to pick up the pieces. And he starts gathering the pieces together, we visit his past and it’s a beautiful story as it unfolds.”
Khan, whose last release was 2013’s Gori Tere Pyaar Mein, says he had a “big change of heart” about the film’s story.
“I didn’t like it when Nikhil first sent me the script,” he says. “So I tried to brush him off, and told him I was busy with other projects and to call me later. I kept putting him off and thought he’d take the hint and approach someone else.
“Then, after my last film released on a Friday, I got a call from him on Saturday morning asking me when he could come and narrate it to me,” recalls Khan, laughing. “I thought I’d be polite and invited him.”
About 20 minutes into the narration, Khan had a revelation.
“I was wondering if this was the same script,” he says. “Suddenly, I’m hooked. It was remarkable how I could miss the tone of it so much by reading the script. I was seeing it in a completely different light.”
Katti and batti are words used by Indian children who say ‘katti’ when they fight, meaning they don’t want to talk to each other again. But when they want to make up, they say ‘batti’.
The film, say its stars, is a modern take on romance, in which a couple decides to move in together, but are very soon torn apart by a tragedy.
Don’t be fooled by the cheerful trailer, Ranaut warns.
“It’s actually one of the most emotional roles I’ve ever done,” says the 28 year old who, earlier in her career, was known for doing a series of neurotic roles. “It took a lot out of me, and I was affected for a long time after we wrapped up filming.”
But both stars say they are very pleased with the end result.
“There are films that turn out as good as you think they would, and this is one of them,” says Ranaut.
Khan, agrees, adding that actors don’t always get to say they are proud of a film they’ve done.
“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched a film — and very often the producer or director will show you [the movie] the night before the release — and you think ‘If I’d seen this a bit earlier, I would have not promoted the film and disappeared somewhere’,” he says laughing. “I saw Katti Batti about six months ago and back then I couldn’t wait to start meeting people and telling them about it.”
But there’s pressure on all three of them this weekend as the film releases: On Ranaut, it’s to keep the momentum after all the acclaim; on Khan, to prove he’s got in him to deliver a hit after all; and on Advani, for a shot at redemption, after the badgering he received from last week’s release, Hero.
But Khan doesn’t look at it that way.
“I think I can take the liberty of speaking on behalf of Kangana as well by saying that pressure is always self-inflicted. You always want to be better and you always want to work harder, irrespective of how your other films do,” he says. “I’ve never liked the idea of restricting myself to a genre. Creatively, I’m greedy. I like to make films that I love, films that satisfy me whether it’s an indie film or a massively commercial film.”
Ranaut, who says she’s finally ready for her shot at a directing gig, says it’s more important to take advantage of the moment.
“You need to have something in life which will drive you. Maybe in 10 years, I wouldn’t want to work 16 or 22 hours a day. This is the time when I want to do all of those [things] and give it my best. That’s why I’m working incessantly. I want to do as much as I can.”
Katti Batti, she adds, falls right into her scheme of things.
“It will be very fulfilling for people who like beautiful love stories, something very niche, something intellectual, with a message,” she says. “It’s a beautiful film, which says something very important. It’s about finding a beautiful meaning to one’s life and evolving as humans. It’s beautiful.”
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Katti Batti releases in the UAE on September 17.