Kunal Kohli is no stranger to the digital revolution that has taken place in the Indian entertainment industry in the last couple of years. ‘Phir Se…’, a film co-directed by him and one which featured in the lead role, was the first Indian film to be released directly on a global streaming platform. A while back, he directed ‘Lahore Confidential’, a film for an OTT platform and now, ‘Ramyug’, a series directed by him, is all set to stream on MX Player.
The filmmaker, who has major hits like ‘Hum Tum’ and ‘Fanaa’ to his credit, talks about making the audience revisit Ramayana with his new series, getting Amitabh Bachchan to lend his voice to a devotional song, collaborating with santoor exponent Rahul Sharma almost after two decades, what makes the music of his films memorable, ‘Fanaa’ completing fifteen years of its release and more.
What was the biggest challenge involved in making ‘Ramyug’?
The biggest challenge was to make the project (laughs). It is a very difficult subject. (Pause) Actually, when you think of it, any subject that a filmmaker takes up is difficult. Sometimes, an actor comes to the sets and asks you how should he say a particular line. There is a challenge for you there as you have to tell him exactly how he should interpret and say that line. Every subject has its own set of challenges. Sometimes, when you think there is no challenge, a huge problem crops up from nowhere. Making ‘Ramyug’ has been a very special experience. It would be an honour and a privilege for any filmmaker to present his interpretation of Ramayana in front of the audience.
You must have had to do a lot of research for this project.
Thankfully, everything was departmentalized. We were privileged to have Narendra Kohli ji as our consultant on the project. He was an expert on Ramayan and one of the respected writers in the history of modern Hindi literature. His ‘Ramkatha’ is one of the largest selling books in our country. Unfortunately, he passed away recently. It was a personal loss for me. Kamlesh Pandey ji wrote the dialogues and screenplay for the series.
Were you introduced to Ramayana as a child?
Yes, I was. As a child, my first memory of Ramayana is reading about it in the Amar Chitra Katha comics. Actually, one shouldn’t call them comics as they are informative books that introduce us to our glorious past. A couple of years later I watched Ramanand Sagar’s ‘Ramayana’ on television. After that, I read books based on it. I read one in English and then, one in Hindi.
The music of ‘Ramyug’ has been scored by santoor exponent Rahul Sharma. You had worked with him earlier on ‘Mujhse Shaadi Karoge’ which was your first film as a director and his first as a music director. How was the experience of working with him after all these years?
I wanted somebody with a different mindset. I didn’t want the typical songs that one had come to associate with mythological films. I also wanted to stay away from filmy songs. I wanted to collaborate with a composer who had a strong classical base. Rahul has done a wonderful job. It has been a great journey with him on this project.
You also got Amitabh Bachchan to sing the track ‘Jai Hanuman’.
Yes! I was sitting in Rahul’s music room. When he finished composing this song, I told him, “we need Zakir Hussain and Mr. Bachchan on this song”. Rahul agreed with me. We asked them and they gracefully agreed to be a part of the song.
‘Ramyug’ was designed and shot as a film. What made you decide to release it as a series on a digital platform?
We had designed it as two feature films. We had four hours of content with us. So, there was always an option of releasing it as a web series. When MX Player came on board, we sat and edited it together. If it was released as two films, it would have been edited differently.
The casting of the show has been quite interesting. You got Diganth Manchale, who has done one Hindi film and has majorly worked in the Kannada film industry, to play Lord Ram.
I hope everyone likes the casting. I believe Ramayana is an international subject. There are no boundaries to it. So, we didn’t set any boundaries while going about the casting process either. We went all over the country to cast it for it. Personally, I am very happy with the casting and what each actor has brought to the table.
You started your career as a film critic. You used to host the very popular show ‘Chalo Cinema’ on Zee TV. Is there a plan to bring the show back in some form?
No, I stopped being a film critic a long time ago (laughs). I would rather be a filmmaker than a film critic now.
You made your debut as an actor with ‘Phir Se…’ which was also co-directed by you. Are there any plans of acting in the future?
No, I have decided to focus more on direction. If I get a good offer to judge a reality show, I might take it up. But, I have no plans of being in the front of the camera as an actor now.
‘Fanaa’ completes 15 years of its release this month. It remains your most successful film as a director.
Yes, it is my biggest success if you take box-office numbers into account. ‘Hum Tum’ didn’t make as much money as ‘Fanaa’ but it was a better reviewed film. I loved working with Aamir and Kajol every single day. I was a huge fan of Kajol. Often, while watching her perform a scene, I would forget to say ‘cut’. She would hold the scene for a while and then, look at me and say, “arrey, cut toh bolo!” (laughs). Working on the music of the film with Jatin-Lalit was a very memorable experience. It was my second collaboration with them after ‘Hum Tum’. The album sounds as fresh as it did back then.
You always had a good ear for music. Right from ‘Mujhse Dosti Karoge’, most of your films have boasted of good music. ‘Break Ke Baad’ which you had produced, had a very good album by Vishal and Shekhar. ‘Teri Meri Kahaani’, in my opinion, is Sajid-Wajid’s best score for a film.
I spend a lot of time with the music of my films. Actually, I just follow my gut. I believe the purpose of music should be to be long-lasting. Even the ‘Phir Se…’ album by Jeet Gannguli was good. Perhaps, the music didn’t become very popular as the actor in that film was not as popular as the actors in my other films (laughs).
Most of your recent projects released on streaming platforms. ‘Teri Meri Kahaani’ was the last film directed by you which released in theatres. Is there a plan to make a theatrical film in the near future?
I hope I do. Currently, I am working on a web series for Lionsgate Play. It should be out by the end of this year. I am working on some scripts. Let’s see if any of those scripts takes the shape of a film in the future.
A couple of years back, you had produced a film called ‘Vartak Nagar’. It was screened at a few film festivals but never made it to the theatres.
Yes, I am surprised that you know about the film as we made it a while back. It’s a very good film and unlike anything I have done before. There were other producers on the film who were controlling the finance. You have to ask them why it has still not been released. It got a good response at the festivals. I hope at least it goes to a streaming platform and the audience gets to see it.