An Action Hero was released on December 2, 2022 and met with an extremely positive response from the audiences and critics alike. After the release of the film, debutant director Anirudh Iyer checked into a wellness retreat, located in a ‘no-phone zone’. Yet, he took the opportunity to speak exclusively to Bollywood Hungama about his film, his journey and a lot more.EXCLUSIVE: “Meeting Akshay Kumar directly on the day of the shoot made me even more nervous. But he was such a gentleman. He made me comfortable” – Anirudh Iyer
It’s been four weeks since An Action Hero was released in cinemas. How do you feel?
It feels good. I am quite overwhelmed with the response I have gotten, irrespective of the box office. I received so much love. The industry people have been nice and called me to tell me how much they loved the film. People in general have been all praises. Maybe, you can’t have it all but there’s something good to take from this whole experience.
In mid-December, you revealed in an interview that you are unable to find closure since though everyone has loved An Action Hero, it didn’t get the desired collections. It’s been over 10 days and have you got closure now?
The more I think about it, the more I feel that it’s best to move forward in life. I can take all the good things I have gotten from the release of my film. There are a lot of positives and a lot to learn. I have been told that I should be proud that I made a decent film and that I should be happy about it. Hence, I’d like to move on and make better films in life.
A lot has been spoken about the casting of the lead actors, Ayushmann Khurrana and Jaideep Ahlawat. Could you tell us about how you cast Gautam Joglekar for the role of the gangster? His track was quite crucial to the narrative…
I have been his huge fan not as an actor but as a person and a director. We last saw him in a Hindi film named Prahaar (1991), starring Nana Patekar. That was a long time ago. We were trying to cast a fresh actor. I was very sure that I didn’t want a known face at that point in the film. When you have a known face or celebrity coming at this point, suddenly you get thrown out of the film. The actor takes over more than the character. Hence, we wanted a wonderful actor but someone who has been away from the limelight. Gautam sir fit the bill as he’s usually away from all the noise. When I met him, I realized that he is meant to be for this character. I met a lot of actors but as soon as I met him, I realized that it was a no-brainer. I was so happy that I got a chance to meet him through the casting agency.
A character in An Action Hero resembled Arnab Goswami and raised a lot of laughs. Has the real Arnab Goswami seen the film?
I don’t know if he has seen (smiles). The character was not particularly about anybody. We wanted to represent a certain idea of the voices we hear in general. So, it wasn’t particularly aimed at a certain person. I know it seems very obvious but it wasn’t our primary idea.
How was it to direct Akshay Kumar?
I wouldn’t lie - I was very nervous. I am a first-time director while he was a veteran actor. It was scary. I didn’t have a chance to meet him before the shoot and had only spoken to him briefly. Meeting him directly on the day of the shoot made me even more nervous. But he was such a gentleman. He took me to his van and made me comfortable. He told me, ‘Let’s read the scene. Let’s just have fun’. He started laughing when we went through the scene and he had such a good time just reading it with me. It made me realize that we overthink a lot of things and make a big mess out of it in our heads. But generally, people are quite good and they are supportive (laughs)! It was one of the best days of my shoot.
You mentioned in an interview that you had a back-up scene ready in case things didn’t work out with Akshay Kumar. What was that scene?
So we thought that if Akshay sir didn’t want to do it in a certain way or if he was uncomfortable, we had more of a simplified version of the same scene ready. But he is such a sport and has such a great sense of humour that he said, ‘I am not even reading the other one. Let’s do this scene’!
How did you become a film director? Is there anybody in your family into films?
Nobody from my family was in films. It was harder to enter. I was raised in Mulund in Mumbai. I come from a humble South Indian family. We were not allowed to become anything else except a doctor or an engineer! While my friends and my sister were fascinated by the film actors, I was fascinated by how films are made. I was 6-7 years old when I once asked my father to open the TV to check what was happening inside! That curiosity kept increasing as I grew. The making of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) used to be aired on DD on Sundays. I watched that and the making of other films and I realized that there are people putting so much effort behind a film. Since then, I have been excited about this stream. Then, I was exposed to films by filmmakers like Mani Ratnam and even international filmmakers. Fortunately, I was based in Mumbai and hence grew up in a cosmopolitan society where there are so many cultural influences in one area. I had a lot of exposure at a young age by watching Gujarati, Marathi and Tamil films. In short, I was always in love with the idea of telling stories through cinema. It never happened overnight.
Since the age of 18, I have been working in films. I would study during the day and I would work at night. I took a lot of extra shoots. I did sound, worked as a gaffer etc. I would take up any work that I was given and also worked on short films and small projects. If there’s one thing I am happy about, it’s that I never stopped. I only worked. I loved it so much that it became an addiction.
Did you work in any film before Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015)?
I worked on Bobby Jasoos (2014), produced by Dia Mirza. I met Dia through Mr P R Balan, Vidya Balan’s father. This was a time when I was doing a lot of corporate films. I got a chance to meet Dia and she was nice enough to involve me in her company. She asked me to make corporate films for Born Free Entertainment. There was some minor logistical issue on the sets of Bobby Jasoos. She sent me on the sets and that’s how I started working in films. Otherwise, I was working on corporate and ad films. Then I met Aanand L Rai sir, who has been a father figure. He’s been with me for 10 years. Thanks to him, I learnt how to run a set, how to talk to people etc. There’s so much that he taught me on-ground. A film school teaches you the academics of filmmaking, which I feel is very, very important. It is the best way to gain confidence in your craft. But if I know on-ground experience, it’s because of Aanand L Rai. He’s the only person who held my hand and brought me to this point. I only have him to thank.
How was it to work with Aanand L Rai?
I saw on the sets that Aanand sir doesn’t stress about filmmaking. He always tells me, ‘You are getting to do what you love and you are getting paid for it. So, if you are going to get stressed about it, you don’t deserve to be here’! He’s always happy and makes people laugh. The only time he stresses is when his food doesn’t come on time (laughs)! He’s crazy about food. He only gets angry if the wrong food shows up. Otherwise, he’s such a calm and happy director. Today, even I am calm and laughing on the sets because I have imbibed it from the person I grew up working with.
You then worked on the VFX-heavy film Zero (2018), which featured Shah Rukh Khan as a dwarf. It must have been a big learning experience...
It was the ultimate learning experience because, after Zero, Aanand sir told me, ‘You now stop assisting me. Now, there’s nothing more for you to learn’. Zero was a long journey. We shot for 192 days. Every shot had to be filmed six times because of VFX demands. It was a very taxing film for all of us. Zero was a film school in itself. After that, there was nothing much to learn. I had seen all kinds of scales, different kinds of sequences, VFX etc.
It must have been quite hectic for Shah Rukh Khan to shoot Zero…
He had to repeat every shot six times. We shot in different layers. When you had to shrink an actor in size, you had to shoot the background and other elements separately. Hence, every shot is filmed multiple times. So, he had to repeat the same thing he did in the okay take and that was crazy. No other actor could do that. He worked like a machine and he was so smooth. You wonder what is left after you learn from someone like him.
Did you also work on any Hollywood project?
Yes. Our film school used to send us as interns and hence, we worked on several films. I had the privilege of working on the sets of a lot of English films.
Tell us about your film school experience.
I studied at MetFilm school in London. I did my cinematography degree there. I feel that no one can teach you how to direct because directing is essentially talking and sharing your vision. You need to understand that on your own. So I decided to go for a course that teaches an actual applied skill. I decided to opt for cinematography as it would help me understand the visual vocabulary of telling a story. So, I am visually very inclined as a director. I believe that if you can show something, don’t say it.
What are your future plans?
Right now, I am sitting in a wellness resort, eating simple food and doing yoga and meditation. I plan to resume work in January 2023 once I am back. I have a bank of stories. I have always had it because when you work as an assistant, you always dream of that big day when you’ll become a director. In the last decade, I have worked on multiple stories and multiple ideas. I have a notebook in which I keep noting down. I have a few stories that I want to tell. I’ll start working on one of those and let’s hope we do well!
Who are the filmmakers that you admire?
I am a very big fan of Mani sir. I have grown up watching his films. I am crazy about the way he tells his stories. There has also been this big Hollywood influence of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino etc. They are everyone’s film school. As far as our films are concerned, Mani Ratnam is a big influence in my life. And then it was Aanand sir. If Mani sir’s cinema has inspired me, Aanand sir taught me how to be a good director. He has taught me how to be a good person as well as a good director at the same time.
Which are your favourite films?
There are so many of them. I love Iruvar (1997) and many other Mani sir’s films. I also love all of Zoya Akhtar’s films. Lagaan (2001) is such a wonderful film. I can keep watching it again and again. There are many other films that are on my list of all-time favourite films.
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