Nine years since the idea, Ayan Mukerji discusses weaving mythology and technology in the making of Ranbir-Alia’s ‘Brahmastra’
Ranbir Kapoor in ‘Brahmastra’
Nestled in a remote corner of the old Dharma Productions’ office in Khar is Ayan Mukerji’s workstation—the birthing ground for Brahmāstra. One quick look around and you find props, books, research material, and everything else that is required to create what is touted to be one of the most awaited films of the last few years. We sit down to chat with the filmmaker, who returns nine years after the blockbuster ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’ (2013), to discuss a film that no one expected him to make and one that everyone cautioned him against.
Birth Of Brahmastra
“We jumped into the ocean without a float,” starts Mukerji with a laugh, when we asked him where he began. For a homegrown, first of its kind, superhero movie – he had no reference point. “Some of these big things, if you know too much when you begin, it’s so daunting that you’ll never start. It was my destiny to do this movie. Someone walked into my office and saw the trishul, and realised the amount of shiva energy in this project. She said that anything with Shiva’s name is difficult but when the results come, it will be heartening. It threw up odd challenges. Karan (Johar, producer) had announced a release date of 2018. With every passing phase of this film, I believed even more that we are on to make a film that’s unique, incredible and special. If we get this right, we make an impact that’s beyond a mere successful run of the box-office. The impact of Star Wars, Avatar or Bahubali. We were walking with the giant movies in our mind. We knew we were not a regular film. Building something of this nature was bound to take time…”
Genesis of the Astraverse
Borrowing the motifs from mythology, Mukerji knew early on that his film is a blend of modern age philosophy blended with the stories of Gods and Goddesses we’ve grown up with. He explains, “The elements came over the years. I am connected with Hinduism. I am inspired by Lord Shiva because my family feels spiritually connected with Maa Durga, Ma Kali and Shiva Puranas. It was always a part of my life. I was obsessed with stories of Gods and Goddesses as a kid. My favourite film as a kid was – Har Har Mahadev, which is a film with Dara Singh as Shiva. I used to watch the movie and it spoke to me. When we were starting , the reference in my mind was of Ra.one, which Shah Rukh Khan made. That film was drawn from technology, robotics. I got to draw from mythology and was looking at a film on technology. It was so abstract that it was years before we could craft a story.”
In Mukerji, we found a fellow Potter head too, which he credits as inspiration. Not only did that nudge him to rake up the courage to build a universe from scratch, but he also believes Brahmastra has a similar fantasy spirit. “After my teenage years, I realised the Harry Potter series were one of my favourite creations of all time. I was lost in those books. That degree of entertainment and stimulation had not happened in our movies. The genre attracts me. When the idea came to me, I was in the Himalayas. There is a primal feeling you get in the mountains where you feel connected to the roots of this nation. If we get into the heart of the story of Brahmastra, one must remember that it is a modern film. It unfolds in India today. A part of my natural filmmaking wrote about modern characters and modern relationships. I have kept that alive in the film. We have discussed spirituality in a relatable fashion that connects with today’s generation. Through action, fantasy, the VFX, all the masala, love story, at its core there is a spiritual depth which we were trying to achieve. I was chasing what spirituality means to me and translated that celluloid. I had followed that essence in Wake up Sid and Yeh Jawaani… as well.”
A lot of our technical research followed thereon. From reading Devdutt Patnaik’s works to bring in interesting motifs, to researching on the unspoken truths about Shiva, Mukerji amassed it all into the screenplay. “You know there is this word people throw around a lot – energy! We are all chasing positive energy. I have tried to marry my modern philosophies with stories that run deep in our country and bring it together in Brahmastra. Bit by bit we created the astraverse – Vanarastra, Nandiastra, Prabhastra, Jalastra, Pawanastra and Brahmastra. It starts with a visual of rishi-munis meditating in the Himalayas and is bestowed with a vardan of brahmshakti. These astras are manifestations of different energies that exist around us.”
Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor
Finding his support system in Alia-Ranbir
The filmmaker has no bones in admitting that he and his leading man Ranbir Kapoor have a vast gamut to cover with the franchise. “It is a vast subject and if anyone would have understood my abstract notions, it would be Ranbir. We are close as people. I can say anything to him in the most vulnerable state. It has always been our equation which is why we could make a Wake up Sid together. He can hear me out deeply. He allows directors to share vision, no matter how abstract, how vague it is. He internalises this character. He and Alia had to carry the film with me. It is a pregnancy that is in you. Every dinner conversation, every chill session, has always been about this movie.” He sheepishly admits that he has been a vibe disruptor in far too many hangout sessions. “Since 2011, Ranbir has been hearing about Brahmastra. The prep was different. He has the fire connection in him so there were people who helped him understand how that element will work at a screen level.”
In an industry designed to churn movie after movie every Friday, was there never any pressure from his actors or producers or the Star Studios (rebranded name of the studio) to make it fast? “I have been bullish through the making of this film. I found myself through this movie. But people allowed me to make the movie I am making. Even when they didn’t allow me, I was forceful in asserting my vision. But I have never been egotistical about the fact that it is my creation. I knew my thinking was in a good direction. But I am still making a commercial mainstream movie. So it needed to have the artistic finesse, like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Bahubali – which is great storytelling, palatable to everyone. People around responded to me with kindness. The film has it in itself to be bigger. No one will come to the theatres to watch an ordinary film. If you want people’s time, you have to make it special. I hope Brahmastra does well so storytellers chase out of the ordinary ideas in mainstream space. We need to reduce the amount of churn. James Cameron took so many years to make Avatar. K Asif took a decade to make Mughal E Azam. I find time itself a silly conversation. If you want people to invest in you, you have to take the time and do good work.”
Future of the franchise
Somewhere between 2014 and 2022, during the film’s making, OTT space in India grew abundantly. One might believe that the web could be the next direction for Mukerji’s astraverse. Does he agree? “As we started to build our fantasy derived from Indian inspirations, we were caught up in the filmmaking process of how to translate it on celluloid. The subject we have is a blackhole and while I had a basic story for part 2 and 3, the thinking has shifted drastically from our end. The main astra is the Brahmastra and then there are other astras protected by the group. These astras exist in modern India, which is a dynamic space for stories. Ideas upon ideas came. For instance, Vanarastra is an astra which whoever controls has the power of a super-vanar, something inspired from Lord Hanuman. The spirit is different from Lord Shiva’s energy, which is the driving force for part one. We feel we could take these ideas and make another film.”
He and his core team, Mukerji says, has only worked on this project since 2015. “There is a different fun in making a movie like this. That you are completely consumed by. Remember the frenzy around Game of thrones? I feel we can create something like that on the back of Brahmastra. My emphasis right now is on the film’s trilogy and to make it high quality. It is not about making a hit film with ten sequels. We have to maintain quality.”
What Brahmastra means for India?
Opportunities and investments to create such homegrown projects are rare. In such a scenario, one always feels the pressure of doing it right. As the creator of the universe that releases soon for the world to see, Ayan feels this is the foot in the door for more of such storytelling to follow. “Brahmastra is an original film and it is only coming together now with the VFX work done. I hope there will be fan theories and conspiracy theories once the film releases. As a studio, Disney has been tied with the film through the making. It is listed as one of their major international releases. I did a talk at the Disney Studio Summit, which was the first time an international film had gone there. We were amongst Avatar and Marvel presentations and I was talking about Lord Shiva and Kali Ma. The concept of Shakti. I realised people responded to it and everyone enjoyed it. Brahmastra is means to a larger end in terms of storytelling. We must allow this storytelling to seep in outside India. Slowly people will watch the film and understand the imagery of Shiva, what it means. There is an interest in local subcultures. With Disney on board, not only are we hopeful of a big global release but an international access on streaming.”
As he nears close to release, he is coming up for air finally. “My core team and I have been too caught up in doing this project. 11 years since the idea, nine years since Yeh Jawaani released and seven years since I got into the office with the script of the film. A part of me is looking forward to the day that the film is released, and I can go to a cute bistro and eat lunch with friends…” Well earned, one would say.