'Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis got me excited about filmmaking'
... says Imran Khan who is making his directorial debut with the short film, Mission Mars: Keep Walking India, set for release on September 20
Little does Imran Khan the filmmaker resemble the peachy urban charmer of his acting peak. Sporting a trim suit and cropped hair, he rattles off about his directorial debut, the short film Mission Mars: Keep Walking India, presented by Johnny Walker - The Journey and produced by Dharma 2.0, about India's epochal insertion of the Mangalyaan space probe into the Mars orbit. Imran, who studied screenwriting and filmmaking at the LA campus of the New York Film Academy, also seems determined to trace a new trajectory after hanging up his acting boots in 2015.
After an 8-year-long acting career, you've given it all up to pursue your main interest as a writer-director.
Yes, and it has been tremendously fulfilling. As an actor, there was always this sense of not buying into what the director wanted. When I would point something out to a director, he'd go..."Koi nahi dekhega, don't worry." I didn't have that attitude while making this film. I wanted everything to be fine-tuned, be it a minor VFX-issue or something bigger.
How did you go about researching your film to make it look authentic?
My co-writer Abhishek Saha (also an actor in the film) and I collated all the data about the Mars Orbital Mission. We watched every documentary and interview available. Pallav Bagla's (and Subhadra Menon's) book, Reaching for the Stars: India's Journey to Mars and Beyond, was very informative and helpful. Since we were making a short film, we needed to condense the event to a limited time frame. Luckily, we discovered that there's a 25-minute time period called occult when the spacecraft goes behind Mars, during which it is determined if it will enter the orbit or shoot off into deep-space. That gave us the narrative device to set the film in the control room for those crucial 25 minutes. The rest unfolds in flashbacks.
As a director, who are your influences?
Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis got me excited about filmmaking as a child. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future and was thrilled about genre filmmaking. I want to make genre films with an engaging story.
Are you in a better state of mind now than you were during your acting years?
As an actor, you get caught up seeking approval and affirmation from many sources. This was the reason I ended up doing a lot of films, because, for instance, it was considered a smart career move to follow up a romcom with a serious film. I often did films because a big director or a big producer was attached to it, not because I wanted to share a story. When I decided to make a change, a lot of voices kept telling me to make an acting comeback. They couldn't understand why was I writing and directing a short film.
But you did pursue acting for a very long time...
Yes, I spent 10 years building a Bollywood career. Every time I wanted to do something different, I was told that it was not a smart move. I slowly realised that I was living in fear of judgement. Fortunately, I am not financially dependent on acting. Even if I make a comeback as an actor, it will be for something I truly believe in. But in my heart, I am not an actor. I am a filmmaker.
Won't the same concerns about box-office and popularity come back to haunt you when you set out to direct your first feature film?
That's assuming I set out to make a masala Bollywood film that will release in theatres. But that's not the only option. We have the digital medium today, which is the way of the future. The classic Bollywood model of making a mainstream film with songs and dances is dead.
You come from a lineage of directors, producers and actors that thrived in that old industry. How has your family warmed up to the idea of you breaking away from the old ways?
Although my family can be identified as a 'film clan', it is also a family of rule-breakers. My grandfather, director-producer Nasir Hussain, was thrown out of his house when he expressed a desire to work in films. In the 90s, when Aamir (Khan) was still a young actor, he had these radical notions. He demanded a bound-script before shooting a film, which was deemed insane. He also had crazy ideas like doing one film at a time or changing his look for every film. These things have now become the norm. So we have always been a family of mavericks. I am no different.
Are you working on a feature film now?
I came close to finalising a script but couldn't crack it. It was a very personal relationship-drama. Right now, I don't have a specific idea that I am working on. I'm not sure if it will be a digital-only film or a theatrical release or even a web series. But my intention is to keep writing and directing.