Vidyut Jammwal: We need to lift our action budgets
The actor and team on Khuda Haafiz, skirting stereotypes and the future of Bollywood action
The ghost of the 2008 financial crisis persists. In last year's Hustlers, for instance, two strippers hatch a scheme to rob their rich clientele, their lives put on pause by the crash. While Hollywood titles abound, it was interesting to see a recent Hindi film use the subject as its jumping-off point.
Faruk Kabir's Khuda Haafiz premiered on Disney+ Hotstar on August 14. The romantic thriller follows a Lucknow couple — played by Vidyut Jammwal and Shivaleeka Oberoi — who fall on hard times and decide to emigrate to the Gulf. There, the wife is abducted and sold into the flesh trade, setting Vidyut on a one-man rampage in her search.
The idea, Faruk says, came from several newspaper stories at the time. "I was moved by reports of young couples losing their jobs and falling into danger. Of course, it’s all the more eerie that the film has released now, with another recession setting in."
While filming, Faruk was wary of stereotyping his setting. It's a common charge against blustering action movies set in faraway Islamic lands. "In the 80s, Muslim characters were presented with a lot of sensitivity," Faruk notes. "They were always the noble friend who lavishes his life on the hero." However, post 9-11, such portrayals diminished. "Because of the horrible deeds of a few, the whole community was maligned. It's something I was careful not to repeat. For instance, in Khuda Haafiz, Annu Kapoor plays an Afghan taxi driver who helps our protagonist at each step."
For Vidyut, playing a small-town software engineer presented its own challenges. For one, he had to tone down his crack action-hero persona for a more shaky style. It wasn't easy. During one sequence, a goon attacks him with a wooden stick. Instinctively, Vidyut caught hold of the stick. "When you've been doing martial arts from a young age, it's difficult to look completely untrained. Several times, I'd have my director shouting, 'Yaar Vidyut, just get beaten up!'"
Since Force (2011), Vidyut has been dedicatedly knocking out action movies in the Hindi mainstream. The actor feels Bollywood filmmakers are finally waking up to the genre's potential. Still, the budgets pouring in are not up to snuff. "I sometimes feel like a 100-metre sprinter without the shoes," Vidyut rues. "I've made a name for our country with these small-budgeted films. Imagine giving us the budget of a Hollywood production."
Vidyut was recently listed as the only Indian on '10 People You Don't Want To Mess With'. The list, published by YouTube channel TheRichest, also featured Russian President Vladimir Putin and adventurer Bear Grylls. He has also started his own interview series X-Rayed, featuring action royalties like Tony Jaa, Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White.
"I'm a great fan of Bruce Lee and his philosophy," Vidyut shares. "So my conversations with these people are not about what they eat or how they train. They're more philosophical. The goal of a true martial artist is not to achieve success but to attain wisdom through the martial arts."
Shivaleeka Oberoi plays the female lead in Khuda Haafiz. Her character, Nargis, has drawn comparisons to the eponymous yesteryear star. "I've been tagged in so many collages of me and Nargis Dutt ma'am. It's a huge honour to play a character with her name."
This is Shivaleeka's second Bollywood release. Her debut film, Yeh Saali Aashiqui (2019), was a romantic thriller co-starring Vardhan Puri. She had previously worked as an assistant director on Kick and Housefull 3.
"My experience behind the camera has helped me map out my roles," Shivaleeka says. "Luckily, even after the lockdown, I've been in talks for films and OTT projects. Of course, things are a bit stuck right now. I'm using this time to catch up with family. I also finished F.R.I.E.N.D.S for the second time."
Vidyut, meanwhile, is gunning to get back to work. "I have a line-up of exciting movies to start. The only question is when?"