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From Bollywood to Cannes: City boy Amit Khanna has done it all

City boy Amit Khanna grew up on masala films and burnt his fingers trying to make them. His big switch, a short film on child soldiers, is now headed to the mother of all film festivals.

HT48HRS_Special Updated: May 12, 2016 14:40 IST
Manali Shah
Writer-director Amit Khanna at his Andheri residence
Writer-director Amit Khanna at his Andheri residence(Photo: Aalok Soni/HT)

City boy Amit Khanna grew up on masala films and burnt his fingers trying to make them. His big switch, a short film on child soldiers, is now headed to the mother of all film festivals.

For those who have seen the web series All about Section 377, stepping into its writer-director Amit Khanna’s house will give you a sense of déjà vu. The series of quirky posters framed on the wall, the black armchair, the chaise lounge, and the abstract mask painted on the walls, look familiar. The series was shot at Khanna’s Andheri residence.

The day we meet him, actors troop in and out of the house. Camera equipment — various lenses, a beauty dish, a couple of snoots, a tripod — are strewn around the sitting room. A black background screen stands to one side; a couple of thermocol sheets are placed in the balcony. Khanna apologises for the mess, and explains that he’s in the middle of shooting a short film.

Khanna (32) dons many hats — scriptwriter, director, photographer and reluctant actor. Unable to find an actor to play a gay man in All About Section 377, Khanna himself stepped in.

These days, Khanna has a lot to be excited about: he won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for fashion photography, his short film, An Untold Story of Paperboats, will be screened on May 20 at the Cannes Film Festival in the Short Film Corner, and he assures us of a season two of the web show. He’s also looking forward to attending the Cannes Film Festival: “It’s every film-maker’s ultimate dream.”

A still from An Untold Story of Paperboats

How it all started

The world of cinema and theatre captivated Khanna when he was just three years old. He says he grew up on a steady diet of masala films. “I loved Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit and Aamir Khan. I am not one of those pseudo-intellectuals who says, ‘Oh, I like noir’.”

Also read: Terribly Tiny Talkies: Are short films the next big thing?

With his parents’ whole-hearted encouragement, he developed an interest in the behind-the-scenes aspect of theatre when he was just about 11. “I was an obese child and found it difficult to always be in the front — there weren’t many roles [for me]. When I was still in school, I used to direct plays for college students for various inter-college festivals and really enjoyed it,” he says.

Khanna (left) in a still from the web series, All About Section 377

Although a student of hotel management at IHM (Indian Institute of Hotel Management), he continued following his passion. At 18, like scores of other college students, he began to direct zero-budget short films and participate in competitions. “Some of them were really good, some were horrible,” says Khanna, who doesn’t have formal training in direction or photography.

In 2010, he took up writing for Channel V’s first fiction show, Roomies. Soon after, a production house offered him a chance to write and direct a Bollywood movie. The result was Tutiya Dil, starring newbies, in 2012, which, as Khanna himself puts it, “didn’t do that well”.

An Untold Story of Paperboats stars Darshan Gurjar, who was seen in Gunday

Post the film, his photography career took off, with Khanna taking up assignments for Wills India Fashion Week, Lakmé Fashion Week, India International Jewellery Week (IIJW). “I was earning more through photography. A film would take a year whereas a shoot can be wrapped up in a day,” he says.

Also read: Meet the director behind the viral short film, Taandav, starring Manoj Bajpayee

In 2014, though, a production house once again offered him the chance to direct. “I liked the script of Badmashiyaan: it was based on a Korean film called Couples. I have no regrets doing the film,” he says pre-emptively, perhaps because both films (original and the adaptation) were panned by critics.

Beyond the comfort zone

After two romcoms, Khanna was ready to try something entirely unrelated. His next short film — the one that will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival — is based on child soldiers and terrorism. “An Untold Story of Paperboats is a 21-minute short about a bright young boy who gets drawn into a Naxal camp. The lead is played by Darshan Gurjar, who played the young Ranveer Singh in Gunday. We shot with 200 village kids in Bahadurgarh, Haryana, over three days. It was quite a challenge, as we were shooting in the monsoons; our set washed away once, and there were creepy crawlies. Also, the kids would keep looking into the camera,” Khanna says. As part of research for the script, Khanna even pulled some political strings and managed to speak to a Naxalite to understand their point of view. “The film is going be a part of the Cannes library,” he adds.

Khanna’s pick of 5 short films to watch:

1) India Tomorrow By Imtiaz Ali

The film revolves around a conversation between a sex worker and a client. I like it because it breaks stereotypes. Also, Imtiaz Ali is one of my favourite directors.

2) Sundays by Mischa Rozema

I love this philosophical science-fiction short for its dark theme and treatment — one just does not know what to expect next. American actor Brian Petsos and Mexican actor Sofía Sisniega have given superlative performances.

3) What is That? by Constantin Pilavios

This 2007 Greek short film is about a father-son relationship. Keep tissues handy.

4) Right Here Right Now by Anand Gandhi

This short film deals with a concept I believe in: what goes around comes around. The way the characters are portrayed is simply amazing. Even though it was made in 2003, I find it relevant even today.

5) Positive by Farhan Akhtar

This wonderful message-oriented short film stars Shabana Azmi, Boman Irani and Arjun Mathur, and I love the way they have all acted. Boman’s characters contracts AIDs through extra-marital affairs and it’s up to his son (Mathur) to comfort him in his final days.