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Text by Alpana Chowdhury and Photographs by Ankur Chaturvedi
Published: Volume 14, Issue 4, July-August, 2006

In the wake of the failure of his first film, Mujshe Dosti Karoge, he was treated like a pariah by the Hindi film industry. Undaunted by the humiliation, the passionate director continued to believe in his dreams and savoured success with his next offering, Hum Tum. ALPANA CHOWDHURY gets upfront and personal with Kunal Kohli whose recent release, Fanaa, had movie buffs defying bans and travelling across geographical borders to watch the film!

I wouldn't say I'm destiny's favoured child. Destiny is good to me when I work and it's taken me a long time to reach where I am today," says the 39-year-old director of the immensely successful films, Hum Tum and Fanaa and the not so successful Mujhse Dosti Karoge.

We are sitting in the plush environs of Yashraj Films' state-of-the-art studio and Kohli is justifiably pleased to be part of Aditya Chopra's team of directors here. "To come to an office like this every morning is a privilege. Yashraj Films is an institution in itself. From Daag to Fanaa, it has over 25 years of films to its credit and I am very happy to belong here. And to the world of Hindi films at large." Whether it is talking animatedly about his films or introducing his assistants to the golden classics of a bygone era, you can tell that this one-time host of television shows is passionate about the medium. So passionate that this snobby South Mumbaiite even worked as a bartender in America in order to finance his visits to the cinema.

In an industry that worships only one god - success - Kohli is today a much-revered director. But when his first film, Mujhse Dosti Karoge, was a washout, despite a star ensemble, lavish production values and all the ingredients of a successful formula film; the film industry was thrilled to see him written off. It had extracted its pound of flesh in exchange for all the films Kohli had bad-mouthed on his television show, Chalo Cinema. "It was easy for you to criticise us. Now you know what it entails to make a film," the filmwallahs chorused, as they proceeded, viciously, to treat him like a pariah.

Recalling those humiliating days, Kohli relates, "People would turn away when I entered a party. They would avoid my phone calls. Once, when I messaged a director saying I liked the first half of his film, he snapped at me, saying, 'You can have an opinion if you have some achievement to your credit.' He said this at a large gathering, loud enough for everyone to hear and I stood stripped, completely defenceless."

Even today, Kohli cringes, remembering those words. "On hindsight, I would say I am glad I didn't achieve success with my first film. I might have become pompous like that director. In fact, I'm sure I would have," he states candidly. "Today, the very people who shunned me come out of their way to meet me, shake my hand and make conversation. But this adulation doesn't go to my head because I can see through their hypocrisy and fake values."

When Mujhse flopped (ironically, Yashraj Films made a profit from it, and according to trade figures it is Hrithik Roshan's biggest hit overseas), Kohli had to sell off his office, one of his cars and with much difficulty, maintained his credit card balance. Naturally, he sank into deep depression. But, after six weeks of melancholia, Kohli decided to pull himself out of his gloom. "I went to see my film in Liberty Theatre to analyse where I had gone wrong. There were only about 40 college students in the hall; I sat behind them and listened to their barbs. Then I returned home and did an honest self-appraisal." Looking back upon his career, Kohli realised that he had made a mark on TV because he had created original, first-of-their-kind programmes like Philips Top Ten, Lux Kya Scene Hain and Chalo Cinema. "Whereas when I made MujhseI had aped others. I had tried to be Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar. My film lacked conviction. I realised I had to be true to myself and make my next film on a subject I believed in."