Ayan Mukerji has a cheery, eclectic workspace. A large-size infinity gauntlet sits below a Shiva sketch-up. On his desk, a Potter bobblehead next to the quote — “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”. The books reflect a jumble of genres and preoccupations: Bukowski’s 'The Pleasures of the Damned', the entire Artemis Fowl collection, The Hobbit, Devdutt Pattanaik, Roger Ebert. I also noticed Geetanjali Shree’s 'Tomb of Sand', a book on the RSS, and a wall full of spoiler-y concept material I’m not allowed to divulge.
Ayan, though chatty and relaxed, also sounds a bit on edge — 'Brahmastra' is just a few weeks from release. He’s knee-deep into mixing and mastering and finalising the film’s music. “The thing with Pritam da is,” Ayan grins, “he always kicks in at the last moment.”
Over steaming cups of tea, we spoke to Ayan about the conception of 'Brahmastra', setting up the ‘Astraverse’, the centrality of Shiva to the trilogy and the unprecedented VFX work on the film. Excerpts…
When did Brahmastra begin for you and how?
Growing up, I was a big fan of the fantasy-adventure genre. I was one of the youngest kids I knew to have read 'The Lord of the Rings'. I was also quite religious.
Some 11 years ago, I was in the Himalayas to write the second half of 'Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani'. I would write in the day and set off for a long walk in the evening. One day, I was walking through the forest path when I started ideating. And the minute I opened that Pandora’s box, it was like ‘boom’. Everything that I had read and loved and where I had reached in life and the surrounding of the mountains...it all came together to make me feel the space of 'Brahmastra'.
It happened just like that, in an instant?
It certainly did. Between 4 pm and 6 pm, I knew I had it. I had landed my ‘Star Wars’ idea. I almost did not want to make 'Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani' anymore. I called Ranbir up and told him I have found the idea of my life. I wanted to make a wonderful fantasy film that was drawing its energy not from the world of science but from ancient India and the energies that make up the universe. It’s powerful as well as an obvious source if you grew up in India and are connected to some kind of spirituality. It was a long journey from there to conceptualise the whole film.
Let’s dig into some of the mythos you are setting up. I want to start with the Brahmansh, an ancient secret society entrusted to protect divine weapons.
The Brahmansh came from that word we read and hear about often: The Illuminati. I took the idea of a secret society but applied it to Indian culture. It’s not a society of immortals, to be clear. They’re human beings living a normal life. Some of them may have lived longer than an average person but eventually they die and pass on their gift to another generation. And Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan is the guru of today’s Brahmansh.
I counted seven astras (Jal, Pawan, Agni, Nandi, Vanar, Prabha and Brahm) in the promos. Given that it’s called the ‘Astraverse’, will there be more?
There are about 10 in the first film. Few of them don’t even come up by name. As we open 'Part Two', we will start building on the universe. I do have more in my mind. You can compare the astras to The Infinity Stones or various references in Hindu culture. But to be honest, they were really created in my imagination. We’ve used the word ‘astras’ because it’s the most apt. But initially, I had names like, say, ‘the anklet of flight’. They were concepts I imagined could have existed back in the day if people were harnessing the natural powers of the universe.
You’ve said that the protagonist, a DJ played by Ranbir Kapoor, is not an incarnation of Lord Shiva, as people might imagine. Can you elaborate more on the character?
Shiva is a simple boy who has a connection with fire. He’s an anomaly in the world of 'Brahmastra'. In a group of people who use astras to control energies, he is born an astra himself. There were many reasons for me to name him Shiva. Ranbir’s character wields a fiery trident in the film, which is Lord Shiva’s weapon. He’s a DJ—so there’s a little connection there between music and dance and the Nataraja depiction of Shiva. It’s also said that when Brahma and Vishnu were fighting, Shiva was born from a pillar of fire. Even the Brahmastra weapon in our film is depicted almost like Lord Shiva’s third eye which, once opened, cannot be controlled. In Part One, Ranbir is more like the Bholenath version of Lord Shiva. He’s yet to become the fiery destroyer we know.
Will Ranbir be an equal protagonist throughout the series? There’s speculation about Deepika Padukone and Shah Rukh Khan joining as new heroes...
Ranbir is the protagonist. The 'Brahmastra' trilogy is dedicated to the different energies of Shiva. If we succeed and the Astraverse develops, we can have a film about the Vanarastra dedicated to Lord Hanuman. We might do another on Lord Vishnu and so forth. We will have new and important characters joining in, but all I can say is that the trilogy, for now, is all about Shiva.
'Brahmastra' is releasing at an interesting time. On the one hand, there’s jubilation about the film representing Indian mythology and culture on the big screen. However, you also faced flak over the ‘entering pandal with shoes on’ scene. Are you concerned about the present climate of movie-watching in India?
I’m aware of it like 5 per cent. But I also find the vision of our film so respectful towards Indian culture that I know it will translate. For instance, when I put out an explanation for the pandal thing, it got taken quite nicely. I don’t want to believe in the concept that there are troublemakers out there, though it’s probably too idealistic of me to say that. I’m hoping to fill 'Brahmastra' with so much light that it will dispel the darkness. It’s too late to doubt myself.
Take us through the VFX journey of the film.
We had DNEG (Dune, Blade Runner 2049, Interstellar) on the project. Between the UK and India, they have a team of over a thousand artists. Visual effects at a high level are really hard to crack. It was too expensive. Luckily, Namit Malhotra, the CEO of DNEG, is also one of the producers of 'Brahmastra'. So I had support from him. But even then, we spent four times more than any Hindi film on VFX.
I spent years learning the technology in studios across the world. We didn’t have the resources of a James Cameron or a Christopher Nolan. So I worked extra hard to pre-visualize everything. I had to give the right kind of footage to the VFX artists to work on. There were also storytelling adjustments to be made. For example, at one point, we wanted to create a bear, but we’d hit a certain limit on our budget. So we created something else.
I hope we can do an interview for 'Part Two' soon enough.
I hope I’m alive and standing to make 'Part Two' (laughs). I think I’m going to collapse by the time 'Part One' releases.