42 unique killings with Karan Johar and Guneet Monga's 'KILL'

A chat with Team KILL, a nonstop action ride and arguably India’s first genre film of world-class calibre, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week.
Laksh Lalwani in 'KILL'.
Laksh Lalwani in 'KILL'.

Some film titles are poetic, some are funny, and some others are mysterious. And then there are those that come right to the point, like KILL. Dharma Productions’ Karan Johar, a producer of the film, was equally forthright when he explained in an interview in Toronto, why he came up with that title, all in upper case. “It just seemed like a bang-on, straightforward communication of the film,” he says. His co-producer, Guneet Monga of Sikhya Entertainment, agrees, “Karan says it very well, films are made with blood, sweat and tears…and this film is blood, blood, blood.” 140 litres of fake blood, to be precise!

KILL, a nonstop action ride and arguably India’s first genre film of world-class calibre, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, in the Midnight Madness section. Peter Kuplowsky, long-time programmer of Midnight Madness at TIFF, said he was “floating in his chair” when he first heard about the film from Guneet. “What I love about KILL is that it wastes so little time. There’s a very simple setup and the characters are all well drawn and very clear what their wants and ambitions are, and then it’s just off to the races. I mean, within less than 10 minutes, the action starts and it does not let up to the very end.”

All of this action takes place aboard the Patna-Delhi Rajdhani Express when a gang of robbers enters the train and what might have been a mildly violent mass robbery quickly spirals into a full-fledged psychopathic confrontation. Director Nikhil Nagesh Bhat said his screenplay was inspired by a real-life experience of a train robbery during his university days, albeit one that was nowhere near as violent, and in fact bypassed his compartment as he slept. The psycho twist in KILL, he says, came due to COVID, “I started writing during the lockdown, it was so claustrophobic, and I wanted to break somebody’s head. So I was actually consumed by those emotions.”

The violence and combat in KILL are relentless and visually eye-popping. South Korean action choreographer Se-Yeong Oh of Snowpiercer fame was roped in for the film. “It was essentially for the artistry that was required,” says Karan. “You have to hold the action in a completely confined compact space. There is nowhere else to go. You are either fighting from the aisle into the bunks and beyond or going from one compartment to the other. It’s very difficult to design those shots, execute them and perform them. Mr Oh and his team from Korea, in hand-to-hand combat, is one of the best talents you know.”

A viewer could easily lose count of the two-hour-long film’s “42 unique killings” as Guneet describes it. The crew not only had to keep track of continuity but also a stupendous level of detail demanded by Nikhil. “Each goon has a specific knife,” he said. “And if this knife has to go in somebody’s face, then that wound has to be only that thick. The wounds needed to look real, so a lot of prosthetics were involved. We had to start work on the prosthetics some four months earlier.”

The film introduces Lakshya as Amrit, an NSG commando who happens to be a passenger on the targeted train, while Raghav Juyal plays the psychotic robber Fani. Tanya Maniktala as Tulsi is Amrit’s love interest and provides the emotional anchor to his character. While both Lakshya and Raghav throw countless punches and various other weapons, their fighting styles have to be kept distinct. As Lakshya says, “Amrit is a well-trained commando, so everything he does is a textbook play. On the other hand, you see Fani, who is not trained, so you never know he might just take out a knife from behind his pocket and just shove it anywhere, a loose cannon who might go in any direction.”

Nikhil adds, “We didn’t want a typical martial arts film, because the goons are very raw, and historically India is a wrestling country and there’s a lot of arm-to-arm fights. So my brief to Mr. Oh was that it should be a very intimate, intense action where the audience should feel the punch.”

The set appears deceptively simple to the viewer, being confined to a train, but the shoot actually took an “insane amount of planning,” according to Guneet. Nikhil explains, “We planned to shoot long takes, but doing that in a restricted area is very difficult. So we had to make a fully collapsible set which opened from all sides. And it should come back within the shot while we’re moving the camera.”

KILL is only the second Indian film to feature in TIFF’s Midnight Madness section. TIFF’s Kuplowsky says, “I think the challenge has been convincing the Indian industry that there’s a Western audience, an international audience that would enjoy these films just as much as the domestic and diaspora audience would. And KILL coming to the festival as a sales title is actually very rare. A lot of Indian films pre-sell their territories in advance, already have a streaming partner involved, and this film has arrived to find an international partner and I think it has a very good chance of being a crossover hit.”

Karan says a theatrical release in India is their first priority. “I don’t think any of us, while making movies, are thinking about an international audience. We’re initially thinking about our own audience. And if there’s a breakthrough possibility, then that happens.” He adds, “There is a younger audience and there’s a complete mainstream audience that would love to watch the ride that KILL takes you on.”
Karan is already thinking ahead, declaring he wants to do KILL 2 and KILL 3. But for the film that just premiered, he has some words of caution for viewers. “I’m going to say that it’s not the family audiences that will be able to consume this film. It is an exceptionally violent film and it’s blood porn to say the least and if you have the appetite, then just come on an empty stomach and watch.”

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The New Indian Express