Tale of three friends: Abhishek Kapoor's 'Kai Po Che' represents India at Berlin Fest

A best-seller when it was published in 2008, Chetan Bhagat's novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life follows three friends as they try to find their place in the Indian city of Ahmedabad. Bhagat brought the book to director Abhishek Kapoor, whose film Rock On! was a critical success that same year.

"It took me two and a half years to crack the screenplay," Kapoor remembers, talking about what would become the film Kai Po Che. "Just to get my head around what I wanted to keep—eventually I took a lot of material out, added a lot of new scenes. So it's now based on 3 Mistakes, but there's a lot more in the film than there is in the book."

Kapoor collaborated on the script with Bhagat and two other writers, Pubali Chaudhuri and Suapratik Sen. "In India, not many films are made from novels," he explains. "One of the reasons why I took on the project was that I saw a great opportunity to make an Indian film, not something Bollywood-esque. I think the Indian films that appeal to the West are about the poverty in India, about the slums. A sort of fascination with how 'the other part of the world' lives."

The director wanted to show a different side of India. "Kai Po Che is not about poverty, it's about the value systems that the country has, the aspirations especially of the Gujarati community in which this film is based," he declares.

The story also unfolds to a backdrop of real events, such as a 2001 earthquake that killed over 700 in the city of Ahmedabad, and religious riots the following year that claimed over a thousand lives.

"That's why the script took so long, we had so much to pack into two hours," Kapoor says. "And normally in a Bollywood film you would have a song coming in here, another there. But I think that our Indian audience is more than that. I think we've been shortchanging them. So we worked harder on the screenplay, and our performances—well, they're a little non-Bollywood. More Indian cinema."

Slight and wiry, Kapoor speaks in short, passionate bursts about what he describes as a "hectic" shoot. He met with the press in a Manhattan hotel prior to attending the Berlin Film Festival, where Kai Po Che was the first Indian film chosen to compete in the Panorama section.

The three friends in the film are Ishaan, a local cricket star (played by Sushant Singh Rajput) who realizes he has reached the end of his career in sports; Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav), an ambitious go-getter trying to start a retail business; and Omi (Amit Sadh), whose family connections lead him into politics.

"Ishaan's character is what really drew me to the book," Kapoor reveals. "He was someone I could relate to. So much angst, you see him so brash and aggressive and downright nasty, but when you realize why he is that way, you sympathize with him."

Kapoor cast television actor Rajput as Ishaan, a choice that ended up affecting his budget. "In India we don't think that a television actor would do well in film for some reason. Our business is quite nepotistic. But I feel that theatre and television should be platforms for pulling talent into film. We auditioned a lot of people, a lot of actors individually who were very good. But I needed three guys to come together with real chemistry. You needed to feel their friendship."

All of the lead characters in Kai Po Che have flaws, including Ishaan's sister Vidya (Amrita Puri). "She's even worse than Ishaan," Kapoor laughs. "You'd think she'd be afraid of her brother, but then you see her start to play his friend, lead him on. Like everyone else, she has all these different parts. You have to show all these different aspects to understand the characters. Because everyone has a moment to shine. I think that is true about most people. There is a hero in everyone."

The director worked with his leads for two months, through auditions, readings and group exercises. Rajput had to learn cricket, and lost some 30 pounds getting into shape for his role. Sadh, on the other hand, had to bulk up for his part.

No matter how much he prepared, "until you get on the floor you don't really know how you're going to do it," Kapoor admits. "So for the first week or ten days I'm pulling the actors to make sure they are in line. Once they got under the skin of the characters, I let them go. Before a scene, I'd tell them: This is what we've got to get, and these are the parameters, don't step out of that zone. But you can improvise."

Kapoor shot entirely on location, for 72 days, in temperatures that topped 120 degrees. "Twelve, fourteen-hour days," he recalls. "By the time the sun comes up, it's too hot to step on the ground. Ahmedabad is not a very picturesque place, so it was hard to get some element of beauty into our shots. Plus in India the light tends to be a 'top light,' more contrast than in Europe, for example." That limited shooting to early morning and late afternoon hours.

The director speaks fondly of his cinematographer, Anay Goswamy. "He's very artistic, and a real gentleman, and in the kind of conditions we're working in I have to shield him," he says. "My actors were so prepared I could give Anay as much time as I could. But I almost lost my mind. I did lose my hair."

Kai Po Che has three elaborate set-pieces: the Ahmedabad earthquake, the religious riots, and a cricket match between India and Australia that lasted five days. Intriguingly, the film depicts these through the eyes of Ishaan, Govind and Omi, and Ishaan's protégé Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh), a young Muslim cricket prodigy. As a result, Kapoor could avoid relying on special effects.

"This film is not about special effects," he insists. "It's about the characters and how they feel. In fact, we had two big shots of the earthquake, one of a bridge collapsing. But suddenly the attention was drawn away from Govind to look at effects. And I didn't want to break away from his emotion."

Similarly, Kapoor tried to show the riots between Hindus and Muslims through Omi's eyes, believing that the fighting—which included a train bombing and knife fights—had been covered extensively in the media.

Recreating the riots involved genuine risk. "This is still a very sensitive topic in India," Kapoor explains. "We're shooting on a real location, on a Hindu street that we dressed to look like a Muslim one. The locals were really upset. We had to calm them down and then shoot as fast as we could because we didn't want it to get out of control."

Kapoor admits that Western audiences may not get all of his film's cultural references. He removed subtitles for some song lyrics because he felt they weren't doing justice to the original poetry. In another scene, a rose syrup drink favored by Muslims makes a point about a character's religious prejudices.

And a long dance sequence during a Navaratri festival sets up a relationship that will help determine the film's outcome. "But that scene is so important because we then see Govind and Vidya on the rooftop terrace," Kapoor says. "That dance they're doing, the 'garba,' is very popular in Gujarat."

The director worried that the terrace scene, an intimate moment between Govind and Vidya, might affect the film's rating. "I could have done something sexier, like it is in the book," Kapoor admits. "But families might not be comfortable watching it, so we toned it down a bit."

Surprisingly, the Indian Censor Board gave Kai Po Che a "U," or "Universal" rating. "We want everyone to watch the movie," they told Kapoor, citing in particular the way he depicted the love affair and the riots.

Kai Po Che climaxes during the riots in a scene that pulls together several different storylines. "It's a complicated screenplay," Kapoor admits. "Sometimes you may feel like we don't know where we're going. But everything, the whole film, it's all for that moment. The love story, the Hindu Muslim story, the betrayal, the loyalty—we had to get you invested in each one of them, without siding for or against anyone."

The scene doesn't appear in the novel. "I was on board with all the changes," Chetan Bhagat writes by e-mail. "In fact, some of the changes came from me. But I am more than happy with the film. It is extremely well-made, and I shall be proud of it for my entire life. It is rare something like this comes out of the Indian film industry."

This is the third feature Kapoor has directed, after starring in films in the 1990s. "Studios didn't have as big a foothold in the business then," he notes. "Either you were hard-core Bollywood or you didn't exist. Instead of pursuing acting I just backed off, because I felt I wasn't in control of the way my life was going."

Kapoor's background in acting clearly helped the performances in Kai Po Che, just as the years spent working on the screenplay brought depth and nuance to the plot. "I try to walk the line," he says. "Because of the riots, the animosity between Hindu and Muslim, something pure has gone. But I tried not to be preachy. If there's a message to the movie, it's that everyone has dreams. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail."