Nikhil Advaniwas always a film buff.
Never in his wildest dreams did he picture himself making his debut as director of a multicrore-budget Dharma Productions film, extensively shot in New York City with a hot star cast of Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Saif Ali Khan and Jaya Bachchan.
A graduate of chemistry from Mumbai's St Xavier's College, Advani was planning to leave to do his masters from Colorado University, when creativity got the better of him.
Advani, who possesses a special knack for remembering dates, recalls his journey from television to arthouse cinema to hardcore commercial blockbusters in the first instalment of a two-part interview with Sukanya Verma:
How did films happen? Did you always dream of becoming a director?
I come from a family where both my father and father-in-law are in pharmaceuticals. Somewhere along the way, I was disillusioned with the education system.
I decided why not do something in films. I was always interested in films. During the summer holidays, I would watch three-four films a day.
That's how I approached -- a friend of my mother's actually -- Govind Nihalani. He had done some ad films for my mom. He put me on to Saaed Mirza and Aziz Mirza.
Your mom is into?
My mom had an advertising agency earlier. It was called Raynora Enterprises. I used to go on her sets. That's where I met a lot of people like Ashok Mehta, Mandeep Kakkar and Govind Nihalani.
I guess it was always there [to be part of the movies]. [Back then] I didn't know where or what it was.
When I joined Aziz [Mirza], Saaed [Mirza], Sudhir [Mishra], Manjul [Sinha] and Kundan [Shah], I was the only assistant to work under five directors for Naya Nukkad in 1994.
I just met them. Then I told my parents I am joining films. My father looked at my mother and said, 'It's all your influence'.
So you abandoned your post-graduation course in US midway?
No, I didn't even go there. I was getting ready to go. I was supposed to leave during the fall of 1994.
Where exactly where you planning to study?
University of Colorado in Boulder. Its chemistry faculty is very good. I was through with GRE and TOEFL and was set to go.
Instead you decide to co-write the screenplay of Sudhir Mishra's Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin?
Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin was actually Sudhir Mishra's brother Sudhanshu's idea. Unfortunately, he expired in January 1995. Sudhir wanted to complete his last project.
It was then called Bhaag Vijay Bhaag. He took on all of Sudhanshu's projects. Suddenly, from no work after Naya Nukkad shut down in October 1994, we got really busy with a lot of work.
So Shiv Subramanium [who had written Parinda and 1942 - A Love Story], Sudhir and I wrote the screenplay.
Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin was a great experience for me. At that time, Ashish Vidyarthi, Nirmal Pandey and Tara Deshpande were newcomers. A young team was trying to make a film. It was 70 nights of non-stop shooting.
My body clock changed. It was great fun. I attribute all my learning to those nights I worked on Is Raat, including post-production.
It gave me an opportunity to work with Renu Saluja. She is the best editor India has ever produced. She taught me a lot -- action, reaction, how to edit, how not to edit, how to not rely only on visuals because there is sound too.
How did Kuch Kuch Hota Hai happen?
Karan was writing the screenplay of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai [at the time]. He asked me to hear his script. I went.
He didn't have anything written down. He had everything in his head. He is a brilliant narrator.
He asked me if I wanted to join him. I said fine. It was a little difficult for me because I was making a complete shift from parallel to commercial cinema. The school of thought was completely different.
But somewhere, as a viewer, I have always enjoyed mainstream cinema. So I assisted Karan during Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
You even did a cameo in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
It was quite funny actually. There was a sequence in KKHH called The Neelam Show, where I announce, 'Suparna mujhe phone mat karna, mujhe koi aur mil gayi hai'. I did it for a lark.
I had recently got married then. KKHH took me out of the so-called marital bliss for a long time. I hadn't been paying attention to my wife.
This situation came up. But it was some other girl's name. I told Karan I'll do it. My only condition was I'd say Suparna because that's my wife's name.
She kept telling me I paid more attention to [choreographer] Farah Khan than me. So I pulled Farah also into the scene. It was like our mischievous message to Suparna.
A lot of people still remember me as the 'Suparna mujhe phone mat karna' guy. I hope I'll not be remembered only as that. [laughs]
Didn't you also work with Aditya Chopra during Mohabbatein?
During Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I realised I had this ability to scout locations.
The advantage was that I was working with directors who had full bound scripts. That gave me a complete description of what they had in their head.
For KKHH, I scouted the summer camp location. Yash Johar and I went to Mauritius to check out locations for the college. Karan then came to check the location. I figured out production from Yash Johar. He is superb.
At that point, Adi [Aditya Chopra] joined us. He was writing his draft for Mohabbatein. In that 7-10 day period, Adi and I got talking. We realised we liked the same kind of cinema. Both of us like Sholay.
At some point, I told him that I'd like to assist him for his next film. He was absolutely okay with it.
The day KKHH got over, I remember we were sitting on this small couch in the foyer of Liberty cinema, Mumbai. He narrated Mohabbatein to me. I said it's fantastic, lets do it.
That's how Mohabbatein came about.
Followed by Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham?
Actually, by the end of KKHH, Karan had told me, "I want you to direct a film for Dharma Productions. I want Dharma Productions to be a company that would not only produce films for Karan Johar. I want other directors as well."
I wanted to direct [immediately], but we felt it was necessary to consolidate Dharma Productions as a brand. We could capitalise on Kuch Kuch Hota Hai's success. Obviously, the logical film would have been Karan Johar's next.
I remember I had just finished a late night schedule of Mohabbatein and went to meet Karan at his house. He narrated the idea of K3G to me, which he was working on with Sheena Parekh. I told him it sounds big.
He narrated the script to me in Switzerland during the last schedule of Mohabbatein. I left Switzerland, came back to London and started scouting locations for K3G.
In the second part, Nikhil Advani talks about the Kal Ho Naa Ho experience.
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