Exclusive: Ishaan Khatter, Mrunal Thakur and Raja Menon on recreating war & on-screen bonds in Pippa

Pippa, the latest Bollywood film in the war drama genre adapts from Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta’s book The Burning Chaffees, taking us to the eastern front of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. The Raja Menon directorial sees Ishaan play the age-appropriate role of Balram Singh while Mrunal Thakur plays his sister Radha. In an exclusive interview, the team opened up about what went into the making of the film.

Ishaan, between working on something like The Perfect Couple and Pippa, how chaotic has it been?

Ishaan: We’re impulsive and instinctive beings as artistes. And it takes a bit of a journey to stray away from that and to realise that that is the biggest thing that you have. So the first thing is always instinct. Do you feel a personal connection? Do you feel a string in the character or in the writing and the material that you can relate with? However small or big that may be, it’s an entry point as an actor. If you don’t feel personally connected to it, you wouldn’t know how to portray it. I have to find it first inside myself. Other than that, you learn with your choices what you want to do, and what you want to do less of as you go along. It gets chaotic when you have a lot of voices in your head. Everybody wants to tell you what to do. The first, and most important thing is to be in touch with yourself and know that you have conviction in wanting to do something.

How much research goes into playing a real person and a war hero at that?

Ishaan: For this film, what was important was to bring through the substance of the character, and let this character be the force through which you’re telling this story. There is a parallel of a nation coming of age, you see that in the character as well as he comes of age. That was more important and that took precedence over being factually correct or being correct in terms of mannerisms etc because it’s not a biopic. It’s a period war film. Brigadier Badram Singh Mehta guided us through the process. So we knew which direction to take with the story and whether we were being authentic to what happened. But what was more important was highlighting the story and highlighting the themes of the film. It was not so much about the physical mannerisms.

Raja: Ishaan embodies the character as opposed to mimicking the character. Those are two different things. Details like whether he raised his right hand or left are unclear and we don’t care about that. But, who is this person? What’s the spirit of the person? Why did they do what they did? How were they feeling? We tried to achieve that.

Mrunal, how do you go about deciding that you’ll do Gumraah, Lust Stories and Pippa, all coming out in the same year?

Mrunal: I need to resonate with it. And I don’t want to be monotonous. I don’t want to keep doing the same thing. I want to explore different genres. Gumraah was a thriller, Pippa is a war film. There’s also human drama in Lust Stories. It was a subject that a lot of people don’t talk about. It was a beautiful relationship between a grandmother and her grandchild. I want my audience to remember and recognise me as the characters I play on screen and just not know me as an actress who does romantic movies or an actress who’s great at doing glamorous roles. I don’t want to be in that box. It’s nice when people call me Sita or Supriya or Ira. My heart feels so good. I feel like it’s an award in itself. The first movie I watched in theatres was Border with my father. So it’s a full circle moment. I always wanted to do something for my country. If not on that level at least to be a part of a film where I can be volunteering and doing something. You know, we always fight for our family, but this is the first time I was fighting for my nation. That’s such a good feeling. I want to know who I am and what genre I am best at. I’m just discovering myself, and I just want to be a part of good stories that leave a mark where there are conversations. When I met Raja sir, I didn’t know about this war so I’m glad that I’m educating myself and this generation of audiences.

Pippa Ishaan Khatter Mrunal Thakur

How do you feel about fans’ reactions to you playing a mother or a sister instead of a romantic lead in movies?

Mrunal: People called me when I signed Love Sonia and said, “Why would you play a girl who’s not glamorous? Why would you want to do that as your debut?” Someone said, “Why would you want to play a mother in Jersey when you are so young and in the initial stage of your career?” But these were the same people after the release of Love Sonia and Jersey called me up and they said that was the right choice because they saw me as the character and not Mrunal playing someone’s wife or something like that. I want to break that stereotype because a lot of friends of mine want to do the part, but because there’s a child, they reconsider. My mom was 19 years old when she became a mother. We’re also making movies for India and let’s keep them also in consideration. I want to change the way the audience and the filmmakers look at the Indian actresses. Priyanka Chopra could be a sibling to Ranveer Singh in Dil Dhadakne Do and be his wife in a film like Bajirao Mastani, so why not?

What goes into creating that lived-in bond with a co-star for the screen?

Mrunal: When I perform a particular scene or a character, I take inspiration from my life. I’m not a method actor. I can’t be sad to perform sad. I just take examples like what happened with my sibling, and I put it in the scene that I’m playing. I always look outside the window and observe people out there and their emotions. Without hearing their conversations, I grab all of that and use it. Like when Meryl Streep said, “Take your broken heart, make it into an art.” So that’s what I do.

Ishaan: Any art takes 10, 000 hours to perfect. Your body doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s not. I don’t think simply thinking about something for long enough can make it come to life. I enjoy that part of the process simply because you literally find it and you live it. Then you continue to live it when the camera starts rolling. And you continue to keep making discoveries. Hopefully, you’re prepared enough that you’re ready for the camera to start rolling.

Raja: Every actor has a different process. Ishaan is a very process-driven, deep-dive guy. Priyanshu is different and holds a craft beautifully. Chandrachur is instinctively brilliant. Anuj was new and it was an early film, so he was still trying to first break the shackle. And so I think it’s about finding for yourself, what that thing is that allows you to be in the moment. But we spent a lot of time off-camera putting people together. They’re not really a family but they built a real bond.

Pippa Ishaan Khatter Mrunal Thakur

What was your experience of working with a movie this big on practical and visual effects?

Ishaan: We shot it all with practical effects. The tank you see in the film is the real PT 76 tank. the only remaining one from 45 Cavalry. It was a dead tank when we got it because it’s that old. The last time it was probably used was decades ago. We resurrected it, and brought it back to life. The engineers initially didn’t know how because it’s such an old tank, and the technology is old. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve done in my career so far. It’s a life experience being on top of a swimming tank, in the middle of a deep-water body. I loved it. By the time we were on set, I felt like I was part of the tank’s body. I didn’t feel like something was empty. It is all practical and VFX is only supplementary in the film. A lot of the blasts, everything in the film was really happening. Every day we were pulling the mud out of our eyes to do the next shot. Because we would do long 3 to 4-minute takes. It was a joy.

Shahid Kapoor has also played a soldier in Rangoon. Do you talk to your IRL sibling about your creative process?

Ishaan: Yeah, we get to do that a lot. Not always with our work because I think it’s a very personal thing. But outside of that and the experience of working on a set and things like that, we’re constantly jamming and chatting about things. He’s very involved in music as well. We share our music and we share our dancing. We never spoke about him playing a soldier interestingly.

Pippa is currently streaming on OTT.

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