January 29, 2021
In 2014, Avinash Sampath, an Amsterdam-based advertising professional, had a nutty one-line idea for a movie: what if a director kidnapped an actor’s daughter and then turned the father’s search for her into a movie? Originally from Chennai, Sampath felt that Bollywood had yet to attempt such a thriller and, in a country that glorified its celebrities, a showdown between two would find ample takers. But he had no connections to Bollywood and wasn’t a trained screenwriter.
So he ended up sending a five-page pitch to Phantom Films (now defunct), a scrappy, new-age production house that emphasized stories over A-list stars. Its films included Lootera (2013), about a heist during the Bengal zamindari age, and Queen (2013), about a woman who is jilted at the altar but goes on her honeymoon, anyway. Two of the four founders were award-winning writer-directors Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane.
Sampath heard back from Phantom Films within a week.
Motwane, whose striking directorial debut Udaan premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2010, expressed interest in directing Sampath’s idea. Motwane convinced his long-time collaborator Kashyap, who had just wrapped up Bombay Velvet (2015), to act in it and then approached actor Shahid Kapoor to play the second protagonist. Sampath started working on a screenplay, and the film was christened AK vs SK. “We started shooting for a couple of days in late 2014, but then it sort of fell apart for a host of reasons,” Motwane told me over a phone call, including Shahid Kapoor shooting another film around the same time.
By 2015, the project was shelved. Motwane had moved on to other projects that cemented his reputation as a risk-taker, across genres. He directed Trapped (2016), a sensational survival thriller, imagined a homegrown superhero in the flawed Bhavesh Joshi (2018), and made his streaming debut a month later by adapting, directing, and showrunning with Kashyap the masterful Sacred Games, which remains Netflix India’s pièce de résistance. Sampath’s script lay unattended in a dusty drawer.
That changed in October 2019, a few months after Phantom Films disbanded in the wake of sexual assault allegations and internal disagreements. It had been over a year since Motwane had directed a feature, and by his own admission, he was itching to make a film. He reached out to Sampath with a proposal: what if they made that same film with actor Anil Kapoor playing foil to Kashyap?