Kabir Khan’s last film was 83 (2021), about the Indian cricket team’s historic World Cup win. Khan returns to the world of sport in Chandu Champion, starring Kartik Aaryan as the celebrated para-athlete Murlikant Petkar.

According to a profile of 79-year-old Petkar in Scroll, “… he was a part of the Indo-Pak war of 1965, got injured in the crossfire that paralysed him knee down, then became a para-athlete in a sport that was new to him and ended up clinching India’s first-ever individual gold medal at the Paralympics” in 1972. Petkar is the first Indian to win this honour in either the Paralympics or the Olympics.

Chandu Champion will be out on June 14. Kabir Khan, whose credits include Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), spoke to Scroll about working with Kartik Aaryan and recovering from 83’s underwhelming box office.

How did the story of Murlikant Petkar come to you?

One day someone handed me a newspaper article about this person. My first reaction was that this could not be true. It appeared too bizarre and fantastical. Then I thought if this man exists and all this is true, how do I not know of him? I put together a team to research the story.

After about two months, we located Petkar outside Pune. I did a deep dive, spent time with Petkar, visited the Army, met with the Olympic committee and looked into the various things he was connected with.

It’s not only an incredibly entertaining, engaging and exciting life, but it’s a very important story to tell. The film is about a person who goes through the lowest of lows and some of the most extreme tragedies but he gets up again and again and again with a smile on his face and says, I’m going for it again.

Also read:

Know Your Legend: Before Abhinav Bindra and Devendra Jhajharia, there was Murlikant Petkar

You have worked with stars like Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif and Ranveer Singh. What made you think of Kartik Aaryan for ‘Chandu Champion’?

Kartik is a big star now. In fact, who else is there in that age group?

My career is built on casting stars in parts that are not the obvious, otherwise who would have thought of John Abraham and Katrina Kaif for New York? After building the Tiger world with Ek Tha Tiger, I cast Salman in Bajrangi Bhaijaan – a film with zero action, no shirtless shots, no love story. But that film was a gamechanger for the both of us. People also questioned the idea of taking Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev in 83, but now when they watch the film, they only see Kapil Dev, not Ranveer.

I don’t cast my actors based on what they have done before. I like to spend time with my actors before working with them. I had not met Kartik except socially. I had seen some of his films, but none of them was in the space of Chandu Champion.

I noticed that he has a boyish presence. When he smiles, he almost looks like a school boy. A bulk of Chandu Champion has him playing the ages of 18 to 24. It is a coming-of-age story for which I needed that boyish enthusiasm and naivete of someone chasing an impossible dream. I saw that in Kartik.

The clincher was his reaction to the story, his excitement and readiness to do what it took, which included cutting off the hair for which he has been famous, being in a film with less dialogue, lots of silences and no monologue, which he is also famous for, and going through a dramatic body transformation.

Kabir Khan and Kartik Aaryan.

What was the most challenging aspect of directing ‘Chandu Champion’?

What one may call a challenge, I find thrilling. Those are the parts that get me excited, like creating a character that Kartik has never done before.

I did think about how I wanted to approach the storytelling. People around me said your USP is in a certain genuineness of real-world, sort of aesthetic, mainstream storytelling. So I kept a combination of that.

I went with the feeling that I initially got, which was, this is a true story but it’s a sweet, fairy tale-like story. Even the narration is a little like that. You will see it in the visuals. The world is real. The clothes are real. Everything is real. But there’s a fairy tale-like quality to the visuals. It’s a little warm, backlit.

Logistically, the challenges were huge because this is a saga with locations spread out from Dubai to Pune to Kashmir to London. The 1965 war and the main action sequence are a central part of the story because the war is the turning point in Petkar’s life. So we mounted an eight-minute-long, single-shot war sequence. If it wasn’t tough enough to shoot a war in the mountains of Kashmir – because that’s where it happened – I decided to shoot it as an eight-minute single cut.

I am beyond that point in my career where I want to show off my craft. I did it because I wanted to capture what that war meant to the character. So I kept my camera on his face. Everything you’re seeing is through him. That was the most challenging part, but also the most thrilling because you only get one take.

Behind the scenes of Chandu Champion.

83 was released during the pandemic in 2021. The film didn’t do as well as expected. Did that affect you?

Initially, I was really hit hard. I was like, what is happening? One can look back and say that that was the worst time for the release. The third wave came and cinemas around the country started shutting.

Sometimes you read some of the trade analyses, which is a mistake. Because they’re reporting numbers without any context, without saying that 11 states have shut down, there’s a pandemic on and nobody wants to step into theatres. They report a number and say that it isn’t a good number for a film of this size. That’s really stupid.

Now, I don’t take these so-called trade analysis seriously. Having said that, it took me a while to actually escape it. I believe that 83 is the best film I’ve ever made, as a director, as far as my craft goes, as far as what I wanted to get out of it. It was a personal triumph.

When the film hit streaming, a tsunami of love came towards Ranveer and I. That’s when I realised that nobody had seen this film. Four years after the film was made, I still get messages every day from people who have loved it.

83 (2021).

Did 83 better prepare you for Chandu Champion?

Of course. If I had not done Tiger or Phantom, I would not be as comfortable with action. Had I not done 83, I would not know how to put my actors through a certain structure and system, through the rigour to look convincing.

In 83, I learned that there is absolutely no shortcut to very intensive training. The boys underwent six months to one year of training and then they were pitted against real international first-class players. I did the same with Kartik. I made him train for one-and-a-half years in the three main sports that Murlikant was involved in, which is wrestling, swimming and boxing. Kartik was put in the ring with international boxers, and he had to hold his own against these guys. So he pushed himself further.

From Bajrangi, I took the learning of how to combine a certain narrative of humour and emotion. I was able to bring that to Chandu. What I noticed in Murlikant Petkar’s story is that even though it goes into some really dark spaces, there’s a sort of joy of life that runs through it. The man just couldn’t be brought down. I felt that if he didn’t get defeated, then my story should reflect his journey.

In a way, all my films have culminated in the storytelling of Chandu Champion.

What has this cumulative experience taught you the most?

That the journey is as important as the end. Ultimately, as filmmakers, that’s our life. Three days of the opening weekend is not our life, even though a lot of people would like to define us like that.

If a film does well, you enjoy it for a couple of weeks or a month. And if it goes badly, you’re sort of depressed for a month. Then you move on. Today when I look back, I don’t even remember the numbers of some of my films. But I remember the journey and what it meant to me.

Chandu Champion (2024).