The tagline of Abhishek Kapoor’s Kedarnath, “Love is a pilgrimage,” could well apply to the film itself. The Sara Ali Khan-Sushant Singh Rajput starrer has overcome financial roadblocks, inclement weather and intense litigation to finally secure a December 7 release. Kapoor’s fifth feature isn’t through yet. Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ajendra Ajay has protested against the film’s inter-faith theme and demanded a ban on its release.

Kedarnath is a love story that plays out amidst the 2013 deluge in the pilgrimage centre in Uttarakhand. Sushant Singh Rajput plays a Muslim porter who falls for Sara Ali Khan’s Hindu tourist – the point of contention for fundamentalists. People are entitled to their opinions, Abhishek Kapoor said in an interview. “We released a teaser and a trailer of two minutes and various people are going to interpret it the way they want to,” he said. “They have the freedom to do that as much as I have the freedom to say what I want to say. Let the movie release and let the people decide.”

Kapoor has collaborated on the screenplay with Kanika Dhillon (Manmarziyaan and Mental Hai Kya). The film was born out of his fascination with pilgrimages and the harmony they represent. “If you stick around too much in Bombay and Bollywood, you just end up talking about the same ideas,” Kapoor said. “If you want to tell stories for the people, you have to go and see them where they are. Instead of going for a holiday abroad, I decided to see where the people were going. A lot of them were going on pilgrimages. On one of these trips to Kedarnath, I saw so many porters carrying people every day. I found that to be really fascinating.”

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Kedarnath (2018).

Half of the film was shot on location. “It was a very difficult production and a difficult film to make,” Kapoor said. “The scenes we shot on location were difficult. You are on that pilgrimage and these pilgrimages are difficult. They are long road journeys. I have taken 150 people for that trek for shooting up and down the mountain.”

The shoot was affected by a snowstorm, but that proved to be less challenging than Kapoor’s other battles. Kapoor’s company Guy in the Sky Productions had a nasty fallout with co-producer KriArj Entertainment, which was accused of defaulting in payments and delaying the schedule. KriArj Entertainment’s co-founder Prernaa Arora, on her part, claimed copyright over the film and dragged Kapoor to court. The case was settled after Ronnie Screwvala’s company RSVP took over the production.

More litigation followed when Sara Ali Khan allotted the shooting dates that had become free because of the legal delays over Kedarnath to Rohit Shetty’s action comedy Simmba, which stars Ranveer Singh. It briefly looked like Kedarnath would be pushed to 2019, and Simmba, which is being released on December 28, would mark Ali Khan’s acting debut. Abhishek Kapoor filed another case, this time against Ali Khan, which was also settled out of court after the young actress agreed to split her time between the productions.

Kapoor is now all praise for Ali Khan, whom he met through the fashion designer Sandeep Khosla. “I felt that she had a spark and a strong personality,” Kapoor said. “But she had no experience at all. So it was tough to bring her up to speed. There was a lot of work that we put in. The film is going to rest on her shoulders as she has a very strong part.”

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Kedarnath (2018).

Faith, self-confidence and the belief that he had been picked by the god Shiva to make the film kept him going, the director said. “There are some stories you don’t choose, they choose you and Kedarnath was one of them,” Kapoor said. “I truly believe that I have been picked to make this film. I feel like Bholenath has picked me. Even through all the problems, I had faith and I never once thought that I would not be able to complete the movie. Everything is not a project to be trade, and I was making this film with a lot of purity in my heart. I was struggling, not knowing how I was going to complete the film. I was also investing my money. But as luck would have it, Ronnie stepped in. He saw the material and loved it. He is a gentleman, a mentor and a great guide. He came in at the right time and he took it ahead with me.”

Kapoor began his journey in the Hindi film industry as an actor with Uff! Yeh Mohabbat (1996), but switched gears and made his directorial debut with Aryan Unbreakable in 2006. He struck gold with Rock On!! (2008) and Kai Po Che! (2013), but his fourth feature, Fitoor (2016), was a flop. The adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1861 novel Great Expectations starred Tabu, Katrina Kaif and Aditya Roy Kapur. In Kapoor’s telling, the film’s budget failed to match the complexities of the plot.

Abhishek Kapoor.
Abhishek Kapoor.

“The kind of budget I made the film with did not marry into the story,” he said. “In terms of marketing, such a story would not appeal to a wide audience. Somewhere, the film buckled under its own cast. People were expecting one movie and they got another movie.”

Kapoor’s big lesson over the years is that it is important to start on a clean slate with a new project. “Every time I start a film, I just want to shut everything I have done before,” he said. “To go back and do something that I have done again is not going to be pure. It is all about unlearning.”

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Kai Po Che! (2013).