Brahmastra Filmmaker Ayan Mukerji on His Upcoming Bollywood Epic

Ayan Mukerji
Ayan Mukerji
Brahmastra
On the set of Brahmastra

Even though India – more traditionally referred to as Bollywood – is one of the biggest countries for production in the East, and a lot of the movies do get released in the West, it isn’t often that we have a chance to talk to a filmmaker about making movies there.

Ayan Mukerji could be seen as one of India’s visionaries with the amount of time and development he’s put into creating Brahmastra, a film that’s intended to serve as the first part of a trilogy. It’s even subtitled “Part One: Shiva.” The film stars Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, two of India’s biggest movie stars, and it’s a project that Mukerji has been developing for nearly a decade to be a big-budget, FX-driven blockbuster similar to the ones we frequently get from Hollywood.

Brahmastra is still about nine months from release, and Disney’s Fox Star Studios is planning a worldwide release. The film first appeared on our radar back in March 2021, when we shared a photo from the set with Mukerji and his two stars (who are also a couple). This past December, the trio presented the first “motion poster” (essentially a teaser trailer) for Brahmastra, and a few hours later, Below the Line spoke with Mukerji over Zoom for the following interview.

Ayan Mukerji
Ayan Mukerji

BTL: I recently saw the launch of your film’s motion poster, and that was quite some party.

Ayan Mukerji: Let me give you some context. Actually, we’ve been making the film and it’s been in the news, in Indian consciousness for longer than that. It’s been many years. I say this just to give you context, and draw a comparison in a subtle way, but also not at all in a pompous manner. I guess we’ve had a bit of that sort of Avatar in the making kind of story in the Indian world. We’ve had very big names attached to the film, we’ve had a very ambitious idea, and there has been this feeling that we are sort of trying to chase a very new kind of storytelling and really use technology to create a real cinematic spectacle to tell that story. So that’s been our tale so far, and it’s taken much longer than a traditional Indian film takes to get made. In fact, we’ve had some negativity about it, and honestly, James Cameron has been our guru. Whenever people tell us that James Cameron didn’t put Avatar out until it was right. That’s the place we’ve fallen in Indian pop culture, but yes, we are now getting into the final lap. The movie is coming together. We have launched this unit. We hope that people in India like it, and I’m very keen to know… and it’s very important for me, to connect with people like yourself, and some other voices in the Western world. Because for us to succeed in what we’ve tried to do, I think we need that little bit of attention from the West as well.

BTL: This has been on my radar since March when the American publicist sent me a set photo, which is not something we normally see from Bollywood. The movies are released and some do very well here, but we don’t see so much while they’re in production.

Mukerji: It’s a big visual effects film, so to be honest, there are like, two days of shoot left on the movie, but we shot primarily before the pandemic, and then we shot a little bit between the first wave and the second wave. Principal photography is pretty much done, it’s post-production and this last nine months of pregnancy till we release the film.

BTL: Are you able to do all the post and VFX in India? I know there are a lot of facilities, so do you it all there or in other countries as well?

Mukerji: It’s a collaboration between the UK and India. There is a producer listed on the film called Prime Focus, which is the holding company in a very, very, very renowned visual effects house in the UK called Double Negative. Honestly, they’re one and the same, and DNeg — as we call them — does work on all the big Hollywood blockbuster stuff, everything basically. And so, the visual effects in Brahmastra have been created under the DNeg umbrella, with some of the shots you saw today, being led out completely by the London studio. But in order to sort of achieve the entire film, it’s been this collaboration between the UK and India, and the film has actually been produced out of the UK. All our preproduction and the years we spent making it, was all London VFX House DNeg technicians. How do we get the visual effects? How do we translate this story on the big screen? There’s a level at which visual effects and film budgets and technology is capped at in India, and we needed to sort of raise that bar. That raising of the bar has been the journey on Brahmastra.

Brahmastra
Mukerji at the Brahmastra motion poster launch party

BTL: I want to go back a little bit. What were some of the inspirations to make this? Did you write this or cowrite it as well?

Mukerji: I did write this. That’s part of being a full megalomaniac creator of what could be a universe. So I’m a huge fan of fantasy, right? Like, it was my go-to place while growing up, I loved it. I was a big reader of Western fantasy fiction, I sort of read Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter when I was a kid.  I used to pride myself on being the youngest, person I knew who had read Lord of the Rings, and when that storytelling really took over the West, from the late 90s, when it became just regular in Hollywood cinema, I really enjoyed that kind of moviegoing.  I really felt like I could see that trend where big cinematic spectacle would be what drew audiences into the cinemas. I was well-positioned and the right age to do something of this nature because nobody was doing stuff like that in India. The other angle that came into it is that I also grew up in India, and I grew up with the influences that we do all sort of grew up within India. As a modern sort of young person, I was thinking about yoga and the energy with which we live our lives — Indian scriptures, Indian spirituality, Hindu philosophy. I’m very deeply affected by that stuff. Faith has a very interesting role that it plays in my life, and I felt like we needed to do our own fantasy storytelling. My inspiration really wants to draw from that place, and I felt like I could do something really unique here, but I sort of combine this like East and West, and kind of do something that could be really original and amazing. It’s the reason…  I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I have spent 10 years on this movie, pretty much. 

BTL: I got that impression from some of the comments at the release party earlier.

Mukerji: Right, it’s been a long journey for me, because it was a very difficult kind of film to make in India. Some of the big Western storytelling that I love in the movies is not based on literature that already exists. It had to be sort of written, imagined, and then visualized and brought to the big screen. That’s the nutshell answer for your question is like sort of Indian mythology and also Western fantasy fiction slash blockbuster cinema. That’s the inspiration for the movie.

BTL: I assume there are comic books in India, so does India have comic characters who have been brought to the movies at all?

Mukerji: There is an ongoing comic book culture that exists in India, but you could definitely say that it’s not been captured in movies, and it’s not been mainstream yet, even that comic book culture. There is no Marvel Comics equivalent in India that’s happened. And there is no universe, frankly, the way that is now sort of so well-known in the West, a brand of storytelling or a kind of storytelling that continues in multiple movies. We haven’t done that yet.

Brahmastra
Mukerji (R) on set with Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt

BTL: I love the fact that you have created this universe and are planning to continue making other movies in this story, because most filmmakers will do one movie, and then they’ll want to see how it does, and that’s the normal thing. How did you end up going with Fox Star Studios? Were you developing this for a while before they came on board?

Mukerji:  We needed big partners, very honestly. The vision was very large, and it needed a power-packed producer to back the project. I was very fortunate that Fox came on board, in a way even more fortunate when Disney took over Fox because Disney is the center of this kind of storytelling in the West. That relationship I feel very excited about, and I hope that relationship will grow a lot as they learn about this film that’s being made out of India. I actually really want to make them aware of this film that we’re making out of India even more, because it is their film. Fox,  before Disney took over, it’s the biggest media conglomerate that existed. They own a streaming service called Hotstar, which now comes under the Disney umbrella. It’s probably the biggest streaming service that’s been created outside of Amazon and Netflix locally in any culture, in any country. They are the biggest powerhouse on television, and they had a film studio as well, so to create a venture like this, they were wonderful partners to bring on board. That partnership is honestly become even better as Disney’s kind of now come into the mix, and I think we’re in a very interesting place with the project now with these producers on board.

BTL: You mentioned James Cameron earlier, so are you going to try to get him an early cut of the movie for his blessing since you now are making studios under the same Disney umbrella? 

Mukerji: Edward, do you know James Cameron?

BTL: I don’t know him personally, but I have to assume that somewhere in the chain of Disney, you can get a copy of your movie to him. 

Mukerji: So James Cameron is my filmmaking guru. That’s where I fall. That sort of young Spielbergian James Cameron thing is my personal thing in life to aspire to. Definitely, some sort of like connection with the West would be wonderful for our project, because we need it. I think that we will definitely use the Disney channels to get that, but let’s see where we get.

BTL: I want to ask about the production. I know you shot in London a bit, and you shot in Bulgaria, but did you shoot in Israel as well? I think one of the stars mentioned Israel?

Mukerji: Traditionally, it’s an interesting thing, but the way that Brahmastra has been produced is really one of the few films made out of India that has landed between the way a traditional Indian film is produced and the way that like, Hollywood produces its films with the visual effects and Double Negative coming on board and us producing the film out of the UK. The film took us all over the world, but the film is completely set in India, which is very unusual for an Indian. Normally, when they go overseas to shoot, it’s because they want overseas locations. We were in Israel, in Bulgaria, because we needed technical support, and like technicians from different parts of the world to accomplish some of the things, even though the story was set in India. The kind of equipment we needed when we were shooting against blue screen was easier for us to collaborate with technicians by having a foot in the West, by being in Europe. So that’s sort of our journey on this film. Like it’s taken us everywhere, but the story of the film is set in India.

Brahmastra
From the set of Brahmastra

BTL: I want to jump ahead. Who’s doing the music for the film, because this is a big movie and will need big music, so is it someone you’ve worked with before?

Mukerji: It’s pretty much the biggest composer that exists in Indian films today. His name is Pritam [Chakraborty], and he is really big in Indian films. If there was ever any kind of ranking system, he would definitely rank as the number one composer in Indian movies. But in Indian movies, it’s all about the songs. He’s the number one composer, because he makes an album, which has like, five super hit songs, which we have in Brahmastra as well, but we also have the challenge of creating a score, which is in line with what Hans Zimmer would create for a Christopher Nolan film. As I am taking that step towards like James Cameron as my filmmaking guru, it is like Pritam taking a step towards doing like what Hans Zimmer is doing in the West, but in an Indian way with an Indian sound, and things from ancient India. That’s sort of what’s going on with the music, and it’s going to be a very interesting journey. That’s part of the work that’s still going on.

BTL: Thank you so much for your time. I’m really excited for this one. As you say, it’s nine months away, so it’s going to be a wait, but I do hope that it finds a bigger audience here than many Bollywood movies, since a crossover would be great.

Mukerji: My hope in speaking to you on such an important night in my life is that if you keep your eyes and ears open for it and find it interesting, that really is my goal to sort of reach deeper and tell people about this big Indian film that’s been made. It would be wonderful to have some partnership and support in that direction.

Brahmastra is scheduled to be released worldwide on Sept. 9, 2022. You can watch the “motion poster” and the premiere in the video links below.

All photos courtesy of Fox Star Studios.

You can also watch the launch party for the motion poster below. (It starts around 16:50.)