AJ Shetty, who has previously worked under Bhuvan Gowda on both KGF movies, talks about the stark resemblance in the two movies and more in an exclusive conversation.
The KGF shadow has loomed large on Kabzaa right from the time the first glimpse of the film was released online. Netizens, industry trackers and critics alike came to an almost-unanimous decision that R. Chandru's film was riding the thin line between inspiration and forgery in light of the stark resemblance in both the visual aesthetic and the larger-than-life tone of the two films.
Chandru, in his defence, has maintained all along that he was hugely motivated to make a film like Kabzaa after watching Prashanth Neel's rendition on the big screen, adding that his film, though belonging to the same breed as the two KGF movies, is categorically different. Fortunately, for him, the recently-released trailer of Kabzaa has assured his potential audience to a great extent that the upcoming will not be a repetitive experience; still, one proceeds with caution.
And to unravel these comparisons and discuss a lot more about the film, OTTplay caught up with Kabzaa’s Director of Photography AJ Shetty for an exclusive conversation. This is only his second film as a cinematographer but with the two KGF films serving as his main training ground and fellow DOP Bhuvan Gowda acting as his mentor (by his own admission), AJ, or Arjun, was well equipped to translate R. Chandru’s vision on to the screen. In this chat, he talks about how they created, or reimagined, rather, the visual palette, the key collaborations on the sets and lots more - here are the edited excerpts:
Right off the bat, can you tell us how Kabzaa happened?
I was working on KGF as the second DOP and that's where I met Shivakumar sir. It was during the making of KGF: Chapter 2 that he introduced me, rather recommended me, to Chandru sir and that's how it all happened, to put it briefly. This must have been in 2019. I had already made my debut as the main cinematographer the previous year with Kiss. We began on Kabzaa end of 2019/early 2020.
Can you recall your initial conversations with R. Chandru about the film?
Actually, I had initially declined the offer to shoot the film. I had only agreed to do the photoshoot because I was fully committed to KGF 2 and I didn't want to leave the project midway. That's why I said no in the beginning. But I was later urged to be part of Kabzaa as the DOP because Shivu sir (art director Shivakumar) and others reckoned that this was a big opportunity. They said I would remain an associate/ 2nd cameraman on KGF but Kabzaa gave me the chance to make a name for myself. I mulled over it and said yes after that.
So, that means, you almost let go of this project?
Yes, I almost did. (laughs)
And did you go back and complete KGF 2 after that?
No, we got started on Kabzaa around the same time KGF 2 was happening and even Prashanth sir (Prashanth Neel) urged me to move to Kabzaa.
What were your initial thoughts on Kabzaa, though?
Of course, I really liked the story and the scale, too, was huge. But since I had already worked on the KGF movies and we were trying to achieve the same 'flavour', I felt it was doable. It was going to take a lot of effort and time but doable, for sure.
If you put Kabzaa's grand scale aside, it is visually & aesthetically quite unique. It's got its own world, so to speak. How did you go about that? And how did you contribute to R. Chandru's vision?
I think you have already heard him say many times in interviews - he wanted the film to be like KGF. I suppose that's why he hired all the main technicians who were part of KGF: be it art director Shivakumar sir, Ravi Basrur sir for music or me, as the cinematographer. That was his approach, to make Kabzaa on the same scale and make it visually similar, with that dark colour palette.
Did it bother you as a cinematographer that you were going after something that's already been done?
I saw it this way - only Bhuvan sir had achieved that visual palette and no one else. But he was already busy with KGF 2 and that's how I came on board. I wasn't all that bothered by the fact that we were recreating the template and since the job demanded someone who could pull it off, I was there. I am also working on the film Bagheera (starring Sriimurali) and there, I am able to employ my own style and sensibility as a cinematographer.
But if given a chance, do you think you would have captured Kabzaa differently?
Not really because when you listen to the story, you do realize that the same tone (as KGF) works best for that setting. Kabzaa is mostly set in the 1950s, 60s, etc. so when you do capture the elements of that era on camera, they are bound to look quite similar. Plus, the director, too, was fixated on that particular brooding, grey tone and even if I wished to shoot a sequence at a different location, it wasn't possible. So, the KGF 'feel' is unavoidable because everything in Kabzaa - the cars, the people, the buildings etc. - will seem quite similar.
Do you suppose the two films are similar in terms of story and setting, as well?
No, not at all. The similarities I pointed out are mainly with respect to the visual tone. But when you watch Kabzaa on the big screen, you won't be reminded of KGF all that much because the story is quite different. The trailer and teaser might look the same but the narrative of Kabzaa is stitched together quite differently. As a cinematographer, I did not have any restrictions, per se, from Chandru sir's end and there was a lot of room for discussion. Shivu sir, too, was a major part of these discussions.
"It's like this: if you were to try out dosa in two different hotels, they might look the same in terms of colour and texture but when you eat them, you will find that they taste quite different. That's how KGF and Kabzaa are."
When the teaser came out back in September of 2022, the audience's feedback was quite negative - many even said that Kabzaa was KGF: Chapter 3. Did those kinds of remarks upset you?
Not at all, I was hardly bothered by the comments. Because I knew I had to shoot the movie a particular way (resembling KGF) and I did that. But, as I've said already, my next film Bagheera has allowed me to include my own vision as a cinematographer so I am quite satisfied. All the negative remarks did not affect me.
So, as an audience member, what can I expect from Kabzaa? Will I be reminded of KGF in the cinema hall?
Hmm. Both films are quite different, as I have pointed out already. There are certain places where you will see elements of KGF but the stories are completely different from one another.
Kabzaa releases worldwide in theatres on March 17th. The film stars Upendra, Shriya Saran, Nawab Shah, Kiccha Sudeep and many others as part of the mega ensemble. Shiva Rajkumar will make a cameo appearance.