Billed as the most violent and goriest film to date in Indian cinema, KILL opened to critical acclaim when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program, earning first runner-up for the People’s Choice Award.
Directed by Nikhil Nagesh Bhat, KILL is inspired by real-life train robberies in India by a class of criminals known as “dacoits.” The film follows star-crossed lovers Tulika (Tanya Maniktala) and Amrit (Lakshya), who find their clandestine relationship jeopardized after Tulika’s family decides to get her an arranged marriage and whisks her away on the Rajdhani Express train to New Delhi.
Not willing to sit idly by, Amrit and his friend Viresh (Raghav Juyal) embark on a “rescue” mission. But when the train is taken over by a gang of bandits, the stakes are raised and the two friends must rely on each other and their skills to save the passengers.
Following the premiere of the film at TIFF 2023, The RepresentASIAN Project spoke with the films’ writer and director Bhat, and actors Lakshya and Raghav Juyal about showcasing a different kind of film in Indian cinema and their experience working with iconic filmmaker Karan Johar, who produced the film.
How does it feel to have this platform at TIFF to showcase an Indian genre film?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat: It’s great. There’s nothing like TIFF, and we feel blessed to be able to get the film on this stage. This audience and the kind of response we got was just overwhelming. So we put in a lot of energy making it, and now getting that kind of response from the audience was so validating.
As young actors in your career, this kind of moment, what does this mean to you?
Raghav Juyal: I’m so overwhelmed right now. I knew I needed to collect myself sometimes for that moment, to understand and realize that this is happening. This is what I have to relish. I want to stay calm, and not let it go to my head. I’m staying with it right now.
Lakshya: I’m a massive fan of Entourage, so back in 2018 I watched Entourage, and there was this whole sequence where Vince and all the boys go to Sundance, and they watch their film and all feel cool about it. I’ve been acting since 2015 and thought to myself, if this moment happened, I would feel like an actor. Then I will be lucky, then I will feel that I’ve done something credible. And when this entire thing happened, when my producer broke this news to me, I didn’t believe it… It took me a lot of time to understand what was happening. Especially what happened at the TIFF premiere. The reaction was beyond overwhelming. It was something that I never thought of. My legs were trembling. I had this very strange feeling in my stomach while I was on the stage and why people were reacting to it. We shot this one last year.
I saw myself doing what I was doing, I couldn’t believe for the longest time that was me. So in a nutshell, given a chance I would do it all over again.
Nikhil, did you put them through the wringer for this with all the violence and all that blood and action we see?
Bhat: They practiced for such a long time. For the film we prepped for almost nine months, and for action sequences these guys prepped for three months. It’s very important that it was done right.
Lakshya: We had amazing actors on set. The casting was bang on and whatever you see in the film. It’s all him. It’s all the director’s imagination. Everything that you see in the film, everything was penned down. So while reading it, you could see everything come to life. I think as an actor and as a performer, I think I speak for Raghav as well, you felt so secure and you felt so comfortable doing everything and following his vision.
Nikhil, I heard you wrote this during the pandemic. By the looks of it, you were really frustrated, eh?
Bhat: [laughs] COVID actually actually helped [writing it]. I was shut in one room so I could feel the claustrophobia, I could feel the restlessness, I could feel everything and it was just coming down on the paper. So whatever these feelings… that rage, I was putting down on paper. It really helped me gather the emotions and put them down. Yeah, so that was a good disguise.
What were your expectations about working with these actors and in what ways did they surprise you?
Bhat: The film was not easy to execute, we were not shooting linear. We were shooting non-linear. So to have that emotional conductivity for all the actors, it was very difficult. They are truly committed actors. The kind of commitment they have shown I feel as an actor but also, you need to be a good human being. If you are a good human you’re going to put in your hundred percent.
KILL is being billed as the most violent, provocative film that hasn’t been done before. Why do you think Indian cinema hasn’t embraced this kind of material in the past?
Bhat: What COVID has done to the people, the cinema audience, is that people have watched South Korean films, German films, Indonesian films — so expectations are very different and it has grown manifold. And during COVID, there was no other entertainment. So everybody has gone and they have seen all kinds of cinema, regional cinema, international cinema. They have seen each and every film on the OTT Platforms. So then suddenly, their palette has changed. That’s the reason why this kind of film needed to happen right now.
This film also proves to global audiences that Indian films are more than just song and dance. That’s definitely a stereotype about the industry, but this certainly moves the needle on a global stage and festival.
Juyal: Exactly. It’s like we will only get awards only when we do the song and dance and snake charming. If you do something intellectual or genre based you will not… I love when people do this and take these risks and show the world that we South Asian countries can really do it. There are beautiful films by directors that are coming up in contemporary cinema. And I feel really proud of them and really proud of cinema coming up from South Asian cinema.
Raghav, what did this film do for you as an actor in terms of your craft?
Juyal: I think this film is like the start of my journey as an actor. This is the film I really want people to watch and take me seriously as an actor. I wanted to become the greatest actor. I always think like that. I’m not being egoistic, I’m being really humble but I’m born to be like that.
Lakshya, did you feel any pressure with your big-screen debut?
Lakshya: There’s no pressure. From the word go, I was enjoying it. All the things were so fun to just do and also see I’m somebody who has a high amount of self-belief. And I think that I’m the greatest and I’m good but don’t have pride about that. I don’t have ego about that. Of course, I’ve been working for quite some time, but I felt that I was gonna do something that just exposes me and that just brings me out. The film lets me do what I want to do. With this film, I think that all thanks to my producers, Karan, thanks to Nikhil for believing in me and casting me in this beautiful bloody glory film and giving me a chance to show what I’m capable of. Yeah, so I think that this project, I think I’ve learned a lot about myself and also I’ve gained a lot of confidence as an artist but also as a human being.
Now was working with Karan Johar as a producer?
Lakshya: For trusting us. Showing an immense amount of trust in us. That’s everything. I’m also a non-filmy guy…I wouldn’t call myself an outsider because I’ve been here and I feel at home here. So just trusting me with his script with, and of course, with a lot of money… I feel validated as an actor.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.