Every now and then a film comes along that fills me with happiness. A feel good movie that I know I will want to watch again and again. LOVE EXPRESS (2011) is one such film, and it features the directorial debut of one heck of a nice fellow, Sunny Bhambhani.

A recent graduate of film maker Subhash Ghai’s Whistling Woods International School of Media and Communication, Sunny (who also holds a Bachelors of Engineering degree in Information Technology from Thadomal Engineering College) was chosen to direct this delightful romantic comedy for Mukta Arts, which also features several other Whistling Woods alumn in the cast and crew.

Sunny Bhambhani, Bollywood director debutante (PHOTO COURTESY OF SUNNY BHAMBHANI)

A film fan from an early age, Sunny is a bright spot on the horizon of Bollywood’s future. LOVE EXPRESS has proven to be a great starting point for this creative talent whose love of music (and musical numbers) encourages me to be on the lookout for his future film work. Currently, he acts as creative producer at Weaving Magic Productions where he has several projects in the works.

So, what is it like to be a first time director? What are the ups and downs of working with debutantes and veterans? Well, Sunny was kind enough to take time out to chat about his first major filmatic adventure and he fills us in on what he plans to accomplish in the Mumbai film industry.

Mike Barnum: Did motion pictures play a role in your childhood?

Sunny Bhambhani: I have always loved Bollywood movies. I grew up by watching the Bollywood cinema of the 90′s where every movie was about boy meets girl, they sing and dance and there is a problem and then all is well in the end. Bollywood is known for its musicals, be it any genre of movie, and for me that was my major fodder when I grew up. I am a huge fan of Mr. Yash Chopra.

MB: How and when did your interest in film making begin?

SB: It actually all began back in my 11th standard wherein I wanted to video record a short movie or a movie that I wanted to write. This was around 12 years back. I used to be a choreographer in school, as dancing is something I purely loved from the heart… the rhythm, the music, the beat, and very much in particular the Bollywood dance style. So, I thought why not choreograph some songs and video tape them. Then I felt ‘wait a minute why not just write a script around it and shoot it with friends.’ That’s how it all started. It was a home video kind of a movie, but totally Bollywoodish style! So, I had songs… and we were shooting it.. OMG, now when I look back it feels embarrassing, but I enjoyed it the most!

MB: It is my understanding that producer Subhash Ghai chose you as director for LOVE EXPRESS. How did this come about? Had you worked with him before? If not, how did he know of you?

SB:  After getting my Engineering degree I worked in a “subtitling” or “translation” company in the media sector in the industry so that I could get exposure to the very same world where I wanted to step in. After that I joined Whistling Woods International ( The film making school), and my first job was at Mukta Arts in the creative division, which is owned by Mr. Ghai. So, that is how he knew of me. Also, we were trying to work on a script together, which didn’t happen, but while I was there I directed a theatrical ad which he saw, and so he knew my work.

MB: With LOVE EXPRESS being your first feature film, was the script very important to you or would you have directed anything that was offered?

SB:  I just feel one thing about the script, it’s your gut, you feel and hear something and the very thought has to excite you. What excited me about LOVE EXPRESS was the idea of a wedding procession traveling in a train. That world had not been touched so far and I felt that it would be interesting enough to see how it all turns out. In fact, LOVE EXPRESS is my humble gratitude to the Bollywood movie industry for all those growing up years of mine of the 90′s!

Also, I had heard a friend telling me of a wedding procession traveling all together, as in the whole family, from Delhi to Jaipur, and was fascinated by that idea, and hence wanted to make something around it and so the concept was taken to Mr. Ghai and thereby worked upon.

MB: Did you have a hand in the casting?

SB: Yes. Of course, all of it. Every character needed to be well etched. As I didn’t have sets for their houses, etc. it was very important that each character sitting in a train compartment should stand out from the rest, since there were a lot of characters in the movie.

MB: Tell me your thoughts on each of the four leads, all of whom are debutantes.

SB:  The four leads are from the first batch of Whistling Woods, as actors. I have worked with them or knew of them as my colleagues as we were all students at one point together.

Director Sunny Bhambhani (center) with the four leads of LOVE EXPRESS: Vikas Katyal and Priyam Galav (left), and Mannat Ravi and Sahil Mehta (at right).

Sahil Mehta, who plays Kanav Chadda, I worked with in many short films and in my diploma movie ANSUNI ( Which got a national telecast on Sony Pix). He played the lead in that. It was a love story. Sahil has honesty in his eyes, which I think is his USP, you can see his soul through it, it’s very direct. If he hates something, you can see it, if he is scheming something you can see it, if he is in love his one look can speak volumes about it. They are transparent like one’s soul, which I felt works for Kanav.

Sahil Mehta as the spoiled groom, Kannav in LOVE EXPRESS

Mannat Ravi,who plays Ashneet, has very expressive eyes and a very earthy Indian face, hence her casting was perfect. She could speak through her eyes and hence the typical silent scene of the first meet between the bride and the groom in a traditional Indian arranged marriage scenario. Also, she is very child like in person and that inner trait of hers transcended on screen making her character very lively and adorable for the audience.

Mannat Ravi as the unhappy bride-to-be with co-star Sahil Mehta

Priyam Galav played Priyanka. Priyam is a very good dancer, and her body language is what speaks volumes of her emotions, apart from the fact that her eyes emote the pain of meeting her once lost love on the train. She is not someone who would cry over it, but someone who has moved on, and, as in the journey, she realizes she needs to wait and maybe revisit her past before she makes the final move. Priyam is very meticulous and is a rehearsed actor. In fact Priyam and Vikas [Katyal] are both rehearsed actors, while Sahil and Mannat are more spontaneous actors. The two couples come from these two schools of acting, I feel.

Priyam Gulav plays a lover who has lost in LOVE EXPRESS

Vikas Katyal (as Chirag) is a very detail prepared actor. He would go back and create the whole back story of the character. He wants to feel everything of the character, its important for him. He is someone who will feel in the moment and let himself go loose. He has done a lot of theatre along with Mr. Naseerudin Shah too, so Vikas knows that language and cinema form merges the two platforms that he dwells in. He also has a very earthy, raw sense to him, which I felt worked for his character, since Chirag is someone who hasn’t moved on. What I liked about the way he played his role was that he was very casual about it though he internally really wanted things, and I think that’s what truly makes him a hero! A lover who knows and is confident of his feelings and expresses it, which makes the girl turn around and go running after him. I found that beautiful in him.

Newcomer Vikas Katyal (right) with veteran film maker Subhash Ghai.

MB: How was it working with the more veteran artists?

SB: I must say once the artists are veteran, they only help a first time director like me and make the job of a director easier. They are not only attuned to their performances very fast but also they add to the scenes and lift it up with their finer nuances. Especially Mr. Om Puri. I mean, he is a veteran, but the way he would add nuances, he would add his moments of comedy, his timing, the way he would make not only me comfortable but also his co-actors. I think that’s a true actor! One who thinks of other’s performances first and then his, only then can he be a great actor. And I couldn’t feel more blessed than having him in my first movie!

The fabulous Om Puri plays a fun loving grandfather in LOVE EXPRESS

MB: What did you find were the biggest challenges you faced as a director?

SB: Well, the handling of 23 artists! Indian weddings are with a LOT of people, so clearly the movie also demanded that.. .so, we had 23 secondary cast along with the 4 leads. Though the scheduling was handled by my production and direction team, it was the people-handling creatively, as each one play such diversely different roles, that I felt was a challenge. We first made sure that all the cast was North Indian, so the diction of them speaking in that language would not be an issue. And then we had workshops with them prior to the shoot so that no time would be wasted on set once the shoot started.

MB:  Was the cast supportive of a first time director?

SB: Since I knew the main leads from before, it was comforting. But also, because a big banner in Bollywood like Mukta Arts was supporting me, because of that, it made everything easy for me, and handling everyone became much easier.

MB: Are there any particular cast members you would most like to work with again?

SB: Of course, all of them, including most of the secondary cast too! But Mr. Om Puri for sure, not just because he’s a veteran but also the fact that I can always learn so much more from him. And, of course, it goes without saying the four leads of the movie.

MB: With the main cast and the director all unknowns, did this hurt the film’s box office chances?

SB: Well, yes, maybe. But the box office success is a combination of many things, which I am not the right person to answer. But, yes people are generally a little skeptical of spending money on newcomers. Having said that, I have huge gratitude for the company who invested in new talent like us and gave us such a great platform to showcase ourselves. My gratitude will always be with them for what they have done for me and the new talent in the movie.

MB: What kind of feedback have you received from this first effort?

SB: The feedback from the industry circuit has been very supportive; they have appreciated the new talent and the first time effort, for sure. And, yes, criticism is always constructive and that is the first job of a film maker–long with the pros, the cons are also mine. So, will be working to learn from them and deliver a much better product the next time.

MB: Have you begun working on any other film project?

SB: I have been. I just joined a new production house, it’s a start up. So have been working on something to be getting on board; a content tie up, so that is still on its way. It was supposed to happen and be sealed at the end of last year, but it hasn’t happened so far. Apart from that I am working on a script and couple or two additional concepts at the moment, all of which are movie based projects. So fingers crossed!

Sunny Bhambhani contemplates his next project (PHOTO COURTESY OF SUNNY BHAMBHANI)

MB: What do you hope the future will hold for you?

SB: I don’t worry about the future. When I decided to finish engineering and go into the media space I didn’t think, I just hoped, that I can tell a story someday on screen from the heart. And I have. I leave the rest to God, and keep doing my best! But yes, someday I hope, and I want, to take Bollywood known internationally because I sincerely feel we have a “cinema language” that can be understood visually without understanding the Hindi language in which our movies are made. That day, when I can achieve that, it shall be my most blessed day of my life, and I can only hope and pray that that day comes soon.

MB: Who are your favorites performers of the past and likewise, who are your favorite performers of today?

SB:  I am a huge fan of Madhubala from the past. Of today there is Madhuri Dixit, then Aishwarya Rai and Vidya Balan. I really hope to work with them some day.

MB: What are your favorite films, new and old?

SB: My most favorite movie of all times, one that I am deeply passionate about, is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s DEVDAS. I feel the most for it amongst the classics in Indian cinema. Then there are all of the Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor movies. Kapoor’s SHREE 420 is an all-time favorite. Also, I love GUIDE ! Vijay Anand, a master in shooting songs, I have been a huge fan of him!!!!

The classic 1955 film SHREE 420 is among director Sunny Bhambhani’s all time favorite films.

MB: Are there any film makers that you have found inspiration in?

SB: Yes, I like Mr Yash Chopra. Also, Mr Subhash Ghai. I love his TAAL, of all movies. It has a feel of love which resonates with the strings of the heart.  And of course Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor, as I mentioned.

Internationally I am a HUGE fan of Chinese cinema. Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou are my favorites. I have watched all of Zhang Yimou’s movies and all are my favorites. His THE ROAD HOME is something I cry at every time I watch it. It is love expressed unconditionally at its best, with the most amazing simplicity. Someday I wish I can reach that zenith of expressing even the most complex emotions with simplicity that resonates spiritually deep within, and which appeals to an international audience or to the whole wide world.

Film maker Zhang Yimou has been a big inspiration for Sunny. THE ROAD HOME (2000) is among Zhang’s best known works.

MB: There are some fun and beautiful songs in LOVE EXPRESS, particularly ‘Tere Bin Jiya Na Jaaye,’ which is my favorite. How were the songs chosen and who chose the singers?

SB: Mike, that’s such a surprise to know [that you liked that song], as my most favorite of all is ‘Tere Bin Jiya Na Jaaye.’ Incidentally that was the first song we recorded.  I still remember the day when Kumaar wrote the lyrics and he showed them to me in the studio. By just reading them I had tears in my eyes and I knew that this was the soul of my movie. It speaks about two aspects of love, one on Ashneet and Kanav that, yes, in life we meet people just very casually, but we only value them once they are away from us. It only dawns then their true worth. The second part of the lyrics talk about Chirag and Priyanka, ex-lovers who have met after ages and both have changed and, had they first met now, they would have gotten along. But now they have already made some choices. Should they go back and change things or just continue with life ahead. The lyrics are like golden words. They speak the language right from the heart. A lot of inspiration Kumaar took from the way Mr. Anand Bakshi would write his lyrics — simple ‘n straight, yet deep and meaningful.  And it is after this song that the movie is pushed into the climax, where I believe that one doesn’t need 10 years or so to realize and fall in love. The attachment builds, but the decision that she is the one or he is the one takes only a moment… and that moment is what I have tried to express through this song where one fine morning, after the moment has occurred, you wake up and you just know what is right. Couldn’t thank God for a better song! Another thing, the male voice [Gulshan] that sung this song is not a trained singer, he is a pure fresher from up north in India and had just recorded his voice for the scratch. We loved it so much that we decided to go with his voice. Gulshan’s voice has the rustic soulful feel to it which we thought would amplify the pain the lovers feel for not being together. As I said, one just needs to be very lucky in film making to get these things right at times. And the two other songs are ‘fun’ songs. ‘We are Rocking, Shocking Family’ was discussed during the pre-production of the movie that it needed to be a fusion song. One part of the song has English lyrics which the younger guys sing, and the other part of the song has a pure Punjabi folk feel to it so that the mix would be interesting since the whole drama of the movie is between the younger generation breaking away from the traditions of the older generation. And the song ‘Dance like a Punjabi’ is a pure fun number, with the idea that Punjabi’s LOVE to dance and LOVE to drink and LOVE to eat. We thought, what better way to celebrate that. Also, though it is a choreographical number, it has the screenplay of the couple moving through it and them maintaining a straight face in front of people that all is well, even as they know the wedding has been called off. Of course these two songs also involve a lot of other characters of the movie.

The lovely TERE BIN JIAY song from LOVE EXPRESS

MB:  While the musical numbers are limited to three in this film, you mention that you are a fan of music and dance. Would you plan, or hope, to put choreographed musical numbers in future films?

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SB: YES! ALL THE TIME! For me Bollywood is “Song and Dance.” That’s its genre. I hope to remain true to it from the bottom of my heart!!

MB: One frustration that a lot of fans here in the US have is that so many of the new Hindi films contain only a couple, and often, no choreographed musical numbers. Why do you think this is?

SB: There is technical answer to this. India is changing. A lot of films are made for the metro audience which is Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta, Bangalore, etc. These are city based audiences who are growing up fast on the movies of the west and the TV shows of the west. Then there is another audience which is tier 2 and tier 3, who are purely Desi, and love the song and dance. They are from small towns and cities. Hence, because of this change you are seeing lesser choreographed numbers the way they used to happen earlier.

MB: Can you give me an idea of how a musical number is put together? Is it mostly up to the choreographer or does the director have a hand in it?

SB: The steps are decided by the choreographer, but yes the director sees to it that the story and screenplay move forward in a song. I am a huge fan of Vijay Anand’s song picturizations, and also Mr. Subhash Ghai’s and Mr. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s. All these film makers have been very particular that a song, apart from being just an item song, must carry the story forward. Hence, I use the same technique.

Since I also dance and understand it, I also at times feel if a step is not working in accordance with the rhythm, etc., I do suggest the choreographer to change it, as we all know film making is, at the end of the day, a collaborative effort. By-the-way, in ‘Rocking Shocking Family’ you will see a shot of me dancing with two girls towards the end of the song. That shows how much I like dancing!!

MB: In the future, do you see yourself as a director of mass entertainers or of art films?

SB: Purely mass entertainers!! I love and respect art films, but for me, I feel, with all due respect, it’s more challenging to make mass entertainers as you have to cater to all kinds of tastes of audiences, and for me to be able to crack that gives me a kick or a high!

Crew members set up a scene between Sahil Mehta and Mannat Ravi in LOVE EXPRESS (PHOTO COURTESY OF SUNNY BHAMBHANI)

MB: Are the four debut actors planning to continue with a career in films?  Has LOVE EXPRESS brought them any notice?

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SB: They all are trying, and yes all want to take their career in films. They are waiting to see what comes their way next. I am sure each of them is very passionate and each one shall get their respective due. The lead pair has been noticed, Sahil and Mannat.

MB: Two of my favorite characters in the film were played by Daljeet Kaur (as Daadi) and Alka Mehta as (Naani).

The delightful Daljeet Kaur as the put upon granny in LOVE EXPRESS.

SB: Oh, mine too! I enjoyed shooting with them. They were a lot of fun. They are basically television actresses. I had modeled Alka Mehta’s character on my Naani, my real grand mom. She wears pearls and even at this age loves to dress up. Ha, ha, she secretly enjoys the attention men give her. And Daljeet Kaur, as Daadi, was a total surprise. Well, she is originally from Amritsar, so she was very rooted in her character and what I liked was she was so spontaneous. I feel they worked well because of the cracking chemistry with Mr. Om Puri. I am sure both the ladies were excited to be paired opposite to him and I feel that all three gelled. It is because of that you can see the chemistry working out brilliantly. As you know, if you can’t get along off screen, on screen might become a little difficult.

Alka Mehta’s character was partially modeled after Sunny’s own granny.

MB: I read that there were 11 of you from Whistling Woods debuting with this film, can you tell me who the others were?

SB: Yes. Well, Yashashwini is the editor, Sohel Sanwari the sound designer, Eesha Danait worked in the production. Four were the lead actors. Anil Mange, who played Ashneet’s father, he is also from Whistling Woods. He is just 27 but pulled off the role of a Sikh father of the bride. Kudos to him! Then, Siddhartha Chowdhary who played Kuljeet and myself, and another boy who plays Sasha, the guy in the yellow tee shirt in the movie. He wears a cap and has a beard. His was a very small role. So there you go, the 11 of us!

27 year old Anil Mange did a splendid job playing a middle aged Sikh father in LOVE EXPRESS. Roobie played his wife

MB: How did your family react to your desire to be a film maker?

SB: Well, they weren’t happy at all at the first go. Dad works for the government, mom is a housewife, and no one in our family is directly working in the movies. Dad wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue it for the passion or the attraction to the glam world. So, he made a pact with me. My dad said “Stay put for four years for your degree course. Get your first class degree. If it (the passion) lasts through those four years, that means it is real passion. Then I don’t mind, you can go and do what you want.” And so it was. While I was studying engineering, I would choreograph intercollegiate musicals, plays, dances, and attend film making workshops by Anurag Kashyap and Sudhir Mishra here in Mumbai so that I could keep myself well with the industry. I cleared my degree with the first class and here is where I landed up!

Sunny Bhambhani with crew behind the scenes of LOVE EXPRESS (PHOTO COURTESY OF SUNNY BHAMBHANI)

LOVE EXPRESS is available on dvd from AMAZON.COM and INDUNA.COM. Order your copy today!

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