Rahul Khanna On Fireflies - And Why He’s Done With Cheesecake for Life!

Zina Tasreen , 29 Oct 2014
Rahul Khanna
Rahul Khanna

Guess what, guys – we managed to track down the ever-elusive Rahul Khanna for a spot of chitchat, in which he tells us about his upcoming film, Fireflies, his great luck with bodily harm and pimples, his dislike for cheesecake and his love for museums. Yep, grab a nice cup of flat white and some biscottis, this is going to be one delightful read. :-)

Fireflies poster
Fireflies

Team MM: Fireflies and you, it seems like a match made in heaven what took you so long to do a film like that?

RK: Films like Fireflies don’t get made very often. In fact, I can’t really think of a predecessor to it. That’s why it was so appealing to me. It was something I’d never done before — an independent film in the purest sense of the term. The director, Sabal Shekhawat, was clear that he wanted to make this movie on his own terms, completely free from any kind of creative restraints that big commercial films often have. So he went ahead and produced it himself, with neither any backing from a big production house nor a distribution deal in place, which takes immense courage and conviction.

Many people have asked me if I was nervous working with a new director. But, although this is Sabal’s first feature film, he’s hardly “new”. He is one of the country’s top ad filmmakers and has produced and directed numerous award-winning commercials. In any case, I think it’s exciting and a privilege to work with a first-time director — to be a part of the first step of their journey. And I hope I’ve set the bar so high that I’ve spoiled him for other actors!

In addition, because of his background in advertising, he was able to assemble the most incredible team. Everyone working on the project, from both the technical and creative sides, were amongst the best in the business and were there for no reason other than to share in creating something new and different. So, in terms of visuals and production values, this is one of the slickest, most beautiful films I’ve worked on. It also has a really incredible soundtrack by Monica Dogra, Karsh Kale, Nikhil D’Souza and Indus Creed.

Rahul Khanna and Arjun Mathur's still from Fireflies
Fireflies

Team MM: You play a hotshot investment banker in the film how did you prepare for the role? Did you observe anyone? 

RK: Not really. My character’s profession is incidental to the narrative and what exactly he does is never really specified. I do, however, know many high-powered people who work in finance and have, over the years, seen how they operate and the kind of lifestyle they lead, so that was helpful. Also, before we started filming, we had an intense series of workshops and test shoots with all the actors and the technical team so we got to know each other and were very well prepared by the time the cameras started rolling for real.

Team MM: Any funny incidents from the shoot?

RK: Plenty! For some reason, I was plagued by major physical catastrophes right from the start!

Rahul Khanna's still from Fireflies
Rahul Khanna

A couple of weeks before filming I had an accident and fractured two fingers whose nails then turned a very un-cinematic black! We tried all sorts of cosmetic tricks to cover them up but nothing worked and eventually we just settled for old-fashioned Band-Aids that you will see on my finger throughout the film!

There was also a day when, halfway through filming an important scene, I developed the most enormous pimple ever recorded in the history of dermatology, right in the middle of my forehead. There was simply no way to cover it up so it had to be digitally removed in post-production.

Shanker Raman and Rahul Khanna (Photo courtesy | Monica Dogra)
Shanker Raman and Rahul Khanna (Photo courtesy | Monica Dogra)

And then, while on location in the rain forests of Sri Lanka, the day before shooting a scene where I had to have my shirt off, I went for a swim in the river and was attacked by a swarm of sand flies who left me with about a thousand angry, red bites all over on my back. But, thanks to the genius of cinematographer Shanker Raman’s camera work and lighting, you can’t tell.

There’s also a scene where the director, Sabal, decided my character should be eating a slice of cheesecake. I’ve never been a fan of cheesecake but I reluctantly agreed, thinking it would just be a bite or two. Unfortunately, it was one of those jinxed scenes that, ultimately, required multiple takes and I must have ended up having to eat about 10 slices! I’m sure I will never touch another slice of cheesecake for the rest of my life.

Rahul Khanna and Arjun Mathur's still from Fireflies
Fireflies
Rahul Khanna and Sabal Shekhawat
Rahul Khanna and Sabal Shekhawat

And lastly, the climax of the film is a physically demanding scene that we filmed over a whole night on a bridge over the river in the middle of the forest in Sri Lanka. It was freezing cold to begin with and, to add to that, the scene takes place in the rain, so we were soaked to the skin, frozen to the bone, bruised and battered. I literally couldn’t move the next day but was told there had been some technical problems with the footage and we had to re-shoot the entire sequence that night. As you can imagine, it wasn’t fun!

Rahul Khanna's still from Fireflies
Fireflies

Team MM: We at MissMalini.com are a little obsessed with clothes and one of the first things we noticed in the trailer was that your look in the film: it does not veer too far from your personal style. How much arm-twisting was involved; or, was it all costume designer Zeeba Miraie’s idea?

RK: Film is a collaborative medium and input is always welcome, especially on something so close to the character as wardrobe. While Fireflies is a very stylish film, the clothes are not the focus. So we worked to find a balance between making the character look sharp without the clothes becoming the centre of attention. My character mostly wears tailored suits and we used a simple palette of blues and greys. Every once in a while, we added a subtle extra element like a neatly folded white pocket square, silver cufflinks or a cool pair of aviators.

Also, all the main characters in the film wear beautiful vintage watches from the 1950s and 60s that are heirlooms from the director’s family. He was very brave to use them in the film but he wanted them there for sentimental reasons and, thankfully, they remained unscathed!

Sabal Shekhawat with the cocker spaniel puppy
Sabal Shekhawat with the cocker spaniel puppy

Team MM: Trust there is one adorable pooch in the film tell us more about him.

RK: Ha ha! Yes, there is an absolutely gorgeous cocker spaniel puppy in one brief scene. He joined us for a day at the end of a brutally exhausting schedule in Sri Lanka. Everyone was fatigued and low on energy but as soon as he came onto set, the entire cast and crew immediately perked up. Everyone wanted to kiss and cuddle him — he was spoiled rotten and ended up being the star on the shoot that day! Everything revolved around him.

Kitulgala, Sri Lanka
Kitulgala, Sri Lanka

Team MM: We presume a good part of the film was shot in Sri Lanka any recommendations on things to do there?

RK: Part of the film flashes back to the characters’ childhood in the tea plantations of Ooty in the 1980s but, unfortunately, due to indiscriminate development, Ooty no longer looks like Ooty! So we had to cheat the location by using tea plantations in Sri Lanka, which still look exquisitely frozen in time. I, unfortunately, didn’t get to see much of the country as we were whisked from Colombo airport directly up into a remote area of the hills but I instantly fell in love with Sri Lanka. I really connected with the indigenous aesthetic sensibility, the food and the people. On one of my days off, I did go white-water kayaking down the Kelani River with my co-star Arjun Mathur, which was terrifying! I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the country, including the coastal areas and tour some of Geoffrey Bawa’s architecture, which I am a big fan of.

Rahul Khanna as Yousaf Rana in The Americans (Photo courtesy | Fox Television Studios and related entities)
Rahul Khanna as Yousaf Rana in The Americans (Photo courtesy | Fox Television Studios and related entities)

Team MM: By the way, congrats on your return to The Americans. Can you share with us how many episodes you will be seen in this season?

RK: All information on a show like The Americans is highly classified and very closely guarded. At the moment, all I can say is that my character has an arc on season three and I’m thoroughly enjoying working with the whole team, again.

New York, New York (Photo courtesy | Johannes Huebl)
New York, New York (Photo courtesy | Johannes Huebl)
New York, New York (Photo courtesy | Johannes Huebl)
New York, New York (Photo courtesy | Johannes Huebl)
New York, New York (Photo courtesy | Sam Horine)
New York, New York (Photo courtesy | Sam Horine)

Team MM: Since you are an honorary New Yorker, what are the things you would recommend when in the city?

RK: The four things I would recommend are:

  1. Spending a day at one of the extraordinary museums. I recommend the Museum of Natural History, The Guggenheim, MoMa and, my favourite, the “Met” (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). It is a mind-boggling place and I could easily spend a week inside and still not see everything I want to. Each time I visit, I come out feeling creatively stimulated and recharged. Just the other day, I had the day off and spent the afternoon soaking in some Cubist works and early European impressionist paintings.
  2. In the summer, I recommend going to Shakespeare in the Park. Every year the Public Theatre stages a couple of productions in an amphitheatre in the middle of Central Park. There’s no way to describe it other than “magical” and, if you’re lucky, you can see some of the biggest acting names in the world perform. Oh, and it’s free!
  3. Food, glorious food. I would recommend any of the thousands of amazing restaurants Manhattan has to offer. A hidden gem is the Food Hall in the basement of The Plaza Hotel.
  4. To work off the meals, I go rollerblading up the Hudson River Park. Located along Manhattan’s West Side on the shore of Hudson River, the expansive park stretches five miles from Battery Park in Lower Manhattan to 59th Street, has fantastic views and is the largest park created in Manhattan since Central Park.
Rahul Khanna (Photo courtesy | The Collective)
Rahul Khanna (Photo courtesy | The Collective)
Rahul Khanna
Rahul Khanna

Team MM: Like we said, we are a little obsessed with clothes and 99.99 percent of the time we LOVE what you wear. From where do you acquire such sartorial gems?  

RK: I love nice clothes but I’m not crazy about the process of acquiring them. So, I tend to shop quite sparingly and look for pieces that will have longevity. I do a lot of online shopping and I tend to shop when I’m travelling. I shop at big department stores, stand-alone boutiques, high-street stores and also vintage shops.

Team MM: So, any film/TV series/music/book that has impressed you recently? 

RK: Movie: The Grand Budapest Hotel

TV Shows: The Americans (obviously!), Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad

Music: Not just because it’s my film, but the soundtrack of Fireflies is really excellent.

Books: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Actually, anything by Sedaris!

Team MM: And lastly, when are you writing THAT book?

RK: As soon as inspiration strikes!

Arjun Mathur and Rahul Khanna
Fireflies

Guys, hope you enjoyed it — and don’t forget to catch Fireflies at a theatre near you. It comes out on October 31, which is… this Friday :-D

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