Laal Singh Chaddha – Retelling the classic Forrest Gump through the lens of India’s modern history and culture

Based on both the Forrest Gump screenplay by Eric Roth and Winston Groom’s original novel, Laal Singh Chaddha is a life-affirming story chronicling the extraordinary life of an ordinary man who changes the world through simple kindness, who wants nothing but to bring happiness to the people he loves, and through that modest mission alters the course of Indian history.

In 1994, Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump became an Oscar-winning smash hit, charming audiences around the world with its story of a simple man whose goodness improves the lives of all he meets. Its story has lost none of its power. Arguably, its message of kindness has never been more important. That story is given a new spin by legendary Bollywood actor Aamir Khan in Laal Singh Chaddha, the realisation of a long-held dream.

Shot in over 100 locations around India, the film brings together Aamir Khan, one of the biggest stars in Indian cinema, and Kareena Kapoor Khan to deliver audiences heart, humour and optimism.

With a childhood marked by a unique bond between Laal and his single mother, tempered with strong values, the story follows Laal’s journey of love, innocence and destiny as he triumphs over life’s many challenges. As he wins the hearts of those he meets along the way, he reminds us that everyone, even the most unlikely of people, has a story.

Bringing Laal Singh Chaddha to the screen has been a labour of love for Khan

It took a decade to secure the rights to Forrest Gump, demonstrating that his vision would be both a respectful tribute to the original and take it in an exciting new direction.

Khan was granted the rights in 2018 and teamed up with screenwriter Atul Kulkarni (making his screenwriting debut) and director Advait Chandan to adapt the tale of Forrest Gump and create the story of Laal Singh Chaddha.

Director Advait Chandan and screenwriter Atul Kulkarni

“I looked at Laal Singh Chaddha like a cover song of a genuinely loved classic,” says director Advait Chandan. “I felt that Forrest Gump was a universal story, which we could bring an Indian flavour to. Forrest Gump is a quintessentially American film – it’s in the houses they live in, the clothes they wear, and the historic references. I felt like there was an opportunity to bring an Indian flavour to the story and keep the same soul.”

Giving the story an Indian twist manifested itself in changes both huge and small. Where Forrest Gump wove its story through some of the biggest moments in 20th Century US history, including the Vietnam War and Watergate, Laal’s life takes him through the biggest moments in Indian 20th Century history, including the Kargil War. But there were also other poignant changes that made the story quintessentially Indian too, like changing Forrest’s famous box of chocolates for a tempting dish of the popular street food, Golgappa – a small sphere of deep-fried flatbread, stuffed with comforting fillings and spiced water, made for sharing.

©Paramount Pictures’ Laal Singh Chaddha

On a train journey across India, the ever-positive Laal Singh Chaddha (Khan) sparks up a conversation with the passenger opposite, telling her about his childhood with his beloved mother (Mona Singh) and his first encounter with Rupa, a girl who would shape his life. As Laal continues with his story, more and more passengers gather round, listening to the epic, unfolding tale of how Laal witnessed some of the most world-shaking events of modern
Indian history, and how his whole life has been dedicated to his love for Rupa (Kareena Kapoor Khan).

“In India, the bus stops are really crowded. There’s no way you’d be able to make a connection there,” says Chandan. “But the railways are a very big part of our lifestyle. These are long journeys, sometimes 24 hours, and you end up making friends with people. You share food and water, and you find connections with them. I remember as a child I’d make friends on trains and then I’d write to them on their birthdays. It’s very natural.”

The director found Kulkarni’s decision to centre the film on a train to be a touch of genius. “It changed everything. You can gather so many people to listen to the story, of all ages.”

For all the differences between the two films, Chandan says they share one vital thing in common: soul. “We had to keep that soul, which is there in Winston Groom’s book and Robert Zemeckis’ film. The hope is that someone who hasn’t watched Forrest Gump, they’ll love experiencing this unique form of storytelling for the first time. And for someone who has seen Forrest Gump, they’ll enjoy the new flavour this has and the twists and turns we’ve taken, plus the surprises we’ve thrown in.”

Meet Laal Singh Chaddha, a man who changes the world through simple kindness

Playing the role of Laal is a huge challenge for any actor, not only having to portray the character from his early twenties right up to middle-age, but be able to convey the emotion of Laal through very little dialogue. Laal is a man of many feelings but few words.

For Aamir Khan, it was one of the greatest challenges of his career.

Because the adaptation originated with Khan, who also serves as producer, Chandan says the actor had an extraordinary closeness with the character. “He’d lived with this character for about ten years,” says Chandan. In fact, Chandan only appreciated quite how much the character lived in him when they did their first read-through of the script with the cast. “We set up some chairs, so it was like the train. We put people in their places and started reading. He had internalised Laal so much that it immediately came out so organically. He was Laal straight away.”

Chandan believes Khan was able to access the soul of Laal so quickly because they share some key traits. “He’s such a giving and loving person,” Chandan says of his star. “I don’t think an actor and a character necessarily have to have an inherent similarity, but I felt we could bring in that innocence quite naturally, which is something he does really well.”

It was also a physically demanding role for Khan. Anyone who’s seen Forrest Gump will remember just how much running the character has to do. “Thank god he’s a fit guy!” laughs Chandan. “That really served him in good stead on this one.” For scenes when Laal runs across the country, Khan had to spend weeks running through different terrains, from busy cities to mountains. “You might notice in some shots that he’s limping a little because he had a knee injury,” says Chandan. “We couldn’t stop shooting because everything was booked. We had to fly from city to city for a month and a half. He was injured but he kept going. It was a really taxing film for him.”

For Rupa, the film needed an actress who could capture the hearts of Laal and the audience.

The adult Rupa is played by award-winning actress Kareena Kapoor Khan. Rupa is quite a different character from Jenny, her equivalent in Forrest Gump. When we first meet her, as a child, Rupa is one of the few people to show kindness to young Laal. Her happy times with Laal are her escape from her home life, where her father violently abuses her mother. As Rupa grows older, she dreams of becoming a Bollywood actress, but life never quite goes right for her. Throughout her life, she and Laal reunite, and those are the only times Rupa is truly happy.

“We wanted this film to be enjoyed by families, including children, so we wanted to rework some of the elements of Jenny’s story for Rupa,” says Chandan. “Again, we took what’s important in the shared soul of Jenny and Rupa, which is that she’s someone who had a troubled childhood and has ambitions of her own, but things don’t really work out for her. And, of course, she’s someone who loves Laal, perhaps not romantically. We kept her journey the same, but we found an Indian version of it.”

An Unseen India

Though it’s an intimate story, Laal Singh Chaddha is told on an epic canvas. Laal’s life takes him all across India, from Delhi to Mumbai to Kerala and beyond. The film shot in over 100 different locations. “Honestly, I was a bit shocked when the location list got approved,” says Chandan.

“We were asking for the moon, assuming we wouldn’t get it. I was hoping I might get half! It was really a dream come true, getting every location I wanted to shoot in.”

All those locations give the film an extraordinary beauty, but they also explore unseen parts of India. “We wanted to go to beautiful parts of India, but places that hadn’t really been shot before,” explains Chandan. “I didn’t want to go to places that tourists already go to. We wanted to film the kind of places tourists should be going to.” He and the film’s production team spent a long time finding places that would be breathtaking and new. One of the most spectacular places they shot was in Jatayu Nature Park in Kerala. There they filmed around an enormous statue of the mythical bird Jatayu, who helps Rama and Sita in the Indian legend. “I feel it’s one of the most underrated locations in India,” says Chandan. “It’s epic.”

Songs Of The Heart

“As an audience member, if a film doesn’t have songs, it doesn’t feel Indian to me,” says Chandan. Indeed, for most Indian cinema, songs are as just as important as the script or the visuals. Chandan says that one of the first things he did when he read this script was to think about where songs would fit most naturally and impactfully.

“Songs bring in the unsaid and the intangible,” says Chandan. “The song gets under your skin and emotionally connects you to what the character is feeling. Hearing the songs in this film, they’re what Laal is feeling and what the audience ends up feeling.”

The film’s majestic score is composed by Tanuj Tiku, with original songs composed by Pritam (who previously collaborated with Aamir Khan on Dhoom 3 and Dangal) and lyrics by Amitabh Bhattacharya. “The songs enhance the flow and emotion of the film,” says Chandan. “I’m really proud of what Amitabh and Pritam have done. I’m hoping that when audiences outside India watch the film, that music will bring an added layer to the source material.”

All these elements – the songs, the stunning locations, the clever Indian adaptations, the brilliant performances – combine to make a film that has its own unique personality while keeping the same beating heart as Forrest Gump. “They’re both films about relationships,” says Chandan. “Both Forrest and Laal form these strong relationships. The mother. The friend from the army. The girl he loves. It’s all about relationships, and those journeys are universal. When I watched Forrest Gump, I was in college, and I didn’t understand all the historic elements. I didn’t know what Watergate was. But it still made sense to me. It was still funny to me. And it was still emotional to me. That’s the genius of this story. It’s universal, just as all great art is.