- Punam Mohandas
- 15 October 2019
Shrikant Tiwari is the James Bond from Chembur!
SWA Exclusive interview with writer-director-creator Raj Nidimoru
We had a fascinating Sunday morning in conversation with the erudite, affable and very grounded Raj Nidimoru, one half of the Raj-DK team that created and wrote ‘The Family Man’ series that has taken the digital platform by storm. Its unprecedented success has somewhat flabbergasted Raj, who now spends most of his time warding off queries as to when season two is happening!
In an extremely candid interview, he talks about learning film making from scratch, getting a foothold into the Hindi film industry and the sequel to ‘Stree.’ Oh and don’t hold your breath – in a disappointing newsflash, I have it from the horse’s mouth that season two of TFM will be aired next year only!
(Above: RAJ NIDIMORU Below: RAJ NIDIMORU & KRISHNA DK)
You are both software engineers by profession. How did the movie bug bite you – that too, scriptwriting?
“There were two things,” says Raj immediately. “Firstly, boredom! Done the Bachelor’s, Master’s, working in the US, using the left side of the brain only. Job satisfaction was quite low for me, so I started writing while I was still working.
Number two, I feel that most Indians are film makers at heart! They love to watch films, discuss and critique films. It’s one of our biggest passions – and some of us, when the time is right, tend to explore it.”
How would you describe your journey thus far in the film industry? As Indian Americans, how hard was it to gain a foothold into the Hindi film industry?
“We didn’t know anyone; we had never even come to Mumbai! We had left our very high paying jobs in the industry - DK especially was really good at his job, he was in high demand – so we were asking around if anyone knew even an AD we could meet! We knew it was a long process. I learnt that some of the jobs were more about production rather than direction and both of us didn’t have the patience to go slow, so we decided to just make a film on our own. So a friend, who’s the founder of Shaadi(dot)com, stepped up for ‘99’.”
Why didn’t you approach people from the Telugu industry first, like Suresh Babu or Nagarjuna?
“Oh, we did,” he clarifies. “In fact, Nagarjuna was very interested in working with us and wanted us to write something for him. But somehow, the first couple of scripts we wrote, we just felt would fit better in a Mumbai setting.”
Did you start as writers and later take on direction, or was it the other way around?
“I didn’t know the distinction,” says Raj simply. “It sounds naïve, but we were outside the country… I felt that writing/directing/producing was all part of it. I just wanted to be a film maker! We even had our first business cards made that said, ‘film makers!’
How did the two of you start to work as a team?
“We were friends in college, on the debate and quiz teams together,” explains Raj. “We were continuously in touch. Once I started thinking about making films, I called DK. He thought it was preposterous for a second!” he laughs. “But then he was in! We had to figure out everything from the start…how to write a screenplay what’s the template…we didn’t even know what each crew member specifically does! I’d never been on a film set till ‘Shor in the City'. We used to give the clap for our first feature; one of us would give the clap and the other used to hold the boom mike! It’s been a really interesting journey. It’s also symbolic, because we’ve been here ten years; it’s a good place now to take stock.”
Clearly, this is a friendship that works well even professionally. How do the two of you find common grounds?
Raj concurs as he says: “We did have a few unsaid rules. We didn’t need to (already) make what’s out there, because there are better people to make those. I’m more excited to see something more unique that’s entertaining at the same time. We also told ourselves not to repeat a film. Your work will show how good you are, you don’t need to market yourself. Self-driven goals and self-reliant process is what DK and I both believe in; number one is how sincerely we have written the script.”
Did you ever anticipate this kind of audience reaction to, ‘The Family Man’?
“The response has been pretty amazing!” he exclaims. “You tend to forget the amount of work you put in it; it’s been a year and a half.” I confess to him that I binge-watched it and he is taken aback; “What? All of it together?? This makes me think of school days, when I’d finish a novel and think – oh my God, I have class tomorrow! But sometimes the story is such that you just can’t put the book down… I didn’t think people would binge watch the series though.”
How the idea for the plot came about and how did you develop it?
“When I was a kid, I had an uncle who was a CID officer and he took great pride in his job and made it so exciting for a kid like me. We were travelling by train once and he lied right in front of me to some stranger who asked him: ‘what do you do?’ He made up some absolute story right there! I wanted to make a film about a middleclass guy doing an ordinary government job – except that the job is fighting terror. You treat him like anybody else. But, he’s James Bond from Chembur! He has a dabba car, he eats roadside vada-pao, he asks his boss for a home loan, he has money problems. He’s extremely flawed, succeeds and fails repeatedly; he’s very human, except he’s driven, passionate and very jugadoo.”
Now that he’s done ‘The Family Man’ series, what, according to Raj, are the challenges and USPs of the digital medium?
“First of all, when we got the idea I realized it wasn’t a film. It was a perfect idea for the OTT platform. We were just waiting for the right platform to come along and I couldn’t be happier that we found it – they (Amazon Prime) promoted it real well and it could reach a lot of people.
Challenges… we had to take on bigger challenges each time. You’re writing content that equals four films at least. We wanted the pace to be film-like, not languid the way serials usually are. The scenes are quite crisp. Writing for a series is also slightly different from feature films, because in films there’s the third act – if the third act doesn’t work, the film has very little scope to work. In a series, it’s not about the third act; it’s about status quo, about progression,” he explains earnestly. “The bigger thing is freedom of expression; of course, there’s no censorship, but I mean you can express it in a wider way, you can explore the character, subject and also, casting characters. It’s not that every character had to speak perfect Hindi. We loved that freedom of casting across India! This was a beautiful canvas to explore India.”
You have also stated in an earlier interview that sometimes you write even ten drafts for a script! Does the going ever get demotivating?
“No,” he says quite emphatically. “Not once you make it a part of life that you like to write and fundamentally, at my core, I write. I remember this quote from my childhood: ‘Find a job you like to do and you’ll never work again.’ The only time it gets tedious is when you’re at a deadline and you haven’t cracked something. My kind of favourite writing is to travel taking my laptop along and find a café where I can write, then explore the city.”
Do you write your scripts first and then go around looking to cast, or do you approach the actors/stars with your ideas and then develop the ones which get liked?
“So far, it has always been that we write scripts; we don’t keep actors in mind when doing so. That gives us the freedom. The content should always be the most important thing and that’s what I figure out first, before deciding who’s in it. For example, ‘Stree.’ It’s a funny, weird character – the savior of the town is the son of a prostitute. Then the tough job is finding someone to play such a role!” he laughs.
Coming back to ‘The Family Man,’ while the dialogues and personal interactions are pretty much spot-on, it is the beguiling banter between the little boy and his parents that interests me the most. What was the inspiration for this; how did you manage to get an eight-year old’s lines so right?
“Observing my nephew!” says Raj promptly. “Also, it’s a throwback to our childhood, DK’s and mine; we grew up in a small town that wasn’t politically correct. A dad can slap you or give you tough love! You can see the love in Shrikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpayee’s character) but it’s never really expressed, neither to the daughter nor to the son. You feel the love and protection. It’s a fun way of dealing with the father-son; there’s an equal footing. Like when he asks his daughter why she didn’t accept his Facebook request and she replies: ‘You’re not my friend!’ You can see the freedom he’s given them that they can talk like this to him.”
And now you’re working on the second season, with a third on the anvil as well. When can we expect to see it?
“I think it’ll take a year, right?” he begins and I interrupt him with a sharp yelp of horror. “What?” he says, startled. “It’s like writing a thesis or book; it takes a lot of research. You have to be very accurate. I think they will release the sequel around the same time after a year.”
What’s the most challenging part about writing a sequel?
“Me, DK, Suman Kumar and another assistant writer called Suhas (Sumit Arora came in much later to do the Hindi adaptation) just lock ourselves in a room. You’re in a flow, tons of ideas! As you’re designing – and Suman especially researched a lot – you see that this doesn’t fit in this structure, so next time…and then that formed an idea for season two and three.
The challenging part is to meet the expectations!” he groans. “The first set of compliments we got is – brilliant series, best series ever. But the second set of compliments came with – where is season two?! We’re not that prolific that we just hash out and then go shoot it!” says Raj, sounding somewhat cornered.
Rumour has it that you also have a sequel to ‘Stree’ on your mind. Can you give us an update?
‘Stree was always conceived as a trilogy when DK and I wrote it,” he says immediately. “We need to get to it. We have ‘The Family Man’ and then we have another series coming up that’s diametrically opposite – I can’t talk too much about it right now,” he says apologetically. “I’m not really a sequel kind of guy. I have other exciting ideas to get out. I write a lot! I’m feeling almost stifled that I can’t put all of them out.”
What’s the latest on ‘Farzi,’ which you have previously described as your “strongest” script?
‘Farzi’ is still the strongest and my favourite and I have plans for it,” he says decisively. “If one is slowed or stalled, I have others to turn to and there’s a commitment as I mentioned, so right now, I’ll focus on the two series, then another film.”
Are you open to collaborating with other writers too? How can young writers who might have scripts that might interest you, contact you?
“We get lots of requests,” he says somewhat contemplatively. “My thing is – people say they need your time to come and sit and narrate, but if it’s a brilliant idea, it has to be on paper! It has to be fleshed out and make sense, appeal on paper. I never went to somebody with just a concept! I wrote it and then said – read it. The better stories will always sound better as a synopsis and right there, I know if there’s something I can do with it. We are open to people contacting us, but I’m not actively seeking anything. I need to have a filter mechanism and we do now have a couple of people filtering out and then telling me if there’s something worth the while…look, if I’m trying to make a film that’s not out there, but I get scripts that are about out there, then I’m not interested!”