Challenging the textbook Hindi film formula became the norm in 2018, the producer-director-writer duo Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK were a huge part of this transformation with their film Stree. The writers and filmmakers talk to Team Box Office India about the success of their horror-comedy, their style of writing and their love for humour
Box Office India (BOI): The last time we spoke was right before your film Stree released. It went on to become one of the biggest hits of 2018. You had said the film was very special to you even before it became a success. What do you feel about it now?
Raj Nidimoru (Raj): We knew we had a special film in hand and it was a unique combination of horror and comedy, which we had dabbled in with Go Goa Gone. That film was of a similar genre. Then we had the fantasy aspect with the small-town fable in it and thought it would make people like it even more. We had this story for a while and we were very excited about the concept and then we rediscovered the story and decided to write it.
Krishna DK (DK): When we were making this film, we were aware that horror-comedy was a relatively new genre. We had tried this genre before with Go Goa Gone, which too was a horror-comedy but the horror was in the form of zombies. But with Stree, we were making a local, rural and desi version of Go Goa Gone. I think that helped the film go wider and appeal to more people. It appealed to a lot more people who tend to believe in chudails. They don’t necessary believe in zombies.
BOI: So you think the humour makes the connection with the audience?
Raj: I’ll give you a philosophical answer. When you look at life, you can look at it in a dramatic and sad way or you can look at it with a sense of humour. Like if you are going through heartbreak, you can show it in a dramatic manner or you could show that you are crying but you are hungry so you eat a pizza and you’re still crying. It makes the whole scene funny that you are still seeking food when your heart is breaking. The lens through which you look at it makes it funny.
DK: (Cuts In) Our humour is satirical and we are aware of it. The film or the character, even if it doesn’t say it, is aware that the humour element is present.
Raj: Especially in genres like horror, you know it is unbelievable, the setting is fantastical and it doesn’t happen in real life, ever. No one I know has ever seen a ghost. When you already have a premise like that, the humour is begging to come out.
DK: And if we don’t do humour with such a story, it might seem like we are saying that chudails exist and they will come and get you (Laughs). It is only because of the humour that we can bring some sense to it.
BOI: Many scenes from the film have been greatly appreciated. Regarding the climax scene, which was a laugh riot, Rajkummar Rao told us that it was made very spontaneously.
Raj: Yes, it was great. We actually cracked the climax while the shooting was underway. When I was on the sets and Amar (Kaushik) was directing, I was giving all the support I could and, at the same time, also changing some stuff as I was seeing it happen. We had written a climax but I was thinking that we needed an element that would hit a six on the last ball. So, Raj (Rajkummar Rao) was performing brilliantly and Flora Saini, who was playing the Stree, was also pretty scary with her sharp features and make-up. Everything was working out great. Then we wondered, what were we missing out on, and we thought ‘love’. It was love and respect that she was missing and that is what she wanted. Then we thought, what if we literally show love now? And then the Shah Rukh Khan bit came in because Raj was, like, how will one show love?
DK: I think Raj did a brilliant job in that scene.
Raj: Yes, we didn’t tell him to be like Shah Rukh but he took it to the next level with that iconic love gesture. I had just written ‘show love’. It had to be obvious and apparent and the love had to be in his eyes. It turned out to be amazing.
BOI: What is the dynamic like when you come up with these spontaneous scenes on the set?
Raj: That is where great actors come in. When great actors walk on the set, you know they are interpreting their lines. Some actors go exactly by the script and we write the script to the ‘T’. We even write the beat where they are supposed to pause, where they look or turn, or the camera comes in, etc. It is very descriptive. It’s like we are directing on paper. You can do that and I feel that if the scene is good, it will translate well.
But when an actor comes in, interprets it a little differently and adds to it, you are now enjoying the process more. Now it’s like somebody is adding something. It’s more creative input in the script and you are watching on screen and wondering how to make it better. Sometimes, when I used to watch Raj or Pankaj Tripathi, I would be taken aback at something they did. And you feel that is not how we wrote it but then I start to appreciate it because they have given it solid thought.
DK: Actors like Rajkummar are not doing something on the set on a whim. He has absorbed it, understood it and is doing it with a purpose. It is good to respect the actor, otherwise it would just be a well-done scene. But it becomes special when you let the actor bring in that extra energy or spark. Even Apar (Aparshakti Khurana) or Abhishek (Banerjee) and Pankaj, of course, are great. All of them are delivering great stuff in front of the camera and as a filmmaker you can decide what to keep and what not to keep. But when somebody gives you such good stuff, you want to keep everything. That’s actually a good problem to have.
BOI: How does the process of two people writing one script together work?
DK: Writing together is easy because it is a long-drawn process, where you are discussing ideas, you are bouncing off ideas etc. Directing together is a little challenging because decisions have to be made correctly. We have been friends since college and we got into this world together. When writing a script, we always discuss it so thoroughly, it is almost like directing the movie on paper. Sometimes, when I go on the set and Raj is not yet there, I pretty much know what we both want.
Raj: We know only one way to make a film and that is together. We learnt it together, we figured it out together. So it comes very naturally for us. Everybody asks how can two people write a story? For us, it is very natural. It is almost like a collaborative effort at any point.
DK: Just like, for example, when you collaborate with your cinematographer when it comes to setting a shot. It looks like the director is doing it all by himself. But, ultimately, there is collaboration with the cinematographer when you are setting up a shot. Or maybe like a collaboration with the actors because they have their own interpretation of the scenes. There is a lot of collaboration that happens on a set. This is just one extra layer of collaboration.
Raj: Sometimes, we talk on the phone. Lately, we are doing split work, where he handles one scene and I handle another. It is very efficient that way. In the last couple of years, we have been doing this a lot. Sometimes, I do action and he does some other scene. We mix and match. We keep calling each other. I know exactly what he is referring to. So, if he says he is doing something in a particular scene, I immediately know what he is talking about. People next to us will be, like, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ We are so much in sync.
BOI: Stree is based on a true incident. How did you build on it?
Raj: Back in Tirupati, where we were studying engineering, people suddenly started writing on their walls, ‘O stree repu raa,’ which means, ‘O stree kal aana.’ I did not notice it for a few days but later realised it was written everywhere. Every house had it. When I asked them what was going on, they said one had to write it or something bad would happen. They said, ‘There is somebody or something called stree and she is attacking everybody. Nobody knows what she does. But if you write it in your house, she won’t come.’
That was very eerie. When you hear these stories, you get goose bumps. I kept asking everyone if they knew stree. I did that for a few years, ever time I would go back there, and then people forgot about it. Nobody knew stree or the story behind the urban legend. I realized that there was no real story behind it; it was a ridiculous mob mentality.
DK: And what is crazy is that this local phenomenon is not just limited to this town. I heard that people wrote the same message on walls in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and many other places. Somebody said they had spotted something like this written in Rajasthan. This was a local phenomenon that became global within the country.
Raj: We realized this was crazy and weird. I thought I was not going to believe in it because it is not real, but it stayed in our minds. It was silly. So we said that Stree is based on a ridiculously true phenomenon. It is one way of creating our own version of a true story.
DK: Nobody knows what the truth behind stree is, not even the people who wrote the line on the walls.
Raj: Some people think that we do because we have written it. All we know is that woman is called stree and she is able to read, which is pretty cool.
DK: She acknowledges and obeys.
Raj: Naye Bharat ki chudail hai yeh!
BOI: She believes in consent.
Raj: Yes, true! All that stuff came in. Then, suddenly, it was called Stree. O Stree Kal Aana was our initial title. The word ‘stree’ sounded powerful. She is not a girl, she is a stree. The word represented ‘women’. Looking back at how we wrote it, that started dictating that it could not be treated as a random ghost or a chudail; there has to be some point to it. The point was, what if a gender reversal happens? What if she only preys on men? She preys on them and leaves behind their clothes.
DK: And that nailed it. Without the subtext, it would just be a horror-comedy. As he said, the title was very powerful. You cannot just make a film called Stree with a character called stree and not have more meaning to it. That would be very insensitive on our part.
Raj: That dictated it. And it became funny that she could read. She used to think, ‘Oh, it is okay, I will come back tomorrow.’ And then she came back the next day and saw that they wrote the same thing again. Then we had to make her smart too. In the final scene, they deliberately use this revelation and put the arrows for Stree saying ‘O Stree, aana’. But she doesn’t come that way, she comes and takes the guy. It played a great part once you are tuned into this idea.
It is a movie made for non-horror fans. We are not horror fans. Watching a horror movie is a nerve-wracking experience. We thought we would make a film for everybody, who could then go out and say, ‘Maine bhi horror picture dekhi hai’. I went on that little roller-coaster but to do the entire thing is a terrifying experience.
DK: Even when the film released, the first two weeks, many horror fans went and watched the movie. Later on, I got messages where people were saying that they usually don’t watch horror films but they saw this one.
Raj: I was watching the film in various theatres across Mumbai and three weeks after the release, I went to a theatre and sat in the first row to look back and watch the audience. I noticed that 80 per cent were women. I have never seen mothers or grandmothers watching a horror film. They were clutching on to each other, watching the film and having a ball. I thought it was awesome.
BOI: Another factor that worked in your favour was that there was a social commentary.
Raj: It was very conscious that the social commentary shouldn’t be in your face. Everything had to be funny. We never expected this film to be nominated and get awards …an absurd comedy.
DK: I also thought people would laugh and have a good time and that 10 per cent of the people might notice that there was a deeper meaning. But I was proved wrong; 90 per cent understood the meaning behind the film, which is a great thing.
After the pressure was over, everybody was talking more about the social commentary. Also, there is this thought regarding stree asking for your consent instead of forcefully taking you with her. That hit the peak…
Raj: That, and also the last scene where stree comes and sees her own idol, which says ‘O stree raksha karna’… We have never written a preachy line saying be good or be a nice person. Even for Go Goa Gone, since we were showing drugs and stuff, I said that we will put out a disclaimer of our own. It says in the beginning…
DK: It says, ‘smoking is injurious to health’…, then it says, ‘…so is alcohol, and drugs and sex and a lot of other stuff (Everyone laughs).’ So be cool. We turned the disclaimer into a half-joke.
Raj: Everything can be harmful, so you be cool. I am not going to tell you to be cool; figure it out yourself.
BOI: This age is a golden era for writers but not everyone agrees. What is your take on this?
DK: First, I think writing is the most important and difficult part of any film. Every film that you have seen, which is a hit or which has worked, is most likely because of the writing, because of the script. If it doesn’t work on the script level, nine out of 10 times it will not work on the big screen. There are some occasional big hits that have worked because of the star power. But you cannot count on that. If you are making a film, it has to work on paper first. Writers need to be respected, nurtured and given the resources they require to write. For us, we have been writer-directors and writer-producers. Even on our first film, we were writer-directors and we produced with our own money. I guess there is no better reward than the film working. Now is a great time for writers.
Raj: A great time but there is a bit of a downside or a little apprehension about how things are moving. You have to look at the creative work as a whole. There are feature films and there are digital series and look at the number of series that are being put out so quickly across platforms. Where does this writing come from? When did these series get made? A year from now, there will be a colossal number of series across platforms. This is beautiful for everyone – craftsmen, artists, actors, writers, directors, assistant directors and costume designers. Everybody is going to have a job. It is beautiful. That is the best part. Nobody can complain that they are no jobs. That’s the best part.
But the second part is that you are in a hurry. We, as a country, are always in a hurry. We have to catch up so we do jugaad and we are very good at it. In the end, quality suffers. You are going to write this, you are going to write that. First draft… chalega, you will be ready to shoot! We used to write 10 drafts to make sure we got it perfect.
DK: In the end, you have to be quality conscious. But, a few years from now, things will settle. There will be more and more writers and talented people. There will be companies nurturing writers.
Raj: Right now, it is going to be chaotic for some time, it is going to be good and bad. But I think it is heading in the right direction.
BOI: You are currently working on Family Man with Manoj Bajpayee. Can you shed some light on this?
Raj: It is our first web series. We are excited about doing long format. It gives you a different high, a different kind of freedom. There is no release date. There is no marketing. If it is good, it is good.
DK: (Cuts in) There is marketing… but there is no time window of a Friday, which is liberating in certain scenarios like if there is a concept that you need people to understand or you don’t have a star who can pull people in. Only the content speaks.
Raj: There are certain ideas that may not work as film or you need a star or certain actor attached to it. Family Man is our first one and we are very excited about it. It is a new genre that we have written; it is a gritty, action, drama, a satire. But we have toned down the satire.
BOI: Satire is inherent in your writing. How do you curb it while writing a serious subject?
DK: We don’t curb it, in that sense. There is satirical humour in this as well but we will not be playing to the gallery, trying to get quick laughs.
Raj: We are also talking about a serious subject. We are also fighting terrorism. As a society, our set-up, satirical humour comes in. But beyond that, you are not trying to make it funny. It is against our natural instinct thoda sa. But the subject decides the flow and you stay focused.