From 99 to Stree: Raj and DK’s 10 years in Bollywood

The filmmaker duo, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, who originally hail from Andhra Pradesh, was overwhelmed by Mumbai enough to write two stories – 99 and Shor in the City. Today, they own the credit of introducing quirk to contemporary Bollywood, a 100-crore film and a palatial office in the city, which always falls short of space.

Two computer software engineers with lucrative jobs in the US learnt filmmaking on VCR, made a “part-time” film to hon their craft and arrived in Mumbai to make movies more than 10 years ago. Today, they own the credit of introducing quirk to contemporary Bollywood, a 100-crore film and a palatial office in the city, which always falls short of space.

That could have easily been the plot of a dramedy but it is not. This is the story of filmmakers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK. “Passion for cinema drove us. There was never a moment when I told DK, ‘It’s enough. let’s stop it,’” Raj says on being asked if the duo ever went through skepticism about leaving everything behind for the magic of movies.

“If that thought came, it became a script. We wrote a story about two guys, who were making a film, which was so bad that when they shoot for four days and show to their friends, they feel, ‘How do we tell these guys that it’s awful?’ So, these guys abandon the film but someone has heard about them and starts inviting them for events. So, it was a funny take on how somebody wants to be a filmmaker but is not good at it,” the director continues.

In real, however, Flavors (2003), their first ever work that they shot while working in the US, was liked a lot by their friends and whosoever saw it, so much so that it became their resume when they landed in Mumbai. “The first time we came to Mumbai, DK, Anupam (the producer on 99) and I carried two reels each of film cans of Flavours to play,” Raj Nidimoru recalls.

Before they could settle in, the filmmaker duo, who originally hails from Andhra Pradesh, was overwhelmed by Mumbai enough to write two stories – 99 and Shor in the City. “The contrast in Mumbai was too much for us. The two things that you notice first about the city are the sounds and the smell. Shor in the City came from that,” says Krishna DK. 99, which got made first and became the filmmakers’ Bollywood debut, was about a man, who in a group of goons is the least interested in the business.

But had it not been for the delay they faced in kick-starting their Telugu film career, 99 wouldn’t have happened. “The first Indian story that we ever wrote was in Telugu. We directly went to a superstar and he said he loved it but we could see that at that time it was harder. He wanted to wait. It was like, ‘Let me do one commercial film first.’ We had written three scripts and 99 was our favourite so we thought of making it in Hindi because we felt people here would be ready to do it faster,” recalls Raj.

Starring Kunal Kemmu, Soha Ali Khan, Boman Irani and Cyrus Broacha in the lead roles, 99 released in 2009 to almost empty theaters. “I remember how two weeks before the film’s release, we had no money left so we couldn’t do TV, radio advertisements. There were just posters and some theater listings. We were worried that people wouldn’t even know that such a film was releasing. The posters also had nothing to attract the audience, and the name was so odd! 99. Hardly people turned up. By Saturday, we knew it won’t run and we were bummed,” Raj Nidimoru remembers.

“On Sunday, however, we got a call from Eros theater, saying, ‘Aapki picture achi chal rahi hai. Mast banayi hai. 60 per cent occupancy hai.’ We actually went, checked and found people were loving the film. They were laughing, clapping!” Krishna DK continues, “We wondered how did we even manage to get 100 people in the theater. Our second week collection was better than the first week. No one lost their money.”

Talking about 99, Raj recalls how two of the “side goons” in the film were named Satya and Bhiku, inspired by Ram Gopal Varma’s path-breaking crime drama Satya (1998). RGV’s influence on the duo goes beyond the names of the characters in his film. One of the earliest films to inspire Raj and DK was Varma’s 1991 Telugu neo-noir film Kshana Kshanam. “It is still so funny. It is a comedy classic, redefining humour in those days,” Raj says, adding that besides Kshana Kshanam, it was Coen Brothers’ work, which resonated with their sensibilities.

“Whenever they were making comedies, they were open about these little nuances and not broad-stroke humour, like a funny Ben Stiller film. We were like this is what we like. Good that there are such movies made. This was a validation that we should do what we want to,” DK says.

99 took a couple of years to get made majorly because Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK could not get its lead actor. “We met a lot of actors and everybody thought it was a pretty cool film. We even made a video presentation. We actually made a small comic book on the film, which looked like a trailer, so that they get that we are trying to do something fun and quirky. That helped a lot.

“But there was this waiting game, I could sense. They felt, ‘These are two outsiders, who don’t even speak the language, and the script is weird,’” Raj reveals. In the years that the casting took to come through, Raj and DK occupied themselves with several drafts of the 99 script and also started and finished a lot of other stories, which included Stree and their upcoming Amazon series.

Two years after their debut came Shor in the City, starring Radhika Apte and Tusshar Kapoor, which Raj reveals is his favourite work in terms of how nuanced the story was. “It is a nice view into characters, people. There’s a lot of nuances in it. It’s tougher to pull off a film called noise. There’s no connection between these people except shor.”

The film earned glorious reviews and today, like 99, it is called an underrated gem by cinephiles. But in 2011 it wasn’t enough to gain shor around Raj and DK, which finally happened with the 2013 zombie-comedy Go Goa Gone. “I really like Go Go Gone for its whackiness, that we could pull off something like that,” Raj says. DK adds, “It’s my favourite. It was a happy experience and the irreverence of it was so much. You are free to do whatever you want. We were literally making the rules as we were going about it.”

Go Goa Gone’s bizarreness is what both shocked and won the audience over. The Saif Ali Khan-led film also earned Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK the tag of directors, who make weird, quirky comedies. Raj, however, believes more than the weirdness it’s the observational quality in their humour that resonates with their audience.

“We are not too bizarre at all. I always thought we were moderate. We aren’t the classic filmmakers, nor are we these weird filmmakers, who are hard to understand. I felt all these movies – 99, Shor in the City and Go Goa Gone – were meant for the regular audience. Take zombies for that matter, the audience was like, ‘What is this?’ So, what if my neighbour has a zombie in their house, how would they react? It’s that. So, I don’t think it’s bizarre.

“(Observational humour) is the most exciting humour because even if you are not used to the humour and you are watching it, you will get it and you will laugh. Hence, it’s not bizarre. It’s like, ‘Arey! I also used to think the same way,’” Raj says. Come to think of it, 99, which was set in 1999, spoofed the obsession of Indian mobile users with the snake game, which featured in then Nokia phones. In Go Goa Gone, a boat that had zombies sitting on it was named after Titanic.

Invoking political and pop cultural references with the help of humour has also been one of the fortes of the duo. Take Stree (dialogues by Sumit Aroraa) for example where Pankaj Tripathi’ says, “Stree purushoen ki tarah zabardasti nahi karti. Woh pehle aap se anumati mangegi Agar mud gaye toh use lagega, yes. Yes means yes,” while invoking Amitabh Bachchan’s “No means no” dialogue about consent in Pink.

Or in 99, where a Mumbai-based bookie Mahesh Manjrekar beats up a man in a make-shift clinic, whose nameplate reads “Munna Bhai MBBS,” an obvious reference to Rajkumar Hirani’s Munna Bhai MBBS, which had actor Sanjay Dutt play the role of a local goon turned medical student.

No wonder, Raj Nidimoru says their work bears resemblance with that of late Hrishikesh Mukherjee, whose films used humour to make a socio-political commentary. “A couple of his films I felt had similarities, also some of the Amol Palekar films I felt were damn funny. In south, we really liked Bapu and K Balachander.”

Now that Raj and DK had finally arrived, commercial cinema was obviously not far away. Within a year released Happy Ending, their second collaboration with Saif, which also starred Ileana D’Cruz and Govinda. The film, which was originally about a film director, who lives in Mumbai’s Aaram Nagar, home to many struggling Bollywood aspirants, eventually became too glamorous for its own good. The film failed to connect with the audience and as Raj puts it, “Everything became too stylised as we took the story to LA.”

It was followed by the debacle of A Gentleman, which featured Sidharth Malhotra and Jacqueline Fernandez. Without naming the films, the filmmakers mention how “we did a few films where things weren’t our way and we weren’t completely satisfied.”

That dissatisfaction made Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK go back to basics. As they did an eight-year rewind, they found the story of a female ghost, who takes away men leaving their clothes behind, was always looking for their attention. Perhaps, it was time to look for the same “silliness that is on the border of something cool,” that 99 and Go Go Gone breathed.

But the decision to finally take Stree on floors did not come without its own dose of skepticism. “When we were writing it, we were thinking, ‘What if people will think this is very silly and they don’t get what the film is about? The hero is the son of a prostitute and he is the rescuer. This girl comes only after men. She reads and writes.’ You think it’s pretty silly, but because you are in the middle of your career, you think all this. If this was our first film, we wouldn’t have even thought about it.”

The box office success of the Rajkummar Rao-starrer meant the biggest validation for the duo, who realised that all those stories, which had been with them for years, it was time to make them. “This was the first time we eyed 100. We don’t make 100 crore movies. The biggest thing was that we stick to the kind of films we want to make. Period. It gives us a lot of confidence that let’s make another silly movie that borders on something really cool.”

Raj Nidimoru was especially thrilled when Stree began sweeping all the awards earlier this year. He says, “The best thing about Stree was subversive messaging. Initially we were and we still are against preachy stuff because who are we to preach? But we realised that if the same quirky film has a point to make, it becomes a bigger film, in terms of being taken more seriously. I would have never expected Stree to get the best film award! It was never meant to be. Comedies don’t get best film awards. It’s reserved for drama films and socially-relevant films.”

The entry into Bollywood’s much-obsessed 100 crore club is also a win for the subversiveness that Raj and DK have held on to since the beginning, despite repeated schooling by people around them. “People tried to educate us, saying, Nahi nahi aise nahi hota hai Bollywood mei,’” DK recalls some of the experiences on the set of 99. Raj mentions how even today, “Some idiot somewhere points out our certain accent in Hindi. I have a couple of people here and they go like, ‘Listen Raj, you guys don’t really know Hindi. And then I tell them, ‘I have made enough Hindi films to know the language.’”

In their 10-year journey making Hindi films, Stree looks like the second and much bigger game changer for Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK after Go Goa Gone and they are clear they would not repeat the mistake of getting into the trappings of commercial cinema.

So, even though producers throng their office, asking them to make another horror-comedy or another 100-crore film, they want to stick to bringing across original ideas. “People keep telling us to make Go Goa Gone 2, Shor in the City sequel and now a Stree 2. Even though for the love that audience has given to Stree, we would love to make the sequel, this very demand makes me want to not make sequels. So, if someone tells me to make a 99 sequel, I tell them I will make 100.”

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