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For director Raaj Shaandilyaa, making people laugh has long been a job, but it’s a good one to have. It started as a hobby when he was still an engineering student at NRI College, Bhopal, and would write short stories and plays in his spare time. Watching The Great Indian Laughter Challenge helped him realise it could be a full-time profession, he says. The next year, he began writing for reality show Comedy Circus until 2013, when Anees Bazmee roped him in to write the dialogues of Welcome Back. He’s since written dialogues for films such as Freaky Ali (2016), Bhaiaji Superhit (2018) and Jabariya Jodi (2019).

Shaandilyaa’s first feature as a director, Dream Girl, stars Ayushmann Khurrana as a man who masquerades as a female tele-caller at a ‘friendship hotline’ in Mathura, finding admirers among the local cop, a testosterone-fuelled biker and even his girlfriend’s brother, all of whom don’t know his real identity. He spoke about why he gravitates towards films about small towns, why directing is like being the father of the bride and what writing tips he picked up from his Comedy Circus days.

Dream Girl has an unusual premise. Where did the idea come from?

Around 2006-2007, one of my friends used to talk to this girl on Orkut. Facebook wasn’t around back then. One day he said he was going to meet her for the first time. The next day, he told me that ‘she’ turned out to be a man. I asked him how he wasn’t able to figure that out and he said the person would talk to him like a girl would. In 2013, my co-writer Nirmaan Singh proposed that we do something of this kind. I said the idea was old but the story we weave around it could be new. I wanted to do something with the idea after Welcome Back released in 2013. I thought I’d be free, but got even busier. We started thinking about the characters and writing the story in 2015.

Getting men to dress like women is something that’s been done before in films such as Aunty No. 1. What’s the challenge in keeping it fresh?

All these ideas came in bits and pieces. In small towns like mine, even now men play women in the Ram Leela. In Shola Aur Shabnam, there was a scene in which Govinda plays a woman. We’ve done a lot of those kinds of gags as well. But none of those character were ever caught dressing like women, they’d just do it for fun. What’s new is that in our film, the character gets caught and then has to make his way out of it. So the challenge was in presenting how he gets trapped in such a way that the audience enjoys it. That is where we’ve brought novelty into the story.

The call centre where Ayushmann is hired isn’t an adult hotline – he doesn’t talk about sex on the phone; it’s meant for sharing thoughts and feelings. Where did this idea stem from?

There are two kinds of massage centres, ones that give actual massages, and ones where a lot of other things happen. So this call centre is not of that kind. There you can share sweet stories – it’s a friendship call centre. The film doesn’t have anything that you can’t watch with your family. We had seen such centres in Delhi, Ghaziabad, Meerut and some small towns. They would feature in papers such as Punjab Kesari, Times of India: If you want to share your feelings with somebody, you can call directly on this hotline number. I would get messages saying, “I am Priya, or Pooja, or Geeta and you can come meet us.” So I knew they existed. There are so many of them in Delhi too.

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You were once asked what you thought of Kapil Sharma getting the praise for your work and you said, “I believe I am a person who is supposed to work behind the scenes. I am happy that my thoughts are liked by people.” What made you want to call the shots on this project?

While I was writing this, the whole team was deciding who to pick as our director. When we did the narration after the story was ready, I felt that I should direct it. If not now, I would’ve directed later for sure. But since Ayushmann came on board and Ekta (Kapoor) agreed to produce the film, I thought – why delay it? Might as well start with this, it’s a genre I love.

As a first-time director, what was your biggest concern? 

My biggest concern was that the film should be made on time, and within budget. The problem here is that our films are not flops, our budgets flop. That is a big responsibility. I was working with Ayushmann, who is already an established actor. So I had to ensure that every small detail was right. Our star cast also includes Annu Kapoor and Vijay Raaz, and people told me it would be difficult to work with them. But neither did I feel like that nor did they feel like they were working with a first-time director. I wanted the energy of my script on paper to translate in the film, that was a big responsibility. I slowly understood all these things, the fear that was there in the beginning reduced, and finally a good, entertaining film was ready.

When your audience watches the film, they shouldn’t think about what went on behind the scenes or what happened on set. We can’t put a disclaimer saying: We had planned to shoot for 48 days, but were able to shoot for only 45, which is why we missed some things. You need to balance all of that and move ahead, and be happy and make the film.

There are two kinds of massage centres, ones that give actual massages, and ones where a lot of other things happen. So the call centre in the movie is not of that kind

You’ve compared directing to being like the father of the bride

When you make the kind of film for which people have high expectations, they think it’ll be like going to a wedding and getting everything – pictures with the bride and the groom, dancing, food, full entertainment. So being a director is a big responsibility. A writer’s job ends when they’ve written the script. That’s when direction starts. You have to ensure that all the artistes are happy, that the amount of footage given to everyone is balanced, you have to oversee the music and costumes. Everyone feels like a relative – disappointed by small matters. You have to keep critics and journalists happy. It’s a big task and not everyone is cut out for it.

Director Janak Toprani says Dream Girl is plagiarized from his 2017 film Call For Fun. Do you want to respond to these allegations?

To whoever said this, I want to tell them that we had this idea since 2010. We registered it. Fifty people can come and say that this is copied from here or there. I didn’t even know about his film. In fact nobody knew about his film. So we haven’t picked up things from there. The idea of a man talking like a woman is universal. Look at Shola Aur Shabnam (1992) or even Govinda in Aunty No. 1 (1998). This isn’t anything that is someone’s specific concept. Rights are always on the story- what is your story telling. If I make a film with a soldier – I’ve seen Border, I’ve also seen Haqeeqat and even LOC. Can they say I’ve taken their soldier? It’s a very foolish thing.

If you look at television, even though they might be living in big villas and bungalows, the stories inside have not changed. In India, the stories of small towns, involving aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and other relatives, are the ones that evolve and keep coming back

You’ve written 200 scripts for Kapil Sharma. How did that show shape your ideas of comedy?  

When we had started Comedy Circus, people weren’t even aware that there were writers, that there were such teams. People thought that stand-up comedians on The Great Indian Laughter Challenge had their own acts and ideas, which they did from time to time. But a lot of writing was required. So writing for Kapil and the others – Krishna Sudesh, Bharti Singh, Rehman Khan – we’d always try to think if we could do something different, something that hadn’t happened on TV before. We wrote scripts in teams of two, three or even six. The aim was to always make an entertaining show, which the family audience would like. We knew the youth liked this, so we specifically targeted the family audience. The show worked so well that we started a whole new kind of comedy. 

Even today, you still get glimpses of this in the comedy you watch on TV or films. So I tried writing that kind of comedy and people liked it, so I continued. I’ve been a part of 3 or 4 hit comedy shows. If you’ve ever watched Comedy Circus, you’ll notice that I’ve made so many men play women. So that thought for Dream Girl was maybe always there.

Many of the films you’ve worked on deal with small-town life. Does it stem from your personal life? 

Yes. I was born in Jhansi. The real India is visible in small towns. In big towns, it’s all offices now. All these metro cities are offices. Today’s generation, which travels to London, Switzerland and Dubai for their vacations needs to know these stories of small towns – what happens in their streets, in their markets, in their homes, in their characters. This is what I wanted to show. And people also want to see that. If you look at television, even though they might be living in big villas and bungalows, the stories inside have not changed. In India, the stories of small towns, involving aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and other relatives, are the ones that evolve into a new form and keep coming back. That’s why I always have elements of small towns in my stories.

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