How Delhi Belly Took ‘15 Years And 5 Minutes’ To Get Made
The most risqué Bollywood film of 2011 began with a distinctly unsexy image — a foot emerging through a hole in the ceiling. Once writer Akshat Verma, who was then studying screenwriting at the University of California, Los Angeles, pictured that, he knew he had to weave a story around it. The result was Delhi Belly, a raunchy dark comedy about three middle-class bachelors whose lives are upturned when they unwittingly trade diarrhea for diamonds.
There's the solid and dependable journalist Tashi (Imran Khan), whose dependability has led him straight into a stifling relationship, photographer Nitin (Kunaal Roy Kapur), whose boundless lechery is matched only by his clever blackmail schemes, and cartoonist Arup (Vir Das), whose filmi imagination is severely underutilized at his dead-end advertising job. While the film's convoluted plot machinations lend themselves to any setting, Verma chose Delhi, where he grew up, as he could visualize the characters and their lives vividly.
Like its title promised, Delhi Belly wasn't afraid to get down and dirty. There's quite literal toilet humour, unusually forthright depictions of sex and an expletive smack-bang in the middle of a hit song. Much of the film, especially its character Meneka (Poorna Jagannathan), a brazen journalist instrumental to the trio's plots, was born out of Verma's desire to illustrate how the India he saw in Bollywood was different from the India he knew."Meneka is the girl who gets the guy despite not being a typical Bollywood heroine. She's about to get divorced. She's not fair, she doesn't have straight hair but all of that is bullshit by the end," he says. Unlike other Bollywood releases, the film had mostly English dialogues and no interval point.
In the years since its release, Delhi Belly has become a cult hit. It's been (briefly) banned in Nepal, remade in Tamil and screened at Harvard Business School. How did a film like this even get made? On its 10th anniversary, writer Akshat Verma, director Abhinay Deo, producer Sid Roy Kapur, actor Kunaal Roy Kapur, music director Ram Sampath, lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya and production designer Shashank Tere recap the incredible 15-year journey to its release:
Akshat Verma, writer: I'm paranoid about ceiling fans. I've always wondered what would happen if my fan fell through the ceiling. That started a train of thought and I had this image of a foot sticking out of a ceiling through the hole left by the fan falling. I began to build a story out of that in 1996.
This was the second script I'd ever written. The working title back then was Say Cheese because the first scene, originally, had Nitin taking photographs of a dead body and tucking a flower behind its ear. It's meant to let audiences know that this character is a little off. But I knew that title was just a placeholder. When I was polishing the script a few years later, I was like, 'Hold on, the thing that sets all these events into motion is Nitin's upset stomach!' The fact that the slang term for an upset stomach is 'Delhi Belly' and the film was set in Delhi gave it a certain rhythm. I knew that was it.
The first draft of the screenplay had a lot of the film's structure in place already. Over the years, I wound up writing 15 drafts of the film but only the first three or four had major changes. I had to fine-tune things like the diamond exchange and change the opening scene to the airport sequence. The rest of the drafts just had minor edits.
The search for a producer
Akshat Verma: I came home for the holidays in 1997 when I was still in my Master's programme and had another year to go. From Delhi, I went to Bombay for a week to do meetings with production houses and got no response. People didn't want to read the script. When they did read it, they didn't understand it. That was a sobering experience. You think that you've worked hard and got something good, but the world doesn't really care.
Years went by, I graduated, came back to India and started working in advertising. It was paying my bills but all I really wanted was a career in film. At some point, a German producer liked the idea of the film and came on board. He tried to set things up for a year-and-a-half but it wasn't working out and so we parted ways.
In 2006, Jim Furgele, who had been part of the same UCLA writing programme, called out of the blue and said he'd like to help me out with the project. I said sure because I had nothing to lose. He was like, 'Let's go to India, let's make connections, let's talk to people.' We went to Mumbai for 10 days. The first studio the script went to was UTV. They read it while we waited in the office and then said, 'We really like you, we see what you want to do, but we don't know what to do with this, we don't know how to market it. So thank you for your time, but no.'
On the last day of the trip, we dropped off the script at the Aamir Khan Productions' accounting office. We didn't even know where the main office was. The accounting office was empty because everyone had gone to lunch. Just as we were leaving, someone came back. I will forever be grateful to her because she took the script and made sure that it reached Aamir.
Abhinay Deo, director: I remember hearing that the script reached Aamir's house and his house help put it on top of a pile of other scripts. Aamir and his wife Kiran (Rao) were supposed to attend an event later that week and, as Aamir was getting ready, Kiran picked up the top script from the pile to pass the time. As she read, she started laughing and called Aamir to read it with her. They wound up cancelling their plans to go to the event and kept reading. That same night, they emailed Akshat.
Akshat Verma: A week after we returned to LA, we got an email from Aamir, which said 'When can you come back? I want to do this film, can you pull the script from every other place you've sent it?' So it took me 15 years and 5 minutes to get the project going.
I remember meeting Aamir at his house. I naively asked, 'Where's the money going to come from? What's going to happen?' He looked at me like I was some kind of a jackass. Because once Aamir was on board, the money was a sure thing. Ten studios were going to line up and say, 'Take our money.' And that happened. UTV jumped right back on, just a week after they rejected the film.
Sid Roy Kapur, producer: The script hadn't come to Ronnie Screwvala or I. It got sent to the creative team. And to be fair to them, it was a really tricky film to make since it was going to be in English and it had a very Western sensibility. I can appreciate and understand whoever it was in the team who passed on it. But when Aamir asked us to co-produce the film, we read the script and were in splits. It was hilarious, it was brilliant and so well-written.
Akshat Verma: Around the end of 2006, Aamir was thinking of acting in the film but couldn't make space in his schedule because he was also considering directing Taare Zameen Par. So we stuck around for a month or two in Mumbai and then flew back to LA to wait for Aamir to get done with TZP. We had hired a director from Sweden but he also flew back to his country because of the delay. Aamir took all of 2007 to do TZP and we returned at the end of that year.
Abhinay Deo: Jim and Akshat had done their research on directors they wanted to hire. They had seen my advertising work and thought I would be a good fit. Aamir was in agreement with them that a first-time director had to shoot the film. He was also looking at people from the advertising field. He and Akshat both called me separately, on the same day, and offered me the film. They didn't know they were talking to the same guy and I didn't know they were talking about the same film. It was a strange coincidence but that's how I came onboard.
Abhinay Deo: At one point, we did consider Ranbir Kapoor, but I was very clear about wanting to cast new actors who didn't have any baggage. I wanted people to see fresh faces, to not know what to expect. The casting process was exhaustive. I wanted someone who would understand the humour and Vir, because he's a standup comedian, got it. Imran had done Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008) before this and had a chocolate boy image. This was a departure for him but he and Kunaal also got the humour. It was very important that everyone understood the humour in the film because you had a fake sex scene, you had Tashi going down on his girlfriend. These scenes were meant to be humourous, not sexy or 'sex scenes'. It wasn't difficult to convince the actors to do these because they saw the point. They were comfortable.
Kunaal Roy Kapur, actor: The first time I heard about the film, I was called in to read by a theatre friend of mine. I read a scene or two and I didn't hear back for a while. Then I got a call asking me to come in for another test with two other actors — they were trying out different compositions of trios. Many months passed, the director changed, Abhinay came on board. I got a call saying that the movie was finally on track, but by then, I was directing The President Is Coming. So I told them I wasn't sure if I could do the film. They sent me the script anyway. Once I read it, I was like, 'This is a no brainer. It would be a monumental screw up if I don't take it.'
Everyone sees a little bit of themselves in these characters because everyone is not completely a creep or completely a good guy. Nitin is a creep and a lech, but is also someone trying to make the best of his situation. He's passionate about photography, he's still using film in a digital age.
Akshat Verma: Aamir wasn't sure whether he wanted to play the role of Nitin. He was like, 'I don't know if I'm right for this. I know you need someone plump and I don't know if I can put on weight.' He was coming off TZP and was exhausted. When he saw Kunaal's audition, he was like, 'He's amazing. I can't do it better than this, he should do it.'
Akshat Verma: One of the biggest blessings of having Aamir as a producer was that when we asked him for script notes, there were none. Literally no changes. We did have conversations, which eventually led to things being changed though. Initially, the film started with a banner saying,'This is a true story.' Aamir was like, 'Are you sure you want this? Because we don't want to confuse people. They'll think all this really happened and it will pull them out of the story.' I said that it was supposed to be a joke. His point of view was that you could never be sure with the audience, you always had to be prepared for something not being interpreted as you think.
There was another joke that we took out because we didn't know if audiences would understand it. At the ad agency, Arup was supposed to say, 'Why would a banana want to be in a banana split? That's like committing harakiri in the fruit kingdom.' And I loved it but when we discussed it, we realized that if people didn't know what harakiri was, that would throw them off. They would miss the next line while trying to figure out this one. It wasn't worth it.
We did workshops before we shot and Aamir was invaluable in terms of figuring out pacing and tonality. For example, Arup says, 'Ye shaadi nahi ho sakti, this girl has given me blowjob.' We were clear that the scene was going to be played very deadpan and straight. Arup is really upset, he's really jilted and heartbroken. It's not a salacious or a nudge-nudge, wink-wink line. It had to be played with hurt, and that's where the comedy is.
Kunaal Roy Kapur: The workshops helped us figure out complex sequences like the one in which Vir is hanging from the ceiling. If you don't block all those scenes beforehand, you don't realize all the complications you're going to face on set and then you won't be able to finish the film in the allotted amount of time. A lot of the chemistry between Imran, Vir and I evolved during those workshops. We also figured out how to make the dialogues seem as natural as possible.
Shashank Tere, production designer: I came in at the last minute. We were one month away from the shoot and Abhinay reached out to me with the script. As much as 80% of the locations in Delhi Belly were sets — that house, the jewelry shop, the hotel corridors. We actually built a ground-plus-two storey house for Tashi, Arup and Nitin. We shot the exterior of the house in Delhi. The interior was a set at Mumbai's Film City. The idea was that within the house, there are three worlds. Around each of the three character's beds, you can see the world of the person who sleeps there. Tashi's a journalist so you can see notebooks and paper around him. Arup's a cartoonist so you can see caricatures and cartoons put up around his bed. What you see outside the window is real, it wasn't green screen.
The hotel rooms where the shootout takes place were part of a set. The walls were made of soft board, like the pin-up boards in offices, to absorb the bullet shots. We were supposed to construct only one room because of budgetary issues, even though we needed a second room in which the old couple hides as the bullets pierce their wall. Aamir was a good producer. When the art department was presenting their ideas to him, he said, 'Why do we have just one room?' So I said, 'All hotel rooms are mirror images of each other so we can film the old couple scene in the same room.' He said, 'No, I'm the producer, I'm telling you that if it has to be done like that, it has to be done like that, no compromise." So we constructed two rooms, a lift and a long corridor too. The lobby was part of a real hotel.
Akshat Verma: We had the green light from Aamir in 2006, but didn't shoot until 2008 and the film didn't release till 2011. I remember thinking, 'What's going on? Where's the time going?' But that's just filmmaking. It's a marathon, not a sprint.
Abhinay Deo: We took 75 days to shoot the film. 26/11 happened in the middle and so we had to stop shooting and resume at a later date. So the shooting period was stretched out over a year. The chases were very hard to shoot, especially the Chandni Chowk chase, in which the three leads run through the streets while wearing burqas. I shot this sequence without an action director. If you're familiar with Chandni Chowk, it's one of the busiest parts of Old Delhi. So we decided to shoot this scene in a guerilla way. The cameras were hidden and the crowds didn't know we were shooting. We put the three actors in their burqas and told them not to lift their veils because we knew that the moment the crowds saw Imran, they'd gather around him.
The scene in which Arup is being dragged by his tie was shot exactly the way you see it. No trickery. Vir, poor guy, went through a lot of pain shooting this sequence. The guy running behind him weighed 125 kgs and was actually pulling his tie. Kunaal was actually riding his scooter. A lot of things could've gone wrong. Vir's hands were tied behind his back, which made this even harder to shoot. We needed different angles so we kept doing different takes for almost an entire day. It was a real ordeal for Vir.
The scene in which Arup interrupts his girlfriend's wedding was a little jab we took at Hindi serials at the time, all those sudden zooms. Aamir in the 'Hate You (Like I Love You)' song was a mashup of Mithun Chakraborty from Suraksha (1979) and Anil Kapoor's hairy chest.
Shooting the ceiling collapse
Akshat Verma: The sequence in which the fan falls and there's a foot sticking out of the ceiling was the hardest to write. That scene was actually designed specifically keeping in mind that Arup was going to be harmed, but wasn't going to die. At least I didn't want him to die. So, it became a matter of orchestrating how to do that and get away with it without the audience feeling that they had been cheated. Working that out was complex — just the physical aspect of it. He's high up on a stool and hanging, he's pushed, he falls down, the fan hits someone and they don't get killed. Working the mechanics of it was a challenge.
Shashank Tere: We did almost four or five tests of the ceiling collapse using different materials. We were trying to figure out how thick the ceiling should be, how much it should weigh, whether we should pre cut the ceiling and let it collapse in a particular way. While constructing the main set, we had to consider that this ceiling and floor would have to be replaced with a collapsible one.
Some of the bricks were made thermocol. We tried using Plaster of Paris mixed with water, but the shoot got delayed and in the meantime it dried, became thick and could've hurt the actors. So we had to redo the entire set. We finally used POP in powder form and mixed it with colour so it looked like cement. We also used a lot of rubber moulds for the iron rods of the ceiling. Even the cistern in that scene in which Nitin pulls the toilet chain and the whole tank falls on his head was made of rubber. The fan was also made of rubber, like an inflated tyre tube. So they looked exactly like metal but were feather-weight, and wouldn't even hurt you if they fell on your head. Everything was hollow on the inside. On the day of shoot, it went so smoothly that we okayed the shot in one take. There was no retake.
Abhinay Deo: While it was a set, a 10X10 slab had to fall with actors standing below it. So it was very risky. No one got hurt, but the boys and Vijay Raaz must've inhaled at least half a kilo of cement dust on that day.
Kunaal Roy Kapur: It was a very difficult shoot for the most part because we had to be covered in grey powder to depict the aftermath of the ceiling collapse. We were covered in varying degrees of powder depending on which part of the film we were shooting. For our trial run, we used actual powdered cement for a day. It completely dried our skin out and the colour didn't look right on film. So they finally came up with a different kind of grey dust. I remember sitting and breathing in this dust for many, many days because what seems like a short sequence in the film was an eternal shoot for us.
The 'Sir, yeh toh tatti hai' sequence
Kunaal Roy Kapur: Abhinay had a keen eye for small details. For the scene in which Nitin buys the tandoori chicken from the vendor, he had figured out: What does the guy selling the chicken look like? How dirty does he look? How sweaty are the people? We wanted the scene to be sickening, to be gross. You know the film is called Delhi Belly so if there was any sequence we wanted to get right, it was that one. We needed to sell the idea that someone would get sick by eating that chicken.
It was great fun to shoot. We did it at a market in Mumbai, we shot the road sequences in Delhi, we shot some of it on set over multiple days. My contribution to the scene was giving Nitin these tiny details like the way he handles cash. He's messy, the cash inside his pockets has been rolled into little balls and when he has to hand over the money, he doesn't do it neatly, he dumps it into someone's hand.
Akshat Verma: The tatti scene was shot exactly how it was written in the script. When we shot it, we had these discussions of, 'Do we cover it? Do we show it completely?' So we took two shots. In one, the focus was on Vijay Raaz and the table was out of shot. The second was a wider shot in which you see them pouring the shit out. We wanted to have those options but we finally thought, 'The film is called Delhi Belly, this is what it's about. We should show it.' Sometimes, you need to get audiences to go, 'Oh God no! You did not go there!' On the day of shoot, the production team had prepared three versions of the shit, along with backups.
Shashank Tere: Akshat was like, 'Kaise banayenge?' And I said, 'It's shit, we'll figure it out.' We used besan granules, moulding clay, milk thickened with cream and artificial color. We had three options in terms of consistency — one very liquidy and two a little more solid.
Abhinay Deo: The costume assistant was a young girl and this was her first time on a film set. We were testing the fake tatti and she thought it was real diarrhea and puked all over set.
Akshat Verma: Our first edit was not what we thought it would be. We were trying to find the pacing and rhythm but the lines weren't working, the jokes weren't landing. We were heartbroken. We saw it and just thought, 'This is not working.' But Aamir was there and he said, 'Hang on, guys. This is the first edit. I've seen hundreds of first edits, and there's no such thing as a good first edit. As long as you think there's something in there, we'll be fine. So, don't kill yourself just yet.' He was so confident and that took away some of the worry.
Abhinay Deo: Many of the same jokes landed when we cut them in a slightly different way. Not much changed.
Akshat Verma: We finished editing the film in 2010.
Ram Sampath, music director: When I signed on to Delhi Belly, it was a one-song film and so we created 'I Hate You (Like I Love You)'. Our first test screening was extremely divisive and a lot of Aamir's close friends warned him that the movie would destroy his reputation. To their eternal credit, Aamir and co-producer Ronnie Screwvala listened to their feedback but never stopped believing in the film. Their consensus was that we needed a tighter edit, so while the film was being edited, I kept working on some music tracks on my own for almost a year with contributions from Akshat, Amitabh Bhattacharya, Munna Dhiman and many other people before I finally played them to Aamir.
I didn't have any briefs, but what I did have were Akshat's emotional outbursts on a piece of paper like, 'Ja Chudail, kisi nali mein gir' or 'Nakkadwale disco, udhaarwale khisko' which became the inspiration for the soundtrack. Amitabh Bhattacharya wrote these unbelievably funny, risqué and charming lyrics to 'Bedardi Raja', a melody I had composed. A month later, he wrote this hilarious, crazed, venom-laced note to an ex in 'Jaa Chudail' Chetan Sashital and I wrote the lyrics to an old tune of mine, 'Saigal Blues', over a cup of coffee. Akshat was a great bouncing board. He and I would discuss our love of funk, 70's rock, reggae and roots music, so a lot of those influences seeped into the album. It was genre-mashing heaven. What would Saigal Saab and the Rolling Stones jamming sound like? 'Saigal Blues'. What would a sad qawwali played by a funk band sound like? 'Nakkadwaley'. What's the sound of modern 'kotha' music? 'Bedardi Raja'.
The Delhi Belly album is one that's looking at Bollywood from the outside in. I was making Hindi music for what is essentially an English film, so it had to be that way. It was also the only way that I could bring the world of the film into the film so you get a stronger sense of cultural reference. The song 'Switty Tera Pyaar' is a spoof on the idiotic testosterone-fuelled stalker male stereotype who thinks he's being romantic. It's great fun when not everyone's in on the joke but everyone loves the song. The only earnest song on the soundtrack is the love song 'Tere Siva' which addresses Tashi's state of mind. Six months into the process, the working title for the album was Delhi Belly: Songs Of Heartbreak & Hip-Shake. We had no idea if these songs would make the final cut or if there would even be an album in the first place. It was a shot in the dark.
Amitabh Bhattacharya, lyricist: The idea of 'Bhaag DK Bose' came from Akshat Verma. It was a dialogue and Ram said we should convert it into a song. So we started working backwards, using that as a hook phrase and creating the rest of the song. Since it wasn't part of a situation in the film and it was more of a promotional number, we had more scope to play with it. For the rest of the songs, we had a premise, we had the outline of the characters. For this one, all we were told is, 'We need a crazy song.' The track you hear in the film is the only version of the track we recorded. There were no changes. The song opens with, 'Daddy mujhse bola, tu galti hai meri…' There is no beta or daddy in the film. When we wrote the song, the feedback we got was that this was not true to the characters because there was no father-son crisis in the film. But then they decided that it sounded amazing anyway and kept it.
Ram Sampath: I was delirious because I felt we had something out-of-the-box in every sense of the term, which represented the spirit of the film perfectly. The magic of those lyrics is that the song becomes a little film on its own. It starts from the disappointment of the early years to later life inadequacy, it captures the frustration of what the average Indian urban youth experiences on a generational basis.
Sid Roy Kapur: The most brilliant part of it, and this came from Aamir, was the idea of using the film's music to market it really, really effectively. Because it was going to be such a hard film to market, Aamir's genius idea was to say: Use the songs. You had Bhaag DK Bose and all those other brilliant Ram Sampath songs. The entire marketing team would attend long music sessions at the studio. They were involved in the film's music at every step of the way. We shot these great music videos for each and every one of those songs. None of those videos were comprised entirely of footage from the film, they were all shot separately as part of the promotional strategy. You never had so many music videos shot separately for songs from a film, at least back then. We released the video for 'I Hate You (Like I Love You)' on the weekend of the film's release and that helped us get additional traction.
The final thing was the way in which the trailer was cut. It was such an important trailer as it had to communicate the film's irreverence, madness and fun, but also the fact that it had a lot of English.
Navigating the Censor Board
Akshat Verma: Contrary to what we have now, it was a really progressive Censor Board. Aamir had two productions releasing that year: Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live. I think Dhobi Ghat had one swear word, which the Censor Board passed with a U/A rating. But Aamir said, 'I don't want a U/A rating, I want a U rating. You can take the swear word out. As a responsible producer, I don't want children in the audience being exposed to that word.' This was a valid point, but also very smart thinking. Aamir knew that very soon he was going to go to the Censor Board with Delhi Belly. Having spoken to them like that, he already created this impression of being a responsible producer. For Delhi Belly, he was very clear that he wanted an A rating with no cuts. There was no dancing around to get a U/A rating. So when he went in, he said, 'Just give me an A rating. This is what the film is.' And it got passed. God bless him.
Releasing it in two languages
Akshat Verma: There were so many people who told Aamir to abandon the film after it was made. They said, 'Just take the loss. You're Aamir Khan, you can't make a film like this.' Think about your reputation.' I had put 15 years of my life into getting to that point and there were people around him who were advising him to just kill it. These were people who were my friends. They'd shake my hand, laugh with me, have meals with me. But when I wasn't around, they'd tell Aamir this. But he was steadfast.
Sid Roy Kapur: There were huge, huge debates about releasing both, an English and a Hindi version of the film. I'm so glad we finally decided to do that because that gave Delhi Belly a more extensive platform. We have a Censor Board in our country whether we like it or not. And the thing is that we do react much more stridently to a Hindi abuse to an English abuse. It's just built into our DNA that we believe a Hindi abuse is much more insulting and much more derogatory. So we had to find a way to dub the film in such a way that it didn't lose any of its irreverence, but still got a certificate from the Censor Board. That was a delicate dance. Despite the film being written with a very Western sensibility in terms of its humor, the Hindi-speaking audience was very quick to get it. I watched the Hindi version of the film at a single-screen theatre and people were having the time of their lives. It did superbly well.
Akshat Verma: I wrote the script in English because I wanted the people at UCLA to read and respond to it. But I always knew that when it got to a shooting draft that I'd have to put in Hindi dialogues. We're a multilingual country and all of us are easily bilingual, if not trilingual. When we have films in which people only speak in Hindi, it doesn't sound right to me. But there was a lot of resistance to this in Bollywood. The same people who speak English and Hindi in the real world suddenly felt like what they're watching wasn't right because the film wasn't purely in Hindi.
Akshat Verma: It was very visceral. I went down to Gaiety Galaxy when the film released and I was standing at the back. During the burqa sequence, I actually saw a guy fall off his seat because he was laughing so hard. It was unbelievable. It was priceless.
Shashank Tere: I hadn't recommended this film to my family because it wasn't meant for a family audience, but one of my uncles watched it and freaked out during the tatti scene. He said, 'Is this the kind of work you do?' He shouted at me. I said, 'Who told you to watch it?' But young people were very happy with the film. All the college students were fascinated.
Abhinay Deo: My mother watched the film and didn't know how to react. She couldn't deal with the fact that her son had directed this because it was obviously a film that did not appeal to her very much. She was in shock. She had to say nice things to me because I'm her son but her face clearly showed that she was lying. But my 12-year-old son enjoyed the film as much as my 82-year-old father. I got some violent reactions too. On the third or fourth day of the film's release, I went to Gaiety Galaxy to see the audience reactions. Twenty minutes in, three middle-aged women walked out angrily. I was standing outside and I guess they recognized me from the papers because they went, 'You're the director? How could you make a film like this? How could you get Aamir Khan to produce this?'
Kunaal Roy Kapur: The people in the industry began seeing me. I'd been doing theatre for 10 years before that, but this was the project that helped me gain traction and opened up many more doors and brought me a lot more work. It still gets me work to this day. It was definitely my entry into Indian film and Indian cinema.