I Was Looking For A Place To Make A Film Without Compromise: Shirish Kunder On Directing A Thriller For Netflix, Film Companion

Shirish Kunder, the person, has often got more prominence than Kunder, the filmmaker. If his lowest point, because of the bad press it got him, was a fight with Shah Rukh Khan at a Bollywood gathering in 2012, four years later, his fortunes turned in the unlikeliest of places: Kunder became the Cool Guy on Twitter. Using humour as a tool, his tweets often took a political stand, being critical of the government. 

Kunder’s work is less spoken of. The editor-turned-director’s two feature films Jaan-e-mann (Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, Preity Zinta) and Joker (Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha) were commercial failures, but one can see in them Kunder’s efforts to execute outlandish ideas within a mainstream format. Jaan-e-mann, in large part, was a musical in the truest sense, where song substitute dialogue and advance the plot. Joker was a mess, but even in that film, there was some inventiveness on display. For example, the use of actual vegetables as costume for the villagers in the film, who stage an alien invasion. In 2017, Kunder made an 18-minute psychological thriller, Kriti.

Kunder is now directing a thriller for Netflix. Titled Mrs Serial Killer, the twisted plot involves a man “framed and imprisoned for serial murders” and his “doting wife who must perform a murder exactly like the serial killer, to prove her husband innocent.” With the casting finalised, the shooting of the film begins next month. It is produced by Kunder’s wife, choreographer-director Farah Khan – who he describes as having “completely opposite views on cinema.” “She has more love for Hindi cinema. I am trying to figure out new things to do,” he says when I meet him at their apartment in Lokhandwala. We sat in Kunder’s man cave, strewn with gadgets, camera lenses. He spoke about how Mrs Serial Killer  came to being acquired by Netflix, why Jaan-e-mann and Joker were compromised visions, directing films with a sense of music, and how Twitter taught him to write better film dialogue.

Edited Excerpts:

You had a very public fight with a superstar. Both your feature films were unsuccessful. How difficult was it to get your third feature film?

It has been difficult, some of them accidentally, some of them self-inflicted. When films don’t work, there will be repercussions. I took a pause. I chose a dark thriller, which is more difficult to make than a rom-com or a comedy.

Some things were not in my control. For example, my first film released with another film (Farhan Akhtar’s Don). If there wasn’t a clash maybe it would have been different. When a fight happens that’s an accident. You can’t do much about it.

How did Mrs Serial Killer happen?

After my last film I went to Los Angeles to do an advanced screenwriting course in University of Southern California (USC) for a year. That’s when I developed the script. At one point, it was being sold in the US. USC selected the script, and found an agent, because they keep track of the scripts being developed there. They wanted to auction it for a Hollywood studio to make it. But later on, I realised I really want to direct it. Netflix was just starting their Indian slate. And we happened to meet.

I made Jaan-e-mann because I realised that’s the only way I can make a film: by giving people what they want. I wanted my first film to be on the Kandahar hijack, but everyone wanted a rom-com at the time.

I was looking for the right place, so that I can make the film without any compromise. Because every time I can’t sit and keep giving excuses that it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to be, because people didn’t understand, or there was no support. A certain star producer wanted to produce Mrs Serial Killer. Two years went there, and then fizzled out. When Netflix happened it was perfect for me. They were allowing me to do it without diluting things: Yeh gaana daalo, “audience wants to watch”, “people won’t understand”.

Why do you say you had to compromise in your previous films? 

I made Jaan-e-mann because I realised that’s the only way I can make a film: by giving people what they want. I wanted my first film to be on the Kandahar hijack, but everyone wanted a rom-com at the time. I thought yaar this too is normal. I had to do something different right? Otherwise why am I making it? I tried to make a normal rom-com look interesting. I was 31. I was working with actors who were very senior and believed in certain kind of films. I was coming with a different kind of thought process. I was a misfit there. 

Jaan-e-mann got more love later on than when it had released…

We tried a lot of weird things in the film. For example, the film started with a space ship. The whole film is shot in almost ‘dutch’. There are no straight frames. There is a ten minutes song which had just the sets changing.

You have a sense of music as a filmmaker.

Completely. Because I started off as a choreographer in college, while I was doing my engineering. I had a dance troupe and we used to tour all over India. I first thought of working in the film industry as a choreographer. But eventually, for a number of reasons – I don’t want to say it – I decided to do something more technical, that’s why I got into editing.

It is anyways supposed to be a part of editing. I like to do the score for all my films myself because it takes me so much more time to explain it to someone else: Why I have kept these spaces, why I have held on to that reaction shot. Sometimes you hold it longer because you know the music will kick in there. Otherwise the whole impact of the scene could go wrong if it starts somewhere earlier.

What went wrong with Joker?

There was a six year gap between first and second film. With Joker, it wasn’t just the treatment, I tried to tell an unusual in terms of story as well. But Tees Maar Khan, which released in December, didn’t do as expected, and we were about to start shooting Joker in February. It had the same cast, same studio. Everyone lost faith in what I was going to do. No one believed in it and there was no cooperation.

Did Twitter do you good?

It helped me convey my thoughts in the shortest number of words. That helped improve my dialogue writing in films. Because you write something, and people understand it connect to it, how much I need to say. Otherwise you keep rambling on.

Two years ago, you were much more active (and direct) on Twitter. What has changed?

Nothing, I was just busy with my new film. At that I was only developing scripts, just focussing on writing. I was on my laptop, and I tried to read what’s happening. So you have an opinion, and you write. But then I went to the production of this. I don’t know what’s happening right now in current events. And you can’t comment without reading what is happening. 

You were pretty openly anti-establishment …

I am always anti-establishment. I am not against anyone in particular party. You can be only anti-establishment at any given point. Because the establishment can make mistakes, and if you see something going wrong at that point, you say that … this is wrong.

Twitter, then the short film, and now the Netflix film. What would you have done without the internet?

From the time I wake up to I got to sleep, I am in front of my laptop. I don’t go anywhere.The digital has played a major role in my life. I am an electronics engineer.

Even as a film editor when I had started out, I was one of the first people to make the switch to digital. I had finished engineering in 94, then I worked for 4 years in Motorola. I started working in the film industry in 1998. I was assisting Renu Saluja, but very quickly, by 2000, I became independent. Normally it would take 8-10 years. But at that point (late 90s), most editors, although they were good at their job, didn’t know how to use a computer. Most of the senior editors would talk amongst themselves that Hindi films can never shift to digital editing, because unless you hold the film in the hand, emotion won’t come. They were just making excuses.

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