Across their career, writer-director duo Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK have combined humour with several other genres, from dramatic comedy Shor in the City, to zombie comedy Go Goa Gone, to horror comedy Stree. Their latest project, season 2 of Amazon Prime Video's The Family Man blends comedy with a spy thriller. In an exclusive session for FC Front Row, the two talk about making each other laugh, how they balance different genres and how they get the best out of their actors.
In Family Man, you blend and balance so many genres together. Sometimes it's a tense family drama, there's the the action spectacle and there's so much humor. It really feels like one cohesive experience. So what calculations go into deciding when it can be funny and when to focus elsewhere?
Raj Nidimoru: We don't calculate that while writing. We're not saying, 'I think we should have a funny scene here.' The premise or the character should already be in that zone. So if we take Sharib Hashmi, who plays JK, he's a character who's always questioning and feeling like he's spending too much. In one scene, he has to run away, but he's just ordered an expensive glass of juice. So he'd rather finish it quickly and then run. He's in the middle of this intense drama between this couple, they're fighting but but he won't overdo it. The idea is to be very natural. It's not like, 'Oh yeah. Shit. One glass of this stuff, fuck.' He just gulps the juice and leaves. This is more humorous than it would've been had he done it in a louder way.
Shor in the City was supposed to be very dramatic. People were dying. And it's a movie about the city. It's about grit, crime and edge, and about how unfair life is. In one scene, Tusshar Kapoor's character goes looking for the kid who got injured in the blast the previous day. His eyes are tearing up. He sees the kid lying there and he quietly leaves some money for him. His eyes well up. He then walks away. But the kid in the background gets up and is trying to shout at him like, 'Who are you? Why are you giving me money?' But Tusshar can't hear it because his ears are ringing. It's a very dramatic movement, except it's life. These things happen in India, where people act in not necessarily the most conventional ways. We realized that people were laughing in the theater just when they were sad and that's when we realized that as long as you're consistently honest with your characters, you can do a jarring mixture of emotions. You can be very dramatic, you can make them laugh, if you want to.
Krishna DK: Shor in the City was the first time we did this. 99 was a comedy, so there were no serious risks of us of spoiling a beautiful moment by being funny. But in the Shor in the City, there were many, many potential moments when you could be too funny and take away the gravity of the situation. We also learnt a lot while making Shor in the City. Our natural tendency was to find humor in everything but we were also cognizant of the fact that there were serious scenes with depth. So we had to constantly keep balancing it. We spent a lot of time on the edit and even our first draft. It took a bit of effort. These days, it comes a little more naturally but back when we were making Shor in the City, it did take a quite a bit of time. There's that scene in which these guys are just having fun trying to explode this bomb in the middle of a field and they're joking about it. Then, in one of our most drastic balances, in the span of 10 seconds, it goes from that to, 'Oh my God'. I remember watching the audience reacting to this particular scene – they were laughing at these guys going and poking the bomb and saying stuff like, 'Arre tu ja, tu jaake dekh'. And then there was a unanimous gasp when the little kid came running. That's when we learnt that we could make the audience laugh and it would only take 5 or 10 seconds for them to switch emotions.
You've written all of your films and you've said that most of the film is on paper before you go out to shoot. Is that true for humor as well? Or are jokes and gags also discovered on set with the actors?
Raj Nidimoru: 90 percent is on paper. We write stuff and find it funny. In fact, some of the humor is sometimes lost. You realize while shooting that it isn't working and then you remove it. But we trust actors a lot. When you write, you want a basic guarantee that whoever the actor is, the humor will still come through.
Krishna DK: You also have to create that ambiance for the actor. It's not like we're out to shoot a serious scene and the actor suddenly makes it funny. That never happens because actors give in to the scene, they give in to the character. They go with movie. So once you set that up, then they do wonders.
Raj Nidimoru: You have somebody giving you so many options. It's the director's job to then say, 'I have written this, but he is doing that. Is he still in character? Do I still have the same tonality in that scene?' You look at the bigger picture and think, 'Is the character still the same if he is doing it this much? You are constantly surprised. Especially when a strong actor comes in and tries to do something else to the scene. But they are only doing an eight-day job or a one-day job. You don't know which way you are going because he isn't sticking to your lines. The idea is to now be aware of what you are creating as a whole. That becomes pretty challenging. Vijay Raaz came in for one day for Stree and we were like, 'Oh my god, he is doing something else. This is not what we wrote. What are we going to do? We don't know whether his kind of comedy will fit in with the picture.' That is when the aspect of control comes in. How do you get that from the actor? They always give. They are always great. But sometimes when we send them a video saying, 'Hey, we want to do a quick funny video, can we do this?' then they do something else. Actors give so much.
Vir Das recently said that improvisation can be quite disastrous if you improvise in the wrong way, but the advantage of a Raj and DK film is that their characterization is so strong that they will always get the best out of their actors. Do you agree with that? That if you give an actor a strong sense of his character, then improvising can lead to great result?
Raj Nidimoru: Yes, of course. When you define the character, you give them a box to work in. He can run around and go crazy within those boundaries. Good for him. So we know each and every bit of the character but actors always surprise us because they have different takes on the material. Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi see the boundary very well. With some others, you have to show them the boundary. Amit Mistry would do something different for each take. And we'd be like, 'Amit, what are you doing? We want the same as the last one.' He'd be like, 'No, just look at this one.' With actors like Manoj Bajpayee, all you need is one signal sometimes. One thing to get in sync. We don't even have to talk much. Some actors come and say, 'You have to say that it was brilliant.' I say, 'I can't say that it was brilliant every time. All I can do is the thumbs up sign. I can't do more than that.' But your gestures matter, your words matter.
When you're writing those jokes and pitching situations to each other, how do you know if the jokes are working? Do you just discuss insane gags? Or are you trying to make each other laugh?
Krishna DK: I don't know. Do we make each other laugh? Yeah.
Raj Nidimoru: I don't think so. Sometimes we automatically laugh together. But…
Krishna DK: Sometimes, we also make each other laugh. Sometimes I'll write something that I don't think is that funny and Raj will suddenly laugh. Or he writes something and I laugh, not knowing it's not the funniest thing. We go for more realistic humour though, we're not really setting up gags.
Raj Nidimoru: It's not like a 30 Rock situation in which you see writers sitting together in one pitch room around the table, saying, 'Tell me a joke. Tell me a joke.' It is never that. The writing part of it is still lonely. It is still me writing in one place and DK writing somewhere else. When you write stuff and send it to each other, you feel things like, 'I'm excited about this scene I just wrote. Read it, you're going to love it.' But you need a good premise, which you then have to milk. Like Go Goa Gone is you going to Goa and finding zombies everywhere. Stree is about a ghost who comes at night and goes after guys. Family Man is James Bond, but from Chembur. So he needs home loans. He likes vada pao. He has a dinky little scooter or a dabba car. Let us give him a kid who is hyperactive and a teenage daughter. These aren't funny in real life. A hyperactive kid is extremely tough to handle, and a teenage girl has so much angst about a lot of things. But given this setup, I don't want to bore you with my writing. I want to make a point. So I write the scene with a bit of humour.
Srikant (Bajpayee) becomes uncharacteristically weird when he comes back and he makes the sound of the flute like pe pe pe pe. Then he says, 'Don't spend a day or rupee on this. He doesn't know shit.' That scene came from me watching my nephew playing the flute. That poor guy was not good and instead of me saying, 'Very nice, Keshav. Next time you will improve.' I said, 'It was pretty bad. Be better.' He also laughed because he knew I meant well.