The DIY Filmmakers

Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, among the first filmmakers to get zombies into Bollywood, on making movies with an edge
Zombies
FILM PROCESS RE-ENGINEERING  Krishna DK (left) and Raj Nidimoru (Photo: RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI)

In a market where anything new or different is viewed with suspicion by the audience, where having a great story may not even earn you a release, it is almost peculiar that the zombie comedy Go Goa Gone, made on a Rs 10 crore budget, was so well received. Then again, it is probably just as peculiar as the slow and steady rise of its directors, Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, who, from being just another immigrant engineer duo working in the US a decade ago, are helming two massive films today, starring two huge stars in two markedly different film industries—a Saif Ali Khan rom com in Bollywood and Mahesh Babu’s next in Tollywood.

As evident in the four films they have made so far—Flavors (2003), 99 (2009), Shor in The City (2011) and Go Goa Gone (2013)—their success formula is defined by the distinct lack of one. “Perseverance is probably the only formula,” smiles DK, who, along with Nidimoru, writes, directs and often produces their films. “But we were also at the right place at the right time when we started out, around the year 2000. The digital revolution had just kicked in and that was a great motivating factor. You’d read about somebody in Finland who made an indie film on a mini DV camera, and you’d think: ‘All we need to make a film is a mini DV camera!’”

Both Andhra boys, they met at an engineering college in Tirupati. Over the course of the next four years, they together won every cultural event, sporting event, quiz, etcetera, that they participated in and even topped their respective branches before moving to the US for further studies.

It was in the US that, driven partly by boredom and loneliness and partly by their inherent creativity, they started on their journey to be filmmakers. “Everything is fine initially. The problem starts once your life settles down and you aren’t using the right side of your brain at all,” says Nidimoru.

“And then you find out that a friend of yours has bought a camcorder, and at first, you are just using it to shoot footage of the road while travelling in the most cinematic manner possible,” laughs DK. “But then you think, ‘How difficult could it be to shoot a proper scene?’”

Nidimoru and DK agree that it was easier said than done, but reveal that their skill as engineers came in handy. “We went through the whole process very analytically,” reminisces Nidimoru. “We figured everything out like a flowchart: ‘Okay, we don’t know how to shoot, like, a film—but we have a camera. What do we do now?’”

The duo laugh while recalling how their first edit was a jugaad, something Indian engineers are gifted in doing when wracked by a lack of resources. They set up two VCRs together on their home entertainment unit, and while one VCR would play different angles of a scene upto the point where a cut was required, the other VCR would record all the cuts, and before you knew it, a short film was ready.

“That DIY process really empowered us,” smiles DK. “We read Robert Rodriguez’ Rebel Without a Crew and realised that we could shoot something ourselves, edit something ourselves and even add music ourselves. We had all the resources and knowledge to make a film.”

And that’s exactly what they did: bought equipment and software required to make a film, wrote a script (“We had mastered the formatting and syntax because we were engineers,” says DK) by following the ‘butt-in-seat’ rule (just put your butt down and write), got actors from the neighbourhood, edited the film digitally, and finished it over their weekends. They first shot an eight-minute thriller, Just Me, which ended up winning awards at film festivals. They then graduated to a 30-minute short, Love, Relationships and other Trivial Things, and a 45-minute short, Shaadi.com.

“Then we realised if we just shoot double of the 45-minuter, we could make a feature film!,” laughs Nidimoru. “And so, that’s what we did: collaborated with a friend, Anupam Mittal [founder of Shaadi.com], put our own money into it, got some professional help in terms of lighting and camera, and made our first film, Flavors.”

“We found the entire crew for the film online, including Sita Menon, who still writes with us,” says DK. “We must have made the film in less than Rs 1 crore; most of the cost went into digital conversion. It was a completely amateur effort, but to our surprise, it got selected in film festivals and won a bunch [of awards] too.”

Having made one of the first crossover films in the US with an entirely Indian cast, the duo took a sabbatical from their jobs and came to India to release the film, and to try and make their next one, a Hindi crime comedy called 99. Except for two tiny obstacles: neither did they know Hindi, nor did they know anyone in Bollywood.

“We spent around six months in Mumbai, saw the movie’s release and tried to see if we could make our next one happen,” says Nidimoru. “But we realised that, at least at that time, even if actors loved our scripts, they had apprehensions about committing [dates] to industry outsiders, even if we had made a film.”

So just as quickly as they had decided to make a feature film in India, the two decided to go back to the US for another two years and collect the funds required to produce a film in India. “The reasons were two-fold,” says Nidimoru. “At that time, we were not full-fledged filmmakers, since Flavors had just been a pet project. Also, Mumbai is an expensive city to live in, and we didn’t want to stand in line waiting for someone to back us. Many people do it here, but to us, it just felt like a lottery. So we went back, put our heads down and worked hard, came back and paid a lot of money to get the cast we wanted, and co-produced 99 with Anupam.”

“For us, it was never just about making films, it was always about making this film—a film whose script we were excited about,” says DK. “And that’s what would drive us.”

Once 99 released, and found critical and some commercial success, the duo hasn’t needed to pack bags for the US again. Just a couple of months after 99’s release, the Ekta Kapoor-led ALT Entertainment bought their city-based thriller-comedy, Shor in the City. The movie found acclaim locally and at international film festivals, and Saif Ali Khan’s Illuminati soon signed them on for their zombie-cum-stoner comedy.

“It started off as a movie about the slacker generation, but we knew we needed to find an edge to it,” says Nidimoru. “Once the zombie idea happened, the film fell into place almost immediately. Kunal [Khemu] and we were looking to work on something else together, and he loved the script and even wrote a Hindi draft of it. Then Saif came on board and he liked it enough to want to produce it and even became a part of it.”

Having realised that they specialise in genre-benders, the two plan to ensure that their upcoming movies are off the beaten path too. “Our other strength is that we still think like indie producers,” says DK. “Our pitch of a project to any producer is that it would cost half as much to make than if anyone else made it. Because if we have a good script, the actors are ready to take a pay cut, and the controlled budget can be spent on technical aspects. And a good script means that rather than gimmicks, you get true marketing: word-of-mouth marketing [among] audiences who loved the film.”

Ask them the question that the three leads of Go Goa Gone—Kunal, Vir Das and Anand Tiwari—frequently ask each other in the film: what do you know and what did you learn? “Stay true to your convictions,” answers Nidimoru. “Wait for your turn and don’t sell out. If you like your story, somebody else will like it too.”