We wanted the film to be entertaining yet relevant – Nitesh Tiwari
“You need to be a good observer to be able to tell stories,” says writer-director Nitesh Tiwari. His first solo directorial venture, the recently released Bhoothnath Returns is a horror comedy, which explores the chemistry of a slum kid and a ghost in the backdrop of elections. Having studied B. Tech from IIT Mumbai and worked as a software engineer, he joined advertising to fulfil his creative urges. Nitesh then made his film debut with the refreshing and fun-filled Chillar Party which he co-directed with Vikas Bahl.
Where did you grow up? How did your love for cinema begin?
I am from MP and my dad was in a transferable job so we tagged along with him wherever he went. I have stayed in Itarsi, Bhopal, Ganj Basoda and many other places until I came to Bombay to study at IIT. My childhood was spent in MP. When I was five years old, my brother and I were petrified of movies. So much so that when our parents went for a movie we insisted on staying at the electronics shop outside the cinema hall. My love for movies started when I first saw Mr Bachchan’s movie’s reruns at home. Then I stopped watching his movies because he would die in every movie. Every time I watched his film, he died – Deewar, Sholay, Muqaddar Ka Sikander, and that would upset me. I had grown up loving him so much.
I was in sixth standard when we moved to Ganj Basoda. People used to run video parlours in MP where you could watch a film for Rs 2. I used to pick up food for dad and eat at a hotel there and that hotel had one such video parlour. So while waiting to pick up food, I had 45 minutes to watch a movie and I ended up watching all films that released around that time. I started loving the whole business of movies. That fascination never stopped. I got introduced to international cinema when I joined IIT. In MP, when I was growing up English movies only meant one kind of (adult) movies. So we never saw anything but Bollywood films. After coming to IIT, I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In 1993, internet in India was at a nascent stage so the culture of downloading and watching films had not yet begun. The college had a movie club and one could see the best of world movies. It was there that my world widened.
After having studied software engineering from a premiere institute, why did you give it all up? Did you want to make a career in advertising?
After being exposed to a new creative world through films in IIT, I was itching to do something that satisfied the creative bug. The only creative field I knew back then was advertising. When I got a break in an Ad agency, FCB Ulka, I took it up. I started my career as a trainee writer there.
You had no knowledge of advertising at the time of joining the industry? How did you learn and grow there? Did you have mentors who helped you?
I was very lucky in my early years of advertising. It’s rare for a trainee writer to work under four bosses. When I joined Ulka I was the only Hindi writer there. All of them used my services to write for them and I got to observe four different ways of functioning. In very early stages of my career, I got to observe four creative directors which was quite an eye opener for me.
After quitting Ulka, I joined Lowe where I worked under R Balki, Preeti Nair and K B Shridhar (Pops). Pops is also my current boss. When I moved to Lowe, it was again a different way of learning under these three guys as they had different skills sets, ways of functioning and the manner in which they would to ideate. In the early years of your career you are like clay and can be moulded by yourself and others easily. Those were the biggest learning years for me and that has shaped my way of thinking. I spent 14 years in advertising before my debut film Chillar Party happened.
How did Chillar Party, your debut film happen? What fuelled your desire to make a film?
I was very happy doing advertising and never intended to make a feature film. Vikas was my client on Sab TV. We hit it off from day one. He was unlike other clients – easy-going, gave a lot of freedom. His wife Richa was my planner on Tide – so I knew him on two fronts. When he moved to UTV Spotboy he stayed in touch. When Vikas and I started writing Chillar Party we didn’t want to direct it. We just wanted to write it because we were in love with the idea. So both of us wanted to develop the script and see where it goes. We had time in our hands so we would jam on weekends and we developed Chillar Party for close to a year and half.
After that was done, we took it to a few directors who we thought would do justice to the script. But those guys were not interested in making the film as it didn’t have stars. It had ten kids and a dog. It sounded too risky for directors and some who showed interest in doing it, we weren’t sure of them. Writers are a very passionate bunch of guys. We wanted someone who could do justice to the film and didn’t want it to land in wrong hands. So the only option was that both of us direct the film or it would never get made. It took Vikas four months to convince me to leave my job and co-direct the film. I took a break for six months. I thought there are so many people who want to make a movie and here there’s an offer that is coming my way with someone I have a great rapport with so why am I so hesitant. I thought the worst case would be it wouldn’t work. That kind of motivated me. His confidence in me and our passion for the script. We weren’t filmmakers and a feature film isn’t easy to make but we took the plunge. We were very scared so we did a lot of homework.
Did you have directorial experience as an advertising person?
I was a reluctant director earlier. Now I am a willing director. Whatever ad films I have directed, were because I didn’t have anyone to do it within a deadline. We always have a deadline in advertising. Once when I was working with Sony, we were supposed to shoot a promo for Dus Ka Dum, Danish Khan was my client at that time. He asked to me direct it as I had written the ad film. That’s how I directed my first ad film. Some of the promos I directed turned out well and I got the confidence to direct and then went on to do few commercials for other clients.
Did you get more offers to make films after Chillar Party?
After Chillar Party, life certainly changed. Many projects came my way including this, Bhoothnath Returns. Some came only as a writing project and I took them up. If I like a project it doesn’t matter if I am associated as a writer or director or both. I wanted to do good work. I wrote along with my team. Am a firm believer in working as a team than working alone because it’s always good to have points of view, else it is easy to get caught in a tunnel vision, if working alone. Along with my team – Nikhil Mehrotra and Shreyas Jain, I have written Kill Dil which will be directed by Shaad Ali for YRF.
Where did the flair for writing start?
You need to be a good observer to be able to tell stories. And then try and portray it in a creative manner on screen. End of the day it boils down to what kind of storyteller are you? When you are reading also, you are observing life from someone else’s point of view. I would rather observe life from my point of view. I have been lucky enough to have met various people and travelled a lot in my life. I try to incorporate as many real characters from my life and their mannerisms because they are true to life.
Bhoothnath Returns is a franchise. Is the film’s storyline your idea or did the producer come to you with a brief?
Abhay Chopra (Producer Ravi Chopra’s son) had seen Chillar Party and liked it. He called and told me that he intends to make a sequel to Bhoothnath. There was no other brief. He wanted to see what I bring to the table. I went back and teamed up with Piyush Gupta and brainstormed to see if the project excites us or not. I wanted to do it only if we had a story that could take it forward. We were blank for almost a week. How do you take Bhootnath forward or create another story that’s equally compelling?
One night after completing ad work we were brainstorming and this germ of an idea hit us. We decided not to get too excited and come back to it after two days to see if it’s still as compelling. This idea stayed with us. We figured that now was the time to develop it. We did a lot of research, downloaded election commission booklets to find loopholes to see if our story makes sense. We figured that this is something that can logically be taken forward while taking some creative liberty and be told in an interesting manner. We wrote a ten page story as to how the story is going to pan out and then narrated it to Abhay. Because it was so radical it took him some time to digest it.
Was there a one liner of the film? How did it come to you?
You don’t necessarily need to be alive to fight elections in this country – was the one liner. Why would anyone mention such a rule in the booklet? That was the loophole we stumbled upon and developed everything around it. We never shared the one liner with anyone as it might not have been as exciting as the ten pager was. Once the character starts taking shape the screenplay becomes interesting. A lot of times, it’s not about what is being said but how it is being said. We never laboured on having a good one liner; we laboured on having a good story for this one. We wanted it to be entertaining while being relevant and touching upon issues. That’s how Akhrot, Bhau, Gabru came into the picture, which you can’t understand if you only had the one liner with you. With the one liner, you can’t see the magic of the chemistry between Bhoothnath and Akhrot.
The film talks about elections. Was it timed to release during the general elections?
I would call the film’s release timing a divine intervention. We were working on it a year and a half back. Politics and life cannot be separated. This film remains relevant with or without elections. But it adds to the relevance of the context. It’s a story of friendship, sacrifice, courage, patriotism. Elections happen to be the backdrop. It makes it doubly sweeter that we are on the most important elections of this country’s history so far.
You have had experience working with Mr. Bachchan as an ad film maker too. Did that rapport help while working with him on a film?
When I was working with Leo Burnett, we handled the Sony TV account so I had worked with Mr. Bachchan. I was part of four campaigns through the KBC years. This also gave me an opportunity to interact closely with Mr. Bachchan. We would meet and discuss promos with him, and so there was a comfort level with him as such before I got on to Bhoothnath. I told him about my fascination with him since childhood. He finds these stories amusing. Everyone has their favorite Big B story and I am sure he has heard many. It was a huge thing to meet him for KBC, getting him to mouth the lines I wrote for the promos was another high, getting him to be part of my film – what else can you ask for. You just thank god.
What’s amazing about him is that he is a legend, but he never lets you get a hint of it. The kind of humility he shows and the respect he has, his passion to do meaningful work, value as an actor, discipline, the way he makes you feel comfortable – he is a director’s dream. He comes prepared, takes his time to get into the character. All discussions happen at the script level, how something should be treated, he wants to understands his role and the director’s vision and then he gives that. What more can you ask for?
He would give a very good shot in one take itself. But in advertising you shoot an ad of a few seconds in two days so am not used to okaying something in one take. I would request him that I would take a safety shot for almost everything. After giving one take, he would give another for safety. He understood my point of view. It’s good to have safety shots/options instead of wondering at the edit table if you had more. I never saw an ounce of hesitation in him when we took him to places that were difficult to navigate like the top of a boat, we made him climb very narrow stairs in Dharavi and an under construction building without a lift – six floors. He would never crib. Between shots, we would also play cricket, carom and fly kites with him.
You have directed children in your debut film and in Bhoothnath Returns as well. As a director what is it that you look for in a child actor and how do you motivate them to give what you want in a take?
You need to be 200% sure of your casting. If you cast the kid correctly, half the work is done. We spent a lot of time locating this kid. Once this is done, then I do not believe in overloading the kid with extra information because he may get too conscious. Make him comfortable and tell him basic things like you need to be aware of the camera but not look into it. You need to rehearse your lines thoroughly before you come to the set. Besides that, before every shot I would rehearse with him till he was delivering the dialogue right. And then because Parth (child actor who plays the title role opposite Mr. Bachchan) is so natural I didn’t have to struggle too much with him. He has a natural flair for acting and is mature as an actor.
That kid in real life resembles the character we have. It’s ok to expect someone of the calibre of Boman Irani or Mr. Bachchan to mould himself according to the character given. He can play Paa and Bhootnath, both, with utmost ease because of his calibre. With kids you need to check if the basic characteristic you are looking for in the actor is there naturally. Then he doesn’t need to try too hard. Parth doesn’t come from Dharavi but he is a good observer. I had sent him there to observe how life is, how people live, how kids talk and behave. He came back with observations that surprised me and he would say I would like to incorporate like a mature actor would say.
My associate director was the same guy we had in Chillar Party and I had a huge comfort level with him. We had long chats with my cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi who has already shown his prowess in Madras Café and Vicky Donor. We had Wasiq Khan to do production design, so we got a good team together. As a director it’s comforting that all departments are working well.
How do you balance two careers – advertising and filmmaking both of which are demanding, time consuming and extremely creative jobs?
I took a sabbatical when I was co-directing Chillar Party and then again when I started directing this film. I have never mixed the two. I don’t take a break from advertising when am writing a film. A writer is always working whether he is travelling by train or sitting in a café. His mind is at work. An idea can strike you anytime. We were disciplined in our approach. We would finish ad work and then work on this. In ads you have deadlines, in features till the time a film goes on floors, you can keep working on your script.
As a director, which Indian director’s work do you look forward to?
I look forward to the kind of work Raju Hirani does. He is fabulous. I loved Queen too. I look forward to Vikas’s next film as well.
Any other filmmaker whose work you admire?
At a time, when a movie actor’s films were looked forward to, Yash Chopra, Mani Ratnam and Vijay Anand made it possible for people to remember and look out for a director’s work. That is a huge achievement.
– Priyanka Jain