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Smriti Kiran: Bejoy Nambiar broke into our collective consciousness in slow motion with Khoya Khoya Chand, a beautiful number and action sequence from his first feature Shaitan. He has had a bit of an unconventional journey. Born and brought up in Bombay; he studied in Bangalore where he also did theatre. His father used to have a textile business which Bejoy was supposed to join. So, he went and did an MBA from a university abroad, came back, and joined the business. But there was always this abiding love for cinema. When he decided that he wanted to do films, instead of joining a university, he said that he’d rather learn on the job. That’s how his first short film, Reflections, happened.

Bejoy, how did someone who has never worked in film get Mohanlal to say yes to his first short film?

Bejoy Nambiar: Why not start with the best? I started by trying to figure out how to approach him. I did a lot of calls trying to figure out who would be the right person to get through to him. Finally, I got one contact, who was Mr Suresh Balaji, Mohanlal’s brother-in-law. He asked me about my background and I told him about our business background. He wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pull off a film like that. 

Reflections became my calling card to get into Madras Talkies.”

He asked me, ‘Are you confident that you would meet him and be able to convince him?’ I said that it was worth the shot, no harm in trying. So, he set up a meeting for me. From the time I wanted to meet him to the final meeting, it took me about some five-six months to finally get that audience with him.

Once that meeting happened, I went and met him on set. He was shooting something. I went with my friend who was a massive Mohanlal buff. He was more concerned about taking a picture with him, whereas I was trying to make sure that I have enough time to talk to him about my story.

I did manage to narrate my story eventually. He heard the story, and it took about a minute, and he said, ‘When do you want to do it?’ It didn’t register that he had actually said yes. The first thing he said was when do you want to do it. I really wanted to ask him, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ I didn’t ask him that, of course. I told him that whenever you say, whenever you’re free, tell me, I’ll figure it out.

He was so sweet. He said, ‘You know what? I’m going to be coming to Bombay in two months’ time for an event. Can we schedule it around that? Do you think two months is good enough?’ I said that I’d manage it from there. He even said that I wouldn’t have to pay for his flight tickets because the event guys would be paying for it. ‘I’ll come’, he said. That’s what he did. Just getting the meeting was the difficult part but convincing him was pretty easy. He was really, really sweet about it considering that we didn’t even have a team to take care of him.

Mohanlal and Bejoy Nambiar

Smriti Kiran: Right after Reflections, you were also simultaneously looking to anchor yourself within an ecosystem where you could learn more. You were trying to get on board with Mani Ratnam and become a part of Madras Talkies. That opportunity came when you were hired as an AD on Guru and you worked on it from the scripting till the time the DVD came out. Can you tell us about that entire experience? Was there a paradigm shift that happened which led you to believe that collaboration is one of the most magical things that can happen to you in your process of filmmaking?

Bejoy Nambiar: I had actually applied for a job at Madras Talkies way before even Reflections happened. I applied a couple of times, and I never heard back from them. I kept trying, hoping that one day I’ll get a call. I must have been one of those, you know, hundreds or thousands of other aspirants who wanted to join. But I never got a call.

I managed to bump into Mani sir at a wedding. I remember just randomly meeting him at my friend’s wedding in Chennai. He was there, and I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t care two hoots about my friend. I ran straight to Mani sir and said that I’d sent my application some ten times and if he could take a look at it and give me a chance.

He was taken aback. In the rush, I also asked him for an autograph. While leaving, I went back to him to remind him to take a look at my application. I said, ‘My name is Bejoy Nambiar. Please, please make sure that you have a look’. I was under the impression that the conversation would actually help me get an interview. It never did. I never got the call.

Post Reflections, I sent the DVD and an application again. I got a call this time. Sudha Kongara, who was the chief AD then, called me for the preliminary interview. Then I got an interview with Mani sir. So, Reflections became my calling card to get into Madras Talkies.

It was so weird. I was actually in the middle of prepping for my second short film, 10 days away from shooting it, when I got the call. I told him that I’m actually about to start shooting my second short film. Upon hearing this, the first thing that he asked me was, ‘Why do you want to do this? You should not be doing this. It’s the worst job ever.’ I said, ‘Why did you call me for the interview, then?’ He said, ‘No, no. If you’ve already started to make films, then go ahead and make films.’ He told me to join the film after I finish working on my second short film – by which time they would have been in post-production. I actually considered it.

“I thought back then that is how films are made. You get all these people together and you’ll be able to make it. But Guru opened my eyes.”

I remember I went and spoke to my DOP who was shooting my second short film. This is something I’ll never forget. I’ve seen this trait in very few people. He told me to not let go of this opportunity. ‘Forget the short film, we can always do it later. You have been called, take it up. Don’t even think twice.’ I told him, ‘But we have already prepped so much. We’re supposed to start shooting in 10 days.’ And he said, ‘Let it go. Focus on the bigger picture. This is something you need to focus on.’ I took his words to heart, scrapped the short film and took up the job. That was the best thing that I did. It was the best decision that I made.

I had zero experience while working on Reflections. I just surrounded myself with some really experienced people and got them on board to help me out. Setu, the DOP, had done Tigmanshu’s (Dhulia) Charas at that point in time. He was like a co-director for me. Akiv Ali was introduced by Juhi, herself a well-known actor. So, all those people, with their collective experience really helped make the film for me. The guys who really shaped it were Akiv and Setu. They really gave vision to what I wanted to say in the story. I enjoyed the experience.

I thought back then that is how films are made. You get all these people together and you’ll be able to make it. But Guru opened my eyes. It was a completely new experience for me.

Coming from the short film mentality, I saw this massive film being put together with all these different people coming together who were really the best of the best in the industry. We had Rajiv Menon for cinematography, Samir Chanda doing production design, Rahman sir for music, Abhishek (Bachchan), Mithun Chakraborty and Aishwarya Rai (Bachchan) in the lead roles, so it was the best of the best coming together. I was starstruck not just by the actors but also by the technicians. I was like a fly on the wall just watching everything.

Mani Ratnam and Bejoy Nambiar on the sets of Guru

What I thoroughly enjoyed was how every head of a department, people in their departments took the onus of the script and were able to push the envelope within their own spectrum – how they were able to push that much harder to give vision to what Mani sir wanted to do. I saw that in close proximity.

Initially, we had eight ADs. Within the first week or ten days, there were just three of us left. In another month, there were only two. So, it was the two of us handling the entire thing. The responsibilities were too many. It was a great opportunity for me because I got to experience everything. I started off by handling background action and pushing the cows in the frame at the right time. That was my first job. Suddenly, I was taking on art, locations, properties, and costumes – almost everything. I thoroughly enjoyed everything. I was learning on the job.

I remember Samir Chanda sketching the tram in an empty studio parking lot. I watched him plan where the trams were going to be, where the balcony was going to be, where the trader’s market was going to be. So, I got a chance to see him actually sketch it all out, and watch it all come to life. It was just watching this kind of magic happen. I watched Rajiv Menon light a scene a certain way to enhance the period feel. I took all those key elements from there. All the lessons that I learned about how detailing is so important for the period, how VFX was so beautifully integrated into the film, how Rajiv Menon worked so closely with the VFX team to give the feel of old Bombay, were from Guru. So, for me, it was an amazing experience to soak in all that.

Bejoy Nambiar on the sets of Guru

I took all of that, all the resources that I could, from Madras Talkies, and used them all on my second mega mammoth short film, a 40-minute short film called Rahu. It was never released because it got rejected by Berlinale. They said to cut down the length from 40 to 20 minutes, and I refused. I never cut it. I never gave it anywhere else. I say this with not much pride that it had the dubious distinction of being, at the time, the most expensive short film made. My production manager used to tell me how nobody spent so much money just to make a short film. I said to him that if nothing else, this will be my showreel. That’s exactly what it was.

I remember when I was pitching Shaitan to different producers, I had Reflections, Rahu, and by then I had made another short film, which I would rubber band and give as my showreel. I would have my driver and dad fill the boot of the trunk with these three DVDs along with the script of Shaitan and a budget sheet. It was a proper docket. That was my presentation for Shaitan.

“The biggest takeaway from Guru was how Mani sir trusted his cast and technicians, and how he empowered them with that trust.”

Since I never released Rahu for lack of resources, and because it wasn’t accepted to festivals, I let it go. It was nonetheless a great experience for me. Like I said, all the resources I could gather, I put to use in making this short film. In fact, Sudha, who was the chief AD on Guru, my senior, helped me with costumes. Ruhaan, another AD, again my senior, acted in the film. The line producer came and did the production for me. All these people came together. It was all the result of this goodwill that I had earned from working on Guru.

Of course, because Guru was a period film, and so was Rahu, all the learning came in quite handy. The biggest takeaway from Guru was how Mani sir trusted his cast and technicians, and how he empowered them with that trust. Of course, they all had their unique body of work, their own stuff. I thought they’d be too hard-assed about what they wanted to do, that they’d be forcing their ideas on people. But it was the complete opposite of what I thought.

I’m so glad that I was a part of that experience of seeing it all happen in real-time. That trust also came from a place of comfort. Samir Chanda had already once worked with Mani sir. But it was the first time for the costume designer. How she was able to earn that trust from him and enable herself to take flight and give those characters depth and vision as per what she thought would have been great, and how he let her do that, was a big learning for me. You keep hearing that the director is the captain of the ship. Maybe they are. But seeing him give that kind of power to these people and letting them help in creating that vision was a big learning. It is something that I continue to do with every project of mine. In fact, every single time I take on a project, I aspire to learn as much as possible from that project. When I say ‘learn’, it’s not just by making the film. It’s also from the people who come on board. Again, not only restricted to the technicians alone but also the actors and the people working under each department. I really look forward to it, which is why, I guess, I’m very passionate about it and chose to speak about how I consider collaboration to be key.

Smriti Kiran: You explored the different relationships that you built as a filmmaker. What are the different things that you put into place to get the kind of collaborators that you could trust? Because it’s a fine line that one traverses. When a new filmmaker is trying to find his or her voice, how do they create the fine balance between empowering people that they’re collaborating with and retaining the final vision of the film?

“It is very important to cast each person on your team. You can never be fully sure about whether it’ll work or not. You may be open to opinions, empowering them to give you those opinions, to work with you.”

Bejoy Nambiar: You rightly said that it’s a really fine line. Luckily, all of my features have stories that I’ve written. They were created by me. I brought the idea forth and worked with other writers. So, the spine, or rather the core of it is crystal clear in my head. I know what I’m trying to do within that framework. It’s almost like how a casting director casts for a film, you similarly have to cast for your team as well. You need to understand how certain people will be right to work with and who will do justice to your script. You shop for those people. Of course, you have a wish list and there are budget restrictions, for example. But you still have a wish list which you go around with and cast the right person for, say, costumes or production design or camera.

So you put together a wish list and approach people that you want to work with. It can be because of their body of work, which you’ve seen before and liked, that you may feel they’ll be able to do justice to your vision or lack thereof. I’ll give you an example.

When I was working with Madhi, my cameraman, on Shaitan, I remember this one Bombay producer telling me that I should work with a cameraman from Bombay because the film is set in Bombay. Why would I want to work with Madhi who has never shot in Bombay? I told him that what he saw as a bad thing was actually an advantage. The fact that Madhi hasn’t shot in Bombay would be an advantage because he’ll look at the city very differently. He’ll lens it very differently. That’s what I wanted. I wanted a fresh take.

Shaitan (2011)

I had seen Madhi’s work in Veyil, which is this rustic war movie set in a small village. I knew that this guy was interesting and I wanted to collaborate with him. It worked in my favour because getting someone like him on board for Shaitan was like taking a fish out of water. He really changed the whole dynamic of what we wanted to do. He took it and just flew with it.

So, as I said, it is very important to cast each person on your team. You can never be fully sure about whether it’ll work or not. You may be open to opinions, empowering them to give you those opinions, to work with you. It is certainly very important to create that atmosphere where they feel empowered enough to come and voice their opinions. But at the same time if the idea is crystal clear in your head, and you know where you want and don’t want to take them, then it’s a balance that you’re leading with.

Coming to the flip side of what you asked, where you work with someone you’re not sure of and it turns out wrong – that happens as well. It happens with actors and technicians. If the damage happens early on, you’ll be able to do some damage control. In fact, I’m the perfect example of someone being completely wrong for a certain job.

After working on Guru, I was called back to work on Raavan as an AD. I went and started prepping for Raavan. Very early on in the prep, there was some issue due to which I was suddenly told to take on line production duties. I had never line produced. I had, in fact, never done any production work. I was given the mantle nonetheless. I’ll tell you a small incident that will sum up my point really well.

If you remember the film, the first shot is that of Abhishek standing atop a cliff and diving into the water below. So, I went to see the location with Mani sir. My girlfriend, Sheetal Menon, who’s now my wife, had given me these really expensive fifteen thousand rupees sunglasses. It was the most expensive thing ever. I had worn them that day. We walked up to the edge of the cliff, and as we are looking down, my sunglasses took a straight dive into the water just as Abhishek does at the beginning of the film. I wanted to desperately dive into the water just like him and retrieve it. But I just stood there and watched. Mani sir looked at me and said, ‘Those were your glasses, right?’ I said yes, and he smiled and walked away. I stood and kept staring. That was an ominous thing.

Mani Ratnman and Bejoy Nambiar

My trajectory as a line producer went like that because I was really bad at it. I was bad at the production part because I didn’t have any experience. I was learning on the job but I was making a mess of things because I didn’t know how to do things. The producer, the chief ADs, my friends and other people who were working were really sweet to cushion me and help me with my mistakes. But I knew that it was a bad decision. That’s when I realised that it was important to get the right people for the right job.

Smriti Kiran: If you were to take up the five chief processes in the making of a film – writing, cinematography, music, sound design and editing – could you illustrate with examples how these different departments became better on your films because you got the right people to do it?

Bejoy Nambiar: I can only talk from my personal experience of how each department has helped enhance my vision of the script and how it made me believe in this process of collaboration even more so because that’s how I see it work. That’s not a hard and fast rule in any case. For every filmmaker, the process is way different.

Of course, I don’t think that there are five or six key processes that make a film. All the big heads that you mentioned do play a huge role, but there are too many people, too many variables that come together to make a film. It’s almost like that saying – it takes a village to raise a child. A film is like that. It takes a lot of people to come together. That’s also where my MBA skills came into play. It helped me because direction at the end of the day is a lot about people management. It helps me bring all those people together to really realise the vision that I have for a certain project that I’m doing.

Every film starts with an idea. Once you have an idea, once you have a script, you then plan. You get a producer to back you on it. You try to get the cost that you want. Then you try to get the team that you want. So, it all starts brick by brick. You put it all together like that.

I was so spoiled for my first film itself. I say spoiled only because I see a lot of aspiring filmmakers who make a short just for the sake of making a short. That’s something I keep telling them — whenever I attend some college festivals for short films or when I’m going to meet some short filmmakers — that you have to treat your short film like it’s your feature. You never know if you might get a chance to make another one again.

“It’s almost like that saying – it takes a village to raise a child. A film is like that. It takes a lot of people to come together.”

A big learning that I took from my first short film was to surround myself with the right people. That is a rule that I live by. I’ve been trying to do that for every project since. I try my best to surround myself with the right people for the film, not just those who would do justice but also those who would take ownership of the film. That’s the part I really enjoy.

I enjoy it so much when an actor or a technician in one of the prep meetings while talking about a certain scene, character or mood, will give new shades, new colours, and new things to it, which I might not even have thought of. That’s when they’re taking it and internalising it so much that they are able to give a completely new dimension to it. I always take those suggestions nine out of ten times because it’s something that I might not even have thought of while writing, but it has come organically from there. I try to use that, soak it in and run with it.

What I keep telling short filmmakers is something that even I live by. It’s an almost impossible task that I set for myself by saying that. But only if I do that, say that to myself, will I do it with all the conviction and my heart will be fully into it. If I don’t treat it with so much importance, and if I read it as just another project, it’ll automatically show in my work, and it has happened. Luckily, not my features but in some other work that I have done. I did a banyan ad which I was not convinced about at all. By the way, it was with Salman Khan. Even though it was a banyan ad, it should have been done with conviction. I should have done it like I’m not going to get a job after that. I believe that anything you take on needs to be given that much importance.

I’ll be talking about actors, editors, cinematography, music and sound design. Illustrate certain instances from the last 15 years of my career, and evaluate how these elements have enhanced and made me discover something new which was not there initially, not on paper and not even when I planned it.

Let’s start with the actors. I did this one film, Dobaara, with Zee5, with Manav Kaul and Parvathy Omanakuttan. Mani sir said that it was my only film where nobody is killed. There’s no blood, no gore. He asked me if everything was okay when I made it. This is one of those where there’s no action. No slo-mo fights, nobody’s dying, nobody’s killed.

Parvathy Omanakuttan and Manav Kaul in Dobaara (2018)

Though the narrative was a bit fractured, it was a simple story of a dysfunctional marriage. I’d written this as a Malayali film and even pitched it to Mohanlal to make it in Malayalam, but it never materialised. Then when the opportunity came, I made it in Hindi.

I remember I approached Rajkummar Rao for the lead role. Initially, he was convinced. Later one day, he met me and said that the protagonist was slightly negative in the way that he was written. He wasn’t comfortable with the character coming out as negative at the end of it. I said, ‘But that’s the nature of the story. We have to play as we go. It’s written with that kind of intention.’ But he was uncomfortable. So I told him not to worry about it, and let it go. Then I spoke to Manav. He came on board, and we discussed and chatted about it.

“Each actor and technician, once they take ownership of the story, look at ways to enhance that story, and how within the story they can make something as small as this have a bigger impact.”

When we started shooting, I remember the first two-three days of the shoot went on smoothly, but something wasn’t working. Something wasn’t hitting the right note for me. It really bothered me. I couldn’t figure out the issue. I started looking at the rushes and realised that Manav was playing the emotional beat for every scene very differently than what I was trying to do. What he was doing was slightly off, slightly different. The whole negative angle was not coming through. In fact, it was going the opposite way. He was coming across as vulnerable, someone to be sympathised with, which wasn’t the intention.

Though I realised what was happening, I realised that maybe this works purely because of the performance. It wasn’t on paper, but Manav was playing it like that. So, I had to take a call three days into the shoot on whether I let him continue or I pull him back, reshoot and play it by the script. It was a big choice to make because it was going to change the entire tone of the film. It was a risk.

I thought of discussing it with Manav, but then I said, ‘Let me not throw him off. Let him continue on the same path, same trajectory.’ So, I let him do that. It was going to change my story but I went with it. I’m very happy I did that because it made me realise that things can change. It’s a decision that you need to take and then stand by. It was a big call. In hindsight, I am really happy that I went with that call because then suddenly the character was no longer black or white. You could root for him, feel bad for him, and, at the same time, feel disgusted. It was a big playoff that happened, only because the actor decided to play it a certain way and I decided to trust him with it.

Smriti Kiran: It is indeed a big call to take because he was playing it very differently and you saw it very differently. It worked for the film, and what he brought to the table also enhanced your vision or improved on it. What happens with the supporting actors if they did the same?

Bejoy Nambiar: You have to guide them. It’s very important because they’re also attuned to reading it and playing it a certain way. So, if somebody is throwing them off, you have to push them into that direction so that it doesn’t jar.

Luckily for me, Parvathy, who plays his wife in the film, was able to catch on that. She was able to play off him. I remember in a scene when her character is being thrown out of the house, I said that we need to have a dialogue to make the scene work. So, it does work. You have to coach the other.

I remember in Shaitan I told Rajkummar Rao to not interact with anybody on set and to stay away from them. I said, ‘Don’t talk to them so that when you start doing the scene with them, they should be intimidated by you. They should not feel like you’re their pal or that you’re doing a scene together’. Even in the workshop, he always stayed away from them. He never talked to them. Initially, they thought that he had a problem with them. I said, ‘It’s okay. Let them think that’.

So, in this scene, he has a confrontation with them all and he’s making his demand. There was no slap in the scene on paper, where Rajkummar’s character slaps Gulshan (Devaiah). I spoke to him and said, ‘Do you want to slap Gulshan?’ He said that he might take offence at it.

I told him not to worry. He was hesitant but excited by that idea. We knew we only had one take, so I told the team that we may continue rolling. We hear this loud slap in the middle of the scene. Everybody is shocked. The shock you see in the scene is genuine because nobody knew that was going to happen. In fact, if you watch closely, there is a moment when Rajkummar moves again, and Gulshan flinches thinking that he might slap him again. So, I yelled cut.

Rajkummar Rao and Gulshan Devaiah in Shaitan (2011)

Afterwards, Gulshan went up to Rajkummar, hugged him and said that it was really good. He was such a sport about it. He didn’t mind it at all. I don’t advise this with other actors. You’re supposed to brief the other actors about these kinds of things or they can also play along.

Of course, I have to talk about Mr Bachchan. I remember when I was three years old, I got lost on Chowpatty beach. I walked away somewhere. My mom and dad were looking for me, and they found me standing opposite a poster of Laawaris. That was my fanboy moment of him back when I could barely walk. To direct him is a massive dream come true.

I want to talk about this one moment in Wazir. It’s a scene where Neil (Nitin Mukesh) comes and attacks. Mr Bachchan comes down on the wheelchair and he sees a fire. He turns around and suddenly sees Neil. This was the scene. If you have seen the film, you’ll know that he is actually imagining the character – he’s just Mr Bachchan’s character’s alter ego.

As he was rehearsing with his wheelchair, he tried to make sure that he hit the mark properly. Mr Bachchan told me that that’s not the mark that he’d stop at. Instead, he showed me another and made a cross on it. He asked the cameraman if he could stop there. He said yes. He kept rehearsing that mark again and again. I kept wondering why he was doing that.

I let him do it. I didn’t question him. He did the shot and stopped at the mark. He turned around, and the focus shifted on Neil. Everything was great. Mr Bachchan was smiling and he was very happy about it. Soon everybody was smiling, even the cinematographer. I said, ‘What is this about?

Amitabh Bachchan, Neil Nitin Mukesh and Bejoy Nambiar on the sets of Wazir

I couldn’t understand why he changed the mark and why everyone was smiling. So, I asked Setu, and he told me, ‘If I think what I’m thinking is right, you’ll get to see later what he has done.’ It was suspense just welling up inside me.

Once the entire shot was done, I asked the editor to show it to me again. I saw it and still couldn’t really figure out what it was. Mr Bachchan asked me the next day, ‘What did you think of it? Did you like it?’ I said that it was good. He said, ‘So you liked the shadow?’ That’s when it struck me.

If you see the image, the mark at which he stopped and turned on casts only half his shadow on Neil, who is sitting on a table behind him. It’s almost like he’s looking into the soul of his alter ego. That was something intentional he was doing to subliminally convey a message. I didn’t even think about it. My jaw just dropped when I realised it. It blew my mind that someone like him with so much experience was able to just think through that and be able to do something so tiny and subtle, which might not even matter.

That’s when I realised that each actor and technician, once they take ownership of the story, look at ways to enhance that story, and how within the story they can make something as small as this have a bigger impact. That’s something I enjoyed and learned from Mr Bachchan.

Bejoy Nambiar and Amitabh Bachchan on the sets of Wazir

Smriti Kiran: How does a director go about creating that atmosphere, that kind of culture on set where people feel empowered to take these chances?

Bejoy Nambiar: I don’t think it happens on set. It happens a lot during prep time. The atmosphere can get set during prep if you can afford the luxury of prep. Sometimes you can’t. Most times, for me, for every project, it’s during prep that I get to know or understand the equation with each person.

That’s why I really stress on spending as much time as possible with technicians and actors way before the shoot on every film that I do. It’s so that I know what their wavelength is, so I know that they are seeing the film as I am. What happens on set is really just an extension of it.

I’d like to give one last example of casting from the film Vidhaata. I once spoke to Mr Subhash Ghai and he told me how Abu Baba’s part was originally supposed to be played by Amjad Khan, and everything was fixed. But something happened last minute, and he couldn’t. It was a week, maybe 10 days before shooting that they had to recast the role. So, Sanjeev Kumar was brought on board to play Abu Baba.

He said that he wasn’t sure about whether he could take on a role like that. Subhash Ghai was taking a chance with him. One of the first scenes that they shot was a confrontation scene between him and Dilip Kumar. Sanjeev Kumar felt that nobody might notice him in the film, so he came extra prepared for the scene. He came and did a knockout first take, where Dilip Kumar forgot his lines. An actor like Dilip Kumar forgot his lines.

Dilip Kumar called up Subhash Ghai and told him, ‘Whenever I have a scene with him next, I want you to have him read with me before I go in because I need to be better than him’. That’s one story that stands out for me. You just can’t imagine anyone other than him to have done the role. He took that role, ran with it and gave it his all. I liked the fact that Subhash Ghai had said then while talking to me, ‘Now you can’t see Amjad Khan but only Sanjeev Kumar’.

Dilip Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar in Vidhaata

Now from acting, I’d like to switch to cinematography and about Mazhar Kamran’s work in Satya.

Before Satya came out, Ram Gopal Varma had done films like Mast and Daud. His camera work, by then, had become too flashy. It was getting bigger and bigger, he almost went for this synthetic ad film kind of feel. Then Satya happened, which was so guttural, so raw in its approach.

There was a song in the film version, which was eventually cut out, called Geela Geela Pani. There was only one minute of it in the film, but they had shot an entire video on the song. I remember watching it in the theatres and feeling astonished at the way Bombay monsoon was captured. Satya had also released sometime during the monsoon, incidentally. I remember watching the film in the theatre, coming out and embracing the rain. It was such an immersive experience. You felt every bit of the texture, the rain, the grime and the dirt. You could see it in every frame. You could see the sweat on Kallu Mama’s (played by Saurabh Shukla) head. You could see all of it.

All those things made it into such a visual delight. Sometimes it can overshadow, sometimes it can overcompensate for the story, but here there was a perfect blend. It complemented the storytelling beautifully. The cinematography was taking the story several notches higher. There was solid content on display, but the cinematography was using that and just propelling it further.

Another example is Shyam Benegal’s Trikal, which was groundbreaking for its time. It’s about a small Goan family set during the height of colonialism. I think he had just made Mandi before this.

If you watch both films, you’ll see how they are visually different from each other. You can see that Ashok Mehta was almost inspired by the European cinema of the time in Trikal. The way that he lit that small heritage house felt so intimate, so immersive. By the end of the film, you could feel that you were a part of the family. Trikal is a timeless film. You could still watch it today just to admire its beauty and the way each shot has been composed.

Trikal (1985)

I could go on speaking about Mani sir’s films, about Santosh Sivan’s work in Iruvar and Thalapathy, about P.C. sir’s work in Nayakan and Agni Natchathiram, and how each one complemented the story beautifully. Agni Natchathiram is the story of two warring stepbrothers. In an action scene, they are shot against the sun. Everything is high contrast and bleeding lights. There’s a beautiful shot in Iruvar of Prakash Raj reciting a poem to Tabu while the camera just circles on them from above. It’s a continuous shot. I think they created the apparatus to take it non-stop. For someone who wants to study camera work, these are the films that I would recommend you watch to understand how camera work complements the storytelling.

Prakash Jha and Tabu in Iruvar

Ravi K. Chandran’s work in Saawariya, for example. He gave wings to Bhansali’s dystopian world. When the trailer came out, nobody realised that it was a dystopian world, and Chandran shot it like that. Every frame almost looks like a painting in the way he composed and lit. These are films that I like to revisit. These are some examples of how cinematography has taken the storytelling several notches higher.

I’ve been very fortunate to work with phenomenal cinematographers very early on in my career. Setu, in fact, worked on my first short film. He is one of the biggest cinematographers in the country. He has done Dangal. I collaborated with Setu, P.C. Sreeram, Saanu, and Sejal among others. 

“Sejal came to meet me and he narrated my story to me the way he saw it. He gave me such a beautiful rendition of my own story.”

Sejal was supposed to do David. I remember during the first recce of David, I was also working on MTV Rush. I was doing double duty. So, I landed up for the recce 15 minutes late because I stopped on the way to buy a cup of coffee. I reached the set and he just looked at me and said, ‘That’s why you’re late? For a cup of coffee?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sorry’.

It just so happened that on the next day, because I was editing the whole night, I fell asleep and didn’t wake up. My ADs came to my house and they were ringing the doorbell but I was passed out. I woke up and realised that Sejal was already there. I told my editor to make some excuse to make him stay there. I quickly got ready, and while I’m on my way, I get a text saying, ‘Good luck with your film.’ We were ten days away from the shoot. He refused to take my calls after that. He messaged my production guy, saying, ‘Tell Bejoy thanks for the opportunity. I don’t want to work with him.’ I was aghast. I was like, ‘How can you leave my film?

He taught me the value of time. Of course, I managed to get another DOP to shoot that portion, and it all worked out for me, thankfully. Years later I went back to Sejal and worked with him on Solo. The first thing he asked me was if I’d be there on time. I said that I would. I made sure that I was there before him on every recce, every location. I told my ADs to give me a separate call time and him a separate call time. Even though Dulquer was the hero, I treated Sejal as the hero. I realised that I need to take care of him because I really wanted to work with him.

He even threw a curveball at me before I went to him. Solo was four anthological stories. Every story was to be shot by a different cameraman. I’d already shot two of them. This was the third. He came to me and said that he wants to shoot the film with anamorphic lenses. I realised that it would change the aspect ratio of the entire film if I did that. The other two stories would look different. It would create a lot more complications in the final satellite output. There would be a lot of problems that I’ll have to face if I decide to indulge. I almost decided against it. Everybody at the production company convinced me to go against it. Sejal came to meet me and he narrated my story to me the way he saw it. He gave me such a beautiful rendition of my own story. He said that’s how he saw it. The stories were based on the four elements. This story had fire as its element. When he spoke about it, he explained how the colour red had to permeate almost every frame of the film, and how silence had to play a big part in all of it.

Bejoy Nambiar and Dulquer Salmaan on the sets of Solo

He said, ‘This is the vision I have for the film. It’s right on top. What you’re telling me to do is to push it down. If you can push who is pushing you to go the other way, push them. Let’s explore that because I know that this will be magical. Have faith, and let me try. If you want to do a test, then let’s do that.’ So, I agreed to do the test.

Even before I did the test, he showed me a short film that he had shot. I was sold when I saw that. It was Sejal’s conviction that pushed me to take that chance. It created a lot of complications for me in the final output, but in hindsight, I’m really glad that I went with it because it enhanced the story. Personally, it worked much better visually than what we had on paper.

Smriti Kiran: In popular parlance, we feel that if you’re the director, you can just about do anything. But being respectful to your collaborators and being eager to listen to them are very important when you have that opportunity and responsibility of being the captain of the ship. It doesn’t mean that you get this unlimited power and you can do anything.

Bejoy Nambiar: Everybody was negating. Everybody pushed me to go the other way. It becomes harder to fight, then. But, as you said, you need to have respect for that person’s vision because he is essentially only fighting to enhance your vision. You have to stand by that. I’m glad I did that.

I’ll cut to editing now. My editing story will never be complete because the majority of my work has been edited by Sreekar Prasad, whom we lovingly call as Nani sir. I remember he and Mani sir were editing Guru, and Mani sir called me into the edit. Both of them sat on the console while I sat at the back with my notebook taking notes. I was told by the production managers that up until then Mani sir wasn’t very keen on letting his ADs sit on the edit. I was deeply honoured that I was given a chance.

“The biggest thing that I have learned from Nani sir is to involve your editor as a part of your scripting process.”

I saw these two legends at work together. I was in awe of them. My second short film, Rahu, was a very edit and treatment heavy film. In fact, I used to narrate Rahu to people and tell them what it was. It had five stories – three going backwards, two going forward. They meet at one point and they keep going the same way. This was Rahu for me. I had written it keeping this trajectory and their intersection in mind, and that I’d keep cutting the trajectory.

I was really keen on showing it to Nani sir to get his opinion. He was so enthusiastic about it that he showed it to others as well. He really liked it and gave me feedback. He thoroughly enjoyed the film. That put me at ease with him. That started my dialogue with him.

Up until then, I didn’t really speak to him. I used to keep my distance from him. That’s how I managed to ask him for Shaitan. He came in at the last minute. Nani sir has worked on Shaitan, David, Wazir and Solo.

The biggest thing that I have learned from Nani sir, which I hadn’t taken seriously until Rahu, is to involve your editor as a part of your scripting process. It’s not necessary that you shoot the film, then take the rushes to the editor. If you include your editor early on, then they can be of tremendous value to the film.

Even during the scripting, the prep, Nani sir used to involve himself. I never had that luxury during Shaitan. Since it was shot in multiple schedules, I would run to Chennai with the rushes and sit with him to edit after every schedule. The time that I spent with him was so useful and valuable to me because he was able to guide me correctly on what I should be looking out for in the next schedule, what I should be focusing hard on in the next schedule. He was really able to push me in the right direction as a mentor. During David, I divided my schedule in a way that allowed me to watch and edit the rushes with him. So, involving an editor at an early stage is something I learned from him. As I said, he really spoiled me because he takes it on himself.

When collaborators start talking about your subject as if it’s their own, it’s magical to then watch them work. It’s amazing to hear them talk about it with so much sincerity and honesty. You live through something which you wouldn’t even have thought of. That’s something I’ve learnt from Nani sir. I continue sharing my material with him even if he’s not officially working on the film with me. He’s somebody that I really look up to.

Another thing that he used to do, which I don’t think anybody does, which I also thought was normal and a common practice among editors in the industry, is that he’d double up as a first AD after the shoot was complete. After the edit is complete, he sets a timetable and decides when and how different reels should go to different departments. He has the date of the release in mind, and he backtracks it from there. He can have an assistant do that for him. But he does it himself. I realised with other editors that I worked with that he’s the only one who took the mantle on himself. He likes to do that because he wants discipline on all that needs to be done with the reels. I started imposing this on the other editors that I worked with as well.

Nani sir has done a lot of legendary films but one of my favourite sequences is the opening of Raavan. I remember Mani sir had written everything down to the dot in the script. But the way he edited it changed the scene altogether. When Abhishek is on top of the cliff, he pushes a small pebble into the water. The scene then begins to intercut between four different attacks being planned by his gang. As Abhishek enters the water, the attacks begin to happen. The music also starts kicking in, and eventually, it reaches a crescendo. This scene was magical because the edit, cinematography, sound, everything came together so perfectly well. It was phenomenal when I watched it for the first time. I often watch it sometimes just to experience that magic of all the elements coming together so beautifully.

Raavan (2010)

Another great example of editing is from Mani sir’s Thalapathi. I was very young when I watched it. But there is a sequence in the film which stayed with me. Mammooty’s character goes for a meeting with the rival gang early one morning with one of his henchmen. As he enters the garage, he is betrayed by his own henchman who runs off and shuts the garage. You suddenly realise that there are six-seven attackers inside, and it’s a double-cross. He’s going to be attacked. The sequence begins, and there’s a shot of Mammooty’s face as a guy comes charging at him with a knife. Before you can see the attack happen, it cuts right to Mammooty gasping for breath. It suddenly then cuts to his wife in a temple. From this point on, you keep watching intercutting shots from the two scenes. The sound too keeps shifting.

There’s a heavy, dramatic score building along with the action scene, the temple sounds keep intercutting with it as well. It’s amazing to watch this juxtaposition. I’m a big action buff, so what struck me was that every attack, be it from Mammooty or the goons, was made intangible. It really bothered me when I watched it as a kid. For me, it was a kind of time jump that was taking place. We are so pre-conditioned to watching action occur on screen in detail that something out of the ordinary such as this really bothers you until you realise why it is bothering you or why it is jarring or disturbing. It took me a long time to understand that it was a style.

One of the best-edited sequences of all time is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button accident scene. It’s a three minutes scene which is a feature film by itself. If anybody wants to understand how an idea can be conveyed, this is the piece to watch. It’s so beautifully shot and cut with precision and put together that it’s phenomenal.

Anil Kapoor’s entry in Trimurti is a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s something else. I can’t stop gushing about it even now. When I met Anil Kapoor, I told him how great the sequence was. He said, ‘Jhakaas hai na?’ I said, ‘Jhakaas nahi, double jhakaas hai’. If you want to see a sequence where style marries content, that’s the clearest example. It comes at the end of a song sequence. Every shot has been designed and cut to match the sound so beautifully. It ends on such a high. I had such a beautiful experience watching it in the theatre on the first day, first show, having bought the ticket in black, with an audience who were incensed by the fact that Anil Kapoor had still not made an entry. And suddenly there he was. It was a full paisa vasool moment.

I was watching Vinod sir’s 1942: A Love Story the other day. A phenomenal sequence in the film is Jackie Shroff’s character’s entry, who is named Shubhankar. In fact, I have an AD who is named after Shroff’s character in the film because his dad was such a huge fan of his.

Renu Saluja’s editing in that sequence is amazing. Just before the interval, we have Anupam Kher who sacrifices himself by lighting a stick of dynamite. There are only three shots of the match being lit, and everything falls silent. The only thing we hear is the match being lit, like the calm before the storm. There’s the explosion, and with it we have Jackie Shroff’s entry.

Smriti Kiran: Once you find your tribe of collaborators with whom you’d like to repeatedly work with, is there ever a worry that the whole creative process might stagnate if you get too comfortable with them?

Bejoy Nambiar: I’ll go back to the point when I said that the spine of the story is in my head. I don’t let it contaminate or dilute in any way. I make sure that I stay true to that vision. You can’t veer too much from it because then you’ll lose your objectivity. It has happened with me in the past when I just didn’t have enough control over certain things. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I had to nevertheless. That’s a decision that I have to live with for the rest of my life. Even when I watch those sequences later, I tell myself that I would’ve done it differently. But if I’d done that, I could stand up and say that this was my decision after all.

I remember the song at the end of Wazir, Atrangi Yaari, wasn’t what I had in mind. I had a very different idea for a song. I’d even started working towards it. But Vinod (Vidhu Vinod Chopra) sir came up with the idea of Atrangi Yaari, and it had a completely different tone to it. He said, ‘Let’s make a song on friendship even though Mr Bachchan’s character is dead.’ He went in a completely different direction. Now when I look back, it was a smart decision. That worked in favour of the film. My decision wasn’t the right one. It can happen both ways.

Going back to what you said, it’s a very thin line. What you want from your vision is something that you have to stick to even though it might go wrong. At least you can own it that way.

Now that we have spoken about Vinod sir, let me segue into music and sound design by giving an example from his film, EklavyaThere’s an unbelievable sequence in the film. When I watched it on the big screen, I couldn’t believe that he had pulled it off. I couldn’t believe the audacity of that sequence. It’s a sequence where Mr Bachchan goes to kill Jimmy Shergill in a small private auditorium. He switches off the power in the auditorium, so it is shrouded in complete darkness. All you hear is Mr Bachchan’s booming voice. He says that if you breathe, I’m going to kill you. Even though there’s darkness, the screen holds you.

You first see Jimmy Shergill with a gun with flashes lighting whenever he fires until there are no bullets left. Then Mr Bachchan says, ‘Now I can see you breathe. If you breathe one more time, I’m going to kill you.’ So, Jimmy takes a deep breath and waits. As an audience, when you’re watching it, you also take a deep breath and wait. The theatre fell silent all of a sudden. There’s no sound, just dead silence. You’re waiting for the moment when Jimmy Shergill breathes because you know that he will, and it happens.

It was a foregone conclusion but you’re still waiting in anticipation for it to happen. As soon as he takes another breath, you hear the sharp sound of the knife slashing through his neck. The light comes on, and you see that it has already gone through his neck.

It’s a masterclass in how to design sound to tell a story. There are no visuals but just the actors’ baritone and the sound of the room, the ambience. It’s an astonishing example of how a vacuum can be created and yet you can make a thrilling experience out of it. It was a great idea on paper but even better when executed with the help of it.

There are two examples of R.D. Burman which I’d like to mention. I was recently talking to a friend about Satte Pe Satta. We were talking about how Babu’s entry, Amitabh Bachchan’s doppelganger in the film, had a very peculiar background score. It was extremely unique.

It’s unbelievable to think that he actually thought of creating the sound from a gargle. He created this melodic sound from a woman gargling. He created a haunting theme out of it, which he used for Babu. You should watch the sequence once without the music and once with it. You’ll see how the music elevates the sequence. You get a sense of impending doom. Even though you’ve seen Mr Bachchan as another character, you suddenly see him in another light with cat eyes and this music. It’s almost a cue telling you that this man means danger.

The other example is a theme by R.D. Burman from Shakti, written by Salim-Javed. It was actually inspired by a Marathi play based on Shivaji and Sambhaji, portraying the father-son conflict, which was then eventually adapted to this. The conflict in the film happens because the son, when really small, is kidnapped by a dacoit. Dilip Kumar, who plays the father, when demanded a ransom to save his son, says that it’s okay if he kills his son because he won’t compromise on his duty. The little boy overhears it. He is scarred for the rest of his life. He thinks that his father hates him. That’s the bone of the story that carries the emotions ahead for the rest of the film. That’s the hate he carries towards his father. How could he say something like that?

R.D. Burman created a small theme for that which plays in the beginning. You hear the same theme every time there’s a conflict between the father and son. It plays out in different formats, and really, it’s a very simple, three-note theme. But a small, simple melody like that creates such a huge emotional impact. Especially as the conflict progresses, the music remains the same but aggravates what we are feeling exponentially. It’s a wonderful example of how music can enhance.

I can give you numerous other examples but this one has particularly stayed with me. I try to use it as an example even when I’m working on my stories. Music plays a very important role in my storytelling. In fact, I write musical cues in my scripts. That’s something which I have practised.

After Shaitan, I have only worked with multiple composers, independent musicians, in my films. Someone looking at the bigger picture and seeing what will enhance the movie is something that I learned from Prashant.

I also want to talk about Khoya Khoya Chand, which wasn’t Khoya Khoya Chand on paper. The shootout was written very clearly in the script. It was supposed to start with this kid who switches the radio station, which starts playing a commercial. The entire shootout was supposed to play out on the commercial. That was the idea. The commercial we had in mind was Vicco Vajradanti.

For months we tried convincing people to give us the rights to use the theme. We tried getting meetings with so many people. We sought middlemen to help us get a meeting with the main guy, but they refused. So, we shot the sequence but we couldn’t get the Vicco theme.

We then started looking at alternatives. We started placing old songs on it. We placed one after the other but nothing worked. I remember we were at Mikey’s studio where we kept experimenting. Suddenly, Mikey placed Khoya Khoya Chand on the timeline and it fit like a glove. We watched it and jumped out of our seats. I told him not to touch it any further.

I took it to Nani sir, who wanted to trim the action sequences. But I couldn’t let him trim this piece because the beats were falling so well. I told him to trim the film somewhere else and requested him to leave this one sequence alone.

We had a lot of issues during the release because the song wasn’t given to us by Sa Re Ga Ma, who was the rights holder. They refused to give it to us. That’s why it never features in the album. I had this rockstar producer, Anurag, who happened to be acting in a film produced by them at that point. When we wrote to them, they said they’d charge forty-five lakhs for the song. I said that I could make another movie with that amount. No way we were paying that much. I still pleaded with them to take one, at best two lakhs, but they refused.

That’s when Anurag came in and sent them a mail saying that he had revised his fee for the six days left of the shoot on the film, and he wanted them to pay it upfront or else he wouldn’t turn up on set to shoot. The moment they got word of this, they called us and asked ‘When do you want to finalise the paperwork?’ That’s how Anurag muscled his way in and got me the song. 

“I push really hard with every film to create a unique sound experience. I’ve tried it with our music composers, sound designers, sound engineers and the final mix.”

Shaitan, being my first feature, was also Prashant Pillai’s first feature, who was my music composer on the film. We’d already made some five-six scratches for the film. Prashant told me that looking at the kind of script that Shaitan is, maybe we should work with different musicians and create a different kind of soundscape. I was taken aback because Prashant himself was trying to get a break with this film. He could have grabbed the opportunity and been the sole composer on the film, but he said that the film needs a bigger canvas in terms of sound, so let’s try and collaborate with different musicians. He pushed me in different directions with Mikey McCleary, Bhayanak Maut, Ranjit Barot, and Modern Mafia. This is something that Prashant helped me with and it continues to grow with every film.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Facebook

Syed Omar Saroosh: How did you direct Dulquer Salmaan in Solo to play different characters with varied tonalities in personas?

Bejoy Nambiar: Luckily, I shot every story with a lot of gaps. We attacked one story at a time. So, we had enough time to prep for each story, prep for each character. So, we knew what Trilok, Siva, Rudra and Shekhar were all about. He struggled a bit with Shekhar because the character had a stammer, and Dulquer wanted to get it right.

Thankfully, as I said, because we shot it one segment at a time, we had enough time to prep. I didn’t care too much about the fact that he’s a star. I was only looking at him as an actor and the characters that I had written for Solo. He’s so open to receiving suggestions and adapting. It’s so quick and effortless that it surprises you, even shocks you sometimes.

I remember one very complicated scene that we were trying to do, and we were running short of time. He had to rush somewhere. In the middle of the scene, I went and briefed him about something completely different because I wanted to try another take. He did it so effortlessly. I didn’t even realise that I actually threw him off emotionally. I’d thrown him off because I had asked him to do a different kind of take. He did it without even thinking. He was able to adapt and do it effortlessly. That’s the sign of a good actor. Maybe with some other actor, I’d have to stop the shoot, discuss it in more detail, go back and forth on it, and then finally attempt it. At that time, Dulquer was just able to switch at the snap of a finger. That way he really spoiled me as a director. I really enjoyed working with him. I would love to work with him sometime soon again.

On the sets of Solo

Saurabh Udhani: What were your key challenges during filming a narrative, like David, in more than one language?

Bejoy Nambiar: It’s a very cumbersome process. David was not done out of choice. At that time, it was a business decision to do it like that. But then I went with it and tried my best with that. It is definitely a very tedious job because you’re trying to cater to two different markets, two different sensibilities. You have to adhere to that and try to tweak your strip to match both the sensibilities. You can fail both ways. That’s what happened with David. It did not work for multiple reasons. I think one of the reasons is that it alienated a majority of the audience in Tamil Nadu.

On the sets of David

After David, I had decided that I’ll never do bilingual again. Then I did it again. After Solo, I yet again decided that I would never do it, but I might. At least, the learning from David helped me – I tried to enforce a lot more caution while approaching each language. I had a separate team altogether for both languages to make sure that each language is given proper justification and the authenticity was all right. I think that way Solo works individually both as a Tamil and a Malayalam. It is nonetheless very difficult, very tough to do bilingual.

Purnangshu Paul: Your first three films feel somehow connected, especially because of the sound design and the dark undertones. Did you intend Shaitan, David and Wazir to be a trilogy?

Bejoy Nambiar: I feel that sound is one area that we really neglect here, in our industry. It’s always kept towards the end and always treated as a last-minute job that can be easily done. I feel that it is as integral as any other aspect of filmmaking. Sound needs to be given equal importance if not more.

All the sound designers that I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with some very interesting people, know how anal I am about sound. Again, I try to involve them as I start shooting. In fact, I start sharing scenes with them. I start putting it in their heads that I’m looking at the sound like this. So, even if it’s roughly edited, I’ll start sharing scenes with them. This is something that I started doing early on.

I try to get their own sound designers especially if it is sync sound – I get them to work on the sync dialogues upfront so that there are no surprises later. I involve them at a much earlier stage so that they are also living the film with me the way I am shooting. They’re also seeing the progress so that they can also contribute and give me some ideas on what can be done. That has really helped shape the sound design for me.

I push really hard with every film to create a unique sound experience. I’ve tried it with our music composers, sound designers, sound engineers and the final mix.

When the final mix of Wazir was happening in December — we were releasing in January — I had done everything. Except, I was getting married on December 25th. I was still working on the sound as close as the 19th or 20th. I was fielding calls from Kerala to come for the wedding. I didn’t have the heart to let go because we were in the last stages of fine-tuning the sound. Just when I planned to leave, Vidhu Vinod Chopra decided to visit. He said that he’d sit and supervise the sound. He asked me to go and get married. I told him that if he was sitting for it, then I’d rather sit for it too. So, I delayed my trip for three more days just so I could sit with him and see that he doesn’t change anything that I had already done. I made sure that nothing that I had worked on was tampered with. Of course, we went back and forth on a few things, but then everything was 99 percent the way I wanted it, except for the last reel.

The last reel was left, and I had my flight on that day. I just didn’t have the heart to leave. But if I hadn’t, my parents would have disowned me. I left the last reel to Vinod sir’s devices. I kept calling my AD and asked him to record it on his phone to show me what all he had done. I kept checking the sound till the day of my wedding, just to tell you how anal I am about sound. I can’t let go.

It wasn’t intended as a trilogy. Someone else told me that since death plays a common part, they feel like companion pieces. Dobaara came in the middle. A lot of people didn’t see it, but it had nothing to do with that. I did it to break away from my regular way of doing stories. It was not that dark, but yet it was kind of dark.

Prem Panchal: How do you change your approach from directing a film to directing a web-series? Also, we’ve heard many stories about corporate control, how do you navigate your way through it?

Bejoy Nambiar: The thing is, I have not really experienced that yet. We started Flip with Eros way back in 2016. Other than that, I have not really had a chance to work with other platforms. So, I’m yet to experience what you said in terms of that kind of control. I’ve recently started working on something. I’m not the showrunner. I’m directing two episodes. But it is something that I have just started and I’ve only begun to navigate it. I’m slowly manoeuvring through it. It’s a very new experience for me.

I guess a lot of us filmmakers who are used to doing things a certain way suddenly have to adjust to this new system of long format and more people having control and many more variables to manoeuvre. So, it’s a new thing. I guess we’ll all have to find our way into it. I’m also waiting to see, or rather waiting to begin work with these people to figure it out. But it’s definitely a different experience for sure.

Teril D’Costa: Considering that there are so many actor-directors or other duos across various film industries, do you think there is a genuine artistic connection that elevates the movie through collaboration like this or is it just a marketing gimmick?

Bejoy Nambiar: It’s really an individual thing. It’s also the comfort they have with each other and they both know what each can deliver. There is that comfort, and that comfort also translates into some constructive work.

Mani sir and (A.R.) Rahman sir are like a match made in heaven. You can expect some magic out of it. I don’t think either of them work because they think that their market may increase in doing so. They work together because they know that there is mutual respect for each other’s work. There is a passion to create something new and push the boundaries with every project that they do. I guess that’s the same with others as well. The market or trade aspect of it must come into play with some people. But largely, for most, it is the comfort that guides them into collaborating and the expectation that they have with each other. And simply the fact that they want to explore newer avenues together.

Talking about comfort while working with someone as close as my wife, I can say that she worked with me as an AD and an actor in Shaitan and also handled production on David. She was also my girlfriend back then. But by David, we had fought so much that we decided to either make films together or live together. Then we took a long gap of not working together. She didn’t work with me in Wazir. We resumed working together on Solo, where she was part of the production and supervising, but not actively involved in the filmmaking process as such.

Siblings was the first time where we came together as a husband and wife duo and worked on it. Since it was her first venture as a filmmaker, I really wanted to try and help as much as possible. I must say that, initially, Siblings was a very different story. I’d written a different story altogether. It was supposed to be a part of Flip. We had written a draft which was extremely dark. It was an idea that I had suggested and she liked the idea of these two sisters. She wanted to take it on, and she completely changed the story. I was so upset. After changing it, she used to keep bouncing it off me, and I used to keep getting irritated. I told her that she had completely erased my version of the story. To which she’d replied that if you have given it to me, let me now do it my way. That’s when I realised that she had seen the story in a certain way and was making a different world out of it. I realised that if, like filmmaking, this is the one she chose to see, then I need to let go of it.

I put a point across to her, then. I told her, ‘You write the whole draft. You let me know when you want me to step in and help you, in any capacity that you see fit. But let me step away because otherwise, I’ll keep wanting to drag you towards the story that I had written’. It was hard to let go of it, no doubt. But she took it and ran with it. She wrote the entire screenplay with another writer, Arpita (Chatterjee). Then my role was just as a producer where I ensured that people were coming on set, had lunch, and left on time.

It was her baby. In hindsight, I realised that she internalised the story so much and gave it such a unique voice. It was all for the better for me to let go, and it was the right decision for her to take it and own it.

Kumar Chheda: Once we find collaborators that perfectly fit with our wavelength, do you think we should still experiment with trying to work with new people, or should we stick with the team we already trust?

Bejoy Nambiar: What has really worked for me is a mix of both. With every film, I actually try to work with new people, be it technicians or actors. I keep pushing and trying to work with new people and find new dimensions in the story and new ways of doing the story. I feel that infusing that kind of new blood changes my way of looking at things for the better. There are some people with whom I am comfortable with, where if I’m looking for something specific which I know that they can do, I keep going back to them. It happens a lot with the musicians that I work with, be it Prashant or Gaurav (Godkhindi). I keep going back to them often. Those are my comfort spaces. I keep going back to working with them. With almost every other department, I’ve always tried to push and work with new people. In fact, I have a very strong core team handling production at Getaway Films. Over the years, however, I’ve started changing the team because I realised that they have worked with me, and can now take on and have their own independent production houses and do other work. They have branched out and I have tried to help out in that. I tried to get new people to work with me in production. I believe that working with new people works for me. You do make mistakes. Sometimes they might not be the right fit for you, but you learn. It really helps me, however, to work with new people.

Taish is the first time that I’ll have worked with everyone new, in the sense that the DOP, the production designer or the editor had not done a feature film before this. It was a completely new team. They had all done work before but never a feature. For them as well as myself it was a new experience because I liked the way they looked at the material, and the way they were adapting and contributing to it.

Swaratmika Mishra: This is my assumption that when you must be writing your characters, you must be having a Bible with the character sketches. Do you find it limiting since film is a restrictive medium as compared to a web-series where you can show all the shades of your character? Also, how do you choose which inherent traits you would like to portray on screen in terms of the screenplay, dialogue or certain nuances?

Bejoy Nambiar: Primarily, what works for me is having a very open communication line with the actors. You can have everything charted out in your script. You can have a whole Bible on your character, but it’s important to effectively communicate that to the actor, so that they internalise it and understands the graph of what you’re trying to do and then they can bring out the finer details that are needed. They can bring out nuances which I wouldn’t have thought of. They can do that only if they have really taken on the character sketch and internalised it as much as possible. For that, a lot of communication is necessary. I try to do that as much as possible before shooting. I really engage with my actors as much as possible and not just with my principal cast, I try and do it with my secondary cast also.

In fact, what throws me off is when an actor lands up on set directly and I have to do a scene with them and they have no clue what I’m trying to say. I have no clue of the baggage that they carry around. I have always had the luxury of prepping enough with my principal cast before going on set.

With Wazir, we did a lot of reading sessions with the entire team way before going on set. Everything was thrashed out. With Taish, again, I tried to do something different. I had a personal, one-on-one dialogue with each of the actors. Then we had a joint session with all the actors where we read out the scenes and discussed them in detail. We discussed what was working, what was not working. We started putting down notes for the scenes. We started making corrections to the dialogue. I made it into an open platform, which I hadn’t done earlier.

I used to do workshops with actors, but I would never be so collaborative or make it so immersive wherein they were allowed to make changes to the scene. I didn’t allow that earlier. I pushed it with Taish because I saw some actors giving something way more than what was there on paper. In time you’ll see whether it was a good call or a bad call. Personally, it was an enriching experience. I enjoyed giving that push to those actors and letting them give me something more than what was already there and then taking from that and using it. Not to say that I didn’t do this earlier at all, I just took it a few more notches higher in this film. I enjoy that process. Except that it happens way before we go on set. It happens during the prep time.

Swati Chugh: When and how did the switch from acting to directing happen?

Bejoy Nambiar: It happened in school. I used to grab my classmates and actually direct scenes of movies that I’d seen the night before. My parents are massive movie buffs. We used to watch so many movies. I’m in movies because of them. Any movie that I’d seen the night before, the next day in recess, I used to grab a couple of friends of mine and direct a scene with them. I used to explain the scene, actually direct, make them perform, watch and correct them. Keeda toh tabhi hi kaat liya tha.

Then, of course, in college, I enrolled in theatre, and theatre helped me tell my stories. The name of my production company actually comes from the first play that I did back when I was in college, which was titled Getaway. That was the first play which I wrote and directed.

Meenakshi Shedde: How is the sensibility and approach to filmmaking fundamentally different in South India from Bollywood?

Bejoy Nambiar: South India is huge. You’re talking about four different industries. More than four, actually. I can’t really generalise and talk about it. I can only talk about Tamil and Malayalam because I worked there. There is a massive shift in the way that they work. Even in terms of the working culture, the discipline is very different.

For example, in Malayalam, it’s almost like a factory in the sense that they churn out films very quickly. They shoot a film in 20-25 days. They’ll do the editing in, say, two months. They’ll do sound within a month. They are ready to release within four months. They are that fast and also good at their job. That’s why most actors and technicians end up doing three or four films in a year.

Whenever I would finish shooting a scene, and feel happy about it, the local technicians would tell me how slow I am. They told me once that they had a system of shooting three scenes before breakfast. That’s the pace they work with. That’s something that I learnt from there. They’re used to that. Not that they’ll compromise on the quality, it’s that everybody knows the job well enough to deliver on time.

In Bollywood, it’s very different. It’s easy to bash Bollywood and say that we wait for the actors to arrive. Bollywood has its own way of working. It varies from people to people. It’s interesting when you have people from different industries coming together to work on a film. Then it becomes a good mix.

Priyaank Arora: According to you, is it better to learn through film school or by working with filmmakers on set?

Bejoy Nambiar: If you have the luxury of time, do both! If you have access to a film school, please go to a film school. Of course, learn the tricks of the trade from there. After that, if you have access to filmmakers, work with them to understand how a film is made. It should only help and enrich your experience.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Bejoy Nambiar in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

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