Smriti Kiran: The creators of The Family Man have rendered all introductions unnecessary. Season two of the series released on 4th June on Amazon Prime Video, and since then directors, writers, producers Raj & DK, writer-director Suparn S. Varma, and screenwriter Suman Kumar have been giving interviews, answering calls, reading rave reviews and of course, working on many exciting new things as they go through the copious praise.
Raj, DK and Suman, you go back a long way. You’ve written season one together. I believe that you’d already put together the bible of season two before you took it to Suparn. I know you’re very discerning about the material you work on and the people you work with, so why Suparn?
Raj Nidimoru: I think Suparn blackmailed DK.
Krishna DK: I have a picture somewhere, where he put a gun to my head and said, ‘Sign right now!’ Jokes aside, Suparn has been a friend. But that’s not the reason that we would take him on this project, right? We do have a good equation. We’ve discussed films on and off. There’s a good sensibility match in that sense. Also, when we were making The Family Man season one, way before we had finished the editing and everything, there were times when we’d call Suparn to watch it and give us feedback. So, that way he has been a little part of season one while he was not part of the creating team, giving us feedback and in general. At that point, we kind of knew that we were going into season two. Because he was already kind of a part of this world, we knew that he could become a part of our team and take this whole theme forward. That was the idea.
Raj Nidimoru: He’s got a crazy sense of humour and he’s an extremely hardworking guy with super high energy. We have been chatting since Go Goa Gone.
Krishna DK: He has acted in Go Goa Gone, and he thinks that if he acts in our films, he’ll remain our good luck charm.
Smriti Kiran: Suparn, what about you? How’s it been for you?
Suparn S. Varma: I have known Raj & DK not just from Go Goa Gone, but actually since they came to India. One of their writing partners, Sita Menon, has been my colleague at reddif.com. So, I have known them literally from their post-Flavors days, when 99 premiered in Phoenix Mills. I played poker at their house in Bandra, then they moved to Andheri. DK and I are neighbours. I think I have much more stuff to blackmail DK with than just a gun to his head.
I think I have worked through my movie karma to have finally found two people I can be myself with. We speak the same language, cinematically and politically. For us, it’s about the joy of making cinema. They have come from the interiors of India, I have come from the interiors of Mumbai. But we are people with no lineage as such. We are people with dreams in our eyes. We all have left professions in the corporate world and have come to this space. For me, it’s been the best experience of my life. One of the things that I keep getting asked, and I’m happy to reveal to the world, is the secret of Raj and DK. I’ve told this to their wives on their faces. They’re the best couple I know. They complement each other so beautifully. Raj is emotions and DK is logic. So, anytime you have an idea, if it’s a high concept idea, you can go to either of them because they are sold. They hear the words and they salivate, just like me or Suman. But if it’s an emotional thing, I go to Raj, and if it’s a logical thing, Raj doesn’t even think! He says, ‘DK will take care of it.’
The best part is the security between them. If I have talked about something to Raj with DK not present in the room, or vice-versa, I don’t have to worry about whether it’ll reach the other. They communicate. They talk all the time. Also, there is no ego in the room. When all four of us were throwing ideas, fighting, trying to create something nice, it just came from a space of ‘Let’s create the damn best scene or episode possible,’ and it was sheer joy. So, yeah, I’m blessed.
Smriti Kiran: I was very sceptical about The Family Man season one because we just don’t do espionage well. The Family Man humanises the intelligence officer in India. When you made the pitch to Amazon five years ago that got the show greenlit, what did the pitch docket have?
Raj Nidimoru: In this case, it was really a chat over lunch. Kudos to them for seeing the vision of what we were trying to do! It was always pitched as a government job. A guy who has a family and he has a high-pressure job, except he works for Homeland Security and he has to fight off the bad guys or the threats. That was the core of it. There was no story at that point. It was really about the person, the character, the setup, the whole James Bond from Chembur thing. But this is not the way to do it. There are better ways to do it.
Krishna DK: And the tagline: Middle-class guy, world-class spy. That was the idea. So we were pitching it as it’s going to be equal parts personal life and family, and equal parts espionage, national security and action. That was meant to be the balance of it.
Raj Nidimoru: Then we started building his whole character, where we introduced that he needed a home loan, he lives in a rented place, it needs an extra room and he doesn’t have time to eat, he’s eating on the go and the kids hate him for not having a bigger car. It was really the premise more than anything else that was what everybody latched onto. That was the only thing. I don’t even think there was a written document at that point. And later, of course, as a formality, we had to give them a synopsis and things like that. But that’s not how it is with other shows or anything else, for that matter. We wouldn’t do that either. Even for feature films, we always finish a bound script with all the dialogues, and usually we write it in English, so every single dialogue is there in English, prepare a 100- or 120-page script that we actually give to people and say, ‘Okay, we have a film to make, and now we need casting, or who wants to produce or fund it.’ That’s what we usually do. That’s what we usually do, except for this one. This time, there was also no OTT. So, they were really going off on the concept and the pitch at that point.
Krishna DK: The medium didn’t exist. The platform or the medium didn’t exist. We were thinking of it as a mini-series.
Smriti Kiran: Back in 2016, when this meeting over lunch happened and you pitched this concept to them and they greenlit it, it took you guys a year to develop it. At that point in time, I know through interviews that you were living with the idea for a while. Raj, your uncle is an intelligence officer. But terms like beat sheets, writers’ rooms, showrunners were quite alien to our industry, right? How did the three of you work out the workings of creating the series? And as friends, how did you work that equation out while exploring this new territory?
Raj Nidimoru: The story went through a little journey. A couple of channels had approached us a few years ago and said, ‘Why don’t you guys do it for regular TV?’ We’d never done TV before. We actually thought of it and even met them. They loved the idea. But we were not sure of this. Then when they came back and said, ‘Can you do a 108-episode series?’ We were like, ‘What the fuck? What happened here? Oh, shit.’ Then you realise the enormity of the TV world. We didn’t understand it. We’d even heard stories about some delegates coming to India and all. We had a plot, but we realised that that was not the time, and so we held back.
Then, there was another great opportunity – at least two times – where this was supposed to be a film. As we were pitching the story, we realised that it was too much. We were thinking, ‘It’s very tempting, but should we hold it back?’ So, you know a story is better suited for a series versus a film. That was a later realisation. We went through that journey because there was no Amazon or Netflix here. So, we went through this, and we held back. Also, it was down on our list. It was not even in our top 10 to make a film because there was no medium to do it.
Krishna DK: When this becomes a film, it becomes very plot-centric, right? You could start off by saying that there is this guy, who’s a family man, and then you start building a plot that spans about two hours and has this kick-ass climax. So, you only get to see glimpses of the person, but it becomes a little more plot-centric. Rarely is there an action film that’s character-driven or character-centric. So, that’s one of the reasons we felt that this canvas, this character and this world has a lot more to give than a two-hour film.
Raj Nidimoru: Suman was actually blogging at that point. He’d written a novel. He was blogging. DK and I found his blogs and write-ups very funny. We used to read it aloud so that everybody laughed and enjoyed the nuances of it. We’d been thinking about writing something together.
Suman Kumar: As Suparn mentioned, we all gave up our corporate careers at various points in time before we took the plunge as writers or filmmakers.
Coming back to The Family Man. I was about to give up my job. The minute DK called me and said, ‘So much detailing in your stories. It’s so funny,’ is when I had the confidence that maybe I will be able to write for films, because at that time my book was about to get published, so I knew I could write, but films are a different ball game altogether. Here you are writing for other artists to come and perform. So, I learned on the job.
When I joined, I had to match their exacting standards of narrative building and storytelling. So, I learned a lot through this experience. Before that, I did some work for a couple of their other movies. When The Family Man came, from day one, they were very clear that it wasn’t going to be about tuxedo wearing, guns blazing and jumping off buildings. Raj and DK were very clear about this. I’m a voracious reader of detective and spy fiction, be it Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum or Madhu Babu, who used to write these little pocket-sized novels, where his character is called Shadow. I used to read a lot. I had internalized it. I’m a Tamilian who spent a lot of time in Andhra Pradesh. I know both languages. I am rooted in both cultures. So, I started internalizing all the popular literature that I was reading. When The Family Man came about, I think it was not a conscious thing for me. It’s just that when we are jamming and coming up with ideas, it was easy for the three of us as writers to jam and, at the same time, come up with a narrative and interesting character arcs and a nice storyline.
I go back to your point about beat sheets, writers’ rooms and all that. I think we were doing it without even calling it that. Personally, I don’t know about others, I think it’s all jargon. A bunch of storytellers sitting in a room or over a Zoom call ideating, making and creating narratives, storylines and characters is a writer’s room. So, that’s the origin of The Family Man. We were all new to the long form. But that didn’t faze us. In fact, we were like kids in a candy store because now you could give breathing room to even secondary characters and tertiary characters. So, each character shines through because of this format.
Smriti Kiran: Raj, DK and Suman, did you speak to anybody when you were starting off on this journey because it was, like Suman said, a completely new journey?
Krishna DK: When Raj and I started making films, we kind of learned from watching other films and reverse engineering how to do it. So, we did the same thing on this because we’d been watching a lot of series. There was really nobody we could ask. We were one of the first people who were actually doing this. There were a couple of other series that eventually released before we did because of other commitments, but we were one of the first people to get on board. So, there was nobody to ask. Nobody in India had done a series yet. While we were hearing these words, we were just nodding our heads and saying, ‘Yeah, writers’ room. Yeah, okay. We’ll do a writers’ room.’ Does it mean that writers get into a room and discuss an idea? We went instinctively after having watched a lot of series and made a lot of movies.
Raj Nidimoru: Before we make any of our films, we basically flail our arms around saying, ‘Oh my God, how do we do this? Who should we call? Maybe somebody knows. Maybe he knows.’ You go through these things, even for films, especially earlier films and the first series. But then you realise you really only have yourselves and you just have to reinvent the wheel. So, we had to just look into ourselves and each other to create this. When we see other series, we try to break down some of them. But you give up after one episode because it’s too much to analyze sometimes.
If you notice, both seasons of The Family Man run at a film speed. They don’t run like a standard series does. A lot of series like Homeland or House of Cards are so smart about picking their locations. In each episode, you really see four or five locations being repeated and then the story comes back to it. The story is progressing, but it is limited to a certain geography. We didn’t know that trick nor did we think about it. We were just going everywhere and anywhere possible to shoot scenes, and all the scenes were quite tight. In fact, we realised that the content that was going in, in terms of plot points, was maybe four times what would go into a series. It was packed. Maybe that also helped in the series being more attractive.
Krishna DK: Lately, a lot of the series internationally are more and more like films in terms of scale and locations. For example, Narcos doesn’t run like a typical series. It feels like one mega cinematic experience in the form of a series. So, that’s where it’s going. But when we were starting out, shows were a little more tailored to the TV format, but not so much now. This is how it’s probably going to be.
Smriti Kiran: The geography of the show presented such an incredible opportunity to dip into the diversity of our country. Did the geography come first or did you construct the geography keeping in mind that maybe it’s time to create a multilingual, multicultural narrative?
Suman Kumar: You’re right. It is the opportunity to showcase the diversity of this wonderful country. But it will never be actually geography first because we are creating a landscape. If season one was a world, season two became a completely different world. We went to a different culture, different story, different landscape and so on. So, for season three and subsequent seasons, we’ll go to other cultures. It’s basically the story first, then the geography. When we were doing season one, we weren’t thinking about which geographical landscape we were going to, which is a great thing because I would like to go to Croatia in season three and Los Angeles in season four.
Krishna DK: We felt a certain kind of liberation with this format. The only thought going in was, we don’t have to let geography stop us from doing anything. We said, ‘Okay, let’s make this and naturally the story is set in Kashmir and Balochistan and Chennai and Kerala.’ The only liberating thing was that we could actually show all these languages and all these cultures, and shoot without having to hold back because that’s the nature of the format.
Smriti Kiran: In India, almost every hundred kilometres, the dialect changes, the food alters, the topography is different. This is where The Family Man really stands out. We talk about representation, inclusivity and language has really not been used the way it’s been used in The Family Man. We start the first scene of the first season completely in Malayalam. How did you manage to do this in terms of treatment, language and casting, and bring about this authenticity and also dip into different actors?
Raj Nidimoru: That way, the points go to Amazon because they didn’t say a word. They didn’t say a single word. ‘Come on, guys, there’s so much Tamil in the second season or the first season.’ In fact, it was the opposite. I quote Vijay Subramaniam, who heads Amazon, when he saw the premiere and saw the first scene unfolding in Malayalam, ‘Wow, this is a true pan-India show. We have arrived as a filmmaking community at a point where we are accepting India as a whole. You can put it anywhere and use the people from there and use the language and culture from there.’ One of our biggest excitements for us for doing The Family Man is the fact that you can travel anywhere with it and be very local in its flavour. It might not be easy for all the pictures, but we got lucky, in a sense. Nobody said a word. In fact, Tamil became so much in the second one that people actually said, ‘Arre, so much Tamil is there.’ We said, ‘You watch Money Heist also, which has a lot of Spanish. You guys are loving audiences anyway, and you will embrace it after the first episode.’ We have such evolved audiences. If we can consume all kinds of things, somebody has to just take that first step.
Suman Kumar: If you notice, even in Go Goa Gone, when the two characters are sitting in the living room and watching TV, the song that plays is a Telugu song from the movie Donga. Here, it’s central to the narrative. Earlier, it may have been like Raj and DK saying, ‘Let’s throw some pop culture in this mainstream Bollywood movie,’ but now, the languages other than Hindi are central to the narrative. I’m thankful that Raj and DK stuck with it. In fact, season one was a smattering of Malayalam and a smattering of Baloch, but in season two, it’s almost at par with the primary language. The producers and directors, and even Amazon for that matter, played a very, very key role in making sure that the narrative stays rooted in its natural climes.
Smriti Kiran: If you want to get actors from different film cultures to stay true to the cultural authenticity and maintain that, the language, the way they speak, the way they live, how did you go about doing that? Because the workload also increases, right?
Krishna DK: In fact, it’s actually not as difficult as you think because there is a huge talent pool in other industries, especially in the south. None of us in the Bollywood and the Hindi film industry have had an opportunity to tap into them. Once in a while, you pull somebody and put them in a Hindi film, but otherwise we’ve really not tapped into that. It just made our platter larger to choose from. Suddenly, we were choosing from 10 talented actors in Hindi, 10 talented actors from here and 10 more from there. So, suddenly, you’re picking the cream of the crop everywhere.
To be honest, in the first season, we did have a little bit of trouble with the casting of the Kashmiri characters because the Kashmiri industry hasn’t thrived or evolved as much as the other industries. So, it was a little difficult in that sense. But the moment you go South, be it the Malayalam, Telugu or Tamil industries, you see that they are so evolved. There are so many actors, and you get to pick the best.
Smriti Kiran: What happens to writing when you do that because you’re writing dialogues in a different language?
Suparn S. Varma: ‘In brackets. ‘(Speaking in Tamil.)’
Krishna DK: It’s again a natural extension of what we are saying, right? Do you know what would have been difficult for all of us as writers? To have all these Tamil characters in Chennai and other places speaking in a different language than the one that they speak in. That would have been the worst thing to do. So, we would be faced with the choice of either faking it and announcing that they all know Hindi for some strange reason or, worse, start cutting down their scenes because you don’t want to put in so much Tamil. So, you won’t have scenes of Bhaskaran, Deepan, Raji or Selva meeting. You’ll start cutting down on those and compromising on those characters because ‘Oh, one more Tamil scene! What do you do?’ So, it actually helps the narrative that we are embracing that language. That way, we are showing these well-rounded characters, spending time with them and showing what they’re going through without having to compromise on the language.
Suparn S. Varma: In a way, I think The Family Man puts an end to the Bob Christo complex that the Indian cinema has had for a very long time. I mean, God bless his soul, but that’s what it is, right? You have a white man saying, ‘Jai Hanuman!’ The time when films had English characters speaking in Hindi or the same thing for different people from different parts of India speaking broken Hindi just to show that they are not from the heartland is hopefully over, because people will not think twice now of speaking what they actually speak.
Krishna DK: I’ve seen films from the South also where there is this DIG from Punjab, wearing a turban, speaking in Telugu. It’s ridiculous from the get-go.
Raj Nidimoru: That comes from films set during the independence and pre-independent India.
Suman Kumar: Obviously, we didn’t like it. In fact, in Tamil, there are some TV serials that had these Marwadi or Rajasthani characters speaking in Tamil which sounds like Hindi. The Tamil memesters and comedians started mocking and trolling it. So, since we are rooted in pop culture, from day one, the idea has always been to keep it real and fresh. As Raj said, we write our screenplay in English first, the lines are in English so that we know exactly what they are. Then the dialogue writers come in. For Hindi dialogues, in season one we Sumit Arora and in season two Suparn took over. We also had a Tamil dialogue writer, Manoj Kumar Kalaivanan, who came in because there is a different dialect being spoken, so we needed someone to get that dialect right. That can add nuances. And as you said, if every hundred kilometres, not just the topography, when even the dialect changes, we have to be very particular about it. I think it worked out in the end. I’m happy that people are appreciating the effort we took in making sure that we kept it real and that we wanted to keep it real. That’s really gratifying.
Smriti Kiran: I want to move to some of the most talked about elements in the show. For example, the long single takes. How do you decide which sequences will work as long, single takes and how do you plan them?
Raj Nidimoru: It’s one of those freedoms that come with OTT platforms. OTT is such a filmmaker’s medium that you get to experiment a lot with a lot of things, including language, and the way you want to shoot scenes, or even the way you want to frame and use lighting. So, one of the biggest things that is obvious is the action sequence. You don’t get to see a 13-minute action piece. In films, you have to be crisper. Even when you shoot action sequences in films and when somebody who watches it says that it was too long, it turns out to be only three minutes when we count it.
When we wrote it, it wasn’t there yet. It only came when we were sitting and discussing how to shoot certain scenes and frame certain scenes. In season one, the Kareem shooting bit, which comes in episode four, was the one where we thought this would work for the first time. There was a whole thing laid out in terms of how we would shoot it. The idea of the choreography was there but we realised, why not shoot this from one point-of-view alone? Hence, the camera went into the car. The camera goes into the car as Kareem and his friends are driving and you see their chaos, their tension, and as you move ahead, you see cop cars and their tension.
So, that suddenly became something so exciting that even if it took longer to make, on screen, the suspense and the tension held it so well that it became a motif. Even before we were shooting, we knew this was so exciting and not just a show-off technique. It works so well because the guys didn’t know what was happening to them. They were just going to protest. But the way they were trapped and were running was thrilling. Once you start choreographing the moves, it is very satisfying to shoot action that way. And to pull it off. It now becomes a team effort. Everybody’s up there. The entire unit is excited at three or four am because we’re still shooting and they want to get this right. If you miss it, you go back and restart everything.
So, the idea was to present action a little differently so that you get the impact, the same impact or better, and still be emotionally involved in it. It’s also DK’s favourite thing to do. Whenever one take comes, DK jumps up and he’s marshalling the troops, not listening to anybody. If somebody says, ‘Chalega, sir. Wahan pe thoda adjust kar sakte hai,’ he’d say, ‘No! Let’s do it again.’
Krishna DK: Some of the actors hate me. Manoj Bajpayee was so tired by the final thing. You can see it during the fistfight between him and Selva. They were fighting so hard, they could hardly get up. They’d already done a few takes, and they were really tired and physically exhausted.
Smriti Kiran: A lot of people don’t process it technically. Obviously, these are not done just as stylistic devices, but because they invoke a certain kind of feeling in the audience, and it really, really works. Isn’t it more expensive to do this?
Krishna DK: Yes. That’s why you have to pick and choose your key sequences to do it. And, yes, it is expensive. Sometimes, in your climax, you might choose to have a helicopter and blow it up or crash a few cars. Of course, it’s going to be expensive. In that sense, shooting a sequence like this takes a lot of time because there are so many days of rehearsal and choreography. I would say that for our climax we spent approximately a week doing it. But we were not shooting for the whole week. We were only shooting on the last couple of days because the rest of it is just rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing with or without a camera, with or without actors, so that you finally get to do it in your one continuous take. So, it is expensive.
But this is not so much a gimmick. For the film enthusiast, for the filmmakers, or for people who are really into the craft of films, they notice immediately, ‘Hey, it’s been a minute and the camera hasn’t cut,’ and then suddenly, they’re looking at it from the technical aspect. For a lot of filmmakers like myself, when I’m watching a scene like this, it gets taxing because I’m afraid the camera will fail somewhere or something will go wrong. But that aside, for the audience, what it does is, it becomes a first-person experience, whoever the camera is with. The camera starts with Manoj Bajpayee’s character, the audience is only seeing what he is seeing. If there is somebody lurking there, in a typical action sequence, you might show that guy lurking there as a separate shot – a guy waiting there to take a shot. So, the audience knows that but the character doesn’t know. In a single-shot sequence, the audience doesn’t know what the character doesn’t know. So, it becomes a very first-person experience. If Manoj Bajpayee is walking and somebody gets shot in front of him, the audience also feels the same shock that he feels. When the camera goes to the next character, they go with that character. So, it puts them in the scene. At least, that’s how we felt when we were shooting it. It puts the audience in the scene, like they are actually in it as it’s happening.
Suparn S. Varma: Also, there are examples of this being done in the past, but the fact is, we are in a generation where we are in first-person shooter games and stuff like that. Shooting first-person takes gives you that immersive experience, which is quite unique.
Smriti Kiran: I have to ask the Lonavala question. I have my own theories about why we don’t know what happened in Lonavala. What was the intention to not let us know?
Krishna DK: We are actually not hiding anything. We are giving hints. We are dropping hints as to what’s happening. And you have a fair sense of what could have happened or what are the alternatives and what are the options. So, I’m letting it be that way. Also, at some point in the writers’ room, we decided that the audience will find out when Srikant finds out. There is a sense that something happened; Srikant also has a suspicion. But you will find out when Srikant finally finds out.
Suparn S. Varma: I actually want to ask a question, Smriti. Here’s the thing. Season one ended with Delhi almost dying. They don’t want to know what happened to them, but they want to know what happened in Lonavala. That’s symptomatic of us, right? Think about it for a minute. If Srikant and Saloni were in a room, nobody would have bothered to ask what Srikant Tiwari did in Lonavala. Just because it’s a woman, everybody wants to know. I think that’s a question that should never be answered for as long as we run. I mean, why should it be answered? Why can’t Suchi be her own woman, have her own life and privacy? That’s my personal take.
Smriti Kiran: It’s a very precarious world, and you’ve stayed true to the unpredictability that it comes with, which also means that you’ve sacrificed the characters that you made us fall in love with, whether antagonists or whether they were on the right side of the law – Pasha, Milind, Moosa, Raji. When do you decide that it’s time to let go of a character?
Raj Nidimoru: There was no plan as such. I haven’t seen Game of Thrones but I’ve heard that this stuff happens a lot. I don’t think we should plan ahead. Every time you plan even the small details or when you sneak in certain things, it gets caught. Even in the edit, we know smaller things that we have deliberately done while doing an organic sequence. We say, ‘We should have done this.’ And they ask, ‘Why?’ ‘Because maybe there’s a little point behind it,’ and so they get caught. I don’t think we tend to say, ‘Let’s see who all we can kill.’ As soon as they saw Kareem, whoever was on set said, ‘Are you crazy? This guy is dead in the first season! Oh, my God! Such a good looking boy. Let him be there, no?’ It happens, but what to do?
Pasha was the hardest. He wasn’t the most fleshed-out character because we knew he wasn’t lasting the whole season. We knew he was somebody who came and helped and died in that process. But a few bits, just a few lines from him, made his soul lovable. I mean, it wasn’t volume and pages. If you look at the number of lines he speaks, it’s barely in the 15-20 line range. The one line in the bar, where he talks about his backstory, things like that, is what hits you and you begin to love him. Sometimes, that’s enough for you to fall in love with the character. Credits to the actor for pulling it off, for giving that aura of a no-nonsense cop. You are like, ‘Fuck, this is a dude, man. This guy’s so cool.’ Kishore Kumar G. owned it. Together, you feel much worse than what we felt when we were writing it. Maybe, you know, 30 percent more.
Suparn S. Varma: Also, the way they shot it. When I saw the edit, I fell in love with Pasha because there is this moment they shot where after an interrogation, Manoj and Pasha just have a silent cigarette moment. For me, that was cinema magic. It’s not scripted. It’s that moment that you’re in where you feel like you’re there. Those silences are something that came again in season two as well. That was one of the most cinematic moments for me.
Suman Kumar: We have the Bible, we have the story, we know the landscape, and then when we get down to the scripting of it, we never decide, ‘Hey, you know what? We should kill that character.’ That’s never the case. In fact, you’d be surprised that in one of the drafts, Umayal dies, but then we realised that there’s no point. We realised that the character is better off alive. It’s an organic path that leads up to a character’s fate in the story. It’s never planned because it’s unwieldy to plan something like that unless you’re a Game of Thrones aficionado.
Krishna DK: It also gives us a sense of their life. It is an unpredictable world. It cannot always be that the good guys always win and the bad guys lose. It is unpredictable. This also brings a sense of who is next. JK came very close.
Suparn S. Varma: It’s not a fun part, right? Raj, DK and Suman are coming from a space of having created these characters. They have lived with them for a year and a half. Then they unleashed me in the room. I come from a very bloodthirsty lot. So, the first draft of the pass was initially like this, ‘Okay, Umayal dies, Milind dies, JK gets killed.’ These guys were like, ‘No, no, no! Wait! Srikant and JK! Excuse me?’ I was like, ‘I get the love. I understand it.’ So, it was my initiation into not killing people.
Smriti Kiran: With a lot of other industries, there’s a lot of distrust between the film cultures. How did you build the trust and make them feel that they would be treated right, their roles would be fleshed out, there won’t be any caricature building that will happen that one is very afraid of?
Raj Nidimoru: I would contrast it with when we came to Mumbai to start our careers. We didn’t know anybody. We were just two guys who knew three languages between us: Telugu, Tamil and English. Our Hindi was broken; our Hindi was from TV, whatever we could understand.
We always thought of India as this one big country, and then you go from here to there. We never saw the divide as much until we saw it being told to our faces. Only then did we realise that we are handicapped here, or we are non-Hindi here, or that they are looking at us with the lens of being from South India or America and what do you know about Hindi or Bombay. Only when the questions were posed to us, we were like, ‘Really?’ We thought we were all flexible people. We’re all the same, living in a diverse country together, mashed into one all over the place. After we were subjected to a few jabs initially and were told, ‘No, that’s not how it is said,’ is when we realised that there is a divide. I think it is human nature to resist something that’s not you.
In fact, we were cognizant and aware of the fact that when we are pulling somebody in from a culture we don’t understand closely, let us try and get somebody around us who understands more or let’s make an effort to understand that a bit more so that we are not making a caricature out of them. And to prevent picking actors not from that language and making them look exactly that, which is the most typical way of doing it. We ensure that they don’t look like stereotypes or caricatures. If you take characters from season two, these are not the usual guys you see on screen. Muthu, for example, is a stud. Everybody’s in love with Muthu. He’s like the Pasha of season two. He’s with Manoj taking down the rebels in the climactic sequence. We didn’t even consider that since he is a Tamilian, he should be like this. We just went with the characters.
Krishna DK: We were casting for the role of Moosa and saw a couple of clips of Neeraj Madhav, who’s a reasonably well-known star there doing romantic films, a sweet boy. We said, ‘This sweet looking, romantic guy from the Malayalam industry is the best Moosa. He doesn’t even look the part, but he’s correct for the role.’ Of course, Mukesh Chhabra, our casting director, had sent his audition, and then we sent him the scenes. He was a little worried. He didn’t know what he was doing. And he said, ‘Can I talk to somebody from the production?’ He was expecting maybe a first AD or somebody to call him, but I called him and spoke with him. I said, ‘Listen, this is a really good role. You don’t have to change what you know. A little bit of Hindi is required, but whatever Hindi you speak is fine, and you can speak Malayalam, so that’s going to be fine. Just play the role like you would play it. You don’t have to suddenly start learning Hindi or anything like that.’ He was actually getting ready to get married in a week when this casting call happened. It was right at that time. So, in between all the wedding preparations, he was doing this call and sending a different audition and stuff like that. And, once he came here, that’s when he realised, ‘Oh, wow! I just get to act and not try to be or learn something else or do something else.’
Suparn S. Varma: Do you want to know the true story of what really happened? DK sat on his producer’s chair, had a glass of wine, a cigar in his hand, and said, ‘This role will change your life.’
Krishna DK: See, we didn’t know that at that time. I said, ‘It’s a pretty good role. You’ve never been a bad guy in your life. This is a bad guy.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah. Do you want me to shave my head and cut my hair short?’ I was like, ‘No, keep all your curls initially. We’ll shave your head later.’
Suman Kumar: Any character, forget the main characters, that has one or two lines, become memorable and that is a testimony to how we approached characters. In the sense that a character who plays two-three scenes, the whole country went mad about it in season two. So, whether it is other language characters or Hindi characters, our approach has always been about making it more relatable, and how do you get people emotionally invested. If somebody’s calling me in the middle and saying, ‘Bastard, I hate you. How can you kill Pasha of all people!’ It’s a win. I’ll take it and I’ll smile.
Raj is a designer in that sense. All of us have a sense of humour, but I would say that Raj has that edgy, quirky sense of humour, which I don’t have. In the scene where Srikant Tiwari says, ‘If you’re a real man, untie me,’ the response he gets is, ‘Mujhe mard banne ka koi shauk nahi hai.’ To have that joke there, in the middle of a single shot, intense action sequence says a lot about Raj and DK, more than anything else. That should answer all your questions about how to make your characters three-dimensional.
Smriti Kiran: To me, The Family Man was an impeccable example of dissent. The kind of choices you’ve made on the show gave space for different perspectives to play out and create empathy. Do you feel you will be able to continue to create this magic moving forward with the series?
Raj Nidimoru: Are we confident about pulling off another season? That’s the summary of the question, right? A pompous ass answer we can give is, ‘Yes, we are!’ That is the fear that arises after the euphoria, where you’re like, ‘Everyone is saying that season two is better than season one. That is an achievement that we were hoping for.’ It’s not like you plan it. And as that one’s hitting you, the second question arises: How the hell are we going to do another season like this?
Krishna DK: I’m not as scared as everybody else, because I think we’ve created a world and the characters that people already love. We’ll take it forward. So far, we’ve been doing everything organically, right? We’ve not been calculating and saying, ‘Okay, season two, we’re going to make it better than season one.’ It was not a planned move. We just made the season. So, season three also we’ll make and we’ll let people debate how good it is or if it’s better or not. We’re just going to stay organic and stay true to it.
Smriti Kiran: There is a lot of clamping down of voices that is happening in our country and people keep referring to Iranian cinema. For me, The Family Man was an example of that because it doesn’t take sides. Do you think you’ll be able to do what you managed to do in season one and season two?
Krishna DK: We cannot do the same thing. That’s the answer. We’ll have to do something different that has the same impact, obviously. It cannot be a revisiting and rechurning of anything that we’ve done in season one or two.
Raj Nidimoru: What we can do is, go back and see how we started season one and see if we are being true to it, see the balance and the original thoughts with which we started. Season two was also written untainted, in a weird way, thankfully. So, we’ll go back and see where we started. And we will learn a lot from the feedback. This is the first time that we’re going to be getting so much feedback that we will have to look at anything that makes logical sense and check the theories behind why people are saying why this worked, why this didn’t work and why this worked so very well. So, we are knowledgeable about that. You can become knowledgeable from other people’s knowledge.
The other thing is, we can’t possibly do the thing that everybody’s expecting us to do. That bit has to be a little different. Otherwise, it will be like regurgitating what works in a way. That’s going to be the toughest part, not doing it for the sake of it but also not doing the obvious, so that there is something fresh. As DK said, we have loveable characters, we know what their traits are, we can write something fresh for them, but if we crack that third bit about doing a little more than what is expected, then I think we can have a crackling third season.
Raj Nidimoru: Right now we have a version of the idea, and we have a second version now. Maybe in a few weeks, we’ll start another version.
Krishna DK: You know, in Hollywood, they have a term called ‘jump the shark.’ This is usually used in the context of long-running television shows. The idea is, after so many seasons, the writers run out of things for the hero to do and still surprise you. How can the hero still surprise you in the 12th season? So, they make him jump the shark – make him do something so ridiculous. Hopefully, we won’t get there. We’ll wrap it up before we get there.
Smriti Kiran: Raj & DK, in the last many years that you’ve been working, you have very decidedly done things that only speak to you. Do you also feel that you’ve turned a corner, and the struggles will be different now?
Krishna DK: In a lot of ways, yes. The one thing we have consistently done from our first film, for better or worse, is sticking to how we would make films or how we would write characters, or that little quirk or something that we bring. We’ve always stuck to it, and sometimes it comes across as fresh and sometimes it doesn’t work. We’ve had our share of failures. Without sounding pompous, there is a little bit of pride in the sense that we just kept doing what we were doing. And I think the revival came around the time of Stree, when our kind of humour was working and the work was actually paying off big dividends. It became a blockbuster. Maybe a few years ago, or maybe at a different time, the same film may not have worked. So, we were just embracing it. The Family Man was one more step further.
Raj Nidimoru: There used to always be a consolation prize that would come when a movie wouldn’t work earlier, where somebody calls and says, ‘Your move is ahead of your time, man.’ We’d be like, ‘Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, sure.’ They’ll come back now and say, ‘If that movie releases now, you should see how much it’s going to be received.’ It’s okay. It’s part of the journey. The idea is, we want to think ahead of time, but if it’s too ahead of time, what do I do? That’s still a compliment in a weird way, I guess.
I think filmmakers’ freedom is what I attribute these successes to. From Stree onwards, you go back to your roots and think out of bounds. Don’t have any parameters or boundaries around you and start experimenting, and go back to what you love. Stree was a ridiculously crazy idea that would have never flown otherwise. It was on the Go Goa Gone level. We put it out and said, ‘This is what the film is about,’ and it worked tremendously well. Then we take a tiny, tiny bet on a small movie called Cinema Bandi, which, again, has no faces, no heroes – just a realistic film made with 10 people. We will never explore otherwise. They’ll say, ‘You’re the makers of The Family Man!’ Maybe that will help us put the spotlight on that film also. So, when you take out that fear from your mind and go back to risk, it’s okay, you will get failures but if you stick long enough, it will work out.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Sumedh Shinde: In The Family Man, the antagonists’ point of view is very prominent. Why wasn’t a grey character established who could operate closer to the audience’s psyche?
Krishna DK: They were all grey characters, right?
Raj Nidimoru: We didn’t think of them as black and white at all. You just define them as being on the side of the law and on the side of the T-word, which we haven’t used for anybody. The idea is that everybody is a character. Once you are that, and you are well-rounded and you are getting into their lives, they’re all people. Now, who do you want to side with and who do you want to support as an audience, who do you feel for, is your thing. I’m leaving it to you. I’m not telling you how to feel for either of them nor am I labelling each of them as good and bad. Srikant is extremely flawed. I can’t even list five good things about him, except that he’s super-efficient.
Also, when his daughter is at stake, he’s checking what’s happening there. He’s not the greatest father or husband. Why do you think Suchi’s so complexly screwed in her head? She knows that for him everything else matters more than them. The balance is off in his head. You wouldn’t want a dad like Srikant Tiwari. No wife would be happy with a person like Srikant Tiwari. But he’s still a loveable guy because there are so many grey shades that you can identify with. None of us are black and white.
Vishesh Gandhi: How is the process of creating a web series different from creating a film? Also, I’d like to know your views on the new censorship policies. In terms of that, did the writing or directing change as compared to season one?
Raj Nidimoru: We write tons of shit. We use this tool called Scrivener. So, we write characters out. Atharv, Dhriti, everybody has their own folder. If you go into treatment, we write a lot of stuff initially. I’m picking this file called TFM 14th Jan., Latest – Test Test Test. That’s one of the versions, I guess. It’s the fifth draft. If you look at episode one, it’s called The Family Man, we have divided it into a prologue, a teaser prologue – it was a little different at that point. Then there is act one, act two, act three, act four – we divide it into our acts. Each episode has that. So, you start off with a prologue that teases you, that attracts you, and then you go into act one, where you have these scenes about his morning routine, his chores, then the plot begins when Sharma tells them about the recruits. So much is written for each scene. There’s a lot in each scene that we’re writing about the story. That way, we are much cleaner, so that there is a progression. There are various versions of it from 2016 to 2019 for the first season. The earlier versions are full of points and ideas that are all over the place that were grouped under each story arc. Then we clean it up, where for each episode, we have divided them into episodes or arcs. These go up on the walls as well.
It’s such an interesting way of doing it. I can just go to act three and say, ‘Ah, this is what is happening here.’ We can note it; we can go back and put an icon for it, maybe because it doesn’t make sense, so we go back to act one and change it. So, this is a great tool. Then, under research, we have tons and tons of articles or various things that we were inspired by. The more organised you are, the better it is for the series world.
Rohit Trivedi: When actors approach you for character sketches, how do you talk to them? How do you define each character? Or do you leave them be to do as they want to, with a little bit of improv that is allowed on the set?
Raj Nidimoru: It’s all written in the script. We give out the scenes to them, so they read out and they understand. We also have a team. So, either I or DK or Suparn or Suman, or even our DAs, explain it. We have some 80 or 120 roles, so we divide them up and explain the roles to them.
Most of the time, you give it to them. You’re also picking the right person for the right role. So, it’s usually a visual. When you see the person you realise, ‘I don’t want a typical cop,’ or ‘I don’t want a typical student,’ or ‘Maybe somebody else for this.’ It’s really sitting with the casting director and figuring out who might surprise you a little bit. Not everything should be a surprise. Then there is no surprise. You go to the right people for the right thing, and then we let people improvise a lot if they are up for it. The best example is Kaustubh Kumar, the guy who plays the boss. He came in with a lot of confidence. We’d never worked with him before, we did no workshop with him before. We just had a quick read, he knew the lines and he was looking correct, and we said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ That’s it.
Then he requested for a take with a little bit of improv. We asked him, ‘What are you going to do?’ He said, ‘I want to do The Wolf Of Wall Street. But I’ll do it my way.’ So, I thought it would be fun to take on certain tropes, famous things and nods to your favourite directors. We saw him do it. It was so fucking hilarious, and there was so much confidence with which he did it that we started now improvising it. He was just supposed to be slapped and stopped, but we actually put him across the conference table – it wasn’t part of the original design – and said, ‘Manoj, can you reach out and pull him across the thing?’ Even if it looks a little over the top, the way the actors played makes it so organic. We had to figure out how to pull the guy. You can’t pull a guy across the table easily. You’re almost giving a lift in the back, and he comes up to him and does this whole thing. If the actors are great, they get a lot of room to improvise. That’s what we thrive on.
Krishna DK: As long as they become the character, anything they do, anything they say becomes valuable.
Suman Kumar: Also, good directors always do this. You cannot write your action. ‘He raised his eyebrow and looked at him with anger simmering in his eyes.’ The first question the actor will ask you is, how can you tell me how to emote my anger? So, you only write, ‘Srikant Tiwari is angry.’ That’s the beauty of cinema, right? Good directors always know that I am going to get good actors. Of course, the central narrative remains the same, but how can I elevate this? How can I make it better than its current form?
Improv is a given in cinema, especially in OTT where all characters are doing so much more than a normal feature. We call it improv but I think that’s the way it should be.
Krishna DK: He also benefited from the improv, right? When he gets slapped around by that character, he says, ‘Sir, sir, sir, it’s my birthday!’ That’s actually improv. I’m talking about Suman’s scene in the motel room.
Raghav Goyal: What was the process of creating the writers’ room, and how did you navigate through the creative differences that came about while creating both the seasons?
Suparn S. Varma: I think it’s the best idea that wins because everybody has ideas to amalgamate. We are coming from different spaces, but we are trying to say the same thing. So, it’s seeing that balance and seeing that scene in a similar view and building on that.
There are two kinds of writers’ rooms. One, when a writer starts off by saying, ‘Okay, here’s a bad idea, but…’ and then says the idea; the other is where you just say the idea. In the first room, you’re coming from a space where you are not very sure or confident of the reaction of the person. You are scared that a ball is going to come hurling at you, so you’re all wearing helmets. That’s not a very conducive way to ever start off a conversation in a writers’ room. In our writer’s room, it began with, ‘Okay, so guys, here’s what I think.’
Swadhin Patel: When you are making a multicultural, multilingual series, how do you manage the crew?
Suparn S. Varma: I had a dream in my life to make a cinema that was not just in Hindi. And I got the opportunity here. As far as the crew is concerned, we all spoke the same language. Everybody spoke English. So, it was simple to communicate. And at the end of the day, everybody understands action. So, that wasn’t a big worry there.
When you’re writing the script, you write an emotional beat, the same thing could be said in a different language. The tonality would be the same. Thanks to Mukesh Chhabra, Suman, the way they have gone around getting a cast that is coming from the south of India has been exceptional. It’s really come to life. So, they know their stuff.
But follow the emotional beat of it. That’s one learning I’ve had as a filmmaker. I’d not assisted anybody when I began. So, initially, as a director, it is all about showing technique. ‘I can do this with a camera and I can do the sound and stuff like that.’ Slowly, it has come down to just following the emotional beat of the story or saying what’s the emotion or what the scene is trying to say. Similarly, language is never a barrier. You just follow the emotion of the scene. It really works on that core. Just follow the emotion.
Reynaa Azmathulla: In both the seasons of The Family Man, you’ve portrayed a lot of politically sensitive issues – like Kashmir and AFSPA, Sri Lanka and the Tamil Eelam. When you’re going through the writing process or portraying it, what is it that you do to give it the sensitivity it requires in an action-comedy drama while also retaining the creativity?
Raj Nidimoru: One is to research and talk to not just one person but to all kinds of people. Talk to everybody to get a 360 perspective of this. And don’t be biased about it. It’s not like saying that this guy is more true than that guy. You do that just so that you get an idea. So, when you talk to enough people and research enough, read enough, you will get a 360-degree view on that subject.
As filmmakers, I really believe, especially in a country like India, that there’s a lot of responsibility to avoid propagating a certain stereotype. You’d rather be somebody who is an observer than a person who comments on it and makes a statement about it. Our position has always been to be observers, but to put it out there. Hence, it’s also initially based on things that you read and write and read and absorb. So, it’s really trying to be neutral, trying to be present and offering a balanced view. Everybody gets to say a bit. You might agree or disagree with it, but when different characters speak on all sides, you hopefully get a balanced perspective.
You look at them as characters. More than anything else, you stay with them. You create a character, and then if you’re a storyteller, you make movies either on homeland security or zombies, just like we did.
Suparn S. Varma: Raj’s answer in two words: research and empathy.
Niharika Dussi: Is it important for the characters to be created before the scripting or can the characters be found during the scripting stage?
Suman Kumar: Both. You have a certain idea of a character, almost 75-80 percent. You have an idea of what this character’s journey is going to be like. But when you start getting into the nitty-gritty of it, and into the scripting stage, some more evolution happens. I would go as far as to say that sometimes the characters evolve across seasons as well. You create a character and it evolves, and after that, you don’t have control over them. Whether it’s a novel or a film, you don’t have control. You have to be cognizant of the character’s journey. So, it is a never-ending process, especially in the series world.
There is no one answer to this. It’s not like we nail the character a hundred percent and say, ‘Yeah, this is the guy.’ That never happens. But of course, we have a great handle on the soul of the character. Further evolution obviously will keep happening, unless, of course, the character dies.
Krishna DK: Sometimes, the character starts speaking differently in the script and we realise a few episodes down that the character is something else from what we thought earlier. Then you take a call and say, ‘Is this a better character or should we stick to the original character?’ And then you choose to do that.
Priyanka Shah: How do you guys create a balance while writing or directing, because there are so many teams that you are incorporating like humour, thriller, suspense and drama?
Krishna DK: Mostly, it’s instinctive. As you’re creating the story, as you’re writing or directing it, a lot of it is instinctive. For example, in Shor in the City, there are scenes where it’s all fun, fun, fun, where they’re out in the field testing a bomb and it’s all fun, and 10 seconds later, you see a kid coming there and suddenly everything changes. So, that’s one of the first places where we were experimenting, going from a really serious tone to a really fun tone to a really serious tone, and then coming back and actually enhancing the experience rather than spoiling the experience. It worked out very well after a few trials and errors, and from there on, we’ve been cultivating that as an instinctive process.
Now having done all this, we are not afraid of trying humour in a serious scene because we know that it does work and it has worked out well. But otherwise, you have to instinctively find the balance. And you will make a few mistakes here and there.
Raj Nidimoru: The trick is also in the amount of it. Never force it. It has to be inherent. The base is laid out already. You know that these idiots want to test the bomb because they’ve never seen a bomb explode. So, it is laid out already. There is a ghost that is hunting men. So, the base is already laid out. Atharv is a hyperactive kid, who’s better than his dad, but who sucks at music and a lot of other things. There, too, the base is already laid out. When you have a strong base, as to who this person is, when the guys are around, even in the most serious situations, the humour creeps in.
Even Srikant Tiwari, who can lie at any point, when he’s telling this serious story to Milind, an extremely serious story, after coming out, JK says, ‘Woh sach tha kya?’ He just looks at him. We still didn’t know if it was true or not. So, the base, the characteristics are laid out so strongly that they can come out at any point. JK is so middle-class that he represents all of us. He’s always thinking of money and rent. He has to order juice and if it has come and he’s in a hurry, he has to drink it. So, when the base is laid out for all the characters in this manner, the humour can seep through.
Jai Shankar: How did you arrive at the longevity aspect of the content?
Krishna DK: In The Family Man, we do have a canvas. It’s national security. We have this great character and his family. So, that’s going to be the core of it. That’s going to be the heart of it. And of course, the plot is something that we’ll have to start building with each season and perhaps take it to the next level.
Raj Nidimoru: We kind of lucked out. We didn’t know that until we started writing season two. Even you guys didn’t know it until you started watching the trailer of season two, that we were going to go to Chennai, this was what was going to happen. Till then, people were thinking that we were going to pick up from the bomb blast in the factory and continue with the story as to what happens in Delhi. The story would have to propagate from there. If we’d have stuck to that route, we would have run out of stories. It would have been hard to start building stuff in.
This is a nice, interesting mix of continuation of characters but with a new problem. So, only in The Family Man example does this work out very well. Now we know that although it might not be the best of writing or whatever, we can create 10 seasons of The Family Man because you can see the premise, you can see the characters, you can see how to create various plot points.
Smriti Kiran: DK, you’ve shared an email ID (email@example.com) where everyone can send in material that they want to send. What is the format you will be most happy getting this material in?
Krishna DK: Use this email ID to say hi, introduce yourself, send a picture, send a pitch or synopsis, but think of it as an initial introduction. One of us would respond. If it’s going forward, at some point, we’ll ask for a script, but please don’t share a 120-page script right away. It’s a huge assignment.
Raj Nidimoru: It’s not like a production company where we want to produce a lot of films. The idea is that if somebody has a nice script and they need help to get it going, and they think it is a unique script, something that will stand out in these times, especially when there’s so much content, and they have a really great idea, we can help. Let’s say that you just send us your blurb and your pitch about why we should look at it or what is unique about it and how you see it. Just a little bit – about two paragraphs is enough. If it’s interesting, we’ll reply and ask for more.
Smriti Kiran: Raj, DK, do you reply to everything?
Raj Nidimoru: There was this: ‘Thank you for your submission. We’ll get back to you soon.’ But that didn’t make any sense because everybody will hate you more. Consider it read, please, because it’s a lot of work. Everybody’s overloaded with work, but we will read it. If we see potential or it’s something that we can produce, then we will reply.
Krishna DK: A lot of times it’s not just a script, right? I mean, if you’re sending a script for us to direct it, that’s probably not the best thing. If you have a film that you want to make, and you’re very self-sufficient in how you’re going to make it, but you need our support, that would be the most ideal scenario because you have a great script you want to make and you have the passion to make it, you have the talent to make it and you just need that little support.
Raj Nidimoru: We also take student interns. Usually, a lot of people have converted from there full-time, and some have gone on to better things. Send us a quick profile. Again, a write-up would really help rather than a resume. Sure, attach it, but if you just write a two-paragraph thing, we’ll get a lot of sense of where you’re coming from. So, just a nice letter that tells us who you are and why you want to do what you want to do, for us to get an idea. We are a mixed batch. 50 percent are first-timers in our team and 50 percent are experienced.
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