Mumbai: Soon after they graduated from an engineering school in Andhra Pradesh in the 1990s, Raj Nidimoru and D.K. Krishna both joined the exodus to the US to pursue job opportunities and experience a different world. A decade later and both back in India, the duo are on the verge of releasing their first Hindi language feature film, in the process joining a growing trend for professionals who are choosing to undertake the return journey and seek out fame and fortune in Bollywood.
Different flavours: Raj Nidimoru (left) and D.K. Krishna.
The film 99 is a crime caper, which stars Soha Ali Khan and is based on real events about two men in different cities who are caught up in various improbable twists of fate, and is due out on 1 May and marks the realization of their long-held ambition to make a film in India.
“We both always thought we wanted to do different kinds of films,” says Nidimoru, who switched careers while in New York and decided to make a film with Krishna. “It is possible to make different kinds of films in India and the story can range from an ultra modern city to a village backdrop. Visually, it changes dramatically and that is uplifting as a film-maker.”
The pair, who have also made Flavors, a film about the Indian diaspora in the US, are among a raft of film-makers, producers and scriptwriters of Indian origin who are looking to avail themselves of the opportunities thrown up by the arrival of multiplex cinemas in India, and the emergence of a middle class hungry for new types of films and stories. The trend to some degree runs counter to the spate of deal-making being done in Hollywood by Indian film companies, including Reliance BIG Entertainment, which has signed a host of deals with production houses in the US including with actors George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
“Indian cinema is evolving,” says Krishna. “There are newer film-makers and new types of cinema are coming in. Ten years ago, there were set rules and formulaic films, which had to please all segments of society. Now the paradigm has changed and there is room for different kinds of films. The multiplex audience is one reason for the change. Multiplex refers to a type of cinema but is also a type of audience, which is willing to try new things, and this is a reason a lot of people have come to India and are making new films.”
He added: “The film we wanted to make brought us here, and Indian cinema is all set to grow and it is great to be a part of it. We always wanted to make a film in india, but 10 years ago, I don’t know how my sensibilities would have been accepted. Now I know they would be.”
A desire to tap into mainstream cinema, and not just dabble on the sidelines, has also been responsible for bringing film-makers back to India, says Anupam Mittal, founder of the marriage website Shaadi.com and People Pictures, which produced 99.
“We were trying to work out why mainstream cinema in India was so painful previously, and we decided that it had to do with the lack of multiplexes,” says Mittal. “We have reached a point where there is a market for contextual Indian films in English here and as a film-maker you always want to go out to the biggest audience.”
In terms of edge, Mittal adds that “being original” and having an external context, brings value to his company and the films it produces.
As well as Nidimoru and Krishna, who are already planning Shor, their second release in India, the ranks of film industry professionals with an Indian connection who have moved back to forge a career in Bollywood, include Nagesh Kukunoor, who worked as a chemical engineer in the US before returning to India in the mid-1990s to film Hyderabad Blues. Kukunoor, whose latest film 8 x10 Tasveer is being released by Percept Picture Co. on 3 April on an estimated budget of Rs3.5 crore, funded his first film through savings and on a shoe-string budget of Rs17 lakh after it proved impossible to raise funds externally. The film ran for 31 weeks at the time, becoming the highest-grossing, low-budget Indian film in English.
In addition, San Francisco-raised film-maker Ben Rekhi, whose first film Waterborne stars Shabana Azmi, has temporarily decamped to India to make Keep Off the Grass, a film based on the book by Karan Bajaj, while Kolkata-born Anuvab Pal, who worked as a playwright in New York, has lent his talents to the Hindi film industry with the scripts for The President is Coming and Loins of Punjab Presents.
“I always wanted to write stories on contemporary urban India and it seemed there was a limited place in the West for it,” says Pal, explaining his decision to write for Bollywood. “I didn’t think I would end up writing movies in Bollywood. Maybe because when I started writing in the mid-nineties, the new wave of Bollywood hadn’t started. Now one can use techniques of Western screenwriting to our stories and our stories are now set in London, Prague and Paris. It’s a really exciting time to write in Bollywood.”
Meanwhile, Rekhi, whose father was born in Kanpur, says that making a film in India is the first step in setting up a permanent presence in the industry, while removing himself from a “pretty grim” atmosphere in Hollywood.
“The mood back home is pretty grim and a lot of people are out of work,” says Rekhi. “The economy has taken a hit here but there is still a sense of optimism.”
He adds that the greater volume of work in Bollywood means that there is a higher chance of getting involved in projects, with the potential of further business opportunities implicit in the unstructured nature of the industry, for example, through establishing agencies to represent talent.
On the downside, however, Pal says that scripts are still barely read in Bollywood, with film-makers approving films on the basis of verbal pitches and associated star names.
“There is an interest in new ideas and a strong desire to make new movies but very few people read scripts. And then when a movie isn’t very good, they wonder why,” he notes.
For Los Angeles-born and raised Raj Yerasi, who worked as a stock picker in New York and then managed a hedge fund in Mumbai, the experience of working in the Hindi film industry as the producer of Barah Aana, starring Naseeruddin Shah, has been “exciting” despite somewhat lacking in professionalism. While his background in finance meant that he did not suffer from many of the “bad habits” that some people in the industry exhibited, Yerasi says an enormous amount of goodwill can be generated by observing basic employment rights within the industry.
“The industry is changing, but there is a huge segment that is unprofessional and disorganized,” he says. “A lot of people in the Indian film industry are fairly disorganized but they are well meaning, so if you can create a team and give them the right ethic then you can channel it. Basic things like paying people on time which should be the norm, generates such goodwill.”