In the opening passages of Kanika Dhillon’s debut novel Bombay Duck is a Fish, suicide is banal in a meaningless, un-Kafkaesque way. A young woman, the protagonist of the novel, is narrating a night when she is sitting on the edge of a terrace, smoking a cigarette, and contemplating jumping off it. She describes her hair, at that moment, as being fragrant of “apricot and honey”. The character’s narcissism is shallow and inconsequential, and it appears to have little to do with her decision to abandon her Bollywood ambitions and jump to death. She wants to die because she is unable to negotiate the cruelty the film world metes out to outsiders—those, as Dhillon tells me when we meet at her new Bandra home, “who do not have convenient surnames”.
This pulp novel about an assistant director’s experiences in the Hindi film industry reads like the script of a familiar Bollywood potboiler. The premise, inspired by Dhillon’s five-year immersion in what she describes as the “best and fastest way to make it” in Bollywood, is almost like a manual. It is not the best or only way to Bollywood nirvana, but is a reminder, like Dhillon’s own Bombay journey is, of the outsider’s travails in the corridors of the film world. The release of Dhillon’s novel coincides with the promotional build-up to Ra.One, the next Shah Rukh Khan film, of which she is one of the screenplay writers—her first screenplay.
How do a graduate of media and communications from the London School of Economics (LSE), or a Telugu engineer from the US, navigate the hierarchical but chaotic nature of Bollywood set-ups? What lures them to Mumbai? Dhillon considers Bollywood her stepping stone to fame and to being an influential person, “an opinion-maker”.
At home: (from left) Kanika Dhillon at her home in Bandra; (from left) Krishna D.K., Sita Menon and Raj Nidimoru, the makers of Shor in the City; and a still from the new Shah Rukh Khan movie Ra.One. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Raj Nidimoru, of the writer-director duo of Shor in the City, an engineer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US, before he became a film-maker, says his reason was quite simple. “Every Indian is a film-maker at heart.”
The Bollywood “outsider” can be variously defined. From the 1930s to the 1960s, writers and poets made Bombay their home. Illustrious poets, writers and directors such as Sahir Ludhianvi, Mehboob Khan, Naushad and Gulzar shaped the way songs and scripts were written in Hindi films and defined the lyrical profundity of Hindi filmdom’s black and white era. During the late 1950s and 1960s, students from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India came to the city to make films; they still don’t pass off as industrywallahs, who can be defined loosely as a coterie of powerful film families and generations of actors and directors from these families. Shekhar Kapur, who was a chartered accountant in London, was clued in to the ways of the industry when he made his first film because Dev Anand was his uncle. Some writer-directors come to the city to work with established directors and writers as a stepping stone, such as Anurag Kashyap and writer Jaideep Sahni. In the last decade, many advertising film-makers have found success here. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra directed some commercials that featured Amitabh Bachchan before his break as a film director with Aks. Dibakar Banerjee directed commercials while making his first film, Khosla ka Ghosla.
In comparison, Dhillon and Nidimoru are outsiders in a strict sense. They had no antecedents and were unaware of the industry’s rules (or lack of rules) until they arrived in Mumbai.
Twenty-eight-year-old Dhillon, who completed her master’s from LSE in 2005 and took a flight to Mumbai soon after to work in films, says the struggle became easy when she realized that “your personality defines what you do in Bollywood”. “I was just an extra hand in the beginning when I joined Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment. I was there to order food and get printouts. Nobody defined a role for me, I had to work my way through the system to carve my own niche. There were times when I almost decided to give up. But once I made peace with the fact that talent comes after your personality and what you can make yourself useful for, I was okay,” Dhillon says.
Nidimoru, who confesses he doesn’t feel like an industry insider even after three films (Flavours and 99 being the other two), is less cynical. “Many people we met initially thought we were not serious about film-making. But we pressed on with our way of doing things. We tried to explain,” says Nidimoru. Their way involves presentation materials such as an animation teaser or comic books to explain concepts to producers in order to get them interested. Nidimoru, who has now signed up with Saif Ali Khan’s Illuminati Films for a “surreal comic thriller”, says there were times when he and his co-writer Krishna D.K., also an engineer who worked in the US before teaming up with Nidimoru, found the film industry’s cliquish favours unsettling. “Everybody is connected here. There are no secrets,” says Nidimoru. “I don’t know any industry people enough to hang out with,” says Nidimoru.
We meet at Bru World Café in Versova, a western suburb known as a neighbourhood of film folk, some entrenched in the industry and some right in the thick of the drill. Versova’s numerous cafés often buzz with script talk, produced by informal meetings. Bru World Café is Nidimoru’s temporary office for D2R Films, a production company run by him, Krishna and creative producer Sita Menon.
There’s a mellow, deadpan humour to his descriptions of interactions with industrywallahs, including Balaji’s Ekta Kapoor, who produced Shor in the City. “We didn’t have to meet Ekta Kapoor that much. Members of her team would often come to our edits and see what’s going on,” Nidimoru says. Nidimoru felt like a misfit on various occasions, especially while dealing with the nitty-gritty of the filming process. Before auditions, for example, when casting directors would ask him to stay away. “Casting directors would say, ‘Sir, you shouldn’t come to auditions because you are the director. I will give you video recordings of it’ and I would be like, ‘but I want to see the person who I want to cast in my film! During action sequences, the director is considered redundant, but what if some acting is required while an action sequence is going on?”
In 1998, Krishna and Nidimoru collected money from their Indian engineer friends in the US to make short films. They would hire a camera and shoot stories during weekends. Flavours (2004), their first film, a light-hearted romantic comedy set in a milieu of Indian immigrants, was made with their own and donated money, and it went to many film festivals. “We did not quit our jobs and come to Mumbai to make films. We took baby steps,” Nidimoru says.
The duo believes multiple narratives can represent life better. Perhaps not necessarily deeper, as evident in their films, but Nidimoru and Krishna have proved, once again, that connections and film training alone don’t make for an efficient Bollywood debut.
Dhillon’s route to success, an oft-taken but risky one, led her to a position in Red Chillies Entertainment after five years. She still had no fixed role or designation, but she was allowed to sit in on script improvisation sessions with Shah Rukh Khan and his writers. “Everything I have become today is because of Shah Rukh Khan’s encouragement. He was like me one day and he recognizes the talent and drive of someone who doesn’t have sugar daddies in the industry,” she says.
Her parents, a father who runs his own business in Amritsar and a mother who teaches English literature in that city’s Government College for Women, wouldn’t allow 18-year-old Dhillon to go to Mumbai before completing her education. After a BA degree from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, she got admission at LSE for a master’s. Soon after she finished, and got herself a job as a communications manager in a multinational firm in London, she bought a ticket to Mumbai.
“I had one acquaintance in the city at that time, a friend of my sister. I lived with him for some time.” She recalls spending months trying to know people who were somehow connected to the film world. “I would pursue someone whose uncle knew someone whose son was an assistant director. That way I went to many shoots and met people just to know how things work here. Finally I met Sanjiv Chawla, the CEO of Red Chillies Entertainment, with my resume and a few of my short stories.” He hired her and asked her to come to the office every day, be around and find her way through to being useful.
She wants to become a director and a writer of more books (her next novel is called Kalma, which is about a Muslim woman who runs away from Pakistan—“someone who doesn’t identify with Islamic fundamentalism but has an emotional link to her religion”).
Dhillon is every bit the beginner who is obsessed with Bollywood fame and its “abnormal life”—“I am cut off from reality. The film world is very insular.” Nidimoru is her antithesis, in many ways. Both outsiders, who stomped the Bollywood blues.