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Raj & DK: The blockbuster duo

The writer-director-producer duo have come a long way since their first film in 2009. What makes the experimental, risk-taking directors stand out, and what makes their crazy way of story-telling click with audiences?

Published: Sep 13, 2023 01:58:06 PM IST
Updated: Sep 14, 2023 11:37:58 AM IST

Raj & DK: The blockbuster duoRaj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, writer-director-producer duo on the job. Image: Netflix

The D2R office in Andheri, Mumbai, is fairly quiet for a rainy Thursday afternoon. Founded by the director duo Raj and DK, the office is an ode to Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s love for cinema—with posters of No Country for Old Men, Pulp Fiction and The Big Lebowski, all over. “We love The Dude from The Big Lebowski,” says DK, as he shows us a poster of The Dude’s iconic quote behind his chair on the wall: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, Man.”

Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK, known together as Raj and DK, entered the world of Indian cinema with their first Hindi feature film 99, which released in 2009. The screenwriter, director, producer duo went on to work on films like Shor in the City (2011), Go Goa Gone (2013), and Stree (2018), among others. They later jumped into web series, as OTT platforms started taking off in India, with shows like The Family Man and Farzi on Amazon Prime Video and their latest Guns & Gulaabs on Netflix, winning the hearts of the audience across the country.

Engineers to filmmakers

Basic interest and a deep love for cinema, owing the latter to their upbringing in the cinema crazy state of Andhra Pradesh, led the duo to quit their jobs in software engineering and enter the world of weaving stories and creating films. “We were doing well as engineers in America, but a whole new world opened up for us in terms of the cinema being made there,” says DK.

Nidimoru and DK—who were based in Detroit and Minneapolis, respectively—wanted to be filmmakers. With a simple motto ‘everybody is a filmmaker at heart’, the duo began writing, having been inspired by a bunch of Indie films. “At our jobs, we were excessively making use of ‘Alt + Tab’. If there was a big programme that we were working on, we’d do that, but as soon as nobody was around, ‘Alt + Tab’, our short-cut to switch tabs and start working on our scripts,” jokes Nidimoru, as he goes on to tell how the duo even wrote a short story titled Alt Tabs about people like them.

Moreover, their regular jobs were making them feel a bit suffocated. It was becoming “restless” and not “satisfying enough”. “We had this ‘keeda’ of doing something in the world of cinema. We would call each other up to discuss what we can do and we decided to write a script,” says Nidimoru. At the beginning, it was pure naivety. The duo had decided to write a screenplay, sell it to Hollywood, and make money, recalls DK. “Once we wrote the screenplay, we realised, we don't know how to sell a screenplay. So we had to make a movie.”

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As engineers, Nidimoru and DK knew ‘reverse engineering’. When they would sit to watch a film, they were constantly asking questions like, ‘How is this scene made’, ‘How is this frame shot’. “We reverse engineered our movie-watching experience to learn filmmaking. Our film school was teaching each other,” says Nidimoru.

After they had finished making their first film, Nidimoru and DK had to keep the lack of a film school degree a secret for producers to take them seriously. “When we were trying to get our first film made and we told people that we had worked in America and made an English film there, it became a calling card for us. People would automatically assume that we went to a film school in New York or LA and we didn’t correct them,” DK laughs.

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With big dreams, Nidimoru and DK finally moved to Mumbai—the home of Bollywood. They had no contacts, and were bunking on former journalist and film editor Sita Menon’s pull-out couch for the first six months. The duo had no backing. “We decided to wait. We knew that we didn't want to become assistant directors at this point. If we wanted to wait, we knew we needed money to wait, so we banked on our savings to make the film, and with the remaining savings, we were living in Mumbai, waiting for the movie to start,” says Nidimoru.

Learning on the job

Nidimoru and DK’s process of learning filmmaking was “trial and error”. They started off with getting a camera, shooting with it, and realising that the output wasn’t proper. Soon, understanding the significance of light, getting a light kit, and figuring out how it works. “It was a step-by-step learning process for us, but it was very exciting,” says Nidimoru. “It was difficult for us to find Indian actors, so we were also acting ourselves. Everything from writing, shooting, acting, and editing, we were doing ourselves.”

The duo chuckles as they recall a funny incident of showing the first short film that they had made to their friends on a TV screen. “At the end of the film, when the credits were running, it was funny how our names remained stuck on the screen while only the names of the departments—like cinematography, editing, sound etc—changed,” says Nidimoru. “In hindsight, this process made our fundamentals super strong.”

Raj & DK: The blockbuster duoA still of Rajkumar Rao from Guns & Gulaabs. Image: Netflix

Over time, they’ve got a vague process in place. Yet, it often gets chaotic. As ideas come to their minds, they start writing them out, instead of waiting years to stick to just one idea until it becomes a film. “This process gives us a bank of really solid ideas. Some of them fall off as you grow. Some of them remain, like Farzi and Stree were some of our oldest ideas,” says Nidimoru.

Unlike most, the act of writing for them is an individual process and then they come up with a structure. “While writing the screenplay, we started doing our own acts because we didn't really buy into the three-act structure. It wasn't helping us make a solid screenplay. We started doing a five-act structure, just our own thing,” says Nidimoru. Then they go on to the dialogues and screenplay. “We start to write out chunks and then we swap them. That way it goes faster,” adds DK.
Raj & DK: The blockbuster duo
In their cabins, we find multiple timelines stuck on walls. Nidimoru jokes, "I don't know if we stick to it. Every time the Netflix team comes, they see it and say, "By now you were supposed to have delivered this." He points at a bunch of cards lined up vertically, colour-wise. "That is the episodic breakdown of Family Man 3, each colour is a different story and different mood. So in that sense we work pretty systematically," Nidimoru says.

Experimenting always

The duo made a swift transition to the world of OTT, and one might say they have nailed the formula for creating web series. “No one taught anyone how to make a web series, we just jumped from movies to series directly,” says Nidimoru. Though the basics remain the same, the duo reckons, writing a web series is a lot tougher. “Every episode and each season need a beginning, middle and end. Unlike films, you have the luxury of creating an immersive experience, where my audience has ‘lived’ the characters we’ve created,” reckons DK.
Raj & DK: The blockbuster duo
Interestingly, they’ve always taken risks with their genre picks—such as thriller/comedies or horror/comedies. “These are very risky combinations, since it can get classified into spoofs very easily,” says DK. Guns & Gulaabs is also a genre bender, “that combines all the ingredients that our audience loves—romance, comedy, pulp, thrill and memorable characters set in a world that harks back to the golden era of Bollywood. The secret sauce, is of course, Raj & DK's inimitable take on that era and the dark comedy that time inspires,” says Tanya Bami, series head at Netflix India.

While they aren’t picking favourites, they do agree, the approach in making a feature film, versus a TV series is starkly different. Nidimoru chimes in, “It’s like a Test match versus T20 format. With the feature film, just like in a T20 match, you have to start with a six. And, as a filmmaker your complete focus is on the box office, because eventually the question is always: Hit hai kya [Is it a blockbuster].”
Raj & DK: The blockbuster duo
After seeing a lot of success with shows like The Family Man (seasons 1 and 2), Farzi and now Guns & Gulaabs, DK is candid when he says, the pressure of each show doing well does get to them. “Earlier, we were happy being underdogs. Now, there’s no way out… the pressure does show.”

For the duo, with every new series they work on, there is a comparison with their previous work: Will The Family Man season 2 be better than season 1? Will Farzi be better than The Family Man? “With each show we attempt to do something different,” says Nidimoru. “We’re glad that each show has managed to come out of the shadows of our previous work. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the freedom to make a show like Guns & Gulaabs.”

The winning formula

Known for their ‘strange casting’, Nidimoru and DK have always experimented with interesting combinations. Case in point, their latest work Guns & Gulaabs, a thriller-comedy web series on Netflix, starring Rajkummar Rao, Adarsh Gourav, Dulquer Salmaan and Gulshan Devaiah. Given their different styles when it comes to shooting and very few takes, actors find their approach refreshing. “I think their ability to not take themselves too seriously is what sets them apart,” says Gourav. “In spite of attaining as much success as they have, the fact that they don’t take themselves too seriously extends to the fact that their characters have almost like a sense of carelessness to them, but not really carelessness where they leave the scope for anything to happen.”

Raj & DK: The blockbuster duoA still of Dulquer Salman from Guns & Gulaabs. Image: Netflix

Another unique aspect of working with them is the freedom they give to actors. Devaiah explains, “It’s almost like you’re a co-creator with them. They have the perfect technique to put my ideas in perspective and keep the good ones and leave out the ones that didn’t work for their vision. I flourish when I’m given the conducive environment to be creative and they give me that.” Though most might say, for a film to be a hit three things are important: Casting, casting, casting. But for the director duo, it’s writing, uniqueness of the subject and casting.

According to them, writing is at the core and will always remain that way: “Writing is the only way the flavour and the uniqueness is born and remains intact on the pages.” They have a clear vision of how they want the editing, post-production, sound and even trailers and posters. This, according to them comes from the fact that they started off doing everything on their own.

Raj & DK: The blockbuster duoA still of Adarsh Gourav from Guns & Gulaabs. Image: Netflix

Even though the duo has a ‘brand’ for themselves now, where most of their work has quite a bit of humour and action, they consciously ensure their work doesn’t get formulaic. “We always attempt to do something very different, be it with the story line, subject, theme etc,” explains DK. For instance, with Guns & Gulaabs, they shot the entire show in CinemaScope format to give it a 1960s’ tone. “I would love it if somebody says that they haven't seen a film like this before,” reckons Nidimoru.

With Citadel and Gulkaanda Tales up next, Nidimoru and DK seem to have created a fan following for themselves, where instead of seeing the star cast’s name in the opening of a trailer, it’s the ‘Raj & DK’ brand that seems to be drawing audiences.

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