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Fright Club

With their ‘Mard Ko Dard Hoga’ tag line in mind, the men of the film Stree – actor Rajkummar Rao, producer Dinesh Vijan, producers and writers Raj and DK, and debutant director Amar Kaushik – talk to the ladies of Team Box Office India about their upcoming horror-comedy

Box Office India (BOI): Stree blends two genres – horror and comedy. It is a concept that is relatively unexplored in Indian cinema. How did this come about?

Raj: Back in college, there was this thing happening in our small town, Tirupati, where we used to roam on bikes. Someone said, ‘Don’t go across to that side. There is a stree roaming around and she is going to take you.’ We thought that was very cool and we should check it out. When we went there, we saw ‘O stree repu raa’ scribbed on all the walls. It meant ‘O stree, come tomorrow.’  It was fascinating. We tried our best but, unluckily, we didn’t see the stree.

DK: Although nobody saw the stree, they believed there was a woman roaming around and who abducted people.

Raj: We found it funny and the story was ridiculous. Since nobody knew the back story, it gave us fodder to come up with our own back story. So the idea has been with us for a while.

DK: Later, we found out that this was not unique to that particular town. Once we started talking about this idea, someone said this used to happen in their town as well. Then somebody from Karnataka said they write ‘Naale ba’, which means the same thing. Then, someone from the North said it happened in Rajasthan. Someone sent a video from Thailand about something similar.

Dinesh Vijan (DV): This genre has not been done in Hindi. For a cinema-going audience to experience horror and comedy together, especially when the horror is extremely scary and the comedy is hopefully funny, it is a very entertaining combination. Our idea with Stree is to attempt to build a franchise. This genre has done very well in the South, but we haven’t really explored it.

If it does well, it can be developed and people can do more films in this genre. Bhool Bhulaiyaa was a film that released many years ago but no one has explored this genre since then. I am very happy with the product. The horror and the comedy are both very strong in this film. I hope it does pave the way for this genre to be taken forward.

BOI: When did you decide to make it a horror-comedy and not just a horror film?

Rajkummar Rao (RR): When they decided to have me in the film (Laughs)!

Raj: I always thought horror was funny because this stuff doesn’t happen in real life. And if something does happen when they are telling the story, the reaction from those listening is funny. So the person who is narrating went through crap, but those listening are laughing. So, for me, a reaction to a horror story has always been funny. When Bicky, Rajkummar’s character in the film, and his friends are going through this crazy stuff, they are not laughing. It is we who find it funny.

BOI: Amar, this is your first film, and you are experimenting with a genre that is not really done much in Hindi cinema. Were you ever nervous or apprehensive?

Amar Kaushik (AK): As a first film, it was always there ki pehli picture mein kuch alag karna chahiye, kuch naya hona chahiye. It’s not like there was a lot of pressure on me but, with your first film, there is always some amount of nervousness. How will things be on the set? Will I be able to pull this off?  But there was no tension with regard to making a film in this genre. It was like bada mazaa aayega, kuch naya karne ko milega. So when they narrated the story, I was excited that I had got my first film. 

BOI: When you are shooting for a horror film, a lot of people say they have experienced something supernatural on the set. Have anyone of you ever experienced that?

RR: Yes, many times, actually. There was a picture… I tweeted it long ago when we were shooting. It was a late-night shoot and someone from the team was just randomly clicking pictures on the phone. Then suddenly he showed me a picture and there was a figure and it didn’t have any human face. We saw it on the second floor, the figure was peeping. It is still there on my Twitter timeline, you can check it out. It was very spooky and it still is when I show it to people.

When we were shooting in Bhopal, there is a very popular haunted place there, Taj Mahal Fort. We were given notes and rules and regulations to follow. Not to wear perfume, girls can’t keep their hair open, don’t go out alone. We were shooting there at 3:30-4 am, there was one light man who was sitting at a height of 20 feet with a light, all alone. Then he fell from there and started screaming kisne mujhe dhakka diya. He was hospitalised and he came back after three days. He is fine now.

With all these things, you can feel an eeriness in that place. We were shooting in that fort. It had a big basement, there was a really huge alley and a lane. I could just feel that something was wrong in this place. They rolled the camera and asked me to walk down till the corner, all alone, in complete darkness. (Everyone laughs). I was praying, saying I am just acting and if anybody is out there, please don’t show up. I have done nothing, I am a nice soul, please let me just give this shot and come back (Everyone laughs). But they were not saying ‘cut’.

Raj: And we were not saying ‘cut…’

DK: It went on for a long time…

RR: Yes it went on in pitch darkness…

DK: It was beyond the space where the crew had cleaned up thoda sa. There was some light there but beyond that, there was nothing. He was walking there.

Raj: No guarantee that you would come back.

RR: But we got the shot.

BOI: Why do you think horror is a genre that is not sufficiently explored in our industry? Whenever we talk of horror, we talk of ‘horrex’.

RR: Yes, horror and sex. The one I did, Ragini MMS.

DK: Really? I didn’t know there was a name for that.

RR: Sounds like a condom brand (Laughs).

Raj: I think they are base emotions, fear and lust. If you are going for that base emotion, then you are like giving them… usually it’s like a woman is in the shower and then somebody attacks, like in Psycho.

DK: Also, there’s this thing that you will get an ‘A’ rating from the censors.

Raj: Yes, now you can add some sex also.

DV: Horror coming back with genuine comedy is something that was waiting to happen. It requires a certain kind of writing. Amar had such an amazing atmosphere on the set. He understands this medium very well. He comes from this region. He understands the dialect very well. We have rooted the film in our culture. Growing up, we have all heard that peeche se koi aawaaz de toh mudna nahi chaahiye. There is this ghost that calls out from behind, almost asking for your permission, and if you turn, she takes you away and the only thing left behind are your clothes. It is a beautiful example of a town where men are not safe. That is why, mard ko dard hoga.

DK: Another question is… would you go for a proper horror film? A lot of people say ‘no’. That’s the reason there aren’t many horror films. That’s the reason we also like to fuse genres like horror and humour, two absolutely diverse emotions. I think it is a very enjoyable mix.

BOI: Rajkummar, at the trailer launch, you had said the idea of the ‘hero’ in Indian films is changing. What did you mean by that?

RR: Exactly what I said. Somebody asked me whether I feel or think like a hero now. I told them I don’t think like a hero, I think like an actor. Personally, I don’t like the term ‘hero’. I would love for people to call me an actor. I honestly believe ‘hero’ is a really big responsibility. There are superheroes and they are called that because they do things that not many people can do. Heroes are people who bring about change in society, they do something for society like our cops, our jawans and army, they are heroes.

BOI: As filmmakers, what made you think Rajkummar and Shradhha Kapoor fit the bill for Stree?

Raj: Raj was our first and natural choice. We always wanted to work with Raj.

DK: (Cuts In) Yes, we tried a couple of times before.

RR: Sssh…don’t go into the history (Laughs).

Raj: For this film, I remember we told him the story while sitting at his house and I told him that I find you funny in everything you do.

RR: Yeah, that was a good observation. He said that whenever you do a serious film like Shahid, I could see some humour in it.

Raj: His films like Shahid have been very dark, without humour, dry, but when I say funny, I mean there is some entertainment, an extra angle that he brings in. So, he might be doing serious stuff but there is always some mannerism, something extra which I am 100 per cent sure was not written but Rajkummar does it. Hence, I enjoy it.

I believe that drama can be done with exuberance, some kind of detailed nuances that he brings in. And because of that, even though I am not a hardcore drama fan, I am watching his drama films and being thoroughly entertained. That’s why I told him that I think you will be crazy in this film, in terms of comedy.

For once, he is just completely comic. Like he said before, hero versus actor, keeping that in mind, when we were watching the mixing reel recently, there is this one scene which always amazes me. In that, he could have easily played his part like this typical, macho hero. There is a crucial point in the film where he steps in and stops stuff from happening. But that scene in actuality, he plays it like a darzi, like a tailor. His body language changes into this character where he asks why are you asking me to do all this, I am just a small-town tailor who sews petticoats and stuff. Those things really impressed me. That is the reason he was our first choice. And I knew that he was going to love the story too because it was a crazy story and something he could also enjoy, exploring himself in the horror-comedy dimension. As for Shraddha, she was Dinu’s (Dinesh Vijan) idea.

DV: I met Shraddha on a flight. She has played a very classic heroine on screen. When I talked to her, I realised that she was actually a very quirky personality. If you see the film, you will see her in a slightly new personality. And I always thought that if there is a character that suits her real self, that would be very interesting.

When we narrated the story to her, she wanted to be a part of it. So did Raj. We had worked together before and I wanted to do a film with him again. He is one of the best actors we have. I wanted to pitch him a little more commercially and wider. That was my intent. That is what we have tried to do with Stree and, hopefully, we will take that forward with Made In China. He is a musical hero now. He has a pretty good original album at a time where only remakes are working. There are four tracks in a Rajkummar Rao-Shraddha Kapoor film! He has done Milegi milegi, Kamariya, Nazar na lag jaaye and Aao kabhi haveli pe. The number of times he has danced in this movie, he has never danced all throughout his career. (Laughs).

Raj: We were talking about how we could get a girl who could bring in mystery and who hadn’t done so much comedy, so it would be more interesting for the audience too. So, we went to Shraddha with the script and she hadn’t done many comedy roles and hence jumped at the idea immediately. It was just that one narration where we were discussing it and she went, like, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this!’ And we could see her in the role. She is actually a very whacky person off camera. That’s what I have observed, right?

DK: Yeah, she is totally crazy.

RR: Too much fun. Her roles have been a little more serious than she really is off camera.

AK: Shraddha is very dedicated and hard-working. Ek alag hi roop hai uska.

Raj: I want to add that the cast of this film is one of those rare chances where you get an ideal list for a film. Every single person, like Aparshakti (Khurrana), Abhishek Banerjee, Pankaj Tripathi and Vijay Raaz, were our first choices and the best fit for their roles. Aparshakti and Abhishek Banerjee are revelations in the film. It is one of those films where every time you walked onto the sets, you saw Amar dancing around and enjoying it. And even the others… you see these guys and you know it is a great scene already.

AK: When Raj and DK told me about the story of Stree, I was chanting Rajkummar’s name on the inside. I just kept saying to myself that only Rajkummar would play the character of Bicky. And as soon as that narration ended, I asked them… Raj? And they said, yes, he will play this role.

DK: Yes, we didn’t even say it first. We had discussed it among ourselves but it was just so perfect for Raj. Usually, we write a story without anybody in mind but once you finish it, you know who you want. That was it for us.

BOI: Any plans of taking this horror-comedy genre into sequel mode after Stree?

DK: Franchise is the buzz word today, I think (Laughs).

Raj: When you see the movie, you will know on Friday, August 31. The print came out recently and we were watching it and I think it is hilarious, and one of its kind. It is very well-crafted and Amar here has probably slept like only an hour in the last few days. I think it has turned out great. Let the audience tell us whether they want a second film or not.

DK: It is also the subject that lends itself to a franchise. It is not necessarily a continuation of the story but it depends more on the story, the treatment, the world we create which can have a franchise.

BOI: Rajkummar, like Raj said, you add nuances to your character every time you come on screen. What did you add to Bicky?

RR: Trust me, it was very hard to put it into words, yaar. Definitely, there was the accent that was there. I have never played a guy from a town in Madhya Pradhesh before, so the language is different and his profession is also very different. He has a different energy than the other characters I have played to date. 

BOI: When you write a horror-comedy, how do you balance both elements?

DK: Inherently, in the not-too-dramatic horror films, there is humour. Often, when you are watching a film and as soon as the horror pan happens, you jump. And more often than not, you laugh, saying, ‘Oh wow that really got me. I am scared.’ Essentially, that is the spirit that goes into the script too. When we work on the horror scene, the tension and the eeriness, we keep building it until a certain point after which we let go of it, that makes people jump with fear. Then, there is room for humour, usually.

Raj: There is a thin line between a spoof and a solid horror-comedy. Stree is a very solid horror-comedy, and is true to its fused genre. A spoof is easier to do because you know you are making fun of something. But here, everyone had to stay in character. Nobody breaks out to make a joke. The fun in movies like this is that you go up to slapstick. It is a very thin line. You almost touch it and then come back. As long as the sensibilities and logic are intact, I think you have a good horror-comedy versus a spoof.

DK: And the characters must be consistent. Which is why people like Rajkummar come in.

RR: Thank you (Smiles).

AK: When we were rehearsing and shooting the scenes, we were very careful not to cross a certain line to avoid making it a slapstick comedy.

RR: There is a new tradition that Amar had started, which I have to mention. Shraddha, I and everyone else have become a big fan of that. Every morning when we would come on the set, Amar would play a song according to the scene and the whole crew had to dance to that song, from the spot boy, to the producer to the actors. Everybody would dance together, like a family. That was such an amazing way to start your day. It was great to gel with each other like that. A production boy could come and talk to me with the same ease with which the producer would talk to me. He started the tradition and I miss it in my other films…

AK: (Cuts in) We will do that in our next film.

RR: Yes, next film.

BOI: Dinesh, how creatively involved were you in the film?

DV: A producer has to be creatively involved in a project, right from the choice of the subject, to giving the right team to the director. The producer’s job is to back the director where he needs it. Raj and DK wrote a beautiful script. The dialogue was done fantastically by Sumit Arora. Amar came on board and made the film his. It is always a collaborative effort, and the producer is supposed to keep the ship together.

All my films, whether Hindi Medium, Badlapur, Cocktail, Love Aaj Kal or Made In China, have a certain Maddock stamp. They are slightly different and are yet in the popular realm. Three things are very important for all the films which have done well for Maddock. One, there is no reference point to the film. Love Aaj Kal did not have one, and the same goes for Badlapur, Deepika’s (Padukone) character in Cocktail and Go Goa Gone.

Two, we have tried to reinvent an actor. Love Aaj Kal reinvented Saif (Ali Khan). Cocktail reinvented Deepika. Badlapur reinvented Varun (Dhawan). We have never seen these actors in that kind of space before. Even Irrfan (Khan) in Hindi Medium, for that matter. The film was a runaway hit. And now it is Rajkummar Rao in Stree.

This is very, very important. Kartik (Aaryan) in Luka Chuppi and Diljit (Dosanjh) in Arjun Patiala – you have not seen them like that before. You have seen Kartik in a certain kind of film before. But in Luka Chuppi, he will make you fall in love with him. You want to take him home. Right now, that is what India feels for him. We have seen Diljit in serious roles before. He has unbelievable comic timing and that is what Arjun Patiala explores. Three, our films have surprised us at the box office. If these three things work, we, at Maddock, have done our job. I hope Stree does that too. I am very happy with the way the film has shaped up.

BOI: Rajkummar, you have played earthy characters in Bareilly Ki Barfi, and now Stree, and you will also play a similar character in Made In China. Why do you think they resonate with the audience so much? And, Dinesh, what makes you back them?

RR: Because that is what India is. A major part of the country resides in small towns. That is where these characters are coming from. Our cinema is getting more and more rooted. We also have stories from the metro and now Life In A... Metro 2 probably too (Laughs). So, yes, stories are getting more rooted. Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) and Bimal Roy used to make films with stories set in smaller towns. They were huge at that point. The era is coming back. Small town is the new Switzerland (Laughs).

DV: There has been a shift. In films like Cocktail and Love Aaj Kal, there was an aspiration to be like the West. In the last few years, we started looking within. Also, multiplexes have grown. They are not just in A-cities but have reached smaller towns. Those are the people who are going to watch the film on its first day.

It is surprising that we did not explore stories set in small towns earlier. If you go back a few years, we only did films like this. In the middle, there came an entire romance wave where we were going abroad and doing these love stories. However, things have come full circle and we have come back home. We are such a rich culture and there are so many stories embedded in it. It excites me every time I hear something like this. We, at Maddock, made Hindi Medium, Badlapur and now Stree. Next we will make Made In China. We are also halfway through Luka Chuppi, which is based in Mathura, Gwalior and Agra. So, yes, it is a conscious move.

BOI: How do you zero in on a project as a producer?

DV: For us, the reaction, the content, the instinct and then the analysis matter. My instinct should tell me I cannot not make this film, or that I won’t be able to fall asleep if I cannot make the story. Then the analysis takes place, as to how many people the story can appeal to. Thereby, we decide on the budget, go forward and put it together with the best possible team.

At Maddock, we want to back the director to help him make his best possible film. That is why we have such strong relationships with Sriram (Raghavan), Homi (Adajania) and Amar. Amar is also doing his next with us, which we will announce eventually. We want to be a content- and director-led company.

BOI: How important is it to get the right Friday for your film to release?

Raj: Very important.

DK: In fact, we were almost thinking that we should have released on August 15. We would get the ten day bracket. We are making a series now for Amazon. The biggest difference between these two media is the pressure of the Friday. Just making a good show and putting it out there on any day works. You can watch it whenever you want to. That is a big difference. We cannot understate the importance of a Friday. I hope we have chosen a good Friday.

RR: We have. It is my birthday (Laughs).

BOI: How much do box office numbers dictate your choices in your respective lines of work?

DV: I feel every success or failure teaches you something. We are fortunate to have an 80 per cent success ratio at Maddock Films. We are very thankful to God and the audience for it. I believe that every film teaches you something and you must be willing to learn. Even the films that have worked, we have understood that we could have done some things better. It is a process and you have to learn not just what is working for you but you also have to keep your eyes open because the business is constantly evolving.

I don’t think the audience is happy with an average, decent film any more. They want a fantastic film. Rather than focusing on anything else, we are putting our heads down to write unique, clutter-breaking as well as popular content. Marrying both worlds is our philosophy at Maddock Films and we hope to continue that.

RR: It matters to a certain extent. It helps you in your career as well. But I cannot put all my energy into the box office numbers, only because I cannot control them. The only thing I can control is making a good film which we try and do with every film. I also feel that every film has its own destiny. We have seen in the past that good films make a lot of money and then there are so many good films that do not make a lot of money. That does not change. There are some films that are for life. They might put in only an average performance at the box office but people will talk about those films for life. I would probably choose those films which will do decently well at the box office and will be remembered forever.

DK: The key is to choose the right budget for a film. When you make your film, you want it to make money as well, but you also know that this kind of film can make a certain amount of money if it is appreciated. We are not thinking that this will become the blockbuster of the decade. So, we have budgeted accordingly. 

Raj: As new producers, we have the additional responsibility to ensure that, at least, the budget should be right and you are safe at that point, so that you are making the film within that budget. Once you do that, 50 per cent of the problem is solved because you have covered all bases. You definitely do want box office success because that primarily dictates how many people see the movie and how far it goes.

BOI: Amar, what are your expectations from your first film?

AK: While I was shooting it and the post-production work was going on, I never thought about the fate of the film, box-office wise. Everyone around me and my family are suddenly telling me about the films that have touched the 100-crore mark. People, today, have stopped talking about films and talk more about numbers.

All I wanted to do was make a good film and stay true to the script. As we are approaching the release date, something inside me is urging me to think of the box office performance of the film. Raj sir was right when he said that a film should be made keeping its budget in mind. If I make a film with honesty, everyone will surely like it.

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