Meet the star-makers behind Bollywood's biggest success stories

  • Nihit Bhave, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 01, 2015 12:26 IST

You walk into the theatre, settle in your seat, make sure the viewing angle is right and (hopefully) turn off your phones. Through all of this, you miss the opening credits with names of designers, writers, make-up artists, choreographers, singers, editors, and many more crew who make the magic happen.

Earlier, people behind the scenes usually remained just there, and never got due credit. But it’s an exciting time for cinema. Every cog in the wheel gets attention and every team member gets his turn under the spotlight.

A bunch of them, like screenwriter Abhijat Joshi, choreographer Geeta Kapoor, fashion stylist Anaita Shroff Adajania, music composer Mithoon and casting director Mukesh Chhabra tell


that it’s a glorious time for people who are mostly in the green room.

Abhijat Joshi: The writer who helps breathe life into Rajkumar Hirani’s stories

The team created India’s biggest box office hits - Lage Raho Munnabhai, 3 Idiots and PK

Recently, when PK crossed the Rs 300-crore mark at the box office, everyone from Aamir Khan to director Rajkumar Hirani and Anushka Sharma to producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra gave interviews and each one was touted as the next big genius. But one man – he had co-written the movie – stood silently on the sidelines.

Writer Abhijat Joshi, who has been Raju Hirani’s creative collaborator for the last 10 years, rarely steps into the spotlight. He has remained in the shadows while his films have broken box office records and emerged as contemporary classics.

He was unheard of after Lage Raho Munnabhai in 2006, and his name got lost in the Chetan Bhagat-Aamir Khan war of words over writing credits for 3 Idiots in 2009.

But being the centre of attention was never really the plan. "The best thing about being a writer in Bollywood is that you get to communicate with an entire nation in one go," he says, having written movies that have been simultaneously entertaining and socially relevant.

While Lage Raho… left people with the beautiful concept of a Jaadu Ki Jhappi (a hug that solved petty issues), 3 Idiots underscored the discrepancies in our education system and PK told viewers to think more about blind faiths.

"Cinema lets you cut across class and regional barriers," Joshi observes. "I’m glad that I get to write without dumbing down my concepts or having to over-explain."

A crucial part of this success is his seamless partnership with Hirani. Both of them are the best examples of the very target audiences that they write for – simple, introspective, unassuming commoners. "Raju and I realised early on that our thought processes were similar," Joshi says.

"We’re both from small towns – I’m from Ahmedabad and he’s from Nagpur – our fathers were both rationalists who brought us up to believe that we could achieve anything, we’ve grown up watching the same kind of wholesome films and we aren’t fans of arthouse cinema. So when we collaborated, we instantly knew that we wanted to make films that had something to say, while being entertaining."

They even have a fool proof way out when they disagree over a particular scene. "There are some parameters that we keep in mind while writing," he says.

"The idea we’re working on has to be unique, and our scenes either have to evoke laughter, sadness or have some drama. You’ll never see a scene from us where a car is pointlessly driving up to a gate or a doorbell is being rung. We immediately scrap those dead moments." Eventually a scene has to work for Hirani, Joshi believes, since he’s the one shooting it with 300 people on a set.

Sometimes the challenge is to not give in to the temptation by adding a song or letting the scene run longer because the actor is performing well. "We try to follow Ingmar Bergman’s three commandments," he says. "The first is that a filmmaker has to entertain his viewers at any cost. The second is that he/she must not sell their soul while trying to entertain, and the third is that he/she must treat each film like it’s their last."

It’s people’s reactions to his films that make everything worthwhile. "I still get letters from people who appreciated Lage Raho Munnabhai and 3 Idiots," he says, smiling. "And knowing that you were able to influence someone’s life to a small degree is a better feeling than winning awards."

As far as fame and recognition go, Joshi has realised that he doesn’t want to get distracted by trying to put himself out there. "I’ve realised that it’s better to just focus on work," he says.

"A Raju Hirani film requires a lot out of you, so every missed opportunity comes back to haunt me. It’s better to go into my zone until I’m satisfied with my work." He misses family events and important meetings in the bargain, but makes up for them once his films hit the marquee.

Joshi doesn’t feel the need to venture into other areas of filmmaking. "When writers aren’t appreciated for their work, I think there’s a natural temptation to go on and direct films," he says. "They may try to seek recognition elsewhere."

But Joshi is more than satisfied in this role of a screenwriter. He used to be a professor of English at an American college, but has even cut down on his teaching time to focus on films. "The people I work with are fair in sharing credit," he says. "Nobody had a clue about the writer after Lage Raho Munnabhai, but after PK, I’ve received more than what I deserved."

Sidekick supreme

Hirani and Joshi have not only given us larger-than-life heroes like PK and Munnabhai, but they’ve also created memorable supporting characters


: Omi Vaidya’s famous chamatkari speech from 3 Idiots launched his career as a comedic actor


Arshad Warsi’s career got a reboot after he played the loveable Circuit.

Jagat Janani:

Anushka Sharma delivered a performance that was completely different from her previous bubbly roles.

Geeta Kapoor: The choreographer who makes Farah Khan’s moves pop

Together they have designed steps for some of the most popular item songs

Despite a solid collaboration of over 20 years with Farah Khan, choreographer Geeta Kapoor has remained dutifully second-in-command and away from media glare. The only time Kapoor remembers being envious of her mentor? An obscure incident from way back when she hadn’t even started dancing professionally.

Before she became the most-sought-after choreographer of Bollywood, Farah Khan had her own dance group in the 1980s. The group used to perform at various film events. "One of my friends used to be part of Ms Khan’s team," Kapoor says. "One day, my father and I happened to be at their rehearsals. He was mighty impressed by Ms Khan’s moves and started praising her. I was very young, so I got all flustered and to prove a point to him, learnt the whole dance routine by myself."

As luck would have it, some time later, a girl from the same dance group had taken ill during a show. The organisers found out that Kapoor knew the whole dance routine. "They asked me to replace that girl and that’s how I landed my first dance assignment," Kapoor recalls.

"Later, I found out that the girl I had replaced was Farah Khan herself!" Kapoor was merely 15 years old at the time, and her performance impressed Khan so much that she was asked to join the group.

Over the years, Kapoor has emerged as a mediator between Khan and her dance troupe. "She was very short-tempered," Kapoor says. "So I was the one who toned it down, moderated her comments, and passed them on to her dancers. This way, we avoided big blow-outs during rehearsals."

Even when Kapoor took up solo film assignments, Khan stood by her. "Very few people in the industry encourage producers to work with their protégés," Kapoor says. "And Ms Khan is one of them. Her style of working is very straightforward and clean. That is something I’ve always tried to imbibe." Kapoor proudly mentions that her mentor has, time and again, raised the issue of fair salaries for extras in songs.

Unlike Khan, who demands a kind of liveliness in dance moves, Kapoor has over the years established herself with subtle choreography in many songs, like those from Asoka and Ghajini. "No matter how intricate a step is," Kapoor says, laughing, "Ms Khan always wants it to be high on energy! Whereas people come to me when they want soulful moves."

Subtlety may be her forte, but it’s the masala dance moves that have established her reputation. "You can do all the concept-based songs you want, but those will never translate to fame," she concedes. "Most choreographers gain accolades when they do item songs like Chikni Chameli or Sheila Ki Jawaani."

For what it is worth, Kapoor is happy that technicians like her have started getting credit for their work. "Earlier, you didn’t even get a van unless you were Saroj Khan or Farah Khan," she says. "They said cast and crew in one breath, but the crew bit was never taken seriously. People have started looking at us in a new light now. There are categories for technical awards these days."

However, Kapoor is secretly happy that she isn’t in the limelight all the time. "I get extremely nervous in front of the camera. I get tongue-tied and can’t remember anything I’m supposed to do," she says. The only exception she has made has been for the reality show, Dance India Dance. "The show had no script and required no acting. So I reluctantly took it up!"

Bestselling items

Geeta Kapoor and Farah Khan have collaborated on many item songs

(From left) Deepika’s belly dance song, Lovely; Madhuri’s dance comeback in Ghagra; Katrina’s iconic Sheila Ki Jawaani

Mukesh Chhabra: The casting director who discovered actors like Rajkummar Rao and Sushant Singh Rajput

He has cast big blockbusters and also given the indie industry some of its best acting talents

People have no idea how much effort goes into finding a talented actor, says Mukesh Chhabra, who has cast Badlapur, Haider, Ugly, Highway and Jai Ho in the last one year.

“Sometimes a film has Salman Khan or Ranbir Kapoor, but then there are films like Kai Po Che!, where you have to start from scratch. I still remember how difficult it was to convince director Abhishek Kapoor to cast Sushant Singh Rajput, who had come from TV.

I pushed for Rajkummar Rao because he was an undiscovered talent, and I literally picked Amit Sadh out of a line of Bollywood aspirants who were waiting to audition for some role. That’s how Kai Po Che! was put together.”

Sitting in his office, you can’t miss the big signboard behind his desk, with Thank You notes and messages from his finds. There are notes from Sushant Singh Rajput, Rajkummar Rao, Swara Bhaskar, Huma Qureshi and Vineet Kumar among others.

“This is what really matters,” says Chhabra, who did the casting for Gangs of Wasseypur too. “These people still remember my contribution to their career; they drop in unannounced and chat with me for hours.”

Chhabra has doggedly worked towards giving Bollywood some of today’s biggest acting talents. “I rely on instinct more than anything else,” he says. “I just get a feeling whether an actor will be able to pull off what the script requires. But even after that, you’ve to figure out whether they will adapt to a particular accent required by the film, whether they have chemistry with other actors, whether their dates match the film’s schedule, and so on.”

The quest for a good actor has taken him to places unknown and led to horrific experiences. “I spotted a child doing wheelies with his bicycle at a traffic signal,” he recalls. “I wanted him for Chillar Party, so we followed him home. Since it looked suspicious, his mother thought that we were there to kidnap him!” But he believes these are the hoops one has to jump through, to find a diamond in the rough.

Chhabra is also an acting coach and has conducted workshops with Sidharth Malhotra and Shraddha Kapoor for Ek Villain, Aditya Roy Kapoor for Aashiqui 2, Imran Khan and Kangana Ranaut for the upcoming film Katti Batti.

“I’ve never received complaints,” he says. “But if a movie fails because of the actors, I take the blame. There are times when I feel I could’ve pushed the actors more.”

Chhabra is happy with the way the industry has credited him. “Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali and Vikas Bahl have even put my name on their films’ posters, which is rare for a casting director,” he says. “And when it comes to actors, I feel a sense of fatherly pride towards Rajkummar when he wins a National Award, or Sushant, when he bags a big film.”

However, when his mother asks him why he doesn’t win any awards for Best Casting, Chhabra tells her that he hopes they add the category to awards shows soon. “Production designers, costume designers and make-up artists put their hearts into a film,” he says. “All of them are getting recognition, and I believe the spotlight will soon fall on casting directors too.”

Mithoon: The composer behind the chartbusters in several Bhatt films

If the soundtracks of Aashiqui 2 and Murder 2 are so hummable, it is because of this composer

When Atif Aslam shot to fame with the superhit song, Woh Lamhe (from Zeher) in 2005, not many people knew that the creative genius who collaborated with him on the song was a 19-year-old composer Mithoon Sharma.

"The Bhatts had a tune but didn’t know how to better it," Mithoon recalls. "I worked on it for two days, and when they heard it, they liked it so much that they gave credit to me, a college-going boy!"

Mithoon then composed songs for other Bhatt films – Murder 2, Jism 2 and Aashiqui 2 – giving a new musical identity to the banner. Coming from a musical family (his father is the music conductor Naresh Sharma), he always knew that he wanted to be a Bollywood composer. "At 15, I was hanging out at Nadeem-Shravan’s studios," he says. "I received training and great exposure because of my father’s goodwill there."

His music has not only added greatly to films’ promotions but also to box-office collections, in a country where people still watch films in theatres just for the songs.

Today, the pressure to deliver hit songs has shifted from Bhatts’ banner to Mithoon. "It’s not like my listeners won’t expect anything if it isn’t a Bhatt film," he says. "All my albums have become independently popular, so the pressure is on me now."

While most of Mithoon’s songs have caught on in a big way, people have often credited the actor Emraan Hashmi for their cult appeal. "It bothers my studio team and my friends when people say that all Emraan Hashmi songs are great," he says. "While it doesn’t bother me, people should anyway try and find out who the people behind a successful song are."

However, he believes that technicians are in a much better position today. "It’ll be helpful if actors start talking about people who are behind the scenes," he says. "Stars have a lot of power."

Mithoon’s greatest hits
The composer, just 30, already has these hits under his belt

Tum hi ho:
This song from Aashiqui 2 won most Best Song awards and has around 43 million hits on YouTube
Phir Mohabbat: This Murder 2 song marked Mithoon’s return to the Bhatt banner after a 5-year hiatus
Woh Lamhe: Mithoon’s breakout song from Zeher

Anaita Shroff Adajania: The stylist who transformed Deepika into a style icon
After Cocktail, the actor-stylist duo has come up with some stunning, cutting edge looks, wowing fashion critics of Bollywood

The year 2013 proved to be great for Deepika Padukone. The awkward starlet suddenly had five blockbusters and there was a sudden, visible change in her personal style. She was touted as the next big fashion icon and continues getting various titles from fashion magazines.

The woman behind this transformation was ace fashion stylist Anaita Shroff Adajania, who wanted to give Deepika a fresh look starting with her husband Homi Adajania’s film, Cocktail. "We had started off with safe looks," she says. "But Cocktail gave us a character with whom we could push the envelope. After that, we knew Deepika could carry off anything. We have no barriers now; we’ve done classic, grunge, rock, minimalism and full-on glamorous looks."

Adajania has also styled Katrina Kaif, Sonam Kapoor, Bipasha Basu and Aishwarya Rai for various films, but there are a few points that she keeps in mind while styling Deepika. "I work very instinctively, keeping Deepika at the forefront," she says. "And then the look has to be appropriate for the event."

Adajania’s work has made Deepika both a serious style contender and target of the self-appointed fashion critics, but the stylist sees it as a good thing. "The weight of the opinion varies based on each person’s credibility," she says. "With social media, the response to one’s work is immediate so it keeps me on my toes."

She believes that the young crop of actors is far more experimental with looks. "The challenge is to create a strong individual style identity for each one of them," she states.

Actresses usually walk away with compliments for the looks she puts together, but Adajania says most of them are "easy with praise" for her work, so she isn’t worried about getting credit. And as far as the strategy for styling Deepika goes, she says that they’ve grown as a team and become fearless about trying new looks.

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From HT Brunch, March 1

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