Nitesh Tiwari: ‘I always make films for the audience and not for myself’
The director and screenwriter whose successes include Dangal, the highest grossing original Hindi film of all time, talks about his childhood in small town Madhya Pradesh, what he learnt at IIT Bombay, his successful advertising career, and the kind of films he likes to make
What was your time in IIT Bombay like?
I never thought, when I went to IIT Bombay, that cultural activities like dramatics would be given so much importance; and I never knew that I had it in me. So things just happened. There were hostels that took great pride in Sports GC (General Championship), a glimpse of which you may have seen in Chhichhore. At the same time, equal importance was given to winning the Cultural GC as well. One act plays in English, Hindi and Marathi, miming, group miming, mono acting, music – seniors took great interest in all these things. And as soon as a fresh batch came in, the seniors would start scouting for talent that could represent their hostel in one or many of these things. When it came to the sports selections, I got in because I was good at cricket. But not many people were exposed to dramatics and many freshers themselves don’t know if they have any such talent. So the seniors would call us and see if any of us fit the bill. I remember by my senior Dhiraj Kakkad was figuring out who could go for the Freshy Miming Competition. Miming is not easy and he was rather flustered about finding someone who could do the job well. I had not even raised my hand, initially. But I had seen the miming competition at HBKI Kanpur earlier so I thought I would try it. He came up to me and hugged me and said, “Where were you hiding?” That year, I won miming at the Freshy Competition and after that I won miming for four years in a row in the senior competition at IIT Bombay. So that is where my interest in dramatics and writing were generated.
Has studying engineering shaped your personality and expression?
I feel engineering shapes you. When you study engineering, it helps you become more analytical by nature. Because those problems really require an analytical approach to thinking. A lot of analytical thinking should go into the writing of a screenplay and a story as well. There has to be a logical reason for everything to exist; there has to be a proper flow of things. And all of this is very, very analytical. Along with creativity, writing a screenplay also involves a lot of logic and analytical thinking especially in terms of how to structure it, how to move from one scene to another, the development of the graph of characters and many other things. So I think somewhere that engineering study of mine comes into play. I am not saying that’s the only way to do it. There are writers who have not studied engineering who also employ their analytical brain in writing. But for me, I think that it has been very helpful.
That’s one aspect of studying engineering. The other one is that it matters a lot who surrounds you in your impressionable years. Fortunately, I was surrounded by some very, very fertile brains at college. Not only were they very good at academics but they were also very creative. I learnt so much from them just by being amongst them and observing them. There was nothing conventional about the way they thought. It was really out of the box thinking even in the simplest of things – in the pranks, even in the keedas they used to do! I’ll give you an example: once, some guys removed the hinges from the side of someone’s door using tools from the mechanical engineering department. They put the hinges on the top of the door so while normally, doors open sideways, when the guy walked in, the door opened up-down and came back straight on his face! The guy, whose door it was, loved it so much that he refused to remove the hinges and put them back in their original place. After that, he always walked into his room by bending down! It was all crazy. Another time, bulls were lured with chapatis and grass and taken to the first floor of the hostel. When a guy went into his room, he saw two bulls sitting inside! There were many such crazy ideas. In my third and fourth years, I was directing plays for my hostel and the response I got was marvellous.
I think it’s the fabulous response that I got in college that drew me to this field. However, at that time, I never thought I would make a career of this. Most engineers do internships in tech firms or in the industry but I chose to do it in an advertising agency. I did an internship at RK Swamy BBDO, an advertising agency, in my third year of engineering. I had decided by then that I wanted to give writing a shot. I just loved those two months in RK Swamy. People were coming to office with dogs, everybody was casual, it was a great environment, nothing formal about it. I thought someday I would like to work in an environment like that. Then, in my fourth year, I got placed in a software firm. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.
Every morning, when I went to work, I used to question myself if this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. The answer was always a no. After some time, I thought, this is the time for me to take risks because otherwise, very soon, I would settle into the job and get comfortable with the money coming my way. I didn’t want to be old and regret that I hadn’t given writing a proper shot. I was not sure at all if I had it in me but I still wanted to give it a shot. There was a Brand Equity article that featured the top five agencies for young writers. I applied to all five. Three rejected me straight up. Only two agencies gave me a copy test. One of which was Ulka. Both Ambi and Shashi, who were the top management at Ulka at that time, were IITians. They called me, spoke to me and discouraged me! They genuinely meant well and wondered why I wanted to be a writer after studying at IIT. They thought I was coming from a misconception that advertising is all about glamour and cool people and partying when in reality, it is a business where you have to live with rejection every day. But I was genuinely interested so I told them I still wanted to do it. After that, they gave me a copy test and soon, I joined Ulka on one-fourth of the salary I was making at the software firm. Also, I remember, they didn’t hire me based on the copy test. They hired me based on a poem that I had written.
You grew up in a small town in Madhya Pradesh. Does that affect the way you write and look at the world?
I have lived in many small towns in MP. Ganj Basoda, Itarsi and many others. I draw a lot from my real life experiences. What seemed like a burden in childhood eventually worked in my favour. My only weakness was that I was not very good at English when I came to Mumbai. But that turned out to be my strength because I was very good at Hindi. I think being very good at Hindi gave me an edge in advertising. At the time, I was the only Hindi writer in Ulka. I got to work on many more projects than any trainee writer ever would because I was good at Hindi. I was allotted to one group but I got to work on projects from all groups. So with four groups in play, I got four times the opportunities. Very soon, people realised I could write good scripts so I used to be briefed by everyone. It was quite generous of them. I got a lot of ad films out around that time. For a junior to have so many ad films is not common. Some of those also became very popular. At that time, I was making very little money but seeing my work on TV compensated for travelling from Kandivali to Nariman Point in a second class compartment and for reading menu cards like you read Urdu – looking at the price first and then deciding on the dish. Work made up for all the struggle. And once you start doing well, you get compensated. So very soon, money started coming my way too.
Also, in my childhood, I used to be troubled because my dad worked in the education department, which was a transferable job. Every three years, I had to make new friends. But now, I think of it as a blessing because I got to meet such fascinating people and experience such remarkable stories -- that wouldn’t have been possible if I lived only in one town. Every town has its own culture and I got to experience it. Let me tell you, in my 9th standard, there was no English medium school in Ganj Basoda. The closest English medium school was 42 kilometers away in Vidisha. Today, my kids live in Mumbai and I don’t even let them go alone to the shop, but in the 9th standard, 11 of us kids would cycle for half an hour to the Ganj Basoda station, then catch an intercity train – Pathankot Express or Southern Express – get down at Vidisha station after 45 minutes and walk for 20 minutes to reach school. We always carried a bat and a ball with us because, in those days, trains ran late regularly. So when the train was late, we played cricket at the station. These were the experiences I grew up with. Only when I went to Gwalior in the 10th standard did I learn of the existence of IIT. Till then my aim was to get into the best institute in MP. Gwalior was also the first time I saw a semi-metro. I was good at academics – I stood 4th in MP in the 10th standard. Then I aimed for IIT and got in.
You have a team of writers whom you always write with. What’s that like?
Yes, I always like to write with someone and not alone. Sometimes, when you’re writing alone, you may have tunnel vision. Even in advertising, I believed a lot in writing with my team. In fact, the people I write films with were all my bachchas in advertising – Sherry (Shreyas Jain), Piyush (Gupta) and Nikhil (Meharotra). Like I said, they all come from small towns as well. So together, we have a varied set of experiences. Also, their life experiences are 10 years younger than mine, which gives our writing a very balanced perspective. If you look at the characters we have in our films, most of them are borrowed from real life characters. Even in Bhootnath, Sanjay Mishra’s character is called Gabdi. It was the name of my father’s friend back in Itarsi, whose shop we used to drink tea at. How else do you come up with a name called Gabdi? In Bareilly Ki Barfi, Kriti’s (Sanon) character is called Bitti Mishra. That was my nani’s (maternal grandmother) name. They used to call her Bitti in the house. Even the life I have spent in Mumbai comes in handy while writing my characters.
Did you always want to make cinema?
Never. I never thought I would leave advertising. I was doing very well and was really happy. I became National Creative Director of Leo Burnett at 39 but I never really worked for designations. If I had my way, I would always go back to being a trainee copywriter because that’s where I had the most fun. Films happened to me by chance. Honestly, I am a reluctant director and a reluctant screenplay writer. Vikas (Bahl) was my client on Sub TV. We got along very well. After some time, he joined UTV Spotboy. One day, he called me and said he had a one-line idea for a film and asked if I would be interested in writing a screenplay with him. At the time, I was still working in advertising so we would work on the screenplay on weekends, and in one year, we wrote Chillar Party. Then we went to five-six directors to see if they wanted to direct the film. Nobody agreed and we were heartbroken.
Then Vikas asked me why I didn’t direct it myself. My first response was, “I am doing fine in advertising. I don’t want to be slammed by people for making a bad film.” I had never directed anything before. Then Vikas said, “Let’s direct the film together.” Even Vikas had never made a film back then so both of us had no experience. I asked myself, “Why am I getting so scared?” The fear was of failure. Then I realised that even if it didn’t work out, I always had advertising to fall back on, so I took that leap of faith. I went to my boss, Pops (KV Sridhar), and told him about what I was thinking. Surprisingly, he seemed very happy that I was trying something new and granted me leave for five months. He was very kind and supportive.
Eventually, we made Chillar Party and won three national awards as well. After that, I was not actively looking to make the next film but things happened and I made Bhootnath Returns. By that time, I had to take the tough call of leaving advertising. I knew films would be full of uncertainty and quitting the job was a big decision especially since I was a National Creative Director and you get used to making a certain amount that you get every month. Burnett wanted me to stay back and said they would let me do films, but at that point, my kids were young and taking up so much work would have meant that I didn’t spend any time with them. So I chose time with my kids and quit my advertising job.
Dangal became the highest grossing original Hindi film of all time, which is as big as it gets. How did it happen?
Dangal changed my life for the better. It all started with Manish (Hariprasad) and Divya (V Rao) who worked in the content development department. They came to me with a paragraph which they had read somewhere about how Mahavir Singh Phogat fought all the odds and made his daughters world-class wrestlers. At that time, there was not much written about Geeta and Babita online. But I thought the premise was very strong. So I told Manish and Divya that let’s dig deeper, find out more and see if there’s something interesting in there. So Piyush, one of my co-writers, and I went to Haryana and met Geeta and Babita and Mahavir Singhji and we came back fully stunned knowing their story. It was such a potent story that I involved Nikhil and Sherry as well and all the four of us wrote the film. We wrote the full film and we were very happy with the way it had shaped up.
Then, Ronnie (Screwala) and Sid (Siddharth Roy Kapur) asked me who I would ideally like to cast in this film as Mahavir Singh? My instant answer was Aamir Khan. They said okay and we had a meeting with Amir sir. After our narration, he said that he wanted to do the film but didn’t know when he would be ready to do it and asked if we were willing to wait. We thought that if Aamir Khan is interested then it is definitely worth waiting for. Exactly after one year, he called us to Delhi and told us that he wanted to hear the script again. I went to his hotel room to narrate it. He was exhausted and sleepy. I told him that I would come back and narrate it to him after he had slept for a couple of hours. He said, “No, if I like the script in this condition, only then is it a really good one.” That was my most nervous narration ever. He heard the whole film again and said, “Let’s do it.” So when we were flying back to Mumbai, we were metaphorically flying as well because we were on cloud nine! And then we started the prep and the rest, as they say, is history.
What role do you think cinema plays in society?
The primary function of cinema, especially in our society, is as a stress buster. People want to enjoy, they want to be moved. I put myself as a consumer, not as a creator. Why do I go and watch movies? I watch movies to get entertained. So I would always want to make sure that my films entertain people. The secondary function of cinema is of people taking something back from the film. A film that serves both the primary and the secondary functions is a great film for me. Dangal may have a very serious undertone to it; Chhichhore may have a very serious undertone to it... But the way we have written those films is for them to be entertaining; they don’t sound preachy.
Where do you stand on the mainstream versus art house debate?
I can’t separate the two. For me, either you like a film or you don’t. I think there are two kinds of films. One is the director’s vision, the director’s story where they make whatever they want to. The other, the one I create, thinks of the audience first. I always make films for the audience and not for myself – I am very clear about that. I want to cater to the masses and the audiences. I am not trying to prove a point by doing something else. I think it is something that can be easily done. I care about how my audience is looking at my film and consuming it.
What is success to you?
If I were to give you a philosophical answer, success is something that gives you the power to say no. That’s how I would define it. Today, I have the power to say no to many projects that I don’t want to be part of. Otherwise, sometimes, you work on something because you need money, then you have to compromise and all that.
And what is failure to you?
Failure to me is great learning. Failure keeps you grounded and teaches you a lot of humility. Failure is something that also reminds you that may be you should have tried harder. I don’t run away from my failures. I face them. If you turn a blind eye to your failures you are setting yourself up for another one. Failure is inevitable for everyone. Don’t be scared of it.
Please name some of your favourite films and filmmakers?
The one who will always remain at the top of my list is Steven Spielberg. Then David Fincher is someone I really admire; then Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese. I am talking about consistency right now. All these guys have been consistent. There have been some one-hit wonders as well where someone made a great one-off film but couldn’t repeat it. I give a lot of importance to consistency and the entire body of work.
Then, in India, of course, Ray. I mean everyone takes his name and it’s almost a cliché to mention him. But his work is remarkable. I even like the kind of work which Raj Kapoor did or Hrishida (Hrishikesh Mukherjee) did or Basu Chatterjee did – they knew what was required. I also love Sai Paranjpye’s work – I can watch Katha and Chashme Baddoor any number of times. Also, to a certain extent, Yash Chopra’s work – especially Deewar, Kala Patthar and Lamhe.
You have achieved great success pretty quickly. Is there anything that you think you wanted to do but could not?
Honestly, no. My philosophy is that if I want to do something, I do it. If I want to make a film then I make that film. If you ask me, at least, as of now, I can’t think of anything that I missed out on. I am very grateful to life for giving me so much. I have no ambition that’s been left unfulfilled.
Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.
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