HT Brunch Cover Story: Bijlis to the fore
As Niharika Bijli gets praise for her work on Brahmāstra, she joins dad Ajay Bijli and siblings Nayana and Aamer to talk about individual pursuits, passions and family
When 25-year-old Ajay Bijli’s father passed away, he left behind a solid legacy in the form of a well-established transport company and strong family values to last a lifetime.
At 55-years-old, Ajay has successfully built his own brand that is a household name today—PVR Cinemas—from the ground up, and established a legacy all his own to pass on to his children, along with the very same values that he has always held dear.
Perhaps the most important values he’s inculcated in his children, Niharika, Nayana and Aamer, are sincerity, integrity and humility. However, since they were surrounded by a lot of movies growing up, the one habit they picked up by default was a passion for watching movies—although when you speak to the three, the word ‘passion’ seems to fall short; ‘obsession’ may be more accurate. Now, like their father, the three are turning their obsession into something more productive.
You may know of the recently released film, Brahmāstra, part one of a planned fantasy trilogy that featured VFX previously unseen in Hindi cinema. What you may not know is that Ajay’s elder daughter, 30-year-old Niharika, was the creative director of the film, working alongside the director, Ayan Mukerji.
“I’ve been working on Brahmāstra for the last six years,” Niharika reveals. For her, this entailed doing a mix of different things.
“I worked very closely with the director [Ayan Mukerji] through the project, who became my mentor very quickly. I started fairly early on the film, when all we had was a basic script. So, I got to work on almost every aspect of the process, right from pre-production, which involved referencing, storyboarding, concept work, all the way into post-production, with a heavy hand in the VFX coordination and production the film required,” she explains.
Dedicating six years of your career to one film is a gamble, but it seems to have paid off, since Niharika was clearly just doing what she loved.
“When I first went to Mumbai, I didn’t know it was going to be for six years,” she says. “It was my first movie; people think that just because my father is in this business, we know a lot about the film industry, but l had no idea what goes into making a movie. It was a huge culture shock.”
When she first left Delhi for Mumbai, she assumed it would only be for a year. Her suitcase was packed with only a month’s worth of clothes! “And then I just didn’t come back,” she smiles.
“These were probably the most challenging six years of my life, so far. And genuinely, the most rewarding. There’s just something very infectious and contagious about this world. And I think I got very lucky with the people I found in this world. It was like working with family.”
Niharika’s younger siblings, Nayana, 28, and Aamer, 24, are keeping work within the family, too. Nayana works in PVR Pictures in acquisitions, while Aamer works as a liaison for international movie marketing and film programming at PVR, while also working for the family transport company.
Simply put, for Nayana, this means buying content, mainly foreign films. Eventually though, she wants to produce movies. “I’m passionate about stories and bringing stories to life,” the self-confessed introvert says in her soft-spoken way.“My goal is to produce. Content acquisitions exposes me to the different stories out there, but eventually I want to make my own movies.”
Aamer describes what he does as bridging the gap between the US studios and the Indian cinemas. “I want to push Hollywood content more; English is such a heavily spoken language here. It’s a shame that it doesn’t do as well as it should. Our cinemas are so nice, our screens are so large!” he smiles, his words as soft-spoken and measured as his sisters.
The three of them light up when they talk about how growing up with movies has shaped them.
“Movies have always been ingrained in us,” Nayana shares. “PVR wasn’t a removed, separate business. We grew up in cinemas, watching movies, and that aspect always remained.” In fact, Nayana studied international relations and economics, then began her career working in consulting for two years.
Nayana then went to work at a streaming platform called MUBI, in licensing and acquisition. “What I learnt there was being with filmmakers, negotiating, and that put me in touch with films again and really reinforced that passion that was always inside. So, I came back to PVR just a month ago,” she says, adding, “I missed it.”
“Movies were more than a way to pass time for us,” Aamer echoes her sentiments. “Niharika caught the movie bug very early on. And since I was two or three… or actually, from the moment I could comprehend anything, movies have been the main show and tell around me. It gripped me just like it gripped them, I guess.”
For Niharika, too, movies have always been a calling, though she didn’t acknowledge that till much later. “Honestly, I didn’t know that this is what I wanted to do. But there were moments in my childhood that were consciously and subconsciously pushing me towards this. When all of us cousins got together, I was always like —come on, we have to do a play today! In school, I loved drama as a subject. My biggest mistake was not pursuing drama in my last two years of school,” she lets on.
“I didn’t realise that these were not just hobbies,” Niharika continues.“Even when I went to college, I studied business and took film classes on the side—and I always liked those better. But I don’t think it was until I made the decision to move to Mumbai and I went on set, and had that experience first-hand, that I knew I wanted to do this.”
For Ajay, his children’s career paths are all their own. While he’s guided them steadily like any father, their decisions have been all their own. “Simply because the same thing happened to me,” he shares. “My dad wanted me to study, but was always very clear that it was my call. There’s a big trucking company. If I fit in there and if I enjoy it, then fine. Otherwise, anything I wanted to do. He was keen that I do business though, not become a singer,” he laughs. “Although I had a band in college, so he was slightly worried when I grew my hair like George Michael.”
For Aamer, who’s had many interests and been exploring different avenues before finding his true path, his parent’s support has always been paramount. “My parents have always been very supportive of anything I’ve wanted to do, which is very fortunate. They’ve been very accommodating of all my interests—I wanted to become a professional basketball player... I wanted to act. They never said no. Their direction was more: if you really want to do it, show me the work, that you can do it. And if it turns into something, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll explore other avenues.”
Clearly Ajay and his wife Selena saw the direction the three children were taking and nurtured it to fruition.
“They sort of said, follow your heart, your dreams,” says Nayana.“And it was just so that our dreams aligned with what papa was doing, what chachu [Sanjeev Bijli] was doing.”
Niharika, as the eldest, did feel like she had to put in a little more work to convince her parents that she wanted to move to Mumbai, and then stay on for six years.
“It was my mum who, when I moved back from college, sensed I wasn’t happy. And when this opportunity came along in Mumbai, she was like, you need to just go. She sensed something was off and she gave me that push to leave. She’s always had that instinct,” Niharika reveals.
“My dad took a little convincing, but he was also in a similar situation. Our grandfather had a trucking company and papa went to him with an outlandish idea—to start a cinema chain. He understood that even I want to try something new. He’s been very supportive. He’s been worried, but he’s been supportive. I’ve been very lucky,” she muses.
Ajay is by no means a man who does things by half, and that extends to all areas of his life. He met his wife, Selena, all the way back in school, in 1984, and they got married in 1990. “Squash, I picked up and finished till I played for Delhi. Basketball, I picked up and played for university. Ten-pin bowling—a dying game—till I played for India. I started running and then I finished six-seven half-marathons. But it was too much for my knees. People call me Forrest Gump!” he laughs.
He’s instilled this same drive and motivation in his children, and has been playing basketball with all three of them since they were younger, a sport they all excel at. Along with that, he also passed on his passion for music.
“With papa, aside from movies, what I share is music. We’re both very musically inclined. I also sing a little, not as much as him,” reveals Nayana, who also plays the piano. Niharika, too, used to sing when she was little, and even trained classically for a while. Now, she says, “I enjoy listening to the music that they make!”
As for Aamer, he plays the drums and sings, but unfortunately, as he laments, “my audience is restricted to the shampoos and shower gels.”
All three are now fully grown and able to understand the sacrifices their parents made, and wholly appreciate the time that Ajay took to teach them these lessons.
“Dad worked so hard in the years we were growing up, but he never made us feel like he wasn’t there. And as I’ve grown up, and started working, I’ve realised what he did. He was successful in finding that work-life balance, that I’m currently finding so difficult to maintain. My respect and admiration for him has only grown. He made that time to play basketball with me, watch a movie and take us out every Sunday. That, I’m very appreciative of,” says Niharika.
It’s hard to find any of the three kids, or even their father, on social media. It’s honestly something they haven’t given any thought to.
“We were never really brought up that way,” explains Aamer. “We’re very private people and we’re not really into posting pictures. It’s just a personal preference.”
More often than not, the entire family can be found watching movies together, as one unit, at home, and they take every opportunity they can to be together: they take holidays together, go out to eat together, and genuinely enjoy spending time together.
“When I told Ayan how much time we spend time together as a family, he said you guys are like a Sooraj Barjatya movie, like Hum Saath Saath Hai,” Niharika laughs. “But we actually just love spending time together.”
“He’s our resident rockstar!”
The kids on dad things Ajay Bijli does: including “I love yous” at the end of every text!
The worst dad joke he’s ever told?
Niharika: Beans beans, they’re good for your heart...
All three: The more you eat, the more you fart.
The most ‘dad’ thing about him?
All three: He falls asleep when we’re watching movies. Always.
Has he ever embarrassed you?
Niharika: Once, he took us to the airport four hours before the flight. The lady at check-in told us to “chill” and come back when they open.
Aamer: Papa calls me by my pet names even at a formal event, or whether I’m with my friends. He’ll say, “Aamu, come here.”
Nayana: He sent an email once—when I had just joined work—and it said, ‘Nainii will send the file.”
Your favourite memory of your dad growing up?
All three: Basketball. He would come home from work and make us play basketball with him.
Niharika: Our drives to Sunday lunches.
Aamer: He used to come back from work very late, because we lived very far away; it took like 2.5 hours. And before he came, I would hide in the closet or under the duvet cover. When he walked in, no matter how stressful his day was or hectic, he was always prepared to play with me.
Nayana: I think, singing. I’m very stiff and he’s this rockstar. Recently, we sang a song together and he helped me kind of loosen up.
The coolest thing about him?
Niharika: That he still does incredible things. He wakes up at six in the morning, goes to the gym and then at seven, he has a singing lesson, then he has a full day’s work, then he goes and jams with his band.
Nayana: By 11 am, papa’s had a full day.
Aamer: He’s our resident rockstar. And he’s good!
One thing about your dad that nobody knows?
Niharika: He’s really emotional. When I went to college, he cried so much. Mumma told me he was inconsolable on the flight back. And he wears his heart on his sleeve. He writes ‘I love you’ at the end of every message.
Nayana: And emojis!
Aamer: And exclamation marks!
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From HT Brunch, November 19, 2022
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