Even after a long day of speaking to journalists about his upcoming directorial Chhichhore, Nitesh Tiwari looks far from being tired. He chats with his team about music and occasionally asks about that “mithai ka dabba”, which no one’s touching, on the table. “The road is blocked so I thought I might as well chat with these guys. Also, Ashwiny is not home. By the time I reach home, the kids will be asleep. There’s no incentive to go to home,” he is heard saying.
The normalcy of Nitesh’s conversations takes away any assumption one would have about how the director of the biggest hit of Hindi cinema, Dangal, now thinks and behaves. That’s probably because he has moved on. Three years later, Nitesh brings Chhichhore, an ode to his IIT Bombay days. “One success shouldn’t encourage many repetitions of the same. You should have faith in your own stuff rather than relying on the past and replicating it for the future,” he says.
Excerpts from a conversation
Q. You just mentioned about religiously following your duties as a father and a husband but is it easy for you to disconnect from director Nitesh Tiwari?
No, it’s not easy. It depends upon the state of mind. If things are going the way you want them to be, then you are more at peace. Then, you can detach yourself from work. I am a sucker for perfection. So, if even an iota of a thing hasn’t gone well, it stays on my mind. I will be physically present there but my mind would be elsewhere. But kids are the best stress busters. They have this uncanny humility to make you switch off, whether you want it or not. With Ashwiny, I will end up discussing my problems but they (children) don’t understand and they will make sure you forget it.
Q. Do you believe a perfectionist in Bollywood is at times perceived to be difficult?
On the contrary, I am a very easy-going person. I like to go in extremely well prepared. On the day of the shoot, I know how many shots are to be taken, what are the angles we are taking, the lenses we are taking and who is wearing what. And all the actors have rehearsed their dialogues. So, we just have to go and execute it. So, there’s never any confusion. I like to work that way. Everything is in place and I just have to execute it.
My DOP exactly knows where are we shooting from, what is the camera movement and what is the lense. So, he has done his pre-lighting. I think it’s extremely comforting and a disciplined way of filmmaking. This is better than going on the set and asking the DOP, “Aaj camera kahan laga hai?” (Where do we put the camera today?). That’s recipe for chaos.
Q. When was the germ of Chhichhore sown?
A large portion of Chhichhore are those four wonderful years I spent in IIT Bombay and my hostel life, which is predominantly responsible for what I am doing now. I ‘technically’ studied engineering, but what I ended up learning is how to think differently. I was surrounded by such greats, who were, of course, good in academics but they were different thinkers in every aspect of life. The way they looked at even pranks was very different! That’s where I discovered myself. That’s where the germ was sown and I always thought it would be fascinating to tell that side of my life. It’s not just my life. It will resonate with a lot of people.
But I never found a reason strong enough to tell that story. I was trying to find a purpose. So, when I sat with my writers – Nikhil and Piyush – and we found that purpose while brainstorming, it’s then I felt we needed to tell the story.
Q. More often than not, a filmmaker’s first story is his most personal ever. You waited for almost 10 years to tell it. Were you living Chhichhore all these years?
Not really. I wasn’t actively seeking to be a filmmaker. It came my way. I never wanted to direct Chillar Party. We were very happy writing it. But because no one else was willing to direct it, I ended up directing it because I didn’t want to leave that screenplay. It was beautiful. So, that was one accidental discovery of myself as a director.
Once you become a director, you start searching for stories. Before that you are not actively seeking stories. I think around the time Chillar Party released, I revisited my hostel days and I thought there might be something interesting about it. I think it was around Bhoothnath Returns. But still, that purpose was missing. So, I thought no, it couldn’t be this. It needed to have a deeper meaning to it so that it became more relevant.
Q. It has been evident since Chillar Party that you love working with an ensemble. Whether as a writer or a director, each character in your story has a distinct voice.
That’s how I write because that’s how life is. You are not just two people. There are many people around you and everybody has something to add to your story. That’s how I see life and that’s the way I see my stories that it has to be made up of enriching characters who make the journey even more beautiful. My characters are people who I have either met or observed. I mostly don’t create. Luckily, I have traveled a lot since my childhood. I have been fortunate enough to live in many towns of this country. That time I never realised it would be a blessing for me. Now, I see it comes in pretty handy.
Q. When a writer/director relies heavily on his or her personal experiences for their stories, does one run a risk of perhaps exhausting all of it one day, eventually pushing one to seek help from imaginations?
There’s always that risk but once in a blue moon a film like Dangal comes as a blessing to you where you are not borrowing anything from your experiences but you are rewriting someone else’s life because those characters are also so fascinating.
I would call myself extremely fortunate that I got to work with not only great actors, but actors who are extremely dedicated to their craft. Once you are working with such people, your job becomes easy because they are there for the project. The experience has been extremely fulfilling and gratifying. Be it Mr Bachchan or Aamir sir, Sushant and Shraddha or for that matter everybody else in Chhichhore, they have all been truly committed to their craft and the project.
Q. But honestly, is there a mental preparation required for a director before he or she goes on a set with stars?
Of course! But what happens with me is that a lot of comfort is developed while we are prepping and I pay a lot of importance to prep. On the set, you just have to execute what you have planned but you have to plan meticulously. And a part of planning is to win the trust of the star and get a sense of comfort in him or her that they feel you know your job. Once they have that, they will give their right arm for you. You have to work towards that. It doesn’t come naturally and it’s a very human thing that you would do anything for someone you trust. A director has to win his/her actor’s trust.
Q. How much time did the prep of Chhichhore take?
If I am not wrong, it was close to six-seven months. It was a very difficult preparation. It was one very challenging film to write and we kept on writing and rewriting drafts because there are so many characters over two different timelines all strung together in plot points that cross each other, something that’s not easy to achieve. So, I am very happy the way it has shaped up.
That’s what made it very challenging to shoot also because you are shooting something four months apart but, in the film, they are five seconds apart. How do you shoot that? There has to be seamless transition. That happens throughout the film. That’s what makes it challenging. So, if you are not prepared, you will be in trouble for sure.
Q. Karan Johar once said that stars don’t always take instructions well, so he goes to them and whispers in their ears what they need to do. What’s your process with your stars on set?
This conversation doesn’t happen with me because we do it prior to going on set. We have already rehearsed and discussed how we are going to do a particular shot. In an ideal case scenario, I would like to be a one-take director, but what happens sometimes that your actor wants one more take. Sometimes you think, ‘What we discussed in rehearsals is much better than what you are doing here.’ It’s all about that.
We have agreed on something and we haven’t reached there, so we have to go back to what we agreed up on and then execute that. Sometimes that happens in one take, sometimes it takes multiple takes. But yeah, I am not the one who would like to opt for multiple takes. If you can’t get it right in 10 takes, you can’t get it right in 15 takes also.
Q. Every film of yours is going to be compared to Dangal, at least in terms of box office collections. That’s how business works. How prepared are you for those comparisons? Now that Chhichhore is up for release, do you have conversations with yourself about how it would fare and measure up to what Dangal became?
What is very important for an individual to realise is that you need to be aware that these conversations are bound to happen. If you are aware, then you are more prepared. Also, you need to be more practical to understand that every film has its destiny. What has happened in the past need not happen in the future. The future might be even better than the past. We never made Dangal to be that kind of box office success. We made Dangal because we believed in that story and we wanted to tell it with utmost honesty. It’s the same with Chhichhore.
Q. Is it possible to not think about commercial success?
No, it isn’t but that can’t be your sole criteria. As a storyteller, your first loyalty should be towards the kind of stories that you want to tell. The second loyalty is to try to tell the story in the best possible manner and that is the reason why I teamed up with Sajid sir (Chhichhore producer Sajid Nadiadwala) because it is extremely important for you to have a great producer who understands your vision and backs it fully. Otherwise, you will be left halfway.
At no point of time, he ever said, “Don’t do this or that.” He said, “Do what you think is correct. I love the story. Let’s make it the way you want to make it.” We have one scene in the film where it required for us to go to London for half a day to shoot. Not for a second he told us not to go. Rest I feel if you are able to capture the imagination of the audience, they will give love to you in multiples. You just have to hope whatever you are trying resonates with them. That has always been my process that please be loyal to your story and try to tell it in the most honest manner.
Q. Post Dangal, what kind of advice did you get on your career from people in the industry?
First of all, I am very cut off from Bollywood. The reason I stay in Chembur is I want to stay that way. I was not given any advice on what I should do after Dangal, probably because people know I will do what I think is right. And I normally don’t follow the routine that my project has to be this or that. Like I said, my loyalties are always with stories. So, I was trying to figure out what is the story that I wanted to tell rather than whom I wanted to tell it with. That’s what happened with Chhichhore. I didn’t go saying, “I want to do it with so and so.”
Q. Do you think staying far removed from Bollywood’s madness keeps you sane and objective about the stories you want to tell?
It has nothing to do with that. The reason I choose to stay away is because I want to give a lot of time to my family and there’s only so much I believe one should be doing because there is no end to work. In the creative field, it’s even riskier. I will tell you one example. When the kids weren’t in our lives, what happens with creative guys is there’s no off or weekend. You may technically not go to office on a Sunday but you are still thinking because you have a campaign to present. I realised much later in life that I was working even on weekends. Why is mental work not called work? That’s also work.
When kids came in our lives, we realised they needed a lot of attention. They need a lot of care. Because both of us are very busy, one of us has to be there with them. I am glad the way our work happens as one of us finds time to be at home with them. Also, there’s only so much of Bollywood that I can take. That’s the reason we have decided to be away and it makes me want to come back to work strongly.
Q. What’s the most Bollywood thing that you have done?
I attended a premiere and didn’t like the movie but said, “It was very nice.” I will not tell you which one. I have learned the tricks. That’s the most Bollywood thing I would have done.
Q. Heartland stories are finding more takers and naturally everyone wants to attempt them. Not only Dangal, but also the stories that you have written – Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly ki Barfi – celebrate the mid-town flavour. At the same time, do you think the industry is getting into a trap of making a stereotype out of these stories, something it earlier did with larger-than-life storytelling? How do you look at this pattern where we aren’t moving to different stories but just newer locations?
Yes. I have a different way of approaching this. If your starting point is wrong, then you are doing what everybody else is doing. The starting point always has to be the story and if that story requires a particular location then the story has to justify the location. Location cannot justify the story. “So, I want to make a film in the heartland of India,” is a wrong starting point. “I have a story that belongs to the heartland of this country,” is the correct starting point.
Like Chhichhore is based out of Bombay. It has nothing to do with the heartland because that’s not what the story demands. If I were to be placing it in the heartland, I would be killing it. The story should dictate terms.