Rajesh A Krishnan’s Crew has gotten off to a flying start, cruising towards the Rs 40-crore mark close to a week after its release. Crew stars Tabu, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Kriti Sanon as air hostesses who become smugglers after their airliner owner Vijay Walia goes bankrupt. The movie boasts of dazzling chemistry between its heroines, numerous moments of hilarity, and a rare portrayal of women who are not on the verge of a nervous breakdown when staring down hurdles.

Krishnan joined the Rhea Kapoor-Ekta Kapoor production after its script, by Nidhi Mehra and Mehul Suri, was well underway. Having previously directed the series Tripling (2016-2019) and Lootcase (2020), the 52-year-old advertising filmmaker was proficient with the rhythms of comedy. Krishnan spoke to Scroll about the anatomy of successful humour, handling his high-wattage heroines, and whether Crew needed a better ending.

Is Crew doing as well as you expected or much better?

I have zero expectations from any work that I do. I know it sounds Zen-like...

That doesn’t sound too plausible.

I’ve been doing commercials all my life. We do a commercial and put it out there. Sometimes, it does exceedingly well and sometimes it doesn’t.

One can only concentrate on the process. That’s the only thing in my control. But it is overwhelming. It’s not something I really expected. I’m sure Rhea [Kapoor] did. She’s got an amazing vision on things.

Rajesh A Krishnan.

When did you get attached to the production?

I came on board sometime around June 2022. The writers and Rhea had been developing the script for at least a couple of years before that.

Was the film cast at the same time as it was being written, since the character arcs complement the screen image of the actors?

Kareena and Kriti were part of the film. Tabu was being spoken to.

When you write stories – when we wrote Lootcase and I am working on multiple scripts with writers – you start off with an interesting idea. As you go along, you become aware of the casting. The market reality is another factor.

You do write keeping some actors in mind. You are shooting an arrow into a black hole and hoping it hits the mark.

A more practical way of looking at it is that you hit upon a really nice idea, and as you go along, the idea starts getting traction, and that’s when you start knocking on doors. Do you need to reverse-engineer some bits so that they can complement the actor in question?

Crew is more fast-paced than Lootcase. You were handed the script. How did you put your own stamp on it?

A film is written three times. There is the writers’ version, which the director works on. When the actors come on board, they write the film. The lines merge between who wrote what and what is performed. Some of the lines get manicured, some improvised, some delivered in a way that wasn’t originally intended.

The third time the film gets written is when it is being edited. You have to be open to this process as a director. Now I’ve done two long projects as well as Tripling where this process happened. There were so many funny sequences in Lootcase that we could not include because then it would have to be a series.

The difference between good and bad writing and direction is this: is the story still working after a gag is pulled out? Then the gag has no place there. But if you remove the gag and an intricate part of the story gets compromised, then it’s very good writing.

Crew (2024).

What did the actresses bring to the film and their characters?

My biggest challenge was to not make them like the divas that they are, but to bring them to a point where people accept them as characters.

Tabu is the goddess of acting, Kareena can be an unapologetic diva, Kriti is burgeoning as a sound player in the versatility zone. Could they feel like ordinary air-hostesses? What they brought to the party was that they agreed to do that.

The characters were pretty much written into the story. Geeta is overly concerned and has everything to lose. She wears the pants in the house, but not in a hostile sort of way. We’ve all met people like that.

I know somebody like Divya who used to lie and go out of the house as somebody but she was somebody else. Jasmine is overly ambitious but is still trying to dig in her heels.

We didn’t want to show them as losers but as fighters. That was our North Star.

The hilarious moment when Geeta tells Jasmine, “It’s foundation, Cleopatra, not a time machine” and Jasmine pulls a face – was that improvised?

Oh, absolutely. We were discussing what we could with this scene. The writing was very interesting. But you also have to keep the door open for something called the mood of the day.

It’s very important that when an artist walks in, you let them be children on that day. The written material is there, these are very competent people. Can you create an environment in which they are not afraid to fail? Can you go out there and commit to tomfoolery? When you tell people that it’s okay to mess up, that’s when the best work happens.

Kareena [after pulling the face] looked at me and said, are you sure it’s okay? I said yes, that’s what I want, let’s do one more take. People on the sets were laughing.

I enjoy non-verbal comedy. My fantasy is to do a silent film. I have grown up watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati and Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie.

Kriti Sanon, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Tabu in Crew (2024). Courtesy Balaji Motion Pictures/Anil Kapoor Film & Communication Network.

The women are not hysterical – they fret when things go belly-up but they don’t run around like headless chickens.

That was conscious. Women deal with stuff with great aplomb.

These women are not trained to deal with their situation, but they are naive as well as determined enough to succeed. They don’t have a choice, but we don’t need to spell that out. The audience gets it.

I am not a film-trained guy. I did a Master in Business Administration and was supposed to work in a corporation, but here I am talking about my movie.

It’s sheer doggedness, stupid willpower. Every time you’re down, you’re still saying it will work out the next time, but without trying to hoist a flag.

Could the actual heist have been more sharper and more convincing? Vijay Walia is a fugitive who gets spotted and trapped quite easily.

Maybe if there’s a part two, we will better that aspect.

There were a lot of times when you would have had to sit down and explain something complicated. My driver said, how is Jasmine selling beauty products on the side after her racket gets busted? He thought that Jasmine got another job, and wondered about when she resigned.

Like this, there could have been many more incidents. We would have had to pause and make you chew over data. If we had made it more plot-heavy, your interest levels might have started dropping.

How has your considerable experience in advertising influenced your filmmaking, especially in achieving comic timing?

It’s not my natural choice to superimpose on an actor. You have to let people internalise a script amply and then come back with their responses. You can’t force somebody into doing something that’s not in their natural order of things. You have to push actors into imagining something better.

When people open the gates, they become a little more shameless and a little less embarrassed. The signal that they are getting is, I can speak nonsense and I won’t be judged. They start shedding their inhibitions. A lot of times, what comes out is better than what I have as a back-up plan.

All of this points to a team effort.

Absolutely – that’s the only way. A lot of stand-up comedians I know have a team of writers who keep in mind the style of delivery but try to do something new every episode.

I’m not a genius who writes something that pours out like honey and gold. There are some things I am good at delivering. But if I begin to suspect that the actor will come under pressure, then that doesn’t work. So I try to give guidelines. When it works out, it’s great.

Does a lot of the anarchic everyday humour that makes Mumbai tolerable find its way into your work?

It does – I firmly believe that your stories are only as relevant as the terra firma.

I am a hard-core suburban Bombay boy. In every film that I do, at least four of five ideas are stolen from the people I grew up with. There was a lot more of this in Lootcase.

I grew up with tigresses. But I have never grown up with three Punjabi women like in Crew.

Lootcase (2020).

Also read:

‘Crew’ review: A sexy, funny and honest airline heist movie