About 20 years ago, on a Mahashivratri night, engineering college classmates and future filmmakers Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK took a spin on their motorcycles in the town of Tirupati. They met locals who spoke of a female spirit who was whisking away men in the dead of the night. The locals protected themselves by writing “Stree re pura” (Telugu phrase, meaning stree, come tomorrow) on the walls of their homes.
“The thought of it was ridiculous,” Nidimoru said. “Here you have them writing come tomorrow, and the spirit is like, oh okay, I will come tomorrow, and then the same thing happens the next night and the spirit is like, oh shucks, they did it again, I will come tomorrow, I guess.”
The experience stayed with Nidimoru and DK as they left India for work in the United States of America and later embarked on a filmmaking career. They realised that the urban legend went by different names or had subtle variations across India. “In Karnataka, they call it nale ba,” DK said. “In Rajasthan, the same thing happens, apparently in the cold nights of the winter months.”
This decades-long preoccupation is finally making its way to the theatres on August 31. The horror comedy Stree, written by Nidimoru and DK and directed by Amar Kaushik, stars Rajkummar Rao, Shraddha Kapoor, Pankaj Tripathi and Aparshakti Khurana.
A legend about a malevolent spirit could have lend itself easily to pure horror. “It’s not like writing horror is beneath us,” DK said. “But to make it scary-scary would be to lend credence to the myth and say that a witch is actually killing men, which we did not want to do.”
Nidimoru and DK were wary of turning the idea into a spoof. Sometime in 2017, they finally found a way to make the film.
“We found the social satire element in it,” Nidimoru said. “That in today’s India, it is men who are scared to step out of houses at night. That men have to take a woman along with them in the night to stay protected. And that men would have to wear tight clothes and step out because once stree took you, only your clothes were left behind. Also, this stree is all about consent. She calls you first and only when you turn, she takes you.”
DK added, “The key in the story isn’t the ghost but how everyone is reacting to its supposed presence. Once we found the satire in it, we immediately embraced the possibilities of the idea.”
Nidimoru and DK made their debut with the ensemble comedy Flavors in 2003. They were inspired by the American independent filmmaking scene and stories of high-impact projects being made on low budgets, and were encouraged to put some of their own money into Flavors. “The American desi scene was big at the time, films about the culture clash between Indian immigrants and America, but we wanted to steer away from that,” DK said. “We made a slice-of-life film, kind of inspired by Pulp Fiction, in the way the timeline went back and forth.”
Boosted by warm reviews for Flavors, Nidimoru and DK set their sights on Hindi cinema. Coming to Mumbai, writing the script of 99 (2009), going back to the US because they were out of funds, and completing the film took up to six years. The moderate success of 99 led to Shor in the City (2011), a crime caper set in Mumbai, and Go Goa Gone (2013), a zombie horror comedy set in Goa.
Their first three films showed an understanding of genre tropes and the confidence to take self-aware digs at Bollywood. These productions led to bigger-budget projects, such as Happy Ending (2014) and A Gentleman (2017). Both films tanked.
Nidimoru attributed the failure of these big-ticket releases to the possibility that their core ideas got diluted on a bigger scale. Happy Ending, starring Saif Ali Khan, was originally about a flop director in Mumbai, but it ended up being about a failed writer in Los Angeles. “The audience might have approached Happy Ending as a straight rom-com, but it wasn’t one,” Nidimoru observed. “It was a meta take on the genre. Another thing is that when a film, like your favourite dish, suddenly gives you an unexpected touch or some fusion to the familiar experience, it disturbs you.”
The shift in audience taste from glamorous films set in foreign locales to rooted indigenous stories could also be a reason for Happy Ending and A Gentleman flopping, Nidimoru added. For now, the duo has that covered with Stree, set in Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, followed by a 10-episode Amazon Prime web series, The Family Man, set in Mumbai. Then, they begin shooting the sequel to Go Goa Gone early next year.
Co-written (with novelist Suman Kumar and dialogue writer Sumit Aroraa), directed, and produced by Nidimoru and DK, The Family Man has been described as the story of a “middle-class guy, a world-class spy”, played by Manoj Bajpayee.
Bajpayee’s character is a seemingly unremarkable man who worries about home loans and work promotions, deals with his wife and troublesome children, and takes the train daily to his office. It so happens that the office is a top-secret government intelligence organisation. Bajpayee’s character has been inspired by a friend’s relative, who is an intelligence agent, but the organisation is fictitious.
The Family Man is closer to Shor in the City in terms of its tone. “It is dramatic and edgy with action involved,” Nidimoru said. “The humour is the kind of stuff that comes just from working in and dealing with the system or bureaucracy in our country.”
The series draws from contemporary geopolitical issues, and most plot threads are inspired from newspaper headlines over the years, DK added. “A large chunk is set in Kashmir, for which we went there and spoke to people to get how they think about the world around them,” he said.
Nidimoru and DK are also working on the first draft of the Go Goa Gone sequel’s screenplay. Saif Ali Khan is set to return as the Russian-but-Indian zombie slayer-cum-drug lord Boris. The other principal cast members will return as well, DK said.
Go Goa Gone was not planned as a zombie horror comedy. “We had initially envisioned it as just a stoner flick, a slacker movie,” Nidimoru said. “And the stoners are suddenly in a foreign land facing a foreign object, which became zombies. I think with Stree in our minds long before Go Goa Gone, some of that crept into this film.”
Nidimoru and DK also plan to revisit their long-gestating project, Farzi. Once described by the duo as “Shor in the City on steroids”, Farzi has been in the news as far back as 2013. Different actors have been attached to the film from time to time, but Nidimoru and DK are yet to find the right team to work with. “We 100% want to make it, but we don’t know when and with whom,” Nidimoru said. “It’s one of our strongest scripts and we want to do this right.”
Both Nidimoru and DK were cagey about revealing the plot of Farzi. “There’s a con man, and it is about artistic rebellion in a way without being preachy,” Nidimoru said. “There are three interlinked stories of three characters. It’s a mix of genres and is as tough to describe as Shor in the City.”