As a trio of inept robbers try and pull off an unlikely bank heist, a group of hostages huddle and talk. “I deposit 1,000 rupees every month in SIP (systematic investment plan), do you think it’s gone?” says one of them. “Did anyone call the police?” a grey-haired man asks. “How could we?” someone replies. “They took our phones.” ”Really?” the man says. “They didn’t take mine.” A younger man with an air of authority dials a number, everyone crowding around expectantly. “Hello Ma?” he says. “Yes, the number of the police. No Ma, why would I call you if I knew it?”
For me, nothing encapsulates what Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK are about better than these scenes from Shor In The City (2010). The setup, the joke, the capper, the comic deflation of tension, the quickness of it all. Theirs is a comedy rooted in the everyday, born of miscalculations, coincidences and overreaches, but it’s also practical, a consequence of navigating the obstacle course of daily life in India. In their new Amazon Prime series Farzi, counterfeiters Sunny (Shahid Kapoor) and Firoz (Bhuvan Arora) almost get caught in a sting operation. They burst out of the parking lot in a car, agents in pursuit. Everything is primed for a manic chase sequence. Instead, we cut to a local cop saying, “Kae ka chase, ye saala Mumbai ke traffic mein?” And we see miles of stalled cars. This forces Sunny to improvise, and the outcome is more memorable than any chase would have been.
Seven episodes earlier, we are introduced to a very different Sunny. He paints forgeries of famous artists for a living and helps his grandfather out with his socially conscious, practically defunct newspaper. Through a series of escalating money problems and desperate decisions, he and childhood friend Firoz find themselves designing and printing fake 500-rupee notes (it’s 2016 and demonetisation has just happened). Their forgery is so convincing it attracts the notice of gangster Mansoor (Kay Kay Menon), who upscales their operation, and special task force officer Michael (Vijay Sethupathi). It’s a ridiculously entertaining series, bursting with quips and quirks and the very different energies of Kapoor, Sethupathi and Menon, cinematographer Pankaj Kumar’s elegant framing recalling Rajeev Ravi’s work on the duo’s first Hindi film, 99 (2009).
Farzi had been rattling about in Raj & DK’s heads since the early 2010s. They had planned it as a film, even pitched it to Shahid Kapoor. Had it happened then, it would have been seen as the directors of 99 taking another shot at a caper film, this time with a star. But it never panned out, so they moved on to other projects. “We write a lot, a lot of ideas drop off,” Nidimoru says. “Farzi never dropped off.” Fate rewarded them with demonetisation, which grounded what they thought was a somewhat far-fetched story in historical fact. The show pulls together strands from across Raj & DK’s career: the madcap underdog energy of 99; the gritty but lovingly realised Mumbai of Shor In The City; the surreal slapstick of Go Goa Gone (2013); the procedural momentum of their wildly popular Amazon Prime series The Family Man. It also marks 20 years of the duo as film-makers; their first feature, the no-budget Flavors, which screened back in 2003.
Raj & DK have a dizzying number of plates spinning in the air right now. Guns & Gulaabs, a pulp thriller series for Netflix starring Rajkummar Rao, Dulquer Salmaan and Gulshan Devaiah, is ready and slated for release this year. They are writing another series, Gulkanda Tales, to be directed by Rahi Anil Barve. When I visited their office in Andheri, Mumbai, the walls were covered with post-its: a season broken down, episode-wise, into key scenes. This was for the Indian offshoot of Citadel, an upcoming Amazon franchise produced by the Russo brothers, which will have a US flagship series followed by spin-offs in India, Italy and Mexico. There’s the prospect of further seasons of The Family Man and Farzi, to say nothing of sequels to the other shows they are debuting. Right now, they are, to flip a phrase from The Family Man, Indian streaming’s maximum guys.
Raj & DK’s career was always building up to this moment. They have never been typical Bollywood directors. They are a bit too self-aware. They don’t do masala. They waited till their fourth Hindi feature before including a lip-synced musical number in the main body of the film. All their films have had music (Sachin-Jigar have been a constant) but you never get the sense—as one does with the films of Sanjay Leela Bhansali or Imtiaz Ali—that the bottom would fall out if you removed the songs. No wonder they have taken so well to streaming—it doesn’t run on the same frequency as Bollywood, and neither do they.
Their screenplays are written first in English, dialogue and all. Longtime writing partner Sita Menon then does a Hindi version. Then, because neither Raj, DK nor Menon have a writer’s command over Hindi, they bring in someone to punch up the lines. It has been this way since 99 and they still work like this. “For a long time, we were ribbed—these people who write in English and make Hindi films,” Menon says. But just because they don’t supply all the words themselves doesn’t mean they can’t tell when they have the goods. Since they already have dialogue in English, they don’t need top Bollywood writers, just someone with a quick mind who isn’t opposed to doing translations (this might explain why their work sounds unlike most mainstream Hindi film writing).
Stree (2018), written by Raj & DK, directed by Amar Kaushik and set in small-town Madhya Pradesh, is a great example of this. Sumit Arora’s Hindi dialogue is mellifluous, playfully wordy. During a hilariously awkward birds-and-bees talk, the protagonist’s father uses the phrase “oorja ke jwar bhate” (ebb and flow of energy). It’s obvious Raj & DK wouldn’t have come up with these exact words, but it’s their tone—you can picture them asking Arora, what’s the funniest, most elaborate way to say “pent-up desire” in Hindi? It doesn’t matter if it’s Raja Sen (99), Hussain Dalal (Happy Ending, 2014) or Sumit Batheja (A Gentleman, 2017) on dialogue duty—it always sounds like them. On the low-budget Shor In The City, they skipped dialogue writers and took a cheaper, if more chaotic, route. “We were calling cousins and friends and asking them, how would you say this line?” Nidimoru recalls. They say the cusses usually come from Menon, though a Delhi friend offered one they hadn’t heard before for 99: jhand.
Unlike, say, Vishal Bhardwaj or Anurag Kashyap, who draw as much from older Indian films as they do from foreign cinema, Raj & DK’s reference points skew towards Hollywood. Of the 40 films they listed as influences in a video on the website Film Companion, only four titles are Indian, one of which—Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Gol Maal (1979)—is in Hindi. The tributes in Go Goa Gone are to foreign zombie films, not the Ramsays. In Happy Ending, a frustrated author talks to his schlubby doppelganger, like in Adaptation (2002). Menon tells me she is a fan of Aaron Sorkin, Greta Gerwig and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and that they all like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and Edgar Wright. “In our formative viewing years, it was English and world cinema,” Menon says. “I think it’s natural that we draw references from there.”
They started out watching homegrown films, though, DK in Chittoor, Nidimoru in Tirupati—both in Andhra Pradesh. They met in Tirupati’s Sri Venkateswara University as engineering students and continued their film-going, “tripling” on Nidimoru’s bike (an image reproduced in ShorIn The City) to go see Telugu and Tamil releases and the occasional Hindi or English film. They also started teaming up for quizzes and charades. “By third year, we were a famous team,” DK says. “We could read each other’s minds.” Both moved to the US after college. They kept in touch, and fell in love with American film.
Over the next few years, without much of a plan, they started fooling around with cinema. They had no formal training, so they would “reverse-engineer” films, breaking down the ones they liked until they understood why they worked. The timing was fortuitous, the tail of the indie boom in the US coinciding with the rise of digital shooting. “You could buy a camera, buy a computer, and shoot a film, edit a film, all on your own,” DK says. “And we were watching all these independent directors making films with no money. That was the boost we needed.” They lived in different states, so they would drive down on the weekends to prep and shoot. After a couple of shorts, they embarked on their first full-length feature. Flavors, an English-language film, was a loosely connected series of vignettes featuring a range of Indian-American characters. Amiable and ramshackle, it showed the influence of seminal American indies like Slacker (1990) and Clerks (1994), though it had much less to recommend it. Nevertheless, they were on their way. In an interview around the time of Flavors’ release, they said they were planning “a new kind of Bollywood movie”.
Full of hope, Raj & DK quit their software jobs in the US and moved to Mumbai, where they wrote a version of what would become their first Hindi film, 99. They tried, unsuccessfully, to get it to Aamir Khan. No doors opened. They went back to the US, where they refined 99 and another script, a gritty urban drama with intersecting stories. It was the latter that yielded their first representative work: a short film called Shor (2008), about three Mumbai youths who get hold of a crude bomb. Just as they are planning to blow it up for fun in a field, a child comes out of nowhere and runs away with it. This darkly comic scene is replayed, note for note, in Shor In The City, their second Hindi film. There are other transplants from the short to that film: actor Pitobash, cinematographer Tushar Kanti Ray. More significantly, it was their first work written with Sita Menon. She would go on to co-write all their projects apart from Stree and The Family Man.
“Flavors was our film school,” DK says. “With Shor, it was like, okay, we know how to make this.” The short became a calling card. Actors Kunal Kemmu and Soha Ali Khan loved it, which led to them signing up for 99, a caper film about two Mumbai louts (Kemmu and Cyrus Broacha) who are sent to Delhi as recovery thugs by a don (a hysterical Mahesh Manjrekar). There they team up with a compulsive gambler (Boman Irani) with a fondness for cricket betting, even as Kemmu’s character falls for a hotel manager (Khan). I remember wandering into the film cold, without having seen a trailer (there was a multiplex owners’ strike on, so nothing else of significance was playing). I was instantly charmed by the self-aware tone, the absence of stock situations and the screwball back-and-forth between Kemmu and Broacha, which seemed to unfold at a faster clip than the Hindi cinema I was used to. It was a world apart from the sketch comedy of Flavors; they had figured out how to pitch their humour at a level that was “less than a spoof and more than a drama”.
These were some of the Hindi releases in 2009: Dev.D, Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year, Gulaal, Luck By Chance, Sankat City, Wake Up Sid, Kaminey. Clearly, there were anarchic spirits coursing through the industry then, a lot of them comic. It was the perfect time for Raj & DK to drop their first Hindi film. Almost immediately, they turned their attention to the original vision from which Shor had emerged—what they were now calling Shor In The City. Always ready to take a punt, they tried to get the script to Ethan Hawke and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. One of their agents got back. “Who are you guys, are you with SAG (Screen Actors Guild)?” Nidimoru recalls them asking. “We were like, what is SAG?”
Shor In The City told intersecting stories of three book pirates (Tusshar Kapoor, Pitobash, Nikhil Dwivedi), a US-returned entrepreneur (Sendhil Ramamurthy) harassed by a local gangster (a menacing Zakir Hussain), and a young cricketer (Sundeep Kishan) considering bribing his way onto a team. This was a hyperlink film in the vein of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros (2000), the comic and the violent and the grotesque all bumping into one another. It looked like one of Iñárritu’s films too, Tushar Kanti Ray’s jangly camera picking out stunning details, like a Ganesh idol strapped to the front seat of a car. “Every incident in this film was inspired from a newspaper story,” a caption declared at the end (The Family Man season 1 episodes had a similar end note). Despite happy resolutions to most of the stories, it’s their bleakest work: I had forgotten the last scene is a man pouring petrol on himself and gawping at the flaming lighter in his hand.
With their reputation growing, Raj & DK could have chosen to go full Bollywood. Instead, they opted to make a stoner zombie action comedy about three friends (Kemmu, Vir Das, Anand Tiwari) unwinding in Goa, a blond Russian killer (Saif Ali Khan) and a lot of undead party-goers. This was largely uncharted territory: Zombies didn’t feature in Hindi cinema outside cheesy Ramsay brothers productions, and there'd only been one stoner film in Delhi Belly (2011). One of the executives they pitched the film to told them later : “We thought you were mental.” Go Goa Gone was mental—funny and hyperviolent like Shaun Of The Dead (2004) and Zombieland (2009). As with 99, it wasn’t so much that the jokes were brilliant (“I keel dead people,” growls Boris the zombie hunter) but that there were so many of them that it didn’t matter if a few flopped. “It’s a different pace of humour,” Kemmu tells me. “There’s a lot of improvisation. We feed off each other’s energy.”
Just when everything was going so well, the wheels came off. First there was Happy Ending. Saif Ali Khan played a once-successful author in a rut, a commitment-phobic Casanova who’s been hired to write a script by a daft movie star (Govinda), and who's both jealous of and attracted to a best-selling romance novelist (Ileana D’Cruz). Raj, DK and Menon described it variously as an “anti-romcom”, “very meta”, and a comedy about romantic tropes. But the film, set in an impersonal Los Angeles and California, was neither sufficiently satirical nor subversive in the way it was envisioned. A Gentleman, set largely in Miami, followed: their first all-out action film. For once, the actors felt out of sync with Raj & DK’s style—Sidharth Malhotra in a double role as a mild-mannered software executive and a deadly spy, Jacqueline Fernandez, Suniel Shetty. “It was a big studio film,” Menon says. “Many people had their points of view on it. We tried to cater to all of those and the film suffered.” The action sequences held the promise of things to come but mostly it seemed that in upscaling, Raj & DK had misplaced what made them special.
“That control we had was being lost as we got into a bigger circle,” Nidimoru says. “So we decided, on Stree, we will go back to producing ourselves. Let’s make it out of our pockets and release it. It was back to the Shor In The City model.” They were planning to direct it but Amazon came calling. Once The Family Man became a reality, they knew they had to pass the reins on Stree. Amar Kaushik, first assistant director on Go Goa Gone, took over; Raj & DK stayed on as writer-producers. This unequivocally feminist horror-comedy about an avenging female ghost was a sleeper hit in 2018; made on a budget of about ₹24 crore, it grossed over ₹170 crore (figures from boxofficeindia.com). Its success kicked off the modern Hindi horror-comedy cycle—though one could argue that started with Go Goa Gone (you can see its overwhelming influence on 2022's Phone Bhoot).
Films are complex organisms; change a minuscule part of their DNA and everything alters. Would Stree have been as big a success had Raj & DK directed? It has their fingerprints all over, though Kaushik showed with the werewolf comedy Bhediya (2022) that he is no slouch. The more intriguing question is whether Raj & DK would have come to streaming when they did if their last two films, the ones where they made concessions towards popular taste, hadn’t been such failures. While a couple of major players had directed streaming shows by 2019—Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane on Sacred Games, Zoya Akhtar on Made In Heaven—it was mostly up-and-coming or unknown directors. Amazon obviously saw something in Raj & DK and knew their body of work—but they also knew they could be got.
I ask if they reverse-engineered for TV too, the way they had done for film. “Yeah, new beast,” DK says. “In a tiny one-room office, every wall was covered with these notes because we had to figure out how to write a frickin’ series,” Nidimoru adds, pointing to post-its on the wall. They are not sure how they arrived at it but they came up with a five-act structure for each episode and a three-act structure for the series. Here was a chance to write, write, write, create a tapestry of characters and plots in a manner that a film just wouldn’t allow. The initial feedback was positive but a little confused. Why was their gritty spy series also a comedy and a family drama? They fretted over suggestions to trim the family stuff, but eventually decided to leave it as it was.
Srikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpayee) is a middle-class everyman in Mumbai, father to two bratty kids, married to architect Suchitra, one in a line of self-possessed Raj & DK women who have had it with men and their excuses. He’s also secretly an agent with the Threat Analysis and Surveillance Cell (TASC), a fictitious branch of the National Investigation Agency. In the first season of The Family Man, Srikant and his partner JK (Sharib Hashmi) battle threats from ISIS recruits and foreign terrorist cells. In the second, the action moves south, centring on a Tamil Tigers-like group.
One of the exciting things about The Family Man’s first season was discovering, episode by episode, just how capable Raj & DK were as action directors. They settled on a complicated but rewarding signature: extended sequences shot in one take. The 13-minute hospital breakout in the sixth episode is the most celebrated, but there’s a dynamic single-take shootout in the first episode itself. “It takes a lot of patience to do a one-take shot sequence, from all the actors and everyone in the crew, because when you make a mistake you go back to the beginning,” DK said in a 2021 interview to Lounge. “Anything that is very filmi, they don’t like it,” Sumeet Kotian, editor on The Family Man and Farzi, tells me. “They were very excited about the single-shot action. As much as possible, they want to avoid fixing in post.”
For Raj & DK, the show was the start of something new, and not only because it was long-form storytelling. It was the first time they were directing something not written by Menon (Suman Kumar was co-writer). It was also their first brush with politically charged material. Most spy narratives skew towards order and conservatism, and, on balance, The Family Man does too. In one of the most contentious arcs, Srikant’s daughter is entrapped by a Muslim boy brainwashed by terrorists: a right-wing fantasy. Yet, there is also doubt and complexity seeded along the way. In the first season, Srikant is in Kashmir for a few episodes. On his way from the Srinagar airport, he’s told by the army man driving him, “Har jagah bas apna raaj chal raha hai”— the word raaj (rule) sticking out uncomfortably. Srikant replies sardonically, “Someone told me tourism is up. I can see tourists… in uniform.” Two episodes later, Srikant’s commanding officer, a Kashmiri woman, asks, “From their perspective, what’s the difference between us and the militants?” In the second season, a Tamil agent says about locals who support the rebels, “I can see from their perspective how these people are heroes.”
“We wanted to show sociopolitical issues the way they are,” Nidimoru told me in the run-up to the second season. “I think it’s always better if you show the viewer a picture and say, you interpret it.”
Though “pan-India cinema” has been touted as a silver bullet for the theatrical experience, streaming offers a more genuine—and achievable—vision of pan-India film-making. Its viewers are more likely to watch something with subtitles. And they are more likely to have watched films or series in languages they don’t speak. Raj & DK, Telugu-speakers both, have been particularly committed to pan-India casting (back in Shor In The City, they had Telugu star Sundeep Kishan as one of the leads). The Family Man is full of actors who work across the southern film industries: Priyamani, Neeraj Madhav, Ravindra Vijay, Devadarshini, Uday Mahesh as fan favourite Chellam Sir. Samantha Ruth Prabhu as rebel soldier Raji in season 2 wasn’t just a casting coup but a signal that streaming TV was no longer something mainstream actors in the prime of the career wouldn’t consider.
The second season of The Family Man also allowed actors to speak their own language; a lot of the dialogue is in Tamil. The makers even weave the cultural divide into the story. Hindi-speaking agent Milind plays ‘Sach Mere Yaar Hai’ from Saagar (1985), only for local agent Muthu to change it to a Tamil number. In a later episode, the room toasts Milind, who has died in a shootout, by playing his favourite song, itself a bridge between cultures: A legend of Telugu and Tamil cinema singing playback in Hindi for a Tamil actor in a Hindi film. Perhaps Vijay Sethupathi will have more Tamil dialogue in Farzi’s second season, though the comic gains from his cussing in Hindi are immeasurable.
Other borders beckon. If Citadel is a success, Hollywood could be on the cards. But there’s also a genuine concern of being stretched thin. Whether they can juggle two ongoing shows, three forthcoming ones, their production work, and whatever plans they have for the future remains to be seen. Perhaps they will build a B-team of co-directors like they have done with writers (Suparn S Varma was entrusted with half of The Family Man season 2).
In all this, they can count on the partnership of Menon, and each other. Though DK is more technical and Nidimoru more involved with the actors, they are, by all accounts, uncannily in sync. Sharib Hashmi speaks of their “tuning”, adding that they work “so seamlessly that you don’t realise they are two directors on the sets”. DK jokes that sometimes Nidimoru would walk onto set and say, “What have you done, you have changed the entire shot!” But though they often split production duties, they always shoot together. They seem to seek out, and encourage, actors with a bent for improvisation. “They never say cut,” Hashmi tells me, “so we keep trying things until someone laughs.”
Twenty years on, Raj & DK have built a neat little filmography. Six features directed, three others produced, two series. Comedies all, yet spanning city films, stoner films, capers, family dramas, procedurals, action, horror, romance. All distinctly, visibly theirs, even the clunkers. Watching them in one go, I could see more clearly the motifs and cross-currents: double lives, fraying marriages, cursed phones, frantic runs, fancy parties that regular folks can’t get into. The considerable visual appeal of their work notwithstanding, theirs is a writer’s filmography. “We are really, really happy to be writers,” Nidimoru says. “Writing for us is half the directing.”