It is tough for ‘outsiders’ to get into the Hindi film industry, they say. Niraj Kothari does not believe in the same. Hailing from a simple, middle-class family in Mumbai, Niraj got into the Hindi film industry with just two things – love for cinema and the determination to work hard. He took one step at a time and slowly went from strength to strength in the different roles he assumed while working his way up in the industry. Apart from being an associate producer on films like ‘Mubarakan’, ‘Notebook’ and ‘Kabir Singh’, he has produced successful web shows like ‘Broken But Beautiful’ (Season 1 & 2) and ‘Never Kiss Your Best Friend’ and several popular television commercials as a producer. The next step, he says, is to produce feature films as an independent producer.
In this interview, he talks about his inspiring journey in the entertainment industry, working with some of the best talent in the industry, what one should expect from the third season of ‘Broken But Beautiful’, how he dealt with the super-success and the criticism for ‘Kabir Singh’, the desire to direct a film and more.
Your journey in films started with ‘Welcome To Sajjanpur’. You were a production manager on the film. How was the experience of working with a legendary filmmaker like Shyam Benegal in your very first film project?
Working with Shyam Benegal sir was a dream come true. I used to pick him up from the hotel and drive him to the sets every day. You learn so much just by being around him. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with him on the sets. Apart from being one of the greatest filmmakers we have, he is also an incredible human being. I got the opportunity to work on the film because of Himanshu Mehra, who was the executive producer on the film. I found a true friend in him. He became a producer with ‘Besharam’ and recently produced ‘Khaali Peeli’.
Did you grow up in Mumbai?
Yes, I was born and brought up in Mumbai. After finishing twelfth standard, I did a course in Bachelor in Mass Media. In our second year, we got to make a lot of short films and documentaries. That is when I got more interested in films. In the third year, I specialized in advertising. When I started studying advertising, I realized I could not become a copywriter as I did not have the sensibilities of a writer but I thought I was good at handling shoots, so I could try my hand at production. I actually wanted to become a director but did not know how to go about it. There was this documentary called ’68 Pages’ which was directed by Shridar Rangayan. I was a clapper boy on that film. I met Himanshu Mehra while working on that film. Himanshu told me he was making a video with M.F Hussain’s son and A R Rahman on Taj Mahal and asked me if I would like to be a part of the production team. I immediately accepted the offer. Then, I did ‘Welcome To Sajjanpur’. I realized being a part of the production team was a very tedious job and there was not much creativity involved in it. That is when I thought of becoming an assistant director. Soon, I realized there was not much creativity involved in that either (laughs). I worked as an assistant director on ‘Road, Movie’, which was directed by Dev Benegal. While working on that film, I got to meet some wonderful people like Hardik Mehta. He was an assistant director on that film and recently directed ‘Kaamyaab’. After that, I worked with Excel Entertainment on two films, ‘Karthik Calling Karthik’ and ‘Game’. During this time, I got to be a part of a three-day shoot for a Wong-Kar Wai film that was being shot in Mumbai. Working with a renowned international filmmaker like him was no less than a blessing. By that time, I had also done around twenty television commercials as an assistant director. Contrary to what I used to think earlier, I realized being a director was a very difficult job (laughs). I realized I was not ready to get into direction yet. I got back into production and did a film called ‘I Me Aur Main’. Working on that film with Goldie Behl and Shrishti Behl Arya was a huge learning experience. I have had a long association with them. Last year, I worked as a supervising producer on their show ‘Hello Mini’. A while later, Himanshu was making ‘Besharam’, which was his first film as a producer. He was looking for somebody whom he could trust completely. After doing 5-7 films as line producer, you get to work as an executive producer. But, Himanshu had a lot of faith in me and asked me to work on ‘Besharam’ as an executive producer. After doing ‘Besharam’, my confidence level shot up. I launched my company Inglorous Films and started producing ad films. After two years of producing ads, I felt a strong urge to get back into feature films. I was supposed to produce a film with Vikram Phadnis called ‘Nia’ starring Bipasha Basu and Rana Daggubati. Because of some issues, the film did not take off then. Later, Vikram made the film in Marathi and it became a huge success. During this period, I met Murad Khetani and Ashwin Varde who asked me to work on Mubarakan. I ended up doing three more films with them as an associate producer. I happened to meet Sarita Tanwar around this time. She was a renowned journalist and wanted to get into film production. We became partners, launched a company called 11: 11 Productions and produced shows like ‘Broken But Beautiful’ and ‘Never Kiss Your Friend’.
When one gets to know about your journey, one realizes you are a great example of somebody who had no industry connections or background but came into this industry and made a mark with sheer hard work and dedication.
I have always believed that if your intent is right, things will work out for you. You also need to be patient. A lot of times people give up after trying for a few years. If you are really passionate about something, you must never give up on it. If you are persistent enough, things will fall into place one day. This is a magical industry and I feel blessed to be a part of it. I love every single moment of my time when I am working.
You were an associate producer on ‘Kabir Singh’. It is one of the most successful Hindi films released in the recent past but there was a certain section of the audience and the media which found the film to be problematic.
What we realised and happily accepted that everybody will have their own opinion. We were never affected by it as the intent was never to glorify the character. He pays for all the wrong things he does. When we watched ‘Arjun Reddy’, we realised the character was flawed and was presented in a similar manner. Because of his actions, he loses everything. He could have saved his medical license but he stood up and said, “I made a mistake and I am ready to pay for it”. We are happy that so many people came to watch the film in theatres. The Censor Board passed the film without any major cuts. I learnt a lot from ‘Kabir Singh’ and it gave me the confidence to become a film producer myself.
You have said in an interview that “the most beautiful feeling is when the film is on the editing table”. Could you elaborate on this statement?
In the pre-production stage, I have a lot to say as a producer. There are a lot of things to be done and I enjoy that process completely. I try to keep myself away from the shooting process so that the director gets complete freedom. I have always enjoyed being a part of the editing process as I find it very intriguing. This is the time when you can do a lot of things to make sure the final product is satisfactory.
Sarita Tanwar and you are partners and produce content together. Is there a way the two of you divide responsibilities?
No, till now we have never made a conscious effort to divide our responsibilities. Both of us want to get involved in every process of filmmaking. The one major difference between us is that she likes being on the sets and I never go to the sets. I always feel that if I go to the set, I might end up interfere with the director’s vision unknowingly. Sarita does not interfere but she knows how to communicate to the actors or the director when she feels something is not working out the way it should. I am more involved with the post-production process.
You have been a big fan of Amitabh Bachchan. In all these years, did you get a chance to work with him?
I worship Mr. Amitabh Bachchan. I have a passport-sized photo of him in my wallet. Unfortunately, I have not got the opportunity to work with him yet. When we were promoting ‘Besharam’, we visited the sets of ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’. That was the only time I was a part of something he was doing. I hope someday I get a brilliant script justifying his persona and talent and take it to him as a producer.
The shows that you have produced so far have been in a romantic space. Is that a genre you like?
Yes, I have always enjoyed watching romantic films. I am not somebody who can watch extremely dark stuff. I have always been a fan of the films made by the likes of Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Rajkumar Hirani. Everybody likes to watch a good love story. I love to see happy and positive content. Having said that, if I get a wonderful script that is dark and gritty, I would love to make it as a producer. The script should be good and the kind we, as producers, could connect to. Even Sarita likes similar kind of content. I think we have been very lucky because we did not come up with the concept of the shows we produced but still the channel or the platform gave us the opportunity to produce them. ‘Broken But Beautiful’ was Ekta Kapoor’s concept and because of her, we got to produce the show. The book rights of ‘Never Kiss Your Friend’ were with Zee5. Tarun Katial, the programming head of Zee5, was gracious enough to let us produce it. I am truly grateful to all the people who have believed in us and helped us move forward in our journey as producers.
You have been a part of ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2’ as an associate producer. What can we expect from the film?
We had just started shooting the film before lockdown. A large portion of it is yet to be shot. Right now, I am not sure when the shoot will commence again. ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa’, which was directed by Priyadarshan, was a very successful film. It was very unique to see a horror comedy that time. ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2’ is being directed by Anees Bazmee and he has brought his own vision and style to the film. It is too early to say anything about the film but I can assure you that the audience is going to laugh and get scared in equal measures.
What is that one quality a producer needs to have?
A producer should be able to find the right script. Gone are the days when people believed a big actor will bring a good script. Now, if you have a good script, everything else will fall into place.
There was a time when you wanted to become a director. Is there a plan to direct a film in the near future?
Yes, I do want to direct a film but I have not set a deadline for myself. There is a lot of time for that to happen. Right now, the next step is to become a feature film producer. I am hoping that would happen soon.
The third season of ‘Broken But Beautiful’ will be out in sometime. Instead of Sameera and Veer, we will get to witness the story of Rumi and Agastya. Unlike the second season, there will be new characters and a different story this time. What should the viewers or fans of the series expect?
We have tried to put together a story that is new but the kind that has thematic similarities to the previous seasons of ‘Broken But Beautiful’. We have kept the expectation of the audience, which loved the first two seasons, in mind and sincerely that they give a lot of love to the third season as well.
On actors he has worked with
Shahid Kapoor – The two words in which one can best describe him are dedicated and focussed. He is one of the most hard-working individuals I have come across. He is also an actor who has a very good understanding of different aspects of filmmaking. I remember he would sit with us when we were discussing the way we would market the film and offered some great suggestions.
Kiara Advani – She knows when to switch off and switch on. She gets in and out of the character she is playing with effortless ease. The moment camera is on, she would become Preeti. She is an extremely humble person who would bring a lot of positive energy to the set.
Nikita Dutta – She is a sweetheart! We shot a lot of the sequences that you see in the second half first. The track involving Shahid and Nikita was one of the first we shot. It was the portion where Kabir Singh was going through a very tumultuous phase in his life. Since Shahid had to depict pain and loss, he was extremely serious and focussed during this time. There would be complete silence on the sets. Nikita’s entry was like a breath of fresh air. When she was around, the atmosphere on the set would be full of fun and laughter. She is extremely talented and will be around for a very long time.
Vikrant Massey – I call him Sir John. He has the most expressive eyes. He is one of the nicest human beings I have met in my life. Given a choice, I would work with him on every project.
Harleen Sethi – Harleen is a firecracker! She is the complete opposite of what Sameera was in the show. She is extremely dedicated and hard-working. On the sets, she is always smiling and cracking jokes. Just before the camera rolls, she gets into the skin of the character and performs exceedingly well.
Nakuul Mehta – I call him bhaijaan. From day one, he had a lot of love and respect for me. I have found a brother in him. We shot in some very difficult weather conditions but he was always calm and composed. He himself is a producer and thus, extremely accommodating and supportive on the sets.