Where are the hands and the intestines?” We are sitting in a café and director Raj Nidimoru is trying to trace the props, two hands and some intestines, from the office of Saif Ali Khan’s Illuminati Films. They have been mislaid, and we briefly consider the possibility of someone in the office finding an intestine in a drawer. So, how gross are the props? “I wouldn’t sleep with them,” says Krishna DK. Compared to your average conversations with film directors, this is strange, outlandish stuff. But we are talking here about a film in which a rave party leads to the rise of zombies on an island in Goa, who are hunted down by a fake Russian mobster. Outlandish is just the beginning.
Director duo Raj and DK’s Go Goa Gone releases this week with low-key publicity, but a highly effective presence in social media. The trailer on YouTube drew more than three million viewers. When you meet them, you can immediately see why Raj and DK are the right men for the job, that of introducing a subgenre of a subgenre, a zombie comedy, to the uninitiated Indian audience. A look at their list of low-budget, big-hearted films establishes them as the most underrated of indie directors. They made their debut with Flavors (2003), a comedy on confused desis that has acquired cult status within the diaspora. This was followed by their first break in Bollywood, 99, an entertaining comic caper set in the world of match-fixing, and Shor in the City, the movie that finally earned them street cred, a sure-footed gritty Mumbai drama with large doses of dark comedy.
“After Shor in the City we wanted to do a slacker comedy with a bit of adventure, something for ‘Gen Mmm’, the slacker generation that goes ‘mmm’ to everything. They’re bored and feel nothing is good enough. At the back of our minds was always this idea of a zombie film,” says Raj, who is taller and talks more. DK is ponderous and wears bookish glasses. They claim to be slackers themselves, are poker buddies who dress alike in baggy shorts and sandals, speak with the faint trace of an American accent and complete each other’s sentences. Their chemistry has turned every film they make into a form of buddy film; in Go Goa Gone, Kunal Khemu and Vir Das are buddies who face a zombie onslaught.
Raj and DK have been friends since engineering college in Andhra Pradesh before they migrated to the US as software techies. “People in the industry call us the new age Abbas- Mustan. Nothing against them, but, if you must compare, at least compare us with the Coen brothers.” It was in America that they discovered the craze for the undead, zombie walks and parties, and zombies in popular culture, in books, films and video games. “It’s a bizarre little creature that’s not as vengeful and mean as a ghost or a spirit, a monster or a werewolf. It’s just a dead person walking around, just like you on a bad day. That kind of attracted us,” says Raj with an almost fond twinkle. Go Goa Gone is made in that affectionate spirit, it’s not a film that takes itself seriously. “Anyone with a sense of humour will enjoy the film. I don’t think there’s any film that’s made in India that is pan-India, that everybody would like. Even the most mainstream films are for a certain audience and there is another audience that is watching a completely different kind of film anyway,” says DK.
The late film critic Roger Ebert said zombies “make excellent movie creatures because they are smart enough to be dangerous, slow enough to kill and dead enough that we need not feel grief”. A few hundred zombies feature in Go Goa Gone, and the makers have tried to convey them with authenticity, with makeup artists flown in from Australia and South Africa. The zombies are played by random people sourced off the streets of Goa, and trained to stare unblinkingly and to walk with the slow, shuffling gait of the undead. One of the zombie cameos is by director DK, who thinks that our soulless consumerist existence helps us relate to zombies. “Sometimes you go around doing what you do mechanically. It’s a parable for modern life, a monotonous life where one day is the same as another.” In the West, the rise of zombie culture has been attributed to the apocalyptic world post 9/11 and the economic downturn. For Raj and DK, zombies are symbolic of the monotony of life, in every film they have made monotony has featured as a subject, something they attribute to the ennui in their previous lives as software engineers.
So far, our exposure to the undead has come from B-grade cinema, the Ramsay brothers hold the distinction of making India’s first zombie film in 1972, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche. Earlier this year, former VJ Luke Kenny produced Rise of the Zombie, which is meant to be the first part of a horror trilogy. Abhay Deol’s zombie comedy Rock The Shaadi has been shelved, but if Go Goa Gone succeeds, we are likely to see the tally of zombie movies go up as Bollywood likes nothing more than a successful genre. “We are beginning to see high concept, niche films come out of Bollywood, and if this movie succeeds, it will lead more producers to take risks,” says film writer Raja Sen, who has helped write Saif Ali Khan’s lines in the film. Saif, also the producer on board, sports an outrageously styled look with blonde hair, tattoos and cigars as Boris the zombie hunter. With this film, he is looking to regain the edge which has been missing from his performances lately.
The success of Raj and DK is against expectations. The techies-turned-filmmakers, both 39, took up movies as a hobby in the US, directed shorts which they edited from their bedrooms. They saved money, came back to India and joined the film industry as rookie outsiders. The duo maintains that status, they keep apart from the vortex of the industry and think of themselves less as directors and more as audience filmmakers. “It is what lends their work its underlying everyday humour. They have the perspective of outsiders looking in,” says actor Kunal Khemu who has worked with them in 99 and Go Goa Gone. Their creative partner Sita Menon says, “The Raj and DK brand stands for the freedom to experiment and to play with as many genres as possible.” In their next movie, another staple genre, the romantic comedy, is twisted into anti-romcom, again starring Saif Ali Khan.
Before you decide whether to spend time in the company of zombies, a last word from the directors, “People are used to watching certain kind of films, so while we’re not directly catering to that, it’s always worth giving us a try. If people watch the film, I don’t see why they would not like it.”