'I'm a guy who tries to find humour in every situation, no matter how difficult and serious, without offending anyone.'
Raj is already halfway through his next film, Selfiee, which reunites him with Akshay Kumar, and also stars Emraan Hashmi.
Tracing his journey as an outsider, Raj tells Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya, "For someone who came from outside the industry with the dream of making his own films someday, the most ajeeb daastaan was sitting in Karan's home, on the couch opposite him, narrating a script for the first time and him telling me that he loved it, wanted to make it."
JugJugg Jeeyo has become the catchphrase of the nation. How many people have blessed you with these words since the release of your second directorial film?
(Laughs) Lots! I am overwhelmed by the love.
I've lived with the film for two years and today, it's so heartening that people are picking out scenes that they liked, discussing characters.
Anil Kapoor's philandering Bheem Saini is a delight. Was he always your first choice?
Even when the film was being written, I told Rishhabh (writer Rishhabh Sharma) that there is no one better than Anil sir to play it.
Today, in retrospect, I wonder what we would have done if he had turned us down. I would have been stuck.
How difficult was it convincing Neetu Singh to return to the arc lights?
I have to thank Karan (Producer Karan Johar) for that.
To be honest, I had not thought of Neetu ma'am for Geeta Saini (Anil Kapoor's wife in the film) because she hadn't worked in a while.
It was Karan's idea to cast her.
He had a chat with her, encouraged her to do the film, and by the time I met her to narrate the story, half the job of convincing her had been done.
The rest was accomplished once she heard the story.
Who comes up with your catchy titles?
Good Newwz came with Jyoti Kapoor's (one of the writers, along with Rishabh Sharma and Raj) draft and it was so apt that we stuck with it.
JugJugg Jeeyo, I owe to Karan and it was a perfect fit for our desi, family entertainer.
What has been your family's reaction to the film?
My mom saw it with me and loved it.
(Chuckles) But she would have been happy regardless, she's completely biased towards me.
But initially, your parents weren't too keen on you pursuing a film career, right?
Well, they were a little hesitant, yes, but that's because no one from my extended family had anything to do with films.
Dad has his own business, and like any other father, he wanted me to join it.
But I've loved watching films since I was a kid. When I was in college, I decided I wanted to make some of my own.
Still, in deference to their wishes, I finished my education first, got a degree in business, and only after that, did I go to film school.
When I came to Mumbai, I was a complete stranger to the film industry with no contacts in the city.
I got in touch with people, and fortunately for me, that translated into work.
My first film was Prakash Jha's Aarakshan in 2010-2011.
Then, I worked with Kunal Kohli and assisted on a couple of films with Yash Raj.
Shashank Khaitan was the Chief AD (assistant director) on one of these films, he hired me to be a part of his direction team and we became friends.
When Shashank started working on his directorial debut, Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania, he reached out to me, introduced me to Karan and Dharma Productions.
I have been with Dharma since, working with different directors on different subjects before Good Newwz came along.
Any plans of moving out of Karan's company now?
Why would I need to when I share a great equation with him and his team?
From In Vitro Fertilization in Good Newwz to divorce in JugJugg Jeeyo, it',s interesting how you have treated serious subjects in a light-hearted way and still managed to drive a message.
The idea always was to keep the characters and the conversations very real, but at the same time, present the subject in an entertaining package without trying to make a statement.
If people take something home from the films, great.
But even if they don't and just enjoy the film with their families for two hours, that's good enough for me.
JugJugg Jeeyo is about what marriage means to people from different generations, and since reactions to a film are always subjective, what someone picks up from it will depend on what they are going through in their lives at present.
I can never make a depressing film.
I'm a guy who tries to find humour in every situation, no matter how difficult and serious, without offending anyone.
After Vicky Donor, many couples started looking for a donor who could help them extend their family. After Good Newwz, have people you know started going in for IVF?
(Laughs) Well, no one has told me so specifically, but at press screenings in different cities, many admitted that while they had heard of test tube babies before, Good Newwz helped them understand the whole process better.
Yes, a majority of people were aware of it before the film came along, but if some good news came after watching it, I couldn't be happier.
But aren't they jittery that a mix-up of sperms could happen for real?
(Guffaws) No, that was purely incidental which made for an entertaining twist in the plot.
There was a bit of a scare when during the shoot in Chandigarh, Varun Dhawan and you tested positive for COVID and had to quarantine yourself in the hotel there while Neetu flew back to Mumbai, along with Anil who fortunately, escaped the virus.
Yeah, that was scary!
After being locked in for months, we were all excited to get back to shooting even though things were very different on the set.
We took all precautions, but still ended up catching the virus.
Fortunately, the symptoms were mild, so though the shooting was interrupted, spirits remained high.
For this, I will be eternally grateful to my actors and producers who showed so much grace.
Even when I was in quarantine, Anil sir was on con call, discussing how we should shoot the remaining scenes when we got back.
We were all chatting everyday, and as soon as we were in the clear, everyone returned to complete the film.
The last two years have been very challenging because of the pandemic.
I was fortunate my mom was with me during the first lockdown.
The rest of the family was in the US, and as soon as travel restrictions were lifted, I flew out to be with them.
It was equally bad there, with people walking around in masks.
The whole world had come to a standstill with so many people losing loved ones to the virus.
How did you keep yourself occupied when locked in?
I watched a lot of shows and films; OTT kept us all alive and entertained.
For me, as a film-maker, this was important because when you are creating something, it's important to study what has already been created across the world.
Rishhabh and I worked on the script of JugJugg Jeeyo through Zoom calls.
I also finished the script of Selfiee.
Selfiee is the remake of the 2019 Malayalam comedy-drama Driving Licence, featuring Prithviraj Sukumaran and Suraj Vejaramoodu.
It's an adaptation more than a remake.
I really enjoyed the original story and have tried to make it my own, putting it in context for a Hindi audience.
The relationship between a film star and a fan is what made the premise attractive for me.
We see things like this first hand.
You must be having die-hard fans of your own by now?
(Laughs) I haven't reached that stage yet, but it's overwhelming when someone wants to take a selfie with me.
Driving Licence was critically applauded and a commercial success. It is on OTT so there will be the inevitable comparisons and sky high expectations. Prepared?
When you adapt a film, that is a given. But as I said, Selfiee is not a faithful remake.
We have been filming in Bhopal, there is some shooting left still.
So far you have only been making family entertainers.
That's because I come from a large joint family.
I was raised with my cousins and grew up with aunts and uncles around me.
I guess that has influenced my choice of subjects.
But now I want to deviate from that path, do something out-of-the-box.
There's talk of you doing an action film next?
Everything I do will always have an element of humour, but yes, action is a genre I want to explore.
I have an idea, we are developing it.
Selfiee reunites you with Akshay Kumar with whom you share a good rapport.
He's such a chilled out actor! So is Emraan (Hashmi) with whom I am collaborating for the first time.
Akshay sir loves being on the set.
He keeps himself and everyone else entertained, sometimes at your cost.
Has he convinced you to switch to his diet yet?
Well, he does invite us for breakfast, and I have tried his super healthy stuff.
But I love to eat and found that stuff a bit boring.
I was able to convince him to let me enjoy my parathas and other not-so-healthy stuff.
Did he whisk you off on five-mile jogs?
Thankfully not yet, we have been shooting non-stop.
You were a part of the Ajeeb Daastaans Netflix anthology.
Yeah, I directed Khilauna.
Tell us one Ajeeb Daastaan that happened to you for real?
For someone who came from outside the industry with the dream of making his own films someday, the most ajeeb daastaan was sitting in Karan's home, on the couch opposite him, narrating a script for the first time and him telling me that he loved it, wanted to make it.
This was the Good Newwz script?
No, this was the one I wrote before that, a period romance.
We couldn't make it for some reason.
You could revisit it now?
Now that you mention it, it might be worth pulling it out.