- Punam Mohandas
- 23 May 2020
A writer of curiosity: ‘I write about everything that fascinates and bothers me about my country.’
SWA Exclusive interview with Screenwriter and Creator Sudip Sharma
Sudip Sharma, the brilliantly creative pen-wielding master behind thought-provoking scripts such as ‘Udta Punjab’, ‘NH 10’ et al, is now basking in the acclaim his web series ‘Pataal Lok’ (Created By Sudip Sharma, Written By Sudip Sharma, Gunjit Chopra, Sagar Haveli, Hardik Mehta) has brought him. Quite apart from the story premise itself, the razor-sharp repartee and spot-on dialogues that convey a lot of meaning without being preachy, remain etched in memory long after the episode is over.
In scintillating conversation with the erudite and yet extremely humble and affable Sudip Sharma:
It is hard to get meetings and make a breakthrough in the industry, no matter how good the script. How did ‘Pataal Lok’ come about on the writing table and how did you go about pitching it?
“I was actually happily busy with films but, due to the patient nudging of my managers at Tulsea Pictures, I got interested in the idea of writing a show. Datta Dave from Tulsea guided me through the pitching process and helped put together the show with Clean Slate Films and Amazon Studios. Tulsea was also instrumental in setting up the writers’ room", he states quite honestly, giving credit where it is due.
There are many layers to your characters in ‘Paatal Lok’. Although you have stated in previous interviews that you wanted to present cops as human, with their own family issues too, you have subtly given the female cop multiple facets to her personality: newly married, complete with chooda and yet, she has no compunction being sadistic with prisoners. How did you develop this orchestration….and how did you particularly develop Hathiram’s character?
“I feel that when we look at cops we look at them simply as social machinery, or as law enforcement machinery. We somehow tend to not see them the same way we look at any other middle class person with a home to run and a job to do. We wanted to take that romanticism out and present them as regular folks, with regular problems. You can take the cops of Outer Jamuna Paar Police Station and put them in any other government office and they would fit. And then of course, there is this other side to them – the hardness that comes with dealing with violence and crime day in and day out. We wanted a balance between these two sides,” says Sudip sincerely.
Hathiram’s dialogues especially, were spot-on; how did you come up with such hard-hitting one-liners? “You can either write dialogues well or you can’t,” he says, somewhat modestly. “It’s very difficult to comment on the process. But yes, having a deep understanding of the character and his milieu helps.”
Each of the four criminals has been given a background history that makes the audience empathise rather than merely vilify. How challenging was it to add all these nuances to each character’s personality? Also, how does one draw a line between 'humanization of criminals' and justification/apologia for crimes?
“It’s a good question,” he admits. “But we don’t need to look at it as any sort of justification for crimes. The social framework is built upon the legal-penal code and any breaking away from it collapses the whole edifice. So there is no question of justifying it. The aim was to present a certain side to an individual, which makes you look at him a certain way, and then present another side to see if your perception changes. The idea was to move beyond the simplistic binary of black and white and explore if we can develop empathy, even for the vilest of us.”
You have previously stated that the inspiration behind ‘Paatal Lok’ is Tarun Tejpal’s book, ‘The Story of my Assassins’. Would you care to elaborate on this? What were your fresh inputs to the storyline?
“The story is loosely inspired from the plot of the book, which was the starting point of our journey,” he corrects. “And then came the idea of telling this story as an investigative drama from the point of view of the investigator. That was a big departure. It completely changed the perspective, brought in a lot of new characters, and forced us to make substantial changes to the story itself.”
You have also very cleverly woven in the corrupt media angle in our country today, where fake news to garner/garnish TRP’s is a matter of norm. This seems to be a problem that is here to stay, where the rot has spread so far that the ordinary citizen can no longer trust the news?
“There is barely any news reporting that’s done these days!” Sudip declares. “It’s just opinion - and that too either uninformed or deliberately biased opinions! As much as it points at the failure of the news media and the liberal order, it also points to something that has changed in the collective conscience of this country. We are, consciously or subconsciously, letting go of the founding values, and what’s happening in the news media is only a reflection of that,” he sighs.
This is not really a question, but just my observation: ‘Pataal Lok’ has resonated with audiences, however, what people are largely ignoring is that the ease of identification is due to the fact that these instances, these perceptions/reactions, are endemic of modern-day Indian society post Partition. What would you say to this?
“Like I said above, something in the air has changed,” he says ruminatively. “The liberal order that was adopted by a large part of the world as a civilizational goal after World War II seems to have crumbled. And a new order is emerging – inward-looking, hyper nationalistic. And it’s not just India where you see this change – it’s across the globe. Some of us are disturbed by it, and some of us aren’t, but we are all feeling this change. We wanted to capture a sense of this shift in ‘Pataal Lok’ and we wanted to do it without sitting in judgement. Maybe the combination of these factors seems to have resonated with the audience, but it’s difficult for me to really place a finger on why it has worked so well.”
You have worked with co-writers before too; do you prefer this kind of teamwork, or writing on your own?
“Both have their own merits and demerits. Personally, I prefer writing on my own – maybe with just one collaborator/bouncing board. But it’s difficult to write an entire long form series on your own,” Sudip says honestly.
Your genre seems to be thrillers…’NH 10’, ‘Udta Punjab’, ‘Sonchiriya’ now ‘Paatal Lok’. As a writer, do you feel most comfortable in this space? Would you be willing to explore other genres as well?
“Actually, NH 10 is the only pure thriller out of these films. The rest are dramas with strong thriller elements or vice versa. I love this mash-up, wherein drama brings in the necessary heft and context to the story and the thriller bits bring in a tautness and tension to the proceedings. I’m interested in these drama thrillers with a strong socio-political context, as they help me explore and challenge my world view even within the limitations of a mainstream narrative. But yes, I’d love to explore other genres – maybe a dark comedy, or a small intimate drama.”
It appears a lot of your writing comes from imbibing experiences and reactions from real life rather than imagination…? Therefore, what is more important for screenwriting in your opinion – imagination, or real life observations?
“There is no right or wrong, it really depends on what approach excites you as a writer,” he muses. “I am a writer of curiosity; I like exploring places and people and sub-cultures through my work. Research is an important part of my process. I feel crippled without it, possibly because of the kind of stories I write. Also, I write to try and make sense of my country and everything that fascinates and bothers me about it. It comes from a place of inquisitiveness, from wanting to know more about it.”
How did you happen to chance upon writing ‘NH10’ and get associated with Clean Slate Films?
“I met Navdeep Singh in 2010 and we worked on a few scripts which never got made, with one of them getting canned halfway through the shoot. ‘NH 10’ was the fourth script I wrote for him. That got picked up by Phantom Films and then began the process of finding an actor who could pull off the film and its budget. That’s when Anushka came on board, both as an actor and co-producer. Since then, I have done a lot of work with Clean Slate Films – the company run by Anushka and her brother Karnesh Sharma. They are good people, and great producers. Most importantly, they are in this business because they want to tell a good story,” he affirms.
How difficult has it been to make a breakthrough as a writer into the Hindi film industry?
“Well, it was difficult, but I’d say those years were well spent in learning the craft. It’s very easy to call yourself a writer. I had little knowledge of the craft involved in it when I announced myself as one. And it took me a good 4-5 years to develop a reasonable understanding of the medium. And once I started churning out half-decent scripts, I got noticed,” he smiles.
‘Sonchiriya’ did not receive a wide reception and was pulled from theatres fairly quickly, nor is it available to view online. What do you think were the reasons for this? Do you take success and failure equally in your stride?
“It’s very difficult to say why a ‘Sonchiriya’ doesn’t work with the audience, or why a ‘Pataal Lok’ works,” Sudip says contemplatively. “It’s a pointless exercise for a writer and I try and stay away from it. Honestly, I’d be more concerned if ‘Sonchiriya’ had turned out as a bad film in the general opinion of the critics. Or if ‘Pataal Lok’ hadn’t worked critically.”
I apologise if this sounds trite, but what was the experience like of writing for an OTT platform? I imagine it gives you a lot of time to totally explore your characters in depth, unlike a feature film?
“You are right, it does let you explore characters in depth, and dive into various sub-plots which you don’t have the freedom to explore in films. But that freedom comes with a responsibility as well – of keeping it all together, and ensuring it all makes sense by the end of it.”
What is the difference in the three roles you're credited for - Created by, Written by and Executive Producer?
“‘Created by’ credit is for the Creator/Showrunner, who creatively leads the project from day one to the delivery of the finished product. ‘Executive Producer’ credit is for the key people responsible for the setting up or execution of the project. ‘Written by’ credit is an individual episode writing credit, which I have only in the episodes I have written,” he explains for the uninitiated.
How has the whole COVID-19 and work-from-home situation affected your routine as a screenwriter?
“Routine wise, I haven’t been much affected, to be honest. When I’m writing, I operate out of home anyway. However, the difficult bit has been in remaining focused, and not let what’s happening in the world take over you completely,” he admits.
Given the recent controversy where PVR issued a rather disgruntled statement against production houses releasing their films on OTT platforms, do you think OTT is the new way forward that will slowly phase out the expensive multiplexes?
“It looks like it’s going to go that way, the process has already started all over the world. But I’d leave the speculation for the experts, and rather just focus on telling stories,” says Sudip, signing off smilingly.