Smriti Kiran: Paatal Lok, the Amazon Prime Video original series, produced by Clean Slate Filmz, is one of the few happy highlights of this bleak year. Paatal Lok released on May 15. The appreciation for the show was instant and fierce. The writing squad of Paatal Lok, led by show-runner and creator Sudip Sharma, are going to talk about how they did what they did!
Sudip, Datta Dave from Tulsea sent The Story of My Assassins, the book on which Paatal Lok is based, to you. What were your first thoughts after reading the book?
Sudip Sharma: The book was quite fantastic. It had a very fierce quality to it, especially when it came to certain characters; while at the same time, not losing a sense of empathy towards them. It had a pretty bleak worldview, which kind of matched my own worldview that I have about life, the universe and everything else. Those characters got me hooked.
In fact, around that time, I was unsure if I wanted to do a series. I was very happy doing films. I think most of us came to Bombay with the idea of making films. Films are our childhood dreams, or whatever you want to call them. It took a little while to make that switch. But I’m glad I read the book because it helped me in making that; it completely lent itself to long-form storytelling, rather than a film.
Smriti Kiran: Before you set up the writer’s room, you and Navdeep Singh worked on the book for three-four months. What did those months of work amount to?
Sudip Sharma: A lot, actually. I don’t think I would have been able to do it without Navdeep, because he and I have a long-standing relationship, and before getting into something like this I needed that frequent collaborator with me. When Navdeep and I meet for work, we talk about work for 15 minutes, and the other three hours, we are just faffing; but we get each other, and we build on each other’s ideas very well.
“I had absolutely no clue how to go about writing a show.”
A lot of that initial groundwork came about with Navdeep: the idea of having a cop and telling the story from his point of view, who in the book is a very minor character – he appears three or four times; he’s one of those side characters who come for effect and disappears. We thought that it would be interesting to turn the book around into an investigation because what was interesting was the story of the assassins but we needed an in into those stories. You can’t just have one story after another without it being connected through any sort of glue or a connecting thread. That’s when the character of Hathi Ram came about.
Although I love cop characters, I don’t think we have done justice to them. There are few characters on screen, like in Ardh Satya (by Govind Nihalani) or Kay Kay Menon in Black Friday (by Anurag Kashyap) but we have dealt with them in a certain way. We wanted to really look at the cop as a man of the world, not just as a police officer. There is a little too much emphasis on the police officer part, which is understandable because in a film you need to have that focus; but here we could look at him as a man of the society, as a man of the world, as a man of the family, and how he deals with all of that. That came from there.
There were also some other decisions, such as Cheeni (played by Mairembam Ronaldo Singh) being a transgender, that came about in the early bit of discussions and also reducing the number of assassins from five to four. So, some of those decisions were taken early on. And around August was when the room was in place.
Smriti Kiran: At the point in time when you started writing or even started work on this there was no template or handbook. When you put the writer’s room together, how did you decide on the number of writers and who they would be?
Sudip Sharma: I had absolutely no clue how to go about writing a show. I don’t think any of us did. There was nobody you could go to. There were no shows that had been done at that point in time. A lot of it was just gut feeling. Normally, I go a lot with my gut. There were certain rules of thumb that I used, for example, I asked how many episodes I could write by myself. We were doing 10 episodes, and I was like, ‘Okay, chaar toh main kar lunga in this period. So, bache chhe, aur chhe ke liye teen writers is the right number.’ Just this basic math that you do in your head. That was one way to go about it.
There were also some other rooms that were getting formed. I was a part of the Sacred Games room for a bit. That was another reference barometer, ki haan woh bhi ye kar rahe hain; samajhdaar log hai, kuch toh soch ke kiya hoga, so let’s go with that logic.
As for who to pick: I definitely wanted to have read one of their scripts – for example, I’d read an earlier version of Kaamyaab (by Hardik Mehta), which finally got made and came out last year. I had quite enjoyed it.
With Gunjit, I had worked on Udta Punjab (by Abhishek Chaubey). He had helped me out with the dialogues. I’ve known him for ten years, so we’ve worked together as well. It’s been a relationship with him.
Sagar had an entry pass, by virtue of having picked up the book. He had that green pass. I had also read one of Sagar’s scripts, which was a story set in Bhutan and about languages. I thought it was quite nice. Then he got a double pass to join the gang.
Smriti Kiran: Sagar, Hardik and Gunjit, what was the first thing you did when you got into the room? What were the first impressions of the book for you? And were you okay with the decisions that were taken before you came on board?
Hardik Mehta: It was around 2016 that the platforms and series madness was actually happening. As Sudip was saying, there was no rule book to go by. We were just very excited that there was this series being put together. I was very excited to work with Sudip. Also, you’ve put it up on Dial M For Films, too, about Skeptic Tank, which Sudip and Navdeep were a part of. I really enjoyed their films. But I knew that I probably would never be able to write something that they are able to, independently. So, that was the only way for me to get inside that gang.
Noirs, investigative thrillers, that whole genre excites me as a screenwriter and a filmmaker a lot. But because I have just stepped into the fold, and also as a director I have made a slice of life, or my earlier shorts or docu-work has been in the comedic side, I knew that mujhe toh koi nahi milne wala hai thriller ya investigative ke liye seedha, but if I work with the best in the business, then there is an opportunity that I can learn the craft and maybe eventually have something of my own in life. For me, that was a very, very big-ticket.
“One of the things that all of us also got attracted to in the book and the material is the disparities, the ironies that India offers.”
Also because screenwriting is such a collaborative process, especially when it comes to series, you have to kind of understand the showrunner’s vision and then go by it; I can’t suddenly have my instincts thrown in, like ‘I feel there should be some comedy or humour here.’ Learning that was very important. In 2016-17, I had just shifted from being an AD to wanting to make something on my own. In that sense, I was very lucky – and I have to thank Tulsea for this – that I was able to be a part of this room with Navdeep and Sudip, who are people I wanted to collaborate with in the first place.
I want to add to what Sudip said about Hathi Ram. Hathi Ram was a very sleazy, different kind of a cop, from the Jamnapar area, who would enter a place like Greater Kailash, and upon seeing a copy of Naked Lunch think, ‘Haan, ameer log aise hote hai.’ Navdeep and Sudip have made him very earnest – completely different from the two or three sequences that Hathi Ram has in the book. That was a big leap that had happened. We were going to see the series from a cop’s perspective, which is what’s most interesting. Having received the opportunity to watch and learn from them is an inspiration because we were also forming a skeleton of workflow and the structure. Screenplay writing in a series is so much more different from film, which we were trained for back in the day. So, a lot of factors led to this.
This is also something that Akanksha, my wife, used to keep telling me that whenever I would come back from Paatal Lok’s writing every Saturday, I would be so energised about things. She’d be like, ‘You’re learning something else altogether, and you’re getting that happy vibe about learning something new and creating a new world.’
One of the things that all of us also got attracted to in the book and the material, and then in the show, is the disparities, the ironies that India offers, which we see so much of in our daily lives that we are just waiting for it to come out in material that we can put out. The series also got its name from that irony itself. All of us, as filmmakers and screenwriters, also wait for such an opportunity, where we can show these ironies in a close way. That’s the main idea behind why we all got attracted to this material.
Gunjit Chopra: The great thing was that there was something in the book that everybody could connect to. I’d read half the book earlier as well, but left it incomplete – I don’t know why. I could connect with the protagonist of the book, in a way, because that was the time when journalists were our heroes, and everybody wanted to be like them. But I had other connections as well. Since I was born and brought up in old Delhi, I felt a connection with the railway stations and the rats’ story – I have been to those stations and we used to bunk school and go to Sheila Cinema Theatre. I was also working a lot in Punjab. I knew what was happening there. I did a documentary where I covered a lot of singers, most of whom were from the marginal castes. I also went to Deras. And my mom is from Haryana; my grandfather had a lot of land there. So, I connected with most of the stuff that was there in the book.
But when Sudip told us that he wanted to do it from Hathi Ram’s point of view, a lot of things opened up, because the character is very passive in the book; and to jump into the world of the assassins you needed somebody, who became Hathi Ram. It was great creating Hathi Ram in that way because Delhi ke policewale dekh ke sab ko darr lag jaata hai. But they have their own lives. So, it was fun.
Sagar Haveli: When I read the book for the first time, it was just a book. I was fascinated by the book and the world that opened up when I read it. Of course, when I had a discussion with Sudip about it and we started our discussions about adapting it the perspective changed. You’re looking at the same book from a different perspective; it’s not just a novel that you’ve read and you have liked. It’s about adapting, about converting this into a story. Again, Hathi Ram is hardly there in the book. Everything changes when you’re trying to tell the same story from a totally different perspective, right from creating the world of Hathi Ram, on paper itself. That was the first round of discussion that we had.
“When Sudip told us that he wanted to do it from Hathi Ram’s point of view, a lot of things opened up.”
For me, it was also a double learning. One was, adapting this into a screenplay, along with Sudip, Hardik and Gunjit, but they have also stayed in Delhi – they’ve known that world – whereas I was a complete outsider that way. References of Delhi were only what I’d seen in the movies or what I’d read in the books. But when I went there on the writers’ recce, along with Hardik and Gunjit, a completely new world opened up – I could see something new; and that became a part of our writing process.
Smriti Kiran: You come from a farmer’s family and you’ve done agricultural studies. Was there a resonance in the material itself when you recommended the book to Datta?
Sagar Haveli: When Datta casually asked me if there was anything I’d like to see adapted, I said, ‘There’s this book – I don’t know how to do it; I don’t know what’s the process, but I love the book – see if anything can be done about it.’ And the series and platform concept had just come to India, and we had no idea how to do it. So, when he told me that he was sending this book to Navdeep and Sudip, I was like, ‘Wow! Let’s hope something happens,’ and it did happen. I remember I was in Pune at that time, working at an ad agency. I had a long discussion with Sudip, my first call with him, about why I picked the book, and what I liked about it. I think Sudip was trying to understand if I was looking at the book in the same way as he was, if I was seeing the same things that he was seeing in the book.
I’m from an agricultural background, and Hardik is from dairy technology. So, we have a similar background. We come from the rurals. The disparity and all that went into the writing was greatly aided due to that.
Smriti Kiran: Sudip, what were the first few months of writing like? What are the first few things that you did as a collective?
Sudip Sharma: I told Amazon that I did not want time pressure on this one, that I would take my time with it, because it was the first time I was doing it and I didn’t want to do it wrong. With films, I knew that in six months I can turn out a first draft. With this, I didn’t know if it was going to be eight months, 10 months, or one year. I had no idea.
The first few months we were just spitballing. We were just discussing the book since we had a reference point to start with, what we liked and didn’t like, things that needed to be there. I remember telling each one of them to come up with a list of things from the book which they think should be there in the series. ‘Ye toh chahiye hi chahiye.’ We spent a week just doing that.
“Screenwriting is pure structure.”
Also, I don’t like the way a writers’ room functions, especially the way it functions in America, where the writers’ room is actually a room from nine to five every day till the time they finish churning out the draft. I don’t like working like that. I’m somebody who prefers their own space. What we would do was, meet once a week and discuss what needed to be done in the week. Then, we would all go our separate paths, work on it, and then spend an entire Saturday discussing our thoughts and exchanging our opinions on each. The first three-four months was that.
After this, there was stuff that emerged. We had a bouquet of the things that we found interesting. The next part of the process was to stick it on a board.
For me, screenwriting is this. Rest of it is all okay, it’s doable, you have to sit in front of a monitor and type. But really, screenwriting is structure. Especially when it comes to writing for shows, it is pure structure. Where are you starting the story? Where are you ending the first episode? Episodic breakdowns, character graphs over the episodes – all of which emerges out of the board.
At the end of three-four months, we had stuff to stick on the boards. What we see in the image is one-fourth of it. That became the building block. If these are the two things happening in episode one, what else can happen in episode one? Do we think this is the endpoint of episode one? If we think it is, what needs to proceed for it to be the correct endpoint? It was just building it up from over there.
If you look at the board, what you’re seeing vertically are the episodes. These were the first 10 episodes which we had, to start off with. What you’re seeing horizontally are the character arcs. For example, blue is Hathi Ram’s investigation. So, you read, ‘Okay, in this episode Hathi Ram is doing this; in the second episode he’s doing this and this.’ You’re seeing his graph. It just becomes easier to follow that. What I would do is, I would sit in front of it and stare at it for weeks and months.
That’s a process that I truly follow so that before we get into the step outline part of it, I should know the entire beats from the heart before writing so that I have the entire lay of the land and we aren’t going in a direction which feels wrong at the end of it.
Smriti Kiran: Was there a certain trust-building that needed to be done to see how the room worked together? What were the challenges of putting the room together?
Sudip Sharma: There are challenges. As much as filmmaking is collaborative, it is also, at one level, a particular vision. Everybody goes about doing their own thing, but then it’s really the responsibility of the lead writer/showrunner to channelize it and to funnel it into a particular vision and say, ‘This doesn’t work. This really works. Let’s build upon it more, but let’s go in this particular direction and not lose our step.’ There would be back and forth, but it’s only a natural part of the process; especially for us in India, because we have all been independent writers, we have all written our own scripts. It’s impossible to think that another writer can write like you. If you were to write your own script one year down the line, you would write it differently – forget about another writer. It’s a moment in time that you are as a writer, and when the moment changes, the writer changes. So, there was back and forth on that. As long as there is clarity on your part that this is the direction that I want to take the story in, it’s fine. It’s nothing that can’t be fixed.
Hardik Mehta: In fact, the process that Sudip had designed is what made us follow that. It’s also the universe of web-series screenwriting that we were following. Sudip’s process was to divide the series into three arcs. One is the professional arc of Hathi Ram and his investigation with the assassins, which drives the whole show. The series also gives you an opportunity to explore different worlds or different characters, which is how we get into Sanjeev Mehra and the other journalists’ arcs. His arc is in the pink cards. In that we get to know that Sanjeev Mehra was this left-liberal journalist hero whom we all loved in the late-1990s and early-2000s, and how through the series his character completely changes, eventually realising what his journey would be. The third arc is Hathi Ram’s personal world, where there is conflict, too, between the father and the son. Those are the yellow cards. That’s what blue, pink and yellow represent.
Through the series, we are completely invested in Hathi Ram’s world, and also invested in the world of the other characters. This was the process that was designed by the showrunner, and we followed it.
“The series also gives you an opportunity to explore different worlds or different characters.”
Then, we tried to see this process in other series. Because we never had a rule book, we were looking at this material outside. Through this process, we realised that the five-act structure is something that is used much more in screenwriting, which Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad has also followed so amazingly well. That’s how we made the craft of screenwriting better and make it, at the same time, representative of Paatal Lok’s own distinctive voice.
Each of us saw the first episode of a show that we loved in the same genre, and then we broke the pilot episode into a five-act structure. I saw The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Similarly, Gunjit and Sagar each saw the pilot of a series of their liking. That’s how we went about understanding the craft. All along with Sudip designing the process of the cards and the three arcs, all of it.
Smriti Kiran: When you individually write screenplays for episodes, you’re dealing with multiple tracks within those episodes. How does that work? Are the arcs divided or you just keep in mind what the larger arc is, and then write accordingly?
Sudip Sharma: The way most American rooms function is, you have a lot of writers who are working on individual tracks, and then you have either the lead writer or a senior writer who is then writing the episodes, taking these various tracks.
I’m personally not a big fan of it. It takes away the ownership of the material, which all of us need to have. You need to know that this is the episode with your name on it, so you better do a damn good job of it. That ownership is important for a writer.
Also, it’s the showrunner’s job to look at the tracks and to fix them if they need fixing. Even if there are a couple of things which get lost while he’s writing the episode, then it can always be fixed. That’s just a part of the process.
Gunjit Chopra: And I think it can happen in the step outline. Once we are done with the step outline, we can only make changes then. That’s why you have the index cards and the board, and everybody can see it and feel what the graph is. Whatever screw-ups you do or make is during the step outline itself. Once you do the draft, then only the scene changes – ‘Maybe the character should behave like that. Maybe the character should behave like this.’ It won’t be a major screw up for sure. We worked for quite a few months before that, so everybody knew where we were going. That’s why that whole board is very important. At least you know where you’re going at the end of the episode.
Sagar Haveli: Because everything was up there on the board, everyone knew which episode was starting at what point and at what point it’d end. Of course, when we started writing the individual episodes, it just so happened that Sudip wrote the pilot, and I still distinctly remember that when he started writing the pilot, he told the three of us, ‘Ab tum zara 8-10 din chill maro, main pilot likh ke bhejta hoon, and then we’ll take it from there.’ When the pilot was written, that actually set the tone of how every character was going to speak. Not only that, how the screenplays were to be written. Sudip distinctly told us, ‘Just copy my writing style, if you can, because, at the end of the day, it won’t just be the four of us, there’ll be a hundred other people who would be reading our screenplays, including people from Amazon. So, it has to look like one cohesive piece. Every episode cannot have a jarringly different style of writing because then it just puts off the reader also at some point.’ So, we tried to follow that as much as possible, not only the way the characters speak but also the way the screenplays were written, the language and the construction of the sentences as well. We tried to get as close to each other as possible. So, that also helped a bit.
Hardik Mehta: What also really helps with something like this is, while we are doing an investigative thriller and expounding upon a cynical view towards the world, there is always that scope for human behaviour humour, which was there in abundance in Paatal Lok; you could see it throughout. Everybody whom I have met has told me, ‘Ek din mein dekh li, sir!’ which just goes to show how the writing has succeeded, with the amount of thriller moments or, as they say, moments to binge-watch, were there in the series. At the same time, if you remove that and only watch through the filter of irony and humour and sarcasm, there is so much of that in Paatal Lok happening throughout. That is also what is so exciting about a series like this.
Smriti Kiran: Where did your research process begin? What were the first steps that you took in terms of involving outside sources to get the meat for the series?
Hardik Mehta: Half of the research is Sudip himself!
Sudip Sharma: This series is a nichod of all that I’ve done in the last ten years or so. A lot of Delhi comes from NH10; a lot of Bundelkhand and Tyagi’s world comes from Sonchiriya; a whole lot of Punjab comes from Udta Punjab. It was just all there.
Research ko homework type bana liya hai hum ne. Ek uska myth ban gaya hai ki ‘Research karte hai, chalo!’ Research is nothing. It’s meeting somebody who is from Punjab and taking him out for a drink or for a coffee, and spending an hour with him and asking him a couple of questions. That’s research. Or going to a dhaba in Amritsar, sitting with people there, talking to the taxi driver about how things are in the area, elections kab aa rahe hai aur kya lag raha hai kaun jeetega – that is research. It is just having your ear close to the ground, or spending time with those people in that locality, with this set of characters.
A lot of it was already there, but I wanted these guys to be on the same page. I insisted that they go on a research trip. They went to a lot of police stations in Delhi and Chitrakoot. In fact, a lot of the locations that we finally ended up shooting at were found by these guys in their research. ‘Oh, this is a great place! We have to shoot here.’
Smriti Kiran: The writers were also your location scouts.
Sudip Sharma: Yeah! It was something that had happened to me even in Udta. The writer is always the first one to find that place. There is always a vision with which you are attacking the story, you’re carrying back and you’re putting that into your script. So, it’s great if you can actually shoot at the same location. The people in The Wire also followed the exact same process. In fact, they had street names written because they knew Baltimore so well, and they knew where they wanted to shoot a particular scene. It was really just travelling.
Smriti Kiran: What was that 10-day research trip like?
Sagar Haveli: Gunjit had all the connections in Delhi. We went to Karkaduma, Okhla and all those places which I’d only heard about. I had never visited those places, and we went to those police stations. If someone would have shown me the shot of Jaideep Ahlawat’s character in a room inside the police station, on a bed, almost asleep, I’d have been like, ‘Aisa kabhi hota hai kya police station mein?’ But it was actually there. We saw that there is a room where the policemen rest. Hardik, remember that cop whom we met who said that there are days when they don’t go home for three-four days? ‘What do you expect? You don’t expect us to sleep on a chair, right?’ It’s like a second home for them. It was all very fascinating. Then, of course, Chitrakoot was brilliant. Hardik worked up a connection with a local journalist there.
Hardik Mehta: My father-in-law got me in touch with a local journalist there, who would come on a bike wearing a military cap, and he took us around. That’s where Amitosh got picked up from. Sudip added that fantastic line in which Amitosh says to Sara, ‘Arey madam, aapki un angrezi news agencies mein India ki news milti hain. Hindustan ke samachar nahi.’ It was such a fab insight into the world of Hindi reporters and reporters in the hinterland.
Chitrakoot is in a very funny space. We realised that jo nadi hai, Mandakini, uske iss taraf MP (Madhya Pradesh) hai aur uss taraf UP (Uttar Pradesh) hai. So, Amitosh’s character in episode three reports about a case in MP when he’s in UP, and the police inspector, who’s really pissed off, says, ‘Yahan kyun gaand mara raha hai?’ These kinds of things you can only get when you see these places. The river actually divides.
Gunjit has made the most out of the research. When Hathi Ram first travels to Chitrakoot in episode three, there is a woman eating paan-zarda aur woh thukti hai. We actually met a lady police constable jo zarda ya Rajnigandha-type kuch khaa ke thuk rahi thi. And she said, ‘Andar toh bohot ganda hai, sahab. Aap woh saamne restaurant use kar lo.’ This was the same woman!
The hinterlands have a design of their own, where police station mein painting ho raha hai, kapde dhoye jaa rahe hai; domestic issues being solved by the police over there; neeche kutta soya hua hai; kisi ko punishment diya hai, lekin jail mein nahi daala hai toh bahar murga bana ke baithaya hua hai – toh hum ne pucha, ‘Bhai, usko murga kyun banaya hua hai?’ ‘Itna kaand bhi nahi kiya hai ki jail mein daal de. Isliye punishment aisi di hai hum ne.’
“Research is just having your ear close to the ground, or spending time with those people in that locality.”
The credit for bringing this out needs to be given to the directors (Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy) and the production designer (Mukund Gupta) and the DOPs (Avinash Arun and Saurabh Goswami). After writing, I was nowhere involved with Paatal Lok. So, when I started watching the series, I knew everything inside out because they portrayed it so well, exactly from the paper. The directors did such a commendable job of portraying and enhancing the writing.
Sagar Haveli: When we were in Chitrakoot, the reporter used to meet us every day at the hotel. We used to have breakfast together at the hotel, and then move around the whole day. One day, he just came and told us that we’d been invited for breakfast. He took us to a politician’s house and it turned out to be quite a surreal experience. We were sitting with the politician discussing the local politics, eating the local breakfast, all the while these four armed bodyguards wearing dhoti-kurta, sat with a double-barrel gun next to us. The politician was saying, ‘Dekhiye yahan hinsa ke zor pe kuch hota nahi hai. Bohot shantipurn tareeke se chunav hote hai.’ And I was like, ‘There’s something wrong here. I’m sitting amidst four gunmen, and you’re talking about non-violence?’ The whole irony of the place was just fascinating. All of that came into our writing at some point.
Hardik Mehta: Any budding screenwriter who wants to do research should just go and say, ‘Bombay se filmon mein writer aaye hai.’ Then the hinterland is like, ‘Arre Bombay se aaye hai!’ It becomes a thing. They open up to you. Even if you don’t want it, they will open up to you.
Sudip Sharma: You have to play the city idiot. You have to play the Bandra version of yourself. ‘Bhaya-bhaya, yeh kahan hota hai?’ You basically have to play that and then they’d be like, ‘Accha, iss idiot ko hamara shehar dikhate hai.’ It actually opens up the whole world to you.
Smriti Kiran: The episodes were divided democratically – the writers got to choose. How does that work, Sudip?
Sudip Sharma: My approach was, they should be writing episodes that they feel most comfortable with or are most excited about. That was the way that I looked at it. There’s no point thrusting something on somebody. I’d have stepped in if there was an overlap; then I could have said, ‘No, I think you do this one.’ But that was the idea really.
I like my scenes in a particular way. I think that’s true for everybody. If you take writing seriously, if you’re a career writer, that’s your vision; you’re putting all of it on paper and hoping that exactly vaise ka vaisa hi banega. It doesn’t happen exactly, but at least you’re hoping for it.
I knew that I would be rewriting stuff, and these guys also knew it. What I’d told them right at the beginning was that even if 50% of what you’ve written makes it to the final script, then you’ve done a great job. That’s fair enough given that it needs to have a singular vision and something that papers over the differences in the tone of writing and the tone of characters. I was not worried because I knew that I would be doing a pass of it anyway.
Smriti Kiran: How did everyone choose which episodes to write?
Gunjit Chopra: I got episode 3 because I’m familiar with the language and the landscape of Punjab. Sudip said, ‘Why don’t you do this because it has a lot of Punjabi in it?’ So, I was comfortable with it, also because I know Punjabi better than anyone else in the room. I thought I could add my touch to it because in the book it’s very different. In the book, there’s a village called Zirakpur, which is on G.T. Road, and I wasn’t sure whether it was in Haryana or Punjab. The bullies were Sikhs, but the village, I think, was in Haryana. So, it was all over the place, in that sense. I just wanted to place it in one village where everything was happening.
Smriti Kiran: This is Pind Haveliyan?
Sudip Sharma: That’s what we called it. It’s a fictional name. In India, if you don’t want your head to be chopped off, just give fictional names to everything. That’s one advice I’ll give to budding writers: have fictional names for everything. Mat bolo. Galti se bhi mat bolna.
Smriti Kiran: You were working on the documentary about Punjabi singers and Chamkila, so how much of that knowledge that you have about the Dera culture and the music come into the writing?
Gunjit Chopra: I have been making these documentaries in Punjab for a good ten years. I spent a lot of time with those singers and musicians, and going to deras, which is nothing new for Punjab – it actually goes back to Heer and Waris Shah; all of them had their deras. Now, there is a lot of friction between the STPC and the Dera culture. The marginalised castes are also going to the deras and identifying with them, thinking that that’s their home where they can feel very secure.
I saw two different kinds of Punjab within Punjab: the Dera culture and the Gurudwara, which I’d been visiting since I was born. So, when I went to the deras, I saw people singing there and thought that there is a section of people in Punjab who feel very secure there. That’s where Sukkha’s character comes from.
In the book, Sukkha is very different. You’ve got half of the Sukkha you find in the book on screen, and half of his traits that you find in the book are in Jitu Bhaiyya (played by Pawan Singh). If you see Sukkha, he’s trying everything in the world, doing all kinds of odd jobs, trying new businesses. Those traits have gone to Renu’s (played by Gul Panag) brother in the series. Sukkha was trying to be a cool guy and I thought it could be interesting to see how that influenced Chaaku (played by Jagjeet Sandhu). We needed somebody stronger than the chacha in Chaaku’s life. The chacha was a good-for-nothing character. That’s why we needed Sukkha. And Sudip had that idea of his entry, which really worked. Just by looking at it, we don’t need to know more about Sukkha. That did it.
Also, to tell the story of Chaaku in 15 minutes was the whole idea. We combined a lot of characters, deleted a lot of characters, and kept just the one flashback which would do justice to Chaaku’s character. When we first meet Chaaku, you think of him as a criminal, as an asshole. He’s got a different kind of air to him. We really wanted a past which would have justified who Chaaku was.
Getting the whole aspect of marginal castes is something we don’t generally see. Atrocities upon the minorities are omnipresent. We just wanted to place it like that. A lot of my research, in that sense, helped, and I knew the language, so I wanted to use certain kinds of idioms in that. In the book he keeps playing with the game Seep, which I’ve been playing, so I know how people play Seep.
Smriti Kiran: Hardik, why did you take your mother-in-law’s name for the constable, Manju?
Hardik Mehta: I was just looking for generic names. And you should also look inside in life, you know. In fact, Ansari, too. Imran is my friend from Jamia, and Ansari is the auditorium where we performed. It just all came together. Everything in life is like that, right?
Smriti Kiran: Ansari is one of my favourite characters on the show. He’s not there in the book and you guys created him. His and Hathi Ram’s relationship brings tenderness and hope in the entire series. What made you create Ansari, and why is he so loyal to Hathi Ram?
Sudip Sharma: Ansari (played by Ishwak Singh) came from a statistic I had read which said that Muslims form 1.5% of Delhi Police. It was just something startling. You’re talking about a community which makes up to 17-20% of the state’s population, and it’s severely underrepresented. Whatever’s happened in the last one year has just sort of validated it, not that I’m happy about that validation.
If you’re a Muslim character in a predominantly Hindu-Sikh force, then it’s not just a rookie trying to cut his way in, it’s also loaded against you because you’re seen as an outsider. How difficult would that be! That seemed like a very interesting, fascinating character; someone you know is a law enforcement officer, and you know that he has certain powers, more than the average Joe on the street, but at his own workplace he’s dealing with certain issues, and it’s never the big issues. It’s just those subtler comments or the way someone treats you. We were just looking at him from that lens of this guy trying to cut in a place where he doesn’t quite feel that he belongs.
It’s one of my favourite characters. Even on paper, it came out beautifully. We were all very happy with Ansari’s character. There’s something very soft, very humane about Ansari. He’s the guy you would want your sister to get married to, if you know what I mean. He’s that guy.
Smriti Kiran: I really want to know from all of you, and maybe you don’t feel this way, but did the women in the show get the short end of the stick?
“When we started writing it, I knew that it was a very testosterone-driven story.”
Sudip Sharma: I didn’t feel that. Although, I have been told that some people felt that. Even when we were writing the scripts and we were getting the feedback, there were a couple of people who mentioned that. Honestly, we just couldn’t find a way to fix it even after we were told that, because there were just so many wheels that were turning within this larger wheel.
One fix that we thought of at one point in time was to make Ansari a female character, but then we thought we’ll have to take the Muslim bit out because then that would have become too much. It’s too designed, and the issues would have gotten mixed.
Sagar Haveli: We did one draft of the episodes, at the beat sheet stage, after receiving this feedback from more than a couple of people, purely with that focus in mind. ‘Let’s just focus on the female characters,’ and we did, but this was the max we could really do.
Hardik Mehta: If somebody says this, they might be right, because we were four men writing a series, which is a hardcore cop investigation, so if a thought comes from there, it’s completely their take. The thing is, while we have encapsulated all kinds of men in the series, we have also tried to encapsulate all kinds of women in the series – whether it is Renu or Dolly (played by Swastika Mukherjee) or Chanda (played by Anindita Bose). I would agree with those who say that there is an issue, but at the same time, the spectrum of characteristics that men have – wise, driven to really brutal; all kinds of shades of men – we’ve explored the same spectrum in the women characters as well. Having said that, since we were four men writing, we would have fallen short somewhere.
Sudip Sharma: Also, I didn’t want to force-fit for the sake of pushing an agenda. When we started writing it, I knew that it was a very testosterone-driven story; that it was going to be the kind of story which would have more male characters. We knew the lay of the land while we were getting into it. The way the women characters finally came out, I was okay with them. Renu, for whatever part she was doing, we were happy with whatever she serviced. Dolly is a character that I really liked. Swastika (Mukherjee) did a really good job of it. It’s a character that I actually came to fall in love with while we were shooting and editing it.
There could have been more women, but I also feel that we gave it a good shot, and couldn’t do much without fundamentally altering what was happening in the rest of the story.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Spandan Mishra: How detailed was the outline before you went to Amazon because writers are often grappling with how much to write before pitching it? Once things were agreed upon at a beat sheet level, did you guys face an issue if there was a fundamental change in the view that you as a writing room had with the platform?
Sudip Sharma: It was a little different in our case. When I went to Amazon, I went with only a verbal pitch. There was nothing written. There was the book, and there was my take on the book. Luckily, they brought it. We only started writing once Amazon was on board.
Having said that, the outline was very detailed. I look at outlines as mini-screenplays. They’re like 70% of the final draft. I don’t like writing outlines in the sense that in scene one Ram and Shyam are sitting in the room; Ram and Shyam fight about their past, and then one of them walks out. I would rather write it like a scene, even if it’s a kaccha-pakka scene. It might have dialogues in English, it might have some dialogues in Hindi, but I like seeing an infant version of the screenplay – of what it is finally going to be.
Regarding the other question, there was a time when we had a serious difference of opinion. It was also the time when Amazon was figuring out their own stuff in terms of the organisation structure, where the creatives would be led from, and there were people from L.A. dealing with it. We had some difference of opinion because culturally it is just so different, you know. For example, they had huge issues with Hathi Ram being physical with the assassins in the lockup. What they failed to realise was that that’s the truth about the Indian policing system – that’s the truth about the criminal justice system in India, that it is what it is. And I wanted to present Hathi Ram as that flawed guy. He is the guy who does stuff which you don’t want him to do. Then, maybe, redeem him in other ways. That’s the trick of screenwriting, right? We are not coming up with a how-to rulebook on how to be a good cop. That’s not the point of the show. But here’s a cop with his flawed choices.
In fact, in a couple of reviews that came out in the West, they particularly mentioned that. ‘We never thought that we could actually empathise with a character who does this to undertrials, but we did.’ That was quite satisfying. At one point, the show almost never happened. But people saw the right things in the script, and it came about.
Hardik Mehta: Originally designed as a 10-episode series, but as we went by, in the third or fourth draft of the screenplay we realised – and this was in conjunction with the platform – that two episodes were taking a little more time in terms of the pacing of the investigation. Eventually, we ended up having nine episodes. Having 10 episodes just because it’s a series should not be necessary. That was also a learning process. What is right for the story needs to be there. In between, episodes six and seven were fused into episode six because we also knew while writing it that somewhere in the middle Hathi Ram needs to be suspended, which would be our interval point. From there when he actually picks up the investigation again, since he already comes to know a lot during his time suspended, the remainder shouldn’t take so long, with also the culmination having to come at the right pace. That’s also why the decision to go from ten to nine was taken. It was for the best of the series. The nine episodes were much tighter.
Especially in a series with this binge-watch format, if you happen to lose your audience at a certain point, then that’s not good. ‘Arre sixth episode tak dekha, phir baad mein pick up karunga,’ is not something that you want to hear; which is why we got those compliments from people having finished the series in a night. So, that was a practical decision that the showrunners and the producers took.
Elackia Karpagavalli Vijayakumar: Do you write characters to explore the different dimensions in the story, or do you write characters that organically explore them? What gets decided first: the dimensions or the characters?
Sudip Sharma: It’s always the character that comes first. The other dimensions that you’re talking about are just your worldview as writers. If Sagar, Hardik, Gunjit or I have a worldview, it will come in our writing, right?
For example, Hathi Ram uses a pejorative during the interrogation against Ansari. Now, does Hathi Ram flinch at that or not is our worldview. While writing that scene, if we flinch when we read it, then Hathi Ram will flinch. Your personal biases, personal agendas, a personal worldview will filter in. But when you start it’s always the character and always the story. You’re trying to tell an engaging story. Now the world that the story will inhabit is your world – what you’ve seen and read and witnessed.
Raj Nayak: How do you strike a balance between your authorial voice and the free will of the character? Do you adapt your voice to stay committed to the character, or do you rediscover the character to suit your voice better?
Sudip Sharma: You have to let the characters play it out. You have to let them go on their own journey, and let them decide for themselves where they want to go.
When you start writing something, you’ve spent a little time on it, right? You’ve thought a few things, made a few notes. But to say, ‘Yaar, maine jo pehle soch liya, that is Gita or that is Bible,’ is being unfair to your own writing. When we say that let the characters be and if their voice is going in another direction, it’s basically your gut because that’s where the character is coming out of. If your gut is telling you, ‘Hang on. What you thought initially was not the best thing, maybe you should go in this particular direction, maybe this guy shouldn’t be a cop, he should actually be a killer, and that might be better for it,’ I think you should go on that journey. You should definitely let them take you on that journey, rather than saying, ‘Nahi, ye toh galat jaa raha hai.’
Rachit Raj: At its core, Paatal Lok is a show about flawed men in a crumbling democracy – each of the three main characters representing an important part of the Indian demography. How do you, then, as writers keep the audience engaged with them enough to care about them, but not side with them given their moral compass?
Sudip Sharma: It comes from your sense of how you see those characters. How you see those characters is most of the time how the audience ends up seeing those characters. If it is a killer who you are in love with, the audience would see that love, and not necessarily love it but see through the fact that there is something perverse going on here, if it is not matching the viewer’s perception of these characters. Jo aap kar rahe ho, woh samajh aa jayega unko. I don’t think you should worry about how the audience is going to perceive it, but it’s really about how you are looking at these characters. When you look at Hathoda Tyagi (played by Abhishek Banerjee), do you see him as the guy you should be cool about, or do you see him as a guy with issues? I don’t think we ever looked at Tyagi as this cool guy, as this guy we wanted to be. He is a screwed up character.
It’s like, I’m telling you a story about this really fierce character, and one of the tricks is to tell the audience about him and make them look at him a certain way, and then tell them something about his past that you know, then suddenly the audience would be like, ‘Now I feel bad about judging this guy a certain way, because I had no idea about his past.’ It’s like making fun of somebody without realising their difficulties. ‘Arre ye kya kapde pehn ke aaya hai.’ Then you realise, ‘Oh, he lost his job two months back,’ and suddenly now you’re feeling like shit because you shouldn’t have said that. In a way, you’re playing with that perception – with all of these characters, you’re showing them a certain way and then turning around that lens and saying, ‘Hang on, let me tell you more about him,’ and maybe you’ll look at him differently.
Jyoti Panda: Why were the characters of Tope Singh and Hathoda Tyagi treated in a way where we are shown that they were bad because something bad happened to them? Why this kind of straightforward treatment?
Sudip Sharma: I don’t think we were going for that treatment, that they are bad because something bad happened to them. As I was saying earlier, you look at a character a certain way, and the audience treats them a certain way, ‘Accha ye iss type ka character hai.’ And now you change that perception. You’re playing with audiences’ perceptions.
The other challenge that you’re taking up at that point is, what is the most unlikeable character that I can come across? There’s this guy who is pure evil. He beats up 15-year old schoolboys into a pulp. He kills them right in front of our eyes. That’s a really unlikeable character. Can I still make you have some sort of empathy for him? That’s the challenge that we are really going for at this point in time.
There’s a film called Naked by Mike Leigh. It starts off with the protagonist raping a girl. And you’re like, ‘Man, this is possibly the filthiest, most unlikeable character that you can create.’ By the end of it, he makes you empathise with that guy. I think that, at some level, is the whole purpose of art, which is to create empathy for characters that you don’t think you can have any. That’s the challenge that most writers, most artists, want to take upon themselves. That’s really what we were going for with them.
Gunjit Chopra: Giving them a backstory doesn’t mean that we let them do the bad things. We are not trying to make up for whatever shit it is that they are doing. It’s just a part of the character. It’s not that if I give them a good past, whatever they’d be doing now would be justified. There’s no justification there. We are just playing with the character.
Another good example is the show Rectify that Sudip and I really like. That also starts a certain way, and then you realise the layers of the character, after which you start understanding him and why he is in jail accused of rape. That’s the play of the screenwriter with the character. What’s the point of writing a character with only one shade?
Architaa Chawla: How did Cheeni’s character come about? Was it in the book or was it in the writing that the character was formed? And who came up with the dog-lover concept?
Sudip Sharma: Cheeni was not a transgender character. The character is there in the book – it’s a male character. We could do more with the character this way. We could play with the character. We took him from the book and went some distance with it.
Hardik Mehta: The dog concept is actually there in the book itself. It comes in a different fashion, though. In the screenplay, all of this came together very nicely with Yudhisthir’s story with the dog in the Mahabharata. Also, the name of the dog was Savitri, so there was that analogy, too. It was already there in the book, but how it all came together in the screenplay was much more fascinating. That’s the end which made the series suddenly enter the good books of the liberals, so to speak.
Shravan Kumar Kavattur: How much of character building do you do before setting the characters out on their arcs?
Sudip Sharma: It’s an intuitive process. You take the broad contours of the characters, say, the top eight-ten things you can think about the character, and proceed from there. A lot of it is fleshed out in the writing either the scenes or beats. What is a character? The sum total of the choices that he makes, right? I can write in my notebook that Hathi Ram is an honest character or Hathi Ram is a wife-loving character, but only when I show him making those choices on screen or on paper is when the character really comes into his own. So, you have to leave a lot of room for that in the writing, where you discover the character. It sometimes takes the character on a different path than what you had in mind, but so be it – it’s the process of figuring him out.
Sagar Haveli: The plot also gives you that scope to explore your character further. Many times we get asked this question, especially when it comes to movies, whether it is plot-driven or character-driven. That’s not a very sensible question to ask. You can’t have a great character in a stupid plot, or vice versa. They always go hand-in-hand. They affect each other a lot. When we know the plot, the story and the universe of the story that we are trying to tell, where it’s beginning and where it’s going to end, and this is the character that is going to fill this space, who will start here and end here, then you have nine episodes to discover how he reaches here to there. It’s like those puzzles we solved as children – if the rabbit wants to find the carrot, what is the way? That’s the process. And through that journey, as Sudip said, when you go into the beats, when you go into the respective scenes, characters start building themselves – it starts telling you what to do, in a way.
Monica Gyamlani: The series makes use of several verbal and visual references to Indian movies such as Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti and Anup Singh’s Qissa. Were these thought of on the writing level, or was it the directors who thought of this?
Sudip Sharma: I’m not very sure whether the Uski Roti or Qissa references were deliberate. Mere dimaag mein toh nahi tha. Agar Prosit (Roy) ya Avinash (Arun) ne socha hoga then I don’t know.
A lot of it is subconscious because all filmmakers are a product of what they watch, of what they are influenced by. Maybe what you caught was a stream of subconscious inspiration on our part, without us even realising it. But there were a lot of these references which were either there at the writing stage or they came about while we started prepping with the crew; once Prosit and Avinash came in, they brought their own sets of references; the HODs brought their own sets of references. It’s just an evolving exercise.
Deeksha V.: How do you handle and write scenes which are non-verbal?
Sudip Sharma: All scenes are action and dialogue. They are a mix of that. Even if it is a dialogue scene, there is so much action that it involves. There are so many nuances that get written in the action part of it. In fact, I love scenes without dialogue. It takes away the crutches of the dialogue from the actor and just lets him do what he can. That’s when you actually figure out how good an actor an actor is. Speaking out dialogues is actually the easier part of acting.
I’m not a big fan of dialogue. Although I love writing dialogue, I don’t particularly like too much dialogue. Our Hindi films are too verbose. I think this is just us as Indians that jab hamein chaar cheezein bolni hoti hai, hum dus cheezein bol dete hai.
Sagar Haveli: At the same time, even in the non-verbal way of communication things, there’s always a battle going on regarding how much is too much – can you cut it? For example, after Dolly goes to the coffee shop, picks up that guy, and while in the car, she stops and breaks down, and says that she’s sorry and let’s the guy go, although that breakdown was brilliant, the same moment was repeated when Sanjeev comes home. There aren’t many dialogues, but beat-wise, emotions-wise they are doing the same thing. I distinctly remember asking that even on paper if these two scenes, although they are non-verbal, are conveying the same thing, do we need two scenes to do that? When we saw the first edit, I remember telling Sudip, ‘Yaar, Sudip mere ko lagta hai ki woh car-wala scene jaana chahiye.’ Even though it’s brilliant and the performance is outstanding, I felt that it was doing the same thing twice. But when I saw the entire series, I realised that it worked. So, it’s about giving them that space and letting the actors do that magic at times, and then deciding what to do with it.
Indrakshi Mitra: How do you develop a plot that is both political, attacking the ruling government, while also keeping the creative elements such as the performances and the art intact?
Sudip Sharma: Don’t. That’s the only way to do it. Please don’t. It’s very, very friendly advice. Never do that. I’m not really holding back. We’ll have to go Iranian about it. If you have certain agendas or issues that you want to voice, as filmmakers we’ll have to get smarter about it. We will have to get subtler about it. It’s the way the Iranians do. You will have to tell allegories and parables. You’ll have to write a children’s story which will tell you something about the current socio-political environment in the country. The time to tell a straight story is gone. I wouldn’t do it again, honestly. I hope you don’t either. We’ll just have to get smarter.
Piyush Chhabra: Cinema that deals with larger questions in India through the legal world tries to compress all those issues. But Pataal Lok focuses on expanding since you pick up specific issues to explore them in-depth. Do you think the format of the web series makes you approach it this way? What is the role of censorship, or its lack, in this?
Sudip Sharma: The big difference really is, in writing a movie and writing a limited series, reading a short story and reading a novel. It needs to give you the satisfaction of a novel. Most good limited series, all over the world, take a very novelistic approach to storytelling. Because the canvas is so large, there are multiple things that you can run with. But if you really look at all the issues, so to speak, that we are trying to talk about, they are all talking about the idea of India. That’s the larger connecting thread that is holding this universe together. It’s not that we are throwing in whatever we wanted to throw in or whatever we could throw in. But this was the overarching theme: this idea of India that we grew up with, or this idea of India that we were told is what we want India to be, and looking at that idea through the filters of these three worlds, through these three loks – swarg lok, dharti lok and paatal lok – and seeing whether the idea even makes sense, or how they look at this particular idea. So, there was this overarching umbrella that was holding all of it together.
Ankit Bhuptani: There’s a scene where after Hathi Ram slaps his wife and when he returns she slaps him back. What was the process behind writing this scene? Also, sometime towards the end, there’s a scene where Hathi Ram offers ice cream to a dog, which was quite humane. Did the idea for it come in the writing or was it done impromptu during the production?
Sagar Haveli: We had seen Hathi Ram in his furious avatar, where he is angry and bashes up those goons, and before going there, he’s also had a tiff with his wife. We were going with him all along. While writing, we didn’t know how to end it, though, because the graph just went up, up, up. Now, we wondered how to cap it off. And we just instinctively felt that that was the best way for his wife to come back at him and make him realise that he may be a macho man outside, but when he’s at home, there are certain things that he can do and certain things that he can’t do. That’s the line that the wife drew. This was a very intuitive thing. There wasn’t any design. Aisa kuch plan nahi tha. It just built up to that.
Sudip Sharma: I think that’s where your politics come out. I remember there was one version of the draft where the scene ended with him coming back and getting that phone call. We all felt that it didn’t feel right. ‘I don’t think I like Hathi Ram anymore.’ There was this thought, suddenly. Then came the idea of the wife giving it back. There is a Thappad (by Anubhav Sinha) way of looking at things, and we could argue whether that is the right way of looking at things. But that’s Renu. She is that simple person, who would not take the step of walking away from a relationship or marriage of 20 years because the husband slapped her once, but who wouldn’t take it lying down either. Once that slap came back, we knew that the scene worked. We knew it was all in place.
Sagar Haveli: Take it with a pinch of salt if you want, but the biggest impediment to creativity, or writing anything good, is being judgemental about your characters. If you’re judgmental about them, then they’ll not surprise you. We tried it not just with Renu and Hathi Ram but also other characters. Trying not to be judgmental about them just opens up your mind in a hundred more directions as to what a character can do, the way he/she will react. Be open to that.
Hardik Mehta: When I read the first draft of the episode and read that Hathi Ram slaps his wife, I was taken aback. Suddenly, two pages later, when the slap is returned, I was like, ‘Arre yaar! This is too good!’ It became an ‘Aha!’ moment for us despite being a part of the process.
Smriti Kiran: There’s also that scene where there’s a moment of silence between Hathi Ram and the auto guy, and Hathi Ram says, ‘Khana khaa ke jayega kya?’
Sagar Haveli: That was not in the script, I can tell you.
Sudip Sharma: That’s Jaideep (Ahlawat).
Smriti Kiran: In the last episode, Swarg Ka Dwaar, which you wrote, Sudip, was there some kind of mirroring between Sanjeev (played by Neeraj Kabi) and Hathi Ram’s character? Because Sajeev was looking for a comeback and Hathi Ram was waiting for that one shot and in the process Hathi Ram became wise and Sanjeev became wily. Was the mirroring intentional, or it just happened?
Sudip Sharma: There was. It evolved during the writing. Maybe, we didn’t start with that in mind. But you’re absolutely right. Sanjeev Mehra starts with a position in, say, Swarg Lok, and, in a way, when you put his graph on a moral compass, he actually ends up in Paatal Lok. Swarg Ka Dwaar for us was whatever you’re seeking, whatever the character was seeking at that point. Sanjeev Mehra was seeking material glory, material success, and he found it by the end of it. Hathi Ram also found his own Swarg Ka Dwaar. He was looking for self-respect and a sense of fulfilment in his career, and by the end of it, he managed to find that. They both found their own Swarg Ka Dwaar by the end of it, while also losing something in the process.
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