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Smriti Kiran: Writer-director Ruchi Narain began her journey in films as an assistant director to the filmmaker Sudhir Mishra. She grew up in Dubai and Muscat. She went to a boarding school in Mussoorie. Eventually, she came to Mumbai to study History at St. Xavier’s College. After Xavier’s, she took a one year course in Mass Media at Sophia College so she could complete 16 years of education that is mandatory to apply for studies in the US.

Shyam Benegal’s Ankur screened as a part of the course. Ruchi came, Ruchi saw, and Ruchi was conquered. She says, in her words, that she knew everything she did not want to do until she discovered that films were an option. She co-wrote the screenplays of Calcutta Mail and Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi in 2003 and directed her first film, Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow, in 2005.

Since then she has written and directed television shows, advertisements, web-series, films for streaming platforms, shorts, documentaries and music videos. She came back to films earlier this year with Guilty, which world premiered on Netflix. During the pandemic, she also delivered her first web-series, Hundred, for Disney+ Hotstar.

Ruchi, before we move to talk about writing and directing films for theatres as compared to films and web-series for streaming platforms or digital, as it is popularly known, I want to dial back to where you began. Shyam Benegal’s Ankur inspired you because it made you discover that cinema is not only a medium to just entertain but also a vehicle for ideology. You were a complete outsider with no movie-going culture where you grew up, with zero connections in the industry. How did you land the job of the first AD with Sudhir Mishra straight out of college? Was working with him a conscious choice?

Ruchi Narain: As you said, Smriti, where I grew up, we never went to the cinema. We watched movies but they never really crossed my mind as someone making them. They were only as much as the actors. Unlike Bombay, where everyone’s so aware of films and everything that goes into it, we had no clue.

The last shot in Ankur, where the kid throws the stone on the glass window, really hit me. I think the stone hit me. I was a History student, so I care about things in that sense. It then occurred to me that movies can be more than just entertainment. As a filmmaker, you can share your thoughts, feelings, ideas and experiences. Until then I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew what I didn’t want to do, and that list was ever-growing.

Films were so far away from anything or anyone that I knew that I thought maybe I won’t be able to get into films immediately. It was also a very different time – 20-25 years ago. I thought that maybe I can do documentaries because I’m a History student, maybe it’d be a natural progression.

Ironically, because I wanted to do documentaries then, my head of department for this course spoke only about how nobody wants to do documentaries the entire year. When, in the end, they were placing us, I said that I wanted to do documentaries. She said, ‘You can’t do documentaries because nobody is making any right now.’ I said, ‘That’s nonsense. I’ve just been to the film festival and I have a list of documentary filmmakers.’ she said, ‘No, no. I can’t place you. You have to go into advertising.’ I told her that I won’t do it.

“The last shot in Ankur, where the kid throws the stone on the glass window, really hit me. I think the stone hit me. It then occurred to me that movies can be more than just entertainment.”

I started making cold calls. I found the number of the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association (IDPA). I cold-called them first. What happened was that – and this is my understanding of what happened – since I had an accent, the guy who picked up the phone thought that I may have been some hotshot; he connected me straight with Aruna Raje, who was the president of the association then. She was the nicest lady ever because she entertained my phone call. I said that I was a student and I wanted to assist someone as an intern and that I don’t want to be paid for it. She gave me a list of phone numbers and said, ‘Tell them that I have sent you.’ Who does that to a random person? It was amazing. Now, because I had this list with me, I made these calls, and it did turn out that no one was making a documentary at the time.

The last person on my list was Gopi Desai, whose films I had seen. I called her office, and the person who picked up said that she was out of town for three months. I sighed, and he asked me, ‘What happened?’ So I told him my sob story – that if I didn’t get a job on my own, I’d have to do advertising. He listens to the whole thing and goes, ‘Is that Ruchi Narain?’ I was a little taken aback, so I said, ‘Who the hell knows me?’ It turned out to be Nikhil Advani, who was in Xavier’s with his wife and had done the same course. He knew who I was.

He said that he was working with a filmmaker called Sudhir Mishra, and asked me if I’d heard of him. I said that I hadn’t. He told me that he had made Dharavi. My first reaction to that was: ‘Oh that sounds good’. He asked me if I wanted to meet him. I said yes, and so I went with Nikhil to meet Sudhir.

Renu Saluja opened the door. Though I didn’t know who Sudhir Mishra was, I knew who Renu Saluja was because I had read her name on hordes of films which I had liked. I was starstruck because I saw her eating an orange. That’s how I met Sudhir. Of course, he took one look at me – a girl – and said, ‘Will you do costumes?’ I said, ‘I’ve never done costumes, but I am sure it wouldn’t take me more than three days to figure it out.’ He just grunted and left. Nikhil then asked me, ‘So, do you want to work with him?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but will he take me?’ Nikhil said, ‘If I tell him, he’d take you’.

He was right.

Smriti Kiran: But you were the first AD on Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin. You weren’t just doing costumes.

Ruchi Narain: I told Nikhil that I wanted to be an assistant director. He was the chief AD. He said, ‘You do that, and you also be the AD.’ I agreed. I was the junior-most. So, I helped the costume person and I did the AD-ing. When we got on set, I was giving the clap. I didn’t know how to give the clap. I learned on the job.

By the end of it – if anyone knows Sudhir they know he is quite volatile – every AD was fired one by one. The only two who remained were Nikhil and I. By the time the post-production came around, Nikhil was busy with Sudhir on something else. So, I got to do the entire post. Nobody else was there.

Renu loved me because I was this sincere eager beaver. I actually fought to be able to go to the edit. All I did was sit behind her and watch her edit. The producers weren’t letting me go because it was one more mouth to feed. We fought and fought, and finally, I was allowed to go to the edit. Everyone ended up thinking that I was Renu’s assistant. Then I did the sound design. I used to go and record sound on the NAGRA and do the dubbing of all the actors.

Renu was like a force of nature. She used to go for the mix. The directors didn’t go for that. She used to take me with her for the mix, and it was a big privilege. Though I was Sudhir’s assistant, I learned all my craft from Renu Saluja. She was a very generous teacher. She would never say no if you asked her a question. Instead of saying yes or no, she would rather explain; she would show you what you were suggesting, and so she never needed to say that it didn’t work. You could see for yourself.

One thing that I held on to from Renu is her generosity in that regard. It’s imperative to always give back because someone gave me that knowledge as well. It’s very important to share it.

Smriti Kiran: You did get a front-row seat to every aspect of filmmaking while you were assisting Sudhir and learning from Renu as well. But the one thing that you got really interested in was writing. You wanted to figure out how an idea turns into a story and how a story turns into a screenplay. It’s just that there was no job available on set that said ‘assistant writer’. How did the journey towards writing begin?

Ruchi Narain: Since there were only two of us working on Is Raat…, I worked in every department. I used to also go for the grading. After finishing that whole process, I realised that I understood everything about filmmaking except for writing. I just couldn’t fathom how these guys got such themes, and how the stories evolve? I had no idea.

I remember that by the end of Is Raat…. Renu said, ‘Now you come and assist me’. I said that I didn’t want to. I was very brash in those days. I’m a very nice girl now. She said, ‘But, you know, people graduate in editing from FTII and they still wait to assist me. I’m offering you a job.’ I told Renu that I’d understood editing. I could do it. What I didn’t know how to do was writing; that I wanted to learn writing. She then advised me to talk to Sudhir because Saurabh (Shukla) and he were going to start working on a script. So, instead of talking to Sudhir, I asked Saurabh Shukla.

“I was like a sponge. I was being a bouncing board for Saurabh’s thought process. That’s how I understood the translation of the story, characters and ideas into a screenplay.”

These guys were not very tech-savvy. They couldn’t use a computer in those days. I went to Saurabh and said, ‘I believe you’re going to start writing but who’s going to type it out for you?’ He said that he didn’t know yet and that he might get a software. I told him to forget the software and that I would type out the script for him. He asked why. I told him that I just wanted to see how he did it, and if I’d be there, I might as well write it out for him. He agreed, so I typed out an entire script for Saurabh, which he was writing for Sudhir. That took at least four or five months. In the process, since I was the one typing, Saurabh would keep talking to me about the story – not that I had even one iota of contribution to it.

I was like a sponge. I was just taking it in, and I think I was being a bouncing board for Saurabh’s thought process. But in that, I got to see what he’s thinking and how he’s converting it into a scene. That’s how I understood the translation of the story, characters and ideas into a screenplay.

Saurabh is a very good dialogue writer. He’d always pepper it with great lines, which I was typing. That’s actually how I learned. As soon as we finished he paid me some 25,000 bucks, using which I bought my first laptop.

I then straight away wrote of my own accord. There was a book called The Trial of Bhagat Singh – it was something which moved me a lot. I wrote a mini-series based on that book. No rights, nothing. I didn’t have anything. Of course, it never got made, but I wrote it and showed it to Sudhir, and he really liked it. We tried to get it made several times, but in those days there was no such concept of a mini-series. Looking back at it in retrospect, I was always attuned to a series format. I knew that this couldn’t be put in a film. I knew that it required a longer kind of telling.

Because that didn’t happen while I was doing it, Sudhir started the script of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. In today’s day and age, you can’t actually say these things, but in those days it was different. Sudhir and Shiv Subramaniam were talking about writing a film that was set during the emergency. They weren’t able to crack Geeta’s character. So, they were like, just very loosely, ‘Accha isko lelo, she’ll be able to write the woman’.

Smriti Kiran: I have to applaud Sudhir for that. There are a couple of series that have come out and if they just took women in the writer’s room, they would probably get to know a little more about the world of women that we can see on screen.

Ruchi Narain: Everything used to happen at the same time.

In those days, you have to understand, there was no money. There was nowhere for these things to go. So, we started working on Hazaaron with nothing. He was applying for a French fund, and he had even planned for it to go to festivals. We never thought it would ever be released in India. No Indian would ever see this film.

“During the making of Hazaaron, I was extremely idealistic because I didn’t understand how the industry and the business worked. I was very puritan in that way.”

At the same time, Sahara was launching a channel and they approached Sudhir to do a TV show. He asked all of us – he always had a lot of people in the office – to pitch some ideas. I also pitched one idea and they eventually picked my idea. It was a show called Talaash. I ended up writing that along with others.

Eventually, I was writing all the episodes of Talaash alongside Hazaaron. Because there was no money, we didn’t know what was ever going to happen with it. That is where the writing journey began. I must mention that because I want to give you an idea of how many things we all put into motion in those days since you didn’t know what would materialise.

I had also met, through another friend of mine, Zoya (Akhtar) and Reema (Kagti), and we had really hit it off in the first meeting. The second time I met Zoya, she said, ‘Let’s start a company together’. We actually started a company called Rizla Films. We started writing scripts. We would meet in the morning and just write stuff to write something and sell it. We didn’t really have any concrete plan because there was no finishing line. There was no end in sight to what will ever happen with this journey. Now, you know, if you’re writing something, you can pitch it to this one or you can go to a platform or there are these producers, but, at least for me, in those days, everyone was so far away. They were all so conceptual.

Then I met Sunil Sippy through someone, and he said, ‘Will you write something?’ So, there were three or four things that I was writing at the same time. Eventually, the Talaash project happened, and I actually got paid for it. That’s how I became a legitimate writer. My first project was Talaash, then I wrote daily soaps for television. I did all kinds of stuff.

Smriti Kiran: You then went on to direct your first film, Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow. But the reason you weren’t able to make your second film was because of producer and casting issues. You decided to move to advertising then because you were convinced that there are certain kinds of stories that you wanted to tell. It was also a time when the seed for Guilty was planted in your head because of the patriarchy and misogyny that you faced, which you thought was also responsible for not getting your second film off the ground. Do you want to talk a little bit about that time?

Ruchi Narain: When I did Hazaaron, I had already become a director. By then I had not only written Talaash, but I had also become the director. I directed some 56 episodes. Technically, I was ready to make my next film. I had also edited Hazaaron.

After the edit, the film lay in the cans for three years. I think the producers just didn’t know what to do with it. They were like, ‘What is this? What are we supposed to do with this?’ It was a very shocking time for me. Also, during the making of Hazaaron, I was extremely idealistic because I didn’t understand and, honestly, didn’t care to understand how the industry and the business worked. I was very puritan in that way. When I wrote Kal, those producers approached me and said, ‘We’ll produce it for you’. And I blatantly refused. I thought that they’ll do with my film what they did with Hazaaron.

I then raised the money for my film. I wrote a business plan, and I got money from 14 different individuals. I did all of that. Then we put out this film through Sony Pictures. There I had a very strange experience which also relates to this – I don’t know if it’s just the patriarchy or whether it’s just that I was very brash and didn’t understand how things worked – but I had this massive fight with the head of Sony Pictures

After Hazaaron and Kal, I had no money. It’s not like I didn’t get other offers to do other things, but I didn’t want to do those things.

Smriti Kiran: In fact, even Karan (Johar) offered you Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and you opted out of that.

Ruchi Narain: The thing is that I have a certain sensibility. I come from a certain place where I’ve chosen films and I’ve chosen films for a reason that drives me from the inside.

Karan heard about me after Is Raat… So, he called me and said that he wanted me to be the associate in his film. That was around the time when I was thinking that I want to learn how to write. When he called me, he asked if I’d be the associate director because he said that he didn’t know about the technique. He said, ‘I just know how to tell my story. I want to tell my story and I know how to work with actors. You can do everything else’. My only question to him was if he had written the script. I was thinking that if he hadn’t written the script, I would work on it. He said yes. So, I said no.

Years later, he told me that when I asked him if the script was written, he felt ashamed that he had said yes even when he hadn’t written it.

Smriti Kiran: How lovely! Because he’s the one who has produced your film.

Ruchi Narain: Karan’s greatness also lies in it. He used to always say that I was the first person who said no to him. He also introduced me for many years to people like that. ‘She’s the first person who rejected me’. After Kal, I got into advertising. It was a good way for me to earn money and also work on different short projects and hone my skills.

It’s not that I ever stopped trying to make a film. I had already written a film. It was a road trip film. When I finished that, I went to Karan to produce it. He told me, ‘I’m not going to make you run around if I don’t like it. I’ll just say that I don’t.’ He did like it and agreed to produce it for me. This happened when I was still in the advertising biz. This is how long it has taken me to do everything.

We started trying to mount the project. Karan actually wasn’t the first person that I went to with it. I went to some others before. Because it was a love story, we needed a male lead. Everyone wants to work with Karan Johar – we all know that. But everyone that we went to loved the script but said no to the project.

Karan told me, ‘You know I really hate to say this, but all these boys have loved the script but afterwards, they keep hemming and hawing and keep asking me about the director’. He said that out of all the directors who were at Dharma Productions at the time, I had the most experience. I had won a Filmfare, I’d won other awards. I had a growing body of advertising directorial work. I had also made a film. So, he told me that I was the most qualified person right now in Dharma. ‘I think they don’t want to work with you because you are a woman’, he said. I said, ‘Well, you know, I love this film, but not enough to have a sex change. So, there’s nothing I can do about this’.

He told me not to lose heart. He was giving me a pep talk, but I was so angry inside. I can’t tell you. I let it brew for a month. I went about the usual. Then I called him and said, ‘I want to take this film off the table.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I’m so angry right now. I don’t want to work with any of these people. In fact, I want to write another film, which is about misogyny.’

Everything I was doing had led up to this. All the battles that I had been fighting – this was the last straw for me. The thing is that I am a fighter, so I managed to get this far. But even advertising and the films that I’d worked on until then were a constant battle for me.

“I come from a certain place where I’ve chosen films and I’ve chosen films for a reason that drives me from the inside.”

I finally said that I’m not going to write this film. He was trying to be nice to me and say, ‘No, don’t give up.’ But I was on fire. I went to him, and I said that I want to write a film about rape because it is the ultimate manifestation of feudalism. At that point, and this is how long ago that was, he said, ‘Nobody in this country ever talks about rape. Damini was made on it in the ’80s, so it’s a little dated.’ I said, ‘No, it is going to be the biggest issue.’ And he said, ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘Because I’m a woman – I live here, I can feel it.’ ‘Why do you say that?’ he asked. I said, ‘Because our generation of women have been brought up to think, believe, and act as if we can do anything, but they forgot to tell the boys. The women and men and the institution are still here. So, of course, there’s going to be a huge blowout and it’s going to have very violent repercussions.’

He relented and said that if I felt so strongly about it, I should go ahead. I asked Kanika Dhillon to write it with me, who was talking to me about something else at that time. In a month we wrote the story, and I narrated it to Karan. He said that he was moved. So, we went with it. But within two weeks Nirbhaya (the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case) happened. Suddenly it was everywhere. At that point, we said that it looked too opportunistic if we made the film right now, not that it was related in any way.

We kept it aside for some time. We often tried to revive it. We took it to various people. But for whatever reasons, it didn’t happen. In between, I also made an animation film (Hanuman: Da’ Damdaar), so life goes on.

Smriti Kiran: In 2018 when #MeToo exploded in India, it ensured that people have become far more mindful of many things that we weren’t mindful of. You curated and hosted a bunch of discussions at the Mumbai Film Festival – very important and critical discussions. Did that reignite the need to make the story which you had been living with for such a long time?

Ruchi Narain: What all is there in the film now was there back then as well. In between, we got a film, which everyone knows about, called Pink (by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury). It wasn’t about rape, but it was very similar. If you want to pitch it, it’s a similar pitch.

A lot of people who knew about Guilty took their concerns to me. I said that I’m really happy it came out because my biggest problem with Guilty was that it’s not about no means no. It is about misogyny. It’s about the other multiple layers that make up society. I was very happy that Mr. (Amitabh) Bachchan told the country that no means no because I could then take it from there. I didn’t have to establish this basic thing.

“#MeToo suddenly opened up a conversation where all the women came out and started questioning people’s actions. It was very liberating for me.”

When Kiran (Rao) told me that we should do something, I told her that I’ll do it because there was all this stuff bubbling inside me. Even if my film didn’t happen, I wanted to come out. For me, #MeToo was a very liberating experience because I’ve done a lot of work, I’ve worked with a lot of people and I have faced so much discrimination, which one learns how to live with, ignore, laugh off and turn the other way.

#MeToo opened up all those conversations. Even though I have so many amazing girlfriends who work in this business, we never spoke about these things because everyone was just trying to make films. You don’t want to make excuses or complain or do things like that. #MeToo suddenly opened up a conversation where all the women came out and started questioning people’s actions. It was very liberating for me. I’m very grateful to the movement because it just opened something inside me.

Anjali Menon, Renuka Shahane, Ruchi Narain, Shonali Bose and Kabir Khan – Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival

On the last day of the MAMI sessions, I was so moved by everything that I called Karan – I didn’t even meet him – and said, ‘I have to do this film now. We have to do Guilty.’ He said, ‘You’re right. We really must do it’.

I said that I was going to rewrite it because I wanted to include #MeToo. He said that I didn’t have to because it worked well anyway. But I wanted to pay homage to the movement in my own way because it’s such an important movement. He said that we’d have to think about how it could be made. And suddenly he got an idea.

He said, ‘Do you mind making it for Netflix?’ At which point I was like, ‘Oh my God! Actually, I would rather make it for Netflix.’ He said, ‘How come?’ I said, ‘Because then I can make it how it’s supposed to be made. If you have to make it for theatrical release, there are so many other considerations, but if I do it for Netflix, then I can be true to the narrative form’.

He agreed, and that’s how Guilty happened. I really like to highlight the end of all my stories, which is often the easy part. But there are years of strife that goes on behind it. So, I like to focus on the good parts.

Smriti Kiran: You initially wrote Guilty for a theatrical release. Could you elaborate the difference in approaching the writing, directing, and logistics based on the exhibition, format and platform – films for theatres vs. films for streaming platforms, films for theatres vs. series for streaming platforms, and film for theatres vs. films for OTT platforms?

Ruchi Narain: It’s very important to know what your intent is for any project. Anything that you are wanting to create or work on, what is your intent for doing it? At every stage, it’s very important to see whether that is in sync with where you’re going or taking it.

I’ve found in my life, in my career and my work that the most important thing has been the ability to be fluid and shapeshift according to whatever external things that are happening. If you are just flexible, it will be completely chaotic and directionless unless you are very clear about what your intent is. As long as you can keep your intent intact, then it’s great if you can shape-shift in any direction. You never have to tell anyone your intent, but you need to be truthful to yourself about it. Intent is key.

You can be a cinephile or a movie buff; maybe you want to make a lot of money or you want to be really famous or you want to influence people or just share your experiences – all these are good reasons. They may be your reasons or my reasons, but you have to be truthful to yourself about what is actually driving you. Then you can make your choices accordingly. If your aim with a particular film or a show is to want to do great business so you can establish your company, then the choices you’ll make will be different. If you want to be a critical success, then your choices will be different. If your intent is to want people to study the film one day, or say that it’s a Sociology lesson, then it will influence your decisions differently. So, you have to be truthful to yourself about why you want to do something – that will then be at the core of every decision that you take, and that is what will make your decision right or wrong. And only then will you know whether your decision is right or wrong because everyone else will have an opinion. Know that in anything you do, you will always have to face a minimum of 10 differing opinions and pieces of well-meaning advice. You combat that only by staying true to your intent.

“I’ve found in my life, in my career and my work that the most important thing has been the ability to be fluid and shapeshift according to whatever external things that are happening.”

Coming to your question, the main difference between OTT and theatrical, according to me, is the audience and the audience behaviour. Even you and I would possibly behave differently with a film which we make a plan to watch with our friends, spend one hour in traffic, go and sit in the theatre, spend an X amount of money, buy popcorn, eat it while watching, maybe have a laugh or be scared, and then go home. It’s a five-hour exercise, minimum. Not to mention the thousands of rupees, right? As opposed to when you are alone – OTT viewing is essentially done alone. It’s different when you’re sitting in your home alone and engaging directly with something.

According to me, the difference is the same as it is between people’s behaviour in a group as opposed to who they really are when they look in the mirror. They don’t talk about the kind of content they watch on OTT. People only talk about things which are being talked about. To illustrate, a year ago the most popular show on Netflix was a show called Jane the Virgin. So, while everyone on Netflix was talking about House of Cards or Breaking Bad, nobody was tweeting about Jane the Virgin.

Netflix has an amazing algorithm, which they’ve extensively spoken to me about since my film is on the platform. In their algorithm, they don’t separate men and women – their algorithm is so evolved that they recognise that on a one-to-one basis men and women don’t watch things according to their gender. That’s how insightful their data is. It just shows that what people talk about, the way they behave publicly, and, therefore, the way they may consume things is not really how they would consume things personally on an OTT platform, which is almost like your secret conversation or your innermost conversation.

Netflix is also a function of subscription. There’s more international content – this is all changing so rapidly – but everything is in a shape-shifting kind of scenario. When you’re watching something alone, you’re more inclined to apply your mind and be a little more open-minded about something because you’re not necessarily looking to eat popcorn and have a loud laugh.

That’s why when Karan asked me if I’d mind doing it for Netflix, I told him that I’d rather do it for Netflix because my biggest intention with the film was that I wanted it to make everyone look inward. Though the film is written in a way that is a whodunit, I wanted the audience to, at some point, just to check themselves and say, ‘Oh, I thought this’ or ‘I judged her because of this.’ To me, if that didn’t happen, the film was a failure as far as I was concerned. I also realised that in a theatre one is less likely to have that experience than if you’re watching it one-on-one.

“In a feature film, the most important thing is the story. But in a series, it’s primarily the characters.”

When you do something for an OTT platform and when you do something for theatrical – this is not so much about film versus film, it’s more about series versus film – I would quickly like to note that films made for OTT are still a little new. There are very few which have actually worked or have been successful. You can attribute it to films like Roma (by Alfonso Cuarón) and Okja (by Bong Joon Ho), which was made for an OTT platform. But you can attribute other reasons for its success as well. Again, this is my theory: I feel that between OTT and theatrical, the latter is more about entertaining and having a good time – whether you’re scared or whether you’re having a romantic experience. It’s more in the zone of entertainment. Whereas with OTT, what you really need is something interesting and surprising. That’s why many films on OTT platforms which are a romantic comedy are not good. But if you see just the poster of Okja, you’re like, ‘what is this?’ If you’re sitting alone, it is highly likely that you will click on it and watch it for at least three-four minutes because it’s free. If you don’t like it, you can turn it off. So, on OTT platforms, the element of a little something different, something surprising, something unexpected is what I think works.

In a feature film, even if it’s made for OTT, the most important thing is the story. The story is what people remember. If a film works, it is the story. All the peripherals come next. But in a series, it’s not at all about the story because of the length of the format. The story is ever-changing. Then what is it that keeps you hooked? It’s primarily the characters. You really have to learn to develop rich, layered, complex and surprising characters. They have to surprise you with their actions, with their reactions, their choices, their relationships. That’s what I mean.

The other thing in OTT, which becomes more important than in a theatrical or any feature film is the world. It becomes a major reason to watch something. You’re setting it up whether it’s about politics in the White House, or it’s the world of manufacturing crystal meth, whether it’s the fantasy world of Game of Thrones, or it’s about money laundering – those things become the most interesting thing and that’s what hooks you. So, when you’re creating, when you’re writing, it’s important to keep these things in mind. Characters are going to take you through because even as viewers you would have realised that when you start watching a series, you think the story is going somewhere, you might even end with a cliffhanger, but then the next episode starts and they just dismiss that plot point with a flick – it’s just gone; but you are invested by then; so you keep watching. And then some other story thread takes over.

Why I love the series format is because it’s more like life. You are who you are. You also keep changing, various things happen to you. It’s not like this is the story of my life. Lots of things happen – you meet weird people, you take the wrong decisions, they take you on a certain path, then something happens, then you go in the other direction. That’s the opportunity and excitement in doing and watching a series.

Smriti Kiran: I also wanted to understand that when you start to write for a series, you are telling a larger story with very rich characters in bite-size. In theatrical, you have to think about the interval point, which is peculiar to India. But in a series, you have to create angles practically at the end of each episode. How do you work that out?

Ruchi Narain: The exposition of your narrative in a theatrical film and in a series is very different. In India, it’s anyway different because you have the interval. All the books on screenwriting have three acts or five acts. Now it’s very hard to translate those things into Hindi feature film writing because we have a two-act structure: the first half and second half. You may read other books, but honestly, it is this – that is the structure of a film. You shouldn’t get confused with the three acts and five acts structure because it is just wrong to fit it into our peculiar format. We have the beginning – the way things unfold – your interval point, pre-climax and climax. This is the peculiar Indian, or commercial, film structure.

The beginning is traditionally loose because people come late into the theatre. It’s got nothing to do with the art form. It is practical. You can’t start and tell the most important thing because the person has been parking or they’re stuck in traffic, so they missed it. It has to be looser. Whereas in a film or series on OTT, it is the exact opposite. The beginning has to hook you enough to sample it because you might click on the tile but you usually decide within two to four minutes whether you want to sit for another 10 minutes. So, the beginning has to grab. The first or the second shot of Breaking Bad is pants flying in the air. Within the second minute, there’s a van which has crashed in the desert and a guy wearing a gas mask comes out in his underwear. Of course you’re going to watch it for another five minutes to know what happened. In House of Cards, before two minutes are up, Kevin Spacey is doing something and suddenly looks at you and starts talking to you. So, you are pulled in and you are going to stay there for at least 10 minutes.

When I wrote the script of Guilty, the film started with the interrogation of a boy called Hamid (later changed to Tashi). He was going to be a Kashmiri guy. But when I was watching the screen test, because I knew I was doing it for Netflix, I was caught by Tenzin’s performance. I had told them that I definitely wanted someone from the Northeast because it’s set in DU (Delhi University). But when I saw him, I said that this guy will open the film. He’s a tremendous actor. I really wanted to open with a very strong actor. It’s, again, grabby in that sense. So, different things can grab you – sometimes the casting, sometimes the treatment, sometimes whatever is happening in the scene. When you’re working on an OTT that has thousands of films to choose from, and they are all free, if you can’t hook them in the first two to four minutes, unless you don’t make something for which the word of mouth has been strong, they’ll not stay on. If you get down to the brass tacks of it, it sounds mercenary. But that is a requirement of this format.

Tenzin Dalha as Tashi in Guilty

You do need to grab them. While watching a series, you’ll see this happening far too often. There’s always something unexpected or surprising that occurs every ten minutes. The best example of this is Game of Thrones, where it is outrightly shocking. Every five or ten minutes you get a shock. The first episode starts with a chase, and you’re constantly wondering about what’s happening. In the first five minutes, you are confronted with an extremely violent image.

In this day and age, we don’t bat an eyelid anymore because there have been seven seasons of Game of Thrones. Now we are all immune to eyes popping out. But when this show first came out – a friend of mine used to send it to me on a pen drive; I had never heard of it – there was no word of mouth as such. None of my friends had seen it. I remember the experience of watching the first season and seeing this severed head. You’re frozen. Then in the next five minutes, there’s another beheading. It doesn’t stop there. Again, someone’s head is cut off, and he makes the little kid look at it. Then in the next five minutes, you see another violent image of a dead animal with its guts spewed out. The violence has stunned you, it has shocked you. A person like me may not go to the cinema to watch a violent film, but now in the privacy of my own home, I’m glued and watching it.

Ultimately, as creators, what we are constantly battling is predictability. You always have to keep yourself nimble and be very honest to yourself.

In the 30th minute, you have your first sexual image, which is, again, something you’re not accustomed to. Game of Thrones is old, right? You were not used to seeing nudity like this – blatant and realistic. It’s not a body double for Demi Moore. It is a real woman, who’s not a model that you’re seeing in the flesh. Before you can react to her, there’s an orgy. Then there are fights. They explore all the shocking things of sexual content, things which you don’t normally see. Every five-ten minutes they are assaulting all your senses. The end of the episode is the brother and sister in a proper sexual relationship. That’s the end of the episode.

Who is not going to watch this show?

The thing is that there’s so much sex and violence that it actually makes all your senses heightened. The telling, the treatment, the characters, the story are all very interesting. You watch the show anyway. But they use these strokes. It’s not just in the exposition of episode one, it is throughout the season. In episode nine, the person you thought the show was about is killed. I remember when I watched it, I took a week to recover. They then do it throughout the remaining seasons as well.

Game of Thrones is a pioneer of the series format. One is very used to seeing these things. So, the same things will not surprise you anymore. You have to constantly find new things. There’s also a hope somewhere that there will be a certain fatigue to this rhythm. It will be surprising when they don’t do it. All these things are to be kept in mind.

I was talking to a very dear friend of mine who’s a writer, who was doing several shows for a platform. I said, ‘How’s it going?’ She laughed and said that at the end of it, it all comes down to mathematics – like at the 11th minute this should happen. I looked at her and I just thought that I hope you don’t believe that because if you do your shows are going to go down. That is what happened because however mercenary what I’m saying sounds, you have to remember the audience is also seeing these shows. That will no longer be surprising. The minute you think it’s mathematical, it’s going to change. You have to keep shape-shifting. You have to keep your senses open. It’s really important as creators to protect the viewer in you. How you manage to do that is really your struggle.

“I do think that if we share our selves, our experiences, our thoughts truthfully, it ends up building empathy, which is finally and ultimately what any good outcome of art should do.”

I have found out over the years that one of the reasons I’ve become very attracted to the series format is because as a writer in films, I’ve started to recognise the plot points. I know that I’ve started to see if they’ve introduced a character around 12 to 15 minutes, however randomly, that character will recur and be important in the climax. Personally, the film writing format has started lending itself to a certain predictability because we’ve been watching this two-hour format for many years. We’ve grown accustomed to it.

Ultimately, as creators, what we are constantly battling is predictability. You always have to keep yourself nimble and be very honest to yourself. What you tell others or share with others is fine but don’t ever lie to yourself. Otherwise, you cannot create anything honest.

Smriti Kiran: When you think of algorithms and all of this, isn’t it important for you to know what you want to say because when so much flexibility comes in, do you not run the risk of diluting your vision a little bit?

Ruchi Narain: That is why I first and foremost spoke only about intent because you have to know why you’re doing something. You have to know what you want to say. I’m not being too judgmental about people because not everybody in this business is driven by what they want to say.

Some people are driven by other things like fame or money. Personally, it’s up to you. Whatever rocks your boat, go for it. It’s your life. But it will influence all your decisions and influence how you make it. Hopefully, it will then influence the outcome of what you’ve made, and that will be in conjunction with what you wanted in the first place.

Of course, it’s very important. I would say 95% of creators, writers or directors don’t really have that much to say because people know these things are said; even people who say this don’t necessarily have much to say, and most people have limited learnings – there you will find the same message recurring in all their work. One shouldn’t give it undue importance because all that work will all have one thing as it has all grown out of your experience. That’s why my stress is always on your intent and being true to yourself because I do think that if we share our selves, our experiences, our thoughts truthfully, it ends up building empathy, which is finally and ultimately what any good outcome of art should do. That’s why I would refrain from being judgmental. Even if it’s something about making money or making a blockbuster. Everything shouldn’t be unidirectional, nobody has to live according to someone else. You should live and create according to what you want to contribute to this world.

I don’t think about whether the story should dictate the platform or the other way around. I think that there are certain things which are more suited for certain platforms. Again, I would say that because I feel the intent of that story or the communication or the project itself is more important to me than the actual story.

For example, if you’re not getting to make a film for theatrical, but if your intent in telling that particular story is strong enough, you can shift and do it for another format. Personally, I don’t think that’s a problem as long as you’re clear about your intent and that doesn’t change. That is my view.

Smriti Kiran: Let’s move to the last two things: feedback and deadlines.

Ruchi Narain: There are three very practical tips about working for OTTs.

First, for whatever reason, OTTs are very partial to the source material. I haven’t done it myself, but if you have a book, book rights or some true event, OTTs are more amenable to taking those on than original ideas. You have to fight harder for original ideas. Both the things I’ve done for OTT have been original ideas. But they are way more comfortable, for whatever reason, with the source material. If you have a great idea even if it’s based on a badly written book, it’ll be higher on the list than the original story.

“The most important part about feedback is how you listen to it and what you take away from it. For this, you have to drop your ego, first and foremost.”

Secondly, whenever you work for an OTT, they will give you a bunch of deadlines. They are real. Unlike theatrical films, where deadlines keep moving and people move release dates because the film has to be ready and correct, OTT platforms, because they’re dealing with so much content from around the world, are very serious about the deadlines. Those things aren’t going to shift. When you have a script deadline, it can go up or down by two-three days, but it’s not going to go beyond that. You need to take your deadlines extremely seriously.

Thirdly, the most important thing is feedback. Everyone’s an expert on film because you’re making it for everyone. They all have a right to an opinion. Unlike in theatrical films, where you’re dealing with a producer or a star who will tell you something, in OTT platforms, you’re dealing with organisations.

There are many people who are entitled to give you their opinion. In some platforms, they are required to give you feedback. It is set in stone that there will be three cuts or five cuts. They are taking it for granted that you will not crack it on your second cut. Therefore, on your second cut, also, they will give you feedback whether it’s required or not. It’s systemic.

I’ve worked in advertising, so I am very used to this idea of feedback. The most important part about feedback is how you listen to it and what you take away from it. For this, you have to drop your ego, first and foremost. The keenness of wanting to make your film or your show the best possible to serve your intent is what should drive you. People will send you pages of feedback on your script. They’ll send you pages of feedback on your edit. You should read it, just pretend that it’s true for a minute and think for yourself if it is true indeed. Then look at that thing from those eyes and see if you can see it from a different angle. That is one thing.

The other thing is that if different people keep harping on the same point – they may articulate it differently – you have to recognise that there may be a problem there. So, you have to figure out how to address the problem. Don’t ever feel obliged to listen to other people’s solutions to the problem. It’s very important to be able to hear when everyone has a problem; more often than not, they will all have different solutions; and more often than not, none of those solutions will be right for you.

You have to learn to listen when there is a problem, but don’t feel obliged to listen to their solutions because mostly their solutions will be weird at best. You have to remember your intent and use that to find a solution. For example, when I was doing my animation film, Hanuman Da’ Damdaar, because I was creating characters for children and I was not a child, so I engaged an agency called Ormax and told them that we had designed four options for the characters and I’d like to ask the kids, who I’m making it for, which one they like. We did it for the two main characters.

The kids gave such a resoundingly decisive answer that we went with their choices and it really worked. Those were not the two options I would have chosen as an adult. You also have to be open to it. When you’re editing, show it to your friends and people whose opinion you trust. We got such interesting comments from the kids when we showed it to them, and some of the things that the kids said, the terminology they used, I even used those things in the dialogues. Even things they liked and didn’t like. It was actually amazing what all they picked up on and took away from it. So, there was a very decisive consensus on the iteration that we finally went with in the film because they liked everything about him; they were also very particular about wanting him to have a longer dhoti and another bracelet.

I’ll tell you a little story about Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and the writing of it. Since it was funded by the French government, we had a script doctor, Yvette, who came in and sat with us to work on the script. There were actually four parts to the film. So, after the Emergency lifts, there was supposed to be a part which was set in the future, the year 2000, and the millennia.

She came in and sat with me for a week, by the end of the week the one thing that she said was, ‘You don’t need the fourth part, the film should end when the Emergency is lifted. We did that and it ended up defining the film. She gave me feedback on a lot of other points in the script, which I didn’t listen to, but this is one thing that we took, and I feel it really made the film what it is.

So, it’s really important to understand how to take feedback and don’t get hilaod by it. That is the most important. Know that especially with OTT, the people giving you feedback are doing their job. They are expected to give feedback. They have to do it. It’s only when there seems to be a major consensus issue and several people have the same reaction to problems that you know that there is, in fact, a problem. Then you need to find a way to solve that problem. That is the practical advice that I have for all of you. I’m sure because of the way things are going, we are all going to end up doing something or the other for an OTT platform. 

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Facebook

Pallavi Das Pattnaik: With OTTs, a lot of times production houses commission shows and films and directly sell the rights to OTT platforms – like Jamtara or Panchayat. Is this a rare occurrence? Or a better way of putting out a story that is true to the intent of your creation or script?

Ruchi Narain: I personally feel that it definitely makes a difference if you see some of the best work out there. For example, Delhi Crime was a show which was made completely and then bought. There is a huge difference between the quality of Delhi Crime and some other content which was developed, which is why I spend some time on feedback because the stronger the intent and the vision, the better that show will be.

Most things in filmmaking, especially what is directorial, is very difficult to explain to people and for them to grasp. However many times I said this thing about Guilty, that for me what will work in Guilty will work if the audience questions themselves, nobody has understood it.

A lot of times in my process, things were questioned, where my answer would be – because you are supposed to ask yourself, you’re supposed to think this. You’re supposed to think about why she is wearing that dress. It is really important to my story that we react like this after everything because when you do react, you will check yourself. That’s why Kiara (Advani) has that expression of ‘forget it’. It’s so subtle and it’s something which cannot be written in a script – it is directorial. Directorial things are very difficult to explain, to get people on board and they will only understand it when an audience sees it.

Of course, if you are in a position to get something made without it being commissioned, you should go for it.

Shylaja Chetlur: When we, as women, sit in decision-making spaces, we are often told how nice we are with the team. How do you maintain that intent and focus while getting the work done?

Ruchi Narain: I think you have to be a little pig-headed and dheet, which are words that I’ve always heard. That doesn’t mean you can’t be nice. When I first became a director on Talaash, the advice Sudhir Mishra gave me was that when you go on set, just choose one bakra aur uski sabke saamne pant utar do. Just shout at him, swear at him, do anything so that everyone gets really scared and they don’t come to you with all their issues. Like a good student, I listened to him.

When I was directing Talaash, I was a maniac every day. My throat was hoarse from shouting. I used to swear three times in a sentence, and, honestly, it was for good. However strange the advice seemed, it was good advice because, despite the fact that I was the director, I was the youngest person on the set. I think I was 26. There would have been too many people coming otherwise. Because I gave this forbidding vibe at that time, only someone with a really strong sense of urgency would approach me with a suggestion.

Fortunately, with time, as you do more work, you don’t need to be like that anymore. I’m not like that on my sets; I haven’t been for a very long time. In fact, during the shoot of Guilty and Hundred, we’ve had so much fun and were laughing all the time. Now the shouting doesn’t happen because I have a body of work.

Ruchi Narain on the sets of Guilty

Having said that, it still happens even now but only with certain people. There will be one or two people – it is only men, unfortunately – on every project who will give you a hard time. It’s mysterious to me. I ignore it. Some people could confront it, but I find it exhausting because my ultimate battle is always getting my content correct. I find it too exhausting to have these small battles. Though I have picked up the phone and said, ‘You cannot talk to my editor without running it by me’. Those things have also happened. Honestly, as women, we’ve spent most of our lives dealing with this, so it’s no different since the stakes are higher anyway. You have to negotiate it and you have to be thick-skinned.

Umaima Khanam: There are numerous OTT platforms coming up with such good content – Sony Liv’s Bhonsle, Disney+ Hotstar’s Aarya. Isn’t the economy of holding so many subscriptions getting dissolved, leaving a monopoly of giants like Netflix or Amazon in its wake?

Ruchi Narain: Unless you’re planning to start your own platform, I don’t think you should worry about it. Just create, and it will find a place because there’s so much content available at our fingertips. People’s viewing habits have changed. If you see your own viewing habits – how much you binge-watch, how much content you watch in a week, as opposed to the way it was earlier when you didn’t have OTTs – you might have watched a film, say, once a week if you were a film buff, or once a month if you were a regular person. Now you are watching things every two or three days. I don’t think you should worry about that.

Priyanka Arora: What kind of research goes into creating female characters?

Ruchi Narain: I do a lot of research. I’m very nerdy about research. For example, when I was writing the story of Hanuman Da’ Damdaar, which is an animation film for children and a fun Disney-Pixar type of film, I only researched the Hanuman mythology, different stories for a month, every day for seven hours. Then I wrote the six-page story of the film in one afternoon. That was the volume – one month of research, one afternoon of writing. That’s how much research I do.

It’s because I’ve had a very varied childhood. I’ve been to 12 educational institutions. I’ve also lived in Sri Lanka and Doha. In each case, you’re in a different school. There are many different kinds of people that you encounter. I rarely research characters because I have a lot of people I can pull from. I always pull from people I know. Most characters in my work are roughly based on someone.

For Guilty, especially the end and everything that Nanki (played by Kiara Advani) says, I didn’t have to do one iota of research because that was all coming from my own frustration. But I did a lot of research on cases and the legality of it. Even when I did Kal, which was based on my own interest in conspiracies. When I was younger and before Google came out, I used to cut articles from newspapers and maintain a conspiracy file, which my friends would make fun of. I would read an article, cut it out, and I would have a theory, I would write it down. Then two weeks later, some other article would come, I would cut it and put it there. I would say, ‘I knew this would happen’, you know? So, it’s also your own interests that drive things. It’s fun for me. Its part research and part experience.

Krishna Daswwani: You mentioned that OTT platforms tend to be a little biased towards the source material. But in India, people have rarely used it to their advantage. In the quest for creativity, they have gone on to create only original content. What is your point of view? What do you think will be the way ahead?

Ruchi Narain: I can tell you this personally because I was one among the many doing it as well: Everybody in the industry began developing the type of content that we saw in the first bout of OTT shows in India when Anil Kapoor bought the rights of 24, which was a television show in the US. I know this because I was approached to do The Killing and The Good Wife.

I was developing something for Star, which was a revenge story. We were doing that three or four years before OTTs came to India. Technically, we were doing that for television. Star had commissioned it. I was being paid, I had a writer’s room. They were going to put it on Star Plus or one of their channels. But it didn’t happen because the Indian television space was occupied only by soaps, unlike the West.

In fact, at that point, I had developed a whole show which I had taken to Star because of my relationship with them. They already had Hotstar then. I asked why didn’t they just put the show there as original content? I was in talks with them for over a year. They finally said that it was a great idea but they couldn’t do it as a one-off. They’d only do it once they decide to do shows. Of course, Hotstar has started something called Hotstar Specials. They have done it now. Therefore, the initial wave of shows like Inside Edge was ready and written for television. Then the platforms started trickling in, so it became easier to sell those things which happened to be original content.

The next batch of things which have been commissioned is all based on their preference for source material. I was also working on a commissioned project which was source material driven. If you go to any platform and you have the rights to the source material, that will get you there faster. The next batch of things will be based on source material only because the development becomes quicker according to them. I don’t agree with it.

In terms of genre, it’s always more interesting if you don’t have a specific genre. We would often make fun of the shows that were broadcast on Indian OTT platforms back then – unless you gouged out someone’s eye, it wasn’t a show. This also led us to make a light-hearted, masala type of show such as Hundred. We felt the need to see something different. Not everything has to be filled with gore and violence.

You have to add some variety, and that’s exactly where the show has worked because it has been a relief for people to watch it. They’ve also been watching it with their family. It’s like a film experience for them in that sense. So, I do think that the more off genre you go, the better it is. It’s always harder to position it in marketing then. But that’s where the payoff comes.

I was recently on the jury for judging some OTT shows from last year and the most interesting content was done by people who made it off the OTT platform first and then put it on there.

Purbali Mukerjee: How do we protect our story or idea and at the same time show it to different people for opinion or feedback without the fear of it being stolen?

Ruchi Narain: It is a heartbreaking question to which I am going to give you a heartbreaking answer. We’ve had experiences where our stuff has been stolen outright, you know? It happened to me. I fought like a wild cat with the person who did it. In the end, I got my credit, but it left me scarred. I decided at that point that I’m never going to write for anyone else. If someone else is going to fuck up my work, I might as well do it myself.

It happened to me even later in life, where I had a script and I shared it with some of my friends, and someone took that idea and went somewhere else with it. It happened even more recently when I was developing something for Star. I had created that whole show, it was written, and someone came in with a lot of politicking and just stole it.

It’s not just as a novice that you have to face this. You have to be vigilant. But we are dependent on a collaborative space, you have to end up putting yourself out there. As a writer, you can protect it by registering your script. Even now when people send me scripts, my first step is to tell them to not send me anything unless it’s registered with The Screenwriters Association. That you must do in any case. I’m telling you, practically, that you still need to remain vigilant. You also have to fight, and sometimes when you fight, you strain your relationships as well. You have to be ready to do that or not ready to do that. That is up to you – who you are or who you want to be.

It is a real danger, and it does happen. It never actually ends.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Ruchi Narain in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

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