2021 is a windfall year for writer-director Ajitpal Singh; a density of accolades. His 2018 short film Rammat Gammat, set in Gujarat, was snatched up by MUBI this year and is streaming there. His debut feature film Fire In The Mountain, set in Uttarakhand, had its world premiere in Sundance 2021
With these indie credentials he walked into the most coveted commercial format — the web series — by directing Tabbar, set in Punjab, which premiered on SonyLiv earlier this month. A family drama, the 8-part show follows a retired police constable Omkar (Pavan Malhotra) who has to protect his family — his nervous wife Sargun (Supriya Pathak) and two sons, one a wastrel (Sahil Mehta) and the other an IPS aspirant (Gagan Arora) — from the consequences of a murder. The bodies pile up as the logical recklessness of the show takes over, but the tension never slips up.
Written by Harman Wadala and Sandeep Jain, the show's moody-melancholic score is produced by Sneha Khanwalkar. In a phone interview Ajitpal Singh talks about the process of directing, the importance of theme, and the continuities in his film oeuvre.
You have cut your teeth in the indie ecosystem but now have entered the commercial streaming space. As a director do you approach these projects differently?
Honestly, I don't really think like that. There has to be a depth in the screenplay. There is a famous quote — if the story is the story you are telling, you are in deep shit. Because you have to find something more than the story, and communicate it. That is what I am interested in. Not whether it is commercial or indie. Then, when you're on location, you create that space for authenticity.
Of course, the pacing, which is usually faster in the mainstream, comes out of the screenplay. But I didn't make Tabbar faster or slower. We never thought of this indie-commercial question.
This is the first time you have directed something you haven't written. What brought you to the script?
One thing that resonated was the conflict between Omkar and Sargun. Something happens. The man of the house has taken a different approach — that he won't ask any help from god. The woman has taken a different approach — that god will not forgive them. It is not an in-your-face conflict, like I did in Fire In The Mountain (where it is the husband who is the believer and the wife who is the rationalist). That is when I thought the show could say more than what it is saying. About our inherent dilemma whether god will help us or not.
There is a theme and a story. The story was solid. But I had to dig deeper for the theme. It was already there in the screenplay, but to savour that thematic conflict we had to add a few things. For example, once I figured the god VS no god theme, I began the series with them driving through a Prabhat Pheri with Guru Nanak's photos. Those elements and motifs we added in the second writing stage, to bring that theme out. Similarly, the jagrata was already there, but in the first stage of the script they weren't taking the dead body through the jagrata. We wanted to have more conflict and fun around the theme.
There is an incredible zig-zag logic to the show. Were you worried about it being too much, or too dense, or too convenient?
My editor Parikshhit Jha and I sat down with all 8 episodes before the shoot and removed 50% of the twists and turns. The writers were fighting with us. (laughs) I like to keep the plot simpler to create complex characters. If your plot is also complicated with things happening every 5 minutes, you cannot create complex characters who have weight. When are you going to give them moments of silence, contemplation, and thought if the plot is always moving?
Even after shooting, I realized there were too many twists. So at the editing table also we cut things out. But luckily, if you notice, there are not too many costume changes. So I could use one traveling shot from here, one establishing shot from there, and one closeup from somewhere else, and move things around. That's something I learned from Dominique Colin, my cinematographer during Fire In The Mountain — to move things around without worrying about continuity by having minimal costume changes.
Dialogues can make an emotion single dimensional. When you take that away, the same thing can be interpreted in so many ways. It is called active writing. Passive writing tells you. Active writing invites you.
Shakespeare seems present in the way the show unfolds, with the hallucinations of blood on the hands and Hamlet's Mousetrap to get a confession. Was that on your mind while creating the show?
Yes, in fact when I first read the screenplay that was what I thought too. And we tried to treat that heaviness with respect.
There are two scenes that stood out to me, both with Pavan Malhotra, one where he is dancing in a drunken, defeated haze and the other when his son confesses something to him, and his face contorts to cry one tear, he is angry and mad and proud and tired at the same time. How do you craft these scenes?
I first do a script analysis. There is a book by Judith Weston, an actor-teacher, called Directing Actors that taught me to read a screenplay as a director. That you are not supposed to trust everything on the page, the way you can't trust people in real life. You observe them, not what they say.
I read the screenplay 4-5 times. The first time, I highlighted certain things. Like, the wristwatch of Omkar which plays an important role. Then I asked questions — when did he buy it or was it gifted. It is a digital watch so it couldn't have been his father's. I asked questions like why Omkar has to keep an alarm about his wife's diabetes injection. These questions helped create a world.
Now Sargun thinks she doesn't need injections, that god will take care of her, or that karela ka juice can handle her diabetes. But Omkar thinks, no, you need an injection and so ensures she takes it. But I could only create the background if the questions were asked in the first place. They become real people. I see my mother in Sargun now. She also would not take her diabetes medicine because she thought karela and lauki juice would be enough. So you now make the story your own story. That is when you get the ability to help the actor perform complex emotions.
The other thing that helps is the removal of dialogues. Omkar doesn't say much in either scenes. Dialogues can make an emotion single dimensional. When you take that away, the same thing can be interpreted in so many ways. It is called active writing. Passive writing tells you. Active writing invites you to take part in the scene, interpreting it from your understanding of your life, given the established context.
Can you tell me about the bleach bypass treatment you gave the show? It looks haunted, but do you look at some frames and wish you had added more colour?
Ya, sometimes I still feel, looking at some frames, "Yahan pe thodi aur colour ho sakti thi". (laughs) Arun Kumar Pandey, my cinematographer, and I decided in the preproduction stage to do bleach bypassing. I suddenly remembered Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys (2008), which was also a story of a family, not a rich one, and all the conflict was within the family, and they shot it with bleach bypass. The faces gain a different texture. Bleach bypass removes some saturation and enhances contrast. If you are older like Omkar and Sargun, your face with wrinkles has stories to tell, and bleach bypass enhances that. We tried silver nitrate treatment, too — a process in black and white photography which gives a metallic feel to the final print. But since it was so complicated in digital, we decided to do away with that.