‘The More Difficult A Country Is, The Better It Is For Comedy’: Manu Joseph And Hardik Mehta On The Genesis Of Decoupled

The creator and director of the upcoming Netflix Original talk about the making of the series and why makers must not shy away from creating comedies today
‘The More Difficult A Country Is, The Better It Is For Comedy’: Manu Joseph And Hardik Mehta On The Genesis Of Decoupled

Creating a project packed with dark humour and sarcasm can be risky at a time when even the fluttering of a leaf has the capacity to offend. However, this is exactly what has driven Manu Joseph and Hardik Mehta, the creator and director of Netflix's upcoming series, Decoupled. Starring R Madhavan and Surveen Chawla, the show deals with the aftermath of a separation between an urban married couple, who are still trying to keep their impending divorce under wraps. Their conflicting personalities and thought processes mean they are often at loggerheads, and they're at a stage at which they've known each other for too long to continue to feel comfortable with their equation.

Mehta and Joseph talk about drawing inspiration from real life and feeling confident about the voice of their show. Edited excerpts:

Decoupled is the story of an author and a businesswoman, who are not together anymore but are living together, co-parenting, still a couple from a societal point of view, and seem to be friends too. How did this concept come to be?

Manu Joseph (MJ): Ever since the release of the trailer, one reaction I keep getting is, 'Oh, this seems to be the story of us and our marriage.' And I'm not very surprised, because this is quite a common story among many middle-aged marriages in India. They have gone through various phases of their relationship, reaching a point where they're tired of hating each other and have gone back to liking each other. For me, the highest form of a relationship comes with liking one another; love comes easier. If you're able to like a person you've lived with for 15-odd years, that is when it all becomes beautiful. There's always history that'll make things uncomfortable and they could easily have grouses – we wanted to capture all of that without bitterness. Bitterness is the enemy of not just comedy but storytelling too. As a journalist and novelist, that is why I don't like the idea of activism getting into storytelling because it's a bitter, negative force. Comedy, on the other hand, is beautiful. It allows us to tell harsh truths about people to them, which they'll accept too. The aim was to capture just that.

How did the two of you come together for this project?

Hardik Mehta (HM): I had been wanting to collaborate with Manu. I had always loved his literary work. His articles too are quite interesting, they give a fresh perspective on things. Filmmaking is the kind of process where if good, strong voices come together, the results can be fantastic. I've seen this while working as a co-writer for Paatal Lok. Working with Manu was always on the cards. In fact, I really wanted to adapt Serious Men back in 2017 but that opportunity didn't come by. I also wanted to work with Bhavesh Mandalia, who is a dear friend and one of the producers at Bombay Fables. We had been meeting since quite a few years and thought about putting together a series or a film. Manu's material too was already there. We were able to put together a good ragtag team in a way that we could put a slam dunk into a platform's kitty. Vikramaditya Motwane then joined us as one of the Executive Producers. My confidence kept increasing day by day looking at just the names that were coming together.

The idea of putting two Indias alongside each other, depicting the irony of it all [intrigued me]. The show is based on an affluent family living in Gurgaon – a city that is so Americanized in one way and so Indian and Haryanvi in another. There lies a contrast which is very hard to ignore in today's India. In fact, I had gone to a friend's house in Gurgaon where I could see six tennis courts, one after the other, from his balcony! In Bombay, that wouldn't be possible even between Borivali to Churchgate. (laughs)

I was desperate to capture this world that I would see whenever I would visit the city through the characters and situations, which Manu came up with so interestingly.

The cast looks promising. Madhavan and Surveen Chawla look wonderful, both complement each other and the banter between them seems easygoing and fun. Is there a story behind this particular casting?

HM: For a couple who we are going to see for a considerable amount of time on-screen, they must come across as fresh and practical, have a sense of humour, and a power-punch equation going on with each other – it shouldn't feel like one is weaker than the other. Surveen has this ability to be really sarcastic and look extremely glamourous while giving retorts to Arya (Madhavan). She, in that sense, was the apt Shruti that Manu had written. She was very Gurgaon – high-society and biting while being vulnerable and earthy. Madhavan, on the other hand, plays it exactly like it should be. His character is very objective. At any given situation, he cannot not say what is happening in front of him. This, of course, leads to bizarre situations. So, their casting, alongside that of a few other characters that we came up with, is quite interesting because they hadn't been seen with each other before. There is no memory attached to them. All of them are coming together in a way you wouldn't have seen before. They speak in their own, unique language, using English and Hinglish that the affluent would, but foreigners wouldn't. We've tried to consciously add some newer elements to the show that I'm personally quite proud of.

In an age where situational comedy, satire or sarcasm can easily offend – the way it's also touched upon in the show – how do you pull it off? What are the challenges?

MJ: Writing is a commitment to truth. I feel that people who are too scared should not be writers. There is, of course, the practical notion that people who are backing you shouldn't suffer. You need to negotiate at every stage, especially if your country is a difficult place like India. Strangely, the biggest problem is that there's a pressure to second-guess. That is something that we need to avoid. We have become a republic against fun but as people, we are fun. What writers should do is to keep pushing within borders, as practically as possible, and not think too much about it. If you're worried about offending people, you shouldn't be in this profession.

The main game is to strike a balance between what you want to say and how much resistance you want to avoid. I always look at stories as idea's delivery device. To me, there is a certain intelligence in humility. When you're writing, you're also asking for people's time. So, you must work hard to make it enjoyable for them, like [delivering] stories. The only thing you're not doing is offending. You're entertaining them. There can be uncomfortable moments here and there, but that's because that is the truth. I'm quite optimistic. I feel the more difficult a country is, the better it is for comedy.

HM: Comedy comes with a risk. In today's day and age, it is actually very difficult to deliver a comedy. There's so much competition that we have – right from meme pages to stand-up comics; even news in India today is a comedy. So, for us to deliver a comedy, we have to take that risk. As Manu said, if you have an opinion, it's up to you. That shouldn't stop us from showing you something interesting. If you are an intelligent audience, you will see what the writers and directors are trying to communicate.

Manu, you are a well-known writer yourself, and so is Arya (Madhavan's character in the series). There's a scene in which a man comes up to him and tells him that he's read his work but isn't a big fan because he uses too many difficult words. Was it inspired by a real-life incident? Did you get inspired by any real-life situations while working on the scenes?

MJ: Oh, yes. In fact, all such situations are derived from reality. In fact, I got a very bad review on Goodreads for Serious Men. This person wrote that it was a big struggle to read the novel. His "veins were bursting" because only Shashi Tharoor could understand it. It was a good point actually, although the words that he quoted were things like 'furtive.' I found it quite interesting that he mentioned words he found quite difficult because I didn't even know they were difficult. I think of myself as someone who doesn't use difficult words and I don't like writers who use bombastic words. But then, for most Indian readers, even words like 'furtive' or 'asterisk' can be complicated. So, it was a good moment for me even though it was a bad review. That guy said that he did enjoy the story but the words came in between. So, that moment [in the show] was derived from that conflict.

Hardik, how much has life changed for you – timeline-wise speaking – since the pandemic? You directed the incredible Kaamyaab, wrote Paatal Lok, released Roohi theatrically earlier this year, and now Decoupled is about to release.

HM: I've been very privileged and lucky that both my films have seen theatrical releases. I wrote this on Facebook too that after my first film released, the first wave came and the theatres got shut. Then Roohi released and the second wave came, after which theaters closed again. So, that's why we aren't taking any more risks as producers on this series and we're going to release it on Netflix (laughs). As my first series, I'm feeling confident as a filmmaker. The material that came to me was so solid, coming from a writer like Manu Joseph. I couldn't have asked for a better series to be my first. It's so me, with the way the voice of the series is and what it wants to communicate, the situations, the characters. Though I don't come from an affluent Gurgaon, I know, and am curious about, the two contrasting Indias existing together in that Wild Wild West kind of land. Working with someone like R Madhavan in such an early phase of my career has been an absolute dream. He made so many things easy for us. He made the 'Aryaisms', as we used to call them, easily communicable to the audience. Otherwise, it would've been very difficult to play this character in a way that was also enjoyable and engaging for the audience who probably might not even like him. The kind of rapport that Manu, I and Madhavan had is something I'm very proud of. In that way, I'm incredibly happy to have received an opportunity to direct a documentary (Amdavad Ma Famous), a feature fiction (Kaamyaab), a masala mainstream Hindi film (Roohi) and now, a Netflix Original series. Thanks to the times we are living in, we are getting these opportunities to play around with formats and do things differently, the way we want to.

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