Watched Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime Video yet? Series writer Sudip Sharma, directors Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy and actors Jaideep Ahlawat, Abhishek Banerjee and Neeraj Kabi tell Film Companion editor Anupama Chopra how they created this gripping series, from what the writing process was like to getting into the psyche of their characters.
Anupama Chopra: This series is based on a book by Tarun Tejpal – The Story of my Assassins. Can you tell us a little bit about what you took from the book and how you found the story that you wanted to tell?
Sudip Sharma: The book was the starting point for the show. The whole idea was to explore various themes that fascinated us in the writers room, themes that were contemporary and themes that bothered us. One of my pet themes is the divide and the fault lines of class, language and religion that run through this country. I find them fascinating and disturbing.
Caste also. Just by the virtue of definition, you've built a pyramid and you know there will be somebody on top and somebody on the bottom. You can migrate out of your class but you can never migrate out of your caste. So all these themes and ideas got distilled into this larger idea which holds the show together, this idea of the 3 Indias – The Swarg Lok (heaven), The Dharti Lok (Earth) and The Paatal Lok (hell). You have one India whose larger concerns are: What is the right dress code for a zoom interview? And then you have this completely different India trying to walk 1000 miles back home. And somehow they are both sitting together and once in a while, colliding and clashing.
From this larger idea, came the character of Hathi Ram, this cop who is the conduit between these two worlds – the world of Neeraj's character and that of Abhishek's character. A Delhi cop is a much-lampooned character on screen. We see him as fat, incompetent, sexist, rude. We wanted to reverse that, instead of looking at a character like that through our eyes, we wanted to have him look at us through his eyes. He becomes the driving force of the narrative.
I'm a big fan of HBO's show The Wire. It deals with criminals and policemen, but with a very empathetic lens. There are no good guys and no bad guys. It's not a simple protagonist versus antagonist narrative. For me, that is the gold standard of writing for TV and I wanted to attempt to walk that path.
AC: Speaking of Hathi Ram, he's such a complicated character. His backstory is so tragic, his whole life is such a series of small failures, and yet he is a hero. How did you find the essence of this character?
Jaideep Ahlawat: Whenever I do good work, I don't feel like taking credit for it. And the bad work, the stuff I put a lot of effort into, nobody watches. Sudip has written Hathi Ram so beautifully. This man created him, his whole world and kept it ready for me.
All I had to do was read the character enough times that I could embody it. Thankfully, I'm from Haryana and have seen this all through my childhood. I don't know how many times I've read that script. There had come a time when I could close my eyes and remember all the sequences of the first episode. People even heard me saying dialogues in my sleep.
There were a lot of discussions with Sudip, Prosit and Avinash to understand who the character is, why he is like this, why he has a line of failures, and he's at such a point in his life where if nothing happens, will he give up on his journey and ambitions. He still has little hope left for something he believes will put him in a better position. It's an internal journey, what's happening outside is not in his control. He feels that if he backs down now, then maybe he won't be able to come out of it his whole life.
SS: To his credit, Jaideep knew the script inside out completely. We never saw him reading dialogues, we never saw him looking at any papers and first few days we would be like, 'Don't you think we should be just checking the dialogues once before?' but he had it all in there.
AC: Abhishek, Hathoda Tyagi is a character that can very easily feel a little over the top. I feel he's so frightening because you feel he's real, there could be a person like this. How did you find that balance?
Abhishek Banerjee: It was all there in the script. Whenever I used to read the part, there was this line that was the core of the character throughout. I was almost in a meditative state while I was performing, and I didn't have too many lines so I didn't have that pressure.
AC: Neeraj, tell me about Sanjeev Mehra, a very complex character. He's entitled, he's arrogant and then he becomes this honourable man, specially in the last scene where he apologises to his wife. How did you find his psyche?
Neeraj Kabi: The psyche of the character, that's what actors look for always. One had to create a world, an ambiance of Sanjeev Mehra. The character arc is interesting. When you see first him, he's a loser, he's disillusioned, he's about to lose his job and he's holding onto that. But at one point, before the series begins, he was a poster boy, he was a hero, and people celebrated his journalism. So I had to create that background, not by an imaginary process, but by facts and by realities. So I started reading up a lot on our journalists who were great heroes, and why their journalism was celebrated. Once you read that, you begin to understand their philosophies, why they stood by such a kind of journalism. You understand their purpose, their visions, their mindsets. I got to see a news channel in Delhi, how news actually travels, from one space to the other till it hits the television screens in our drawing rooms.
Prosit, Sudip and I also tried to form three very specific psychological spaces that Sanjeev Mehra travels through. So whenever we went to shoot, the first thing I would do is ask them: Okay now is this the space we are in?
Once you've defined the space, then I knew my corresponding emotions. I would go to the set, I would have all my notes and I would go through them. I am not a actor who believes in the school of reaction, imagination and improvisation. Not that it is wrong, I just don't work like that. I work with facts, realities and my personal experiences and that's how the character came alive.
AB: I don't remember any scenes in which we actually improvised, I don't remember moments where people added lines because it was all in the script.
AC: Prosit and Avinash, what is the creative process when there are two directors telling the same story? How do you ensure there consistency?
Prosit Roy: We both come from two different film backgrounds, his style of cinema and my style of cinema are completely different. I was also a little (worried about) how this would turn out because the audience would see it in one single unit. It's thanks to Sudip, we sat and went through the script with him for almost two weeks. That really helped us because the characters, the moods, all the atmosphere, everything was internalized.
AC: Who decides which part of the episode you do and which the other one does?
Avinash Arun: That was decided after the meeting with Sudip. It's been written so well that it doesn't really matter if any part is done by anyone. Pre-production was the key. We spent a lot of time in pre-production, had multiple rounds of reading and made sure there was nothing left to discuss about how different approaches could work.
AC: Avinash you were also doubling up as DOP with another cinematographer, how difficult was that?
AA: I haven't directed without being the DOP. I was really happy that my producer and Sudip said they also wanted me to do this because I was going to ask them whether I could. When you're working on a regional film, it's on a different scale. But since I'm not used to sitting in front of the monitor with 10 other heads looking into it, I got nervous. I have an intimacy with the viewfinder, I like to be closer to my actors so you're looking at their energies, interactions. I work very instinctively. Only after rehearsal I understand: This is how to set the first shot.
JA: This is how the process of acting is as well, we have everything ready and prepared, now it's time to listen to what the heart says.