Suzhal: The Vortex releases on Amazon Prime on June 17. The makers of the web series — writers Pushkar-Gayatri and directors Bramma and Anucharan — talk to Vishal Menon about two filmmakers coming together to direct four episodes each, the pre-production and production process of Suzhal, and the future of web series in India.
Edited excerpts below:
When you were writing, did you think about which directors should direct this?
Pushkar: Actually, that was not the initial idea with which we started. When we were writing it, the intent was that we will direct it also. But somewhere down the line, we had another commitment that we had to do at the same time. Amazon was very confident with the content so they were like let’s get into a collaborative process and let’s look at bringing in directors. It took us some time to process that.
Gayatri: It was like our baby. Every word we wrote, we took a long time too. So, there was an initial hesitancy. But when Amazon came and told us, it made a lot of sense. I think especially with long-form, you need to do that process; you can’t do everything and it’ll also add extra value to the process too.
Pushkar: In hindsight, it seems like “damn we should have just started with that idea”. It would have speeded up the process. This space and good collaboration is a good way to work.
At what stage did you get the directors on board? Was it completely written?
Pushkar: Everything was written. We called Bramma and Anucharan and gave them an episode-by-episode breakdown just to see if they were interested in it. Once they were interested, we gave them the whole script. After reading the script, they made the decision to come on board or not. The good thing is that since we were writing and producing it and have a good relationship with Amazon, all our inputs from our collaborative interactions were incorporated into the script. So, there was a round of corrections before shooting.
When you decided to allow these directors to shoot, was there a process of letting go and trusting them completely?
Gayatri: It’s not a question of trust because without trust we wouldn’t have had them on board in the first place. But this was the first time for a lot of things. This was the first time we are doing a long-form series. It was the first time one director is doing the first four episodes and another doing the last four. We had a bunch of technicians whom we have worked with and trust to work with both the directors. It’s also the first time we are handling production at such a large scale. During the first schedule, we were fully there to make sure all the parts are moving accordingly.
Pushkar: Every location we went we learned about how the directors staged the scene, and how they saw the scene. We had a lot of conversations with our DOP. So, this showrunner’s job is basically getting in a lot of creative talent and ensuring that the original intent was maintained throughout. Obviously, Bramma and Anu bring a certain directorial flair that we are looking for. Both of them are great at handling emotions and bringing the nuances of people out. The job of the showrunner is new but we are figuring it out as we go.
So Bramma and Anu, how did you guys figure out who should direct which episodes? And in what order?
Bramma: I chose the first four quickly. That’s because that portion of the show I haven’t done in my previous two films. So that was an opportunity for me. So, I thought that had to be grabbed quickly. I think I left Anu with little choice.
Anucharan, was the first four episodes ready when you went in?
Anucharan: No, it was shot simultaneously.
Pushkar: How we schedule it was primarily based on artist availability, location, permission, and so on. So, for instance, Parthiban’s character’s house was shot in Ooty. There were about six days of shoot over there, where there was work for both of them. The schedule was planned accordingly. We have some 78 versions of the schedule or something like that. With so many characters and actors, scheduling was a nightmare.
Tell me about the process of getting that tone, and catching the vision that the writers have? How difficult was that and did you guys try to look at the other person’s footage to see if you were matching.
Bramma: I think we didn’t. First of all, it was not a very difficult thing because we, as individuals, share a common sensibility which is very important. That became very evident when we started speaking and having our discussions. It became very easy for us. For me, it came with a very natural flow.
Anucharan: It worked the same way for me. We had an extensive preproduction process and we had so many discussions in that. And we made sure we were on the same page before we went to shoot. So, it was all easy. There was a healthy competition too.
At any stage did you guys think that it doesn’t have to look like a Pushkar-Gayatri movie?
Pushkar: No, it’s an all in service of the script.
Bramma: I think even in their previous films, they haven’t owned that kind of a thing. What I have also learned in this entire process is that they give it not only to their directors but to their technicians and DOP as well. They unleash everyone to their maximum. I think they are so democratic with everyone they work with that it is proper teamwork. I think that’s the good thing about a creator, and that is evident in Suzhal too.
Pushkar: We believe in the collaborative process even when we are directing our own films. What we would like to define as our creative style has more to do primarily with writing. While we provide the perspective, we don’t want to force a style. The style grows for the script and in service of the drama required. So we are not sitting on a style and trying to make the scene fit into it.
The scene grows organically on the paper and similarly, it grows on screen also. We are trying to capture the moment and not trying to make the moment look like something. We don’t want the technique to overpower the storytelling. It is a fine line we keep drawing. Though the moment itself is created by us, we want one magic happening over there and we want to capture the magic.
Filmmakers making series is a pioneering step for Tamil cinema. What do you see as the future of this? Do you think a generation is going to wake up and think we don’t have to dream in cinema, we can dream in series.
Pushkar: I think these are different mediums of storytelling. Cinema is a distinct form of storytelling. Long-form is exactly what it says, it is having a longer period to tell a story. So, you have that much more breadth. It’s a skill that hasn’t been developed much in India. For me, films are short stories. In long-form storytelling, it’s equivalent to novels in terms of character arcs, setting up of situations and how they resolve. People read both short stories and novels and so they will co-exist.
Gayatri: We want to do both, films and series. We still aren’t familiar with the writing process for the series. For films, we have kind of figured it out. The challenge of doing long-form is that you need to retain the attention of the viewer across the span of the story’s arc. But with so much time, we are able to give the depth. With this form, we get to work with collaborators more and it’s a lot of fun.