Notice how Sujoy Ghosh uses the words ghost story, and not horror, while talking about his Netflix series, Typewriter. Like the good ones, it works best when we aren’t sure about the nature of evil we are dealing with. Is it a case of shape-shifting doppelgängers, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and more recently, US (2019)? Or is it something of the ectoplasm, taught to us by Ghostbusters (1984) — as the five friends (Aarna Sharma, Palash Kamble, Mikhail Gandhi, Aaryansh Malviya) – if we count the dog – at the centre of the story speculate about the strange things that have been happening in Bardez, a sleepy town in Goa?
The children get by with some help from a police officer — the show’s equivalent to the local sheriff in many an American small town mysteries, played perfectly by Purab Kohli, who brings a susegad languor to the role.
It’s impossible to talk about Typewriter, which also features Palomi Ghosh, Sameer Kocchar, Kanwaljit Singh and Jisshu Sengupta, without falling back on older tropes. Part of it is because of the series’ obvious attempt at being an Indian version of the global hit Stranger Things — a show that’s built on pop culture references and yet successfully transcends it. And part of it is because of Ghosh’s own love for the low-brow and the cheesy, which he has always worn like a badge of honour.
I met Ghosh on a Thursday morning at Bungalow 9 in Bandra. He was jet lagged from the previous night’s flight from London, and in dire need of some coffee. He wore a grey T-shirt and three fourths. And possibly reacting to the chill of the air conditioner, curled his legs up on his seat as we began.
Edited excerpts from the chat:
How did the show come about?
I’ve always wanted to do something with kids, because I remember some interview of Mr (Satyajit) Ray, where he had said that if you can work with kids you can work with anybody. I have grown up in a world where the protagonists are always children, where it’s not adults but children who always save the world. There were a lot of Enid Blytons, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Secret Seven.
I really wanted to make a film like that. In fact if I had not directed Badla, I would have directed a film with children. So when I met Netflix in Los Angeles, they said why don’t you make a series out of this? I don’t think I would’ve got the backing to mount an adventure film with children, which will need a lot of money. Especially on this day and age, because you are not comparing with The Goonies (1985), you are comparing with Stranger Things. So I thought maybe I will give it a shot. Also, in a series you get to explore a world, characters, incidents, a little bit more.
Were you also looking to work in the genre? There were shades of horror in your short film Ahalya.
I am not a fan of horror per se, but I like things which make you think, like The Sixth Sense. The problem, for me, is that if it doesn’t make you think then you aren’t scared. Because fear comes from within: if you are going to be scared of something, that has to come from you. I can behave in a certain manner for you to get scared. So if I somehow succeed in giving you a poke, that makes you think, ‘Oh shit this is scary,’ then I have succeeded. I don’t know whether I am making any sense.
The first episode begins with something that I have read somewhere.
That’s an urban legend, like nishir daak… If you look into any folk tale of ghosts in almost any language, you will find that story. There’s another beautiful one, where a mother is getting ready and her daughter says, ‘Ma I will wait for you downstairs.’ So the mother tells her, ‘You go downstairs, I am coming.’ And when she goes into her room, she sees her daughter, who asks her, ‘Why haven’t you got ready yet?’
Did you go through a lot of folklore to prepare for the series?
I revisited every horror film that I have seen. I started with Salem’s Lot, which is the very first scary movie I’d seen in my life. I was ten years old. I was in the middle of an English village. Ma, who is a doctor, was on an on-call that night, and she had to go the hospital to attend some patients. Since she wasn’t there, I was just watching TV, it was late night, around 10:30, and they had Salem’s Lot (1979) — the old one, with James Mason and David Soul. I was also a big Starsky and Hutch fan, so I watched Salem’s Lot because of David Soul. Fuck, it was so scary, the vampire scared the shit out of me.
Then I started watching a lot of Hammer horror, all the Peter Kushing and the Boris Karloff ones, and I’ll tell you why, because Hammer was the pre-requisite of horror. They were everything, the gore, the twist, the woman, the sex. I was growing up, so it was also a lot about the beautiful girls.
Then the next generation people like John Carpenter, and Wes Craven came up. I kept watching everything that came my way. You also had stuff like Joel Schumacher making Lost Boys (1987), and then you had Kathryn Bigelow directing Near Dark (1987).
I see everything also to know what I am not supposed to do. What you know is the basic trope of a ghost story. You know it by heart. You know there will be a deserted house, you know there will be a family that will move in there, you know they will all go to places they are not supposed to go. All these things you know they will do, what I will add new is how they do it.
The homage in Typewriter are from all over the place: from Ghostbusters to Satyajit Ray’s short story Fritz.
You know the Fritz thing struck me only after I was done with the shot… I was like, ‘Fuck, this is Fritz,’ But by then it was too late…All these things stay inside you. Deewar (1975) was a more conscious choice. So was Kaala Patthar (1979). I enjoy doing this kind of shit.
About homage, how do you make sure what you are making goes beyond a pastiche?
You can’t overdo it. You can’t do a homage saying ‘Look I am doing a homage.’ Sameera Anand, the girl who is the leader of the gang, is a tribute to Georgina from Famous Five. But these are what I know, I am not going to say all this. If you spot it, great. But I am hoping these don’t interfere with my storytelling.
And the typewriter is… The Shining.
Yes, it is from The Shining, in a way.
It is also the logo of your production house Boundscript Motion Pictures.
Yes. I wrote my first script on a typewriter, because those days there was nothing else. I had an actual small typewriter — I still have it — and after seeing that my mother bought me an electronic typewriter, which was new at the time. I have that as well.
I normally go to Goa whenever I need to write, and while I was doing that I felt I could create this. Suresh (Nair), my co writer, suggested the name Bardez, and I love that name. There is something about the name: old, piratey. He said, ‘Let’s call it Bardez, let’s set something in Bardez.’…Bardez became the key to Goa; that name came first and Goa came second.
You have said that the only two places in the world that you are most comfortable setting your story in is Kolkata and London. How was Goa then?
I normally go to Goa whenever I need to write, and while I was doing that I felt I could create this. Suresh, my co writer, suggested the name Bardez, and I love that name. There is something about the name: old, piratey. He said, ‘Let’s call it Bardez, let’s set something in Bardez.’ We had both gone there to write something. Bardez became the key to Goa; that name came first and Goa came second.
When we looked at Goa, we felt we could create that sense of an isolated community here. I needed the graveyards, I needed a little Christian community, which I felt would be much better if I set in Goa.
I felt the sense of place that one gets from your films set in Bengal was missing here. Would you agree?
Yes, maybe a little less. But that was, kind of, the trade off for working with kids. Because these kids keep you so busy that you have to be on top of your game. You don’t really get a chance to think of other problems.
Is working with children difficult?
It’s not difficult really. What I realised is that when we work with children we tend to treat them like adults — and they are not adults. They are nine-year-old kids, they are not here to work. They are here to play, be inquisitive. They would need breaks, they would want to play. If they saw an interesting insect they would want to go and spend some time with the insect. If there’s a fluorescent green snake around — they want to see the snake. Even I want to see the snake! If you are going to someone’s house, you have to respect their house rules.
As always, you have fun with the casting. Jisshu Sengupta, Kanwaljit Singh, Purab Kohli…
What helps my casting is that I write my own script, and I am able to see the physical image of the cast. Jisshu’s character was modelled on Clark Kent, if you see his hairstyle…. It was like superman gone bad on one side, and Clark Kent on the other. He dresses like Clark Kent, walks like Clark Kent, behaves like Clark Kent. So that’s how I saw his character, Amit Roy. A misfit, a man who doesn’t belong belong to this world but still coming in to this world.
I have never worked with Mr Singh before, but he is such a good actor. I wanted it to be that old Chhabi Biswas, Kamal Mitra kind of a character. Ektu bhulbhal accent e kotha bole (Speaks in a somewhat fake accent), wears a dressing gown, smokes a pipe. It’s a very stereotypical image of aristocrat of those days.
For Purab, I was very clear that I wanted a person who would be the police inspector, a father, somebody you could lean on, and somebody who maybe is in love: all facets of one character which you may not necessarily be able to explore in a film. I wanted the character to be a bit loveable, and the most loveable characters I have ever come across are Magnum PI and Indiana Jones, so I wanted a mix of these two. By the way, have you seen the new season of Stranger Things? They have also paid a tribute to Magnum PI.