‘My life story is so poorly written that I think I’ve written it myself’ says Nakul, the hopeless protagonist of Afsos – the latest Indian original series from Amazon Prime Video.
Starring Gulshan Devaiah, the black comedy follows one man’s repeated failed attempts to kill himself, till he hires an assassin (Heeba Shah) to finish the job. Only to then change his mind and decide he wants to live, leaving him to get out of the twisted, hilarious mess. But that’s only the start. There’s also monks and mysticism and immortality and secret organisations and a whole lot more in the inventive show created by filmmaker Dibya Chatterjee and stand-up comic Anirban Dasgupta.
Originally planned as a Bengali feature film, the duo has lived with the story for over 5 years before deciding to make it a series with co-writer Sourav Ghosh and director Anubhuti Kashyap. Afsos is based on the Bengali book Golper Goru Chaande which the creators eagerly urge viewers to check out.
At a suburban Mumbai café, creators Anirban Dasgupta and Dibya Chatterjee spoke to me about constructing the show’s bizarre universe and the delicate art of getting dark comedy right:
What’s the response to the show been like so far?
Anirban Dasgupta (AD): I’m very surprised that even after 7 days I’m still getting non-stop messages. My phone stopped working (laughs). Which is surprising because so far, it’s all been organic, there’s been no money put on pushing the show, so I didn’t expect this kind of response so quickly.
We so rarely see dark humour done so well like this in India. How do you make topics like death and suicide funny?
AD: Yeah, it is a sensitive subject but honestly, we were just having fun. We weren’t bothered about what the reactions would be and how it might be perceived, because if we fall in that trap then we aren’t really giving our imagination the full freedom.
This script could’ve gone really wrong because it’s just packed with absurd jokes and violence and there’s so much going on. One big factor of the show landing is Anubhuti Kashyap’s direction and guidance. This could so easily come across as slapstick but she said ‘you guys you write whatever you want, I’ll ensure it’s rooted in reality and it’s not gag-y’ because that’s the zone we didn’t want to go to.
Dibya Chatterjee (DC): One thing that was important to us was that everyone should come across as genuine and that there is no mockery of anyone. Even Dr Goldfish, who’s the antagonist, is justified in his approach. If you represent people in the most genuine way then no matter what the person is doing, a lot of the stigma gets relegated. Black comedy is essentially just presenting something in as real a way as possible but still sniggering at that moment. The essence of reality is there and then you’re laughing and judging yourself thinking ‘should I really be laughing at that?’.
There aren’t many examples of dark humour in Hindi cinema – what were your references?
AD: We have zero references from India. We were very clear that we wanted to make a show that’s been never made in India. So whether people like it or not, they definitely won’t be able to ignore it because this is something different. Most of our references came from foreign shows that have blown our minds like Dirk Gently. I remember I was watching that show while we were writing Afsos and it taught me that anything is possible. Don’t limit yourself.
DC: Also the Coen brothers and Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, In Bruges). And screenwriting wise Billy Wilder and Hitchcock.
What’s interesting is the show’s protagonist Nakul isn’t a typical ‘hero’. He’s a hopeless chump. What made you want to go with that approach?
AD: If you look at the show, nobody gets what they want. Especially Nakul. If you look at the therapist, the killers, the police, the babas, the journalist – nobody gets what they want which is why the show is called afsos. We were very clear that our protagonist can’t be winning because we end up seeing redemption all the time. I understand why movies need to have that because people don’t just want to see the journey of a loser but that was the exciting thing for us because it hasn’t been done before.
DC: We’ve always talked about how the conventional hero is this person who can do no wrong and suddenly he has this out of the world obstacle which he solves by the end. Our idea was what if he can’t solve the problem? Because that’s real life, problems take years to solve, it can’t be done over a song.
AD: The one example we always give is in Hindi movies when the hero goes to the villain’s den, he defeats like some 35 bodyguards and reaches the villain. But what if the first bodyguard just shoots him? (laughs)
The one example we always give is in Hindi movies when the hero goes to the villain’s den, he defeats like some 35 bodyguards and reaches the villain. But what if the first bodyguard just shoots him? (laughs)
One thing I struggled with towards the second half of the show was keeping up with all the plot points because there was so much going on. Was it tough to balance so many threads?
AD: Yeah, it was a puzzle in a way. In the writing room, we actually bought a puzzle, and on the reverse side of every piece we wrote every scene episodically so we could see the macro picture. If any one episode had too much happening, we’d pick up that piece and put it somewhere else, just like a puzzle.
But I also feel, in a series, I enjoy it when the main plot becomes the subplot and other things take over and the main plot comes back in the end. For the first 2-3 episodes, the focus was the Nakul-Upadhyay story, but then that goes on the back burner when the immortality angle comes in and takes over and eventually it comes back to Nakul’s story. Big credit to Sourav Ghosh because his writing is unbelievable. He came on board just a few months before the shoot, but the overall final screenplay is more or less him. He’s understood the story so well and just gave meat to everything.
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The story of #Afsos is a puzzle, both on screen and in the writing room. The first pic is every scene written episodically on the back of an actual puzzle (of India) bought by @souravghosh87, laid out on a dining table. No food for weeks. If you watched the show, look out for the making film, out soon. @dibya.chatterjee
One of the strongest aspects of the show is the casting. What was the toughest role to cast?
AD: I think after writing casting is where we had the most fun. The toughest to cast was the therapist character Shlokha (Anjali Patil). She’s my favourite character. She came in after I started going to therapy. I was writing the show and not doing well mentally and then therapy improved me, and that’s where the germ of the idea came from. For Nakul, we knew 2-3 years before making it that it had to be Gulshan. Sometimes I feel he understands Nakul better than us.
Upadhyay’s casting was interesting. We wanted a face that was very deadly, and Heeba Shah’s recommendation came for another role but as soon as we saw her face, we knew she’s Upadhyay. Dhruv Sehgal’s cameo happened because we were working out of Workwise and he was in the next cubicle writing Little Things and one day over lunch I just asked him if he’d be up for playing a small role and he was so sweet and agreed.
DC: Also, if you look at the casting, it’s a really cool concoction of different kinds of actors. There’s the Gulshan kind of screen actor, people from the National School of Drama (NSD), comedians, improv artists and many from a theatre background.
The way the show is structured, it’s almost impossible to know where it’s going or what will happen next. Was that intentional?
AD: Yeah, our stand-up background helped a little bit because stand-up is all about surprise. The audience only laughs when there is an element of surprise. During stand up you’re continually manipulating the audience and misleading them and getting a laugh out of it, and we kind of tried to do that with the show. It’s a game we wanted to play with the audience – who’s the immortal person? What will happen to Nakul or Upadhyay?
I remember I met Varun Grover when we were writing the show to see if he had any advice and one thing he said was ‘don’t beat your head over logic all the time. If there is something that looks a little illogical, but you can make the most of, the audience will be with you. It’s not important where it comes from but where you take it’.
DC: The other thing we used to keep discussing is that everything is unbelievable only as long as it doesn’t happen. Many things seem bizarre and then you see it on the news and then it’s real. So we always went with the idea of what’s possible is debatable like Nakul having a bullet stuck in his head throughout the show. That was the biggest discussion in the writers room – how do we sell a protagonist who has a bullet stuck in his head while he casually goes on living his life? And whether that’ll l lose the audience. But not one person has had a problem with that.
And every joke or sequence is a function of the universe. It won’t work if we don’t sell a bizarre universe, only then will everything land. In the first episode, there’s a calendar of February with 30 days in it, which no one’s noticed, it’s just there. Or Netaji casually passing by in the background in one scene. It’s just a quirk that is there.
Are there plans for a season 2?
DC: We used to joke that with the number of ideas that we’ve discarded in season 1, we could easily make another season with just those. But having said that it’s not that we don’t have ideas but there was no concrete plan to make multiple seasons. We wanted to ensure that even if it finishes here, it still works as a standalone thing but if we wanted to do a season 2, we can always pick up where we left of.