Kohrra spotlights your exemplary skill at telling a story that culls coherence out of existential chaos. How and where did this come from?
Existentialism is something that always intrigued me in life though I was not aware of this terminology for a long time. Until 2004, I had these various emotions and experiences, mostly a lot of challenges, insecurities and failures which I wanted to escape from. I was completely lost. In 2004, I quit everything and joined theatre at Barry John’s Theatre in Education (TIE) Company. I worked there for three years and I used to teach drama in school. Those three years working with Barry was therapy for me, I started feeling very light. I got comfortable with my emotions, of my vulnerability. Theatre also laid foundations of my craft, of my work which I still carry. Those three years at Barry’s theatre gave me a new perspective to life. It equipped me in terms of craft and practicality. There, I started exploring human emotions without being judgemental. This, one aspect, is the biggest learning from Barry John.
Were you always interested in filmmaking? What was your family’s reaction to your chosen vocation?
I find it difficult to express myself in real life, that I realised during my theatre days and was looking for some medium to express my thoughts – my views. Initially, I was not aware about the craft of filmmaking. But Barry John used to show us movies every weekend and we used to have a group discussion on that. Later, I made a few friends in Delhi. Amongst them, Pushpendra Singh (Director of Lajwanti and Pearl of the Desert films) was the one who used to show a lot of world cinema and I gradually started feeling drawn towards filmmaking. As I started to realise the power of filmmaking, I became more comfortable discussing life through those movies. During that time, I was directing plays at the school where I was teaching drama to children.
So, the starting point was that. Family was not much aware about this. They just wanted me to secure a good job.
The entertainment industry can be awfully mean to outsiders. How hard was it for you to get here?
It took me a lot of time. I came to Bombay in Feb 2008 and surviving in Bombay was very tough. Bombay is a very expensive city and especially when you do not have any financial support. I started working in various TV production houses to survive in this city. The TV industry is very exploitative. I used to get 4.5k per month which was very difficult for anyone to survive here. I kept working whatever job I could get. TV was a great learning experience initially as it is a very fast paced delivery oriented industry. We used to work for 18 hours or sometimes in rare cases we had to work 36 hours non-stop as we had to deliver an episode. We used to shoot 15min to 20min footage in a day. TV taught me basic grammar of filmmaking as at that time we had to reshoot even if the axis is wrong. So, I polished my technical skills. But I did not stay there for too long as it got boring. I left tv and started looking for a film director to assist. I started with assisting Dibakar Banerjee in Shanghai and then assisted Anurag Kashyap in Ugly, Raman Raghav and Mukkabaaz. The experience of working with these two directors, especially Anurag Kashyap, equipped me to navigate my way through the industry. Learning your skills, getting your craft right and of course, hard work and lots of patience is a given.
Tell me about the genesis of Kohrra. How did a filmmaker from Bihar come to do a Punjabi series?
Gunjit Chopra and Diggy Sisodia came up with the idea of Kohrra to(serial creator) Sudip Sharma. When they were ready with the story, Sudip Sharma had contacted me while I was shooting for Trial by Fire. I read the pilot episode and story beats and that’s how it all began.I am from Bihar but I stayed there for 2 years only when I was 6 or 7 years old. Those two years’ memory is still fresh, I used to stay with my uncle and aunt. After that I shifted to Rajasthan with my parents. My father was in a transferable job and after every two years we had to move to a new place. I also stayed three years in a hostel. Because of this constant shifting, I never felt any strong belonging or connection to a particular place nor I had core childhood friends. I think I see the world from a very outsiders’ perspective and looking for my own emotion in it. I have a very strong belief in filmmaking craft and grammar, through that you could build any world and you look for your own poetry and rhythm of life in that. Whatever I have directed has been so far from my world except my first short film “KARTAA”.
Kohrra was very interesting for me cause everything I was trying to understand through the eyes of an outsider who is trying to understand why it is happening, rather than putting the blame on anyone. Like in the third episode of Kohrra the whole father-mother fight was seen from a younger Nimrat’s perspective and you feel bad for this family. Empathy for human beings is important to me.
What really adds to the exceptionally apt mood of Kohrra are the actors. How did you pick just the right actors, especially the lead?
One brief for casting was authentic Punjabi actors. Suvinder Vickyji was already locked in during the writing process only.When Sudip mentioned about him in our first meeting and showed me his look I instinctively knew nobody can be a better Balbir than Suvinderji. I had seen him in Chauthi Koot. Usually, it is hard to find faces you have imagined while reading or writing but Survinder Vicky’s face was something which was better than I could have imagined. Rest was a casting process done by Nikita Grover. She stayed in Punjab for quite a long time and looked for all these actors.
And Barun Sobti?
For Garundi, I wanted a very different face and we did a very intensive casting hunt.Finally Jagjeet Sandhu caught my attention. His audition was so good.Later Sudip and I met him and talked to him, he had played Chaku in Patal Lok. Unfortunately, Jagjeet was busy when we were shooting so we could not lock him in. Later, Sudip mentioned Barun’s name if we could try him. I had worked with Barun and my experience working with him was not bad. The only condition was he should know Punjabi which he knew well. Jagjeet Sandhu had a small town vulnerability but at the same time had that charm and swag. Throughout the shoot I was trying to go closer to that Garundi while I was shooting and I think we could achieve that. In fact, we gave Garundi the same look I had in mind for Jagjeet Sandhu.
Among other things, Kohrra also addresses the theme of homophobia. What made you go there when most of our filmmakers choose to turn a blind eye to the gay community?
It was in the writing but while shooting the gaze towards human beings and understanding and observation towards your society becomes important.
Kohrra is sexually quite explicit. Do you feel the OTT gives you the freedom to do what cinema can’t?
Body is never used as bait, never titillating. The story required me to deal with it. I like the realism in the act and I think in today’s time when everything is being shared and discussed, it is good to show things most aesthetically.
Prior to Kohrra you were associated with another excellent series Trial by Fire. Are the dark themes your preferred choice?
For me, Trial by Fire was an intense story but not a dark one. Kohrra has dark shades. So far I got beautiful scripts to explore the stories my way and I always try not to repeat style or any aspect . As a filmmaker, I want to explore different genres and push my boundaries.
Tell me about your forthcoming plans?
Want to do a satirical comedy family drama which I have been working on for a very long time. Apart from that I want to explore love stories, high action drama and horror genres. I want to explore and execute different styles of filmmaking as the execution part of filmmaking excites me a lot. I have strong belief that we have largely failed to understand the story in execution and hardly explored the layered and depth of a story beyond its basic premise. Every well written story has more layers and opportunity to explore more than what it is written in words. Writers spend years and years to reach that final draft. There are so many emotions, backstories behind each and every written word. It is magical to start getting into all that. Sometimes when you talk to a writer you will know how much depth and emotions are there in that one scene which seems flat and normal while reading.