Aranyak screenwriter Charudutt Acharya: ‘In web shows, there’s a shift from handling shock value to mature topic management’
Writer of Aranyak Netflix Series, Charudutt Acharya, talks about combining different genres for the show, creating the lead character of a working woman in a small Indian town, and getting her tongue out by introducing Raveena Tandon.
You got the idea for Aranyak while visiting Himachal Pradesh. How have its geography, people and culture contributed to history?
The central idea for Aranyak came from an interesting encounter with a Himachal Pradesh policeman who had helped me and my family through a mini-crisis while on vacation. The character of SHO Kasturi Dogra is inspired by this officer. During the arduous journey to Rohtang, our young taxi driver Himachali entertained my children, telling them about a mythical humanoid creature that lives on top of the mountains. Later, lying on the lawns of the Hidimba temple, the cop, the creature and a real case involving a foreign tourist (not in Himachal Pradesh) met in a flash. I wrote a basic plan that very night.
After working as a TV show writer for over two decades and writing feature films, how was the experience of writing a web series?
In 25 years, I have written for more than 20 television series and produced four feature films. So, I knew these two mediums well. My first webcast was It’s Not That Simple on VOOT and later 1962-A War in the Hills on Disney+ Hotstar. The key to writing a web series is to compel audiences to binge-watch a season. Using my learnings from my previous projects, I jumped into Aranyak with some determination and ambition to give it my best shot. Seeing it come to life has indeed been an enriching experience.
You have already scripted detective series. Was this experience helpful to you when writing Aranyak?
I co-wrote Crime Patrol, a popular crime show, for almost 10 years. But it was a docu-fiction show where each case was based on a real police case, and we had the opportunity to read documents from each case. This exercise helped me to detail the police procedure and to structure the course of the investigation over the episodes. But Aranyak is not exactly a detective series. It gave me the opportunity to explore the personal lives of cops. There was also a touch of the supernatural. Combining these three genres turned out to be a challenge and a lot of fun to try.
How are the concerns and grammar of a web series different from those of a TV show?
The grammar of a drama/fiction thriller web series is closer to weekly drama/tv novel/miniseries TV shows than to the daily half-hour soap opera format. In the latter, the unfolding of the story and the development of the characters take place at a rather languid pace, spread over hundreds of episodes. But in a web series, the accelerated pace of storytelling is key, where a season is usually eight episodes long. Second, soap operas run on character familiarity while web series thrive on unique/unknown turns character arcs take. That aside, web series allow for more sub-plots and the exploration of new worlds. That said, some of the best international shows (like Downton Abbey, True Detective) we consume on OTT platforms were originally hour-long TV dramas, which we choose to binge watch.
Did you polish your script after the main cast was decided?
We had completed the entire writing process before the actors were attached to the show. But when Raveena (Tandon) and Param (Parambrata Chatterjee) were finally locked down, we as the core team sat down and made some minor changes to the presentation of the characters and the interaction between them based on their personality and natural strengths. During our table reads, which mostly took place online, I kept a straight face but burst inside as Raveena, Param, and other actors got the subtle subtext from the dialogues and the scenes came to life. By the way, I was a huge Raveena fan. When we first met, I was silent for a few minutes while I presented the series to him. Later, I realized how hard she worked on the show and invested in the story.
Can you shed some light on how you designed the female characters in the series?
As mentioned earlier, the central character, a female SHO, was based on an actual cop I met in Himachal Pradesh. What struck me when I met her was that she was supervising her teenage daughter’s schoolwork at the police station. The few hours I spent with her made me want to tell a story with her as the protagonist. She had arrived the hard way. She had domestic issues as well as gender issues at work. Despite all this, she held the fort. She wanted to see her daughter achieve academic and professional heights. The sum total of her groundedness, unconventional ways, cultural pride and strong ethical core helped create Kasturi Dogra (tried by Tandon) – a working woman in a small Indian town, who has so many battles to claim the professional grand prize.
And the other female characters?
Politician Jagdamba Dhumal (Meghna Malik) is the other main female character in the story. I didn’t want a typical one-dimensional politician who happens to be a woman. I wanted a well-educated, articulate, dignified, powerful woman who truly wanted to do good for her people but had to deal with the misdeeds of a wayward son and condescending mentor. When creating this character, I was inspired by real-life female politicians and business leaders.
Julie Baptise (Breshna Khan), the ‘bad mum’ is drawn from a real-life case of a drug-addicted British mother whose daughter went missing and was later found raped and killed in a popular tourist destination in India. The woman had faced a serious amount of criticism and stayed in my subconscious the longest. Aimee (Anna Ador) was inspired by the real victim in this case and the character of Nutan (Taneesha Joshi) was inspired by the thousands of young girls in small towns with academic and professional ambitions.
What was your process of working with director Vinay Waikul?
My main collaboration has been with co-producer, showrunner, longtime associate and friend Rohan Sippy. The scripts were quite developed when Vinay came on board. We made a final point with Vinay. Brilliant mind that he is, there have been some superb suggestions that have come from his objective and analytical outlook. We had detailed discussions about all the main characters, scenes, and plot points before we started locking things down. Vinay did a really good job of breathing life into the script, bringing out the best in the actors and in every department of the cinema.
How have streaming video platforms changed the culture of writing, especially when it comes to Hindi shows and movies?
Writing and creating original content, specifically for video streaming platforms, has created a new writing system. First, there was the emergence of the “writers room” entity and a heavy emphasis on creating detailed “bibles” of a show before embarking on storylines. The writing process is much more structured. This discipline certainly has an impact on television series and films. It’s mostly for the good, I would say. There are, however, pitfalls to this “overwriting” and “overpreparing” during the development process. We are seeing a gradual shift from a ‘shock’ treatment of swearing, sex and gore in the shows to a more mature treatment of varied subject matter, keeping in mind greater Indian sensibility.
Audiences feel like there would be another season of Aranyak.
Yes, there is a second season in perspective. We have a roadmap for the next season and we’ve already dropped some of the clues across the series, which were further defined in the final minutes of the final episode. Our producers and Netflix have already indicated in the media that work on the second season has begun.
In 2021, films made in other Indian languages have surpassed Hindi releases in writing and quality. Is the Hindi entertainment industry lagging behind when it comes to pushing the boundaries?
I wouldn’t say that. A few big-budget films that don’t perform well are not an indicator of a lack of experimentation and pushing boundaries. Pandemic times are also exceptional times. There is bound to be a certain amount of churning, soul-searching, changing tastes and styles, both among creators and audiences. I would just give both sides some time. Exciting and engaging content will surely hit the bull’s eye in Hindi as well.