- Punam Mohandas
- 14 June 2021
I think OTT has awarded much due dignity to writers.
SWA Exclusive interview with writer editor APURVA ASRANI
Apurva Asrani hardly needs an introduction to discerning cinegoers. The man has been associated with compelling, sensitively told stories such as ‘Satya’, ‘Shahid’, ‘Citylights’ and ‘Aligarh’. Apurva brings his own particular brand of enthusiasm as well as empathy to a project, be it while wielding scissors (editing) or a pen (scriptwriting).
In a no-holds-barred interview, Apurva is full of candid praise for the OTT medium, not just for its entertainment value but because it has finally allowed writers to come to the fore and enjoy their due spot in the limelight: “We are finally high up on the hierarchy, I would say even more than directors” Apurva succinctly phrases it.
Apurva was mainly known for his honed editing skills, until ‘Shahid’ happened and everybody sat up to take notice of the new writer on the block. How did the foray into script writing happen?
“I never started out to be an editor”, states the man surprisingly. “For me, being part of a good story is the biggest high. What role I play is secondary. I have always been a storyteller at heart, looking for newer ways to tell exciting stories. Editing gave me that opportunity, because it is essentially narrating a story in the most effective way. Screenwriting also has the same purpose, except it is much harder, because unlike editing, you begin by staring at a cold blank page, and your mind must then start conjuring up a universe.
“Hansal Mehta gave me the opportunity to become a writer with Shahid. It was a very low budget film where we could not shoot many of the things written in the original script. So it was particularly challenging to tell the story without those links, and the screenplay was almost re-written on the editing table. Also it had been written as a non-linear narration, and Hansal felt the film was not emotionally compelling in that format. So we made it linear, changed the beginning and the end. He thought I should be credited as an additional screenwriter for that and thus, after 14 years as an editor, my career in writing began”, Apurva smiles.
Going by your previous interviews, you ascribe a lot of importance to editing; you’ve even said that the editing table is where a film is actually made. Doesn’t this negate the need for a taut, well-knit script then?
“I don't think the shooting script is ever the final draft”, he says ruminatively. “The final draft is usually the version written on the editing table. So yes, I have a lot of respect for the process. But this in no way negates the need for a good script. The better the script, the better the final rewrite. You must remember that when a script is being shot, a lot of actors and directors improvise. Then there are environmental factors, miscasting, time constraints; all this changes the material. The editor must now look at the rushes as his new script and pick up on the ‘evolution’ that came about on the set”.
‘Satya’ happened when you were only 20 years old! How did this come about?
“I was doing promos for films since 1995 and in ’97, I met Ramgopal Varma to do the promos of his under-production film ‘Daud’. We really bonded on that film and he liked the way I cut his promos. He was fascinated by the non-linear editing I was doing on Avid and I was fascinated with how he was editing ‘Daud’ on Steinback. One day I gave him some suggestions for his film edit and while dropping me home in his car, he offered me ‘Satya’. Just like that”! Apurva exclaims.
With ‘Shahid’, you were editing simultaneously even as the film was being shot. Does this make the process easier, or were there scenes when you felt it would have been better had you retained more than cut?
Apurva makes some fresh and surprising disclosures here. “This happened during ‘Satya’ too, where I was an assistant director as well”, he says. “The process was magical; we would hit upon something on the edit and Ramuji would use that to change something on set the next day. That film did not have a bound script. It was being shot very organically. Anurag and Saurabh were writing on set. Maybe that’s why it has such a spontaneous energy.
“For ‘Shahid’, Hansal would shoot a few days and then go around trying to organise funds for the next schedule. We had to keep the fires burning while the shooting was halted. So we put a lot of passion into the edit, in finding newer, more economical ways of telling the story. This is probably why we found a very fresh grammar for the film and it did so well”.
I’m certain you’ve heard this many times before, so here goes again: ‘Aligarh’. Apart from Manoj Bajpayee’s empathetic emoting, the script written by you – and of course, based on a real life persona - lent itself a nuance of sensitivity, of gentleness. How much of your own personal experiences and emotions were reflected in scenes in this movie?
“Thank you for your kind words”, Apurva blushes. “’Aligarh’ has been my most personal work yet. It is the film that found me my voice and for this I will be eternally grateful to Hansal. He just knew that I would be the right person to write it and I was able to release so many stories that were muffled in my subconscious. For years we have ignored the rights of gay people, we have allowed for them to be ostracised, to be bullied, to die lonely. I always felt like it wasn't a fair world because my heterosexual friends enjoyed dates, fell in love, shared their love stories, had the blessings of parents and society, but people like me had to hide our very identity and expression.
To add insult to injury, most films portrayed gay men to be such buffoons, as men without souls or beating hearts”, he avers fervently. “’Aligarh’ was that opportunity to change the imagery. When my friend Manoj Bajpayee came on board to play Siras, our protagonist, I knew that we would touch hearts. Little nuances, like the inner world of gay people, our music, our melancholy, the humour, the fears, the intimacy, the gentleness… I was able to write them down and then Manoj and Hansal did the rest of the magic”.
Web series have undoubtedly revolutionised the film and television industry. Do you agree that it is an easier medium to tell a story; what impact have web series had on writing as well as editing vis-à-vis conventional film making?
“I think OTT has awarded much due dignity to writers”, Apurva says bluntly. “We are finally high up on the hierarchy, I would say even more than directors, and this is a cause for celebration. Unlike in a film, in which a good plot, good actors and a director’s tight vision are usually enough to make it work, a series is a different beast.
Here we have the space and time to broaden the canvas. There is enough room to experiment with the storytelling and also layer it considerably. Needless to say that the writing craft is highly valued on OTT”.
Tell us more about ‘Criminal Justice Behind Closed Doors’, the new web-series you’ve just worked on for Disney Hotstar.
Apurva’s happy to elaborate on this. “The series explores our world and homes from the point of view of our women. It essentially addresses abuse and control in domestic partnerships and also tackles the difficult subject of marital rape. By populating the show with diverse women with completely different stories, we were able to show that misogyny and sexism exists in all kinds of homes. The idea was to hold up a mirror to society. So many women are coming out with their stories of abuse. So many more are admitting to have been ignorant about their role in propagating patriarchy and misogyny”.
We see such different films these days, with storylines that would have been unthinkable or financially untenable just a few short years ago. Are film makers and writers such as yourself more willing to take risks now, more willing to explore their passion for storytelling than worry about box office returns?
“I am very grateful for the way OTT has captured the imagination of the public. I must be honest, it would break my heart when my films ‘Shahid’, ‘Aligarh’, ‘Citylights’ or ‘Waiting’ were critically acclaimed, but were declared box office flops”, says Apurva, with typical candour. “We used the big star cast/commercial film as the success barometer and treated so many good films as outcasts in cinemas, often elbowing them out for the next big release.
Now, on OTT, it is word-of-mouth that is leading people to our shows. There is no weekend box office urgency and that is the biggest relief for us”.
What’s a story idea that you’d really like to sink your teeth into, a realm that hitherto hasn’t been explored by film makers?
“I don't know what that story is yet. But I do know that I want to continue to tackle taboo subjects that people are not comfortable discussing. We have talked about the ostracisation of minorities in ‘Shahid’, the persecution of gay men in ‘Aligarh’ and the abuse of women in domestic partnerships with ‘Criminal Justice Behind Closed Doors’. Now I am keen to do something on mental health. But the theme of justice has followed me around in all these projects…maybe it is a path to continue on”, Apurva concludes on a note of reflection.