- Debashish Irengbam
- 20 December 2017
"Web-series medium will ensure power and money for writers."
Q & A with Karan Anshuman, director and creator of Inside Edge
Karan Anshuman is a busy man. Having set the bar for web series with his popular show, Inside Edge, - India’s first Amazon Original series – he is currently busy promoting his debut novel, Kashmirnama, while readying for the shoot of his second show for Amazon Prime Originals. Add to that the second season of Inside Edge which has gotten a nod from Amazon Prime and Excel, and one can imagine the choc-a-bloc schedule he leads these days. Still, in the early hours of morning over a cuppa coffee in Starbucks, we were able to catch up for a long and detailed discussion as he described his journey, the origin and process of making Inside Edge, the controversy surrounding it, along with some rather interesting views on censorship the future of web series versus Bollywood mainstream films. Presenting an SWA discussion with Karan Anshuman:
You have been a critic, a director, a screenwriter, and now an author as well. Which of these roles appeals to you the most?
I guess I wanted to be a writer more than a director, since I have always been a voracious reader. But I like being a director too. Also, since my father was a director, it was more like an expected, natural choice for me in the sense that, you know, do what your father does.
Which a lot of us can relate to …
(laughs) Yes, especially when your friends’ fathers happen to be businessmen and professionals. They would all be like, “abhi Papa office gaye hain.” And in my case, it was more of Papa going to “work” six months a year, and the rest of the time he would be at home, writing, planning. That’s the way it is for a filmmaker. That whole 9-to-5 culture, back when I was growing up here in the 80’s and 90’s, it didn’t really apply to us.
And where did you spend your childhood?
I was born in Ranchi, but I have spent my whole life here in Mumbai. Went to school in Juhu, went to college in St. Xavier’s. Then I went to US for my undergrad to pursue Computer Science.
But you always wanted to be a writer …
Yes, my ultimate dream was to write books. In fact, for me, the moment of my book, Kashmirnama, being announced recently was much bigger than my film’s release. For me, that means a lot more, at a very personal level.
So any particular books which inspired you?
Not really. I have gone through a wide range of books, from Nabokov to Asimov. I guess I have a soft corner for science fiction. Science is my thing. I love Physics, books about Physics. I am a bit of a geek that way. I have read every Asimov book, and works of Arthur C Clarke, multiple times.
But your works are pretty different from your taste. For instance, Bangistan, your first film as a director, was a political satire set against the theme of terrorism.
Yes, because a film is more of a collaborative medium. You also have to take into account audience’s tastes, what will make them stay. For me, it was about what I wanted to say as well with regard to the issues I feel about. Religious extremism, for instance. I wanted to tackle that theme through the medium of satire in my film. However, satire as a genre is something that people don’t seem to get these days. They want things in black and white. My father was a great satirist with works like Nukkad to his credit. I have grown up on the sets of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron with Kundan Shah who is very close to me. Their comic works were always satirizing different issues in society. Saeed Mirza is a huge influence and inspiration for me as well. These are the people I look up to.
Coming back to your journey, how did the shift from Computer Science to filmmaking and writing happen?
As I said, I am a geek, and I loved computers. Did some pretty hanky panky things back in my day as well, which I will not elaborate on now. That was the thing to do back in the 90’s – end up with a big nice salary. But I still wanted to come back to India. I started a tech company back during the IT boom. It’s still on and running, and helped a lot in handling my costs during my struggle days. But eventually, I realized that this field was not really so much about computers as it was about Math. So I gave it up halfway, and started experimenting with other subjects. I tried everything when I was there, from Astronomy to Art History. I just wanted to find something that resonated with me. Then, I tried a film course. And that was the “ta-dah” moment for me. I was ahead of everyone in my class, as a lot of the filmmaking processes came very naturally to me. Then I decided that if I wanted to make films, it would be probably be easier to do it here rather than there, especially at that time.
And was it?
Not at all! (laughs) From the time I came back to India to my first film, it has been a journey of twelve long years. I started with a few short films. There was no YouTube back then, and there was no pay off. There were just a handful of major producers back then in the industry and they didn’t really understand this concept of short films. Still, I did it for myself, producing them on paltry budgets of 5000, 20000 rupees. My father produced one, and then called in a few people he knew in the industry to see it. He was very supportive that way.
And how did your first directorial film project come about?
During my struggle phase, when things were not really working out, I started this review site called Upper Stall where I would write film reviews in my own style. Soon, I got a call from Mirror. Once I started that, at least I had something to show. So it’s not like I shifted from being a film critic to a filmmaker, as is often depicted. It was the other way round. I wrote my reviews based on my technical knowledge of filmmaking, screenplay writing, and other aspects I was familiar with. And once you write for Mirror, at least no one asks you what have you done when you approach them as a filmmaker. Otherwise, it’s always a chicken-or-egg scenario for a new filmmaker. You approach people to give you a chance, and the first thing they ask is what have you made? But how will you make something if you don’t get a chance?
I think a lot of budding directors will relate to that.
Yes, and I had the toughest time. I didn’t want to call in any favours. I kept writing scripts all through those years, but a lot of them ended up getting dated with time so I had to write new scripts on contemporary subjects. For instance, I couldn’t have thought of a series on Cricket League back in those days when this format wasn’t around.
Which served as the foundation for your web series, Inside Edge …
Yes, the idea came to me quite some time back when these corruption charges were beginning to pop up in the media. I have always been a Test Cricket purist, so for me, it was very disturbing. So I wanted to explore this dark side through the show.
And that is what inspired you as a writer to get into this theme?
Yes! The first thing that should matter is what you feel passionately about, what is it that you want to say … What the audience will feel, how will they react is secondary. In this case, we had no idea what to expect since this was a whole new medium and platform. This kind of muscle and push behind a web-based show had never been done before. This length of content had never been created for a web based show. And to shoot it on the same standards as a film. So it was a new experience for every crew member in the show.
And what kind of research did you have to do for it?
Well, obviously I spoke to people who are part of the League system here. I can’t reveal my sources, as then I would have to kill you (laughs). That was the gentleman’s agreement we had. Besides, the research was not really to get into controversies, but rather to understand how things work. We were clear that we didn’t want to make a docu-drama or fact-based series, but rather a fictional drama. So there are no real-life people in it.
But there’s been a lot of gossip about real-life references and possibilities in the show …
Yes, I know, but at the end of the day, they are just characters with a part to play in the story. I have heard rumours of certain main characters being like … you know who. I don’t know what is going on in their personal lives. I just wanted to have strong characters, particularly for women in the series. If you notice, the women are playing very strong parts in the series, always coming out on top. A lot of it happened by design, but some things evolved organically according to the plot.
And how much time and effort it took to develop it from a concept to the full series?
The concept came to my mind during one drunken night when I was talking to my collaborator, Kassim. I was thinking of it in terms of television, but he said how the hell will we show this on TV? I agreed but decided to go about it anyway. So I got together with my writers, Ameya Sarda, Sumit, Puneet, and Saurav Dey. We wrote it somewhat and then suddenly, this whole Amazon thing happened. They were quite approaching quite a few big players at the time. So they came to Excel and Excel said, “hey wait, we have something.” That’s why this show came way before the other planned Amazon India original series, because we were already ready. Others were commissioned after which they started writing, but we had the whole thing down in print.
The show came up in a pretty big way too, being the first Amazon Originals show from India.
Yes, and it’s on its way to becoming the most watched and most completed shows on Amazon Prime.
As in, someone binge-watched it all the way from episode 1 till the end. Sometimes, viewers drop halfway. These stats are readily available online, so that is the most interesting facet for me. That more people have completed it on Amazon Prime than most of their other shows, and it holds a better average than shows on other platforms like Netflix etc. The one feedback I get from other people in the business, seasoned people, is that the “binge-ability” of the show is very high. For me, that is the big victory, considering it’s a 400 minute content package in this world of distractions and short attention spans.
And what was the process of writing the series like for you and the writers?
We tried to follow the Hollywood model of a Writers’ Room. For six odd months, all of us would come and sit down intensely for six hours a day. We were beating the crap out of each other. And it really got the creative juices flowing. So even though we got our individual credits for the episodes, we have all been involved in writing every aspect of it. I think the best work that’s coming out in American Television these days is because of this format. Of course, there you have twelve writers or so in various levels of seniority. That’s a more nuanced way of working. We just wanted to keep it a bit more democratic. Of course, being the show runner, I did have the final say but if there was a majority agreement, I would go their way.
But in our industry, where individual credits for writers is a huge issue, how do you decide the distribution of credits?
We have to be open and democratic. I don’t know why people hold on to credit like it’s gold. It’s okay to share as long as you are getting your due. That’s one thing that astounds me, as to why people fight for it. If she wrote five scenes, then give her the credit, why not? Sometimes, people try to take credit for something they have not done, and that is wrong, of course. For instance, a lot of times, you find a co-director credit comes up in the final reel even though they were never on set. Never happened with me, thankfully.
So how did you decide which writer got credit for which episode?
We sat down and we decided it mutually amongst each other. It took five minutes and no one had any issue. As show runner, I had to take credit for the first episode and I did write most of it, so that was the only part we were decided on.
So the total duration for the show to form from its concept to execution was around, say, a year?
Around nine months or so. Which is a lot faster than writing a film. Here we had a lot more ideas flowing in a more organized way.
That brings me to my next question – you have directed a film, and you have now written and directed a web series? How has the transition been?
To be honest, I was very irritated with the whole filmmaking process. I think people are making films because it’s “cool”. Maybe it gives you things I am not interested in. If you look at it, there is no good reason to make a film. The economics of making a film are screwed. You work hard for two years, and it comes down to one weekend. One Friday opening. If it rains too hard, the thing is wiped out. No star is bankable today except for one or two names, and everyone can’t be making films with them. There’s all that pressure coming down to that one day in a make or break situation. Plus, you are so restricted from a censor point of view. You have to write a film thinking of what they are going to say seeing this, then you have to cater to an audience that comprises of very specific people who speak a certain kind of language, hoping to see a particular kind of thing. Why do indie films have such small audiences? Because people go to the theatre with a certain expectation to be … entertained. So all these factors make films a very bad proposition in India right now. In Hollywood too, films are getting really bad, and they are catering to twelve year olds. The good stuff is all on television, in the series. So I saw that this is not where I wanted to be. I would rather set a bar for good content for a democratic audience who can access it on different portals like their phones, anytime, anywhere they want, unlike TV and films. And it’s always there online. You can watch it multiple times. And it’s extremely low cost. And – no censorship! You don’t have to edit anything in their language. When we were making this, we had no audience in mind. Plus, Amazon wants to explore creating content across different genres. It’s not like that if Inside Edge worked, then they will encourage more shows like it. My next show with them is about gangsters in UP – “Mirzapur”. Same format, forty minutes. It’s completely desi, Tarantino style. There will be a lot of blood and gore in your face! People’s heads getting chopped off etc. I am not doing this for the thrill element, but at least, I have the freedom to write this story if it has such elements without compromising on anything. I am happy I am one of the first ones to have this opportunity.
Any particular challenges you faced while making this show?
Everything was a challenge! The cast was great, though. They all thought we were messing around. No one knew what was going to come out of it, including me. They thought it would be in the zone of earlier web series before it. Plus, when you’re shooting for it, it’s hard to figure out how it would come out.
And what was their reaction when they saw the final product?
They were ecstatic! Richa was amazed. Everyone was, actually. And the audience reaction every weekend – it’s like a new burst of appreciation.
From a layman’s point of view, how do you keep tab? Does Amazon give you the details regarding weekly viewership etc?
Not at all. That’s fully secret. But we had a success party, so I guess it’s doing well. And they commissioned a second season. We are working on another show, so obviously things are going okay.
Before this, web series were a very vague medium, especially for writers and producers for YouTube … do you think with the success of Inside Edge, the industry’s perspective might change wrt web series?
Yes, I think so. These are two different models here. On the one hand, you have Netflix Amazon which is the aggregator of content onto one platform which you pay for by . As opposed to YouTube which is free user generated content which is being paid for by advertising. So the content starts reflecting that too. A lot of YouTubers have a lot more plug-ins which is sometimes bothersome. At the same time, it gives anyone the freedom to make anything. You don’t need to have a big studio or cast backing you. And the best part is it’s all on merit. If it’s good, it will find its own audience. The only issue is the monetization model as you stated, which Amazon has a much clearer picture of.
But YouTube has its own censorship guidelines.
Yeah, it does.
And if you make adult content in terms of nudity, graphic sexuality, then apparently, you can’t monetize your channel or content in it.
Yeah, I guess we will have to take it one step at a time. My fight has always been against the idea of censorship. We should be allowed to do what we want to. But in YouTube, I can understand, because kids can access it very easily so that’s a legit concern. In the case of Amazon and other platforms, there’s better parental controls. Of course, kids should not be exposed to such content. Coming back to your question about Inside Edge’s impact, till now the gold standard for web series was TVF’s Pitchers which was a brilliant show. Its strength was in its writing and performances, but its scale was limited a bit due to YouTube’s restrictions. So that was the bar. Now Amazon has raised that bar to an international level. So here I was, thinking people would compare our show with Pitchers, but instead, people were like, “nahi, but it’s not House of Cards.” And I was like, screw you! (laughs) I knew that was going to happen!
But it’s still a pretty grand project to debut with on an unexplored medium.
Yeah, I think they also wanted to make a splash. But I think this is one of their smaller shows. More like a small experiment in terms of things to come. There are some big names coming up with new shows – like Zoya Akhtar, who I think is an amazing director. Kabir Khan is doing a show too. So those are the biggies.
And yet you found the time to write your novel in between all this.
Yeah, a lot of it was written before, but I did manage it eventually.
Could you tell us a bit about it?
It started off as a screenplay. But then I realized no one is going to touch it with a barge pole because of the current political climate. So this whole regime change, and the hard-lining government we have – that really affected my work. Suddenly, that film which was written before the BJP came to power was something else. Then, censorship came to power. The situation changed and it affected me and the film. So I realized this screenplay was not going to happen. I was writing a lot of crazy things in it. Thankfully, in the publishing industry, they still have some guts to put opinions out there.
And the relaxed censorship.
So these are two interesting mediums you are dabbling at, both with almost no censorship guidelines.
Yes, and that is my fight. Why should anyone be censored? I am fighting for that on a daily basis, to let people be free and have the freedom to say and consume what they want. I went to a place in Cuba, and it was odd because I had this impression of a dictatorship that’s been censored in a heavy manner. But once you go there, you realize the people have a lot of freedom. The media is restricted in a way, but there’s nothing you can’t access, it’s just a bit expensive if you want to access it through other means. And I found the people so much freer and happier compared to here. There was no crime, 100 % literacy, the women could do whatever they want, people walking the streets at 4 am. Indians are always closeted in some way. Here we have the opposite. We are developed, but we are not free. So what is the point?
And in the end, a final parting note or message for all our writers out there?
The time for writers is back. Especially in new and exciting mediums like web series. I, for one, am trying my best to ensure they get their due in terms of creative power and money. My next web series has two show runners which includes the writer of the show as well. However, we need to let go of this notion of films being the end-all medium for scriptwriters. I just don’t think it’s happening for now, and we need to let go of it. Maybe, you get an exception now and then, like Newton which seems very interesting, but overall, I think a shift in perception is needed. And I hope it happens soon.
Debashish is a Mumbai-based scriptwriter by profession, and now a novelist as well. He has written episodes for TV crime thrillers and youth-based shows like Dil Dosti Dance, Adaalat, Aahat, Webbed and Gumrah in addition to three novels for HarperCollins Publishers India.