The web is in a more real place as compared to TV – Saurabh Tewari
With the launch of his web series Chinese Bhasad, former television writer Saurabh Tewari makes the big crossover into the new medium. In his new foray into the digital space with Viacom18’s newly launched digital platform VOOT, Saurabh experiments with humour to do with the dynamics between Indians and the Chinese, based on a real story from his personal life. His protagonist, the grandson of a staunch army man, decides to marry a Chinese girl, leading to much commotion and ‘bhasad’ or happy chaos, that Indians are all too familiar with.
We speak to him about humour writing and the differences between television and web, to which he has some incredibly nuanced insights.
Tell us a little bit about how you came up with the name Chinese Bhasad and the addition of those characteristic Lucknow flavours to the web series. What are your biggest inspirations behind the story?
The idea originated from an incident that happened about six years ago. My brother, who is based in Singapore, decided to marry a girl who happened to be Chinese. My mother had a very strong take on the marriage, as with most conservative Indian families, and it was quite a shock to her, but she eventually took it in a very positive manner. A lot of things happened during the wedding, and while a lot of Chinese Bhasad is fictionalised, I’d say about 30-40% has been based on real life incidents surrounding this.
I’m from Lucknow, and all the flavours, when it comes to the language and style, came very naturally since the web series is based there.
How did you finally decide that it would make for a better web series, than a feature film?
Each medium has its own distinct parameters, and the original idea was to make a feature film. Making a film is a very time-consuming process, and while I was trying to put the whole thing together, I met the VOOT team and shared the story with them. At that point they told me about the new digital platform they were launching and asked if I’d like to be a part of it. It was all quite an organic process, and since many of the people working there were friends of mine, we ended up having candid conversations on how to develop this further.
One thing that I really like about the web space is how content stays there, unlike television, where content comes and goes. If a film releases on Friday, its commercial success is immediately quantifiable according to its box office results. With web, it’s very different as it takes two to three months for the audience reactions to really reflect.
What would you say is the core difference between a TV series vs web series?
The biggest difference between web and TV is that the web is in a more real place. If you remember about 15 years ago, there were shows like ‘Astitva’ and ‘Hasratein’, which had very real characters and storylines. Then there came a point when we started creating fictitious, larger-than-life characters, and it became extremely unreal. From a director’s point of view, the difference is very stark – from the camerawork, to how characters sit together in a hall and discuss the issue, after which the reactions are filmed. It’s very far from reality.
Web is creating its own niche audience. My biggest issue with web is the distribution; I don’t think the content will be an issue at all. It’s about how it can grow in a sustainable way, it’s about how easily and inexpensively this content is made available. The day your rickshawallah is able to sit one afternoon while resting and stream a show without it being too expensive, or taking too much time to buffer, is the day we know that digital has figured out its distribution challenge. Connectivity is the biggest challenge, from a long-term point of view. We are a country of masses, and we need to cater to their needs and financial parameters.
From directing television serials to a more free medium like the web, how does that make things easier for you?
I think the biggest difference is that the web space gives you a lot more space to experiment with content, which makes it exciting. One thing I really don’t appreciate about web is the misconception that since it’s up on the web, it’s expected to be more ‘adult’. Since you have the liberty to depict abusive language or sex, a lot of content creators assume that that’s what will be used to attract eyeballs. That’s a general perception I really don’t appreciate, and don’t agree with at all.
Barring good content like TVF’s ‘Pitchers’ or ‘Permanent Roommates’, that didn’t use these gimmicks, there’s a lot of clutter out there that propagates this idea. So we tried our best to keep our content family-oriented, because I don’t think it’s necessary to exploit these kind of freedoms just because they’re available to you.
Many of the storylines on TV shows still seem to be quite regressive, why do you think is that the case?
I think that television is able to reach the interiors of the country. The fragmentation of the audience has clearly started. For people staying in metros, they’re very caught up with their own hectic lives, and it’s impossible to return home in time to catch the launch of one TV series or another. They want to watch it at their own convenience.
The entire television viewing pattern is turning to a lower segment market, and while 90% of television content is fiction, 10% is non-fiction. The success ratio of all of these is barely 5%, so I think to a certain extent, we are in denial about the success of television. Why do you think is the digital space exploding as a market? That’s why companies like TVF and AIB have created such strong brands of their own. People don’t want regressive content prevalent on television anymore.
In the next 5 years, there are going to be some major changes when it comes to digital.
You’ve shot Chinese Bhasad only on live locations and no ‘created sets’ – what were the highlights and challenges surrounding these?
In the climax of a scene, there is a character called Doctor Chowsen who has to run through the streets of Lucknow in nothing but his shorts, and the actor is the guy who played Priyanka Chopra’s trainer in Mary Kom. People in Lucknow recognised him, so we had to have a bike that would whisk him away every time it got really chaotic (laugh). We’d return in about half an hour to shoot again. We also had actors like Yashpal Sharma, so although there was a lot of interest, but the Lucknow crowd and administration were both very co-operative overall so we never faced any law and order issues.
Another funny part was when we had to shoot with a pig, so that was really challenging as well because – how do you control a pig? (laughs)
How much of a say did you have in the casting process, and how did you go about it?
All the decisions we took on the show were mutual. There was a lot of understanding and respect, we received and gave a lot of creative freedom, and we had no issues, really. They had some fantastic suggestions and inputs, and provided me with the objectivity that you need sometimes when you get too involved in your own story. That was really important, and we managed to strike a very good balance.
When it comes to the humour in the series, were there any lines you didn’t want to cross? Jokes about race are a very touchy topic today, how did you go about writing the script?
We were really clear that we didn’t want to offend anyone, or to hurt anyone’s sentiments. Having said that, Indians are quite racist as a lot and we wanted to portray the kind of humour that was not in bad taste. As a storyteller, I should have the right to depict the Indo-China relationship in an entertaining form. People have misinterpreted it before, asking why we chose to insult people from the North-East, just because the main character introduces his wife as being from Tawang, on the Indo-China border.
I mean, I made a web series based on my brother and father… people really need to learn how to take a joke. In the US, they have films on the White House, the President and on other issues which are more than tolerated. I hope we reach a point where we can get there too, instead of just debating on intolerance.
What was it like working with Amit Trivedi on the music for the series? And what was the brief given to him?
It was a great experience. The VOOT team was mostly interacting with him, and the brief was mainly that the music needs to have a ‘bhasad’ or the sense of a happy chaos in it, in line with the story. I think the tracks work fabulously with the content, and really add to it as well.
What have the reactions to the series been like ever since you went live?
Since with web, the reactions grow with time, I’d like to give it a little more time before I say anything for sure. Three episodes have gone live, and it’s been good so far. There are a total of seven episodes; the fourth will be up any time now, and the rest should be up in the next 2-3 weeks.