Aranyak screenwriter Charudutt Acharya: ‘In web shows, there’s shift from shock value treatment to mature handling of subjects’

Writer of Netflix series Aranyak, Charudutt Acharya, talks about combining different genres for the show, creating the lead character of a working woman in small-town India.

Writer of Netflix series Aranyak, Charudutt Acharya, talks about combining different genres for the show, creating the lead character of a working woman in small-town India, and getting tongue-tied while pitching it to Raveena Tandon.

You came up with the idea for Aranyak during a visit to Himachal Pradesh. How much did geography, people, and culture contribute to the story?

The core idea for Aranyak came from an interesting meeting with a Himachal Pradesh police officer who had helped my family and me in a mini-crisis during a vacation. SHO Kasturi Dogra’s character is inspired by that officer. During the arduous ride to Rohtang, our young Himachali taxi driver was entertaining my kids, telling them about a mythical humanoid creature who lives atop the mountains. Later, laying down on the lawns of the Hidimba Temple, the cop, the creature, and a real-life case involving a foreign tourist (not in Himachal Pradesh) came together in a flash. I wrote a basic outline that evening itself.

After having worked as a television 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 over 20 television drama shows and four produced feature films. So, I was well-versed with these two mediums. My first web show 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 the audience to binge-watch a season. Using my learnings from my previous projects, I embarked upon Aranyak with some amount of resolve and ambition to give it my very best shot. Watching it come to life has indeed been a fulfilling experience.

You have scripted crime shows in the past. Did that experience come in handy while 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 one got an opportunity to read documents of each case. This exercise helped me in detailing the police procedure and structuring the unfolding of the investigation over the episodes. But Aranyak is not exactly a crime show. This gave me the opportunity to explore the personal lives of the cops. There was a hint of the supernatural too. Combining these three genres proved to be a challenge and great fun to attempt.

How are the concerns and grammar of a web series different from that of a television show?

The grammar of a fiction drama/thriller web series is closer to the weekly hourly TV drama/ television novella/mini-series shows than the daily half-hourly soap opera format. In the latter, the unfolding of the story and character development is done at a rather languid pace, spread over hundreds of episodes. But in a web series, the accelerated pace of storytelling is a key component, where a season is usually eight episodes long. Secondly, soaps operate on the familiarity of characters while web series thrive on unique/unfamiliar turns character arcs take. That apart, web series allows for more sub-plots and exploration of new worlds. Having said that, some of the best international shows (such as Downton Abbey, True Detective) we consume on OTT platforms were originally hour-long television drama shows, which we choose to binge-watch.

Did you tweak your script after the main cast was decided?

We had finished the entire writing process before actors were attached to the show. But when Raveena (Tandon) and Param (Parambrata Chatterjee) were finally locked, we as a core team sat and made some minor changes to the character playouts and the interplay between them to suit their personalities and the natural strong points. During our table readings, which mostly happened online, I would keep a straight face but gush inside when Raveena, Param, and other actors got the subtle subtext of dialogues and the scenes came to life. As an aside, I have been a huge Raveena fan. During our first meeting, I was tongue-tied for a few minutes as I pitched the series to her. Later on, I realized how hard she worked on the show and was invested in the story.

Can you throw some light on how you conceived the woman characters on the show?

As mentioned before, the central character, a female SHO, was based on a real-life cop I had encountered in Himachal Pradesh. What had struck me when I met her was that she was supervising her teen daughter’s school work in the station. The couple of hours that I spent with her made me want to tell a story with her as a protagonist. She had come up the hard way. She had domestic issues as well as gender issues at work. Despite all that, she was holding the fort. She wanted to see her daughter scale academic and professional heights. A sum total of her rootedness, unconventional ways, cultural pride, and strong ethical core helped in creating Kasturi Dogra (essayed by Tandon) – a working woman in small-town India, who has so many personal battles to fight to stake a claim for the professional big-ticket.

What about the other female characters?

The female politician Jagdamba Dhumal (Meghna Malik) is the other leading female character in the story. I didn’t want a typical unidimensional politician who happens to be a woman. I wanted a well-educated, articulate, dignified, and powerful woman who genuinely wanted to do good for her people but has to deal with the misdeeds of a wayward son and a patronizing mentor. While crafting this character, I drew from some real-life female politicians and corporate bosses.

Julie Baptise (Breshna Khan), the ‘bad mom’ was drawn from a real-life case of a drug-using British mother whose daughter went missing and was later found raped and killed at a popular tourist destination of India. The woman had faced a serious amount of judgmental flack and had remained in my subconscious for the longest. Aimee (Anna Ador) was inspired by the real victim in that case and the character of Nutan (Taneesha Joshi) was inspired by the thousands of small-town young girls with academic and professional ambitions.

What was your collaborative process with director Vinay Waikul?

My primary collaboration was with the co-producer, showrunner, long-term associate, and friend Rohan Sippy. The scripts were fairly developed when Vinay came on board. We did a final round of fine-tuning with Vinay. A brilliant mind that he is, there were some superb suggestions that came from his objective and analytical gaze. We had detailed discussions on all major characters, scenes, and plot points before we started locking stuff. Vinay has done a really good job in breathing life into the script, bringing out the best in the actors, and every department of filmmaking.

To what extent have the streaming video platforms changed the culture of writing, especially when it comes to Hindi shows and films?

Writing and making original content, specifically for streaming video platforms, has created a new system of writing. Firstly, there has emerged the entity of the ‘writers room’ and great stress on creating detailed ‘bibles’ of a show before embarking on screenplays. The writing process is far more structured. This discipline is definitely impacting television drama shows and movies too. It is mostly for the good, I would say. There are, however, pitfalls of this ‘overwriting ‘ and ‘over prepping’ during the development process. We are witnessing a gradual shift from ‘shock value’ treatment of cuss words, sex, and gore in shows towards more mature handling of varied subjects, keeping in mind a larger Indian sensibility.

The audience is given the impression that there would be another season of Aranyak.

Yes, there is a second season in the offing. We have a roadmap for the next season and we have already dropped some of the hints through the series, which have been more defined in the last few minutes of the final episode. Our producers and Netflix have already indicated in the media that the second season work has started.

In 2021, movies made in other Indian languages have outshone Hindi releases in terms of writing and quality. Is the Hindi entertainment industry lagging when it comes to pushing the boundary?

I wouldn’t say that. A couple of big-budget films not doing well is not an indicator of lack of experimentation and pushing boundaries. The pandemic times are exceptional times too. There is bound to be some amount of churning, introspection, a shift in tastes and styles, in both the makers and the audiences. I would just give both sides some time. Exciting and engaging content will surely hit the bullseye in Hindi too.

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