Chandan Kumar, Screenwriter, Panchayat: ‘Films definitely influence people’ - Hindustan Times

Chandan Kumar, Screenwriter, Panchayat: ‘Films definitely influence people’

ByMihir Chitre
Oct 14, 2022 06:12 PM IST

On building a world and developing characters, on how his life experience reflects in his work, defining the Indian sensibility, and the need to have every sort of film

How did the idea of Panchayat come up first?

Chandan Kumar (Courtesy the subject) PREMIUM
Chandan Kumar (Courtesy the subject)

The idea came to me in 2017. Though I started writing it in 2018. I was working at TVF (the OTT streaming service) where I worked on many sketches. Then came a point when I thought it was time to graduate to a longer format. So when they needed a second writer on Humorously Yours, I contributed to that as well. Then I thought of developing a show of my own. At the time, I was exploring the idea of an educated city guy going to a village for a job. Initially, I had thought of the protagonist as some kind of government officer. While I was researching this idea, I came across a YouTube video where someone was scolding the sachiv at a panchayat meeting. I found it very funny; I thougth this is so real! Some things are naturally funny and this was one of them. I bounced this panchayat setup idea with some people at the office who also found it interesting. I was acquainted with the sarpanchpati culture but before this I had never seen it as a world for a show. While I was exploring this idea, Arunab (Kumar) was also thinking of making a show set in rural India. So when I shared the idea, people in the office asked me to develop it. Initially, the character of Abhishek, played by Jeetu (Jeetendra Kumar) was not a panchayat sachiv but the overall graph and the spirit of the story has always remained the same.

Does any of Panchayat come from your life experience?

It doesn’t come from direct life experience. My parents were not in a panchayat or anything but some family members did hold positions in our village ward. Since I have grown up in Patna district, I had an idea of these things. I went to school and college in Patna city but my family lived in a village close by and that’s where I grew up. With an upbringing like that, you do have an idea of these things. You know, when you write a scene, you think of your own village, that you’re walking down a street, and what you see around you. And this is such a common setup thankfully, that when we went for the recce, we found it easily. Of course, at the end of the day, this is fiction so we created it.

An aerial view of JP roundabout in Patna (Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times)
An aerial view of JP roundabout in Patna (Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times)

What do you think makes Panchayat stand out among Indian OTT shows?

When you start writing any show, the first thing you do is to construct the world. And the world gets made after a point. The trickier part is to decide the conflicts in that world. I was aware that there has been a Swades and many other films and some international shows that are in a similar world; stories that have explored going to the countryside. So I was very keen on keeping the episodic conflicts fresh. I didn’t want anyone thinking that “Arre yaar, this is like a copy of Swades”. I was very clear that first and foremost, my show should be fun. It should be entertaining. And all the social commentary has to be in the subtext. If you look at it, there is a lot of social commentary in the show but I have consciously tried to conceal it behind the foreground of humour and entertainment. I believe in doing that. For instance, if I were writing a story about de-addiction, I wouldn’t necessarily have to show a deprived kid who is being beaten up by his alcoholic father. There is a section in Panchayat where a man who is running a de-addiction programme is himself drunk. So there is no social commentary up front; it is in the subtext.

What’s your process of writing?

I take my time to build the world and write my characters. I don’t like to rush things. If you’re writing eight to 10 episodes, you need to take your time to think through stuff. I am a very firm believer of the fact that if something goes wrong on paper then it is very difficult, almost impossible, to fix it at the shoot or in any other stage of filmmaking. The medium is very unpredictable anyway. Getting something right on paper is getting 50% of the show right. So I took my time to design the episodic conflicts, to decide how the story plays out over so many episodes, and which threads to connect where. I think I took around two to three months in 2017 when I had the idea for the show. Then, when I actually started writing in 2018, I took around nine months to have the first draft of each episode ready. After that, fine tuning the draft is a process that is ongoing till the shoot is done.

You are the only writer on Panchayat although many people prefer having multiple writers on a show. Where do you stand on writing in collaboration?

Collaborative writing is great. In the case of Panchayat, it just so happened that I managed the whole writing by myself. If you look at it, it’s not as though I had to write 600 pages! Thankfully, the episodes were short. But if one is to write 10 episodes of, say, 50 minutes each, like it happens on some other shows, it might be very difficult to do that alone. Another thing that collaborative writing helps in is in scaling up the project. Overall, I think, collaborative writing is great and I am up for it.

A scene from Panchayat Season 1 (Show still)
A scene from Panchayat Season 1 (Show still)

How did the second season of Panchayat happen?

When I wrote the first season, obviously, the focus was on the first season. But honestly, since the time I had this idea, I had a feeling that this wouldn’t be a one-time thing and could last long. If you noticed, there already are a few threads that were left hanging in the first season. Rinki going to the tank or Manu Devi carrying the flag in a symbolic way to suggest that even she might start having a say and not just Pradhanji and some others. Of course, the second season was not fully thought out in advance. But after the first season, when I started working on the second one, I picked up from the hanging threads and developed the story from there. Some ideas like the character of Bhushan was thought of after writing season 1.

What was your childhood like and how did writing begin for you?

Honestly, I was never keen on writing when I was younger. I lived a normal student life in school. I played a lot, hung out with friends, studied when the exams neared and fared well. In the 10th standard, I concentrated more and got good marks. I thought I’d study engineering. In the 12th standard, I did not do too well so my IIT dream never materialised. I left Patna to study at an engineering college in Dehradun called ICFAI University. It was a private university and the fees were on the higher side so all through engineering I had one major objective that I should get out of this college with a job in hand. Luckily, in my fourth year, some good companies came to college for placements and I got a job with an IT company in Bhubaneswar. After working there for some time, I started thinking seriously about what exactly it was that I wanted to do in life. Not that I had an answer. But in those days, in 2011-12, there was a website called Faking News. As a pastime, I started sending articles to them and they started publishing me. I used to only do this on weekends for fun and did not get paid for writing at all but it was great to see myself published on a website like Faking News. So I got more regular. And when your friends see you published, you also get the validation that you seek. At that time, all my friends were thinking of an MBA or a Masters in Technology and all that. I thought that it was time for me to decide if I wanted to stay in tech or move into something else. Since this Faking News writing was happening and I had started finding it interesting, I was keen on writing. At that time, I thought I’d get into advertising and try my hand at copywriting. But then I realised that was no money in copywriting. That was a turn-off because for me it was very important that I earn some money regularly. I didn’t want to break the flow of money that I was getting from my engineering job. Luckily, around that time, Faking News was acquired by Network 18 and then they had a couple of job vacancies. Since I was a contributor, they offered me a full time job. All I needed was that they match my salary, which they happily did. That’s how I moved to Mumbai in 2013. I told myself that I would give writing a try to for about a year or two and if I didn’t find it interesting, I would go back to my tech job. The first six months in Mumbai were really difficult -- being a professional writer in a new city, the process of settling in. But then I started liking it and in 2015, I decided that I would make a career out of writing and that I should also get into screenwriting. By that time, I was already following TVF as an organisation and their shows. One day, I came across a vacancy there. I applied and got through.

Bihar is not as prosperous as many other parts of the country or the metro cities. I come from a middle class family in Bihar but maybe a middle-class family in Bihar would be called a lower-middle-class family in Delhi so there are many differences like that. When you grow up there, you also get to experience and hear a lot of negative things around you, which affects you. At the same time, I am not saying that everyone there is living a terrible life. People there have their own pace and momentum. But yes, I came from a background like that. All through this, I think my family had faith that I would do something worthwhile in life. They knew I would not turn out to be completely useless even if I took some risks or failed a couple of times.

One thing worth mentioning here is that somewhere the protagonist of Panchayat, who is a dissatisfied guy always thinking that he is going to get out of where he is, has a lot to do with where I was in life after engineering. So, to add to one of my previous answers about some parts of Panchayat coming from life experience, this is certainly one aspect that did.

A family watching TV. (HT Photo)
A family watching TV. (HT Photo)

What’s your take on other Indian OTT shows?

I think the best thing that is coming out of the OTT scene is that everyone is getting to express themselves. There may be 75 mistakes and not everything will be great but that is precisely the point. Whatever you understand and you think is right can be done now, which I think is a phenomenal space to be in. The nature of this work is experimental and OTT is providing people with a platform to experiment. For example, I wrote Panchayat but before this I was writing whatever I could understand on the TVF YouTube channel. You may hit it big or may learn from your mistakes but it gives you a chance to assess yourself and your ability. You get a sense of what you can do and cannot. The audience may praise you or thrash you but you get to try, you get to experiment. And you get a report card from the audience, which without OTT, you would never get. If you don’t have a budget, you make it on YouTube; if you get a bigger budget, you may make it on bigger platforms. I think, overall, it’s a fascinating time. I also believe very strongly that as more and more talent comes in, things will filter out and the overall quality of Indian shows will get better.

Most Indian shows don’t really cater to my sensibility. There aren’t many shows that I have liked a lot. I liked Family Man, I also liked Patal Lok. And there may be a few others too. Scam 92, for instance, is good. But, overall, the number of good shows is small.

Some creators blame the Indian audience for the general lack of quality. Where do you stand on this?

I think the audience owes you nothing. They have neither an affinity for you, nor a rivalry with you. The audience doesn’t even know you. Especially if you are behind the camera. Who knows us? Why would they hold a grudge against you? If they had to have a grudge against someone, they would have it against Salman Khan or Shah Rukh Khan. You, as a writer, are a nobody. As creators, we should try and make a palatable story and stop blaming the audience. Okay, we don’t have a European sensibility in this country. So what now? What’s the point of cribbing about it? At the end of the day, you make a story for the audience. It’s your job to understand the Indian sensibility and make a story accordingly. I wrote Panchayat and thankfully the audience liked it. Maybe tomorrow I will write something that they don’t understand and they might thrash me. It’s all part of the trade. That doesn’t mean I will start blaming the audience. I will tell myself that maybe the audience didn’t feel anything, they didn’t have fun. It would be my failure, not theirs. Imagine making a comedy and nobody finding it funny or making a horror film and nobody getting scared. I think it’s the creator’s failure. Also, I think, if you can understand these things and write something rooted and real, the audience will like it. It’s not as complicated as people make it out to be.

You mentioned “The Indian sensibility.” What is the Indian sensibility according to you?

Well, let me give you an example of two shows – Friends and Seinfeld. Seinfeld is more highly rated but Friends is more popular in India. I think it’s because Friends has a little bit of family, romance and those aspects whereas Seinfeld is more in the space of dry humour. I think emotions appeal more to the Indian audience. Also, I think, in India, people like things a little bit direct. If you get too subtle or too obtuse, it might be an issue. I would say just a little bit of spoon feeding, too, is required sometimes. In India, you are addressing big numbers, really big numbers. And you must keep in mind that everybody is not as much into content or films or shows as you are. It’s not that everybody in your audience is watching two shows a week. Many people watch something because they heard about a show from someone and they sample an episode or two. If they think the show is too high-concept or something that they have to struggle to understand, they’re surely going to move on to another one. That’s what I understand about the Indian audience and the Indian sensibility.

On the age-old conflict between making something for the masses and making something for yourself, where do you stand as a writer?

My attempt is to lie somewhere between mass appreciation and critical acclaim. I want to be on the border of the two. I would obviously like to retain some sophistication but only enough that it doesn’t go beyond the reach of the masses. Consider some successful projects: Dangal, for instance, is a huge hit among the masses and it is critically acclaimed as well. I think not just me but everyone would have the same goal. However much people might say that they are only making something for the audience, everybody likes a little bit of critical acclaim. The reverse is also true. After all, who doesn’t like praise?

For outsiders, this industry is synonymous with struggling. Tell me a little bit about your struggle as a writer.

I think the struggle is different for everyone as everyone’s journeys are different and unique in their own right. You can’t fit everyone in one bracket. Thankfully, I didn’t have to see days when I had no money and had to sleep on the streets. Because in my case, I was switching from one job to another. From my tech job, I switched to Faking News and from Faking News, I switched to TVF for a full-time job. So I was always getting a salary and I could afford to live a basic life in Mumbai. Now that is about the monetary aspect. The other aspect is to gain confidence and fit in to a new system. I think a lot of people have to struggle hard to earn other people’s trust. In the beginning, you have no work released so people don’t trust you easily. Once you have a release and in case if it flops, people won’t trust you with the next one. In case it succeeds, people will give you more work. Most people get stuck in this trap. People don’t understand where to start from, whom to pitch an idea to. Most studios have their inboxes filled with scripts and concept ideas and some new writers just don’t get a chance to start working. Where I was lucky is that I was already a part of a set system which was TVF. When I joined in 2015, there already was a team of good, hardworking people established at the company. Their first sketch came out in 2012. Biswa (Biswapati Sarkar), Golu (Amit Golani), Arunab (Kumar), Mishra (Deepak Kumar Mishra) and many others together made an excellent and clear-headed team. One of their shows, Permanent Roommates, had already come out. And since I thankfully got be part of a running system like that, I got the chance to do my experiments. I started small, of course, and wrote 5 to 7 minute sketches initially but my work immediately started coming out. I was really lucky that I did not have to go through a phase where I was writing pages after pages and nobody was reading them.

Do you think films can change the world?

I think films definitely influence people. When you are travelling on a bus and you listen to your favourite film song, it does affect your mood. Films can and do make people good, bad, sad, angry. They do affect people’s emotions. However, I am not sure of how much actual change they bring about. For instance, Rang De Basanti was a huge success. But did people actually start revolting against the government or corruption after watching it? I doubt films can actually bring about an on-ground change. And honestly, I am fine with that. A person cannot change his life after watching a film.

Do you think that every screenwriter has to take a political stance through his work?

I am afraid, I don’t think so. I mean, every writer has a political point of view whether he expresses it or not. But there cannot be a rule like that for sure. It’s not physics where someone can say force is equal to mass multiplied by acceleration. If you think that in a particular show, you just need to do nonsense, you should be allowed to. That is the most fun part of this medium. Anyone can do whatever they want to. If we started having rules like this, everything would start looking the same and that’s not fun. You want every flavour. You want a DDLJ to be there and a Lagaan to be there as well.

What are your favourite films, shows, writers and filmmakers?

If we speak about the Hindi film industry, I like films that are called massy and good. I would say films like Lagan, Rang De Basanti. Even Gadar and Mohabbatein. I like Veer Zara as well. I like all these films and this is what I had seen earlier. But you know, eventually, when I started watching films by people like (Anurag) Kashyap, I started liking those as well. When I watched Gangs of Wasseypur, I was floored. I was already excited because it was set in Dhanbad, which is in Bihar. That’s when I realised that if you have some fun with your work, you can make some good stuff. Then, after that, I started watching Hollywood and American shows as well. I liked Breaking Bad, Friends, Seinfeld a lot. I think Breaking Bad is one of my favourite shows. I also like Game of Thrones a lot except for the last couple of seasons. Another show I love is The Wire. I did not like it initially because I was not a very mature watcher but then I started loving it. Then, I watched and loved many Tarantino films, Scorsese films, Spielberg films.

Is there a show that makes you jealous?

Breaking Bad for sure. And also Sopranos. In India, I think when I watched The Family Man, I thought it was such a nice setup that how could we miss it! On one hand, in his life, is a family story happening and on the other, a thread of crime. I think the setup is so ripe that, on one hand, you can do comedy or deadpan stuff and on the other, you can do high-drama stuff; and in both cases the audience sticks with you. That’s why I like Family Man so much.

If you got 100 crore rupees in your account tomorrow, what would you make?

I think an epic or a period drama. Something like The Gladiator perhaps. I am interested in exploring how the world was around a thousand or a thousand five hundred years ago. Today, we have a society and some order to things but in those days a tribe would just attack another for food and basic needs – it was very normal then. That animal instinct and the quest for survival is something I would love to explore. The very primal nature of human beings.

Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.

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