Aranyak, a Netflix crime series, takes place at a cold and picturesque hill station in North India. When the dead body of a teenage French tourist is found hanging from a tree, the subsequent investigation reveals a devious cover-up. The eight-episode procedural follows two police officers from different backgrounds who leave no stone unturned while tracking down the killer. I recently spoke with Aranyak screenwriter Charudutt Acharya about his creative process.
Dipankar Sarkar: How did the idea of an atmospheric crime thriller, set in the hills of North India with an urban legend character, occur to you?
Charudutt Acharya: The show [Aranyak] was born out of the character of a police inspector I had met in Himachal Pradesh during a family vacation a few years ago. What had struck me was that she was taking up her teen daughter’s school work in the station when my family and I had landed there with a complaint against a certain group of rogue ghoda walla [horse-pullers]. The couple of hours that I spent with her made me want to tell a story with her as a lead. She had come up the hard way. She had domestic issues that she discussed with my wife. She had also faced gender issues at work, and despite all of that, she was holding the fort. She had ambition and wisdom, some humor, and she was graceful too. A sum total of her rootedness, unconventional ways, cultural pride, strong ethical core — all of that helped in creating Kasturi Dogra (Raveena 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. Then, during the arduous ride to Rohtang, our young Himachali taxi driver was entertaining my kids and telling them about a made-up mythical humanoid creature who lives in the forests atop the mountains. Later, [while] laying down on the lawns of the Hidimba Devi Temple, looking up at the beautiful trees, the cop, the creature and a real-life case involving a foreign tourist — not in Himachal — suddenly came together in a flash, and I wrote a basic outline that evening. I clearly knew that this was entering into a mixed genre space, but I just let myself flow.
DS: Did any particular literary work or web series influence your style of structuring Aranyak?
CA: I say with some amount of embarrassment that I have hardly read any books in my entire life. Nor have I voraciously consumed films, TV or OTT content. But yes, I have seen [a few recent OTT shows] from an academic point of view to understand the emerging grammar of storytelling, which is distinct from the two-hour movie format and the daily soap TV format. Again, while it is closest to the weekly one-hour drama, it is still different, as the entire aim of OTT writing is to get audiences to commit to a binge-watch for a couple of hours at least. And that, for now, substantially contributes to structuring and overall storytelling.
DS: The world of Aranyak is filled with several characters belonging to a different strata of society, and most of them have a troubling past or hidden skeleton in their closets. So, as you developed one episode after the other, what was your process of mapping the arc of these characters to move the Aranyak plot forward?
CA: I have a process that I mostly follow. Once I have thought of a basic plot for the story, I write it down in a page or two. Then I write down brief character notes for all the stakeholders in the plot. I also write down a crisis they would be facing that does not seem related to the plot, but eventually it does in some tangential and interesting way. Then I divide the story into the number of episodes and decide the beginning and dramatic hook end of each episode. And then I first write the central characters’ trajectory from one point of the episode to the endpoint — both professional and personal — and then ask myself, “What and where are my B, C, D and E plot characters? What should be happening in their lives now?” And accordingly, [I] start writing them in.
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DS: There’s a sharp contrast between Angad (Parambrata Chatterjee) and Kasturi. What was the reason behind constructing the latter as an Aranyak character who is not very fluent in the English language?
CA: The contrast was a big city versus a small town one which is inherent to the story. The reason for Kasturi’s not so good English also came from a very practical reality in our country where many officer level policemen and women who have risen from the ranks and come from vernacular backgrounds are not fluent in English. But in no way does it lessen their intelligence [or their] professional, social [and] emotional positioning. Poor English was an organically available tool for me to portray her professional insecurity, which actually is unnecessary, but that is how things are.
DS: When Angad turns up with Julie Baptiste (Breshna Khan) at Kasuri’s house for dinner, I was expecting some sort of confrontation or exposition. But nothing as such happens. What was the purpose of the sequence in Aranyak?
CA: Julie was technically already off the red tick mark list. She was more of a victim. Then Kasturi had also realized that this was a woman who had lost her daughter and somewhere empathized with her. So, there was no reason for a sudden flare-up from Kasturi’s end. She is far more understanding and gracious than that. Also, the purpose of the sequence was to show a growing friendship on a personal level between the two main leads, to seed in the jealousy factor in her husband’s mind, [to] show some connections between the kids and Angad and also the last punch line of “Is aurat mein khot hai” (“This lady is suspicious”) by Mahadev to bring Julie once again in the radar of suspicion. So, the sequence had different purposes to fulfill.
DS: Retired Sergeant Mahadev (Ashutosh Rana) is an amnesiac, and yet he has the acumen to solve a murder mystery. What were the traits you had in mind while shaping his character for Aranyak?
CA: Let me admit, I went a bit wrong here. I started off with him being a bit more amnesiac than he should have been. And then I seemed to have amnesia about his amnesia! And then there was also a little lost in translation from page to screen. But having said that, I wanted him to be a man who is just on the edge of reality, memory and fantasy, which are all blurred by years of pot smoking. I wanted him to have an almost prophetic vision and insight — he would on the surface seem magical but actually would be rooted in years of policing practice that had sharpened his intuitive powers. Also, I wanted him to have a strong affectionate and protective aspect about him with respect to Kasturi, whom he is super proud of and loves dearly.
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DS: Jagdamba Dumal (Meghna Malik), Ashok Srivastav (Lalit Parimoo) and Kuber Manhas (Zakhir Hussain) are parents trying to protect their children from harm and danger. But in the process, they adopt measures that pull them into the dregs of wrongdoings. How would you like to comment on the morality of these Aranyak characters?
CA: This series, while being a whodunnit, is also a drama series about human relationships. One has consciously tried to explore the flexibility of the human moral compass when it comes to loved ones and kith and kin. And parenting is a strong theme that I have woven into the story because, for me, good guys and bad guys are also regular guys. And regular people have emotional lives, weaknesses, strengths and soft spots. I find it interesting when the bad guys especially have compulsions and limitations that often are reserved only for the good guys, and vice versa to take the good guys into darker terrains which cross over to the morally disputable zones. This gives dark characters more dignity and at the same time challenges morally upright characters. And these mini tsunamis of internal conflicts add a rich layer to the larger outer conflict and give us unexpected and unique plot points driven by the needs and natures of characters.
DS: Aranyak has an open ending that paves the way for the next season. Did you have the ending in your mind while you began writing or did it develop at a later stage?
CA: The ending of [Aranyak] season 1 was decided at the outline stage itself and did not come in as a later thought. We were quite clear [about the] season 1 story and what clues we [were] leaving behind for the audience to prepare them for [Aranyak] season 2.
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DS: What are your thoughts on the current trend of booming OTT platforms for providing avenues to tell alternate and niche content within the Indian entertainment industry?
CA: I am a bit weary of terms like “alternate” and “niche.” I come from mainstream movies and television where stories reaching out to the maximum number of the intended audience and receiving their appreciation is the biggest high of being in this business of entertainment and audiovisual storytelling. In context to the humongous film and television industry and audience we have, the OTT space has been one where we have seen a sort of overdosage of expletives and depiction of explicit sex scenes. While this approach did get some eyeballs of the youth, it has alienated huge chunks of audiences by the millions. But I know a lot of people who were watching television serials and regular mainstream movies are not averse to trying out web content, provided they get something to watch without cringing and sensing the pointlessness of sex and violence much early into a series and switching off. I feel the need of the hour is for both the OTT platforms and makers to stop looking westwards for stories, treatments, world views, and try to fit them into an Indian context. Rather we must focus on learning structuring skills, better execution and better post-production skills from the west to tell uniquely Indian stories that a larger number of people can identify with. We need to have some pride and love for our own selves, our stories, our society and culture, our aesthetics and our audiences who are a huge blessing for us. Then we shall definitely have better content and that content shall also cross over, which will be an added bonus.
DS: Since you have written screenplays for films, television and web series, how different do you find each of these mediums from one another?
CA: I believe writing for OTT is developing a completely new grammar that is evolving rapidly every few months. Television in a daily format [soap operas] have their own grammar. It’s the same with cinema too, it has a two-hour long grammar. With weekly shows on television, there’s no concept of binge-watching. You have to wait a week for the next episode, so that too follows its own format. In the OTT space, the primary target is to get the audience to invest a weekend for binge-watching. For shows made directly for OTT, there’s a larger scope to tell multiple stories, and if balanced correctly, one can mix genres too. It is an open and level playing field as far as the craft of storytelling goes. But yes, the fear of overpacking or spreading thin layers of a story and creating a mishmash is also high. In my understanding, the route to take is to make sure the subplots stay connected to the main story, just enough to keep the audience oriented. And then go ahead and create unique worlds that are also unifying. It’s also a good space to create more real, honest characters, which again helps in keeping the audience connected. It’s an exciting time to be in this space. The challenge is to figure out how we can make a compelling emotional drama that can hold an audience’s attention.
DS: Lastly, what are you currently busy with? Do you have any projects that you would like to direct?
CA: Currently, I am working on an OTT show as a writer on hire, working on a producer’s story idea. I should be done with it in a couple of months. After that, I hope to take a short break and then start work on a couple of spec OTT ideas that I want to develop to pitch worthiness and then take them around to producers and platforms. There is also a pending fiction book that needs to be finished this year. Post that, I do want to venture into directing one of my pet OTT projects that I have nurtured for a long time. So, fingers crossed!
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.