Making Fraaandship with Nupur Asthanaby Aparajita Krishna April 14 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 17 mins, 20 secs
Aparajita Krishna explores love, relationships, friendships, feminism and more in the interview with writer, director Nupur Asthana who’s been setting benchmarks for women creators in the world of entertainment for some years now.
Nupur Asthana quipped, 'Hope I sound intelligent and coherent’.
Here is my talk with film, television and web-series director-writer, Nupur Asthana, whose work profile has steadily grown from strength to strength. Her work has unintentionally come to define the youngistan of urban India’s entertainment-fare. Her television serials and web-series did in their own way challenge the traditional status quo. From being an apprentice to film director Ketan Mehta, to working with Yash Raj Films and Television (YRF), to helming independent directorial ventures across platforms, Nupur has today carved a place for herself. To her ‘Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge’ talk herein we say ‘Hip Hip Hurray’! And cheers with ‘Four more Shots please!’
Give one a little brief on your familial background.
I was born in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, where my paternal grandparents lived. My parents had gone there for my delivery, and after my birth we went back to Calcutta where my father worked. We had a large extended family in Calcutta in those days, all living close by in the same area. We lived there till I was about 14 and then we moved to Hyderabad where my father had taken up a new job. Then by the time I finished my schooling my father joined a different company in Delhi and we all moved again. I was quite thrilled actually to move to Delhi for college, since Delhi University had a great reputation and academic record.
Were movies, theatre, cultural activity an active part of your childhood and growing-up years?
Music, literature and films surrounded me - my father was a big influence. He was crazy about classical as well as pop music and we used to listen to a lot of everything in our house on our record player. He used to attend live concerts and shows by Indian classical musicians to which I went a few times and remember being brought back early by my mother while he would stay till the end. I had a number of uncles and aunts in Calcutta who introduced me to rock and metal while my mother loved watching films.
My father and my aunt were taking French classes on the weekends and I remember going to Alliance Française to watch several French films with them. I grew up on a mixed diet of Bengali, Hindi and Hollywood films that we would watch in theatres and on our B&W TV. Our film-watching behavior was all encompassing and without judgment - we went from Satyajit Ray to Manmohan Desai to James Bond with great ease and enthusiasm.
Watching a film was usually a family experience, either ten people going to the theatre together or huddled around the TV on Sundays. Sports were also a big deal for us as a family. We attended several cricket matches at Eden Gardens. I was selected for district level training for badminton and swimming, but gave both up when I fell prey to jaundice. Our swimming training used to be held in the Calcutta Lake, which did me in I guess.
At Lady Shri Ram College (LSR), Delhi, you were actively involved in dramatics and headed the dramatics society. Obviously that must have been your first serious connection with the performing arts. Do recall what stays in your memory.
I actually started directing much earlier. Us kids, in the 'pada' (neighborhood), got together to stage fairytales for our parents. Our stage was the terrace, and we pulled out chairs from all our houses.
We would collect money to get us the participant-prizes (usually some pencils/erasers/toffees). I would end up playing roles like Rumpelstiltskin, Ugly sister, Wolf, Dwarf etc., but I also ended up bossing everyone around, giving instructions as to where a character should enter from, where she should sit, talk (we wrote our own lines)!
No one protested and I guess I just carried on. In school (11th & 12th grades) I directed and acted in plays like George Bernard Shaw's Arms & The Man and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. So, by the time I got to LSR, it was a natural progression for me to get actively involved in Dramatics and I ended up heading the Dramatic Society as well. I acted, directed and produced plays regularly through the three years of college. We participated in College Festivals in Delhi University and across the country, won some prizes and had a blast travelling together as a team. BITS Pilani and IIT Bombay were our favorites since the rock music competitions here attracted great bands.
When did you touch Bombay’s shores as a settler? What was the first assignment you partook in?
I came to Bombay to do my Post Graduation in Mass Communication at Sophia Polytechnic. Interestingly about six of us descended together from LSR and we all looked out for each other in a new city.
You assisted Ketan Mehta and were the chief AD on the film Aar Ya Paar (1997). You also dubbed for Kamal Sidhu. Tell us about the learning experience.
Ketan was a wonderful teacher and mentor and I worked with him for three and a half years. To watch a master at his craft was an invaluable experience and Ketan was really my film school. I remember in the early days every time he would go off for a meeting, he would give me a task - write an x scene, or do shot breakdowns for y scene etc. Then he would come back and discuss what I had written, rather kindly I must say! His discipline, his focus, his respect for his craft, these were all very inspiring qualities and I like to think I've imbibed them from him.
Ketan had tried out several voices for Kamal Sidhu but ultimately decided on me - I used to rehearse her lines with her and I guess he had heard me often. So yeah, that was a first for me, and a lot of fun to be a dubbing artist for a lead character in a film I had worked on.
You debuted as an independent writer-director with TV serial Hip Hip Hurray on Zee. It was telecast in 1998 and ran till 2001 covering 80 episodes. As a youthful, school-student oriented serial focusing on their 12th grade adventures, fears, hopes, relationships; it did become a cult Hindi serial. The young actors therein like Purab Kohli, Shweta Salve, Kishwar Merchant, Suchitra Pillai, Zafar Karachiwala, Vinay Shukla, Achint Kaur, to name some, went on to later become marked actors. Tell us of your nostalgia about this serial and any anecdote/s that stay in memory.
I created Hip Hip Hurray when I was still in my 20s. I had never directed independently on screen before this but my producer Zarina Mehta loved my scripts and instantly supported me. It was quite a gamble for her to take, and I will always be grateful to her for listening patiently to this 26-year-old’s narration and then instantly deciding to back the vision. I don't think I had a life beyond HHH for two years. It was an insanely hectic time when I was writing, shooting, editing, dubbing, and working on music/mix. While it was being aired, I had no idea that it was so popular. I mean, there was no social media at the time. But the word of mouth was incredible. And then of course later, I kind of realized how much of an effect it had had on teens and contemporary culture, and it shocks me sometimes today when people in their 20s/30s start off a conversation with something about how HHH was an integral part of their childhood with me. Feels good but definitely makes me feel like a bit of a fossil! All the 'kids' now are grown up and doing their thing. The cast and crew bond is so special and long lasting that we still meet every 2-3 years for a reunion. We communicate constantly on our WhatsApp group. HHH truly changed all our lives.
Then came the drama mini-series Hubahu on Sony. It starred Sandhya Mridul in a double role, Rajat Kapoor, Mohan Kapoor, Suchitra Pillai. Do share what you would want to.
Hubahu was an intense series about a pair of identical twins who exchange lives, and it had all these accomplished actors bringing ‘A’ games to the table. My friend Parvati Balagopalan produced it and we had understood each other really well since our days of assisting Ketan. Sandhya had a double role and it was fun to dabble with VXF in those years, working out trick shots... of course Sandy had the hard part of constantly having to change her costume twice for every shot where the identical twins were seen together. We shot two schedules in Thailand and it was considered quite a cool thing in 2003 to shoot a TV series outside of India.
You went on to co-direct with Ketan Mehta the action-adventure miniseries Time Bomb 9/11. What sets it apart?
I cannot say no to Ketan for anything, and when he called me I immediately came on board. It was a new and challenging experience for me to direct an action thriller and I enjoyed it very much. I also got to direct all the international portions in Tel Aviv, Toronto and London with local cast and crew in those cities and it was truly an adventure for me.
Mahi Way, a mini-series produced by YRF Television, came on Sony in 2010. It had an interesting premise of a girl with a largish body, Mahi Talwar, as the protagonist. It dealt with body shaming and the girl’s self-discovery amid it all. How did you ideate on this? Devika Bhagat wrote it.
Ravina Kohli from YRF sent me the script of Mahi Way, written by Devika, and I adored it. Then Ravina set up a meeting with Aditya Chopra where I outlined my vision and tone for the show and I guess he liked my ideas since I began working on the series instantly. Devika had battled with weight issues in her 20s and she poured all her angst out onto the page. I have dealt with my own weight issues over the years and I brought all my emotions and insecurities on to screen as well via Mahi's character. Devika is a wonderful writer and we understand each other extremely well. We managed to make it every woman's journey towards self-discovery and self-confidence.
You then directed the film Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge for YRF’s youth banner. It was released in 2011. A teenage-centric film it explored the youth’s obsession with the online world and the tussle with the real world. To think of it, in 2022 the issue is even more relevant. The film did well and got good reviews. Midday called it ‘A fantastic debut by Nupur Asthana, who has managed to keep the movie light and breezy’. How do you look back on the film’s debut and would that film if made now resonate as much? It had a young cast of not very known actors. You were nominated for the best debut director at The Screen Awards.
I will always be grateful to Aditya Chopra for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to direct my first feature. It took me 10 years after Hip Hip Hurray to make my first feature and that's a long, long time. I was happy to revisit the teen world with something new to say. I remember Adi saying, ‘Don't stress about this being your first feature, just go out and have fun’.
And after directing a bunch of series, shooting Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge (MFK) really did feel almost like a picnic! I wound up collaborating with marvelous cast and crew-members for which MFK was their first as well. It was a conscious decision to cast new faces and Shanoo, our casting director, stepped up with some incredible talent. My Director of Photography Neha Parti was shooting her first and we carried our collaboration onwards to later projects as well. My friend Anvita Dutt wrote the screenplay and lyrics for MFK and we said a lot of things in the script that we felt strongly about.
It was on the surface a teen fun film but there was always a deeper sub-text that I was exploring - the question of identity, the tussle between the online world and the real world. And it still feels relevant today when we have anonymous accounts on social media pretending to be who they're not.
Bewakoofiyaan followed in 2014, again with Yash Raj Films. It starred Ayushmann Khurana, Sonam Kapoor and Rishi Kapoor. It got publicized as a rom-com. Story was by Habib Faisal. What was the experience in its making and post release?
Bewakoofiyaan was a huge learning experience for me. Of course every project is a learning experience, but this was a biggie for me in every way. The film didn't get a warm response and I was pretty shattered. My idea was to explore the consumerist lifestyle we lead today and how that impacts our relationships via the protagonists' love story. But it was seen as purely a rom-com and didn't really get many bums on seats! But you always learn more from failures than successes, right? I love the film. Rishi Sir, Ayushmann, Sonam - all of them gave fabulous performances and to be honest, it's one work of mine I wish I could rewrite and remake.
In 2017 you went on to direct the web-series on Alt Balaji, Romil and Jugal. It got publicized as a modern, homosexual spin on the classic Romeo and Juliet. Juliet became Jugal. Obviously it was a daring spin on the classic. The making of it must have been a very delicate tight ropewalk. What went behind the idea of changing gender? How was it received?
Ekta Kapoor and I had been talking for years about doing something together. Then Tanveer from her company sent me a film script titled Romil & Jugal written by my friend Anu Menon, which I liked very much. Ekta was also planning to launch her OTT platform at the time. We decided to make it as a 10-part series as it was pretty tough to release it as a feature at that time since Section 377 was still in force and homosexuality was as yet criminalized.
I spoke to Anu who was quite enthusiastic about me directing it, she lives in London and couldn't come down and stay for the length of time the show would require. I did get her to write it though, as a series, since it had been her idea to adapt the play into a story about two boys. It was a tough one for us - one because I'm a literature student and it was Shakespeare, and most importantly because we wanted to be true to the LGBTQIA community and their world, their issues. We cast two new wonderful actors in the lead roles. It was received phenomenally well by the LGBTQIA community and they just celebrated it. Humsafar Trust, Yuva (their youth wing) and other organizations reached out to us with an enthusiasm and eagerness that was validating and gratifying. Even today I have people reaching out asking for another season of R&J.
Tell us about Four More Shots Please (2020). You were the director for Season 2. Pritish Nandy, Rangita Nandy, produced it. The four-women protagonists are unapologetically flawed and they live life, make mistakes, discover friendship and of course all this over shots of tequila. It was a TV series that streamed on Amazon Prime. Tell us about the feedback.
It was extremely empowering and liberating to be able to tell the stories of four female friends as they live life on their own terms.
The response was phenomenal. I think like with ‘Mahi Way’, women connected with the series. People wrote in saying they binged on all ten episodes in a day/2 days and it was quite a shock for me. My own binge watching never goes beyond 2-3 episodes of any show, however good it might be! The love that we got was quite overwhelming. Of course a couple of reviews weren’t kind to us, but I am okay with it. I understand that a show like this will have polarized opinions on what feminism is and how it should be portrayed on screen. I don’t really think too much about it.
There was a powerful historical drama series that I watched during the pandemic called 'Mrs. America', which showed the great feminists of our times - Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug also hotly debating and arguing about feminism. That gave me a better understanding of some of the responses to our show. I also think that women having agency on screen are perceived as threats to the prevailing order of things and some men did react sharply. And that's fine. We all know they have some catching up to do.
That also brings me to the larger question. What happened to our Hindi television shows post your kind of graph years? Never tried to attempt a Saas-Bahu saga?
Ah no, I have steered clear of the soap genre. I can only make films or shows about subjects that intrigue me and fire me up.
Now the streaming platform is trying to do a U-turn on the most banal, regressive women TV shows of the past decade or more, but correct me if I am wrong, are the web-series going to the other extreme in portraying Indian women?
I don't think so. I think it might appear that way since we haven't seen women taking charge of their lives, making their own decisions, being active, not passive. And while we accept strong women characters in international films and shows, it shakes us a bit to see Indian women characters behaving similarly.
We have women film directors, writers, editors, technicians, and honchos. Though far less in numbers in films, but hugely so in our TV space. And the irony is that our TV fare, serials, driven by women in channels and in production is the most regressive and appalling of all times. What explains this dichotomy? TV in India started very progressive, literary and fell into abysmal standards. Women are policy-makers too.
TV runs on TRPS and everyone falls prey to numbers. It becomes a race to deliver ratings and then we see stuff that apparently has huge audiences, but which you and I don't connect with. The reality is that India has different kinds of audiences whose viewing tastes/habits differ on social, economic, literate grounds. The progressive, literate, discerning viewers who are exposed to films and shows from around the world are few in number. Women policy makers in a channel will ultimately also succumb to the numbers game. They have to show results, keep their jobs and I can't speak for anyone, but I imagine they would be frustrated as well to a certain extent. It's great that streamers have opened up the viewing options for people who had stopped watching TV.
Which is the one work from your peer group (could be around the world) that you wish you had made?
Many! They range from A Separation to Skyfall, Before Sunset to Rush, Capernaum to Talented Mr Ripley... I could go on and on...
Do inform about the awards you would like to mention.
I've been nominated several times, but haven't won yet. My cast and crew on various shows and films have been nominated and won.
What are the works lined up - as in in the pipeline?
I'm just wrapping up another short for an anthology for a streamer, creating a series for another; I finished a film script that I hope will go into production at the end of the year.
The one interest apart from serials-films that keeps you company?
Books. I'm a voracious reader. I'm always reading three books at the same time.
A little personal: Is being single an easy option? That is if you are one and not in a relationship. Does work, work, work, and only work kind of compromise living life?
I'm single and I love it. Friends and family surround me and it's very fulfilling. I'm open to a relationship if someone appropriate comes along.