He is the new king of Pulp. After making his OTT debut with the edge-of-the-seat crime caper, Apharan, in 2018, and following it up with the critically-acclaimed 2020 thriller, Undekhi, Siddharth Sengupta is on a hat- trick with his third Netflix outing, Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein, the delicious kitschy pulp that pays homage to ’90s Bollywood with gun-toting gangsters, a cavalcade of cars zooming through narrow lanes, couples running through the field holding hands, and, of course, dollops of ‘Shah Rukh Khan’-isms.

At its heart is a love triangle set in a small town, albeit with a gender swap. Here, the man is the object of desire, and the woman wields the power. But, even in a story told from the ‘wronged’ man’s perspective, Sengupta, who is also the writer of the show, has a firm grip on the story not letting the woman turn into a villain, like Vicky Malhotra from Baazigar—the movie which features the song that gives the series its name.

Siddharth Sengupta

Siddharth Sengupta is a self-proclaimed fanboy of the pulp genre, and he sure knows how to make a mass entertainer that can keep viewers glued to their couches. Having jumped on the OTT bandwagon armed with a two-decade-long career in the television industry, the director had helmed one of the most popular television serials of recent times, the 2,248-episode saga, Balika Vadhu. Ironically, the OTT bosses were initially dismissive of him because of his career in television. “When I first started approaching the OTT platforms for my first project, my television background was pointed out as a disadvantage,” he recounts. And so was his age. “I was told by one of the OTT bosses that this is a young man’s medium and very different from television, hence my mindset won’t work here.” But like in the stories he writes, he plotted a twist. 

All the three web series’ you have written and directed seem to be inspired by pulp noir. You seemed to be quite fond of the genre.

I am a huge fan of pulp. And not only pulp novels, I absolutely love pulp in movies also. I have grown up in the era of Salim-Javed movies. I think the modern era for me is the ’90s, and Shah Rukh Khan. But even then, it had elements of pulp borrowed from the previous decade. I think it has been passed on from generation to generation. In fact, that is all I know about storytelling.

But unlike the villains and heroes in Salim-Javed movies, all three of your lead characters in Yeh Kaali Kaali Ankhein are painted in grey shades… even the ‘antagonist’ is hardly the vamp…

I like characters that are human, and humans don’t come in black or white. I feel, especially in pulp, the characters you create should be more plausible and believable for the plot to work. Season 1 of Yeh Kaali Kaali is seen through Vikrant’s lens, and hence it seems that he has no ally in his family, Purva is obsessed with him, and so on. But if you think of it, Purva is as honest to her love for Vikrant as Vikrant is to his love for Shikha. We don’t know whether the dark deeds attributed to her were actually done by her. I have just shown a woman who is born in power. I have changed the gender dynamics, and empowered the woman.

You have turned the small-town story trope into almost a plot device.

I am very comfortable with these hinterland stories, it is home for me. My mother is from UP, my dad was in the Army, and I have spent a lot of my childhood in the UP belt. The politics and power structure of a small town and the staunch belief in that power structure was an integral part of the show. The plot as well as the inherent humour would not have worked without the small-town milieu.

But how do you see this trend of small-town stories? 

The smaller towns with middle-class values are easily relatable to the majority of the population of our country. But the small town needs to be intrinsic to the story; it has to become a character, a major force. Every story has its geographical location and milieu, and those must be maintained. Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar had to be set in Kolkata, Sai Paranjpye’s Katha had to be set in a chawl. Just plonking any story in any setup to follow a trend is doing it a great disservice.

You were one of the rare few television guys who had never worked with Ekta Kapoor, yet your first web series was for Alt Balaji. How did this collaboration happen?

I think it was just the right time for us to work together. I was offered Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and another show by Balaji, but I didn’t have the time or bandwidth to take up either back then. But when I started to approach OTT platforms, my resume of television work started to work against me. For two years, I kept getting rejected. Then I got a call from Nimisha Pandey, who was then with Alt Balaji. Ekta knew my work, and held it in high regard. I will always be indebted to her for giving me a break in OTT.

Web series, much like TV serials, have a long format. Is it an easier medium for television directors?

Television, movies, and web series, the three are entirely different formats. Television is like a daily newspaper—you have to create a habit, and it is very difficult. But more than in directing, the difference and the challenges lie in the writing, the storytelling. Television did teach me how to break a story into chapters, and that definitely comes in handy when I am writing a web series.

What made you stick to television for two decades?

Honestly, I had gotten into a comfort zone with television. Television becomes a habit not only for the viewers, but also for the makers. You do get paid rather handsomely and it looks after you. Also, I was too busy to venture into movies. I didn’t have the time. Somewhere I also didn’t want to get into the whole rigmarole of going to actors with a script and waiting for that break, especially in those days. I could hardly catch a break from my television work. But there was always this need to tell stories of a different kind—ones that might not suit the sensitivities and sensibilities of the family audience. Television was too conservative a medium for such stories. I know Anahata (Menon, co-writer of YKKA) from my television days; she and I would often discuss these. Then OTT happened, and by this time, I was getting a bit bored with television; Ihad done it for too long. It is then that I decided to make the switch. Apharan, Undekhi and Yeh Kaali Kaali…, these are the kind of stories I always wanted to tell, and I am just getting started. I want to make a movie too.