Pooja Ladha Surti has a penchant for coming up with the most twisted storylines and the most interesting characters. The writer of Andhadhun, Ek Hasina Thi, and now Flesh, discusses her convoluted ideas, and how she does what only she can.
Described as a jovial and a fun-loving person by those who know her, it is surprising that Pooja Ladha Surti comes up with such dark and convoluted characters and storylines. Whether it is the Lady Macbeth-esque character portrayed by Tabu in Andhadhun, or the powerfully diabolic character portrayed by Urmila Matondkar in Ek Hasina Thi, Surti doesn’t shy away from revealing and revelling in her characters’ dark sides. In the Eros Now special, Flesh, Surti gives us a glimpse into the dirty world of human trafficking, and tells us what makes her tick, and why. Read on.
How did the idea for Flesh originate, and what is the kind of research you did for the same?
Siddharth Anand had a broad premise of the idea already, and I was asked to break it down over eight episodes. Danish Aslam, the director, also got involved in the writing as there was very little time as usual. Shooting began while we were still writing. In terms of research, we spoke to a well-known NGO that is very actively involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of sex crime victims. We met some cops as well. And there’s always the world wide web.
So many people describe you as an intensely positive and loving person. How do you come up with such dark and twisted characters?
“Intensely positive” sounds lovely, I wish I were all that. Jokes apart, I’m one of those people who believe that the workplace should be bright and supportive — the work, i.e., writing, is hard and often times dark, anyway. As for twisted characters, they are more fun than happy characters, what to do?
You and Sriram Raghavan are sort of “partners in crime” so to say. What makes your association so fruitful?
Sriram is not involved with this project at all. It was actually his brother, Shridhar Raghavan (who was writing War for Siddharth Anand) who asked me to meet Anand. For Flesh, I wrote and submitted drafts, which were then actioned by Aslam with Anand’s production team. In the films I do with Sriram, I have larger responsibilities. I co-write, I am the associate director, and finally edit the pictures. My first film as a writer, Ek Hasina Thi, was also Sriram’s debut feature. Then he was making Johnny Gaddaar, and I asked if I could edit it. I have never analysed it, sometimes people can work well together. There’s a small bunch of technicians, assistant directors and even actors, who have been a part of every Sriram Raghavan film. It is an equation of mutual respect, and that’s very important to me.
Do you keep a particular actor in mind while writing your scripts?
Not always. In Ek Hasina Thi, I knew I was writing for Urmila Matondkar. In Andhadhun, we were adamant that only Tabu could play Simi. Usually, we have a basic draft, then we cast it, and once the actor comes on board, the writing accommodates and celebrates that actor
How different is writing a screenplay for an eight-episode web series from a feature film?
This was a first-time effort from my side. I have only worked on feature films before this. I think I learned many lessons in the process. There was no writer’s room, and so the amount of work was actually pretty staggering. I was also busy with the edit and post-production work of Andhadhun around the time. Aslam was giving me feedback, and we worked out some of the arcs together. There was a deadline hanging on our heads, which is, again, a slightly new experience for me. Not to say that feature films don’t have deadlines, but in the case of a series, the writer/s have to deliver a lot more material in comparison.
A story like Flesh could easily have been sensationalised. Was that ever a concern for you when you agreed to write the screenplay?
Even though I was not involved in the rewrites and gave only the initial screenplay drafts, I was very clear when I agreed to write for the show — the dark, scary world of sex trafficking is the background. The characters of Rajji, Radha, Zoya, and others are the foreground, the focus. They are negotiating a cruel, destructive, and brutal world. Their struggle, their story is the point. Or should be.
Do you believe Bollywood is reaching a period of reckoning where writers are finally being given their due? How can the film industry better support its writers?
Not really, no. Writers are still battling a lack of time, resources, and funds. I am not aware of any blanket solutions to this question. There are many different types of people within the film industry, and I guess every individual negotiates that terrain in their own way. For me, having an equation of mutual respect with my directors as well as producers, is important. I feel one should get paid fairly, and get credited fairly.
What are you working on next?
I am co-writing with Sriram Raghavan and Arijit Biswas on a film, as well as a horror-comedy called Bhoot Police with Pavan Kriplani. I am heading the writer’s room for a web series for Matchbox Films’ Sanjay Routray, the producer of Andhadhun. With Sriram and Biswas, there are two or three scripts we are working on, all in different stages of completion.
Is there anything about OTT platforms that you particularly like or dislike?
The trouble with OTT platforms is this: There’s too much to see, and too little time.
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