As the morning fog lifts from the field a body is revealed. It is of an NRI who had come down to his ancestral village in Punjab for his wedding with a local girl.What follows is an attempt by two local police officers to solve the murder. But Netflix’s Kohrra is far more than just a dark crime thriller or a gritty police procedural. Created by Sudip Sharma, directed by Randeep Jha and written by Sharma, Gunjit Chopra, and Diggi Sisodia, the layered and taut web series is also a stark commentary on the present-day Punjab that highlights its societal prejudices and patriarchy among other things. In a freewheeling chat with the director and the team or writers, we try to get into the core of Kohrra. Excerpts:
One of Hindi cinema’s all-time favourite love stories is based on Punjab. It talks about an NRI family led by a patriarch returning to the homeland in search of marital bliss for the next generation, and Gennext’s romantic interest following them, becoming part of the family, and eventually claiming the love of their life. But DDLJ and Kohrra stand at opposite ends of the spectrum, not only showing how society has changed but also how cinema has become more real, thanks probably to OTT to a certain degree. And how do you see the romantic idea of Punjab shifting?
Gunjit: Punjabi literature has explored all aspects of Punjabi society. Bollywood chose to ignore several aspects and reduced Punjabis to caricature and sold a vision of Punjab that was far from reality.
Randeep: Any story can be told in multiple ways. It is only when there is a set narrative and other kinds of films are not made or appreciated or viewed that the problem arises. DDLJ was a film we all grew up watching, we loved it. Similarly, people have showered their love and appreciation for Kohrra. Films through generations have been a reflection of society. Acceptance of series and films like Kohrra reflects present-day society which is open to seeing things that actually exist and talking about them. If I must sum up what Kohrra is all about, it is ‘acceptance’. All kinds of films should be acceptable, provided the gaze and perspective is honest and authentic.
Also, the only thing that seems to have remained unchanged is the situation of women, who still don’t seem to have a voice. What’s your take on that?
Diggi: Well if you look at the world of Kohrra, the women are the only ones with agency. Everyone is damaged by the world that exists around them. Only the women are defiant. Nimrat refuses to accept the solutions that a patriarchal society wants to thrust upon her. She refuses to accept them. Rajji will not accept an outcome that seems like a fait accompli in her world. She will defiantly fight for what she believes is rightfully hers to love and hers only.
Randeep: Women have a strong voice and in Kohrra, all the female characters, though caught up in their circumstances and male patriarchy, are vocal and want to own their lives. In fact, series and films like Kohrra need to be made to reflect on our behaviour and become more accepting. And of course, create a safe and enabling environment for women to express, to live and to be free.
What was the starting point of the story? How did it initially come together?
Gunjit Chopra: It started with me telling Diggi the initial idea of a British-Asian groom who comes down for his wedding only to be found with his throat slit, head smashed and joggers down. Two local cops are assigned the case.
Diggi Sisodia: The germ began with that. And it became the jumping-off point to get into the world of these characters — the dirt under the nails, so to speak, in the lives of the cops, their families, the suspects, etc.
The series gets to the core of the real Punjab of today and weaves in migration, drugs, dysfunctional families, patriarchy, queer identity, land inheritance issues, and even gives a glimpse of the DJ culture and music industry. What kind of research went into the project?
Randeep: It is important that you are aware because you cannot be an artiste/filmmaker if you are not. So, when a script comes, you connect the characters with the reality and then explore how to show it on screen.
Gunjit: I have been spending extended periods of time in Punjab for the last 15 years while working on my documentary on Chamkila. During that time, I have experienced Punjab’s underbelly too. What you see in Kohrra is those 15 years of my time in Punjab.
Diggi: We were very clear that our responsibility is to serve the characters and their world. So, everything that transpires, and the things we see in the heart of Punjab and more had to be what emanated organically from the characters and their world. We had to serve the characters and not vice-versa.
The series never becomes boring and has, in fact, the feel and pace of a movie. How did you approach each episode to ensure this?
Randeep: One thing I always take care of while directing is that storytelling through your images has to be cinematic and rhythmic. Sometimes you try to create rhythm in the edit and sometimes, rhythm is something you start with. Taking minimum shots, single rhythmic shots, and trying to get every action and reaction in particular beats. Irrespective of the length, it is the visual rhythm that is important. Of course, long format helps you go deeper, helps you build the story slowly for a richer experience. You are not constrained by time to hurry through things. The entry and exit of any scene of each episode needs to land well. The opening scene of the first episode is extremely crucial to pique one’s interest and hold attention. The ending should be such that it introduces a new element which then becomes the starting point of the next episode. But then, the process needs to be organic and real, not forced.
Diggi: With regards to approaching the episodes, it stems from structure and balance. Where the pace keeps building as the episodes progress, we made sure that all the tracks move in tandem and crisscross so that there is no dip in the dramatic elements.
Recently, there was an Instagram post almost claiming that the series does disservice to the LGBTQIA+ community as both the murderer and the prospective murderer are gay men. It was pointed out that there was no LGBTQIA+ person in the writing team. How do you respond to this?
Sudip: I see the point and respect her opinion, but the writer of the post is also being presumptuous that we did not speak to enough people from that community to get their perspective on the matter, or that we do not have friends or family who identify as LGBTQIA+. Also, I’m all for inclusivity, but I would really not want to push tokenism in its name. If objectively we felt that we needed a person from the community in the room, we would have had that person in the room. And if the writer of the post feels that we failed to portray the community in the right manner, I respect their opinion, but then, that’s their opinion. Again, there are several people from the community who have really appreciated the series. It’s art. It’s all supposed to be subjective anyway, unless you are making cardinal filmmaking sins of course.
Randeep: The question is how the society treats and behaves. In one of the scenes, Clara questions Steve and says that if he had accepted his son’s reality, both Paul and Liam would have been alive and happy together. Similarly, we see a vulnerable Roop cave in to let out details about Shinda due to police brutality. So, for me, as a director, it was a tragedy. I don’t ever judge my characters and I make sure to bring that on to my direction. That said, the view expressed is completely fine and these kinds of conversations need to take place. They help us question our understanding.
Do you think a lived experience is crucial for artistes/writers?
Sudip: Lived experience doesn’t just mean you have to be that person. Having a gay brother or best friend also qualifies for the same. Otherwise, by that logic, we would need lived experiences for everything – from being an NRI to being a Sikh to being a female. Why are we not talking about representing those minorities here; aren’t they legitimate minorities as well? And if that is the case, then where do we stop? How do you find so many good writers?
Randeep: I treat each character as per the script but I ensure that the portrayal is honest. Character reading does not necessarily entail that one has been through the same or similar circumstances. Cinema is the kind of art that allows you to explore uncharted and unknown areas of life without having to go through those in real life. That is the beauty and power of cinema.
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