From Hip Hip Hurray to Four More Shots Please!, here's a trip down memory lane with Nupur Asthana
From her debut show, Hip Hip Hurray (1998), which she wrote and directed to Four More Shots Please! (2020), Nupur Asthana is known for exploring the urban milieu, presenting their lives as it is and tapping into their emotions and vulnerability. While Hip Hip Hurray was her baby that she built from scratch, the canvas was ready for Four More Shots Please! as she came on board for Season 2. In a lengthy chat over the phone, we took a trip down memory lane with the writer-director Nupur Asthana and spoke to her about the recent web series, waiting for a decade for her big break in the film industry, facing failure with Bewakoofiyaan, and creating her bravest show, Hip Hip Hurray. Excerpts:
Q: How has the initial reaction been to Four More Shots Please!?
The response has been phenomenal. I have got some amazing compliments ranging from how amazing South Bombay looks to how wonderful the performances are… I wanted to make each episode as emotionally packed and powerful as possible. I had no idea that people were going to binge-watch it. It was a pleasant shock for me.
And, what about the criticism?
A couple of reviews weren’t kind to us but I am okay with it. I understand that a show like this will have polarised opinions on what feminism is and how it should be portrayed on screen. I don’t really think too much about it.
And, how do you perceive a comment like their lives are far removed from reality?
Of course, it is! My life is very different from them or from someone who lives in South Bombay because I live in Versova but the emotions are universal. One can have all the money in the world and live in a swanky house but can still feel dejected, abandoned or alone. So, even though that person is not fighting for the next meal, the emotions could be the same as the girl who is perhaps living in a small town and is not allowed to go out to work. So, even though both have different struggles, both can still empathise with one another. So, while, that is not your life, I want you to feel for these girls because there is a part of you in them.
Q: What are the challenges of working on something that has already been viewed by someone else's lens as Anu Menon directed the first season? And, how did you go about this show?
Anu couldn’t do this season as she lives in London and couldn’t be away from her daughter for so long. And, I love women’s stories and exploring what goes inside their head, what drives them and what troubles them. So, when Rangita (Rangita Pritish Nandy, the creator of the show) showed me the first season, I thought this is something I could lend my voice to and what really freed me was that there was no blueprint as such for me to follow, I was free to follow my directorial style.
I wanted to dive deeper into their lives and emotions so I conducted workshops with artists for a few days and did readings with them. The actors understood how subtly I wanted their characters to be more immersive. We also wanted to make it very powerful, both visually and emotionally, and my DOP also understood what I wanted and so we started visual storytelling with our camera itself. We wanted a lot of nuances to come in the storytelling so if you would notice, the scenes are about everybody, irrespective of the subtext. Even at the mandap in the last episode, so many things have happened to so many people and therefore, when Anjana (played by Kirti Kulhari) reads out the wedding vows, there is an impact on all of them. The camera lingers on all of them, including Sushmita (played by Shibani Dandekar). I wanted there to be more soul searching in the season, the search for self and self-love had to be there while they were navigating their professional lives and their messy complicated love lives.
Q: Tell us how your debut show, Hip Hip Hurray, fell into place. Also, the show dealt with a lot of taboos, including the pregnancy of a teacher out of wedlock. Did you face any criticism at that point?
After working with director Ketan Mehta for about three and a half years, I was ready to tell my story but I didn’t know how to raise money for a film myself. So, I thought perhaps television is a better stepping stone. I was around 26 years old then and all I wanted to do was to create a high school which every kid who watches the show wishes to attend. The focus was on the emotions of the kids and what they were going through and I think that’s what makes it relevant even after two decades. The show was contemporary in nature and was about friendship and empathy and that’s what struck a chord with the audience.
Since my script was ready, I started looking up for companies which produce television shows and UTV was a big name in the industry. Eventually, I got in touch with an executive producer there who introduced me to Zarina Mehta. She heard the story and loved it. The channel had issues but she didn’t and she fought hard for this show. I didn’t even realise that it had become a hit because I was so consumed by it - I would write one episode, shoot another and sit on the editing desk for another since it was a weekly show. It was shocking when I would see my kids getting recognised (It featured Purab Kohli, Shweta Salve, Kishwer Merchant and Vishal Malhotra to name a few). The viewership was really huge.
Q: What are the challenges of working on your next project when the first one turns out to be a massive hit?
After Hip Hip Hurray became such a hit, I thought I would easily find a producer to produce my film. There was a script that I had written about a young woman who is searching for herself and takes a holiday. It was in a similar space as Queen but nobody wanted to make it. And, I really wanted to make my debut film as in my head, I was saving my aesthetics for my films and didn’t want to do a lot of television. But, after trying to pedal my script for three years, I wrote another script and then another and it took me around a decade before I made my debut in the film industry with Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge.
Q: How difficult was this period of 10 years in between?
It was a very dark phase. I used to have a lot of questions for myself and there were many low periods. I was often wondering what is wrong and if I am not good enough but somewhere, I just kept going, pushing forth and struggling. My family and friends supported me emotionally, sometimes financially, and those 10 years pretty much went into the wilderness. I did some television to make money while my big break would come.
I used to get a lot of calls from channels to head their programming department and I would refuse them because I wanted to make a film. When I had just decided that maybe making a film is not for me and I should say yes to a tv channel, I got a call from YRF.
Q: And, what did that call do for you?
They were coming up with YRF Television and Aditya Chopra was shown some episodes of Hip Hip Hurray, which he mentioned in my first meeting and we signed a three-project contract - Mahi Way (for Sony), Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge and Bewakoofiyaan.
Q: While Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge was a fresh breeze of air and received positive reviews, Bewakoofiyaan failed to impress the audience and critics both. How did you take your first failure?
I think everybody should fail at some point because that failure teaches you much more than anything else. It was the first time that I had failed and I had to relook at myself and figure out how to separate myself from my work. I had to answer the eternal question - Am I the way I am because of the work I produce or is my work produced by who I am? And, it took me a long time to have an answer. It was indeed a dark phase but it taught me to never accept a script until you gel with it completely. I also learned that form cannot camouflage content. I worked really hard on directing and executing it but I couldn’t take away from the fact that I should have worked on the script alongside the writer. But, no mother likes to be told that her child is ugly and I think it is an underrated film that shows the impact of consumerism on our lives and all the actors’ performed really well. It was one of Sonam’s best performances.
Q: All your work often seems to be addressing or questioning the norms, be it a homosexual spin on Shakespeare's Romeo-Juliet in Romil and Jugal or struggle of a large girl who is overcoming her insecurities in Mahi Way or the topics like infidelity and same-sex relationship in Four More Shots Please!. What do you wish to convey as an artist?
I picked these projects because something in them speaks to me, they challenge the way we look at the world. I think I want to talk about things that matter to us in today’s world, not in a preachy way but in an entertaining way and gentler manner, and I do like to challenge the stereotype. There is no one way of saying things, there are many and I say them best by talking about it, normalizing it and saying that these things happen, take a look and change your mindset.
Q: With so many things to say and so many scripts in hand, why don’t we see you enough?
I took a while after Bewakoofiyaan. I did work on a lot of scripts but it is just that I don’t have a production house that is my family business. I was working on a lot of things in the middle which didn’t get made. But, I am working on a very exciting film script which is a thrilling social drama, it is an adaptation of a book and our plan was to start shooting it in October this year but now, I don’t know now about the timeline.
Q: Lastly, Four More Shots Please! ends on a high point...
We, the makers, decided that we want to leave it hanging for Season 3. And, we ended it at a point where everyone has been through a very emotionally shocking experience that has left them stunned whether it is Anjana, Damini, Umang or Siddhi. And, each one of them has to struggle with how they are going to face life after this. But, they are together and they don’t need a guy in their life, they have their friends as the safety net.