In the depths of Kaala Paani

Creators Biswapati Sarkar, Sameer Saxena, and Amit Golani talk about the genre shift after Jaadugar and the difficulties in shooting in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
A still from the shoot
A still from the shoot

The Netflix series Kaala Paani revolves around a disease whose symptoms include dry throat and cough. A pandemic origin seemed obvious, but for series writer Biswapati Sarkar, the seed of the story was sown after a childhood trip.

“I went to Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a child and was mesmerised. I mean where else would you find a place which houses mountains, jungles, beaches and even an active volcano! I started reading more about it and the concept was growing in my mind for the last 10-15 years,” said Biswapati, adding that the COVID-19-induced pandemic did change his viewpoint of the story.

“I think before I went through a pandemic, I looked at contagion thrillers as works of science fiction. When COVID happened, it dawned upon me that Kaala Paani had to be a human story.”

What followed was multiple Zoom calls to collaborators and series directors Sameer Saxena and Amit Golani. “My initial logline was what LG Kadri’s character (played by Lagaan director Ashutosh Gowariker) says in the first episode: ‘We need to find a way to escape Kaala Paani.’ Here was a disease and a bunch of people stuck on these islands, famous for once housing a British-era prison from which none could escape. I think that was the hook for us,” says Biswapati.

The eight-part series stars Mona Singh, Amey Wagh and Sukant Goel and also marks the acting return for Ashutosh Gowariker, known for helming films like Swades and Jodhaa Akbar. In the past, the director has acted in various middle-cinema projects including Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Kamla Ki Maut. “We wanted a unique, trustworthy face,” says Sameer. “A person who looks like a leader, a problem solver. When we met Ashutosh sir and discussed the idea with him, he immediately came on board.” One can’t watch the show and not draw COVID parallels.

The virus seems to have seeped into the series narrative. Terms like lockdown, ground zero and containment flow around. Characters are seen crying in PPE kits as their loved ones battle the disease amid coughs and hiccups. A scene shows a bunch of funeral pyres burning. “We wanted to create more of a cautionary tale,” says Biswapati. “Like what could happen if we don’t respect our environment? We didn’t want to trigger COVID horrors or do a commentary on the pandemic. We wanted to be respectful towards all the characters who die in the series and thus didn’t show scenes of excessive blood or gore. It was more of what we are doing to the environment. We constantly told each other that nature was the real villain of the story.”

A survival drama, the series deals with themes of Darwinism, nature vs nurture and how, when cornered, humans give in to their basic instincts. This is a genre shift for creators Biswapati, Sameer and Amit, whose production company Posham Pa Pictures gave us titles like the sweet, coming-of-age film Jaadugar and the family comedy Home Shanti. The writers are also known for their previous work with The Viral Fever, including Pitchers and Permanent Roommates.

“It was important for us, as storytellers, to get out of our comfort zone,” says Sameer. “We wanted to try something new and when Biswa came to us with the idea, we knew this was something fresh.”
It didn’t come easy. First, there was the research. “I don’t know how many books on Andaman and Nicobar history and geography I read,” says Biswapati. “Then, since I didn’t want to get swayed by the endless possibilities of fiction, I read about 120 research papers to get the epidemic in the series right. It was like reading up to write a thesis.”

The writers’ room was basically Biswapati, Amit and Sameer going to each other’s houses, bouncing off ideas, and getting out of creative logjams over sips of chai. “The trick to get out of a block is to get yourself bored,” explains Amit. “Don’t distract yourself. Just sit there, stare at the screen and let yourself get bored. That’s how the human mind works, if one barrier can’t be broken, the floodgates open from some other side.”

“And that’s how we cracked the finale,” adds Biswapati. The real test began once the writing ended. Shooting in the remote islands expectedly turned out to be gruelling. “Let’s just call it adventurous,” jests Sameer. “The jungle bits were fine, what was really difficult was to transport the equipment to the islands. We went through everything: heat, rains, cyclones. By the end of it, I guess we all looked like Indiana Jones.”

Kaala Pani, unlike the other projects usually helmed by the creators, ends on a rather bleak note. Two childhood sweethearts might never get to profess their love, a meek character transforms into a murderer, the disease might be here to stay. Are there plans to go darker? We ask. “Always open to ideas,” says Sameer, smilingly.

Netflix Series head Tanya Bami on the show

"The concept of Kaala Paani is novel and the series stands out as distinct and differentiated which is solidified by the gripping nature of the storytelling. It is a must-watch drama."

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