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Interview Hindi

With Bandish Bandits, we have taken the urban youth to small-town India, says Anand Tiwari

The co-creator and director of the Amazon Prime web-series Bandish Bandits speaks about his latest project which was over two years in the making.

Sonal Pandya

Amidst the spy thrillers and crime dramas that have been released online these past few months of the lockdown, a musical about the fusion of Hindustani classical and pop music on Amazon Prime Video has quietly been gaining fans. With YouTube covers of the songs by fans, and plenty of repeat listening of the soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, the album has quickly become a favourite.

With newcomers Ritwik Bhowmick and Shreya Chaudhary, along with stalwarts like Naseeruddin Shah and Atul Kulkarni, Bandish Bandits tells the story of two young artistes whose musical worlds collide when they decide to collaborate.

Co-creator and director Anand Tiwari spoke to Cinestaan.com about his ambitious series and how it came to be created over the course of more than two years. The actor-turned-director spoke eloquently and patiently about the development of Bandish Bandits and its story and characters, and why his stint on Anurag Basu’s Barfi! (2012) was a life-changer for him. Excerpts:

Now that  Bandish Bandits has finally been released, how do you feel?

It feels great when you work on something for about two years of your life. Between research, writing, shooting, editing it and presenting it to you, it has been a good two years for us. It’s gotten great response from people who are musicians and from young people because we were always wanting young people to look at traditional music as also their music. 

And a lot of the older generation that generally stays away from OTT [over-the-top] content thinking it’s all just about blood, murder and sex have finally found something that they can watch with all generations. So it has been amazing the kind of response one has gotten when you work on something for this long.

How did you co-create the series with Amritpal Singh Bindra?

Amrit and I started a company called Still and Still Media Collective, and for the past few years, we have been doing some really interesting work in the space of youth. Our protagonists are always the youth of this country. Generally, we have featured [shows] that are largely urban based even though there are some changes, like we did Bang Baaja Baaraat and Love Per Square Foot (2018), they were very urban stories.

But there was Girl In The City where a girl came from Nainital, and we were able to tell her story over three seasons of how an outsider who comes to the big city has to adjust to it. Even in Official Chukyagiri we did that, where Sunny Kaushal played the lead.

Now with Bandish Bandits, we have actually taken the urban youth to small-town India. So the perspective is shifted and we get to understand small-town India as the youth living there is as aspirational as anybody else in this country. Their aspirations sometimes are more intense; if they were given the same platform as the urban kids, they would probably excel too. 

Hence Bandish Bandits became a vehicle to bring the two Indias together through the music, where classical music and new-age pop music are both given the same reverence, the same importance. We feel both are as cool, and both are as respectful of each other. If both have to survive and both have to have enough aesthetic value, they both have to learn from each other.

Was Hindustani classical music always part of the original story idea?

Yes, it was, because some of the classical musicians that we saw around us, heard stories of, we know the kind of discipline they have in their learning of classical music. They spend years and years researching and understanding one raga, while in today’s day and age, you are every second day putting out a video on Instagram. So how does that discipline survive in today’s world, was something that we wanted to explore through the youth of India's small towns. And then, of course, the characters of Radhe and Tamanna were developed.

How much research did you have to do for the show? Did you shadow any artistes in the music industry?

We spoke to a lot of musicians from gharanas and musicians that used to be part of gharanas and are now part of the Bombay music industry, and of course, there were youngsters and older people and then, of course, there were Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy who themselves created music for us, who understand the world of music. So all of that got researched for a good amount of time before it was all put down into screenplay. And once we were developing the music also, we adjusted some of the screenplay beats to how music is created, whether it be raga-based or a pop song that is created in front of our eyes. 

All those learnings were then adjusted real time into the story. It was a unique writing experience. Generally, when you go to your musicians, you go with the full story and they sit and fit it into the story. Here, it wasn’t just fitted in, the story also adjusted to the music, and the learnings of how music is created became part of the storytelling. So that, I think, is one of the most amazingly deep learning experiences Amrit and I have had in Bandish Bandits that no other project would have given us.

Did Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy come on early into the project? Or did you audition other composers as well?

We had a Bible of the story ready when we approached Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and they were the first and the only people we approached. Because of the gamut of music that was required, we couldn’t think of anyone else who would give us as peppy pop or as detailed classical than them. They have such experience between the three of them, and the kind of music they have done for Bollywood [commercial Hindi cinema], for the Marathi film industry and for their albums as well, there was no one else we could think of, and luckily they agreed and were part of the storytelling as well, not just the music. 

It was a great collaboration — their experience, we had been listening to their music from the time we had been growing up, since Dhaai Akshar Prem Ke (2000), Mission Kashmir (2000), Dil Chahta Hai (2001), these are movies we saw as teenagers, so to then collaborate with such people who are so young even now with their approach to music, was so refreshing to see.

The series is extremely ambitious in scale and scope. Did you always plan it that way, or did it become more and more so while you were developing it? 

I think music by itself needs a kind of treatment that is required for that storytelling. The reason we went to Rajasthan is because we wanted to say it with some amount of scale and beauty. It wasn’t going to be a love story that was going to be set within the four walls of a music studio. Some scenes would be there. But it needed a little bit of udaan, so to say, and what better place than Rajasthan. It is something that has such a great heritage and, at the same time, it is so modern because it’s a tourist hub. There are people who speak various languages and people who understand the great traditions of India, yet they are very modern because they keep interacting with people from around the world that come there.

Rajasthan, like Jodhpur, for example, used to be a princely state, so the whole idea of having the raja or a princely family is something so unique that they don’t speak about any more, in our content, though it was a very real part of India for the longest time. So those things we thought would bring some kind of newness to the urban watchers because urban love stories have limitations to be very internal. [The] external conflicts of parivar kya kahega, ya maa-baap kya kahenge [what will the family say, or what will my parents say], those conflicts are gone now. Most of the times parents don’t object to your love stories, as long as you are not making some very big mistakes in finding your partner. So it was kind of great to find a backdrop where the two protagonists were of completely different backgrounds.

Speaking of the Rathod family, their back stories are so interesting and fascinating. There is so much more that we need to know about each one of them as well. Did you write these roles for the artistes themselves or when you cast them, did you change their characters as well?

No, so the back stories were all written. We knew that we are talking a ten-part series so we had to open out the structure of this drama in bits and pieces and take the audience through a journey where they feel the character is a certain way and then change it for them so it becomes engaging.

Of course, when you have actors like Naseer sir, Sheeba, Atul Kulkarni, Rajesh Tailang, Kunaal Roy Kapur, they bring a lot to their parts. They are not actors who sleepwalk through their parts and only rely on the written page. They bring a lot of their own understanding so all of them were great, including Amit Mistry, who brought in the whistling that Devendra does. That was his idea.

He actually is a singer himself, but it so happens that the only person in the Rathod parivar who can't actually sing, in the character, he can’t sing. So he devised something for himself, credit to him. Atul Kulkarni brought in a lot of interesting nuances to his character. Sheeba [Chaddha] got a lot of nuance into her character. 

What can I say about Naseeruddin Shah? The kind of detailing he gets into everything he does. So they just make what you think even better. That’s the kind of collaborations you hope to have, as an artiste. That’s why you do what you do, whatever you think when you add people add in, all experts in their field. They actually take it to the next level.

We have been very lucky that whether it is the cast or the technicians that we have, from the music to the DoP, the editor, to the costume to the production design, they all added their own understanding and thoughts into the storytelling.

At the end of this series, there are a few things that aren’t yet resolved. Is there going to be a second series? 

We’ll wait and find out. The good thing is from the time we released the first poster, [which] didn’t have any stars, nobody knew about them, people would keep telling [Amazon] Prime that yeh sab theek hai, but Mirzapur ka season two kahan hai. After the series has come out, everybody has been asking Bandish Bandits ka season two kahan hai. I think that by itself is a great vote of appreciation that people have given us. That there is such a fervour to understand what would happen in the season going ahead.

This must be a unique experience for you, promoting it during the lockdown, like this.

I think the lockdown itself is a unique experience for all of us, for the whole humankind, and nobody who is alive has ever been in a place where there has been a global pandemic like this. As artistes, of course, we are far more sensitive than everyone else, and while as writers we are very keen to make use of this time and write more, it has been tough because it’s not an easy time for the world population, especially people who are underprivileged. Especially in a country like India, where just having two meals a day can be tough for such a large population. So my heart goes out to them. It’s not easy to just sit and think of fictitious stories without having some part of your brain always worrying about your words. But having said that, it’s a responsibility as artistes to somewhere, if we can give you an escapist time, if we can give you some amount of distraction and start making you feel a little more comforted, I think that’s a good job that you would have done at this point of time. 

You have said in interviews before that direction has always been your main goal. How did you continue to pursue it while you were an actor?

(Laughs) I tried to convince people while I was acting, and everybody thought I wanted to be an actor-director. He wants to just direct himself! And I kept telling people when I had Love Per Square Foot as a script that I don’t want to act in it, I just want to direct. There were also producers who would say I really like the script, why don’t you act in it and I will direct, and I would say no, this is my baby. I want to direct, I never want to act in anything that I direct. I thought it’s only fair that people are thinking so because they haven’t seen me direct.

Till then, I was assisting a lot of my directors while I was acting for them, so I would just be around them, even on the days I wasn’t shooting, to see how they go about things, like with Anurag Basu when we did Kites (2010). And I told Anurag Basu that on your next film, I’m going to be your DA, your director’s assistant, and just be a shadow and try to understand from you. He said you can’t be a shadow, you have to be a proper AD. I’m very very grateful to him that he involved me in Barfi! (2012) and that experience has been life-changing for me, because I not only understood the aesthetics of direction but understood how filmmaking really goes about and how tough it is to organize a day of shoot, how tough it is to actually make it all happen.

I learnt it from one of the best directors this country has right now. So then when I started making short films, I would edit them myself, learn sound design myself, I would take help from some of my friends to put it together with my own money and through those short films I started understanding my craft better. Luckily, at that time, Amrit became a dear friend of mine, who was also an AD on Barfi!. And [we] decided to start a company and we started with small ads, small content and Bang Baaja Baaraat became this marquee event in our lives. We co-wrote it, we produced it, I directed it, Amrit produced it and [our company] came about, and since then we haven’t looked back.

Post that, we produced Girl In The City, Official Chukyagiri, we did Love Per Square Foot with Ronnie Screwvala and Netflix, and now we are doing Bandish Bandits. I’ve never looked back from then because in these five years, the kind of work that Amrit and I have done is the kind of work we would dream of when we used to sit as ADs on set with our walkie talkies in one of our ears, and imagine what it would be like when we would have our own company, and here we are.

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