“You may have given up but we still have some films left in us,” a prominent male director told Aparna Purohit, who was just hired by Amazon Prime Video in early 2016 to head the streaming platform’s creative development team and was talking to filmmakers to make original shows for them. Purohit, an eloquent, clearheaded veteran who had spent years in the industry assembling projects, let it pass but the comment gave her pause. Holed up in her small, single room BKC office with barely a team to speak of, she knew one thing: in an industry where stars enjoy a higher premium over stories, her job was going to be tough.
From December 2016, when it launched in India, till now, Amazon has had perhaps the most diverse catalogue of shows, as compared to its peers who’ve struggled to exploit the long-form format to the hilt. As per this NDTV report, it has 4.4 million paid subscribers. But it isn’t clear how many of those use the service exclusively for video.
Under Purohit’s creative tutelage, the streaming giant ticked off, among others, shows that pretty much encapsulate the idea of modern India: cricket (Inside Edge), wedding (Made in Heaven), crime and politics (Mirzapur, Paatal Lok), illustrating the fact that the decisions taken by suits in glass offices aren’t just intuitive or random, but much more strategically planned. Not all their shows have generated the same kind of critical reception, for example the recent Breathe Into The Shadows was panned by many critics, although Amazon maintains it has recorded solid viewership.
To understand how the Indian video vertical of the Jeff Bezos-led shopping juggernaut managed to create a lucrative roster that boasts of shows that can comfortably sit alongside international, prestige TV titles, one has to contextualise Purohit’s own career graph. Industry insiders who HuffPost India spoke to mention how Purohit has earned a stellar reputation of naturally gravitating towards concept-driven stories. She hasn’t hesitated, in the past, on passing over projects that came with stars attached but with a story missing, a rare and difficult position to take in Bollywood.
So what does a head of India originals really do? How does a job such as that come to be? How does one become that? Where do you draw the line between collaboration and intrusion? And most importantly, how do you know what’s working? Other than data, which empowers a lot of execs to green light shows and movies, what’s the secret sauce to get the mix right? A wholesome smile emerges on Purohit’s face. She has all the answers and she’s eager to demystify her own role. And I, on the other end of the Zoom call, beam with excitement of a child having discovered the backend of a favourite toy.
At Jamia Millia Islamia one of Purohit’s closest friend was the director Alankrita Shrivastava (Lipstick Under My Burkha, Turning 30) Both of them were finishing their Mass Communications degree and moved to Bombay together wanting to “make it in Bollywood.” Before Jamia, the two had been batchmates at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram college too.
“We’d hang all the time at Nizamuddin,” Shrivastava recalled in a conversation with HuffPost India. “Aparna was always drawn to stories and storytellers. I remember we did this one project where we filmed the puppeteers of Shadipur Depot. Aparna used to speak passionately about folk artists. She was interested in stories that were rooted, authentically our own.”
After being an assistant director on a bunch of movies (Yun Hota To Kya Hota) and going upto becoming the chief AD, Purohit realised a bitter truth: nobody was awaiting her directorial debut. Not just yet.
“I shifted gears,” Purohit recalled. First she moved to casting and then production. “I joined Sony TV and was there for about a year. But I just knew I didn’t want to get stuck in this formulaic rut. I wanted to get involved in disruptive stories. At the first chance, I moved to UTV - this is before the Disney merger had happened. Spotboy (UTV’s indie wing that made films such as Dev D, Udaan, Shahid) was yet to be formed. It came into existence while I was there.”
It was here, at UTV, which would go on to produce some of the most memorable films of the late 2000s, that Purohit realised her strengths: it was in sifting through heaps of scripts and delving into the process of what director would be best suited for a particular story, assembling the production and staying with the film through its arduous yet rewarding journey, from word to screen.
In a few years time, she’d make the switch to Reliance Big Pictures and work closely with directors like Shyam Benegal (Well Done Abba) and Rituparno Ghosh (Abohomaan) who’d leave an indelible impact on her storytelling instincts. “This was the time when I was finding my own thematic voice and for it to be nurtured by two of filmmaking’s greatest institutions, to get a window into their minds and their craft, was a phenomenal gift. It’s what helped me understand stories in all their complexities.”
After her brief gig at Big Pictures, she decided to take a break and write something of her own. It didn’t materialise. What did, instead, was a job at NFDC’s Film Bazaar. She was offered a chance to work at the screenwriter’s lab.
“I had no idea what that was. Nina Lath Gupta, who was running NFDC at the time, told me it’s a lab to experiment with ideas and nurture stories by new talent. I was instantly taken in.”
For the uninitiated, a screenwriter’s lab is essentially a breeding ground for stories, a space where aspiring writers bring their scripts and are mentored by industry veterans, learning tips and tricks, familiarising themselves with international standards, the art of pitching and of course, networking. A common process across festivals abroad, the NFDC one takes place at Goa’s Marriott hotel every fall.
Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, Kanu Behl’s Titli and Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha are just some of the films that have benefited from the lab. During Purohit’s time there, in 2010, NFDC managed to invite the German director Fatih Akin as one of the mentors. “We chased him till we got him and just to hear him talk about his creative process was fantastic. He’s one of my favourite filmmakers.”
Many people who’ve gone on to work in creative development at various studios and streaming firms have emerged out of the Film Bazaar vertical. The final step in Purohit’s trajectory of chasing stories and storytellers was running the Sundance India Lab in collaboration with Mumbai Mantra, a gig that’d allow her to meet Robert Redford, who has been associated with the festival since its inception in 1978 and is often mistakenly thought of as its founder.
Purohit spent several years at the Sundance India Lab and was instrumental in raising projects like Margarita With A Straw, Masaan and Umrika. The collaboration with their international counterpart lasted 3 years and after that, Purohit ran Mumbai Mantra’s own independent lab for another year-and-a-half, until, in the winter of 2015, a cold call came, asking her whether she’d be interested in a position to head creative development.
It was from Amazon.
One evening in Mumbai, Zoya Akhtar played a clip on her phone to Purohit. The 15-minute clip was from a friend’s wedding Akhtar had recently attended. It was shot crisply and featured a narrator who explained who the characters in the video were. “Zoya turned to me and told me the many stories behind the people who I had seen in the clip. And then she said, this is the show I want to make. It’s going to be beautiful, it’s going to be dark, it’s going to be nuanced.”
Purohit was so moved by this unique narration, she decided they were going to make it. “I was hooked. I’m like, nobody has told a story like this. The show took a long time to write. But the way it resonated, oh my god. It worked not just in India but across the world.”
The lesson here was clear: tell your own stories instead of mimicking something that has been told before. “Its victory really lies in its authenticity.”
However, while Made in Heaven dropped to unanimously positive reviews, it wasn’t without a ‘healthy’ amount of backend conflict. Since the show had multiple directors (Nitya Mehra, Alankrita Shrivastava, Zoya Akhtar, Prashant Nair), a lot of creative back-and-forth happened during post.
“It was a challenge to get the show tonally consistent. To get the voice right.”
Often all debates and conflicts are termed ‘healthy.’ Were there any unhealthy ones? Purohit laughs. “In retrospect, every discussion is healthy.”
To her credit, Akhtar was one of the first few directors who instantly took to the long-form style of storytelling, as were Raj and Krishna DK, Kabir Khan, Sudip Sharma and Vikram Malhotra. But not everybody was that easy to woo. Before Amazon had a library to boast of, Purohit remembers what she calls ‘going door-to-door’ to pursue filmmakers to give them a shot. “They would go like, ‘umm, no, you’ll ask me to get this star’.”
Her response. “No. Let’s talk stories. Whatever has been in your closet, bring it out.”
There was confusion, mainly to do with intent, but over a period of long conversations about ‘bible’ and ‘showrunners’ and ‘writer’s room’ and Amazon’s own international team flying in to give a primer on how they go about conceptualising and executing shows, the industry started to respond more enthusiastically.
“Honestly, it took a while for them to take us seriously. But it happened.”
Says Krishna of Raj-DK duo, who created The Family Man, “Aparna’s team at Amazon values and respects the creators. They read the script, give detailed feedback and at least in our experience, we have never felt that they were trying to hijack the idea. She’s always trying to see the story from our point of view and that’s great.”
DK mentioned that given Purohit’s background, she has a natural eye for sharp, authentic stories, a sentiment echoed by Alankrita Shrivastava as well.
“She can recognise a good story when she sees one. She’s meticulous with her feedback and at the same, she’s always very trusting with the talent that she works with. She’s always batting for you.”
Often, those who’ve dabbled in Indian television wrestle with the starkly different aesthetic of streaming. The very fundamentals are different—in contrast to endless soap operas with characters that die and reincarnate, you have seasoned shows with specific character arcs. Purohit mentions the learnings and more importantly, the un-learnings that took place on the job.
“We’ve to be mindful of every track. One character’s action on Season 1 episode 2 can have a repercussion on episode 7 in Season 3. Cliffhangers are important. The narrative structure, with each episode being a story unto itself, to it being a part of the broader narrative, is key. These are all aspects you cannot prepare for, you end up learning with every step on the way.”
Purohit emphasises on how, for Amazon, the battleground is really the writer’s room, where the company’s involvement is the highest. They do not go into production until the team is satisfied with what’s being approved to shoot. Once in production, Amazon leaves the unit alone, circling back only during post production, when they have detailed feedback on each episode and on the edits. “There’s Network cut 1, Network cut 2, 3, 4... We’re constantly tweaking it to perfection.” A filmmaker who had worked with Amazon, on condition of anonymity, said, “The feedback could go from anything like, oh, that bit is dragging/boring to a character’s motivations not being clear.”
All of this unfolds in an exceedingly high-pressure environment. The stress was acutely high in her early days. Purohit, in her own words, was a lone warrior. The fear was real. What if the shows that had been commissioned don’t work? She wrestled with that anxiety and at one point, reached out to her American colleagues to convey her insecurities. “Their response made me feel so liberated, I instantly felt at ease about the work.”
What was the response? “It’s okay if you fail. If you fail, you fall and we’ll pick up again and start afresh. It’s all right. Just go with your gut.”
The bet paid off and the initial successes enabled them to take bolder decisions. While Purohit’s mantra is to marry data - and Amazon, ahem ahem, has a lot of it - with instinct, ask her what’s the one answer she seeks before saying yes — from herself and her team of 6 people ― she says it’s two things. “One, why should we tell this story now? Second, how committed and passionate are the people in telling this story? That’s it.”
One of the changes streaming companies have contributed to is the presence of a lot more women in seats of power, a refreshing departure from legacy production companies that have been, barring a few, traditionally run by men.
Though she hasn’t faced any discrimination as a result of her being a woman, she admits that her gender plays a major role in influencing her creative decisions. “Instinctively, when I’m reading a script, I look at how the women characters are being portrayed. In my head, the Bechdel test begins. Is this part written by a man who isn’t understanding the woman’s point of view at all? Does she have agency? Women in this country have fought too hard to raise a certain narrative. I’ve a sense of tremendous responsibility towards that.”
While Made in Heaven, The Family Man and Four More Shots Please! generated tremendous buzz (the latter was also criticised), things came to a heady explosion with Sudip Sharma-led Paatal Lok, a show that examined the violent effects of majoritarian politics on the country’s most marginalised. Paatal Lok painted a hauntingly accurate portrait of modern India, a show that encapsulated the contradictions of a complex and diverse country.
“It was in development since forever. It took multiple, multiple iterations for us to get it right.” The show—an unflinching critique of caste, class, religion, rising intolerance and faux nationalism—doesn’t mince words and to nobody’s surprise, triggered the rage of right-wing trolls who branded it ‘anti-Hindu’ and ran an online campaign against it.
“To us, it was the story of people whose perspective is hardly shown. These are people who we see every day but never pause to think about their lives. The passion with which Sudip narrated it, I was sold. I knew we had to make this show, it would have been a travesty to let it go.”
Purohit mentions they were in no hurry to get the show made and allowed the creators to work on it for as long as it took to get it right. “We knew it’s a sensitive show. It needed to be tight and authentic. For instance, for the character of Cheeni, we could cast anybody from Bombay. But we decided to scout for talent in the North East (where the character is shown to be from) and find the most authentic person to play the part.”
Was there fear of backlash and when it eventually came, how was it tackled?
Purohit talks matter-of-factly. “We were very sure that we wanted to put the show out unapologetically. One has to realise that this is a true representation of the country. It wasn’t a show that was going to beat around the bush. Thankfully, till the end all of us stood together and took ownership of our decisions.”
On Breathe Into The Shadows, a show that didn’t quite become the part of cultural zeitgeist in the manner their previous ones had, Purohit says the audience reception was high. She says they were “thrilled with the amazing response and the love we have got from the fans.″ adding that the streaming company was glad to have the show in their content selection. “Abhishek Bachchan, Amit Sadh, Nithya Menen among other cast of the show delivered a stellar performance.”
While otherwise forthcoming, Purohit treads cautiously around the question of censorship. While India doesn’t yet have laws to police the internet, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sporadically hints at rolling out a code of conduct for streaming companies. Recently, the lyricist-writer and CBFC chief, Prasoon Joshi, who has been vocally supportive of the Modi-government, pointed out a scene from Amazon’s Rasbhari, saying that he was ‘saddened’ by the ‘irresponsible content.’
In the absence of any specific regulations, some companies have taken to self-censorship, preemptively deleting scenes that may be perceived as problematic by the easily-offended Indian State and its many foot-soldiers.
Asked why an episode from the latest season of Madam Secretary, which spoke about Hindu nationalism and Kashmir, was never made available to Indian audiences, Purohit responded with the standard, “we comply by the laws of the land” although there aren’t laws that explicitly ban such content in the first place.
Probe her a little more and she says there isn’t a culture of self-censorship at Amazon and that their creators have been able to tell the stories they wanted to with complete freedom. Then why did an episode go missing? “We’ve to be sensitive. I’m sorry, that’s as much as I can say about it.”
In The Pipeline
As the presiding overlord of a stream of stories, the show that Purohit is currently most excited about is Bandish Bandits, a musical love story created by Amritpal Singh Bindra and directed by Anand Tiwari. It features Ritwik Bhowmik and Shreya Chaudhry and has music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. It drops on August 4.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air and I cannot wait for people to watch it,” Purohit says. Also in the pipeline are the second seasons of The Family Man (currently in post-production) and Mirzapur and a show called Tandav, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar (Sultan, Bharat) which is about the politician-police nexus in Uttar Pradesh. Amazon has also recruited a person to look after South originals and there’s a lot more of unscripted series (such as Comicstan, which did exceedingly well for the platform) planned as well.
As we’re close to wrapping up the interview, I tell her that there’s this idea that those who start off as disruptors eventually become the mainstream, the alternate becomes the establishment.
How does she negotiate that fear?
“By constantly investing in new cinematic voices, not stopping the process that made you stand out in the first place. I cannot tell you how many stories we read in a week,” she says.
“My team and I read every pitch we get. We reply to everything that’s sent to us. I call ourselves story chasers and hopefully we will not become what we were trying to run away from.”
And what happened to the male filmmaker who said he still has a “few films left” in him?
Purohit smiles and says, “It’s a matter of time before he makes something for us.”
(Note: This article has been updated to reflect Purohit’s comment on Breathe Into The Shadows)