In the opening scene of Kohrra – the latest crime thriller from Paatal Lok’s creator Sudip Sharma, a couple gets down to business under the cover of fog in a field where a bludgeoned dead body is soon discovered. And that’s just the first few seconds of the show. Starring Barun Sobti and Suvinder Vicky, the Punjab-set show directed by Randeep Jha revolves around cops solving the gruesome murder of an NRI who had returned to his hometown to get married.
For co-creator Sudip Sharma, who was reluctant to release yet another crime-ridden show, the murder was secondary to the people around the investigation. In an exclusive interview, the showrunner opened up about the portrayal of Punjab in his works, why Tom and Jerry is more violent than Paatal Lok and more.
Where were you when you got the concept for Kohrra?
Paatal Lok had just been released and Gunjit Chopra and Diggi Sisodiya pitched this idea during the pandemic. I was not sure if I wanted to do another crime show right after Paatal Lok. But I had a realisation when I read the document that as much as the show is about crime and investigation, it is also about relationships. Normally when we make crime shows, they’re really focused on the crime and the thriller aspect of it. But here was a show that was trying to explore relationships, lives and life in Punjab in the here and now. And trying to look at the sub-societies that exist in Punjab. I found that super exciting and that’s how the journey kind of started.
What went into setting up the opening scene of the show?
Kohrra is haze or a fog or a cover under which things that you don’t want to be discovered can happen. There was a starting point- Here is a couple who in this nice cover of the winter fog are making out. But there’s somebody else who has also used this cover to perform a criminal act. They happen to chance upon a dead body and the story starts from there. We wanted to set up the idea of Kohrra through the opening scene itself. There was also a deeper meaning to it which was trying to explore the fog in relationships that stops us from seeing the truth. How the haze of our personal complexities stops us from seeing the truth and stops us from being able to connect to the other person in a deeper way.
How did you go about fleshing out the personal stories along with the crime story?
When you’re trying to tell a story, there are two factors that you have to consider. One is the plot and the other is the characters. The crime we looked at from the point of view of the plot, and any good story needs to have a balance of plot and characters. If you make it too plot-heavy, then the story can become shallow and not have enough depth. If you make it too character heavy then there is a possibility of it becoming dull. The crime thriller aspect of it, we looked at it from the point of view of the plot. At the same time, we were also trying to look at character development. It’s a trick. It’s a balancing act.
How did you go about researching the crimes the show explores?
We added a lot of lived experiences to the writing of the show. Gunjan has spent a lot of time in Punjab, he loves the place. He has drawn a lot from his experiences over there. Crime is also a phenomenon that personally interests me. The crossroads of crime and society and the social implications it throws up, have always excited me as a storyteller. We mined our personal experiences. He helped with the research for Udta Punjab as well. We have travelled extensively across Punjab and met a lot of police officers. All of it comes out in the show.
How much did your Udta Punjab experience help with the show? And was it tricky to get representation right?
Udta Punjab had limited time and space to tell a story. In the long format, there was a possibility of diving deep into subplots. We were writing the show out of a love for the place so that was never really a concern. The show is not a critique of society in any way. It came from the idea of finding these lives and their complexity is fascinating as a storyteller. We approached it from the lens of trying not to tell a political story, but look at it from the politics of relationships.
How did you go about adding brief light moments in such a heavy show?
Punjab is an incredibly lively place. Punjabis have a naturally funny sense of humour, you know, without trying to be funny. And that’s what actually makes them very funny. So when you’re dealing with Punjab, it would be unnatural to not have moments of levity because there’s no escaping that in Punjab. It comes in offhand conversations. If you spend time with a bunch of Punjabis, you will come out of it smiling or laughing. The language itself is so rich and lively. So rather than trying to make it light because the show is so heavy, it naturally flowed from characters.
When did you know that you had your lead characters in Barun Sobti and Suvinder Vicky?
I had worked with Suvinder Vicky earlier in Udta Punjab and Paatal Lok. There is a lot of pathos on his face and sadness. He just kind of fitted into the profile that we had in mind for Balbir – A man whose life hasn’t been too kind to him, but he hasn’t been too kind to life either. Barun, I had seen his work in Halal, Randeep’s film and I really liked it. There is a natural sense of humour in Barun like it is in Garundi. We wanted to tap into that. He has comic timing. He’s also great with the language and he is a true blue Punjabi at heart. That provided authenticity to the character. These actors were my first choice.
Was it tricky to create a show around two characters that you can’t really root for?
No, it’s not. I think we put too much emphasis on the word hero. They are protagonists of your story, they’re not really heroes. The moment you start telling the story from a particular point of view, there is no way that the viewer will not be interested in his life as long as you’re making it engaging and drawing that empathy. It doesn’t matter if he’s a murderer or he has done the worst of crimes. As long as you are able to tell me his perspective and make me understand where he comes from. I may not like him, but I understand him and I think that’s more important. Both these characters also have some redeeming qualities. If they didn’t you would question then you would question them as viewers. Once you see the potential for change in a character, as people, we appreciate that because deep down, we all want to change. We all want to improve, become better versions of ourselves. When we see that happening, in characters, on screen, or in literature. There is something satisfying and identifiable in that.
What were some of the cues you gave for the show’s visuals?
More than wanting to shoot a noir thriller, we wanted to explore Punjab in a wholesome manner. We shot the fictional place called Jagrana in Ludhiana. Visually we wanted to, we wanted to cover the famous fields of Punjab, the plush NRI homes and the industrial side of Punjab. It has a huge industrial base which gets overlooked. Most films are shot in Amritsar or in Chandigarh. But we wanted to capture a different side of Punjab. The grungy, beaten down as well as the vibrant and booming side of Punjab.
A lot of your works feature violence. How do you go about using that as a device?
It’s tricky, right? Portraying violence on screen. If violence is done for effect then I don’t want to do it. I’m not interested in violence for effect. I’m not interested in cartoony violence where there are no consequences to actions. For example, Tom and Jerry I think is a very violent show. Tom really goes after Jerry and there are no consequences and I think that’s dangerous. Through my work, I want to tell people that if you pick up a hammer and hit someone on the head, then this is what it can end up as. It’s important to say it like you see it and not flinch from it. The idea is never to condone violence and never to justify it but to accept that there is violence in society. But let’s also look at what could happen if you choose violence.
What are some movies or shows that have influenced your filmography?
When you are a cinema lover your influences come out in ways even you don’t understand. There is Satya, Maqbool and Bandit Queen. The whole idea of writing Sonchiriya was a tribute to that film which changed the course of my life. Then there are Martin Scorsese’s films that have been a huge fan. The ’70s were a golden period for Hollywood and the independent cinema that came out. I’m a huge fan of it.
What can you reveal about Paatal Lok 2?
Season 2 has an intense story, but it’s a very personal journey. I grew up in the Northeast in troubled times, in the ’80s and the ’90s and I carry some scars inside me from that time and baggage from the past. For me, the second season was about going back out there after 20 years and saying, okay I’m using my past experiences in a constructive manner. There was something hugely satisfying about that.
Kohrra is set to release on July 15, 2023.