In Conversation With Heena DSouza, Writer And Director of Adi Sonal

After Gullak 3’s writer Durgesh Singh, here I bring to you another talented writer and director, Heena DSouza. I have been fortunate enough to have gotten a chance to speak with her about her OTT journey, what goes into writing and directing for different platforms, how working with veteran actors like Neena Gupta helps, and also, how OTT platforms are becoming more massy which is making it difficult for filmmakers to get funding for their projects.

And yes, do not forget to listen to this conversation absolutely unfiltered and raw on The Digital Popcorn’s first podcast on Spotify and Anchor or right here in this post (scroll down).

If I’m not wrong, you started your career as a content writer, right?

Yeah, I did. Yes.

So when you get into content writing, industry folks don’t even consider you for copywriting. You made a big switch and jumped straight away into filmmaking, script writing, and direction. How did you manage that switch? It’s like you have broken the stereotype..

Content writing was very accidental actually. I always wanted to get into screenplay writing, creative writing or copywriting because that’s my educational background as well. But then, you know, you need to do certain things to sustain yourself financially. So, I started as a content writer because due to the growing number of IT companies and a lot of SEO happening over the social media, there was a sudden spur in content creation. So that was like a very handy and very easy job to get into those days. And it sort of paid good as well. So I started this as something to sustain my career. And I was, meanwhile, also creating things on my own like writing stories and pitching it.

And then I got an opportunity to work with Home Veda which is one of the biggest natural home remedies channels. And this company was owned by Vinay Mishra who owns Humara movie. They are the pioneers in digital short films. They were the first ones to start independent platforms for short films and new budding filmmakers. So I pitched them a short film script. They liked it. And then I went ahead and made it on a very shoestring budget. And thankfully it did really well online. And, you know, from there my journey as a filmmaker and a screenwriter began

But then it was completely accidental, right? Or is it sheer luck that you got into a company which was also into filmmaking?

Yeah. I mean, not entirely accidental because if not this company, then I would have tried to get into the field through other means. I always had it in my mind, but I was just waiting for the right avenue, right platform to sort of begin. But yes, I would say that I was very lucky to find the right kind of people, right mentors who believed in me so that really gave it a boost.

But then when you talk about your educational background, is it of filmmaking or is it of mass media?

Mass media 

So not filmmaking.. This is completely of your own

Of my own, yes, it’s self-taught. I learned through watching films; through doing it even still, I’m learning to be better with each film that I do, but yeah, I don’t have any formal background in filmmaking.

Great, Excellent! 

And do you think because of OTT new writers, new script writers or new directors are getting more chances, like they are easily able to get into this line? Because if we see Bollywood, it’s difficult to enter even via writing. Even when you started, OTT was also just starting. So is that the reason it got easy?

Um, honestly OTT started on really well, as in, it was more open to indie films. It was more open to working with new writers, new directors, but after lockdown even OTT has become very, very saturated because now big players have started venturing into OTT space. So now, I would say, earlier it was easier to break in. For me, it was slightly unlucky because at that time I was just breaking in. I was just starting to make films and a lot of my short films went on various OTTs like Hotstar and Voot. But now when I’ve written a feature and I’m in the process of pitching it, it’s a struggle because of the big production houses and big players venturing into the OTT space. Now it has become really, really difficult to sort of break in.

Even with the previous experience? I mean, you already have your films on different platforms

Yes, I do. But you know, suddenly the scale has increased manyfold, especially because of the lockdown. In lockdown, the theatres closed. So all the big players, if you now see an OTT space, not just the big actors, but also big production houses now on OTT. 

So obviously, the scale, the production values, uh, the kind of requirement, the demand has increased manyfold. So it has become a struggle to sort of crack in. I won’t say it’s entirely hopeless. No! 

How many films get made in any year in theatres? Probably nine to 10 films, but now due to several OTTs, a lot of things are being made for several platforms. There are short films, there are web series, there are feature films so obviously the quantum of work and quantum of opportunities have increased. Definitely, as compared to the initial days.

But still there are filmmakers like me and several other filmmakers who are hoping that OTTs will become more open, more experimental, but it is not turning out to be that way. You know, OTTs are not working with big players, but now they are also a little shy from experimentation. They’ve become very audience conscious, like what the audience will like, whether what we are making is massy or not. All these factors which were earlier specific to television or theatre have now come into OTT space as well which is slightly worrying but I would also say, there are also plus I mean, definitely, as I said, there are many opportunities that are being given. You get projects. It’s not like I don’t get work at all. I’ve been getting constant work due to OTT only. Uh, but it’s just that. The growth is not as much as filmmakers like me hoped for.

Correct. I’ve been noticing that ever since the big players have started approaching these OTT platforms, quality has gone down a lot. So do you think marketing also plays a big role here? If you have money and if you are ready to market your product, anything would sell…

Um, sadly that’s true. Marketing these days plays a tremendous role in pushing a certain product because there are so many things available in the market. There are so many platforms, then there is YouTube, then there is social media. So, you need a very, very strong marketing strategy to sort of get people to watch your film. These days, I would say whether a film is good or bad, I mean it does matter whether a film is good or bad, but more than that marketing plays a huge role in shaping a project. You know, that’s the reason people these days focus more on marketing, more on strategizing, more on understanding what is the flavour of the… uh, you know, like OTTs have these, if you must have noticed, if one thriller content becomes popular, then everybody is making a thriller.

So they also follow these weird trends. They follow what the audience likes, what the audience doesn’t like. So it has become more about strategy and marketing than purely about making content. 

Do you think that this will make small filmmakers but good story tellers walk away from these platforms?

I mean, not walk away from the platform because what other platforms do we have? These are the only avenues. If you have to get your work out, if you have to tell your story, you will have to make certain compromises. These days a film production is no more purely a director’s medium because of big production houses coming into play. A production house has several internal team members deciding and taking calls according to whatever their strategy is. There are a lot of decision makers in play. So if you want to get your stories to be told, if you want to keep getting work constantly, in every project, there are certain compromises to be made.

Does that affect the quality of your work? 

Sometimes it does because these decisions are not driven by creativity. These decisions are driven by the fear of what the audience will like, what will the audience not like? When your decision making is driven by fear, then creativity gets affected.

Correct. And that happens everywhere.

Yes. If these decisions were driven by the mindset to make the project better or to take the risk, and if it was an experienced or a very conscious decision, then it would have been okay. Then it always helps to have more minds on one project. But if these decisions are driven by fear, then that’s a problem,

Correct! With so many decision makers involved, you’re still doing a fabulous job, I must say. Your creativity is not being affected, at least till now. 

So Heena, when you look at Pressure Cooker and Adi Sonal, both of these are very mature subjects and you are a very young director. How do you handle such subjects while writing or especially while guiding your actors to bring out the right emotions?

Have you ever come across such characters in your life or is it just observation or it comes from your imagination? How do you handle it?

 I’m 34 now  <laughs> so I’m not sure if that is really considered as young

<laughs> Yeah. You’re…

The stories you told were of middle-aged or older woman

Yes. A lot of these stories, you are right, they do come from, a part of it comes from the observations that you make. And then a part of it is also imagination because then you observe something and you sort of extrapolate, you create a story from it. For example, Neena Gupta’s character from Adi Sonal is very loosely based on my paternal aunt. The walk, the mannerisms and everything is sort of based on her because I always felt that she was a very interesting personality. But the story around it is sort of an imagination also. So I think it’s a bit of both because obviously your life experiences, what you observe, where you travel, what you read does affect your writing and your mindset and also your sensibilities. A part of it also comes from your imagination – what you think your world should be! So I think it’s a mix of both.

I think when it comes to writing, imagination is still fine, but when it comes to directing, you are reaching out to so many people. So for those emotions to click with the audience, that is something very surprising. If you’re not lived or experienced it very closely, and it’s just loosely based on imagination, then directing it is a difficult part? Or you think it gets easy because it’s all in the mind.

I wouldn’t say it’s very difficult because once you are sure about your character, once you are clearly imagining your character, then it sort of becomes easy. For example, if you talk about Pressure Cooker, if you talk about Adi Sonal, these are very everyday characters. So explaining them to an actor is relatively easy, then let’s say a character like Lucifer, like Loki. A fictional character, say, a character that doesn’t belong to this world has a different set of rules, has a different system altogether then that becomes slightly trickier. But even in those cases, if it is clear, if you can see your character… For example, whenever I write a character, I always imagine a person. I have a person in my mind, it could be like a real person or an imaginary person, but there is a person. I always see this person – what he wears, how this person looks, you know? So that becomes easy. If you can’t see your character, then you can’t make your actors act it.

Correct. And having experienced actors like Neena Gupta helps you give a better product? Or do you think that the same result can be achieved with new actors as well..

Um, obviously there’s a huge difference in working with veteran actors and good actors like Neena Gupta, because sometimes, actors also bring a lot on plate. They also sometimes bring out the nuances that you hadn’t thought about. And obviously with actors like this, conveying yourself becomes very easy because they sort of understand the language of filmmaking. Veteran actors have been trained really well because they understand the technicalities of a shoot as well. For example, if it’s a wide shot, if it’s a close shot, how should I act? How much of the reaction should I give? So obviously working with experienced and good actors makes your job easy, but that doesn’t mean working with new actors… See, as long as an actor is a good actor, then it really becomes easy. And you also enjoy the process. A lot of people think that a director can make anyone act, but a director is a director. He’s not an acting coach. So I cannot teach someone who doesn’t know acting how to act just in a four, five day workshop. It takes months to learn acting, you know? So when you have bad actors, it’s definitely a struggle..

Yeah, there are so many actors, no matter which film or project they’re in, they just cannot act

But then having said that I have also worked with a lot of non-actors, but then in that case, what happens is when you pick a non actor, you pick someone who exactly matches your character, then you just have to tell them to be themselves. You know, sometimes when you make non actors act, you just pick very smartly. You pick a person who is your character and then you just have to tell them to be themselves.

That must also be difficult, but yes, that is also one of the strategies

So being a director is a difficult job. I think, compared to that, being a writer is very simple. You just write out what you’re imagining and you are done, but then executing it… It’s very tough.

Honestly, I would say both of them are equally difficult. I won’t say that a writer’s job is easy because see, a writer is creating the whole world from scratch. So writing, it can be a frustrating process. I feel that direction has got more to do with the logistics and execution. If you plan well, if you do a very solid pre-production and have a good team in place, then it is almost certain that your execution will go on smoothly, but being a writer, it is a very anxious process. I’ve been both a writer and a director. So, that frustration of what you’re writing, whether it’s good or bad.. There are times when you spend days writing something, but then after 15 days, you don’t like what you’ve written.

They are very different processes and they are equally challenging. I won’t say that a writer’s job is easy just because a writer has to sit and write. It’s mentally taxing. And writing is a very disciplined job. Writing a hundred page script or a feature film, it takes a tremendous amount of discipline to sit and write every day. It takes an even greater amount of discipline when you know that your project might or might not get commissioned. And despite that, getting everyday writing it knowing that this might or might not be made into a film. And then the other frustrating process is to get hundreds of feedback and deciding which feedback to take, which not to take. So I would say these both processes are equally difficult in their own ways. They have their own challenges and their own good things. So it’s a mix of both

Very true. Writing is mentally exhausting. I totally agree with it, but then I always think that when you compare writing and direction, I find writing a bit easier than direction… Maybe because I have never done that. And I have always been on the writing side so I always think, how do people get onto the execution side? Writing is okay. I can sit, I can imagine going to the moon as well, and I can write it on paper. And people might like it because maybe everyone wants to go to the moon right now. The point is I can write anything and if someone relates to it, they will like it or not like it, but executing it, that effort you put into execution… Then if people don’t like it or the actors or the audience do not see what you have been seeing all the while, that is very, very exhausting. That is emotionally tiring as well.

Yeah. I know what you mean. And it is also because filmmaking is a very expensive affair. People  may think that sometimes filmmaking is just somebody taking out a camera and putting on a few lights, but that’s not true because see, essentially you are recreating reality. You’re creating a make believe world. So everything from costume to art direction, everything is a very, very expensive affair, I would say. 

These days, also because of the OTTs, we are so exposed to international content now that we have to ensure a certain level of production quality, even in short films, like gone are the times where you could make a good short film with an average production value. Now, even if it’s a short film, a shoddy production value is not acceptable. These days making a short film which is 20-minutes long also takes a lot of energy, a lot of budget and that’s why I struggle to get these projects funded, because they’re expensive. Obviously if people are putting money, there’s a lot of thinking gone into it.

Speaking of budget, your first short film was Vighna Bharta, right?

Yeah.

That was made in under Rs 20,000. It did go viral as well.

Yes. 

So  do you think a good story works even if the budget is low?

Good story really works. And the thing is that was a different time. We are talking about what…. 2015/16. But that film was also contained within limited space with limited characters. And yes, if the content is good, if the actors are good, then obviously the film does well. And in that film also, despite the fact that it was made in 20,000, I had to pull in a lot of favours, like, you know, it was made in my friends’ house, the DOP did it for free so all those favours were pulled in. But yeah, I’m very glad that it did well because that gave me a lot of push.

And then your next film was..

After that, I made Pressure Cooker then I made this film, Faded. I also made the short called Sarvagun Sampann, which also got nominated for Filmfare. Um, then I made my first web series Mukesh Jasoos. Thankfully, I have been constantly working post my first short film.

You have been more on the short films side, right?

See, the thing was that before I went on to make my web series, as I said, that web series require huge budgets and they need to be commissioned through the platforms. So Mukesh Jasoos was the first web series that was commissioned by Hotstar. And before that, instead of waiting for the next big break, I always prefer doing something. Hence, I kept making short films wherever I could get the funds from, because short films are easy to get funded. It is lesser money, lesser risk. So I felt that instead of not doing anything and now waiting for a feature film to be made or waiting for a web series to be made, I thought, why not continue making short films and gone are the days, short films were simply made to put forward your portfolio.

These days, even for short films, there are a lot of platforms.  Short films are now money making. They are legit content right now. You know, that’s why people are putting in a lot of money in making these short films. I just recently shot a short film for Amazon mini TV, which will be out in June. People actually prefer short films these days over a two hour or a three hour long feature film. Even if I make my feature, I’m still making these short films because I enjoy the process. And I just feel that you should keep working, see direction and writing is a practice. Every time you make something, every time you do something, you just become better and better at it. So rather than waiting for your next big break, I feel it’s better to do whatever work is coming your way.

Very true! And this industry such if you’re out of work, you’re out of the industry,

Correct. You become irrelevant because I’ve noticed that my work is getting me work. Mukesh Jasoos got me my second series which was Crushed. Crushed got me another web series, another short film. So your work is constantly out. You also get work.

Right. You spoke about a feature film, so you would like to shed some light on it?

Well, I wouldn’t because it is currently in the stage of pitching, but all I would like to say is that I’m really excited. I hope it gets commissioned soon, so I can go on floor with it. It is a very interesting concept. Unfortunately I can’t talk about it.

Will it be released in theatres or on an OTT platform?

That hasn’t been decided yet. Because these days theatres have become tricky. You never know what happens. So these things are usually decided when a producer is on board. So usually it’s a producer’s call whether to make it a theatre release or an OTT release. 

Here’s one last question for you, Heena. What do you think is the difference between writing and directing for OTT and if you know, it’s a theatre release? Do you think that the same concept, same writing, and same direction technique can work on any platform? 

There is a difference because theatre is more of a massy platform. They usually prefer stories that connect more to the masses, you know? And, uh, it’s an experience that you take along with your family. It’s more of a social entertainment, a pure entertainment experience. You know, you go out with your family to be happy, to watch drama, action. So obviously, for theatres, the kind of stories that work has to be more massy, at least for the kind of audience that we have in India. I’m not saying that offbeat subjects don’t do good in theatre. They do, but mostly, it is something that should have that entertainment, fun quotient in it, something which can pull the masses. And obviously theatre films are packaged differently, in terms of who you are casting, how you are marketing it and what is the highlight of the film. Usually, these theatre releases, they sort of follow a trend also, like for example, after Badhaai Ho, there was a trend for these small town stories based in north India. They tend to vaguely follow this trend as well. 

For OTT, I believe OTT is more open when it comes to different genres, different kinds of content, because it’s a more personalised watching experience. And again, OTT films are packaged differently. People like to go for new faces, go for new actors which is very good. I love working with fresh talent. It is amazing. I guess that’s the only primary difference between a feature and OTT content.

So any new projects coming up on OTT? 

I’ve pitched a web series and soon it is going to come out on a platform. Again, I can’t talk about it because of the contracts that you have with several platforms, but this year seems good for me. A lot of projects are in the pipeline, so hopefully things will start rolling out. One of my short films will be released in June, so let’s hope for the best. 

All the best to you for all the lovely projects. And I’ll keep bugging you so next time, we’ll discuss new projects. I genuinely want directors like you to be here, may it be on OTT or theatres to just improve the quality of content that’s coming out.

Well, I’m glad that there are platforms like you that review content that sort of scouts for new talent. So, I am very thankful to you as well. Best of luck. I hope your platform does really, really well. And surely we both will connect again in future.

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