“Place the body near the beginning of your book — preferably on the first page, perhaps the first sentence.” — Louise Penny
Crime, a mindboggling genre, piques the reader as much as it enthralls the viewer when translated on the screen. The OTT space, too, is inundated with crime dramas. As our fascination for murder, gore and violence shows no signs of ebbing, we wonder what it takes to make us traverse the dark alleys of crime. Director Ashish R Shukla, whose web-series Undekhi hit the right buttons this year, shares the potent combination. He says, “The trick is to make it relatable and unpredictable at the same time. Novelty is what matters the most in heightening the fear factor. ” An ideal thriller’s episode, he insists, not only ends on a cliffhanger but also is packed with many such mini-cliffhangers. He adds, “Frankly, we are manipulating the viewer’s mind psychologically.”
If the key to a crime novel is its page-turning ability, filmmaker and author Piyush Jha says it’s the edge-of-the-seat quality that keeps the adrenaline rush of viewers going. Writer of bestsellers like Mumbaistan and Compass Box Killer: An Inspector Virkar Crime Thriller, his book The Anti-Social Network will soon be recreated as a web-series. Explaining the method behind crime writing, Jha says, “We are merely responding to the milieu and experiences around us. We need to understand the cadences of the reader’s mind, how much to reveal and at what time.” And what kind of space do they inhabit? While Jha says, “We are not serial killers plotting murders all the time, only telling a human story,” Shukla feels, “It is all about amplifying our own dark experiences.”
The challenge becomes manifold since the world we live in is brimming with gruesome incidents, somewhat deadening our responses to violence. But then, as Jha says, “What kind of crime and criminality we, the creators, are going to talk about is our prerogative.” The task becomes doubly onerous in case of real-life crime shows like Delhi Crime, where both sensibility and sensitivity have to be kept in mind.
Shukla, who has worked with Anurag Kashyap, master of dark dramas, may have learnt the ultimate lesson of fearlessness from him. Yet, he is aware that the antagonist can’t be unnecessarily glorified and the injustice behind the crime must be driven home. Actor Varun Badola, who wrote the dialogues for Undekhi, too, endorses that redemption has to be an integral part of crime stories. Yet, we all love the Gaitaondes and Munnas of Sacred Games and Mirzapur. Shukla relies heavily on performances to create his characters, good or bad. He says, “Not just heroes, even the bad guys must have a certain swag and charm.” Does that mean that crime writing is not merely cut to chase, but can be complex and nuanced? The fact that the best Indian series Sacred Games and Paatal Lok have been based on books by authors (Vikram Chandra and Tarun Tejpal, respectively) outside the film world, too, tells us how crime writing is a specialised genre.
Often cinema (Class of 83) goes where others like crime author S Hussain Zaidi have gone before. Filmmaker Sanjay Gupta, who adapted Zaidi’s Dongri to Dubai for Shootout at Wadala, doesn’t think there is much difference between adapting a book and penning a fresh screenplay. “Except that someone else has done the research for you.”
As writers and filmmakers, do they feel an extra onus on their shoulders while dabbling with the genre? Gupta couldn’t care less about the messaging. For him, black and white is oh-so-boring. The reason why crime stories, that too often non-fiction, work for him is audience response. As this Mumbai boy has spent seven long years of research in finding out the details of Mumbai underworld in the 1980s and 1990s for his next big screen outing Mumbai Saga, he also dispels the notion that we are living in more violent times.
Jha reminds us that violence is not a natural corollary of all crime. “Look at Scam 1992, it’s a crime that does not involve any direct violence.” The problem in India is, he feels, we often confuse gang wars alone with crime. The truth is crime genre is a wide range. From the whodunit detective stories to horror to thrillers to even white collared crimes, much falls under its ambit. As we are moving towards a world where it is becoming difficult to sift between drama and reality, where newspapers carry more crime within their fold, says Shukla, “it’s important to sift the grain from the chaff.” Whether all makers can distil the truth or not, crime genre remains a possibility pregnant with many layers and meanings. How often and how well it is done is yet another story. As Manjit Sachdev, head of content at Voot & Voot Select, states, “We are reaching a saturation point and becoming formulaic in our approach to ‘genres’, especially in terms of crime thrillers.” Nevertheless, right now, what is certain is that crime entertains and pays. As Richard Castle says, “There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people… mystery writers and serial killers. I’m the kind that pays better.”