In this insightful yet fun interview, Jaydeep Sarkar talks about his film, Ishq Mastana in Feels Like Ishq, OTT, censorship, and so much more!

Feels Like Ishq on Netflix is an anthology series that has been receiving a lot of love. While we always talk to actors about their character and their process, we thought of bringing Jaydeep Sarkar to the table. Being one of the directors in the entire series, Jaydeep directed the film Ishq Mastana which stars Tanya Maniktala and Skand Thakur and is the last episode in this love ride called Feels Like Ishq.

Something you might’ve not known about Jaydeep Sarkar!

Based in Mumbai, Jaydeep is a screenwriter and filmmaker. He started his journey in cinema as an assistant to Anurag Kashyap and Sudhir Mishra and went on to write ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’ and ‘Daas Dev’ for Sudhir Mishra. As a screenwriter, he worked on Samar Khan’s ‘Shaurya’ and the hit television series ‘Remix’ among others. Jaydeep also was the creator and showrunner on the Disney India series ‘Ishaan’. He then changed gears and shifted to directing in advertising. Over the past six years, Jaydeep has directed some of the most awarded commercials for India’s largest brands like The Times of India, Hindustan Unilever, ITC, Glaxo Smith Kline, Pepsi among many others.

Jaydeep’s humanist style and riveting performances in his films have brought to life many stories, not just for brands but also for non-profit organizations such as ‘Action Aid’ and Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s ‘Bachpan Bachao Andolan’. Jaydeep’s recent film for The Times of India #TimesOut&Proud won the coveted One Screen Award 2020 from The One Club in New York City, for Best Film in the Asia Pacific region. This win was followed by a Grand Prix at Spikes Asia and many wins at Clios. His film for WWF ‘Freedom’ was shortlisted for Cannes Lions 2021 for the film. The film he did with Action Aid, ‘Water Wives’ garnered the Blue Elephant at the Kyoorius awards and was presented across various festivals, to bring attention to issues of water scarcity and its impact on gender inequality.  His short film ‘Nayantara’s Necklace’ with Konkona Sen Sharma and Tillotama Shome in lead roles, opened to many rave reviews and was screened across international film festivals.

Currently, Jaydeep is basking in the success of his recently released film Ishq Mastana in the Netflix anthology, Feels like Ishq. He is also producing and showrunning various shows across OTT platforms, that are at various stages of development and production.

Here’s what he had to say!

Feels Like Ishq has received a lot of love since its release. Many people have loved Ishq Mastana but what was it that inspired you to create this piece and this specific aspect of Ishq? 

I find it very romantic when people fall in love in a crowd. There is a line in ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’, actually a song ‘Banwara Mann’ where Swanand (Kirkire) has written ‘iss sayani bheed mein bas haathon mein tera haath ho’ and I find that so beautiful, that when the whole world is in chaos, you can hold someone’s hand and for a moment everything feels like it’s okay with the world. That’s something very precious to me but that said, what really excited me to tell the story is the stuff that one reads about what this generation is doing and not just in India but around the world, whether it’s the Arab Strain, Black Lives Matter or protests in India. I grew up in the 90s and in the 90s we started to be open about things, cell phones were just coming in and we were very comfortable and really thought that our generation was capable of a revolution. And when Netflix got in touch and they wanted to make a series on young love, I thought what is the one thing that really defines this generation? Y’all aren’t scared to speak up for what is right and want to stand up for what y’all believe in. So I wanted to make a film that captured this, that was an ode to this fearless generation. This was my thought and as I said earlier, two people falling in love in the middle of a throbbing protest is so romantic.”

While you described Ishq’s meaning for a whole generation, what does it truly mean to you?

Ishq is something that makes you come alive, something that inspires you, and when you’re with someone who makes you feel all that, you feel like everything is alright with the world. But I’m also at an age where I find romance in simple things of every day. Through the lockdown, my partner and I would do dishes together, clean the house and just be able to share mundane household chores with someone every day is also Ishq to me. It’s when you really feel alive and it could be with a person or it could also be with a cause, just like in my film.” 

Tanya and Skand seem like the perfect fit for Mehr and Kabir in the film, but what was it that made you feel like they would be perfect for your characters in Ishq Mastana?

It was a coincidence and it’s quite lovely that they fitted so well. I first saw Tanya in ‘Suitable Boy’ and I was really was charmed by her. I thought her performance was so subtle and her presence was so charming in the series. So we reached out to her, we spoke, and did a few Zoom calls. She really connected with the themes in my film and that is something you need when you are doing a project together. You need to collaborate with people who feel the same things that you feel. It cannot be that you feel one thing and the people you’re working with are just going along with you. You can’t make a truthful film that way. All of us really connected with what we wanted to talk about. About Skand what was really interesting is that we saw many auditions and everyone was performing a lot, everyone was doing very interesting line deliveries but Skand was able to hold the silence. The pauses between the lines that Skand held were so good and they were very compelling. It’s very rare for people to have, there is a Hindi word for it called ‘tharav’, and very few actors have that. I was totally convinced when I saw the audition for the first time that is exactly what I needed in the film. And that is how Skand and Tanya were cast for Ishq Mastana.

It’s truly an unprecedented time that we’re living in where stepping out of the house is still huge for a lot of people. How does one manage to shoot a film which involves a protest in such times? 

It was difficult because we have lots of crowds in the film but Netflix and the production house were so supportive. And they put covid protocols in place so everyone was tested constantly and those who were tested could not meet other people who weren’t tested, Everyone who visited the set had to carry an RTPCR test and be tested for COVID-19. Hence, we felt protected and safe even though there were like 200 extras who played the role of protestors on the set. Having said that, there was difficulty but everyone was coming out from a 6-month lockdown so we were hungry for not just social interaction but being back on the set and working. It was so heartwarming to see everyone pent up and urging to be back to work and tell stories. Everyone would have brought love to the set anyway but because of the pandemic, our work became that much more precious to us. I think everything has a flip side and even though these are unprecedented and very difficult times, those rare chances where we get to do what we generally otherwise took for granted becomes even more precious. So there was an outpour of love on the set and those four days when we shot became really precious.

While talking with him about the film was so insightful we also thought of asking him some personal questions and get his opinion on some questions that are always dangling around filmmaking and this ever-evolving art form.

You’re a screenwriter and director. Which one would you prefer more than the other? Have you struck a balance? 

I assisted Sudhir Mishra when I came to Bombay and wrote three films with him, out of which one remains unreleased. I feel like a director, screenwriter and even an editor’s work is like ek hi cheez ke alag alag pehalu hain. So you can’t just be one or the other. If you’re a director you’re bound to write parts of the script but I prefer collaborating with a writer with whom I can sort of not just develop the script but someone who also challenges my notions of the world and storytelling, so that forces me in a way to do better work. And then whatever you shoot, whatever you take to the editor, they will take a look at it and say that you’ve done a terrible job and they need to fix it, and then they will rewrite it again so the process of writing continues. But I’m a director and that is my first role.

Writers usually worry about whether or not directors will understand what’s written in the script and what their words will sound like on screen.

I’m a Bengali and I have to quote Satyajit Ray. Without that, the interview is incomplete. Ray had once said that the more personal the film is the more universal it is, so if you really feel for something, and if you really believe in what you are writing then chance hi nhi hai ki samne wale ko samjh mein nhi aayega and phir usko samjah nhi aaya then it’s not on you it’s on them.

OTT is the new trend, it’s a new rage, and while some say that it’s a savior for content, others have a slightly different opinion about it. But as a filmmaker, do you think OTT platforms are bringing a change in the narrative?

Cinema is a business and also an art form and very rarely do other art forms have to walk these two lines constantly. In the 70s and 80s, there were filmmakers like Kundan Shah, Sudhir Mishra, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani they had this patronage of these NFDC, Films Division, State Sponsorship and things like that, and when that went away slowly and the Box Office took over it all, it became about what are your Friday numbers and things like that. What’s happening with OTT coming in now is the sense of patronage has changed. OTTs today want to put money in films like ‘Serious Men’ or ‘Sherni’, where stories are at the center of it. And the viewer’s pattern is also changing because of OTT, the pandemic, and because now it’s all becoming personalized viewing, and the star system is also slowly changing. What NFDC was back in the 70s, OTT platforms are slowly becoming that today where they are putting their minds behind stories and filmmakers so it’s a fertile time for being a storyteller and filmmaker.

While the debate on censorship on OTT platforms is happening, what’s your take on it? 

Censorship has always been there, it was there during the emergency, it has been there for writers like Salman Rushdie when he wrote ‘Satanic Verses’ or for M.F. Hussain, and when as an artist you are writing for an audience, you have to be cognizant of the world that you live in. When you can’t say XYZ you’re forced to find a way of saying it in a different way and sometimes great work comes from this. The film that Hrishikesh Mukherjee made in the late 70s called ‘Khoobsurat’, has Rekha and Veena Pathak in it. The whole film is a family drama but actually, the film is about the country where she’s playing a character like Indira Gandhi inside this family. So it’s a satire where if you want to read it, it’s a film about autocracy and democracy. Similarly Iranian cinema, despite their limitations and censorship, always innovate and end up telling some beautiful things through stories that seem like they’re crafted for children, watch out for Kiarostami’s work. Satire comes out of this and I feel like sometimes it’s hard to constantly have to not just be censored but censor yourself because you want to talk about certain things. But I believe that if you want to talk about certain things and the world is not open to all these thoughts, you can find other ways of saying the same thing. Censorship is not something that scares me, rather it’s something that forces me to innovate. We live in a world where we have to be aware of our responsibility as filmmakers. Maybe I’m somewhere trying to make peace with it but I do believe that censorship doesn’t always have to be limiting, it can also be liberating.

Anthologies are slowly becoming the new trend in storytelling. Whether it’s Feels like Ishq where different short films are made into different episodes or Ajeeb Daastaans where shots are combined together as a film, both are based on a single theme. Is this genre of filmmaking changing the way content is created? 

YouTube, TVF, Dicemedia, and other production houses have created a lot of compelling content that people are getting used to, and now people don’t have the time to watch a 2-hour film. They would rather invest 20 minutes and watch something. I watched Ray on Netflix a while ago, where I watched each sub film over one meal. I watched a film over dinner, one during lunch the next day. It just becomes very convenient. Each film is also different so it’s a far richer campus and you’re getting to watch a lot more than you would’ve in a feature film. Hence anthologies are picking up faster. It’s also very exciting for filmmakers because you do one film, make something, it’s a shorter commitment than a feature film, then you move on to something else which is a completely different theme and you get to touch upon many topics like this. It’s a welcoming change but I don’t think that one is going to replace the other. Feature films are always going to be there. But for a generation that is so invested in binge-watching, I feel like Anthologies are a gift.

Currently, there’s a debate going on in the industry as to ‘who gets to tell the story’ i.e a while representation and telling the story is important, should only women should make women-centric stories and queer people make queer stories because they understand it best or are we categorizing art to a specific group?

While I don’t believe that you have to be alien to write E.T. at the same time, life experiences matter a lot in storytelling. I cannot write about Dalit women in an Adivasi region in Madhya Pardesh because I don’t know enough about it. I may know about the character’s arc, I may know about where this person’s story starts and where it ends but my texture and my fabric will not be true. So, I completely agree that voices of the marginalized class, voices of women, voices from the queer community need to be in these writers’ rooms. They need to tell their stories because the more personal the story is the more universal it is. Recently, I saw Neeraj Ghaywan’s Geeli Pucchi, which was a masterpiece and the intersectionality that he brings while he is not queer but he tells a beautiful story about two lesbian women at the same time he brings in the whole Dalit angle which comes from a lived experience, there is that truth in that. Would anyone else have been able to tell that story with so much empathy, probably not because the way Neeraj understood the struggle of being invisible as a Dalit in India today is something that can only come from lived experience. So this film is proof that you need lived experiences to be able to bring truth to the story but at the same time, you don’t have to be lesbian to tell the story empathetically. This brings me back to my film that it’s not about this or that but what needs to end is upper-caste upper-class men being the only ones telling stories. And for this people need to really come into the fold and own their stories and tell their stories and those stories are so much more interesting and so much more precious than the bubble gum stash that we see around. There have been great women filmmakers in the past like Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor. It’s actually about three friends who are like bros. She chose not to tell a feminist tale even with Katha, but it’s said with such depth and a beautiful sleight of hand that may be a man wouldn’t have been able to tell the story of three men the way she did or the way Zoya Akhtar tells you the story of three men in ZNMD. We live in a non-binary world, we live in a world where the yin and yang are in all of us. But we all see the world very differently. I feel all perspectives need representation and need to come into the fold for it to be a richer palette of stories. 

What else do you have in the pipeline?

I shot Ishq Mastana in December and in April we sort of got done with the post-production. I started working on a basic story idea and I would love to talk more about it but it’s too early to talk about it.

Why should you watch Ishq Mastana?

I don’t think you should watch Ishq Mastana. You can watch it if you want to but I hope somewhere the film gets through to you as an audience. I hope the film re-introduces Kabir’s poetry which is really lost in the mainstream for a while now and helps in rediscovering things about us, our country, our heritage, the little bits that I have tried to bring into this contemporary love story, I hope it resonates with the youth 

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