Abhishek Chaubey’s Killer Soup is one heady, twisted and wacky delight. For all its nervous and chaotic energy that surrounds the fictional hill station of Mainjur in Tamil Nadu, this is a tale that is always one step ahead of you at any given point. You think you know where the story is headed, only to be turned around by a revelation. (Also read: Konkona Sen Sharma exclusive interview: On Killer Soup’s complicated shoot and that Wake Up Sid ad with Ranbir Kapoor)
In this exclusive interview with Hindustan Times, director Abhishek Chaubey went deep into the making of Killer Soup – its world, the many characters, the resemblance to a Shakespearean chorus, and the connecting thematic thread which pieces together all his work. Spoilers ahead. (Excerpts)
Congratulations on Killer Soup. I want to begin by asking about the design of the show, which is very fable-like and quirky. Tell me a little bit about why that shape-shifting tone was necessary.
You know, the tone of the story came very early on. It was there during the writing, it was not an afterthought. This is very wild story. If you think about it, it is a crazy patchwork of various things so when the story came to me from my writers Anant Tripathi and Unaiza Merchant, what appealed to me was its subvert, dangerous tone. It was going to be a challenge to pull the story off, and that challenge was what was fun about it. The point that the story is going to make is one thing, but the manner in which it is told and the world that it creates is- you are absolutely correct- it is sort of fable-like, it is sort of similar to when you read a graphic novel… that sort of a world and that was the fun part of doing this show. So the tone was there right from the beginning. But the challenge was maintaining the fine balance. It was bit of a tightrope, maintaining it through the writing and the shooting and the editing and so on. That was the challenge but also the fun part for me. That’s what I wanted to do.
While watching Killer Soup, I was obviously trying to keep track of all of the threads, but also genuinely interested in the plethora of supporting characters that you have sprinkled across the show. From Swathi to Arvind and down to Thupalli- who I will come to in a minute, there’s so much going on at once. I have noticed that in everything you have done so far, you have always had an ensemble cast… a myriad of characters.
The characters that came into the story had to feel integral to the framework. When we were writing in the early stages, there was a always a struggle to understand what we were trying to talk about. What is it that we were trying to say in this story? It is important for me as a filmmaker as to try and understand to see how every scene and every moment reflects that. For me the important part of the story is how it is talking about power operating in a family, and by that measure how it operates in the world. The story starts from a family, just between a husband and a wife and a lover, but when we realise that the main thrust of the story is that this woman is trying to find herself and get to a position of power… we needed to create a number of characters within the family, so that this theme comes out. So therefore, you have the angry, vulgar patriarch (Sayaji Shinde), another woman seeking to make a place in the world (Kani Kusruti) and so on.
The other world of the story is the cops. Where you have Nassar’s character, then Thupalli and others. So somewhere when we are talking about how power operates in the world, we are also talking about how when we are tying to acquire power through unsavory means, there are going to be consequences. The cops are the consequences. Thupalli is the consequence of what you are doing, and its for Hasan and eventually for Swathi. We had all these characters who were sort of, representing something for Swathi. It gave me an opportunity to create an unique, very fun sort of characters… which are not caricaturized but more something that you see in a comic book world. To the best of my abilities, they are as real as they can be. Their mannerism, costumes, their look remind you of a fictional world.
When we talk about mythology, we talk about it in very fantastical terms. In that sense, here it is a realistic sort of a mythology with these characters. You have the witches, that’s why they are so exaggerated, that is why they are behaving in that way. They are literally making a brew all the time (laughs). So that is the plane in which I saw the story and that is the plane where I created these characters, where I wanted the performances to land. It is challenging not only to execute but also to the viewer, to get into this world and reach that level where the story is asking them to go. This was also a break from some of the realistic work that I have been doing in the recent past, in Sonchiriya and in Udta Punjab. I wanted a break from that and create a fictional world in which you could find these characters.
Tell me a little bit about Thupalli’s arc in particular. I was fascinated with the use of poems, and integration of magic realism. It was not expected given there was so much happening around him. But there was a certain beauty and mystery in the way it was portrayed. Was there ever a concern that it would not land in the larger scope of the narrative?
No, because that fear is there each and every moment when you are making a show like this. But you go for broke and you say let’s see. Thupalli (played by Anbuthasan) starts out as a living, breathing character only in episode 2. He is this extremely enthusiastic, uptight, diligent, young boy who is working as a police officer and he is preparing for the Civil Services exam so that he can return to the force as an IPS officer. He wakes up at 3’o clock in the morning, does his exercises and prepares for his exam and gets to work by 7 AM in the morning.
In this world, he is the only one who is looking to achieve his goal in an honest and true manner. No body else is doing it (laughs). The irony is that in this sort of a world he is not going to get it. Which is sort of the reflection in any case, of how our world is. People who are honest and diligent, they never get their due. Thupalli’s track is really about Hassan, the police-officer. He is cynical, he is about to retire. He sees this young, enthusiastic rookie and he is almost afraid for him in the beginning. He thinks that the disillusionment for the kid is round the corner, and he does not want that to happen. But when he dies, Hassan takes it upon himself that he did not take care of this young boy. He is guilt-ridden because of that. That’s when Thupalli comes back to him in a state of inebriation. Thupalli is both- a supernatural spectre, and an extension of Hassan’s guilt. Thupalli doesn’t come from privilege so his English is a little bit weak. So he wants to learn it quickly by reading poems. So it does stands that when Thupalli speaks to Hassan, he does so in verse.
What I wanted was to show all the deductions that Hassan was making, looks like it comes from the poetry clues that Thupalli is giving to him. But at the same time, things that are happening are also taking place in real time. For example, when he goes to the forest he gives that dog a smell of the book so that he knows where is lying. In episode 5, when Thupalli says go back to the beginning, Hassan remembers how Thupalli had told him about the Manisha Koirala woman before. What Thupalli is trying to tell him through all the poetry, including what happens in episode 7 is also a reflection of what is goimg on in the story. He almost fulfils the purpose of a Shakespearan chorus. In the late Elizabethan plays, there was this technique of having a chorus which sort of does a commentary on what is going on in the main plot. Thupalli becomes that voice, sort of the moral conscience of the story.
If I have to link a common thread in all of your work, I see that your characters somehow always want to strive for agency, in the drive for power. Killer Soup does it as well, within all the paradoxes. Talk to me about this thematic length that underlines your work.
I think you are absolutely correct! Man’s lust for power has been a preoccupation with me as a filmmaker. For me, it is about the futility. I think the search for power is a futile exercise. It is a destructive exercise by its very nature. There is nothing good that comes out of power. I also feel that the opposite of love is not hate but power. Being in love is being powerless. Being completely open, with your guard down. Power is the exact opposite of that. That has been my primary preoccupation as a filmmaker, from Ishqiya. I also think that it is the primary preoccupation of the age that we live in. It is timeless, this lust for power. It is how human society is structured and we need power because we need resources, we need control.
As a filmmaker, as an artist I feel if I can hint that in the stories… now here in Killer Soup, I am sort of doing it here in a feminist lens. You see Swathi, who is a woman and is married to wealth… but there is the system of the old patriarchy running within that family. The patriarchs (the brother-in-law and the husband), are in their glory-loud, vulgar, burping, farting… that is what patriarchy is (laughs)! It is death by a thousand cuts. Not outright misogyny where she is beaten up or kicked around. It is how she is not treated with respect. Where she is shown her place, day in and day out with these little gestures and comments. So, its her way of telling that I will screw this and I am going to seek my own destiny. But what it drives her to do is to seek the very same power that the patriarch have been holding onto. That is the nature of power and she will stop at nothing to get it. This has consequences. She transforms from being somebody who is wronged to being the perpetrator of those very crimes. That’s the arc. You’ve created this world where you have taken agency of the women in the family but when they come to get it, it’s not going to be nice. It is going to be the same violent process all over again.
Lastly, what’s cooking next for you? Manoj (Bajpayee) has already said that he keeps on asking you about Killer Soup 2, so what can you tell us about that?
There are various ideas at various stages of development at the moment. I am also developing another series, and I have written a film which is a very exciting one about the youth today. Hope I can make it for the big screen! I know big screens have become a thing where you are only watching a certain kind of film but I hope that will change and we can also go a little more middle on the road. Then of course, as and when Netflix gets back to me we will be working on season 2 as well! Let’s see where that goes.
Killer Soup is available to stream on Netflix.