Home » Interviews » “I am a storyteller who uses different mediums to express himself”– Piyush Jha

It’s difficult to put Piyush Jha in a box. He is a writer, author and filmmaker who has worked in advertising, publishing, cinema, digital content space, audio fiction and other mediums. After working in the advertising industry for a few years, Piyush made three offbeat films (‘Chalo America’, ‘King of Bollywood’ and ‘Sikandar’). Each of his films have become more relevant with time. He is the author of five best-selling novels (‘Mumbaistan’, ‘Compass Box Killer: An Inspector Vikrar Crime Thriller’, ‘Anti-Social Network: An Inspector Virkar Crime Thriller’, ‘Raakshas: India’s No. 1 Serial Killer’ and ‘Girls Of Mumbaistan’). One of his books was recently adapted into the very successful digital series ‘Chakravyuh – An Inspector Virkar Crime Thriller’.

In this interview, the man who wears multiple hats as a creative person, talks about the success of the recently released show, his journey across different creative industries, his love for Mumbai, what advertising taught him, being married to a film critic, trying out different things as a creator, getting back to filmmaking, upcoming projects and more.

People often say the shows made on these digital or OTT platforms are targeted at the urban audience. While ‘Chakravyuh – An Inspector Virkar Crime Thriller’ did become very popular with the city-based audience, it was widely watched by viewers residing in smaller towns and cities as well.

Yes, the response to the show has been overwhelming across India even in the smallest of towns. The fact that it has been received very well by the audience across different socio-economic strata is what gladdens me the most.

The series was based on your book ‘Anti-Social Network: An Inspector Virkar Crime Thriller’. Was there any concern about how the written material will be adapted for the screen?

This is a concern which most authors have. However, I am also a filmmaker. I have adapted my own screenplays into films. It is difficult to translate the written word onto a cinematic medium. So, what you do is you take an essence of it. I was always open to the idea of my books being adapted for different mediums. The team which worked on the show gave the story the cinematic enhancement that it required. All of it was done very well and personally, I am extremely satisfied with the outcome.

How involved were you with the show?

I have realized that once you give somebody the permission to interpret a piece of work you have developed, you shouldn’t interfere in their process. Just because I have written the book, I should not curb the creative freedom of the team that adapts it for the screen. I developed the ideas, and written the plot and created the characters from scratch in the book. I had a certain vision and that is the vision I wanted everybody to buy into. Once I realized all of us were on the same page, I didn’t have to micro-manage the team’s creative vision. When you create something and are a part of a team, you have to let other people take your vision forward. I had absolute freedom when I was writing the book. Therefore, I wanted the team to enjoy complete freedom too when they were making the series.

Will the second season of the show be based on ‘Compass Box Killer: An Inspector Vikrar Crime Thriller’, another popular book which had Virkar as the central protagonist?

That is something that is yet to be decided. Actually, I had also written a novel called ‘Mumbaistan’ which had three stories. One of the stories was titled ‘Injectionwala’ and it was the one with which I introduced Inspector Virkar to the readers for the first time. So, the next season could either be based on the ‘Injectionwala’ or the second Inspector Virkar novel, namely ‘Compass Box killer’.

You had stated in an interview that Prateik Babbar’s performance in the show reminded you of Om Puri from ‘Ardh Satya’. Inspector Virkar’s personal journey has been described very elaborately in your books. He comes from the Koli lineage in Mumbai, studied in Colaba and is someone who has a mix of traditional values and modern sensibilities. In the show, one got to see very little of his personal journey.

When you write a character, his entire backstory is there in your mind and a part of it comes out on the paper. I have explored a lot of Virkar’s backstory in my books. So far, there have been three books in which Inspector Virkar appears. ‘Anti-Social Network’ was the third book in which he makes an appearance but it became the first season of the show. The idea in the first season was to grab the audience’s attention and make them realize that Inspector Virkar is an exciting and intriguing character. The forthcoming seasons, may explore his backstory further.

The show was produced by Kailash and Aarti Surendranath. Advertising is the common link between them and you. This is the first ever series produced by them. How did it happen that they did it with your books?

Kailash and Aarti have been friends with me for a very long time. Kailash and Aarti are two of the finest creative minds I know of. They had read the Inspector Vikar books and liked them a lot. For a few years, we kept discussing the possibilities of adapting them. Then, Applause Entertainment came into the picture and things started falling into place. Two other production houses had offered to buy the rights of the book but I chose to go with them as I felt they would be able to do justice to it. Applause Entertainment has been producing a variety of shows for the digital space and have been very successful at doing that. Sameer Nair (CEO, Applause Entertainment) and Deepak Segal (Head of Content, Applause Entertainment) have a great vision and a wonderful team to execute it. This was the best team I could have. They really believed in the projects and put all their efforts behind producing it. And, I must also congratulate MX Player for marketing the show well and ensuring that reached out to a large number of audiences.  

Mumbai has been a central character in all your books. Though you were born in Jhansi, you have spent most of your years in this city.

Yes, that’s right. My father was in the army and would be transferred frequently. I was born in Jhansi and then, we moved to different places in the next couple of years. From the age of eight, I have lived in Mumbai. I consider myself to be a pucca Mumbai boy. I grew up in Colaba, a suburb in Mumbai based in the southern part of the city. I know the streets, culture and its people. All this reflects in my work. I know things from a Mumbaikar’s perspective; as somebody who has always been in love with this city. Like you, a lot of my readers have said that Mumbai becomes a character within the book itself. That is something I have done consciously. These books have also been my tribute to Mumbai, the city which gave me all the capabilities to grow and explore my creativity.

But the Mumbai you grew up in was very different from the city it is today. You are somebody who likes recycling old junk and reading books in solitude. Mumbai, today, has a very fast pace to it. How do you look at the city now?

I look at the city with a sense of loss. What you just articulated is essentially the angst of Inspector Virkar. Virkar’s angst is essentially is mine, trying to reconcile with the changing pace of Mumbai while still maintaining his core values like honesty and integrity. That is the essence of Virkar and also of Mumbai. True Mumbaikars, I believe, are not very comfortable with a lot of change that has taken place in the city. People like me are trying to hold on to that old-world genteel charm Mumbai has or had and keep that flame burning, while the city changes all around us. This is the dichotomy of Mumbai.

You started your career with advertising and worked in that space for a very long time. How did it shape you as a creative person?

Advertising honed my thinking ability and sharpened it to the extent that I could express stories with brevity and with an economy of words. In advertising, you have to tell a story in 30 seconds. As an advertising person, you need to think about the most important aspect of the product and try to showcase it in an attractive manner. You have to put out the whole idea of a product in brief bite-sized stories. When somebody reads my books, he realizes that I bring my story to the most core ideas or thoughts really quick. I try to ensure that the narrative remains fast-paced. I pare it down to the most striking part, so that the reader doesn’t get bored at any point.

Do you still do advertising?

I have not done any commercial advertising project in a long time as I have been busy with writing. I have a lot of friends in advertising. I meet them and discuss thoughts and ideas. Maybe, I will get back to it someday.

In the late ‘90s, you were sitting outside a recording studio. A jingle for an ad that you had directed was being recorded inside. A friend came up to you and said, “why don’t you make a film?”. That’s when you first thought about making a feature film. The first two films that you made (‘Chalo America’ and ‘King of Bollywood’) were quite offbeat. It must have been quite difficult to make such films back then.

(Laughs) It’s interesting that you mentioned this. Yes it was quite tough making off-beat films. But, there are some rewards. I remember a conversation with a friend of mine who is a film editor. I remember one day, while we were editing my third film ‘Sikandar’, when he said “I want to doff my hat to you”. I asked him why was he saying that. He then said, “Aap aisi complex filmein banaate ho, aur aisi filmon ke liye finance kaise bhi kar ke raise bhi kar lete ho. Yeh aapki sabse badi achievement hai?” (“You make such complex films. And you even manage to raise finance for these films. That’s one of your biggest achievements.”) (laughs). I was always attracted towards offbeat film ideas from the beginning. Making them somehow come alive is achievement enough for me.

But the books you have written are quite different. They are what one would call ‘masala entertainment’.

Yes! (laughs) But, I have also written books that are quite offbeat in nature. I have written two offbeat short novellas. One is called ‘The Great Indian Bowl Movement’ and the other one is called ‘The Urinationalist’. I am currently working on the third one, ‘The State VS The Spitting Swami’. These stories are about the three things Indians do in public without any sense of shame – shitting, spitting and urinating. I have had the opportunities to explore new ideas and new avenues in the last few years. I will keep exploring them. Satire is something I love. I will keep dabbling in different genres and mediums. Sometimes people tell me, “you are not making films anymore”. But, why is it necessary for a filmmaker to make a film every year? You don’t have to be in a race to justify the fact that you are a filmmaker. I am a storyteller and I will keep using different medium to tell my stories. I have made films, written books, worked in the OTT space and am working on Graphic Novels and Audio Fiction. I will keep telling stories in different ways; it all depends on the opportunities available. If you get stuck in a particular mould, believe you get typecast. I don’t want that to happen to me.

So, you don’t want to restrict yourself to any medium or genre?

I want to restrict myself to things I like doing. I don’t want to be forced into doing things I don’t enjoy doing. I have almost been a part of such projects in the past and later regretted it. Sometimes monetary temptations come in your way. I have resisted temptations so far and will keep resisting them further.

‘Sikandar’ is probably the most commercial film you have made till date. Sudhir Mishra’s was your producer. How was the experience of working on that film?

The experience was fantastic. I had this very strong urge to tell this particular story and I am glad I was given an opportunity to say it. Some children had come from Kashmir to Mumbai on a study tour conducted by their school. They were asked, “what do you find different over here as a teenager?”. One of them thought for a while and then, said, “I can name all the models of the guns because I have seen them around me. I am sure people in Bombay don’t get to see them.” Another child said, “After coming to Mumbai, I get to see lights after 6 o’clock in the evening. That is not something I ever see happening in Kashmir.” I wanted to tell a story of two children based in Kashmir. Both of them have different psyches. Sudhir believed in the story and supported it with all his might. Reliance Entertainment, which co-produced the film with him, was equally supportive. No films were being shot in Kashmir at that time but I insisted that we go to the valley and shoot. We did that and it turned out to be a very memorable shoot.

A filmmaker and a film critic are usually on the opposite sides of the spectrum. You have a film critic at home. You are married to Priyanka Sinha Jha, one of the most respected film journalists in India.

That’s correct (laughs). Believe me, that is the best thing that could have happened to me. The reason behind me getting married to her was my third film ‘Sikandar’. She was the Editor of Screen and was also heading the Screen Awards at that time. I didn’t know her at all. ‘Sikandar’ had bagged two nominations at the Screen Awards. I had gone to the attend the awards ceremony. Shekhar Gupta was the chief of The Indian Express group at that time. I met him that evening at the ceremony. He told me that he had really liked the film. And then actually, Shekhar was the one who that evening introduced me to Priyanka. Priyanka and I got along well with each other and soon enough, we started dating and then, got married. I always say that, “Sikandar ne mera muqaddar badal diya” (“Sikandar changed my destiny”). For me, she is my best critic. She is an excellent judge of story and knows whether an idea would work for a larger audience or not. She is not of those film critics who sit on a pedestal and judges cinema. If you read any of her reviews, you will realize she has a very common-sensical and down-to-earth approach to films in India. What more could I want? When I write something, I always share it with her. If she doesn’t like it, we fight over it and the next day, I re-write it (laughs). I realise if it’s not working for her, it won’t work for a larger audience either.

Is there a plan to make a film in the near future?

I was working on a feature film script which is now ready. I have been talking to some producers about it. But then I’m doing a lot of other things as well. Every filmmaker has a 3-4 year gap between every film. A lot of time goes into making a film. That’s one of the reasons why I started writing books. I wanted to do more things and express myself as an artiste through different platforms. Then I figured out something about myself. I am a storyteller who uses different mediums to express himself. That freed me. I thought I could be a lot more productive this way and that’s exactly what happened. I managed to keep expressing myself as a creative person. In the last couple of years, the volume of my creative output has been quite high.

Filmmaking is a collaborative process but writing is a solitary experience. Do you ever feel a little isolated while writing a book?

No, I have never felt that. While writing a book, I spend a lot of time on my own and very comfortable being in that space. I am equally comfortable being a part of a team while making a film. I am fine with both the arrangements. Unlike a lot of creative people, I don’t feel the need to be in an interactive zone to express my creativity. I can write for a very long period of time without feeling lonely or getting a sense of missing out on something. A lot of people in our country think that writing a book is a lesser form of creative expression as compared to being a filmmaker. I want to dispel that notion. Even in filmmaking, there are different aspects. There are times when you are working with a large team and then, there are occasions when you are working on something all alone.  

What is your next project?

I’m just wrapping up my first foray into the horror genre supernatural/horror with an audio fiction series for Amazon Audible. I am working on two other large-scale shows to be made for OTT platforms. As well as waiting for the next season of ‘Chakravyuh’. And I’m working on my next book. And figuring out a first Graphic Novel. And of course, I’m pitching my next film. I have enough creativity on my plate for now (laughs).