Known for his critically acclaimed film Shaurya, which released in 2008, filmmaker Samar Khan soon digressed into telling stories on television and the digital space. The former journalist was always fascinated by human stories more than anything else, but his love for the armed forces is a thread that binds most of his recent and past work. Be it ‘Regiment Diaries,’ a documentary series on army regiments and life of soldiers, or as creative producer and writer on Nimrat Kaur-starrer ‘The Test Case,’ or the AltBalaji-Zee5 show ‘Code M’ which stars Jennifer Winget as an army lawyer.
As Chief Operating Officer - OTT Business for Juggernaut Productions, a part of IN10 Media, Samar has big plans. Their latest offering is ‘Avrodh the Siege Within,’ a Sony LIV series starring Amit Sadh, Darshan Kumaar, Madhurima Tuli, Pavail Gulati, Vikram Gokhale, and Neeraj Kabi. It is a retelling of the events following the 2016 Uri attack, where the Indian armed forces and the Indian government tirelessly planned and executed surgical strikes on terrorist launch pads across the Line of Control (LoC). In this conversation with LetsOTT, Samar talks about the idea behind the show, Juggernaut’s collaboration with Applause Entertainment, and his role in making it all happen. Excerpts…
Q. How has the response to Avrodh been so far?
I was a little anxious, maybe, to know about what the audience thinks of the show. It is more from the perspective of it as a team effort - from the director to the people at Applause - because everyone is eager to see the feedback. Storytelling is a rather personal process, even though it’s so collaborative. I’m sure there are specific people in the team who have different trepidations related to the audience’s reaction. But so far, whatever reviews we have received have been positive, so it’s a good feeling.
Q. You have a fascination to tell stories that revolve around the military. Where does that interest come from?
Many people know this about me, and many don’t - I went to the National Defense Academy (NDA), and I was there for three years. I was unceremoniously asked to leave due to my indiscipline. The army has always interested me. Eventually, many of my friends became senior members of the armed forces so my connection to that world never left me. Even when I watched Indian ‘military films,’ I noticed how they were all centred on war. There is so much more to that world than just war. Shaurya, Code M, now Avrodh… all come from that mindset. None of these stories are about war. They give you an insight into the armed forces, but the stories itself are more character-driven than that.
Q. If you had stayed on at the NDA, you would have been an officer yourself. At what point did you steer towards the film?
The time when I left the academy and moved back home to Delhi, coincided with the media revolution in the 90s. The economy started opening up. I did radio, then I did journalism. One of my stints as a journalist was being a cinema correspondent for NDTV. That job allowed me to spend time on set, meet filmmakers like Mahesh Bhatt, David Dhawan, Yash Chopra, Raj Kanwar... and have conversations about cinema. Life took its course and eventually, I was in television. I produced Coke Studio and MTV Unplugged. I worked on a documentary on Shah Rukh Khan. Nothing was planned. Things just happened naturally. And now I head Juggernaut, working on digital content.
Q. Creative producers are vital to the production process, but not too many people know what the job entails. What is your role as a creative producer?
My job as a creative producer on Avrodh (or any other show) is to lead it creatively. A creative producer, or a showrunner, identifies an idea and then nurtures that idea. In this case, it was the book by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh. I put the team together but also ran the show from a production point of view.
To put it in perspective, I think the role of a producer itself is still sketchy for most people. It’s not just putting in the money, that’s what a financier does. A producer’s job is to get the right talent pool together to collaborate and to provide them with the support and environment to deliver a kick-ass product. To help the director understand if his creative vision has been fulfilled in the budget. I think everyone has started calling themselves a ‘creative producer’ now when it was always the case.
Q. Speaking of the talent pool, what was the casting process on Avrodh?
Amit (Sadh) and I have been friends for a while. He is an extremely passionate actor and he’s always wanted to collaborate with me on a military-based project. We had a few ideas but none worked out. Avrodh was our opportunity. He was our only choice because we knew how passionate and dedicated he was, enough to work on the demanding physical aspects of the role as well. All the actors on the show were our first choices… Darshan Kumaar, Anant Mahadevan, and Neeraj Kabi. I saw Madhurima Tuli in an advertisement for Airtel and I knew I wanted to work with her. Vikram sir (Gokhale) was the only one we thought of because of his personality, and how it would match the Prime Ministers. Applause Entertainment deserves the credit for the casting, as much as the director, Raj Acharya, and the casting director, Sunny Dagar, because they were so clear about their vision.
Q. How instrumental are creative collaborations between production houses in creating a series or a movie?
This is such a common occurrence in the West, where up to dozens (sometimes) of production houses or independent producers work together on one project. We are acknowledging the role of such a partnership over here now. Juggernaut is co-developing two shows with Applause in the coming months. It has already been a very fulfilling experience because we had so many brilliant minds come together. And Applause is changing the game because they are putting the money behind the idea. They provide the right support and the right freedom for us to create content. Collaborations are the only way forward because everyone can’t do everything independently. When you collaborate, you are able to think bigger.
Q. When the events shown in a series are so recent, they are easily etched in the audience’s collective memory already. What is the kind of research that went into developing the story that is based on the surgical strike? Also, were you at all cautioned by the fact that some people may think that the show is biased or jingoistic?
The advantage we had is that Avrodh is based on a chapter in a book, which is itself based on quotes by Major Mike Tango (the pseudonym for the Para Special Forces officer who helmed the operation). The authors of the book, Shiv, and Rahul, were also very helpful. But we also spoke to people who knew military procedures because it was of utmost priority to me that the show is as close to the procedure as possible. We also wanted to be very sensitive and ensure that there was no misrepresentation as the real-life events happened so recently. So we spoke to many people who were involved in the events, either directly or indirectly, including journalists, government officials, etc. The dramatic liberties taken are within the realm of believability. Avrodh has been seen by the Army and they have approved whatever has been shown.
There is a thin line between patriotism and jingoism. We have tried to maintain that balance. Having said that, if you have a story in which one side (and that happens to be your side) is victorious, it will be patriotic in nature. At the end of the day, we achieved our objective at Uri and that is what has been shown in the series. People who are critical of a certain event or a certain perspective will always be critical of any visualization of it. The nature of Avrodh is that it talks about certain events. Those who believe that what happened was wrong will continue to find our interpretation wrong. But those who believe that there is a glory to our achievement will like the show. Avrodh is a story of triumph, and the risk that people may find it too patriotic is something that we have willingly taken.
Q. Do you think that Avrodh could have been made in a pre-OTT boom era? How has OTT changed the way we consume content?
The number of theatrical screens to the number of people in the country, or even the number of families, most of whom would own one television set, is extremely disproportionate. The OTT boom has resulted in the number of screens going up to maximize access for each individual. In addition, even traditionalists who watch television can do so now at their own pace because whatever they want to see, is readily available at the time and place of their convenience. Our ability to tell more stories has gone up due to that. And even if I could tell as many stories as I wanted before, I’d still have that many primetime slots. Perhaps a show like Avrodh couldn’t have been made a few years earlier. It’s only because of OTT that in spite of a film like Uri: The Surgical Strike which came out a year ago, people are still talking about Avrodh as well.
I am a content creator. I have to be aware that in this day and age, my content may not necessarily go out to a big screen. I have to be agnostic to the medium through which people watch things. For some people, the love for the big screen will always remain. Going to the movies will always be a family outing. But there are smaller films which can be released through TV or digital. People still watch theatre, they still listen to the radio, they still read books. Everything can co-exist peacefully.
Q. You have found your strength in telling very human, very real stories, although they are mostly under an umbrella genre of dramas. Do you plan to work on projects in other genres as well?
Most definitely. I want to experiment with more genres. As a company head for Juggernaut, it is imperative for me to drive the business with as much variety as possible. The key thing is to believe in the story, more than anything else.
Avrodh: The Siege Within Avrodh is an Applause production with Irada Entertainment. It is available for streaming on Sony LIV.