#CosmoBinge: ‘Rocket Boys’, ‘Paatal Lok’, and ‘Mirzapur’ directors talk about characters becoming bigger than their shows

Small screen, large (and larger-than-life) impacts for characters who have seamlessly made their place in our hearts and pop culture.

06 July, 2024
#CosmoBinge: ‘Rocket Boys’, ‘Paatal Lok’, and ‘Mirzapur’ directors talk about characters becoming bigger than their shows

Story and character building are all that it takes for an OTT show to stand out. In recent years, very few shows have aced this and managed to garner a large viewership and fan following. Mirzapur, Rocket Boys, and Paatal Lok top this list. 

Directed by Gurmmeet Singh, the highly anticipated third season of Mirzapur released today amid much excitement. The family gangster drama has given audiences some memorable memes and dialogues, and we can't wait to find out who will claim Mirzapur’s throne. Abhay Pannu, writer and director of Rocket Boys, on the other hand, has managed to bring to light the life and work of scientists such as Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, two visionaries who helped put India on the global space map. Meanwhile, Prosit Roy’s Paatal Lok offered viewers a glimpse of the society, through complex characters.

As a part of the #CosmoBinge series, Cosmopolitan India spotlights six creators who are the minds behind India’s most popular web series. In this part, Singh, Pannu, and Roy shed light on what it takes to make memorable characters, the challenges of building a world that is gripping from the get-go, their admiration for each other's work, and much more. 

Mutual respect and admiration

Singh, Pannu, and Roy may be directors of three terrific shows, but they, much like those reading this, are viewers first. They admire each other's work and are excited to exchange notes. Roy starts on a very funny note, “When the Paatal Lok teaser released, the first thing we noticed in the YouTube comments section was fans inquiring about the release of Mirzapur's new season and the same continued when the trailer dropped.” Speaking of Rocket Boys, Roy expressed his awe and appreciation for pulling off that kind of imagery in the limited budget they had. “It’s exceptional,” he said.

It’s a Mirzapur fan moment for Pannu as well who says, “They are two incredible shows that are now part of the cultural fabric. I think there was a pre and post Paatal Lok and Mirzapur era. In the case of Mirzapur, there are so many gangster films that we’ve seen. How do you ensure you still give them something new that surpasses everything? How do you subvert the tropes that have been laid out by the gangster genre? That’s the true power of writing that Singh and the other writers have managed to do.” 

For Singh, it’s the writing in the two shows that left him in awe. “In this medium, it’s (the writing) king. If you’re going to make the audience watch content for four hours, and more, the writing is what will take precedence. With Paatal Lok, the atmosphere and back-stories created that add to the doom and gloom of the narrative is my biggest takeaway. Rocket Boy is all the more impressive because it came at a time when there was already so much competition. The expectations were high and the show surpassed it. Doing a show that’s not based on gangsters, crime is tough. Plus here, you had to get the nuances of the era right. Credit to Abhay for making a show with so much class.” 

Precise language and world-building

Rocket Boys made audiences fall in love with science. Mirzapur, although a show about gangsters, highlights the importance of family. Finally, Paatal Lok held up a mirror to the society we live in. The concept for each of these three shows had to be extremely specific. “I feel that people like specificity,” says Pannu. “They don’t like generalisation. OTT audiences have evolved, and they want to witness the character's ups and downs. Giving them a cardboard cut-out of these legends is what I was most afraid of when writing the show. To make the show more relatable, we needed to allow the characters to make mistakes, and humanise them so that people watching can relate to the conflict.”

Did making a show about scientists make Pannu feel like it might be overwhelming for the viewers? Pannu doesn’t think so. “One of the best compliments I got was from Javed Akhtar. He called me up after the second season and said, ‘I saw your show. It was incredible. We may not understand things like heavy water and the bomb, but the way you presented it was so exciting. I was engrossed. What more can I say?’ As long as the character’s pursuit of heavy water contributes to the greater good, viewers don’t need to know what it can do. The drama of acquiring this thing is what helps viewers relate to the character’s victory. We’re not dumbing it down; we’re associating it with the show’s drama.” 

Sharing his thoughts about the frenzy behind Mirzapur, Singh, like Pannu, says it all boils down to specificity. “Specificity is important in establishing rules for the world. If you tie them down with rules, the audience knows what to expect from the show and this is what sets it apart from others. Dramatic scenes between family members are common across shows, but what makes them different is the world and rules that we’ve set for our characters and their characteristics. When that is achieved, that connects with the audience because the emotions are genuine and the storytelling has a freshness to it.” 


A post shared by Prosit Roy (@prositroy)

According to Roy, things have to be specific if they are to be real. “We had to be specific as we were mirroring our current society. That’s why we choose certain locations and characters. Without those details, there would be no authenticity. I feel the audience is aware; they know if it is fake. So you need to give them something that’s true.”

Language is a character in itself

Building on the specificity of these shows, language was another element that had to be authentic and not deviate from the way people spoke in that world. The characters are only as believable as their words (and actions). Does a creator make characters speak as they used to, or in a language the audience understands? Pannu couldn’t have done the latter as he was making a show based on real-life people. “We had research, study material, and Mallika Sarabhai (Vikram Sarabhai’s daughter) guiding us. She told us that these men thought that they were people of the world. They used to meet Oppenheimer, mill workers, the PM of the country, and then actors from cinema. They were constantly travelling and we were directed as to how they spoke. We couldn’t deviate from that. We were telling the story of people who didn’t know that they were going to become legends. That’s one of the strengths of the show. We had to write dialogues that didn’t scream ‘These are the words spoken by the great Homi Bhabha.’ We were making Rocket Boys and not Rocket Men. This is how research students talk.”

Such is the power of language—if spoken well, it can add to the flavour of a show. That’s exactly what Singh says happened with Mirzapur. “When it came to the script, we knew that the flavour would be a key part of the show. Casting the right people was crucial as it would make the job easier. Get people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who’ve heard the language of the show. While there was a lot of doubt as to whether things would pick up at the start, the language grew on people because a lot of the humour and flavour comes from how they talk. What’s also important is to not go overboard and let the flavour overpower the drama.” 

Pannu’s take on Oppenheimer

What does the writer and director of a show about India’s greatest scientists have to say about the Oscar-winning film based on the life of the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’? Pannu’s answer had both, Singh and Roy listening with rapt attention. “One of the reasons why I became a director is Christopher Nolan. He inspired people to believe that intelligent cinema can work and be made into blockbusters. That said, I feel like Oppenheimer is a great film, but isn’t his best work. I love Interstellar, The Prestige, Memento, Dunkirk, and The Dark Knight. I understand why it’s become such a big film and that’s what's missing in Rocket Boys. Rocket Boys could also have been a horror story. Oppenheimer is a horror story that talks about the horrors of making a bomb. The reason why we look back at the story is because the bomb was used and millions of people died. Thankfully, the people on Rocket Boys didn’t. It was to ensure that we were not to be taken lightly. The horrors of an atomic bomb are not associated with the making of an atomic bomb in our country. Our story is the story of hope. The reason why Oppenheimer works is because it gave audiences perspective as to what the bomb can do, even to the maker of the bomb. I understand why the film is revered, but I personally feel that Interstellar is a better film.”

The character is bigger than the show

In cinema, we often have characters who overpower the film to an extent that people want to see them more than the movie. The same holds true for Mirzapur. Fans can't wait to see if Akhandanand "Kaleen" Tripathi will reign supreme in the much-awaited third season. Rocket Boys has ensured that audiences know about Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, two nation-builders who were hidden in the pages of history. Even with Paatal Lok, all eyes are eagerly awaiting how Hathiram Chaudhary manages to make sense of a world where nothing seems right. 

When asked about what happens when the character gets bigger than the show, each of the three directors credit the story for making them have such a fan following. “Credits to the show if the character has managed to have their own lifeline and their own pulp fiction. Audiences like the characters because they were inhabited in this world. We can’t take the strength of the world away and focus on the character. Remember that they’re big only in this world. That’s the magic of content.”

Pannu smiles and says he thinks he’s done his job in making one realise the contributions of Sarabhai and Bhabha in making India what it is today. “If they become bigger than the show, it’s a cause for celebration. If they become bigger, I have done my job. That was the idea, to make them as accessible to the audience as cricketers, and politicians. We haven’t given credit to the true nation-builders of the world. The intent was to make them household names. I don’t know about that, but I would like to believe that there are more people who know about Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai due to the show.”

What’s next?

As far as upcoming projects go, things certainly don’t get any bigger and better for Singh whose Mirzapur is out with its third season. Add to that he’s finished another gangster drama, Paan Parda Zarda on JioCinema. Roy has finished a feature film that might be out in late 2024-early 2025. Lastly, Pannu’s relationship with science will continue as he’s written a sci-fi film that should be out at the end of 2025 or 2026. Rest assured, we’ll tune like to their shows like always. 

Lead image credit: JioCinema

Square image credit: Amazon Prime Video

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