It is love at first sight for Jugal. The minute he sees Romil, everything slows down around him and a song plays in the background – exactly like how he had imagined it to be if and when he fell in love. Nupur Asthana’s web series Romil and Jugal, now available on streaming app Alt Balaji, is full of these “filmy” moments (as she calls them).
In the second episode, Romil, the college heartthrob, gets his own introduction song. A chorus joins him as he dances on the college steps, plays basketball and sings about trading hearts. Jugal admires him from a distance, mustering up the courage to speak to the man of his dreams.
Romil and Jugal marks Asthana’s debut as a director for a web series. In the world of television, she is well-known for such shows as Hip Hip Hurray (1998), Hubahu (2002) and Mahi Way (2010). She has also directed the films Mujhse Fraandship Karoge (2011) and Bewakoofiyan (2014).
Romil and Jugal is a gay love story that is adapted from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Asthana loved the idea of reimagining Shakespeare’s renowned play as a love story between men. “It cannot get more revolutionary than that,” she told Scroll.in. “I’m a student of English literature and I thought of this as a challenge. Romeo and Juliet with boys! The script was first written by Anu Menon for a film. When I read it, I was thrilled by the idea and wanted to shoot it.”
Why a web series and why not a film?
The censor board would never have passed this as a film. At least at the time when we started the show – which was in December 2016 – there was no chance. I’m also under a contract with Yash Raj Films to make a film with them. So I could not have worked on another project in the meantime.
The script excited me and Alt Balaji was coming up around the same time too. We have not seen a story of this sort in mainstream cinema or any of the other platforms. In the indie space of course, there are ample stories about how hard it is to come out to one’s family, the hurt, anger and fear associated with it. I wanted to go beyond all of that.
In what way?
I wanted to move away from the narrative of angst to a more fun narrative about same-sex romance. I spoke to a lot of my gay friends about how things happen between them. I watched a few documentaries. At the same time, I knew I had to walk the fine line. I’m straight and I did not want to get brickbats from the LGBT community. I didn’t want to trivialise the narrative or make it pretentious.
The feedback I’m getting for the show today from the LGBT community is wonderful – LGBT groups are really excited about the series, they have requested for screenings. They recognise my intention to talk about the fun parts. Some of them have told me that they love the unabashedly filmy dream sequence in one of the episodes, for instance.
Many heterosexual people tell me that it is so easy to watch the show, that it is a normal love story. I’m saying, why not? We are all humans at the end of the day.
What opportunities does the web offer for a series of this kind?
The web gives one the freedom to not only put up a show like this, but to also explore these characters in depth. Jugal has come out but only to himself. Romil is in denial of his sexuality and is even dating girls. For him, the journey is tough because he has to come to terms with the fact that he is gay. And then, he has to come out to his parents. We had the screen time to get into the heads of these characters and thrash them out properly.
I could also delve deeper about how a family would react to their child coming out to them. The initial reaction of anger, hurt, rage – it is all there in the show. While a sense of comedy lingers on the surface, as you go deeper, it is just all so sad and poignant.
Does the internet today remind you of the good old days of television, the time of ‘Hip Hip Hurray’, perhaps?
Yes, I have realised the similarities between the web today and the heyday of television. When I made Hip Hip Hurray, I was very young. I remember that the channel wasn’t involved at all. It was just the creative team working together to create something we believed in. There was no interference with respect to the content.
It was only later that television went down the TRP route. With the web, it is a similar kind of scenario. The core creative team is the one that is working again to put it all together. The demands of TRPs or the opening weekend does not exist here. The show is still finding audiences and it is always going to be there on an app. People will keep discovering it and that’s the wonderful thing about it.
What role has ‘Hip Hip Hurray’ played in shaping your career?
I didn’t think too much when I made Hip Hip Hurray. I had just finished assisting director Ketan Mehta and was gung-ho about branching out on my own. I didn’t know how to raise money for a film on my own. I thought I would start out with television. I wrote something, ended up meeting Zarina Mehta, the producer, and it all fell into place. I was just lucky that I got such a great start.
Today I have stepped back from television because it is too hard. It is too TRP-driven, it’s just brutal. But people always tend to slot you. I get calls saying “Youth oriented series karte hain.”
I always feel that my strength is drama. I think there is a strong sense of drama running through all my work, whether it is Hip Hip Hurray or Mahi Way, or even Fraandship or Bewakoofiyan.
From Hip Hip Hurray, which was in the early 2000s to now, I’ve tried to see how young people have changed. I think I tend to be drawn to characters who are battling something.
But my next project will definitely not have any love story in it. I’m done.
Are you planning a second season of ‘Romil and Jugal’?
Of course. We are just waiting for more people to discover it. It isn’t one of the shows that people will immediately click on when they are on the app. There is a wide choice of heterosexual romances and spy thrillers that we have to compete with.