In the Netflix film House Arrest, directed by Shashanka Ghosh and Samit Basu, Ali Fazal plays a man named Karan who hasn’t stepped out of his house for six months and does not wish to. Karan’s peace is disturbed by the journalist Saira (Shriya Pilgaonkar) as well as a suspicious package that is dropped at his home by his neighbour. Jim Sarbh is also in the cast.
“The idea was to follow a shut-in at his home and then his life is constantly intruded upon by outsiders,” Basu told Scroll.in. “Slowly, we explain why he is under house arrest, and then a rom-com element comes in and a crime thriller element, all in this contained space.” The story and screenplay for the November 15 release is by Basu while the dialogue is by Ghosh.
Ghosh’s credits include Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II (2003), Quick Gun Murugun (2009), and Khoobsurat (2014). House Arrest is the first directorial venture for Basu, the 39-year-old author of fantasy novels such as the Gameworld trilogy and the superhero titles Turbulence (2012) and Resistance (2013). In an interview, Basu discussed his new film, and the present and future of science-fiction and fantasy films in India.
How did you get into the director’s chair?
No one is more surprised than I am. I saw Shashanka’s first film and he read my first book in 2004, and we have been wanting to collaborate since. But nothing worked out for years as my ideas weren’t Bollywood-friendly. The challenge was to do something in my space but also not scare producers off.
This script was put together in 2012-14. Despite being a single-location film, no producer was interested, though Ali was. It’s only after Netflix arrived, and the array of what audiences could see got broad, that we got to make the film.
How did ‘House Arrest’ begin as an idea?
As a novelist, I spend a lot of time at home. I am mostly cleaning the house and not engaging with the outside world as much as possible. But people keep invading anyway. That was a starting point.
Another was that I read about the hikikomori phenomenon in Japan, where kids lock themselves up in a room and play video games for hours.
This script was written at a time when online addiction did not exist in the form it does today. Back then, it was either because of video calling or internet surfing. But now, you have a mixture of smartphones, work-from-home situations, climate change, and online streaming as entertainment options that pretty much let you live without interacting with anyone outside. What was odd then is normal now.
What explains the lack of good science-fiction and fantasy films in India?
Firstly, the Indian filmmaking industry is risk-averse. There’s this mental barrier among producers that the West and we work differently. So, even if you see sci-fi, it’s as low-budget and low-risk as possible. If it’s high-budget, 80% are Ramayana and Mahabharata adaptations because producers think there is a ready audience for this.
Also, when actors here see themselves doing or wanting to do a Marvel movie or a Star Wars, we must note that the construction of those films on a story level moves differently from how the beats are constructed in a Bollywood masala movie. So even when people overcome these fears of genres, they anyway fall back on popular cinema tropes, which don’t mesh with genre storytelling.
But I feel like Baahubali, in terms of how it was sold as fantasy and the money it made, might change things, as people are certainly trying to emulate its success if not methods.
Do we not have a culture of speculative fiction films in India because we do not have a readership base?
Yes, but some addenda to that.
In the West or Japan, with a popular manga or an epic fantasy sci-fi novel, a fanbase is developed which establishes itself and calls for an adaptation, and then the studio gets to it. There’s a bottom-up approach. Here, a star decides he wants to do Ramayana or Mahabharata. Then the mechanism slowly starts coming into place.
Also, in the UK or US, where my books have been released, there’s a lot of interaction between different mediums. You will find a writer dabbling in novels, comic books, television, film and video games. There’s a lot of crossover and awareness between popular forms of storytelling. Here the film world is doing its thing, the TV world is aloof, forget the book world, and the video game world.
Again, in the West, you know if you can just get the entire LOTR reading population to watch an LOTR film, you can afford to go big-budget and not cast Tom Cruise as Bilbo Baggins. Here, we don’t have any such IP to cash on. Also, no one in the film industry reads anyway.
What responses did you get trying to pitch sci-fi or sci-fi-adjacent stories to film producers?
The earliest ones hit you hard. You stop noticing after the first 50 times. Once I pitched an adaptation of Turbulence, and the producers had this mental block — they kept asking, but who will write it? I said I have written the book and am currently writing the script, but they just wouldn’t get that someone would write a film on this story.
Another time, I was talking to this major network about a miniseries adaptation of an already popular Indian comic book character. Midway, they lost interest, and in the end said, everything is fine but the problem is that it’s too Western. I asked how, since the mythology and the setting is all Indian. They said, yes, but it’s too logical. I asked, what? They said they don’t want something where you can follow the plot and make sense of everything and that’s that.
Is it a case of them not getting it and the assumption that no one else will, or them getting it, but being convinced no one else will get it?
The latter. But I get it. There are popular modes of storytelling well-established in Indian film and television. A lot of money is at stake. There’s no incentive for anyone to take the risk and do something in this space.
But, if there’s one successful sci-fi movie today, there will be 20 more. Like, after one Baahubali, you have 20 Baahubali-shaped projects. How that one sci-fi film will emerge, I don’t know.
As a fantasy writer, have you gained from the success of ‘Baahubali’?
The idea of choosing magical or technological tropes to reinforce nationalist or religious themes and morals has always been around. The gain has been for people who want to write mythology-based cinema or vaguely nationalistic period films. I don’t want to do either, so I haven’t been affected.
Since 2004, when my first book was out, I keep getting four-five calls every year with someone pitching a Ramayana movie done in three parts like LOTR. Down the years, the model to emulate has changed. LOTR became Harry Potter, which became Marvel, which became GOT. The zeal to make such projects has always been there. Even the West is looking for the next Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. So everyone’s now writing Ramayana, and unless you do that, your budget goes down exponentially.
What can you tell us about your new novel ‘Chosen Spirits’, which will be out in 2020?
It is set 10 years into the future in Delhi. In Black Mirror, you explore one technological dystopian situation per episode. My aim is to put them all together at the same time, since life hits you like that. You don’t address one tech dystopia at a time.
But my book is not really about a dystopian situation. It’s about young people trying to find love and jobs and be happy. I’d say the background is not significantly more dystopian that what it’s like in India today.