Delhi Crime Producer Pooja Kohli Talks Emmy Win, Censorship And OTT Ushering In A Women’s Era In Content
The rise of OTT platforms in India has indeed ushered in a new era of content and entertainment across the globe. But for India, it’s done more by way of that. Not just markets, but minds are opening up to the idea of having women lead stories, from both before the camera and behind it. As much as there is a rise of movies and web series that are willing to bank on women and women-centric stories, there’s also faith in female filmmakers and producers to deliver not just critical acclaim but also financial success. With Netflix series Delhi Crime winning India its first International Emmy this year, this isn’t just some fancy trade prediction but a fact. And my conversation with Pooja Kohli, one of the executive producers of this Emmy-winning series, further proves my point.
Pooja Kohli has been in the industry for more than 20 years. During this time, she has both established and served on the jury of film festivals in the international circuit. Currently she serves as the Managing Director and CEO of Filmkaravan, which has produced series like Delhi Crime and movies like the Abhay Deol and Yashaswini Dayama starrer What Are The Odds. The production house is responsible for creating and delivering direct-to-digital content, and it partners with players like YRF, Dharma Productions, Excel Entertainment and so on. To strike gold with their first ever produced series, then, is quite an achievement.
In conversation with Pooja Kohli, there was so much to talk about, right from the excitement of the Emmy win which I am sure is going to persist for a long time, to the changing trends in OTT. While there has been progress in terms of storytelling, there is also the threat of censorship looming over the heads of content creators. Especially now that OTT is under the purview of the I&B Ministry.
Q: First, congratulations! How does it feel to have produced Delhi Crime, the first Indian web series to win an International Emmy? Was there any regret about missing the chance to collect the award in person because of the pandemic?
View this post on Instagram
A: Thank you so much. I feel really really honoured and blessed to have won this award, not just because, a lot of blood sweat and commitment went into this project at a time when everyone else had passed on it, but because we were convinced that this is a story that needed to be told and winning the Emmy is literally like the icing on the cake. The reception, the accolades, the firm belief that everybody put in this project, the way it was handled, sensitively….
Sure, it would have been great to receive this in person, but we’re just equally thrilled that our cast, crew, everywhere, all over the world were able to watch this simultaneously. When it was live, we were able to celebrate this this win together, which is everyone’s win.
Also Read: Netflix’s Delhi Crime Wins International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series, First Indian Series To Win This Honour!
Q: Did you expect the nomination to come through? And after it did, actually winning the award amidst such tough competition?
A: It was a running joke on our set, every time we would hit a roadblock or if we didn’t know how to solve something, and had to ask for favours, we used to say please do this, please help us, we’ll bring the Emmy home. It was literally a very high goal, but somewhere deep in our heart, we knew that hard work never goes waste and what we were doing was in the right spirit. So, once we got the nomination we were thrilled and then we saw all the amazing content that we were nominated alongside and it did make us feel like whoa, you know, it’s not a given. We were very happy to be nominated and winning it was just amazing, we didn’t even realise how big this was till we won it, because nobody was counting the chicken before it hatched.
View this post on Instagram
Q: Recently Richa Chadha shut down someone who complained that there’s no pride in celebrating Delhi Crime as it is about a horrific event that brought the country shame. What do you have to say to trolls and naysayers like those?
A: I think the first thing I want to say to them is “Have you watched it?” A lot of feedback that we’re getting is from people who just know that it’s about Nirbhaya, they’re slightly ashamed of putting this on the world map, this incident was not only shameful for us, but in a very very deep way had touched all of us. The truth of the matter is everyone knew about this incident & even in California where I live there were many discussions, about it, much before we embarked to do this show. Thanks to Richa and so many other people who stood up for us, who believed that our intentions were never wrong.
We took blessings from the parents of Jyoti before going on the floor, we had worked with the police cops, Richie had worked on this for about four years with research to make sure that everything was authentically charted. There were no embellishments and no fictionalisation in how the case was solved, sure there was some dramatised sort of inputs in amalgamation of characters and stuff, but mostly it was done in the right way. My only request to those people is that if anything, we showed the world not just what a horrific incident it was but how it was solved in six days by a female officer and her team who were compelled that something needed to be done.
Also Read: Richa Chadha Shuts Down Troll Who Thinks Emmy Winner Delhi Crime ‘Celebrates’ Rape Culture
Q: What’s your take on the recent #BoycottNetflix trend that happened due to a kissing scene in A Suitable Boy? How difficult is it for you, as a producer, to navigate an audience that is so touchy about things and easily take offence?
A: I unfortunately haven’t seen Mira’s [Nair] beautiful show A Suitable Boy. Although I am aware of the #BoycottNetflix that went on. I think we are a country that’s like a kaleidoscope… what one loves, the other hates and you really can’t get affected by it, and I think Netflix tries to do their best while promoting. They handled Delhi Crime in a very sensitive manner, there was no hoopla, no celebrations because we always remembered at the bottom of our heart and Netflix’s marketing team led by Neha Kaul ensured that it was released with the right Intentions. So I do know that they always have that at the back of their mind.
How do audiences react is really up to them, I just wish that people were just more understanding and accepting of content, especially for a celebrated director like Mira Nair. I think that A Suitable Boy deserves a little more empathy, but there’s just nothing that everyone will love or hate.
Q: You’ve had both, What Are The Odds and Delhi Crime premier at international festivals. And you’ve served on juries of international festivals as well. Do you believe that they offer a sort of edge when the content has a mainstream release?
View this post on Instagram
A: I’ve run a film festival myself in New York, the IEAC Film Festival with Arun Shivdasani; I have been on juries for the International Emmy and the Tribeca Gucci Fund. I know that there’s just such an amazing group and a community of people that are trying to bring very unique voices to a platform that has the capacity to highlight content which otherwise used to get lost. So that’s the job of these awards and festivals to be able to curate and present the work that might not have got large theatrical releases or otherwise have gone unnoticed.
So I do feel that, the reason that they exist is absolutely essential, what it does do for a film is two-fold sometimes. Content that was going to go unnoticed now can be sort of branded as being a part of a Toronto or a Sundance and it does help in reaching audiences that seek that kind of material. On the other hand, audiences that are looking for mainstream cinema probably get dissuaded from watching it thinking it might be Art House and not really what they were looking for. So it’s a double-edged sword. It’s really for the right kind of material that these festivals actually present a very valuable platform.
Q: Delhi Crime Seasons 2 and 3 are in the works right now. Without giving too much away, of course, what kind of stories will the new seasons be diving into?
A: I really can’t talk about Delhi crime 2 and 3 right now except for telling you that we have some amazing, stories coming up. There’s a lot of hard work, we have amazing crew, the cast is returning with Shefali Shah, Rasika Dugal, Rajesh Tailang and Adil Hussain, we have some new very amazing cast members that I can’t disclose just now. In the same vein as Delhi Crime 1, we have true cases and we are following procedures and facts. We are also trying to highlight some of those cultural and societal discussions that usually get swept under the carpet. But we hope to not just highlight them in a manner that can start unnecessary debates and conversations, but also also bring about some change one day.
Q: As a producer of a show like Delhi Crime, do you hope it brings about changes in the society for real?
A: I really do hope that Delhi Crime has succeeded in at least having a dialogue in bringing about some hope and trust in our police forces, in knowing and understanding the others that we don’t relate to and even if those are the perpetrators and the culprits that are finally caught. I’m not asking for you to have a warm heart towards them but to see that we are all part of the same society and maybe somewhere you know, what we do has a ripple effect on others and that might come back full circle to you, not in a good way one day.
So maybe just being more empathetic and being more understanding of not just ourselves in our demands, our priorities and our privileges but also somewhere acknowledging that not everybody is as blessed as we are in this world.
Also Read: Shefali Shah Says She Is In Favour Of Capital Punishment For Rapists Because They Deserve It
Q: These days, there’s such a negative reaction to content that, even in the slightest way, objectively talks about the law enforcement or the system that is probably faltering somewhere when it comes to curbing such crimes. Is that ever something you all are conscious about in the making of the series?
A: For us when we were going into research of Delhi Crime (I’m a Delhi girl…. I’ve grown up there. I’ve gone to college there), we almost like came from the perspective that the cops are not doing their job right. There’s corruption and an inadequate sort of response to crime. But the truth of the matter is that it’s a population of about 30 million at this point, I think with around 78,000 cops and half of them are put on VIP Duty. I mean this department is under-sourced, under-resourced, under-supported and there’s just no way that they can do preventive policing in a city as large as this.
But the fact that they still wake up every morning and go to address the system and take care of the safety of the people is just, huge. We developed a deep respect for them because it’s literally an uphill battle and I think yes, we see a lot of stuff that we don’t like that the cops are doing and hopefully that the show can also highlight that it’s not these individuals. There are forces at play. There are larger bodies that control them and dictate the way certain things must be done and sometimes it’s out of their control and accepting this truth just makes us more thankful of what they do accomplish. In the case of Nirbhaya, catching those six nameless faceless people in a span of five days is just something that wouldn’t have happened if this Delhi police force had not put their mettle behind it.
Q: How has the pandemic impacted the work on Delhi Crime 2 and other projects that Film Karavan has lined up?
A: On one hand the pandemic has impacted all productions including Delhi Crime 2. There has been a pause and we hope to get back on the floor as soon as things get better and the world heals. But at the same time, sitting at home not having to travel, not having to juggle multiple things, gave us a lot of time and energy to develop new projects, which is what we’ve been doing and really excited the way many of these projects have shaped up in the last nine months that we have got to fully put our energies on.
Q: What are the changing trends that you, as a producer, feel have emerged in OTT content?
A: The OTT platforms, Netflix primarily, is a pure content platform and then Amazon Prime Video of course, is a retail platform but with a content hook which came to India knowing that here is the largest audience in the world available for them to capture. It’s a business opportunity for them to grow in a new and lucrative market. At the same time there was a reality that India has been trained to look forward to either big giant theatrical releases which is our Bollywood – Hindi film industry and the regional film industries or it has always been soaps. It’s been television broadcast, which is this ongoing epic sagas.
OTT content when it first started came, the very privileged audiences that got on these platforms first really were not interested in Indian content. They all wanted to see Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Narcos. Once they exhausted all those things that they had heard about but didn’t have access to at least legally in the country till OTTs launched, they started looking at Indian content, but with the eyes of an expectation that they wanted. That’s why shows like Mirzapur did really well because of its similar treatment to Gangs of Wasseypur and that was a huge success.
So, we know that when it’s gritty, it’s kind of like giving you the ability to tell a story that would not have passed a censor certification on a film or on broadcast television.
Q: Is the industry apprehensive about OTT being brought under the purview of the I&B Ministry and the possibility of censorship?
A: I think OTT being brought now under the censorship is going to dramatically change how the content goes forth from here. We still don’t know how and exactly what rules will come into force, but there will not be much of content which covers violence or sex, that will have to be curtailed. I think this can probably go one of two ways: Either we get really good web series that are sort of more for the audiences that are attuned to watching censored material. Or it might get in the way of you creatively telling the story.
When we were doing Delhi Crime, we made a choice not to show that incident. But I don’t think the producers making shows for India think that way, as those things actually are what has been programmed into our minds as something that sells content. So it’s a double-edged sword, and we don’t know how it’s going to pan out. But overall there is going to be a lot more for the audiences to choose from.
Q: When it comes to sex and violence, most content on OTT these days is treading that thin line between realism and voyeurism, often intentionally crossing it, and hoping no one will be able to tell the difference. As a producer and content curator, what’s your take on violence porn?
A: Violence porn is not our style. It’s not mine. I can’t speak for the ones who use that. It is a magnet for certain audiences. But I just feel that it’s unnecessary. There’s so much more that you can say without saying it. There’s so much more that you can feel without showing it and being subtle is not a sign of weakness. Being subtle sometimes is actually even more stronger than doing what the audience expected. That’s my take on that.
Also Read: 5 Thoughts I Had About Paurashpur Trailer: Peddling Soft Porn In The Guise Of Feminism Isn’t Cool
Q: As a woman, and with the current inclination towards good women-centric content on OTT, do you find yourself inclined to choose projects which have more nuanced female characters and stories?
A: Absolutely. Yes, I think we’ve all waited too long to see this. Delhi Crime would not have been Delhi Crime had there been a male DCP solving this. The emotional connect that you can bring by having a character who has layers upon layers that have never really been explored before even in cinema is a very liberating task. Before the OTT platforms came around, we were concerned because there is a limited theatrical revenue generation from a female lead. We’re really thankful for the OTT players giving us shows that have the power to showcase these very strong female characters, whether it’s Vartika Chaturvedi or the main protagonist in Aarya or just so many more so really really amazed and happy with that.
Q: What are the other projects in FilmKaravan’s kitty that have you excited?
There are lots of exciting projects happening with FilmKaravan; there is a very interesting drama, coming of age story of an underdog which is based around dance that we’re developing that I’m super excited about. There is a detective show, which is absolutely amazing. And then there’s some young audience dramas in a way that haven’t been done in India before… I won’t say like Friends because it’s very cliché. But it’s literally looking at that young adult relationship drama, which I do want to be able to go and tell very accurately without any apology.
View this post on Instagram
Q: You’ve been in this industry for more than two decades now. How has the journey been for you? And to conclude, what’s that one dream project that you still haven’t gotten your hands on but hope to someday?
A: The journey’s been long for over 25 years now. I started out as a writer-director-producer, did 13 documentaries for Iran TV on the subject of Shia Muslims around the country, then went to film school, joined IFP as the managing director for the IFP market and spent a lot of my time trying to bring the right talent and stories together so that they can get access to reach a wide range of audiences. And I think one of my earliest sort of endeavours with FilmKaravan starting in 2007 was at the film festival where I used to curate all year round and pick 30 amazing films. It was extremely challenging for the festival audiences to see those incredible 30 films in five days and my heart would bleed for all that content that would go unnoticed and never get discovered.
So, that gave birth to our digital distribution journey, and at this point we have released more than 3,000 plus films, across 40 different platforms, giving all these films a stable home and the access to be watched anytime anywhere. This makes me really happy. From there, going back to the creation roots, I think I’d never really thought about having a dream project because every project is unique and has its own journey. I just want to be able to come on board to a project that I’m convinced about, where I feel I can add value, I can bring something more to it and take it to the next level and that’s a collaborative team.
I have full faith and trust, not just in my writer, directors but also on my cast and crew to deliver something spectacular. My job as a producer is to literally, guide and ensure that we can all stick together and do something that makes us all truly happy. For that matter, every project is a dream project of mine because I have a little bit of myself invested in them, they’re all my babies. It’s really been such a creative blessing to be a part of these amazing projects be it Delhi Crime or What Are The Odds or all the new stuff that we are developing right now.
Also Read: Exclusive: Lust Stories’ Producer Ashi Dua Talks About The Emmys, Her Love For Anthology Films And Nepotism In Bollywood
That was one illuminating conversation, wasn’t it? Pooja Kohli is truly one inspiring creator, and her list of WIP projects already has me excited! I’m going to be keeping an eye out, and I hope, so will you!