“I have seen eyes where it felt like the person was penetrating into my soul and with very bad intent.” – Pragati Deshmukh
Thanks, Pragati, for agreeing to this interview. We recently read your debut novel, and we will discuss that. But we’d first like to know about your journey. How did it start? How did you get into the entertainment business? How’s your experience been so far?
Thank you for interviewing me. I truly appreciate your endeavour to bring forward more authors and books on your platform. It is especially heartening to see the new talent you encourage. My journey with the entertainment industry started quite like that too. While completing my third year of B.Com, I was trying to find my career path when I got an opportunity to join Ekta Kapoor’s company as a Trainee Creative Assistant. I come from a family of engineers, artists and IT.
My father served in the Indian Army and always encouraged us to explore new avenues. When I started my journey, I had to learn my way through the media world. I was very lucky to find the right bosses, colleagues and friends. Each show I worked on, added to my confidence, skills, knowledge and helped build strong work relationships. That is the magic of the content making world, you make lifelong friends. My zest for learning and ambition to do better helped me focus and achieve what I aimed for.
My passion for storytelling has driven me to constantly challenge myself and the audience with sharper, deeper and more meaningful content each time. I am grateful the opportunity to come into this world came to me when it did. I can’t imagine doing anything else! My experience so far has been very fulfilling. There have been difficult times when I have had to struggle to get the desired job or project, or one has to deal with workplace politics but these are challenges we face in all walks of life.
I follow the rule my father has taught me since I was a child. He would say- whenever you face roadblocks in your life, remember ‘Hum Haathi Hai!’ You keep your focus and do what you need to do, don’t be concerned with others. React only when it comes to your self respect, family and pride.’
You’ve worked with the biggies like BBC, Discovery, and Disney. What was that like? And how is working with ZEE5 different?
Every organisation has its own set of positives and negatives. I have been lucky to work with well established content giants so far. Each role of mine gave me the recognition and appreciation that I deserved. Work culture varies but largely I have had a positive experience at all places. I think one’s manager or boss makes all the difference. I have been blessed to have wonderful bosses who believed in my work, vision and supported me. I also got to learn a good amount of leadership skills from some of them.
At Disney, they sent me for senior leadership programmes. Working at Zee5 has been as satisfying and I can’t complain. The best part about working with all these organisations so far has been that my love for storytelling has not been hampered. I have been given enough freedom and faith to curate and craft compelling and engaging content for our audience.
Having said that, being a creative soul, the corporate rules can sometimes be slightly challenging to follow but a healthy conversation with the manager or HR should help in resolving any of that. The positives definitely beat the negatives. We closely interact with data that helps us understand audience content picks and viewing patterns better, which in turn help us to find the best talent and curate content accordingly. Innovation is the biggest driver. At Zee5, the biggest strength is the entrepreneur work culture. The organisation helps you to innovate and grow.
As a producer, how do you choose a story for a series or a movie? What are the top five boxes that a writer should tick to get it on the screen?
The top five boxes would be- Is the world interesting, what is the core plot and conflict, who is the protagonist, primary characters and their journey, why would one want to watch this story and how does it keep us engaged till the end. Of course each of these points can be elaborated and have further layers.
Sometimes the plot and story is not unique but the characters are very interesting or the way the story is told is unique. Other times, the story is relevant to the current time and calls to be made- we call it timing. I will be doing a podcast soon on this subject and would share some of my learnings in more detail.
From bringing novels to the screen, you’ve now grabbed the pen to create a unique story. How’s that transition been?
Oh the experience has been absolutely incredible. In the AV business, there is always a team one works with. The writer does the primary writing but there is a director, platform team, creative team, and producer, who are constantly working together to build the visual delight one sees finally on screen. Writing a book, I realised, was a very lonely process.
I would not call it a solo journey because there is always the army in the form of a partner, family, friends, editor team and publishers who are there to guide you. But the foundation, the first draft needs to be done alone. What goes on in one’s mind can only be put in words by oneself. That was great learning for me. I realised how simple it was for me to narrate a story and describe what I was wanting to write but the moment I put pen to paper, I was at a loss for words so often. I must admit though, it is addictive and I am already on the second draft of my next book with a story brewing for the third!
We’ve reviewed A Dark and Shiny Place on our platform. It’s a tough task, mixing psychology with horror and supernaturalist fiction. Can you tell us how it started? What was the inspiration behind such an intense story?
I have always been fascinated by the supernatural world, I love horror and suspense. At the same time, I have also done a lot of reading on psychology, as a passion. The lockdown led me to ask some difficult questions and the sheer fear of imagining if I was alone and had to go through something like this, what would I do, instigated me to start writing this book. I am an incurable optimist which leads me to look for hope in every dark corner.
Looking at all the despair across the world through the pandemic inspired me to write this story that is relatable, intense, thrilling, gripping, dark and yet offers hope in the end. My main objective was for readers to connect with it and open doors for conversations. I am no mental health or paranormal expert but I see similarities and my research corroborates it. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to explore this space of looking at psychology and paranormal as two sides of the same coin.
The story’s set in the pandemic era. Please share some of your experiences of the lockdown. How did you cope with it? What were the challenges?
I think the biggest challenge was the battle with feeling helpless most of the time. Every time I spoke with a loved one or read the news about someone in need, I felt helpless about not being able to do much. I spent hours over video or phone calls with loved ones suffering through depression, loneliness, grief, anxiety and other such phenomena.
At another time, I would have gone over and given a hug or found another solution. There were also times when I felt the need to simply step out for a walk but couldn’t. I was able to cope with it because of my husband and dog. Him and I kept trying new activities like board games, new business ideas, story ideas, we would organise group video calls with family and friends, meditation and dance lessons.
Our dog is highly entertaining, so she really helped us cope with the lockdown and overall despair in the world. We are also blessed to have a friendly neighborhood. For a change there was no traffic sounds and we heard wonderful music and laughter from apartments across the street. Birdsongs became a regular anthem and I think all these factors combined helped us cope.
You’ve mentioned news channels spreading during the lockdown. What do you feel about the mainstream media’s role in the daily life of the citizens? Do you feel that most news channels are responsible for where our society is today?
Anyone with the power of broadcast, must behave responsibly. Being from such a background myself, I understand how we can influence and help shape mindsets with the stories we tell and characters we build. News channels are no different. Narratives are built and fed over a period of time for the short term goal of ratings.
But the long term impact the negativity has on the public, is alarming. I do not say that we should not state an opinion, I am doing it too but it is important to be mindful of what is being said, to whom and what the impact would be. But as journalists, the responsibility should be more about bringing out the facts from all sides and presenting it as is without colouring it with personal views.
We are all responsible for where our society is today. News is sensationalised because that is consumed by the audience as a preference over factual non-dramatic news. After all, everyone is running a business.
In the story, Maya continues to write her novel even when things get scary and weird. While writing the novel, did you have such experiences? While writing the little boy’s part, did his lifeless eyes ever bother you?
Oh yes absolutely! When I was writing, I had begun to feel like Maya was a part of me. It was almost as if she had possessed me. Sometimes, I felt as trapped as her and felt suffocated. Like I mentioned above, the biggest challenge was feeling helpless, this was one of those times. My husband could do nothing and he also felt confused as to why I would be feeling this way when everything was fine with us.
But I was beginning to get so consumed by Maya that it was difficult to separate her from me at times. The little boy is a manifestation of my own fears. I am quite sensitive to energy and usually I try to read people’s eyes to gauge how much I want to trust them. It’s my little secret which is now out 🙂 Anyway, nothing scares me more than eyes that have no spark. I have seen eyes where it felt like the person was penetrating into my soul and with very bad intent. Aarav’s character is an embodiment of these thoughts.
What are the books that you read? What are your favourite novels or books? Who are your favourite authors?
I have been a voracious reader since I was a little girl. Some of my favourites have been – The Discovery of Heaven, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Man’s Search For Meaning, all Agatha Cristies, Stephen Kings, all Nancy Drews, Fredrik Forsyth. One by Richard Bach. I have also read various religious texts when I was in college. I love fantasy books- Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, The Palace of Illusions, Meluha series. The list is endless!
Mention three or five biggest challenges you face while writing and getting published. If you can tell a bit about the writing process, it would be specifically helpful for our readers.
I have been wanting to write a book since I was 13 years old. I started one back then and it is still sitting unfinished in my notes, now digitised. I think the biggest challenge is to pick the story. Especially for the first one. There are so many ideas, stories and characters that one wants to explore and it can get tough to pick one. Oftentimes, when we do pick and start the journey, the roadblocks come in the form of ‘not enough story’ and that takes us back to the drawing board.
Another big challenge is discipline. Writing is not like narrating a story. Narrating a story comes easily to me but the moment I begin to put the same story on paper, the words come slow. And that is why it takes time and immense dedication. I really needed to sit every day in front of my computer and write at least a few pages. There were some very good days when I have finished chapters in one sitting and then there have been days when I have barely done half a page and scrapped it the next day.
Third is to let go once the manuscript is complete. Even after the editor, publisher and the entire army have worked on it, I am not satisfied and want to re-write some of it. I recently asked my publisher if I could send them a revised manuscript and they could send that into print for the next batch! You can imagine their reaction 🙂
My writing process is fairly simple. I wake up around 4 am and sit at my desk. I start with reading what I wrote the previous day and then naturally write from there. I don’t edit or get caught up in grammar at this stage. I do this until I feel sleepy. I don’t fight my body so the moment I feel tired, I go back to bed for whatever little time I can before starting my day at my corporate job.
I make little notes in my diary as and when thoughts come to me throughout the day. Little thoughts of my characters, their journey, personalities, plot and story progression. When I wake up early in the morning I revisit and use the notes I made throughout the day. I keep my characters with me and treat them like real people that I know. Helps make them more authentic and believable.
On a more technical front, I start with outlining my core plot and conflict of the story. Follow it with developing my characters in great detail even if I wouldn’t use all that information in the book. Then integrate the characters and let them carve their journey through the plot and conflicts I have already laid out for them.
What is the one advice you would give an aspiring writer? Especially for those who come from small cities and villages.
Don’t judge yourself too harshly, the world will do it anyway. Be open to learning and constructive criticism. Finish your story, no matter what it takes, complete it. Don’t get caught up in judging it or giving it to anyone to read before you have completed it. If you are migrating from a smaller town or village, don’t get carried away with glamour, glitter and promises of instant gratification. Everything has its own journey.
Meet people with an open mind. You may need to work or assist a senior writer or Director to learn the trade, don’t shy away from it. If not (as) a writer, join them in their creative team. The objective is for them to see your talent. Share your ideas and point of view in a room full of people, don’t be afraid of being judged, we all are and it is natural. Only when someone hears or reads your thoughts or story is when they will see your talent.
At the same time, always be humble. This is a learning for all walks of life. Humility takes us a long way. Trust in yourself, be open to learning and don’t be afraid to speak your mind 🙂
Noman Shaikh is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bombay Reads. He grew up in Mumbai, a city he loves more than any other, and currently works as a content consultant. His expertise lies in creating high-quality academic and marketing content in the form of blogs, articles, op-eds, etc. Noman has worked with reputed brands, including Economic Times (through Spiral Media), Coinbase (through MattsenKumar), AdEngage, Della Group, GBIM Technologies, VAP Group, etc. For his published portfolio, click here. Contact Noman on noman@bombayreads for engagement.