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Anushka Sharma: 'Female-led stories are much braver'

The actor and her brother, Karnesh Ssharma, on their production company, the journey from 'NH10' to 'Bulbbul', and why they invest in female-led films

Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Ssharma, founders of Clean Slate Films
Anushka Sharma and Karnesh Ssharma, founders of Clean Slate Films

When Anushka Sharma founded Clean Slate Films, in 2013, with her brother, Karnesh Ssharma, she was 25. Their first production was NH10 (2015), with second-time director Navdeep Singh and writer Sudip Sharma, then relatively new. She was a star by then, having acted in studio films like Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) and PK (2014). But NH10, a jarringly violent film in which Sharma’s city-dwelling character and her husband are chased across the Haryana hinterland, was far from the mainstream. Sharma lost count of the number of people who told her, “Why are you producing a film when your career is going well?"

Since then, Clean Slate has brought out three more films and a season of the streaming series Paatal Lok (2020). It’s a distinctive filmography, a canny mix of genre film-making and social commentary, with a notable absence of marquee names (besides Sharma) and audience-baiting hooks. By using genres like comedy (Phillauri, 2017), gothic drama (Bulbbul, 2020) and horror (Pari, 2018), they’ve found ways to tell women’s stories that don’t feel message-heavy—an alternative to the more on-the-nose style of Chhapaak (2020) or Thappad (2020). You can read into the symbolism of Pari or Bulbbul, or simply see them as a diverting narratives.

On a Sunday afternoon as dramatically rainy as some of the scenes in Paatal Lok or Pari, I spoke to the siblings on the phone. I began by asking how they gauged the success of their latest, Bulbbul, which premiered on Netflix during the lockdown (the platform’s policy is not to reveal viewership numbers). “Apart from really good reviews, the other way we could tell that the film has been received well is when we saw a lot of conversations pop up around it," Sharma said. “People started dissecting different scenes, talking about the relevance of the film to them. The amount of art made on the film, the memes generated, these are tell-tale signs of the way it’s being perceived."

Bulbbul, which ends with Tripti Dimri’s much-wronged titular character revealed as a demon/goddess, is the third Clean Slate film centred around a supernatural being. In Phillauri, Sharma plays the ghost of a woman from pre-independence times, who appears to a modern-day manglik who marries a tree. And in Pari, she turns into a demon who exacts violent retribution on men. “Unknowingly, Karnesh and I seem to have introduced a feminist horror subgenre," she said. “From the beginning we were very clear we wanted to chase stories that are unique and clutter-breaking. It just so happened that a lot of these were in a supernatural space. But that’s storytelling, right? You can engage in escapism and make it beautiful while staying true to the messaging."

Ssharma credits their upbringing as army kids with giving them an appetite for diverse ideas. “For us these stories are very natural. They’re what we’d want to watch." “Because we grew up with the army, we’ve been exposed to people from all over the country," Sharma added. “Our minds were very open from the start." They briefly lapsed into memories, Ssharma recalling how they watched and rewatched Top Gun and Pretty Woman growing up. “Whatever showed in the army theatres, or anything we could see for free on our computers," she said. “VHS," he corrected her.

“All our films at the core have been a personal, intimate story about a character," Ssharma said. "Through that there is a bigger commentary if one wants it, otherwise you can just be entertained." Yet these films often challenge viewers as much as entertaining them. Paatal Lok, made in the more liberal environs of streaming TV, has excruciating violence and a litany of social injustices underpinning its complex narrative. There’s also a palpable sympathy for the trials and slights women face in this country running through all the Clean Slate productions, from the scrawled misogynist graffiti that bookends NH10 to child marriage and spousal abuse in Bulbbul to Phillauri being unable to claim credit for the poetry she’s writing.

Sharma isn’t the only female Hindi film star to turn producer while her acting career is on the ascendancy. Priyanka Chopra produced a series of non-Hindi feature films before starring in and producing The Sky Is Pink (2019), about a teenager with a terminal illness. Deepika Padukone produced Chhapaak, in which she played an acid attack survivor. Earlier this year, Kangana Ranaut launched her own production house. While plenty of male stars are producers, their films tend to be big-budget star vehicles. These recent productions by female stars have been mid-budget films built around uncommercial subjects, often with a female lead, writer or director.

“Today when I see actresses doing that I’m very happy, because it was very daunting for me at the time," Sharma said. “It’s great women are taking responsibility for their own careers and empowering others in the process. When you’re making films with a male actor there are a lot of trappings you get stuck with. I think female-led stories are much braver. It’s always about the story, unlike when you’re making a film with a hero. That’s such a big contribution female-led films have had to the industry. It’s only in the past few years that we’ve seen many such films come out."

As with any production house, you’ll see a few names recur across several of Clean Slate’s films. Prosit Roy was first assistant director on Phillauri, director on Pari, and co-director on Pataal Lok. Sudip Sharma wrote NH10 and created Paatal Lok. Anvita Dutt co-wrote Pari and Phillauri and directed Bulbbul. Parambrata Chatterjee acted in Pari and Bulbbul. I asked the duo if these people constituted a larger, unofficial Clean Slate team in their minds. “Our philosophy has always been to support strong voices, whether it is Navdeep, Sudip, Prosit, Anvita," Ssharma replied. “It’s become like these people are involved in everything we do. It’s not about one particular project."

Clean Slate had started production for a Netflix series that’s on hold because of covid-19. “And we are also… can we announce that right now?" Sharma asked her brother. “No," he said immediately, prompting her to laugh. He clarified that they had a couple of films and two-three series coming up. “Safe to say our slate is nice and steady," Sharma said. “We don’t want to be boxed in a certain category—we’re only looking for new, unique ideas. Like our name says, we want to start every film with a clean slate."

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