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Potluck director Rajshree Ojha: Aisha was ahead of its time and didn’t get its due

This interview was first published in The Telegraph Online by the same author.


“It’s a show about us,” says Rajshree Ojha, exploring why the Sony LIV series Potluck has turned out a winner. Born in Kolkata, Rajshree went to New York City to learn filmmaking at NYU and then did her masters in filmmaking at American Film Institute (AFI). Upon her return to India, she made films such as Chaurahen and Aisha. As she gears up to work on Season 3 of Potluck, Rajshree opens up about directing the comedy drama with an ensemble cast, her filmmaking journey, collaborating with writers and her upcoming projects.


What has been the best compliment or feedback you have received for Potluck?


Rajshree Ojha: Most people who have watched Potluck have loved it and said that it’s so relatable.


What’s your relationship with the theme of Potluck?


Rajshree Ojha: When the show came to me from the showrunners, what caught my eye was that it’s a show about us. How crazy and a little abnormal these people are, just like us. How children are moving on with their lives and how parents are trying to hold on to them is what we have seen in our lives. I related to that personally.


I read the script during Covid when people were sort of coming together, so I found it so relevant. And as the show is now in its second season, you get to know more about these characters. It’s like peeling the layers of an onion – you get to see more layers and colours of these characters. I love that and that’s what appealed to me.


How do you direct a scene featuring an ensemble cast? How much do you try to control and how much do you let the actors lead the way?


Rajshree Ojha: I do 50-50. I like this genre where a lot of people are talking together, and I like the play of words. Initially, it was a bit difficult because I had to manoeuvre them as they were just trying to get into the characters. In the second season, I didn’t have to do much.

In an ensemble scene, sometimes, I let it breathe. But sometimes I pull it back because there’s not enough time. Actors tend to do a lot more. They add their own characteristics to the performance. It’s a give-and-take. But you have limited time. So, in such situations, I say let’s stick to the script.

Directing a plot-driven film/series is much easier because you know what’s going to happen. But in shows like Potluck, you have to find a few things as you progress. So sometimes, I go to the edit table to find out the best pieces and put them together. I guess I shall give the credit to the actors, editor and myself (chuckles) because that’s how scenes with an ensemble cast are done.


Most relationship/family dramas and romcoms are moving to the OTT platforms. Do you have anything planned in the same genres but for the big screen?


Rajshree Ojha: Yes, I do. I feel there’s no such thing that such films are only meant for OTT release. I think the people sitting on the decision-making chairs are deciding the platform of release. Of course, people won’t go to theatres to watch everything because it’s an expensive outing and you want to have an experience. So, if you offer a great experience, people will go to the theatre. It totally depends on how you execute the material.


So yes, I am working on something in the genre you mentioned. I feel there’s a dearth of content like that. A lot of films coming from the South in the slice-of-life and romance genres are doing well, and these are theatrical releases, not OTT. I think Hindi cinema shouldn’t shy away from these genres. Just create an experience worth watching on a big screen.


Your filmography has a gap of three-four years between your projects. Do you think you could have directed more?


Rajshree Ojha: I could have directed more. But I was also writing a lot in those years. I feel a director needs to find her voice. I took my time to find my voice. Now I am much more sure about what I want to do and how I want to do it. Actually, that gap helped me. Now I am clear about my vision.


The final cut of your 2010 film Aisha was not your decision completely, and Chaurahen’s production work stopped multiple times. How did those two experiences affect you?


Rajshree Ojha: Chaurahen was my first film. I had just come back from the US. When you are fresh out of film school, you feel that you have arrived. But that’s not the truth. The flaw of Chaurahen was that it was in English. It should have been in the language of the country. It would have made a big difference in Hindi. But I worked with fabulous actors such as Nedumudi Venu, Victor Banerjee, Roopa Ganguly, Soha Ali Khan, Ankur Khanna and Zeenat Aman who were so good with their craft. That was my takeaway from Chaurahen.


Aisha, for me, was a glamorous film. I still hear from people that they have watched Aisha multiple times. Someone had named their daughter after Aisha. But I feel that it was not as well-projected as it should have been. Maybe it was a little ahead of its time.


Nevertheless, Aisha should have been given its due… because it was a different film for the time it came out. Kudos to Sonam Kapoor for taking a film like that. I loved that I got to do music and lip-sync songs in Aisha. I learnt how music and choreography are done on the set of Aisha.


Did you ever lose faith in your journey? How did you keep going?


Rajshree Ojha: It is a tough journey, but you have to keep at it. There were days when I thought that maybe I was in the wrong profession. But then you come out of it. I read a book. That’s my therapy. I like to go into the world of a book and imagine in my head that I’ll make a film. There are times when it becomes very challenging. Things don’t move forward. It is part of a filmmaker’s journey. A lot of my classmates from NYU and AFI have made one film, or are working in a studio, wanting to make a film. I’m very grateful to God that I got to make a few films of mine.


Which filmmakers’ work had an impact on you?


Rajshree Ojha: Indian filmmakers whose films have had an impact on me are Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Manmohan Desai and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Sholay (1975) had an impact on me. I always loved American films… Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood’s films. I remember watching Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) at Metro in Calcutta. The works of Paul Thomas Anderson really resonate with me.


When I went to film school, I was exposed to European filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini, which changed my perspective. But the filmmaker that changed a lot of my perspective on filmmaking and writing is Ingmar Bergman. When I saw Persona (1966) and some other films of his, it really changed my perspective on relationships and how I wanted to tell my stories.


What is your process as a writer? Do you write every day or whenever you feel like writing?


Rajshree Ojha: I ideate. I don’t write everything. When I have an idea or story to develop, I get a writer to write with me. This has always been my process. If I write and direct, then I start owning the subject so much that I don’t see the flaws. When you have another person, he/she can see the flaws. It’s important as a director or a writer.


I collaborate with writers who I think have a similar vision for a story. I guide the writer toward what I want in the script. Once the core script is in place, we keep rewriting it till it gets to a point where it can be pitched to a producer. I never change the core of the story because that is the essence of bringing the story together. As a director, the DOP (cinematographer) and editor are the most important people to me. I like to finish my films on time. If you take forever to complete a film, people tend to lose focus.


What are your upcoming projects?


Rajshree Ojha: I am working on Potluck Season 3. The writing is in process. And I am working on a slice-of-life romantic drama based on a Jane Austen novel. I have developed another web show too.

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