OTT is the toughest medium, says Decoupled actor R. Madhavan

R. Madhavan and Surveen Chawla talk about their latest web series and why digital is the place to be for actors


Somya Mehta

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Published: Fri 17 Dec 2021, 3:51 AM

Last updated: Tue 21 Dec 2021, 5:22 PM

Who’s really interested in a separating couple talking about marriage? A question that pops up in the establishing shot of the trailer for Decoupled. “Everybody” screams the man sitting opposite the unhappily married couple. These quirks and comedy of a separating pair form the premise of the latest Netflix web series that premieres today.

Essaying characters of Arya and Shruti, R. Madhavan and Surveen Chawla play the role of an urban, Gurgaon-based couple constantly throwing brickbats at each other as desperate attempts to call it quits on their marriage.

Created and written by acclaimed writer Manu Joseph, author of Serious Men, and directed by Hardik Mehta, the dramedy ventures into a complex-yet-familiar territory, questioning the aftermath of what goes on when a couple with a teenage daughter falls out of love.

Both Madhavan and Chawla, who are sharing screen space for the first time on this Netflix show, started their careers on television, with Zee TV’s Banegi Apni Baat for Madhavan and Ekta Kapoor’s Kahin To Hoga for Chawla.

From TV to the silver screen and, most recently, coming together on OTT, the Decoupled actors map out the pandemic-driven boom of the digital space and why OTT is the place to be for actors.

What are some of the unique affordances that the OTT space offers in comparison to other mediums?

R. Madhavan: If I have to answer it in a very simple line, I think amongst the three mediums, films might be physically more demanding but the toughest medium of all is OTT. When you do television or movies, you are localised to that diaspora. If I’m doing a Tamil movie, I know people from that region will watch it. Few others may watch it around the world. But when I do Breathe, I’m competing directly with all the content from around the world for the same space and attention. In between the Indian content, I’m also fighting for space with a Squid Game or Narcos or any other show that might come and go and people will just drop your content halfway because they’ve found something else that is far more interesting. That is why it’s difficult and challenging because as an actor, you have to be up there. You cannot be hamming because you’re competing with the best. Secondly, the writing also has to compete with the best in the world. When we do a movie, we shoot for about two or three hours of content but with OTT, you’re shooting for eight hours of content or more. And you don’t shoot this sequentially. So for me, OTT is far more demanding and rightfully so. Now that the budgets are very encouraging, there’s a lot of scope. People are looking out for great talent, so it’s a great opportunity for everybody.

Surveen Chawla: The creative freedom as an artist, as a writer, as a technician that you can get on OTT is unparalleled. Sadly, there have been instances in the past where the content on OTT has also been questioned, which truly breaks my heart because then you’re taking away the freedom from a storyteller and they would not be able to pour their heart into what they want to say. But apart from that, it’s a new-age format and there’s place for everyone here. The most talented people want to make their way in and do great things because what this platform provides you, at least for now, no other format does.

Is it a level-playing field for newcomers and insiders?

R. Madhavan: It’s never going to be level playing in the sense that people from the industry will always get the first priority because they’re known. It’s very difficult to find an unknown talent and to invest in it. I’ve been lucky that big filmmakers invested in me. But anybody putting in the money wants to make sure their odds are limited. But obviously, there is a great opportunity for newcomers now more than ever before.

Has the divide between the big screen and small screen blurred?

Surveen Chawla: There was a time when audiences were different, when you had a divide between commercial cinema and arthouse films, and these were two parallel forms of cinema. Today, that line has blurred because your audiences have become far more intelligent. They want to watch good content. There’s a lot of exchange of talent and filmmakers because there is far more freedom in terms of creativity and content in OTT and that’s very alluring for everybody. So, the divide has definitely blurred and it’s only better for all of us. But having said that, ultimately, 70mm screen is a 70mm screen and nothing beats that. It’s where every actor aspires to be. To see themselves on the big screen is every actor’s dream, every artist’s dream, every technician’s dream.

R. Madhavan: And every person’s dream (laughs). I think Surveen has summed it all up.

Your upcoming web show Decoupled breaks down the world of a modern, quarrelling married couple. What about it fascinated you to play the characters of Arya and Shruti?

Surveen Chawla: To begin with, I wanted to play Arya (Madhavan’s character). But like Maddy said, the writing was brilliant. Every character has been etched and nuanced so wonderfully by Manu [Joseph]. After having read the second episode, I immediately got on board. Secondly, it was very interesting for me to try a show that’s completely in English. My thinking language is English. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I just wanted to have a fresh experience.

R. Madhavan: Firstly, the writing was spot on. We read the first two episodes of the script and we knew that this is something we had to do. I couldn’t imagine giving it up for somebody else. It is a modern take on a pulp fiction writer’s life, where he speaks in English and writes in English. So when I read the way the story was written, I knew I had to it. And it had some amazing people involved, Manu Joseph (writer), Hardik Mehta (director). So all of that was already coming in as a guarantee for the product, and I wouldn’t have missed it.

We’ve seen you in that space, playing the role of Manu in Tanu Weds Manu Returns but that character was quite passive, unlike your role in Decoupled…

R. Madhavan: It’s not an anti-thesis to Mannu, it’s actually a lot more than that. He’s an absurd guy, who just says the most ridiculous things, there’s no social filter. So, he’s not an exact antithesis, but somebody who is very different from Manu for sure.

What role does language play when you’re essaying a particular character?

Surveen Chawla: I’ll share an experience that I had very recently. I’m filming for another show and that’s entirely in Hindi. I called up Manu [Joseph] after a few days of shoot and said he’s gotten me into such a bad habit of performing in English that going back to Hindi feels strange. Personally, I think in English. So there is a seamlessness and an effortlessness that comes with the language. Improvisation becomes easier because we’re constantly communicating in that language. I think it was a very big advantage to do the show in English and it’s also very centric to where the script belongs.

R. Madhavan: I’ve realised that I have the ability to think in the language that I’m going to be shooting in. Although English, Hindi and Tamil are my first languages, I find it very easy to resonate with the language of the medium. But at the same time, English offers a little more flexibility because I’m able to improvise.

As actors, do you pay heed to the comments on social media? Whether it’s about you or your work.

R. Madhavan: I do my best to pay attention because there’s a lot of meaning hidden there. You don’t generally take what is said on paper for its face value. You try to see where they’re coming from with their comments and their reviews. And if you figure that out, then you’re able to see a lot of genuine feedback that could be very beneficial to you as an actor or as a creative.

Surveen Chawla: You have to filter through all of them and take what needs to be taken.

What should the audience look out for in Decoupled?

Surveen Chawla: The show is just another perspective to marriage. It’s not advocacy of separation or divorce. We’re not endorsing that. When I see the show, to me, it’s about giving each other a little more time and trying your best, trying harder than you ever have, to not give up so soon on a relationship.

R. Madhavan: It’s a slice of life, with 30-minute long episodes, full of comedy. It could be a reflection of your own marriage if you look into it deeply. And then there might be some things that you want to imbibe. I don’t think you’ll take it very seriously, but it might have a slight impact on your relationship.

We’re almost nearing the end of 2021. What does 2022 look like for the both of you?

R. Madhavan: To me, it feels like the year just started and it’s already over. It’s shocking that we’re just 20 days away from the end of the year. I think it’s frightening he pace at which 2021 has gone by. Despite the lockdowns and the setbacks, with not being able to release Rocketry: The Nambi effect this year, which will now be releasing next year. But at the same time, I’ve had the good fortune of Decoupled releasing this year. So, 2021 will be marked with this show for me, which I’m very happy and proud about.

Surveen Chawla: I only have one wish, and that is to look at 2022 with the hope that we’ll be able to continue to live free of fear. I wish and pray for all of us to be free again.

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