Director Akarsh Khurana, writer Gazal Dhaliwal discuss Netflix's Mismatched and adapting a popular book to screen
“Sandhya Menon, the author of the book, is very happy with what we have done. That for me, is the biggest stamp of approval for the show,' says Gazal Dhaliwal about writing Netflix's Mismatched.
“Hello my future wife,” 18-year-old Rishi tells 17-year-old Dimple Ahuja (Prajakta Koli) after tracking her down in their college campus in the first episode of Netflix’s Mismatched. In reply, Dimple throws her cold coffee at his face. She thinks he is a creep, unaware that her mother has consented to an arranged marriage setup behind her back and shown him her picture. Rishi, who believes in the idea of old-school love that is devoid of the practicality of dating apps, is convinced that arranged marriage is the kickoff point. Coming from a broken family, Rishi’s idea of romantic stability has been defined by the enduring marriage of his grandparents who were set up by their respective families. He sees no harm in wanting to replicate it, simply because it doesn’t come at the cost of his personal ambition. Dimple on the other hand, views marriage as a death-knell on her individuality and aspirations. They’re opposites in every sense of the word. But if innumerable romantic comedies have taught us anything, it’s that opposites attract even when all they seem to be doing is bickering with each other. Plus, we already know the script from Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi, the immensely popular Young Adult novel the series is based on.
There’s an eventuality that you have to invariably prepare yourself for when you’re a writer or a director entrusted with the screen adaptation of a book, in particular, one with a possessive fan following. It’s the affront of “The book was better” being hurled at you as both accusation and rejection. Although it remains a reductive lens of judging any piece of work even if that work is an act of recreation, it is still every creative person’s worst nightmare. Gazal Dhaliwal and Akarsh Khurana, the writer-duo director behind Mismatched are fully aware that it is a matter of time before their show becomes the latest of the victim of the book vs show debate.
This scramble to pit a book against its onscreen adaptation stems in many ways from the fact that audiences worldwide have been attuned to expecting a faithful adaptation – for a show or movie to not add any subtext but just blindly pay heed to the text. “But I think it’s important to segue way a bit,” Khurana, who has co-directed the six-part series along with National Award-winning Marathi filmmaker Nipun Dharmadhikari, tells me over a Zoom call. This realisation dawned on him while staging his adaptation of The Kite Runner (Dharmadhikari acted in the play),“I was shitting bricks when I took that up because I knew for a fact that everyone read this book, everyone loves this book and all those people are gonna think that I destroyed a novel that they love.” But it soon hit him that his approach was all wrong: There was no possible way to recreate the novel on stage. “What I could recreate was the essence. If my play evoked the same emotion in the audience that the book did, then that’s the real achievement.” It’s exactly what he is hoping would happen with Mismatched ‒ that the experience of watching the show is as satisfying and pleasing as the experience of reading the source material.
Khurana is a bit of a multi-hyphenate: he’s a theatre director, an actor, a screenwriter as well as a director of mainstream Hindi films. Last year, he staged an adaptation of The Kite Runner and co-wrote five episodes of the second season of TVF’s Tripling, a sibling comedy starring Sumeet Vyas. The year before, he facilitated Dulquer Salmaan’s Bollywood debut by casting him in Karwaan, a road-trip movie that he co-wrote and directed. That same year, Khurana himself acted in TVF’s charming family drama, Yeh Meri Family where he played the patriarch of the middle-class Gupta family, making a supremely effective case for giving into uninhibited nostalgia. The coming year, Rashmi Rocket, the Bollywood sports drama that Khurana is currently directing, will be vying for a release date. And for the moment, there’s Mismatched, a high-school rom-com starring YouTube sensation Prajakta Koli (who made her acting debut earlier this year with the impressive short film, Khayali Pulao) and Rohit Saraf (The Sky is Pink, Ludo).
In many ways, the show feels well-equipped to fulfill the fixations of the purveyors of Indian pop-culture on the internet. The premise of Mismatched revolves around the confusion of young love, a part of life not only central to the memory of youth but also a period that isn’t often represented on screen with a degree of authenticity. It stars two young actors who bring with them an undeniable, dedicated fan base and the show’s soundtrack even has a Prateek Kuhad song to boot. There’s also the fact that Mismatched has been translated for the screen by Gazal Dhaliwal (along with Aarsh Vora and Sunayana Kumari), who knows a thing or two about mounting an adaptation on screen. Last year, Dhaliwal (Lipstick Under My Burkha, Qarib Qarib Singlle) wroteEk Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, Hindi cinema’s first mainstream lesbian romance, which she adaptated from PG Wodehouse’s A Damsel In Distress. Dhaliwal retained only the premise; the book didn’t deal with sexuality at all.
Dhaliwal, who was approached by Netflix and RSVP two years ago to adapt the book for Indian audiences, is naturally prone to looking at an adaptation as an interpretation and not an act of replication, “It’s very important for me to be able to say something that is not in the book. One has to be able to add to the story, otherwise, it doesn't excite me. So what I look for is an opportunity to bring in maybe a theme that's important to me, or just a thought, something poignant that you can see through even through the entertaining, surface-level story.” One considerable deviation of the show is its setting. In the book, the leads are Indian-American but in the show, the action shifts to Jaipur. “When I initially read Gazal’s take on the book, what I loved was that she altered the context for the love story at the centre of the proceedings and introduced a host of new characters who had very distinct characteristics which made the world building so much more interesting” Khurana admits.
For Dhaliwal, the liberties she took with recalibrating the story to the Indian context depended largely on ensuring that Dimple and Rishi’s meet-cute had a sound reasoning, “The story is about a setup which has gone horribly wrong. To make that happen, it was important to change the family dynamics. Akarsh and I felt very strongly about the fact that it wouldn’t have been believable for Indian viewers if Rishi’s parents were behind him to start looking out for girls when he’s all of 18 so that he can get married in two years.” So she introduced a grandmother in the mix (her character is not there in the book), effectively using the older generation’s adherence to tradition as justification for the arranged marriage setup. Dhaliwal played around with Rishi’s dynamics with his parents as well: In the book, Rishi’s parents, who belong to a typical Gujarati family, are still together and Rishi is built to be more obedient than hopeless romantic. The Rishi that Mismatched gives us wants to be nothing like his divorced parents; instead he wants to grow old with someone the same way his grandparents did with each other.
When Khurana was brought in on Mismatched, Dhaliwal had already finished writing the outlines, but what attracted him was it seemed like a love-story between two real people with real issues, “Even though this was essentially a young adult romance, there was maturity in the way it was depicted.” Dhaliwal, who counts Kuch Kuch Hota Hai as one of her guilty pleasures, was similarly drawn in by the simplicity of the high-school romance at the heart of the book, a contrast to the large-scale candyfloss high school universe depicted in Hindi films.
Over the last two years, mounting an adaptation has become almost like a second-language for Netflix’s India programming. Mismatched is the latest in the string of adaptations, across movies and shows, that the streaming giant has greenlit, the recent being Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men, a wry adaptation of Manu Joseph’s eponymous novel. That the strategy hasn’t exactly worked out as well as they would have liked is no secret. A large chunk of Mismatched’s reception (as well as a second season) ultimately rests on how vital its adaptation can make itself out to be. On his part, Khurana thinks they have that in the bag because Mismatched boasts of the balance between reverence and relevance, a mark of any good adaptation, “When you’re adapting something, it’s not just about replacing names and places but really about rewriting it all in a way that makes sense to the audience. The trick is to do it with a respect for the original text. There is no place for arrogance in adaptations.” But what if the audience thinks that the book was better than the show? Dhaliwal insists that they will take the criticism in their stride but Khurana has the last word. “Sandhya Menon, the author of the book, is very happy with what we have done. That for me, is the biggest stamp of approval for the show.”
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