How Asur writer Gaurav Shukla married science to religion and mythology to create a forensic thriller
Gaurav Shukla, writer of the acclaimed crime mystery Asur, talks to Firstpost about the various facets of the show that examines the conflict between science and religion, and everything beyond.
Gaurav Shukla, a physiotherapy graduate, came to Mumbai as a 21-year-old with a script in hand. He waited 15 years for his first feature film to release (the Irrfan Khan, Radhika Madan starrer Angrezi Medium). But before the film, Shukla wrote the crime mystery Asur (streaming on Voot), that has now become talk of the town, and is being widely lauded as something India has never seen before. Shukla spoke to Firstpost about the inspiration behind the series, his idea of portraying the conflict between science and religion, and the unlikely narrative choice of creating a demonic child, and its implausible source of inspiration.
How did the process of Asur start — the story, the inspiration, the research? What drew you into mythology, and why were you inclined to set it in Varanasi?
It all started in 2009; I have to jog my memory a bit. I am an avid viewer of thrillers, and I read a lot as well. If I am not hired for a specific project, I am always trying to write thrillers. Coming from a family with a medical background, I always felt forensics had not gotten their due.
So the primary thought was to write an authentic forensic thriller, and the line which excited me was, "Two forensic experts trying to solve a serial killing while being in captivity." So the first thing I cracked was how a serial killer would kidnap a prolific forensic expert (Barun Sobti), and force him to commit the perfect crime.
The mythology angle came later, when we delved into the killer's story. The major challenge was to make it feel Indian. So the mythological angle came during a discussion with my co-writer, Niren Bhatt. The philosophy was needed later in the writing process and during research. We came across the devil Kali (arch-nemesis of Kalki), and my team and I were excited because it was relevant even in today's time. The philosophy of ‘project equilibrium’ came from chemistry — a homogenous solution is a stable solution — and (the character of) Shubh has the twisted ideology that he can create a stable and peaceful society by drawing out the evil in everyone.
The murder-mystery genre never really took off in India. Why? In the same context, what, in your experience, is the greatest challenge of writing a murder mystery?
In my opinion, the murder mystery is as complicated or as easy to write as other genres, and I am sure there must be writers out there with great mysteries or thrillers. The great challenge in writing a good murder mystery is the research, and finding a new element, because holding people's attention in today's time with a unidimensional story is very difficult, especially with a series where the runtime is substantially more.
But the biggest challenge of the murder mystery is not writing, but selling it. Since people have appreciated Asur, I hope it will ease out problems for fellow writers.
In Asur, there's not one, but three highly intelligent men. Traditionally, murder mysteries are anchored on the genius of one, at most two. Why did you make this choice? In such a scenario, how does one find the balance between intelligence that is believable, and what might feel exaggerated?
I never thought of it that way, and maybe that's the reason I managed to balance it. For me, Dhananjay (Arshad Warsi) and Nikhil (Barun Sobti) are masters in their field, but not geniuses. On the other hand, there's Shubh, who is gifted from birth, and has an incredibly high IQ. I never committed such a trait to the protagonists (Sobti or Warsi) — they only know their fields and apply it well. I personally did all my research and tried very hard to maintain the believability of their intelligence, especially for Shubh's character, because he is also hyperlexic and lies on the Autism spectrum.
The show's main mystery, is an imperiously intelligent man, who despite his vast knowledge (including the sciences), seems to believe in mythology. It upends the theory that science and religion are opposites; that they cannot coexist. Clearly, you do not believe in it. Why?
We all believe in multiple things at the same time, depending on our surroundings. That's why you see even intelligent and well-educated people getting brainwashed by religious politics. We all need to understand that reality is perspective; it changes from person to person. Depending on the time, their upbringing, their social circle, geography — all those realities become the absolute truths for the corresponding person, whereas it may well be wrong for another person. If you take the example of Dhananjay, Nikhil, and Shubh, they all have their respective realities, which are as right or as wrong when seen from the point of view of other characters. That's why there is an internal and external conflict in this world, because we don't believe in one thing all the time.
In one scene, Warsi's character scoffs at the idea of taking help from a kundli-reader. That scene was telling. Is Asur also about the conflict between science and religion? Or is everyone a little mad, and only the method to that madness is different?
Absolutely. It is the conflict between science and belief. I never wanted to be the judge, I wanted to give both the same respect. For example, I have explained the reason behind Shubh's condition through both science and belief. It was up to the audience to decide as to what they wanted to believe.
A demonic child isn't something the Indian audience has seen before. At any point was that narrative choice considered a risk? Where does one draw inspiration for such a character?
It never occurred to me as a risk. The inspiration came from a strange place — from my daughter, who is hyperlexic. She could fluently read novels and movie subtitles when she was two-and-a-half-years old. It initially spooked me, but later, when I researched and consulted child psychologists, I came to know about the condition. So that inspired me to conceive the character. What if it happens to be with a less educated father? How will a child deal with it, especially in a world where all parents want their children to be super kids. That was the inspiration, and that's what I wanted to convey; let your kid be who they are and don't try to make them something else. If one burdens them with so many expectations, in all probability, they won't become serial killers, but it will (adversely) impact their mind.
Some might be of the opinion that Asur is too cynical, especially its mythological aspects. How would you respond to that allegation?
I would say I don't agree it's cynical; rather, it's realistic and represents the time we live in. I feel one should not judge a fiction writer's beliefs based on his/her writing, because on most occasions, it will be misleading. My view could be 360 degrees opposite to what I wrote. I write for characters and what they believe in to make a compelling story.
Shubh decided to make a cult because he assumed all religions in the world are one person's ideology, which resonated with many people. Once you have gained so many followers, it goes beyond the scrutiny of logical thinking.
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