Writer-actor Dhruv Sehgal on his struggle to hold on to the Little Things that ground and shape his life
Dhruv Sehgal, the creator of Netflix's Little Things, says it is becoming increasingly difficult to retain his fascination for learning as he gets busier in life.
The door to Dhruv Sehgal's humble abode in Seven Bungalows does not lead to a space like the spread-out, swanky home of his character in Little Things. It seems like a comfortable place as per Mumbai standards, but is far less boastful than the setting of his Netflix show. What grabs my attention promptly are a bunch of plants seated comfortably on the ledge of his window, basking in the receding sunlight and overlooking more of their kind in the Nana Nani Garden from the sixth floor.
It is a rejuvenating view from the window, particularly when it is easily accessible from Dhruv's desk, which he claims he sits down at from 10 am to 6 pm every day in order to discipline himself as a writer. "I don't mind the monotony. I genuinely believe you need to have a routine," he says. Writers usually take to the desk at fixed hours as a measure to overcome writer's block. But Dhruv confesses that the primary concern at this stage of his life is a 'learner's block'. "On bad days, what usually happens is I stop getting fascinated by stories. A friend of mine tells me she met someone and felt terrible about something, and I don't feel anything about it. That scares me. Sometimes, when a friend gives me a script to read and I say, 'f*ck it, I'll read it later', I end up not liking myself.
I'm just scared of losing that touch, that empathy, not only for real people but also fictional ones."
On the bright side, however, he claims he is aware of this block and thus can work towards avoiding it. "My life has definitely taken a turn. I'm still trying to grasp the direction I'm walking in. This fear [of losing the fascination to learn] stems from living a life where you aren't in total control of what's happening to you. Maybe in a year from now, I'll have a better grip on things. When people call me for meetings, I genuinely don't know how to approach that. I don't know if I should be telling them my stories and concepts. So I'm always walking in the grey. This perpetual confusion distances me from reality. And that really scares me. I do wake up anxious on a lot of days with thoughts like these."
As Dhruv tries to put words to his thoughts, one can feel a sense of nervous excitement in his voice. Seated besides me on a sofa, he stares at the wall in front of us, rather than looking into my eyes while talking. It seems like he is not new to thinking out loud. As he bares his soul, he seems thrilled to share his story, even if it is not through the prism of Dhruv and Kavya, the lead characters of Little Things.
"I'm 50 percent Dhruv and 50 percent Kavya.
I completely relate to her desire to be ambitious in the second season. But the other person's decision to live his life at his own pace is the other part of who I am. But they will become their own people, take a life of their own, in season 3, if there ever is one," he says, adding that he is both true to and protective of his character, also his namesake. "Our biggest similarity is that we're both trying to be as honest to ourselves and the person in front of us. That's the biggest similarity, and also the greatest challenge. The difference is that I feel he's less conflicted than I am, simply because he exists only for 30 minutes. If his life was beyond 30 minutes, even he would be thinking about things that don't let him sleep at night — you gotta work, you gotta be happy about this. He's quite lucky that he exists only for 30 minutes! (laughs) Otherwise he would also have to read The Caravan and know about politics. I've protected him from all those conflicts."
He points to the copy of The Caravan placed on a table in front of the door. When he turns towards this direction, it feels like he finally registers my presence. This, in turn, makes me realise that there is no invisible camera that he is looking into on the wall, telling millions of people what he feels, a la Modern Family. In that moment, he realises that it is merely a conversation, and the stakes are only as high as he wants them to be. I look at the plants again, which look as green in the orange hues as they did in the yellower ones.
These 'little things' that populate Dhruv's space — and his life — he believes, have a huge bearing on him as an individual. He believes there is a symbiotic relationship between the little things and the bigger picture. "I can only look at myself as an example. I've started cooking a lot now. A year or two years ago, I'd just be at home. I wouldn't socialise much. Now that I've started cooking, things have changed. It takes a f*cking hour to cook something and precisely three minutes to eat it. So I invite people home and share it with them. Cooking is like writing: It's not really complete till you get a reaction or feedback. I have also started talking to my parents more because I miss ghar ka khana. And whenever a friend visits some place, I ask them to get something special to eat from there. This fascination with food and cooking has changed a lot of things in me gradually."
Dhruv took to cooking out of sheer helplessness. He developed a taste for Kerala's cuisine when he visited the state a few years ago. Thus started the quest to recreate the same taste through cooking, since a Mumbai restaurant could come nowhere close. "I started enjoying it simply because of the chemistry angle to it. Whenever you add something to it, the colour or the smell changes. A few days ago, I went out for lunch with a few Instagram bloggers. The whole time, we kept talking about pets. I feel like whenever you have good food, it leads to good conversations. Food is not just about taste and nutritional value. It is also about the stories that come with it. The ilaichi that I got from Kerala is so different from the one I get downstairs. The way a Mangalorean friend will make her ghar ka khana is so different from the food at a Mangalorean restaurant. So food is a lot about what it makes you miss, what it makes you think, what it makes you feel.
I think of it as a great cinematic tool. It can take transport you to some other place with just a whiff.
I feel like my show is also something I want people to enjoy, like they enjoy food."
As he admits quite frequently in our conversation, good food often transports him to his hometown Delhi, though the definition of 'home' has changed for him over the years. "Whenever I go to Delhi, there's a weird fear inside me, which is how the f*ck will this one survive for the next 10 years? But going to Kerala gives me peace. I prefer going there because it gives me hope. Just asking a random shopkeeper where he gets his cardamom from gives me so much peace. It is much less violent than Delhi, where I see people overfeeding on food, overfeeding on TV shows. I feel f*ck scared while walking on a street at 9 pm in Delhi. I can't even imagine what a girl would feel like. When you're constantly battling that fear, it limits your thought process."
Dhruv feels visits to Brussels, the European city where his parents currently live, have helped him broaden his horizons. "I'm at that stage of my life when I feel like you should go to a place where you feel happy. Go to a place where you feel more connected to yourself. I feel very happy in Europe because I can go for long walks. There's a very quiet celebration of life there. Having said that, I'm aware that coming from India, it's a place of very high privilege. But for the brief time I'm there, I feel so glad that I can go to museums, galleries and exhibitions. I like to go to supermarkets and look at the variety of sushi and chips on display. It's also nice to experience that man! It's nice to experience a different kind of coke that makes you happy."
Dhruv started his career as the creator of short video content on Pocket Aces and FilterCopy years ago. His show Little Things, which premiered on Dice Media, was picked up by Netflix for its season 2. The show, which embraced ambition as a part of everyday reality as opposed to limiting itself to the 'little things' of life, Dhruv has also constantly tried to strike a balance between ambition and humility. His ambition with Little Things, however, is for its characters to become even more real and relatable. "In season 2, I just let my characters be bad. I let them say things that I may not agree with. It happens with every couple. After the honeymoon period is over, the world comes between us and we approach it in different ways. Little Things does not imply that it's a halka-phulka show. Thematically, it just represents the nuances of life. Season 3 may not be cute at all, but it'll still talk about the 'little things' of life."
Little things aside, does he not feel like channeling his inner Ganesh Gaitonde and aspire to make a big-budget Netflix Original like Sacred Games? "I'd love to make something like that. I really want to make a thriller," he says. "But even that will be very real, about real people, and as close to reality," he adds after a pause, going back to thinking out loud. With that clarity intact, the "learner's block" may just be a little thing he needs to stumble upon, and move on.
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