The International Emmy Awards 2023 wasn’t just a proud moment for Indian artists on stage but also for those who were behind it. One name among them was Anu Singh Choudhary, a screenwriter and entrepreneur who is not just an author but also an award-winning Indian journalist. As a juror for the scriptwriting award, Choudhary not only chimed in with her experience working in Indian cinema but also took away some great learnings from artists she met and worked with from across the globe.
Associated with acclaimed shows like Aarya and Grahan, and currently working on The Great Indian Kitchen, Choudhary is on a mission to curate projects that mentor newcomers and offer fair chances to those who are struggling to break the mould.
In an interview with SheThePeople, Anu Singh Choudhary recalls her experience as an Emmy juror, the dynamic shift of representation in cinema, how her projects speak personally to her, and why writers require fair credit and opportunity.
Excerpts from the interview
How was your experience at the Emmys as a juror? And what were your major takeaways during jury duty?
This is the best part of being in the industry, right? You get to meet so many new people and you're always getting new insights through the scripts or through the stories that you're engaging with.
So, that's exactly what happened with the jury duty that I was doing for international Emmys. I was a jury for Sir Peter Ustinov's scriptwriting award. Now, this is a scriptwriting award that's given to under 30 screenwriters and non-American writers which means that there's a lot of talent that you see, and these are young writers. For a lot of them, it's the first script that they're working on. This is a passion project that they've kept very close to their heart. And because they're also coming from different nationalities, cultures, and experiences, there's so much diversity in just what you read and the kind of scripts that are submitted.
There's a great deal to learn from them because they are far more advanced in terms of just learning the craft and very hungry. After all, there is so much at stake for them. This is the first attempt that they've made. None of their work has ever been made, which means they're going fearless, no holds barred, completely in it. And that fearlessness reflects on paper. And that is a pattern that you will see in a lot of award-winning stories that come to international Emmys. They are riveting. They are different and innovative in their storytelling.
A lot of your work portrays aptly the constant struggle that women face daily. Has it always been a conscious choice to bring these stories to the screen?
Before being a screenwriter, I was also a journalist. And after being a journalist, I was also an author and fiction writer. So, it was only natural and it'd be a lie if I said that it's not conscious. Of course, it's conscious. And therefore, the kind of stories that you're telling or the kind of characters that you're working with will have something to contribute or to say. And as a writer, the moment you realise that your work matters, you will be far more respectful and responsible towards your work. It will not be just a day job for you. There will be that sense of responsibility, and that has come with time for me.
I would not say that it was very conscious in the beginning. It has taken me years to realise what I'm trying to do. Yes, these stories speak to me, or I feel like there are certain kinds of stories that I can tell better. For example, if it's a story of a mother, for example, from the point of view of a female protagonist or a female journalist, these are worlds that one knows very comfortably hence it's only natural that I will want to tell these stories. So, I seek these more.
Are there certain principles that you keep in mind while writing a script or choosing one?
Again, it has been now conscious, and I can articulate it better. When I started out, I didn't know. But in the last few years of my experience, I realised that I eventually started to feel disconnected from stories which didn't have a purpose. Therefore, there's a certain responsibility. So, these stories or the characters that one is working towards building, I have to ask myself, okay, what is it that this character is going to make me feel first and going to make people feel if they're watching it?
I said yes to Aarya because there was a very strong female protagonist, a homemaker who decided to become a don. And this is also a mother who is donning many hats. And the sense of responsibility that she has as a mother towards her family is paramount. That is her motivation for every decision that she's taking. So, in that sense, this one line of that character spoke to me. I felt like, oh, this is important. And this perspective has never been told. Similarly, for example, when Great Indian Kitchen came to me, it was a no-brainer. This is such a personal yet universal story.
These are the key factors that help me decide. Why is this story being told? What is it that we are trying to say through these characters? Why are these characters important? Is there a new perspective that one is trying to say? And most importantly, what is the point of view? And it comes purely from who you are. And the experience of being of a particular gender.
The point of view has to be of the hero's journey can't just be about the hero winning the battle. The hero's journey has to be about the hero winning the battle and winning over the internal or the external war, which will change certain things for the people around them. That's the main thing.
Aarya in more ways than one has shifted the narrative of how women and mothers were portrayed on screen earlier. What are you choosing to do differently in the series to make it go a notch higher, season after season?
The first thing that comes very naturally is that the character grows from season after season. In that sense, the first was the hardest and the easiest because, in this first season, nobody knew what we were getting into. The second also was tough in the sense that obviously, you had to fulfil certain expectations, but you pulled through because of the goodwill that you had from season one, just in terms of character growth and everything. So, even when Aarya's character was making some choices which seemed very different from what she had done in season one, you could use it to your advantage because there was a lot of goodwill or love that she had already sort of garnered. Season three was the toughest because we had to set the bar higher.
So, when you meet her in season three, she's lost everything; she has nothing else to lose now. This season, it's heavier on the fighter instinct that the character has. Aarya is like that wounded lioness, so everything else around her sort of plays to that image and builds to that story. And I'm very curious to know what season four will bring now.
Women’s character arcs and their representation behind the camera are evolving given the expansion of mediums as well. As someone who has had years of experience juggling several mediums and screens, what are some of the positive changes that have happened in this regard, and which areas do you believe require more effort?
In that sense, I’m a fairly recent screenwriter. I started screenwriting only in 2019 when OTT was just opening up. Before that, cable television did have a lot of women protagonists and female-driven stories, but they were mostly limited to a particular screen. There would be a Mardani or something in between, but stories mostly driven by women became accepted ever since the OTT came into being. Now, there is a change in the consumption of stories. So Aarya, for example, is not just liked by the women of the family, but men across age groups have equally liked it.
For example, when Reema Kagti and Zoyakta were making, say, Luck By Chance or a Talaash, even as female storytellers, they would tell the stories through male protagonists. And then there was Dil Dhadakne Do or Zindagi Naa Milegi Dobara. But now there is Made In Heaven. There is Dahad. There is Jee Le Zara, which was announced. Just in terms of being led by women characters, we have become receptive - we're doing it more so that's the biggest change in terms of visual representation. In terms of seeing more and more women on the writing floors, in the writers' room, that is also changing. But we still have a long way to go. There's only like 15 percent or 17 percent representation women writers have as per statistics.
If there is less representation of women, naturally stories around them will be less too. I'm waiting for that day when we'll stop worrying about whether it's a female-led story or a male-led story. Hopefully, we'll just say it's a good story and wonder whether this is entertaining, or inspiring, or whether it is making us feel something, irrespective of who's leading or who's directing. But till that happens, we have to celebrate more and more women storytellers and women-led films. So, we must celebrate if 'Barbie' becomes the highest-grossing film of the year. We must celebrate if there is a female-led 'Aarya' which wins an award or a 'Scoop' when it wins big or 'Dahad' when it makes noise because, till the time that sense of equity comes in terms of this representation of stories, we'll have to push for more women's stories.
I think we need to come to a point where women-centric stories don't make male viewers uncomfortable. Men must get comfortable seeing a woman can do whatever a man can do as well.
You're also the co-founder of Dopamine Media and Entertainment. As someone who is an entrepreneur in the industry, what are some of the things you don't compromise while taking on projects?
Empathy, and, as much as possible, equality are something that we don't compromise on. We work with writers and creators and they tend to be sensitive people and a lot of work comes from a deep sense of personal experience, which means that we are all very vulnerable. Therefore, the sense of respect for each other and for the vulnerability that we show with each other and, in our professional setup is very well respected, and we are all very cognizant of that.
As much as possible, we'll try to have open communication and be extremely fair with credits. The most important thing is that we want to mentor more people and build teams where there is diversity, but sometimes we don't know how to break into the system, we don't know how to start. So, to be able to become a place where there are ample opportunities for writers, and to bridge the gap between the consumers and the storytellers is on top of our list.
We are a fairly new company, with Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream as our first show. There's another fiction show which we are working on, which we will also co-produce. But with every project, we try to identify one new person who's never done screenwriting and sort of bring that person into the fold and give fair credit to that person.
What would you like to tell women writers and artists who want to represent themselves on screen, off-screen? What would be your go-to advice to them to get the story that they want to showcase on screen?
If you're a first-time creator or writer, the first advice would be that tell what you know the best, and write what you know the best because that will give you confidence. From the second project onwards, of course, you should experiment, and you should walk in uncharted territory. But for the first story, always go back to where you come from.
The first screenwriting assignment that I did was Aarya because I felt like I knew this character. I know what it is like to go to work when your child is sick when you're feeling guilty and you're grappling with grief or life has hit you hard. So, that gave me a lot of confidence to even step into a culture or a world that I was not familiar with, because of core values.
The second thing is to keep at it. There is no shortcut, especially in this creative industry, which is not just competitive but also takes a toll on your mental health and personal life. So, take care of your health. Living in Mumbai is not easy, especially as a woman. So, build your support system that will keep you grounded.
I'm supposedly a successful writer who has had so many releases, but I'll tell you that we still have failures, we still have heartbreaks. Sometimes, projects get shelved after a lot of hard work that you put in. I have known of projects falling apart three days before the shoot. It's a huge heartbreak for about 500-700 people associated with the project.
Lastly, we have a responsibility as women. We keep things protected, evolving and together just purely by being who we are, because of our genetic makeup. And to be a feminist; to be a feminist is to be a humanist first. If you're not a feminist, you do not believe in equality. You cannot be talking about equality without being a feminist. As simple as that. It's the baseline. There are times when I have to hold my head and pull out my hair and tell people that feminism is never about putting women on a pedestal. Don't treat it as a gali (abuse). It is not a gali. One story at a time, things will change. And that's what we're here for.