Director Ajitpal Singh, whose Punjab-set Tabbar has been praised as a multi-layered portrait of a family in crisis, says the thriller series gave him a chance to explore themes that are close to his heart.
The SonyLIV show, starring veteran stars Pavan Malhotra and Supriya Pathak besides newcomers Paramvir Cheema and Sahil Mehta, charts the journey of a retired police constable who pushes the boundaries to save his family from the consequences of an unfortunate incident.
“Family as a unit is the source of world’s biggest stories. Ramayan and Mahabharat could have been about anybody but they essentially focused on the conflicts within a family and that’s what makes such stories so interesting,” Singh told PTI in an interview.
“We cross many limitations for family, it does not always have to be bloodshed, it can be anything. In that sense, it is everybody’s story because we are born in a family and we die in one,” he said.
It is a homecoming of sorts for the Punjab-born director whose father, a farmer and ex-Army man, ran a cinema hall in Bathinda but had to migrate to Gujarat after long curfews in the face of militancy when Singh was an eight year old.
Known for his short film Rammat Gammat and feature film debut Fire in the Mountains, which was the only film from India to premiere at Sundance Film Festival this year, Singh said despite several hurdles and a health crisis, he was keen to be a part of the story because it is rare to see a Sardar couple in their 50s-60s lead a show.
The filmmaker had read the draft of the story by Harman Badala and Sandeep Jain, but another director was attached at the time. When things didn’t work out, Singh came on board as the director of Tabbar, backed by JAR Pictures founded by Ajay Rai and Alan McAlex.
“When producer Ajay Rai gave me the script, I was really impressed. These characters felt like they came from my family. When I re-read (the script), I had these ideas about how to shoot and how to change the arc of certain characters.
“But I had this reputation as an art-house filmmaker so they were not willing to take too many risks. But when the director left the project, I spoke to the producer and he said he will push for my name.”
But just before the shooting, Singh was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and for a while, he was uncertain about going ahead with “Tabbar”, which means ‘family’ in Punjabi.
His producer was willing to delay the project for him to get the surgery and when Singh returned, they began shooting in March “but that meant we did not have enough time for workshops and rehearsals”.
According to Singh, that’s where his training as an independent filmmaker came handy as he knew how to channelise the script and dig deep for themes.
“For me, the theme is what dictates the images, not the story. It is the theme, like what do you want to say? And at a deeper level, what is it that the story is trying to say?
“These elements were there. All I had to do was to point out the certain amount of darkness in the story, a certain amount of disintegration in the family. We wove the story carefully and while working with the writers, gradually, the family became the core of the story.”
Singh said he spent a lot of time in the pre-production stage to understand his characters in the absence of a proper workshop.
“I created a psychological map of all the characters for myself, not to share it with the actor. That’s why whenever I felt things were not going right, I was able to change course,” he added.
Asked about working with Malhotra and Pathak, two of the most versatile actors in the entertainment industry, Singh said it was a blessing to direct the duo.
“One of the biggest attractions for me was that the story is about a couple in their late 50s and early 60s, and that too of a Sardar couple living in Jalandhar. When was the last time that we saw a Sardar couple in their late 50s leading a show?” he asked.
Malhotra was the first choice for Singh, but again someone else was supposed to play the role of Omkar, the former police constable.
The director said he was sure only Malhotra could do justice to the complicated part. Pathak joined the team almost seven days later as she was busy with her other commitments.
“I was worried that other actors have become father and son on the set and what if this energy is disturbed? But she shot her first scene and I was like, ‘Oh, this is what good actors are made of’. It made me realise that if you pick your actors wisely, you don’t need to direct them too much,” he added.
Gagan Arora, Kanwaljit Singh, and Ranvir Shorey also round out the cast of Tabbar.
SonyLIV launched in Canada with Tabbar, which was released in 28 global territories including the UK, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand on October 15.