Unveiling the Notorious with Anirban Bhattacharyya

Spanning a versatile career from Production to Standup Comedy, Anirban Bhattacharyya has another feather in his cap with his latest debut The Deadly Dozen – India’s Most Notorious Serial Killers. What motivates one to be a serial killer? Anirban tells Pria.

  • How and when did you decide that you wanted to venture into Media?

I loved the movies – and I guess I fell in love with movies even before I was born. My mother and her friends were ardent Amitabh Bachchan fans and would head out to Navina cinema hall in Tollygunge to catch the latest blockbuster. And for 8 months of 1973, I was in her stomach while she saw Namak Haram, Zanjeer, Saudagar, and Abhimaan. So I must have been hearing the dialogues from inside the womb!! And then at boarding school in Kalimpong – I fell in love with movie screenings every once a month on the big screen.

And by class 7 I knew I wanted to write and direct stuff… movies or television shows, being glued to Bangladesh TV airing the best of American serials way back in 1986…The A-Team, McGyver, Fall Guy, Knight Rider. So as soon as I finished my B.A in English Lit from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta – I headed off to do my M.A. in Mass Communication from MCRC, Jamia. It was a natural progression from my childhood – step by step – finally reaching Mumbai.

  • You began your career in TV18 and as a Content Head of Channel [V]. What was your experience and how did you venture into Crime and thriller shows like Savdhaan India?

TV18 in the ’90s was the Finishing School or the Ultimate College for learning everything about television production. It was incredible working across genres and formats and learning every day. Suddenly I realized that Tarkovsky or Godard or Truffaut didn’t quite fill the commercial needs of Indian Television – it was all about Entertainment and Content is King – if only you managed to get the eyeballs!

TV18 in the 90’s was the Finishing School or the Ultimate College for learning everything about television production.

Channel [v] was like a dream come true… It was like being in Woodstock in the new millennium! We created our own content – directed and produced it – everything was hands-on. And we didn’t return home for 6 days at a stretch – it never felt like a job – it was a non-stop party. Once I left Channel [v] – It was time to create more mainstream general entertainment content. And so in 2012, I helped co-create Savdhaan India for LifeOK. Crime is a fascinating genre – and we can’t get away from it. I love the genre. Especially going into the mind of the criminal and doing an autopsy and finding out the WHY and HOW. And now I am blessed that I am now producing the baap of Crime shows of India – Crime Patrol. So I have been breathing crime 24/7/365 since 2012!

  • Your book talks about the most notorious serial killers in India. What kind of research, interviews you had to be involved in to write the book?  

Studying and reading at least a thousand pages of legal documents, speaking with journalists and lawyers, digging up old newspaper articles, separating the fake news from the real, going through dusty pages of ancient books at libraries, And most importantly, taking a journey into the dark, macabre heads of the killers. I have studied hundreds of legal documents and Supreme Court judgments! So much so I think I ought to be a lawyer now! But I enjoyed researching. For eg. Thug Behram lived in the 1800s and I had to track down books that were about the thuggee movement and which were written in the 1800’s – and it was fascinating time-traveling back to that era. I have been blessed to have Penguin as a publisher. For a debuting author – it’s a dream come true!

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  • Do you think that society/culture is somewhat/somewhere responsible for creating such killers?  

Most serial killers are self-motivated. But many of them have had a disturbing childhood, or something has happened to them when they were younger. That planted a seed in their heads that said ‘I will show you.’ And this manifested through their killings – which are signs to prove their power, dominance, fulfill aspirations. I don’t think we can make a blanket statement blaming society.

Anirban Bhattacharyya with Dr. Shashi Tharoor
  • You are also a dubbing artist and have dubbed Hindi version of Walt Disney movie Cars 2 (2011) and also The Wild (2006). When did you realize that you have this skill too?

My teachers at the boarding school, Dr. Graham’s Homes, Kalimpong always wrote in my report card: He has the gift of the gab; or can do better, but talks too much in class! And I loved acting. I used to a bit of voice-over now and then. But Ellie who’s the voice-coordinator for Disney called me and asked me if I would like to do voices. For The Wild, I think I ended up doing 7 different characters! Dubbing for Cars 2 was fabulous!! I dubbed in Hindi for the evil Professor Zündapp. 

  • Tell us something about your career as a Standup Comedian.

I always loved being on stage. And I always was the so-called ‘funny guy’ in class. So in 2011 when The Comedy Store opened in Mumbai had it’s the first-ever open-mic night I applied and performed on a lark. And I won! That set into motion of my being a standup comedian. And I have now performed in Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Shillong with my solo show ‘Don’t Mess With The Bong.’

I figured that human creation has the
probability of 1 to 10 million. And so I want to live by experiencing everything that I love doing.

Unfortunately, my day job doesn’t allow me too much time to perform and that has taken a back seat of sorts. I continue to do corporate shows and also combine my standup with my life-experience and give talks to students. Recently, I gave a talk to 800 students at an engineering college and it is always so fabulous to get the reaction – it’s a drug!!

  • What inspires you to be a multi-faceted artist? You like to try out new things on your own randomly or it comes as a revelation? 

I figured that human creation has a probability of 1 to 10 million. And so I want to live by experiencing everything that I love doing. It is one life – why reach the end and regret not having done so many things! I am a TV producer and director by profession… and the rest is what the corporates call these days as ‘passion projects’. I love being on stage and so comedy and acting! And I love telling stories – and so I am an author :)  Who knows, what’s next?

  • The stories in the book about serial killers are based completely on true incidents or some level of editing is done in them?

Every story, every incident, every detail written in the book has a citation. Nothing is made-up. It is all true. The only story that has a conspiracy theory is that of the Nithari Killers. And this is because, when I was researching the story, I came upon the work of an investigative journalist called ArpitParashar (he died in an accident in 2017). He had unearthed some mind-blowing details of the case, which most of us are unaware of. And these were the conspiracy theories that still haunt the Nithari case… the D6 doctor and organ-trafficking, the missing torsos of the skeletons, Koli’s supposed coerced video confession and more… And I had the choice to either tell the story via the official narrative that we all know; OR include the conspiracy theories to give the reader an insight into the murky nature of the case. And I felt that it would be unfair for the reader not to know the latter. And so Nithari is the only story that has conspiracy theories along with the official narrative.

Anirban Bhattacharyya with Javed Akhtar

All I can say is that once you read Nithari – you will not look at the case with the same eyes again! It blew my mind when I unearthed the hidden treasures! Also, I did not want a cut and dry narrative, which just sewed the facts – and so instead opted for a fictional narrative style. If I didn’t – the book would have ended up as a dry, legal, psychological study of these criminals – which no one would have read! The intention was to tell their story in a way that was interesting, that would suck the reader into this macabre world, and also be an interesting and entertaining read. I was blessed to have had my literary agent Suhail Mathur (The Book Bakers) and my super-generous editor at Penguin – Gurveen Chadha – both of them believed in the narrative. And Gurveen allowed me to tell the stories in the way I wanted to.

  • The genre like Crime/Thriller has picked up pace in India compared to other genres. In your opinion, what has led to this increased interest?

We are all voyeurs. Deep down in our dark souls, we love violence, reading about the worst happening to others (and feeling safe that it’s not happening to us). True stories of crime always fascinate us with their incredulous plots, heinous motives, and modus-operandi and psychotic killers. Every day you open up the newspaper – at least 60% of the news is crime-related.Through these books, we manage to get our foot in the door into the dark, taboo world of blood, gore, and crime.

“All I can say is that once you read Nithari – you will not look at the case with the same eyes again!”

And because of the Internet, fast data speeds, and connectivity – true-crime reportage has gone up – and therefore the dissemination of the stories is wider and faster. We Indians love crime stories. At the end of the day, the human being is a voyeur. We love to see the gory details. Our basic core often revels in seeing the violence, or the way a killer kills! And I deliberately retained all the blood, gore and violence in the stories – I wanted to shock the readers into realizing how heinous these killers were. If I wrote, “Raman Raghav killed the man.” It would seem so ordinary, nothing shocking about it. But when I write, “He raised it above his head and brought it down on the husband’s head. A crunch was heard as the impact smashed the skull. The side of the man’s face had caved in.

He convulsed and a stream of blood flowed from his mouth. Raghav brought down the rod again and again – till the man’s head was a messy pulp of blood, skull, and brain.” Now suddenly, I have you by the jugular! You are visualizing the crime – you are shocked, revulsed, scared, vulnerable. And that is the emotion that I wanted to bring out in the reader. These killers were heinous – there is no good in them – and you as a reader need to see them in their true avatar and hate them! And my brilliant editor at Penguin, GurveenChadha allowed me to tell the stories the way I wanted to – in all its gory glory! She was a rockstar who held my hand through the entire process!!

  • What do you have to say about the dark side of the TRP game? Is content important in that game?

It’s the only form of measurement that’s available in the market. And unfortunately or fortunately thousands of crores of business are dependent on the handful of boxes that are there. The boxes-to-viewer ratio is really small. But with Tata Sky, Airtel, Jio and other providers it is easier now to measure and get data. Broadcasters and then content creators have to play by the existing rules. We can’t get on a cricket pitch and play football. Content will always remain King. Content is no longer solely defined by quality, but by engagement as well – if the viewers love it – it is great content. We are no longer a 2 channel universe. We have nearly 2000 channels in India – and it is competitive. Remember it is known as the ‘entertainment business’ not just entertainment. They are two sides to the weighing scale.

  • Which genres do you enjoy reading the most? Which you don’t enjoy at all?

I never got around to enjoy Mythology and Westerns. I absolutely love reading travelogues. Bill Bryson and Pico Iyer are incredible. And I worship Amitav Ghosh. Also, I love reading autobiographies and investigative journalism. AnujDhar’s ‘India’s Biggest Cover-up’ and ‘Conundrum’ just blew apart the ‘Netaji died in a plane crash’ theory, which we have been taught since the 50’s to be completely fake and politically motivated.

  • What is the biggest surprise that you experienced after becoming a writer?

The biggest surprise was that I had the patience to write a book, in the first place. It took me a year to research and write the book. From 11 pm to 4 am every night I would sit and write. I did not know that my laziness could be conquered. After the release, the surprise has been in experiencing the literary world through the festivals. It is a completely new world for me – having been a frog in the well – living inside a television bubble from 1998 – I am loving meeting new authors, people at these fests.

  • Anything you would like to say to your readers?

When reading my book… be scared… be very scared! And be prepared to dive into a murky world of deception, danger, murder, greed, lust and meet some of the most cold-blooded killers of India.

  • What are some ways in which you promote your work?  Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?

The promotion of the book starts a month before the release. I produced a trailer for the book, which I shared on social media through paid spots and promotions. And this helped the book hit the No.1 spot on Amazon within 16 hours of the pre-order link going live! There is also a need to get recommendations/endorsements for the book. And I have been blessed to have endorsements from John Abraham, AyushmannKhurrana, Ronit Roy, ShashankhaGhosh, JayantKripalani, and Kiran Rao.

“True stories of crime always fascinate us with their incredulous plots, heinous motives and modus-oprandi and psychotic killers.”

The launch was the big one – where I managed to get the incredible Anurag Kashyap to launch the book and got 9 media houses to cover the launch. In these days of social media explosion – I had to create a FB page for the book through which I regularly share reader reviews, updates. And am blessed to be invited to amazing Literary Festivals across the country – The Jammu Lit Fest, The Pune International Lit Fest, The Shimla Let Fest, The Gurgaon International Lit fest.

  • What projects are you working on at the present? When can we expect a new crime fiction from you?

My second book has been picked up by one of the biggest publishers of the country.  And it is completely on the opposite side of the spectrum. It’s a children’s fiction book!!! No murders, no violence, no gore!! It’s a beautiful YA book – old-school detectives, case-solving, friendship, and fun!! Set in 1985 when there was no internet or mobile phone. I want to take back the young readers of today to the time when I was growing up! Crime fiction is not as enjoyable as true crime. As Anurag said at the launch, “sometimes real life is stranger than fiction.” So I am researching for the sequel to this book to bring the stories of the next 12 serial killers.

  • What do your plans for future projects include? Any plans for a motion picture/web series based on your book(s)

In the pipeline is a book of short stories and novellas about my growing up in Kalimpong and Calcutta – a slice of life, coming-of-age that celebrates friendship and love and all the tragedies that one faces as a teenager! It is incredibly funny and poignant and serious and sad – If I may say so myself. It has stories set against the Gorkhaland agitation of the late ’80s, love stories between adolescents, boarding school shenanigans and insane friends.

(L-R) Vrushali Telang, Anirban Bhattacharyya, Anurag Kashyap

I am in talks with an OTT platform for The Deadly Dozen – and that’s all I am allowed to say at this point :)

  • How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?

Personally, I love picking up a book, smelling it. Or, even heading out to second-hand stores, and finding treasures. I have a huge collection of Indrajal comics. But times have changed, and we are on the move. So e-books are fabulous – because it has brought back reading into the lives of many people who had stopped reading altogether. The convenience of carrying a hundred books in a kindle is revolutionary. Having said that, my bookshelves are over-flowing as I haven’t gotten used to e-books, still preferring to buy physical books. A lot of authors opt for self-publishing. But that puts a lot of pressure on the author to ensure sales and pushing the book on platforms. With conventional publishers – there is the advantage of distribution and marketing. And with Penguin India – my debut was dream come true!

  • Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your writing?

Amitav Ghosh, Pico Iyer, Murakami, Bill Bryson, Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, W. Somerset Maugham to name just a few. From Amitav Ghosh, Murakami and Dickens – I learned that one has to be completely visual in one’s writing – to help the reader project an image inside their heads. And so The Deadly Dozen is very visual. Some of the readers have said that it is as if they are watching a movie, or reading a screenplay. I will accept that as a good point, humbly.

  • In your opinion, what is the most important thing that people DON’T know about your subject/genre, which they need to know?

The truth is never obvious. The murderer is not the one you suspect. And that, real life is far more gruesome, heinous, and gorier than real life.

  • What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?  

The reasons for writing this book about serial killers of India were two-fold. In India, we have a perception that a serial killer is a western phenomenon. And secondly, we don’t have too many serial killers in India. Both of which, I feel I have managed to dispel and rectify. There is a basic difference between the serial killers of India and the West. The Motive. In the west, one gets psychotic or mentally disturbed killers who kill girls or have a hunger for murder. Here in India, serial killers in most cases murder for money, wealth or greed. In my book, the two killers who probably are closer to the ‘western’ type are Raman Raghav and AmardeepSada. 

  • What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was the least useful or most destructive?

Discipline. I have a full-time job as a Creative Director and show-runner for television shows. So finding time to write the book was crucial. So every night I would have my dinner and sit and write from 11 pm – 4 am or sometimes 6 am – then go to sleep – and wake up by 9 am. And this was my schedule for a year! I slept only 3-4 hours every night. This was a tip given to me by my dear friend and writer-actor JayantKripalani. He had said – fix a time to write every day; and then sit at the desk at the designated time every day without fail. It doesn’t matter whether you write that day or not – it is about disciplining the body and the mind to perform. At Landmark Forum one of the things we were told is to ‘be on the court.’ One cannot play a game of tennis by sitting in the stands – one has to come down to the court to play. So the mind has to be on the court, at the moment and disciplined.

“When reading my book… be scared… be very scared! And be prepared to dive into a murky world of deception, danger, murder, greed, lust and meet”

I would not say destructive – but disturbing. Imagine at 1 am you are reading about people’s skulls being smashed, or babies being raped or chopped… it was sickening. I remember the one story that made me physically vomit was that of the child killers of Pune – AnjanaBai, SeemaGavit&RenukaShinde. They used to kidnap infants, use them as decoys when picking pockets; and if they were caught, they would smash the infants on to the floor to create a diversion for them to getaway! These were infants!!!! For no fault of theirs, they were killed. And as I read about the murder and the methods in each killing – I just puked! It was a difficult time mentally to write these 12 stories as I had to get inside the heads of these ruthless killers.

One-liners/One word-based answer questions

Please respond to these questions in one line or one word wherever possible –

  • Your all-time favorite author/writer? Amitav Ghosh
  • Do you believe in writer’s block? Did you have it anytime or not? Yes. But one has to keep attempting to go around it.
  • Your favorite place to write your book(s)? My son’s room.
  • Research and then write or research while writing? Which one do you prefer?          Research first and then write. And then with new research one keeps editing the manuscript and updating it.
  • What do you do in your free time? Movies, music, reading, traveling
  • How many hours a day do you write? When I am writing a book – about 4 hours 
  • Do you Google yourself? Yup! I need to know what readers are saying about my book
  • Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find? I am an open book.
  • If you didn’t write, what would you do for work? I am already doing that – producing content for television/standup comedian/actor.

Click here to read Storizen Magazine January 2020 featuring Anirban Bhattacharyya