A week before his debut show went online, Manraj Singh waited quietly in a corner of a room where a meet-and-greet would be conducted after a preview screening of Romil and Jugal. A modern, gay take on Romeo and Juliet, the show is one of the first to premier on ALTBalaji, Ekta Kapoor’s instant streaming service, set to take on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hotstar. Inside the mini-auditorium at Sunny Super Sound, Sunny Deol’s recording and dubbing studio in Juhu, the audience laughed in all the right places; and when they streamed out, they made a beeline for Singh. For the 30-something actor, the wait has been worth it.
“I first auditioned for the role in 2014, but there was a delay. In 2016, I auditioned again and was chosen to play Jugal,” he says, adding, “There were many other actors who had shown up to audition, but after they were told that the character was gay, they dropped out”. Singh had no qualms about the role: “My mother is a single parent and I’ve always been open to challenges. It didn’t matter to me that Jugal is gay — he’s a person first, and a well-rounded character. He’s a son, friend, brother, college student and lover”.
Jugal Subramaniam (or Juliet, if you will), is a Tamil-Brahmin boy who falls in love with the hottest guy in college, and using a true Shakespearean device of the play-within-a-play, hopes for a happy ending.
Shortly after Singh was signed on, Rajeev Siddhartha joined the show to play Romil Kohli, a testosterone-filled but good-natured Punjabi Romeo, who is so deep inside the closet, he can possibly spot Narnia. Siddhartha has worked with Lillette Dubey’s theatre group and workshopped with Singh before shooting began. “We workshopped for about six weeks to build a good rapport, because any kind of awkwardness would reflect on screen. It was important to both of us to play ‘real’ people. I wasn’t hesitant about joining the show, but the main challenge still was to be completely at ease and relaxed with the material. One can have so many assumptions going into a role like this,” says Siddhartha.
They weren’t too worried, though. If there’s one director who has consistently had her finger on the pulse of young India, it is Nupur Asthana. In 1998, she burst on to the small screen with Hip Hip Hurray, (a desi Degrassi) and made Mujhse Fraandship Karoge (2011), a comedy of errors about our Facebook-fuelled lives.
“Initially, Romil and Jugal was a film. I met Ekta Kapoor in October 2015, and I loved the script. This kind of script, written by Anu Menon, was just made for me,” says Asthana. The duo worked on the script till May 2016; shooting began in August. “There is a significant gay population in India, and we all know somebody who is gay or who is struggling to get out of the closet. What we’ve wanted to do is just treat gay people like everybody else — love transcends gender. Essentially, Romil and Jugal is a family drama with a gay love story at the centre. We underestimate our audiences, and how accepting they can be,” says Asthana.
London-based Menon, who wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed Waiting (2016), starring Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin, just wanted to tell a love story. “We didn’t want to tell a thesis. We want people with prejudices to watch it; it was important for the show to be inclusive. We needed to tell it with humour, in a context that was familiar to the audience,” she says.
Set in a sleepy town where little happens and appearances must always be kept up, the Subramaniams and the Kohlis are constantly at loggerheads. The rivalry between the boys’ fathers’ spills into the families; coupled with a north-south cultural divide, in many little ways, Romil and Jugal harks back to the original play. “Initially, I’d pitched it to Ekta as 2 States with a gay twist. We needed to set it in a small town because there is anonymity in big cities, and gay people, even if they are in the closet, can go about their lives. Not so much in a place where everybody is getting up in everybody’s business,” says Menon.
Do the boys kiss, is there a passionate lip-lock? “Why don’t you just watch it?” she says.