How he penned Netflix’s globally most viewed non-English film.
By Ashima Sethi
Writing for the screen is a truly multi-dimensional process. We as humans are storytelling animals, but that doesn’t mean that any Average Joehas the capability to write a screenplay. Although they are at their very essence, ‘simple,’ it takes a unique skill to be able to keep your writing as tight as possible so that only the most important details make the cut.
In novels, you have all the word count in the world to paint a beautiful picture for your audience. In contrast, screenwriters need to understand how words will translate to visuals, comprehend the relationship between action and dialogue, and be aware that hundreds of other people will also be involved in bringing their work to life.
Despite being a writer myself, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to pen the words for a big screen production. As a result, I was curious to speak to Abishek Bajaj whose recent project with Netflix, The Whole Truth, recently became the number one globally most viewed non-English film on the platform.
The film tells the story of a family who face a nightmarish turning point after their darkest secrets begin to unravel, all centred on an eerie, unexplainable hole in the wall. The film stars Punpun” Sutatta Udomsilp, “Mac” Nattapat Nimjirawat, and Nicole Theriault, and was directed by renowned director Wisit Sasanatieng.
Abishek shares the details of this exciting project and his experiences in the world of movie-making with Masala.
Let’s begin with a little bit about you. Where did you grow up and how did your early years shape who you are now and the path you’ve chosen to pursue?
I was born and raised in Bangkok, and attended Bangkok Patana School. Growing up, I inherited my love of film from my father, and my adoration of books from my mother. Both are mediums of storytelling, a practice that I believe is the bedrock of all cultures.
Was working in films always a dream of yours? If yes, why so? If not, what led you down this path?
I always dreamed of making movies. I even did a year of film school alongside a law degree, but eventually switched my arts major to English. I took the safe route and began my career as a lawyer, never daring to imagine a life in film, because I just couldn’t see a way in. A life and death experience in Ladakh led to me making a scrappy documentary, which a football teammate happened to watch. That football teammate happened to be a renowned director. He opened the door to the world of filmmaking, and I never looked back.
Can you share some of your experiences from early on in your filmmaking career?
I look back on those days and remember them as two things: one, an incredible adventure, and two, a crash course in filmmaking. I got to travel to every corner of Thailand catering to the needs of washed-up Hollywood egos, and spent two weeks in a leprosy colony in India! At the time, I worked mostly on low budget independent films, which really forces you to be innovative and imaginative to make the most of limited resources.
What was the impetus to shift your focus from being a production manager to directing? Can you share some projects you worked on?
I dabbled in directing a few years ago because I wanted to exert more control over the projects I was working on. I directed a small indie film called M.I.A. A Greater Evil (2018), which dealt with the issue of American soldiers left behind after the Vietnam War. It made me realise that my strengths were not in the visual medium, but rather on the written page.
You’ve also taken on other crew positions including production, post production, and working as an actor. Why was this important for you to explore?
Any film project is like an airplane, soaring at 40,000 metres above sea level. If one nut or bolt comes loose, the whole plane can come crashing down. That is very much what working on a film is like. Every role on a film crew is like one of those nuts and bolts. If you’ve worked across the spectrum of the filmmaking process, you value every contribution each person makes to putting a film together.
Why did you decide to pursue screenwriting and what do you enjoy about the creative medium?
I had always been writing scripts and treatments as an outlet for the ideas whirling around inside my head, but the impetus to shift my career focus to screenwriting came from the desire to start a family. Being on film sets is time consuming, and I wanted to stay in film without having to endure the rigours of set life. I’ve always loved writing, because I love reading. When I read, the words are translated into images in my head, so really, I’m just writing the stories that I want to see.
How did the opportunity arise to work with Netflix on an original film? And what did this mean to you considering Netflix is such a streaming giant?
The actor David Asavanond introduced me to the creative executives at Netflix in early 2018, because I had written a zombie pilot that he wanted to star in. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, but it validated my personal approach to life, which was, be good to people and good will come to you. The zombie pilot was never made, but it was at that same meeting that I pitched The Whole Truth.
The Whole Truth has been incredibly successful with global audiences. Can you walk us through your inspiration for the film, how you conceptualised the entire project, and what it was like seeing the entire thing come to life?
The idea for The Whole Truth came to me more than six years ago. I was sitting in a van watching my team through a slit in the curtain, as they were shooting a scene on Doi Inthanon. From my restricted vantage point, I was getting frustrated by what I perceived to be, painfully slow progress. I stepped out of the van, intending to find out what was slowing them down, but when I saw the full picture, I realised that from my limited perspective, watching through a slit in the curtain, I was jumping to conclusions without having all the facts. Without spoiling the film, that’s where the idea of the hole came from, and as I developed the idea with my writing partners, the hole became a metaphor for so much more.
I wrote draft after draft of the script always seeing the scope of the project as nothing more than a small indie film, that is until Netflix got involved. I developed the script with Netflix, and through working with them on another project, I met the legendary Thai director, Wisit Sasanatieng. I am forever indebted to him for believing in the script and bringing the words to life on screen. This project endured and survived delays caused by the pandemic, and though there were many moments where I doubted it would ever be completed, here we are on the day when it is the number one non-English language film on Netflix. Truly a dream come true.
Why do you think this film will resonate with Thai-Indian audiences?
The film will resonate with Thai-Indian audiences, because I believe that as a society, we have an inconvenient relationship with the truth. All families have secrets that are sometimes hidden in broad daylight, and sometimes festering in the darkest recesses of our minds. We are so worried about what other people will say about us that we are afraid to live our truth. We judge one another without all the facts. We use these secrets as weapons. You should watch the film because if you’re paying enough attention, it will leave you with food for thought.
Can you tell us about your current role at Netflix and what to expect from you in the near future?
I recently joined Netflix as Manager of Local Originals. As a creative executive, I am evaluating pitches, reading scripts, watching early cuts, and giving feedback to the writers and directors who are making original content with Netflix. I’m excited that this role enables me to work closely with Thailand’s best filmmakers to entertain the world and raise the standards of the local industry.
Any additional thoughts you’d like to leave with our readers?
I hope you’ve watched The Whole Truth!