Feels Like Ishq is an anthology of six short films that explore various shades of love. It released on Netflix on 23rd of July. I had the opportunity to talk to Sulagna Chatterjee, a Mumbai-based screenwriter who wrote the anthology’s fourth episode, “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not“ in the anthology. This cute and breezy episode follows the love between two queers at a workplace.
Sulagna Chatterjee has worked as an associate writer on two flagship shows for Alt Balaji, The Verdict and Code M. She also wrote for food shows like Lost Recipes for Epic Channel, Ghar sa Yummy for Zee TV, and India on a Plate for Indiatimes. After gaining these experiences, she started out independently, working on Dice Media’s Firsts Season 3.
Sulagna has a soft spot for romance and dramas, but also lives to write thrillers. When she’s not writing, she’s deep-diving into political conversations, and normalizing conversations about sexuality and mental health on social media. Sulagna spoke with me about her latest project, representation of mental health, happy endings, go-to queer ships, and much more. Here are excerpts from the interview.
1. Tell us what you feel now that She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not is out! How does it feel to be on Netflix? Your episode has been receiving a lot of love. Congratulations! How nervous were you before its release?
Words do no justice to the amount of excitement, nervousness, and anxiety I went through before the release. My story got approved by Netflix last year on 27th July 2020 and until the release date, it felt unreal to me. A part of me couldn’t really believe that this is happening. Over the past year, I told somebody, “Yeah, I’m doing something for Netflix and it’s supposed to come out in 2021.” A part of me couldn’t believe that I was saying this. It was actually happening! I was excited for it because it’s a story I really wanted to tell.
For the longest time I felt that what the world today requires a wholesome, sweet, happy ending wala love story between two women; that’s what normalizes conversations about love, in general. It was quite a whirlwind of emotions that I was feeling. I was obviously slightly apprehensive and scared as well. I didn’t want to unintentionally stereotype the community, or do something that takes the conversation back instead of forward. But, I am so glad with the kind of response it’s been getting. The fact that the little nuances of our community have been represented and people are really looking out for the little details makes me feel very very privileged that I have been able to tell the story with my heart altogether.
2. What was your goal when you started penning the story of Tarasha and Muskaan? What did you want to show the audience?
What I really wanted to tell the audience was that at the end of the day, love is simple. Love is all about wanting to put yourself out there. [It’s] about being scared of putting yourself out there, being scared of rejections, and being scared that you will not be accepted the way you are. All the issues that hetero couples face are the same feelings that queer people also face—with obviously a little bit more problems. There are a couple of things which are very specific to queer dating circles, like the fact that it’s often so incestuous. I remember a friend of mine from Indore who told me, “There are like only six lesbians in Indore and everybody has dated everybody.”
So, that was where this idea had come from. Muskaan, my protagonist, is somebody who is comfortable with her sexuality. But hasn’t been able to find somebody who she really gels with and wants to date. So, through my story I did not want to come out with the struggles of coming out, the struggles of acknowledging or understanding your sexuality. I just wanted a wholesome representation of two women who are slightly different from each other.
Consider Tarasha’s character. She is somebody for whom her sexuality is just a part of her, it is not a big deal. She will talk about it matter-of-factly. The jokes that she cracks about her ex-boyfriend and the jokes that she cracks about her sexuality in general. And Muskaan’s whole colorful inner world altogether where she is trying to find out that oh I don’t evidently look gay but I really want to give out this thing, what do I do.
So those confusions, those first emotions, first love wala emotions. You know, not even first love actually because we never really show if she has been with a woman before or not. Even when Tarasha asks her the question, “Wait, have you never kissed a girl before? Is this your first time?” Muskaan doesn’t really answer. It kind of shows that it doesn’t matter whether it’s the first time you fall for somebody or not. Every time you fall for somebody, it’s a new experience altogether. It’s a new kind of giddiness. It’s a new kind of “Oh my god, the world is more beautiful right now.”
I just wanted to really show the innocence of love in its totality, and that’s where Tarasha and Muskaan came from.
3. “She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not” is about Ishq and not about being queer, which was really refreshing to watch. As a baby gay myself, I am tired of watching the same tragic queer content without happy endings. Queer love stories with happy endings are important. How else will we be able to believe in our love? Anyway, what do you have to say about happy endings?
Exactly. Growing up, I have seen my fair bit of queer content but all of them kind of showed us in a manner where our lives are nothing but struggle. That was true, like before Section 377 got scrapped [in India]. We were literally considered to be criminals. We could have been put in jail just for being in love, just for wanting to seek out love. We deserve our sappiness. We deserve all kinds of tropes which hetero shows and movies have shown us. We deserve love in all kinds. That’s what is so important because unless, and until we show queer people getting happy endings, how will our young audience, who are just navigating their lives, understanding their sexuality? How will they have hope? Hope is just so important.
We too have our share of toxicity as well. Sadly. because we’ve only shown struggles in the kind of queer content, it takes away from the giddiness, the happiness of relationships. That’s what I really wanted to show. I wanted to show a happy story without added baggage which is I think very, very important.
As I said, I didn’t want to focus on the relationship that Muskaan has with her parents as much. I didn’t want to show how she’s probably struggling to tell the other people in office. She doesn’t care, She just wants to let Tarasha know that “Hey bro, I am gay. Please be gay, please.”
I think [that is] an internal struggle of every queer person out there, that even if the person right in front of us gives us all the signals that they like us back, we are still like, “Hey, does she like me?”
Even if the significant other gives us a goddamn ring and tells us that they wanna marry us or they literally say that “Hey, I like you,” we will still be like, “Uh, but do they like me, or do they “like-like” me, or is it just friendship?”
Heteronormativity is so, so deeply embedded in us that most of the time, we don’t see the signs and signals. That’s why I wanted to add a lot of very queer specific references without alienating the rest of the audience. Some of the emotions are very universal, but I also wanted to give people a sneak peek into the way we navigate things in a very happy, wholesome, pop way.
4. What are your favorite, comfort queer ships?
I will be as cliched as it gets and talk about David and Patrick because I think that’s also a part where I got a bit of my inspiration from. The way both of their personalities are so distinct and yet they complement each other so well. And, it’s just wholesome in its entirety. The way they did not really address homophobia in the context of the entire show. I remember reading the interviews and watching the documentary of Schitt’s Creek, that’s what they mention. They did not want to go down that path.
The world will be dealt with later but pehle pyaar toh mile.
People know that it exists but despite that, you find love and and because of that, you also find love where you are just being. The world will be dealt with later, but pehle pyaar toh mile. [The world will be dealt with later but first let me find love.] David and Patrick are my go-to queer ship for sure.
5. How long did it take you to write Tarasha and Muskaan’s story? Where did you find your inspiration?
It’s actually funny. This story came to me in the most writer cliché trope of all times. This story came to me while I was sleeping. Ever since I’ve been writing, I always keep a diary next to my bed whenever I sleep—just in case I wake up with a great idea.
I remember the day the Development Creative Director Satish and Mutant’s Creative Director, Somlata called me up. They gave me the brief that they wanted a young love, queer love story. Obviously, the brief was constantly going on in my head: What would it mean? What do I want to say? What are the stories that I really, really want to talk about?
I remember falling asleep at like 11:30-12 at night. Then suddenly at 2 in the morning, I woke up with a jerk and I was like, “Oh shit. Wow, this seems like a good story. It’s about a closeted girl trying to say, ‘Hey, I’m gay’ to her crush without the world knowing.”
And, I just thought there was something about this story that was just so quirky and real. Because I think all of us have been at that position, especially when we were not out probably. We really like someone and we really want them to know “Hey, I am gay.”
I remember this scene from One Day At A Time. Elena and her crush are both trying to figure out if the other person is queer as well. The conversation that goes on between them is comedic as hell. It’s also very real because we are very, very awkward people as queer people. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to make our life all about our sexuality. But it also does. That’s what I kind of wanted to show.
Muskaan’s character is actually based on somebody I was kind of sort of seeing back in the day. I don’t know. It just felt very right because her personality was suitable. She had this rich, inner-world and was a doctor. I really, really felt like here is my inspiration for Muskaan. The kind of sarcasm, the kind of stupid puns and the kind of sense of humor that Muskaan has is derived from her.
And, Tarasha, I think is derived from a group of my friends actually. Muskaan and Tarasha are both a weird amalgamation of all the queer people that I have seen in my life. Including me. A lot of people who have seen the episode have come up to me and tell me, “Listen. That is just you. Muskaan is you.” Especially I think because of that one dialogue of hers, “I am Muskaan, I’m bisexual. Jiska matlab hai mera heartbreak aadhi duniya se nahi, poori duniya se hota hai.” [Which means I get my heartbroken not just by half of the world but the whole world.] which is actually derived from a real experience I had with a complete stranger.
Post a heartbreak, I was just sitting and crying on Versova Beach. This girl comes to me and she is like why are you crying and I’m like, I just had a heartbreak. Note that she was a complete stranger. I just love this about Bombay. You can have full on deep conversations with superbly strange people and strangers.
She said, “arre aap ladko ke liye mat ro.” [don’t cry over boys] And, I’m like, “mai ladke ke liye nahi, ladki ke liye ro rahi hu.” [I’m crying over a girl and not over a boy] She looks slightly scandalized and asks if I’m a lesbian. I tell her that I am bisexual. To that she says, “toh aap ladka, ladki dono ke liye rote ho.” [You cry over girls and boys both] And at that moment I think despite me being heartbroken as hell, I decided I am going to use this line for sure somewhere.
It didn’t take me a lot of time. It just took me like one, one and a half drafts, to get the story approved. Then three drafts when my director Danish Aslam came onboard. He and I also kind of jammed together for a while to get a few character nuances and quirks onboard. The way he has visually depicted the entire story, I think it’s wonderful. Overall, I think the process from July end till the film got shot in December, so about four months with a little bit of rework here and there constantly to crispen out the dialogues and set distinct tonalities for Muskaan and Tarasha.
One of my major concerns was that I didn’t want either of them to fall into sterotypical boxes. Where one is completely closeted. Where they do not have any other personality traits apart from the fact that they are closeted, and that they are sad and they will never find love. And the other kind of characters that we see are supremely out and proud with the “I don’t give a flying fuck” attitude. I didn’t want Muskaan and Tarasha to be either of that. I wanted them to be real with real issues, be it Muskaan’s social anxiety or Tarasha’s ex relationships. I wanted all of that to be real.
I remember having these conversation with Danish. I was also sending him TikToks, exclusively bisexual TikToks and telling him about the way queer people can’t sit straight on chairs and stuff like that. I spoke to a lot of different kinds of people to understand their experiences. So it took about three and a half months to get to the final draft.
6. In one of your conversations with Hamsadhwani Alagarsamy for Feminism In India regarding Dice’s Firsts Season 3, you mention that you “hope to create something that normalizes conversations around mental health because we definitely need that in our country at this point.” In “SLMSLMN,” we get to see a tiny, nuanced scene portraying the wrath of anxiety. How important do you think deliberate inclusions of mental health related scenes is in the mainstream media?
As somebody who has dealt with clinical anxiety and depression for almost three, four years now, I think that it is highly, highly important to talk about mental health which normalizes it. When I talk about normalization, it means that the picture that we see of depression and anxiety on screen representation is very different from what it actually is like.
For somebody who has high functioning anxiety, they would be the most productive, bad bitch, boss girls at work and they’ll just come back home and retreat to their shell. And for somebody, who has depression, it doesn’t mean that they are crying all day long. I remember when I was diagnosed with depression the first time. I was in the darkest place possible that was also the time I was in my professional high altogether. Does that make my struggle any less important just because the world couldn’t see what I was going through? No.
I think when you show a character go through something like an anxiety attack or any mental health issue from ADHD to Anxiety to Depression to anything else altogether, I think it really starts a conversation because a lot of people who do not even know what they are feeling is a mental illness. They might feel seen. They might feel like, “Hey, that’s what I go through” or like “Oh fuck, this is what it means.” That’s a step to them seeking help.
Because of the lack of conversation in our households, in schools, like people talk a lot about fevers, people talk a lot about all kinds of physical illnesses and how to take care of yourself during that, but what about our mental health? How do we normalize conversation? Or rather, how do we start the conversation about mental health? Because we have seen over the past one year with a certain super star’s death, the kind of muddling in that was done to mental health conversations like it felt like we went back ten years.
All the progress that we had made with films, with social media conversations, with ground root work, all of them seemed to be erased by this one horrible incident where people would rather cook up conspiracy theories than really just believe that anybody can have depression. That depression is a real illness that requires medication, that requires a lot of love and compassion. And, that going to a therapist need not just be when you have major life issues or problems, you can go to a therapist any time you want, any time you need.
So when Muskaan says, “Anxiety aur mera bohot purana rishta hai,” I think I really took that from my own life. And, I wanted to show that a person like Tarasha who is so strong headed and who is just like I don’t give a shit about anything on this planet Earth, she is also somebody who goes through stuff like that. So, it is very, very important to include mental health issues in films, in content because that’s just the starting point and we know the amount of impact that content has on people and their lives.
7. Can you tell us more about Tarasha and Muskaan? How do you think they will behave as a couple? Also, is it #Taraan or #Muskasha?
Well, I would let the fans decide on what would be a nice ship name for sure. I think they would be a really nice couple altogether. I think they have all that it takes to complement each other. They are badass as hell. I think most of Muskaan’s fears of navigating the world would be allayed by Tarasha. Muskaan will be that grounding person for Tarasha who tells her that, “Hey, you do not need to get all shit sorted at the same time. You and I are gonna get through things together.” They will have their own share of fights like any other couple.
This is a very sweet question but I think I would want the audience to give me theories about what they think Muskaan and Tarasha would be like.
8. Will we get to see more cute love stories written by you soon? What are some projects you are working on?
Yes, I am currently working on two other stories. Sadly, I can’t talk about it at the moment. Wow, I have been wanting to say that for the longest time. One is, again, a young adult story. The other one is a thriller that I am currently working on. Not technically love stories but stories again that are real. That deal with real emotions, be it love, friendship, anger, envy, power—everything. So, two completely different genres, very challenging for sure. But, I promise to bring up more and more wholesome things. Also, I would love to bring out a lot of queer stories because I think this is just the beginning.
My DMs are being flooded by people who are saying that they finally feel seen on screen for the first time. It’s really overwhelming for me. This is what I have wanted since I was a child; I wanted to be seen on screen. I will propagate the gay agenda for sure, and bring out more and more stories not just about the LGB part of things, but also the TQPIA+ spectrum because I think that is what is important. We deserve stories about everyone in the spectrum. Everybody deserves to be seen and heard, their stories told with utmost honesty. That’s what I plan on doing.
I would like to publicly thank Sulagna for taking time out of her day for this interview. I am so glad I got to speak with her. I loved her episode so much that I wanted to know more about how it came into existence. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to talk to her about it. If you haven’t watched her episode yet, what are you waiting for? Watch it and let us know if it’s #Taraan or #Muskasha!