Raghu Ram and Rajiv Laxman on merging love and adventure

The ‘evil twins’ discuss why genres don’t matter, and details on their hybrid reality show, ‘Skulls & Roses’

After a long day of interviews at Juhu’s JW Marriott Hotel, television personality Raghu Ram takes a quiet moment for himself, asks for fresh lime juice, and scrolls through his phone. His brother Rajiv Lakshman, and other half of the ‘evil twin’ duo as they’re often referred to, animatedly jokes with his team in another part of the hall about being tired. Yet, the twins have their usual repartee when they sit down to chat about their upcoming reality show, Amazon Prime Video’s Skulls & Roses.

From the brothers’ production company, Monozygotic Solutions, it marries the distinct universes of romance and adventure reality television. Ram promises that the “hybrid reality show” offers the best of two genres. “[We have] created two disparate worlds — Skull Island and Rose Island,” he explains. While one encourages the 16 contestants to “fall in love”, the other pits them against each other in cut-throat situations. “Rose Island is the place where you will catch the love bug,” he continues, “which will be cured in Skull Island.”

Discussing how the show piqued their interest, the streaming service’s head of India Originals, Aparna Purohit, adds, “It encapsulates the conflicts, the disillusionment, and the ambition of the young adults of our country. In a world driven by self-preservation, where does love stand?”

That being said, will bringing together the formats dilute what had worked for audiences? Purohit and Vijay Subramaniam, Amazon Prime Video India’s director and head of content, seem to be banking on the timelessness of the young adult experience. The latter references “the fantasies, the insecurities, the need to get ahead of everyone”, and says the show will give “a deep sense of something that they’re already living with”.

Genre unspecific

It is no secret that the 44-year-old twin creators found wide success in each of these genres with MTV Roadies — the adventure-based show became a youth phenomenon and is one of the country’s longest running reality shows — and the popular dating show, Splitsvilla. But when asked about the audiences each show pulls in, Lakshman simply says, “I don’t think people consume genres, they consume emotions. Our job is to evoke emotions in our viewers. Forget genres, the show transcends that.”

To find the immersive backdrop for the 10-episode series, Ram and Lakshman scoured numerous locations before finding a “fairytale-like” spot in South Africa. “We went there and said ‘Nice, na?’” Lakshman says before bursting into laughter. Ram graciously explains, “The place is called Knysna, that’s why. Rajiv needs to come with subtitles.”

Along the way

Though the show is being touted as the return of the twins, the duo has kept busy. They hosted the start-up-based MTV Dropout Pvt Ltd (2017), offered a fiction web series A.I.SHA: My Virtual Girlfriend (2016) and even took on some acting stints like in the Akshay Kumar’s 2010 flick, Tees Maar Khan (2010). But it is their 11-year-long run with Roadies (till 2014) that audiences recall most vividly, that made them a household name, and cemented their image as irate judges. As for what went into building their raging façades on television, Ram says, “It was very organic. A portion of it is the requirement of the platform — the canvas that you’re painting [on], [and one’s] worldview. It’s futile to try and understand that.”

This bristling persona also drew the ire of groups like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) for being expletive-ridden. Over the years, the twins have grown thick-skinned. With Skulls & Roses, the duo is open to constructive criticism. “We will be engaging with viewers on social media actively to get to know what they feel.”

To state the obvious, taking the reality format to an online platform frees the creators from the censure they often face regarding language and content. “In the digital space one does experience a little more freedom because it’s a personal viewing platform,” shares Ram. “It’s a contract with one person who has sought this content out. And it [allows for] a conversation. This is something that we have put forward, and now,” he says, before glancing towards Lakshman and chuckling, “the backlash will come.”

All 10 episodes of Skulls & Roses are available on Amazon Prime Video from August 30.

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