If you consider Hansal Mehta's first feature film to be Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000) and not the unreleased Jayate (1997), then this year marks two decades for the director in Hindi cinema. Since Shahid (2012), which won Mehta a National Award for Best Director, he's had a run of critically acclaimed features—CityLights (2014), Aligarh (2015), Simran (2017), Omerta (2017)—four of them with actor Rajkummar Rao.
Mehta's latest release is the 10-part series Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, which premiered on SonyLiv earlier this month. A lively, granular look at the rise and fall of stockbroker Harshad Mehta, it's his first foray into the OTT space as director (he was creative producer on 2017's Bose: Dead/Alive, starring Rao). He also has a film coming up next month, Chhalaang, a comedy with Rao and his Shahid co-star Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as warring schoolteachers. Mehta spoke to Lounge from his home near Lonavala about the warm reception Scam 1992 has received, casting the relatively unknown Pratik Gandhi in the lead, and how Harshad is yet another of his outsider protagonists. Edited excerpts:
Do you have an idea of the viewership numbers for 'Scam 1992'?
We have some numbers but there isn't any particular reliable source for OTT. There are third party numbers but all have different parameters to judge how much it has been viewed. There's something called COTT ratings that say 116 million people have viewed it.
I was asking Sony how they measure it. Their benchmark usually is the increase in subscriptions for the platform. Subscriptions seem to have spiked a lot. There's an approximate number of one crore-plus people who watched the first episode (which is free) in a period of six days.
Given the subject matter and treatment, were you surprised to hear that?
After 20 odd years, making the sort of films I do, any kind of success is a surprise. But we had been watching these episodes over the past few months. To me one of the tests was that I wasn't tired of watching them, even though we've been working on it for three years.
I never felt any fatigue. There was something about the subject, about the script, that you felt you were on to something. It's a feeling I got when I was making Shahid.
How different was it directing in this format?
The number of days I had was a quarter of what you'd take to direct a 10-hour feature. There was pressure to complete early, but because I was so used to making low-budget and independent films, the pressure did not get to me. And the actors we had, they would energise you. I had my son, Jai, as co-director, he was a huge support. We work well together, a lot of technical things I would delegate to him.
In casting the part of Harshad, with whom many viewers would have prior associations, how useful is it to cast an actor with no associations, like Gandhi?
I always feel it is ideal to have an actor who can reinvent with every character. I had seen Pratik's Gujarati films and when I met him, there was this sparkle in his eyes, a lot of energy but also this stillness. There's a Zen thing about Pratik, he's very secure about his ability to transform himself for a character. There were some ideas from my producers but that was before he came in. I did not even look at other choices.
OTT puts greater challenges on you, and you have to choose accordingly. The last script was 550 pages. So to have an actor who has the gumption to read that and build his own arc through it is very important.
As he gets more confident and rich, you see this change in his walk, a little more panache. When he's poorer, while the walk is confident, it's a little more wannabe. As he ages, he's slightly bent. Those changes, a good actor can do that.
The actors in supporting parts were fantastic. I particularly liked the smarmy bankers.
This is Mukesh Chhabra at his best—slightly odd casting. You have Shadaab Khan, Nikhil Dwivedi; you have KK Raina, whom we're seeing after a long time. Anant Mahadevan was so good—there was an intelligence about him, you sort of felt he was the governor.
'Scam 1992' uses many of the actual names of institutions and individuals in Harshad's journey. Indian films and series usually shy away from this.
There was a lot of discussion between me and my team and Sony. It was a complicated process that went through various sets of lawyers. Some names, of course, have been changed, sometimes we composited two or three characters.
When you make something based on real-life characters, that does happen. I've been through it once: on Shahid, UTV's lawyer came with some 75 points in the film, saying all of these will expose you to legal risk.
Another thing the show doesn't shy away from is the finance talk. Were there concerns that the viewer wouldn't keep up?
We had decided that if we're making a show about a financial scam we had to be respectful of the audience's intelligence. I think that's one of the things that has worked for the show. I've always been a fan of boardroom dramas, whether it is Wall Street or The Big Short. I'd seen this film Margin Call, which is underrated but so engrossing, phenomenal cast. I must have seen it five or six times. I wanted Scam to be immersive like that.
So many friends told me after watching, 'I tried to look up SGLs and BRs.' Now everyone I know is aware of SGLs and BRs. When we started we did not know what they meant. We had to ask people. We found it was very simple—and we kept it there. I think partly the show has been successful because we have not treated the audience like idiots. I am not a commerce person. If I can understand, my audience will too.
In the last couple of episodes, when the show's sympathies tip somewhat towards Harshad, Bhushan (Chirag Vohra) is a good counterbalance, showing how Mehta can be unsparing even with those closest to him.
My writer Saurav (Dey) sent me an email I'd written to the entire team around a year and a half back, when there was a block in the script and everyone was arguing about which direction we were going. I said, I see these characters as something out of a Shakespeare play. They have their failings, yet they have their humanity.
The fight between Harshad and Bhushan, that scene was shot almost in real time. I told them, don't rehearse, we'll see what happens. Think of it as an expensive rehearsal; anyway, we're not shooting on film anymore. I told my director of photography, Pratham (Mehta), just follow them, follow whatever you hear. I'd kept the whole day for the scene. It was done in two takes.
We shot it some 10 days into the shoot; there were some 70 days left. The actors had read the entire script, worked out their arcs, in order to reach that point.
You've mostly made films on outsiders—Ram Saran Pandey, the couple in 'CityLights', Professor Siras, and now Harshad.
I've always lived in Bombay. The class divide is very obvious—either you're born into money and inherit a certain amount of strength or you come from outside. The class divide between Harshad and the affluent bankers is apparent. Even the RBI governor treats him with a lot of contempt. Whereas the managers of Polo Steel treat him with a little more respect, because they are also self-made men, so there is more of a connection. My characters always enter a world they're not seen as belonging to.
Did 'Chhalaang' originate with you?
No. Chhalaang let's say is a new kind of Luv Ranjan film which is directed by me.
It's a surprising collaboration.
I wanted to surprise myself too. When Luv called and narrated this, I enjoyed the idea. And Raj (Rajkummar Rao) was already in the film. That was one of the factors—I had faith that Raj has signed the right thing.
I wanted to make something a little lighthearted. Raj and I have worked on five very intense characters. Playing Omar Sheikh (in Omerta) took a toll on him also. We felt we needed to lighten up.
It's set in Haryana, where Raj is from. It's got Satish Kaushik, whom you've seen in Scam. Baljinder Kaur, who played Raj's mother in Shahid, is in it; Zeeshan, who was the brother in Shahid, is playing his nemesis. There's Saurabh Shukla, who was in Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar. So it was also all of us coming together to have some fun.
Is the scene with the scooter malfunctioning a tribute to 'Chashme Buddoor'?
No, the Chashme Buddoor tribute happened in Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar. There was a red scooter that belonged to Saurabh Shukla which would never start.
That scene with Raj's scooter was sort of improvised, because the scooter actually didn't start. Raj is that sort of an actor—if the scooter doesn't work, he will continue. And I never say cut. A lot of things you see in my scenes are after technically you would have said cut.
This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 22 October 2020.