Hansal Mehta on feeling 'empowered' after Scam 1992, and telling stories that do not pander to a mainstream audience
For Hansal Mehta, while the story of Harshad Mehta's aspirations was an extension to his upbringing in a middle class Gujarati family, Chhalaang was a project he undertook to have fun, and not overthink.
When I call director Hansal Mehta a few days after his latest film Chhalaang's release on Amazon Prime Video, he sounds breezy and at ease. He is currently retreating in the hills with his family, basking in the glory of his dual accomplishments as his SonyLIV's Scam 1992 hits a home run.
Over a phone call with Firstpost all the way from Ranikhet, Mehta talks about life after a hit web-show, and why Chhalaang has been burdened with Scam 1992's "unprecedented" success.
Two of your projects have released back-to-back recently, one is the web-show Scam 1992, and the other is your film Chhalaang. They have been receiving very different responses respectively. What kind of a headspace are you in right now?
I am relaxing in the hills. I am recharging for my next project. It is a work of fate that these two releases happened back-to-back, because I did not plan it that way. Chhalaang was completed before I even began Scam 1992. We had completed shooting the film and its release was planned earlier this year. But because of the pandemic everything was reversed, so Scam 1992 came out first, and then Chhalaang was released, but that is okay. These things happen. Both of them have received varied responses — Scam 1992 has been an overwhelming and unprecedented success. It makes me very happy and proud.
Chhalaang has also been receiving a response that is not unexpected, particularly because it comes close on the heels of Scam 1992. So these are not unexpected responses. However, there is an audience that never watched my films but can now watch my films, that is children and younger people, who have really taken to the film and enjoyed it.
So, yeah, it's a different story — if you go there expecting 'exploration' from that film, you won't find it.
Coming to Scam 1992, which has been praised by the audience and critics alike, what compelled you to tell Harshad Mehta's story?
Firstly, it was the book (The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away by Debashis Basu and Sucheta Dalal) that I had read many years ago, and I tried to pitch it to various producers, but it never got green-lit at that time — I had pitched it as a film. Then, at the end of 2017, Sameer Nair (CEO of Applause Entertainment which produced Scam 1992) and I met, and he offered me — among other things that he was doing — this book and the story. He said that he has got the rights to the book, and I jumped at the opportunity. I said I want to do it, because somewhere, it's a story of the time in which I was growing up. It is this time when Harshad Mehta created this aspirational world...he created that whole generation of aspirational people like me in the '90s, who were just growing up. He believed that it was possible to make them rich.
So, it is the story of that time which was the main attraction. Then of course there is the character, his journey, which was very fascinating. There was also the fact that India had not had a bona fide, financial drama/thriller, unlike in the West. I saw the opportunity to do this kind of a financial drama and to explore it in depth through long format storytelling, and to also tell a story while being respectful of the audience and their intelligence. I think its success is a result of that; the audience has returned to us that respect.
As you mention this 'aspiration' that Harshad Mehta inspired in a generation of people, especially among Gujaratis such as you who belonged to the middle class, and then worked their way and rose through the ranks in their profession — to what extent did you relate to Harshad's story personally?
There was definitely a connection. The story of Harshad was somewhere an extension of me and even Pratik (Gandhi) — we are all middle class Gujarati men. These men grew up as middle class Gujarati boys, so we found that the characterisation is an extension of that. He epitomises the insider-outsider debate that we have. Here was a man who was aspiring for the privilege that is enjoyed by a select few. These are stories of class, of people who belong to a certain class of individuals. It is a very complex tale that works at several different levels. There are some levels that I used to relate to — I have those aspirations.
When I became a filmmaker, my aspirations changed from monetary to artistic and creative ones. But the need to belong, the need to not be left behind in terms of privilege and to match up to those who had access because of privilege...that always existed. So all that reflects in the kind of story we have told.
Pratik Gandhi has been quite the revelation in Scam 1992. How did you go about casting for the show, especially since you were dealing with real stories of real people?
Casting is quite a mammoth task. Mukesh Chhabra (casting director) is a very old collaborator, and we have been working together for nearly 9 years now. Along with his team and my team, which included my son Jai who was a co-director on the show, we looked through a lot of actors.
A lot of them I have seen on Gujarati stage, including Pratik whom I have seen doing Gujarati theatre. I have also seen his film Wrong Side Raju, and I really liked his work. So Pratik was quite an instinctive choice. Even Hemant Kher (who plays the role of Harshad Mehta's brother Ashwin) is someone I chose almost instantly. Something about his face I thought would be right. Chirag Vohra is someone I know since I made my first film. I used to feel awful that I could never have a role written for him, so I cast him as Bhushan Bhatt.
Shreya (Dhanwanthary, who plays the role of Sucheta Dalal) is someone who came in after a series of different auditions. All the auditions were very good, but then all of us collectively zeroed in on Shreya, and that was a great decision.
While watching Scam 1992, you often end up rooting for Harshad, and even want him to get away with his crimes. You feel a similar sense of sympathy for a lot of grey or negative characters while watching their origin stories. For example, even in Narcos, one ended up sympathising with the character of Pablo Escobar because of how he was humanised in the show. This often raises questions on and problematises the moral compass on which we function. What do you have to say about that?
That is human nature, you know. When you humanise the character — whether they are black, white or grey, no matter which shade — with all their flaws and human elements, there will always be a section of the audience that will find themselves rooting for him at some level. That is why I called it a 'cautionary tale', where you are rooting for him until the point where he goes through this meteoric rise, and he starts scamming the system. Slowly, you want to stop him. So that rooting is actually about wanting to stop that person, and that is a response that is necessary because a cautionary tale tells you that the best of people can become the worst of criminals when faced with greed and drunk on wealth and power. Power can destroy the best of people. So when he is destroyed, all you see is a fallen and broken man. While we sympathise, we also realise that his fall was his own doing. When you humanise people, this is bound to happen.
But we have also provided a very strong counterpoint through Sucheta Dalal's character, who is that rare breed of journalist — she belongs to a rare breed now because you don't find so many people who have this commitment to the truth. Even her character realises that the system is flawed, and there are a select few people who are made scapegoats. So through her character, there is a counterpoint. She says a very important line in the show — her partner tells her that Harshad has recovered all the money, so where is the problem? Her response is that whose money is this? Just because a criminal has covered his tracks doesn't mean that his crime is any lesser or the crime hasn't happened. And most importantly, whose money is it? It is the money of the people of India, and what if he wasn't able to return the money? It is the money of depositors like you and me, who have put all their savings into these banks. We have seen what happens in such cases after the Harshad Mehta scam, when there was the Ketan Parekh scam — we were the depositors. Then we saw what happened to the Punjab National Bank and other banks, and repeatedly these scams have shown that the people who suffer are ordinary people like you and me.
While shooting a story based on real people and events, how do you decide on how much you want to retain of the incidents in their factually authentic form, and how much you want to fictionalise?
Well, that is a decision we take while writing. This show is a triumph of writing, if I may say so. It is exceptional writing. So we had two writers — Sumit Purohit and Saurav Dey — who adapted Debashis and Sucheta's book, which was a very dense piece of literature and research. Saurav did a lot of research. The point was how do you convert that research into a dramatic story. So what we have done is while sticking to the facts, we have dramatised it. You imagine situations through dramatisation because you don't know — that person isn't there to tell you what exactly happened there. So based on available research you dramatise. However, you try to stay true to the spirit of the entire period of the story and the characters' journeys.
Now, if I come to Chhalaang, which is a story that inhabits a completely different world and time in Haryana — but also touches upon the subject of aspirations — you have again partnered with Rajkummar Rao for this film. What about the actor makes you rely on him time and again with your projects?
Here it is the other way round because Rajkummar had already signed the film and I came in a little later. The story was written by the producer Luv Ranjan, who is a director himself. So Luv had written the story and Raj had already signed on, and I heard the story and film and said okay. This is one of the few times, or perhaps the first time in the last few years, that I worked on a story that is not purely my own story or has not come from me.
But with Raj, I know there is something special that always comes out. He makes the simplest of situations look special, and that is his greatness as an actor. He is a very very fine actor. I watched Chhalaang with my entire family in the hills of Ranikhet. We watched it together and we were really enjoying it. I was marvelling at Rajkummar's performance, even though I may not be able to always see it objectively. It is marvellous work that he has done with a character that is otherwise very simple...it is very simple storytelling. The entire approach in the film is very simplistic. But, you know, Rajkummar has lent it that special edge, and even the entire ensemble around him — they have all made it very beautiful and special.
When you talk about simplicity in Chhalaang, I felt that Montu's (Rajkummar Rao) story held a lot of potential to shed light on the angst and exasperations of the small town youth, who might often feel bound by their circumstances. But it turns into this outwardly conflict with a so-called 'outsider' from a different state, played by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, who somehow is thought of as an antagonist in the scheme of things. What was the story really trying to convey, through all its simplicities?
I think it is a story which is a journey of this person who discovers his calling; it is as simple as that — when a man, who was listless and aimless, discovers himself. I don't want to over-read into this film, because I think this film was intended for the cinema halls. It was supposed to be a 'mainstream entertainer'; the pandemic brought it to the OTT platforms and close on the heels of Scam 1992.
I was just telling one of my friends that unfortunately or fortunately, the baggage of Scam 1992 is on Chhalaang, which is meant to be this mainstream film. It is something that Rajkummar and I have never done together; we have done very intense and strong characters. We have done films that are extremely complex, and we just wanted to do this film that would also make us some money [laughs]. But unfortunately, the theatres are shut.
That also makes me wonder if you still see films in terms of their commercial viability, and if we can still discriminate content on the basis of the platforms they are released on...
I have never figured it out; if I could, I would've been one of the 300-crore directors I know. Honestly, I don't understand any of this. What I know is the reason for which Scam 1992 has seen the kind of success, adulation and love...it is unprecedented. It is something we didn't expect. I knew we have made something special, but this kind of success is something we did not expect. That makes me feel far more empowered to tell these sort of stories that do not pander to a set mainstream audience. Hopefully, Scam 1992 has given me that power.
You started your career with television before venturing into films, and now, it is almost as if life has come full circle for you with Scam 1992. Which medium of storytelling are you more comfortable with, considering with the smaller screen, you get more time to flesh out your characters...
I think it eventually boils down to the writing and the script. There are some scripts that lend themselves to the long form. Eventually, it is about what is the ideal or the best story to tell, and if it is a story you're given complete freedom to make. So Scam 1992 is an example of that. When I have made my films with complete abandon, with complete freedom, the result has been good — whether it is Shahid, Aligarh, Omerta or even Scam 1992. They have been made without carrying the burden of set expectations, or even a financial burden. These pressures eventually lead to compromising with the freedom with which you carry out your entire job — whether it is execution, writing, or casting. I am hoping that what I do now will be free of such compromises.
So does that make you wary of projects that come with the 'mainstream' tag?
No no. I am somebody who has grown up watching mainstream films, and Scam 1992 is a mainstream project. When we were writing it, the characters of Harshad and Ashwin were like Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor from Deewar. So Deewar, Trishul...these are my references. I have grown up watching Amitabh Bachchan, so I don't look down upon it. I just feel that mainstream cinema had far more scope and potential in the '50s, '60s, and to some extent in the '70s, when it was far richer than it is right now. They explored more characters within the popular idiom. We had stars like Amitabh Bachchan, but we also had the 'angry young man' who depicted the times.
I feel we are very quick to latch on to any success formula, which limits our mainstream cinema a lot.
We have seen films in the past that have used sports as a metaphor for life, a more recent example of which is Dangal (2016) that was also based in Haryana. How easy or difficult is it to ensure that a film in this genre does not 'look' repetitive, or fall prey to regional, professional, or even small town stereotypes?
One thing that I always say is that clichés are not necessarily bad; I don't necessarily look down upon clichés. I think if clichés are looked at as a storytelling device and can be used correctly, they can make your film better. In my film Shahid, we followed the traditional Muslim social structure. However, what we need to update within the clichés is the way they are executed — the performances, the world. There is an authenticity that you need to bring out in the narrative, so it has a lot to do with that. I don't really know how to answer your question.
We enjoyed doing the sports shoot in Chhalaang. We had a specialist from the US doing the sports for us...it was a very time-consuming process. But those kids were absolutely brilliant. It is very rare that in a climax there is a hero who is the coach, and he is watching from the sidelines while the kids take centerstage. That is something that really drew me to the story, especially to the end of the story.
I asked you the question specifically on stereotypes because in Chhalaang, we again find the oft-repeated Indian cinema stereotype in small town love stories, where the man stalks the woman he desires. Have we not seen that a lot already, and isn't it time to get past that dangerous trope in 2020?
Right now, I don't want to over-evaluate Chhalaang; I know where you are going. It is a question that can only be answered together by me and the writer. It is too fresh right now for me to give you a very clear answer; I need to think over it for a few days because I only just saw it with my family. I really don't watch my films after they are out.
Whatever I am hearing about the film from social media, I am still absorbing all that.
You just mentioned to me earlier that you barely ever direct a film that has not been conceived by you, and in that sense Chhalaang was rare because it was conceived and written by someone else. What about a story attracts you the most, especially when it is someone else's creation?
For me, it is the characters — that is what attracts me to a script and that is what makes a story work for me. For example, it was Professor Siras' character in Aligarh that attracted me to the story. Even when I am shooting or making anything, I follow the characters around. The screenplay is the drama and the movement of the drama, and the search for the character's journey. And this is for each character — I search for their journey. The way I direct and interpret the script is a lot about characters; so characters first, and then stories.
What about directing a comedy proved to be most challenging for you, because if I am not mistaken, this happens to be one of your few brushes with the genre?
There have been some aborted attempts at comedy. I did a film called Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!, which I am very proud of. It was a dark comedy, yes, but it had a huge amount of humour. I felt it came much before its time. Back then, it was totally panned and rejected by the critics and the audience.
Then I did this film called Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai?, which was sort of an American Pie. It was another playful attempt at comedy. Although, surprisingly for Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai?, the amount of people from that time, who followed me at that time and are now actors or part of the industry — the amount of people who have seen the film — is not funny. Even Rajkummar, who came to meet me before Shahid...I asked him if he had seen any of my films. He said, 'Yeah I have, and I am a big fan. I have watched Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai?' I said come on! I am not a big fan of that film myself! [laughs]
You see, comedy, drama, thriller or whatever, is a product of the script. In Chhalaang, I had Luv Ranjan who has a flair for comedy as a writer, so I put my faith in his writing. And of course, there was also the fact that Rajkummar has amazing comic timing; and not just Rajkummar — Satish Kaushik is legendary; there is also Saurabh Shukla and Jatin Sarna. These are all exceptional people.
Finally, what can we expect from you next?
It is too early to talk about them; I am working on something which is due to be shot soon. I can't speak much about it until the script is done, or even with the pandemic — it is a very touch-and-go situation. There is an anthology that Anubhav Sinha, me, Subhash Kapoor, Sudhir Mishra, Ketan Mehta and all are working on. My script for the anthology is more or less ready, so it is possible that that might go on floors first. There are quite a few exciting things happening. I hope after Scam 1992, I can be bolder with my choices, and tell my stories with more freedom.
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