The buzz around Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, a web series directed by Hansal Mehta, that released on SonyLiv recently, refuses to die down. The show about one of India’s biggest financial scams put the spotlight on Mehta for its taut story, direction and acting. In this interview, the filmmaker speaks of a new phase in his career and why shooting the show was one of the best experiences of his life.
How did the idea of Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story come up?
Many years ago, I had read the book The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away (1993) by Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu. I tried to pitch this story as a film but no one was interested in it. When Sameer Nair (producer) and I met three years ago, he mentioned that he wants to make a series on the book. I came on board. There were two reasons for that — to make a white-collar drama and to relive my growing-up years. We don’t tell white-collar crime stories. Even when we do, they are flaky and dumbed down.
The 10-episode show has lots of details. What kind of research went into it?
Sumit Purohit and Saurav Dey (writers of the show) met Sucheta a number of times. They met brokers of the ’80s and ’90s. The way trading was done then has become a kind of folklore. Twenty-eight years have passed since the scam came to light. India was at the cusp of change then. We started writing the script towards the end of 2017 and finished our final draft in August 2019. It was 550 pages long. It was a mammoth task to make it visually engaging. It was one of the most exhaustive and satisfying processes of my career.
How did you go about the casting, which is one Scam 1992’s strengths?
Writing and casting happened simultaneously. It helps to have a face attached to a character. I instinctively wanted a Gujarati-speaking actor, someone from theatre, to play the role of Harshad Mehta. Pratik (Gandhi) was my first and final choice. The casting of Shreya (Dhanwanthary) as Sucheta took some time.
There are many other amazing actors, including Satish Kaushik as Cobra Killer, who are part of the ensemble…
When Satishji came to know that I was working on Scam 1992, he said he was ready to take up any role. Now, he is getting such appreciation for his acting! Several casting decisions were inspired, including that of Rajat Kapoor, Anant Mahadevan, and Nikhil Dwivedi. After Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), a certain kind of casting was being done in badland movies and shows such as Mirzapur (2018-2020), Rangbaaz (2018-19), Paatal Lok (2020) and Jamtara (2020). Scam 1992 is set in Mumbai and is dominated by Gujaratis and Marwaris. The casting had to be different.
How did you create Bombay of the time?
It is a combination of shooting on locations and visual effects. I sent my son Jai, who is the co-director of the show, on a discovery mission. I don’t always recognise Mumbai but I breathe Bombay. This is the world where I worked as a computer programmer. From Mahalaxmi to Nariman Point, I used to visit this belt regularly to meet my clients. It had textile mills and corporate offices. We chose the locations and the production designers took over. I had several elements in mind but there was no pictorial reference. For example, the challenge for my 26-year-old director of photography was to shoot with old tube lights. The concept of pretty lights did not exist then.
How do you stay non-judgemental while telling the story of the mastermind of such a huge scam?
That came naturally. When I started making biographies — from Shahid (2013) to Omerta (2018) to Scam 1992 — I tried not to romanticise but humanise the characters. The biggest challenge was to maintain the arc of the characters and the tonal consistency of this voluminous script.
You’ve been open about the many professional rejections that you faced. What kept you going?
I wake up to a new start every day. I had my share of bitter experiences and failures but what kept me going was the fact that there were stories to tell. I joined the industry by accident 27 years ago when I went to Zee TV with the proposal for Khana Khazana and they okayed it. With that, I found my calling.
Did Shahid help you find your voice since you have chosen to tell a certain kind of story after that?
The experience of Shahid made me brave. It would have never been made had I not agreed to make it on an impossible budget of around Rs 70 lakh. That was Hansal Mehta 2.0. I experienced a dip with Simran (2017). Now, I am experiencing Hansal Mehta 3.0. Recently, Omerta re-released on OTT and received a good response. My next film Chhalaang is set to release on November 13. I have even acted in two commercials. I’ve had a busy lockdown.
What went wrong with Simran?
You must love the making of the film. You must enjoy the process of releasing it and the audience’s reaction to it. Right from the making of the film, it was a bitter experience, marked with negativity.
You are vocal on social media. Why is it important for you to speak up?
I speak as a citizen. I am not affiliated with any political party. I talk about issues that concern me. An artist without a voice is like an animal in a muzzle. I can’t let myself be muzzled.
In one of our conversations, you had said how Vishal Bhardwaj helped you in the early years of your career. How important is it to have this eco-system?
You have to find your support system. It just so happened that Vishal, Anubhav (Sinha), Anurag (Kashyap) and I began our career around the same time. All of us came from nowhere and were struggling to find our feet. We were critical of each other but we inspired each other, too. Anubhav has been instrumental in holding us together. We have evolved together. I have already read the draft of his next film, he has read mine. We are exploring the idea of working together — maybe an anthology. I am envious of their work and I am happy admitting that.
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