ALTBalaji’s latest web series, Bose: Dead/Alive, has barely released and it is already the talk of the town. Series creative producer Hansal Mehta and leading man Rajkummar Rao, tell team Box Office India the trick to making a quality web series is to treat it like a big-screen project
BOI: The show has just been launched on ALTBalaji. How has the response of the audience been?
Hansal Mehta (HM): It has been superb. Very overwhelming. People are finding it thrilling and very exciting. The response that I have got is people saying they have never seen anything like this ever before on the web. As I said, it has been a huge response which has been overwhelming. It is the vindication of all the hard work that has gone in. People have loved Rajkummar’s acting and that of all the other characters as well. It has been really appreciated. And this is just the beginning. The numbers and analytics start coming in after a period of time for the web. Then we will know where we stand on the numbers but it has been great so far.
BOI: Hansal, there were so many freedom fighters who took part in the independence struggle. Why did you choose Subhash Chandra Bose’s story?
HM: Subhash Chandra Bose is a very important part of our freedom struggle and his story has been ignored. When we look at our history and the history of India’s freedom struggle, his is just a briefly documented story in our history books. His disappearance after 1945 created an intriguing mystery and although there has been wild speculation about it, we don’t really know enough about him or the circumstances of his disappearance. This is a story based on research, thorough research, and I feel this is an important story for people to know. As a country, we enjoy our freedom today but we don’t really know why and how we got our freedom. When we talk about our freedom, we think of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehruji but freedom fighters like Subhash Chandra Bose are relegated to single pages in the history books.
BOI: Tell us about your research for Bose: Dead/Alive
HM: The subject is Ekta’s (Kapoor) brainchild; she was obsessed with the idea. In fact, she wanted to launch the AltBalaji app with this show. She roped in a team of researchers, a team of developers, who spent nearly a year engaged in research. After that, they spent nearly a year writing the screenplay. It was very extensive. It is based on a book called India’s Biggest Cover Up. A lot of the primary research came from there.
BOI: Rajkummar, what attracted you to the story more… the platform or the concept?
Rajkummar Rao (RR): For me, it is always the content; the medium actually doesn’t matter. The story and the chance to play Netaji on screen was quite fascinating for me. I knew it would be a thrilling experience for me, as an actor. The script was well-researched and quite detailed in that it had things we haven’t really heard about his life, chapters we don’t have any idea of. That was why I said yes to the script.
BOI: Was it any different working for a medium other than the big screen?
RR: Not at all.
BOI: There is so much mystery surrounding Subhash Chandra Bose. Do you think this series will offer some closure to this subject?
RR: There is a lot of mystery and speculation; we are definitely going for the Bose of 1945; we are touching upon those theories but we are not offering any definite answers. After touching upon those areas, we will leave it up to you to decide which theory you want to believe.
BOI: What was the research you did to slip into this role?
RR: There was a lot of reading involved. I had to go through his unfinished biography. I spent a lot of time at his place in Kolkata. I would spend hours there. It also involved watching a lot of documentaries, films and some footage on the Internet. I had to get an idea of his body language, how he used to walk, etc. There are many of his radio speeches available and I had to get the voice right.
BOI: Indian web series usually focus on urban content. Will the audience be receptive to a historical subject like Bose: Dead/Alive?
RR: Definitely. Judging from the response to the trailer, we are very hopeful. Also, since this is the digital medium, it is accessible and easily available and you can always watch it at your convenience. I am a fan of many web series and many shows on Amazon and Netflix, and I know that there is a chunk of people who watch shows and series like these on a regular basis. We are sure we have created something quite grand and of international standards. I hope people welcome our first initiative.
HM: I think it will be received very well. We have treated the historical concept like a thriller. We have made sure that we present it in an entertaining and engaging manner. There is some English in the dialogue as the British spoke in English but we have provided a Hindi language option for people in smaller pockets of the country, who don’t follow English. Also, ALTBalaji’s programming aims to get the masses involved in the digital viewing revolution.
BOI: Hansal, what has your association been like with ALTBalaji?
HM: It has been absolutely wonderful. I have known Ekta for a long time. We had always spoken about working together and this was a great opportunity. Even Rajkummar began his career with Ekta and Balaji Telefilms with films like LSD-Love, Sex Aur Dhoka and Ragini MMS. So, it was an intense collaboration. They gave me material on a platter. It was already written, and amazingly so.
BOI: Despite its growth, not many have made the shift to the digital platform. Rajkummar, what is your take on that?
RR: That’s fine. There are no complaints. It is a choice, no one can tell people what to watch and what not to watch. We can’t say, ‘Stop watching films, watch only digital’ or vice-versa. We have a population of millions and the percentage of people who go to the cinema to watch films is still very small and that, in part, is due to access to mobile phones. So there is every chance of the audience growing larger. Cinema is not going anywhere but there will be a parallel industry that will grow on this platform.
BOI: Did your perception of Netaji change after working on the series?
RR: More than perception, the sad part is we don’t know much about him or his life. So, during my research, I got to know much more about him, his ideology, his childhood and his relationship with his family. I wasn’t aware of these things until I researched him.
BOI: Rajkummar, it is obvious that yours is an intense role in this series. Did it take a toll on you mentally and emotionally, as an actor?
RR: The process was quite challenging and it wasn’t easy at all. The weather conditions in Kolkata when we were shooting made it even more difficult. It was quite hot and humid. Apart from that, roles like these don’t really take a toll on me. Sure, you get into a certain kind of physical appearance which you cannot get out of for the next six to seven months but I chose to do that. Other than that, there isn’t anything problematic. And if there are any challenges, they just make you a better person as you learn something from them. Here, it inspired me to play Netaji.
BOI: Let’s talk about your collaboration. Both of you have delivered some really amazing movies over the years.
RR: I think we are very impulsive, in a way. There are many stories we want to tell and these are some of them. We want to tell them a certain way and both of us have the same tastes, same interests in those stories. Maybe that’s why we connect so well. We try and find some realism in our stories and we always want to make our characters human. The reason is that not only the audience but we too can connect with the characters on many levels. We want the characters to stay with people and also with us when we return home.
HM: We look for challenges in every script that we come across. It is something that draws us to them. How does the story challenge us? How do we approach it in a new way? We are constantly looking to challenge each other with new subjects. That’s why every film we have done together has been a new experience.
BOI: The locations you shot at look very real on screen.
RR: We shot at real locations, for the most part. The series was shot in almost five cities spanning three different countries. We rarely shot on a set. I think all this adds to the feel of the show. The scale that you see, the grandness of the series, all this comes across when you actually shoot at real places.
HM: Also, we must give credit to the director of the web series, Pulkit. He has toiled very hard to give the show its authenticity, to give it that look, feel and scale it has. He is a new director but he has shown so much promise with this show. It is very impressive.
BOI: Rajkummar, how did you come on board for the character of Subhash Chandra Bose?
RR: It all started when Ekta wanted me to play the part of Netaji, and the moment she decided to start a web series, I was on board. I met the other makers and heard about the idea, about how they were planning a series on Bose. I thought they wanted me to play someone younger like Bhagat Singh. But they said Netaji, and I was like, ‘Wow!’ It will be thrilling and exciting. I knew it wouldn’t be easy but I was pumped from the moment I got to know.
BOI: Every character in the show looks apt in their respective parts. What was the casting procedure like?
RR: We had two wonderful casting directors.
HM: Yes, Trishaan and Shubham have done a fabulous job casting for the show. There are a total of 180 characters and each one had to be right for their role. Also, since we shot in different places, the cast had to be drawn from these places. We shot a huge chunk in Kolkata, so some of the cast members had to be from that city. Then we went to Poland for another schedule and wanted to cast some people from there. Other actors were cast from places like Thailand, Ladakh and some were flown in from Delhi, etc.
They (the casting directors) also had to carry out their own research even though references were given to them from the direction team about the look and feel of the characters. Of course, they had to be really good actors. So, for instance, the actor playing the role of Mahatma Gandhi came from far away in the mountains, just to play his part. Even the person playing Jawaharlal Nehru brings a lot of charisma to the table, which was needed for this character. There was a lot of authenticity in the casting and it was a challenge since this is a period piece. They had to get people who looked authentic, who looked the part, and who were also good performers.
BOI: Rajkummar, what has your association been like with the director?
RR: It has been amazing. I think Pulkit’s process is very similar to that of Hansal sir. He, of course, considers sir his mentor. Pulkit was very inspired when he saw Shahid for the first time. I think that influenced him as a filmmaker. We connected very well and are friends now. He is a very talented boy and that comes through in this series.
BOI: Hansal, from making films for the big screen to being a producer on a web show, what has the transition been like for you?
HM: I was looking for an opportunity to be a part of the web series revolution. Digital is going to be a very strong medium for us to tell stories. Over the years, it has emerged as the strongest platform for storytellers, filmmakers, actors, etc. The crafting and writing on the digital platform has been superior to films. It is now coming to India and I wanted to begin my journey in this digital world with something that set a benchmark. People should look back at it and say, yes, the migration was worth it.
In the future, I see myself as being part of this more and more. There is a lot of freedom in this (web) world. The digital platform does not succumb to the weekend game. Your series are not dependent on a Friday; it is there forever, and people can watch it at their convenience. That gives you a lot of power as a storyteller.
BOI: Your passion for this project is apparent. Weren’t you tempted to come on board as the director?
HM: Yes, there were times when I was tempted but I was equally passionate about the work Pulkit was doing. I am proud that there is this young director who is carrying the torch. That has given me more pride than actually making the show myself. In many ways, I see Pulkit as an extension of myself.
BOI: You spoke about migration to the digital platform. Do you think more filmmakers will resort to it because there is so much freedom?
HM: I don’t think that is the only reason. The migration is not happening only because of the freedom it affords. We are looking to explore more content, tell more stories and the digital platform is yet another outlet for us to do that. TV and cinema have their limitations in terms of budgets and recoveries. The digital medium offers you an alternative way to do this. Stories like that of Subhash Chandra Bose can be explored here and you have the freedom to do that across nine episodes. It is a longer format of storytelling which will help us all creatively.
BOI: Rajkummar, what do you think the audience will take away from this show?
RR: A grand experience, for sure, something that has never been done before in cinema or on the web. There are chapters of Subhash babu’s life that we are completely ignorant of that will come to light. And the storytelling is very modern, in a thriller format.
BOI: Tell us something about your upcoming collaboration Omerta.
RR: Omerta is done and ready. We are planning to release it early next year.
HM: It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Then it travelled to the Busan International Film Festival and MAMI, where it got a wonderful response. It was reviewed by top critics and appreciated by all.
BOI: What about your other future projects?
HM: After all this, I think my first project is to get some rest!
RR: Mine is Omerta and then Fanney Khan. There are a few others also lined up.