Lead actor of Netflix Original series Bard Of Blood, Emraan Hashmi and director Ribhu Dasgupta in conversation with Titas Chowdhury on creating a world of espionage, the duality in the protagonist’s character and the joy of working with Shah Rukh Khan
We recently watched Bard Of Blood and it smells of gore and gunpowder.
Emraan Hashmi (EH): Wow! That’s a nice way of putting it. Yes, there’s a lot of gore and gunpowder but there’s more of gunpowder in the show.
Emraan, it’s quite serendipitous that you launched Bilal Siddiqi’s The Bard Of Blood about four years ago. Was there any discussion about a screen adaptation of the book back then?
EH: No. But there was a journalist at the press conference back then who asked me about it. That year there were a lot of book-to-film adaptations. She asked, ‘What if The Bard Of Blood was adapted into a film?’ This was back in 2015. I said to her, ‘Yeah, I would love to do it.’ Four years post that, the book got adapted not for a film, but for a Netflix Original series, which is even better. I say better because we are not truncating or editing out a lot of things that are there in the book. We have a seven-part series which is almost five hours long. A lot of things have been added to the series to enhance it which makes it even better and now we can take it to 190 countries and 150 million subscribers. The world audience can watch it, it is just not limited to our subcontinent. When I read the book back then, I felt that it had the scope of going that far and wide. So I am very happy with this.
Ribhu, I am sure you have read the book. As a filmmaker, what did you absorb from the book as part of your homework?
Ribhu Dasgupta (RD): The book was written a few years back. The exercise of adapting it into a series started a year and a half back or maybe a little over that. When you adapt a novel to a series or a film, you have to go through an exercise. Mayank Tewari led the writer’s room along with Bilal and they did a great job. A lot of additions and subtractions were done all for the good, to fit the format because we wanted to make a seven-episode series. To achieve that, a few changes were required only to make it more enticing and exciting. The best part is that we spent a lot of time doing that because series writing is key when you are making a format like this. The whole process was organic and it required a lot of time. By giving that much of time, we did justice to it. The book has a lot of material but when we actually went to shoot, we had all the groundwork ready.
Emraan, do you want to add something from the perspective of an actor?
EH: The book has a certain authenticity and an entertainment quotient at the same time. It does break away from a lot of stereotypes in this geopolitical scenario but what really struck me about the book is that the world there is authentic and real. When we adapted it into a mini-series, that authenticity was retained. We are showing spies and antagonists in the show with their vulnerabilities and not just with their strengths. There is a conflict-ridden state and there are these agents who are dealing with the ghosts of their own past.
The book humanises these agents and spies.
EH: Yes! It is about the human story more than just action. It keeps viewers at the edge of the seat. You don’t know what is going to happen next. The book had a nail-biting finish. But it is even more nail-biting in the series. The book was great but here, you have to engage and hook the audience in every episode. Every episode ending has to be like a great interval point in a film so that you can bring your viewers back. This is very important and they have done it so effectively with every episode in the season.
I think that is the most challenging part of making a series because there needs to be a cliffhanger at the end of every episode.
RD: Yeah, absolutely. A cliffhanger is important because that will bring the audience back for the next episode. Series writing is a different ball game. Hence, you need a lot of time and it is great that we actually invested that time before we began filming.
Emraan, you play Kabir Anand, an expelled spy who is now a school teacher teaching Shakespeare. That is quite a wide arc. Was it a challenging part to play?
EH: First of all, I was a terrible Shakespeare student in school. So that made my character slightly tougher. (Chuckles) I didn’t really love Shakespeare in school; it was something that I had to do and so I did it and passed decently. Coming to Kabir’s character in the book and the mini-series, the duality of it had me sold. It is like a dream come true for any actor to play a spy who is also a Shakespeare teacher. What a mixed bag! They are like two opposite ends of the spectrum.
So hence the title ‘Bard Of Blood’!
EH: Yes! You find Kabir at a time in his life when he is dealing with these problems and he is an average Joe at the same time. He comes from a middle-class home, drives his middle-class car and teaches Shakespeare. At one point, you think that he is dangerous, he is a killer, he is a spy, he is a hostage rescue specialist and he is a legend in the agency. You may wonder how all of this fits in? You discover him by peeling away his layers when you go on a mission with him. The guy in the first frame vis-à-vis the last are like two different people and two alternative lives. But he had to catch on to this because he lost his job on the battlefield because he was wronged in his last assignment. But he goes back to redeem himself.
Ribhu, you have recreated Baluchistan and its provinces, Quetta and Kech in parts of Rajasthan. Can you take us briefly through the recce process?
RD: We have recreated some bits in Rajasthan, but most bits have been recreated in Leh and Ladakh. Like I told you, we had spent a lot of time during the pre-production. When the writing process was on, we all wanted to find the right locations. Recreating Baluchistan, Pakistan or Afghanistan is not easy. Since we wanted to make a show of international scale and standard, we had to find the same terrain. So we did a lot of recce and location-scouting. Finally, the terrain in Leh and Ladakh appealed to us and we settled with that. We went there in mid-October to shoot but it is a dangerous time. Even the locals vacate the area. But we had to shoot because that is how the schedule was. When you watch the series, you will see that those locations are unexplored and untouched. The idea was to create Baluchistan and Afghanistan to their closest reality with the help of the production designer, the cinematographer and the costume designer. I was lucky to have a great team with me with a wonderful set of actors. It was tough but we are very happy with the end result.
How was it having Shah Rukh Khan backing you as a producer?
RD: The best part about him is that he gave us a lot of time during the writing process. After filming when we came back and put the edit together, he spent some quality time with us. He spent four to five hours over each episode after I edited them during the post-production. He diligently came with note pads. He saw the episodes, jotted down points and discussed them with us. The best thing about Mr Khan is that with so much of experience behind him, he never imposes his decisions on anyone. He always says, ‘This is what I think. But you have lived the show more than anyone else and so the final call is yours.’ He is such a genuine person and whatever he says, he does so from the bottom of his heart. So you end up understanding his perspective and cues. As a filmmaker, you want producers like him who can back your vision. It was lovely having him as a producer and working with him. We generally don’t get producers like him in India.
EH: My interaction with him did not happen during the shoot because he was busy shooting for his film at that point of time. I know that he was really involved during the writing process. The reason why one of the characters was added to the show was because of him. He added the track of Jannat (Kirti Kulhari) in the series and it was not there in the book. He said that when my character goes back to Baluchistan, it will be interesting to have a romantic link. During the edit stage, we went to show him the first four episodes which were in rough edit and these things generally happen at night because he works at night. I, on the other hand, am a morning person; I generally doze off at 11:30 pm. The conversation that happened that night and just the way he was, kept me up till 5 o’clock in the morning. We were sitting and chatting in his house. I was blown away by his memory. He watches an episode and he remembers the sequence of events, what you were wearing and what dialogues you have said. He is so sharp. When we were watching the episodes and if I felt like a beat was not going right in a particular scene, he actually spelt it out and explained the reason behind it. That gave us valuable information on how we can tweak it and it was at a stage where we required to tweak it as we were a long way from home.
Tell us about the promotional video that you did with him.
EH: The small skit of about four minutes that I did with him is a memory that I will cherish for the rest of my life. (Laughs) I had to put a bag on Shah Rukh Khan’s face. I was feeling so bad and guilty! I have grown up watching his films. He has had a huge impact on me as an actor and a person. I have seen him since I was in school. It was not like a slow burn with Bard Of Blood where I knew that I share a script with him and I knew that I would shoot with him after a definite period of time. After two days into the shoot, I was told that I have to shoot a sequence with Shah Rukh Khan. I was sitting across a table and I was getting interrogated by him. One part of me was telling me that this is wrong as I was calling him a dhakkan and a dabba. I thought I was going to hell for this. (Laughs) But the other part of me was saying that I will be professional. And a part of my brain wanted to take his autograph. (Smiles)