At his sprawling 4-bedroom apartment at Prithvi House, opposite Mumbai’s iconic Prithvi Theatre in Juhu, Hansal Mehta is reading a copy of the New Yorker and sipping a cup of tea. He’s returned from his farm in Lonavala and is just about settling back in, Mumbai’s taxing humidity a stark contrast to the cool of the mountains. The house, where Mehta lives with his wife, two daughters, his father, and his father-in-law, is special because it’s in the building owned by the late Shashi Kapoor, whose family occupies the floors above.
One of the most striking aspects of the living is a gorgeous loveseat that’s in hot pink, which Kapoor owned. In an otherwise dimly-lit, understated space, it’s a dramatic pop of colour. Mehta, his hair looking like white cotton candy, is in a happy place: his 10-episode series on stock broker Harshad Mehta has opened to largely positive reviews, and from what he hears from the suits at Sony, the subscriptions are ticking upwards.
It has also meant that Sony LIV—which was still relatively unknown compared with the big player — is now a streaming player with a lot more skin in the game. While the performances of both the leads, Pratik Gandhi and Shreya Dhanwanthary, are solid, it’s the show’s writing that’s a big winner. Mehta has mixed easily-digestible technical jargon with human drama to tell the gripping tale of one of Indian finance’s most notorious names.
A few weeks from now, Mehta’s next, Chhalaang, a comedy set in the hinterland, will release on Amazon Prime Video. It’s an unlikely, though interesting, leap. In this interview, Mehta reflects on his journey and talks about the drug that he’s most addicted to: restlessness.
With a show like ‘Scam 1992’, which includes a lot of technical jargon, how did you balance between simplifying it for the audience and yet not dumbing it down?
I’ve been a huge fan of these kinds of dramas. I was excited to get my hands on a project as complex as this. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is one of my favorite films. More recently, films like The Big Shot and Margin Call, which was about the Lehman Brothers, topped my list. It’s a phenomenal, underrated film. As for TV shows, I love Billions. How much can you understand that? But once you find out more, it all starts making sense. I realised that along the way, people pick the story up. You have to be respectful and mindful of the audience’s intelligence. At times I feel we dumb it down to such an extent, it’s disrespectful to the audience. When we were writing, it was a conscious call to not disrespect them but instead explain it in a way that didn’t come across as unnatural.
We sort of reinforced what Harshad had done in a scattered manner. It’s part of the drama. It’s done tactfully. Like someone telling or warning somebody else. The term ‘bank receipt’, for example, becomes a point of conflict. You realise that the term has led to a situation. Many characters keep repeating it at different points. You don’t need to understand the whole thing, you just need the dramatic device. It’s like a Hitchcockian device. It is that black box which carries some secrets that remain unknown. We’ve enjoyed films that have been set in media rooms, like Spotlight, they’ve always been technical. You see different types of procedurals and you see that not everything is understood at the first go.
‘The Times of India’ is thanked after each episode...
Yeah, because we used the TOI logo and the common man symbol. Sameer (producer Sameer Nair of Applause Entertainment) took permission from them to use it.
The paper is anyway shown in a flattering light so I wouldn’t imagine them to have a problem with it.
This was a time when journalism was about going after a story. There’s a very important dialogue in Episode 5 where Harshad Mehta is revealed to have taken Rs 500 crore from SBI. He then returns nearly all of it with a balance of 6-7 crores. Debashish, the co-author of the book who is played by Faisal Rashid in the show, tells Sucheta Dalal (the journalist investigating Mehta) that it is not a story anymore. She says just because he’s covered his tracks and repaid the money doesn’t mean it wasn’t stolen in the first place. It’s still fraud. In the next episode she says, “Whose money is this? You can’t let him do this.” and he says, “It’s our money, it’s the money of the people of India.” This was a time when you chased a story for the right reasons. The editor is not ready to publish at the first go because there has to be evidence. Documentation. Verification. Those are small things to remind the audience that this is journalism and that it still exists, although in small numbers. There are a few people who’re doing their jobs well and this is a tribute to them.
It’s such a minority though...
Yes, it is. But as a storyteller, I need to tell them that they matter. This is a story of a generation just before mine. And it’s a story for generations after me. Similarly, many generations that come in later must know that people like Sucheta Dalal existed. They might be extinct by the time the next two generations come but at least there will be a record for it and that matters. Good journalism matters. It’s at the very core of our democracy.
If you keep the scam itself aside, it’s such a stunning story of a lower-class Gujarati boy with outsized ambitions who’d stop at nothing to make it big
It is also about the Gujarati in me. I’ve always had an issue with the Gujarati stereotypes in our cinema. As with Muslims, South Indians, gay characters etc. I’ve always had an issue with the way they are bracketed. Now, it has changed but for the longest time, any and every migrant was considered a “bhaiyya” whether he was from Bihar, UP, MP or Delhi. It’s very annoying when you show Gujaratis where a woman dresses in a particular way, the accent is exaggerated, the colour palette is over the top… it’s a mockery. I wanted to humanise him and show him as a distinct character who’s very Gujarati in spirit and culture but doesn’t come across like a caricature.
Rajkummar Rao in Kai Po Che! was actually a good depiction…
You are right. Kai Po Che did a decent job. Particularly Rajkummar’s character, he was very authentic. He played it without over-accentuating and picked up the nuances correctly. The world felt real. That was one shining exception. With Scam 1992, I wanted to make this big Gujarati epic about a Gujarati family and the middle-class aspiration. I grew up with those aspirations. I was greedy and in a hurry to be rich. I was a young boy who grew up around wealthy friends but we weren’t wealthy ourselves. I had friends in your neighbourhood of Malabar Hill and Walkeshwar, but I was always aware of my own middle-class stature.
As a middle-class boy, what was an indicator of wealth for you?
A house in South Bombay. What Harshad gets ultimately. Like I said, I used to have friends who lived in Walkeshwar, Napeansea road, Juhu Scheme etc. So when I made some money and was looking for a house, I came to Juhu. When I was looking for a new one, I started looking at Napeansea Road. My wife said it feels like uprooting and going to another city.
You see, I related with Harshad’s aspirations. A young man from a Ghatkopar chawl trying to make his way up. In many ways it’s about the whole insider-outsider thing. He wanted to belong. Dhirubhai Ambani gave him, and many middle-class Indians, that dream, He was a role model. He implanted this idea that you can rise above your circumstances and build an empire. Eventually, there came a time when Harshad Mehta paid higher advance tax than Dhirbuhai Ambani.
Imagine a boy from Ghatkopar actually doing that. It was a meteoric rise. To create this world with that level of detail was a dream for me. It was like a long-form New Yorker article. I love reading New Yorker articles. Their writers do such a splendid job of building a story up, giving it style and flair, and then gently the flaws begin to emerge. That kind of long-form, in the visual context, is only possible through streaming.
I wouldn’t lie but there were points where I felt like rooting for him to get away. I think a large part of that is due to Pratik Gandhi’s excellent performance and the graph you create for his character.
One of my friends texted me that he felt like wanting to go and stop Harshad after he had made a good chunk of money. To make him understand not to do it and to just leave. And I wanted that to happen. I wanted, as a viewer, for you to become a part of his journey. And yes, that is also the power of Pratik as a performer.. He brings in empathy. He completely connects to that character’s journey. His personal journey and the character’s journey get muddled up somewhere because he actually comes from an ordinary, middle-class family. And now he’s getting so much love. I can’t tell you the people who’ve called me, people I never thought watched any of the stuff I make.
David Dhawan, Mohit Suri, Tushar Hiranandani, Javed Akhtar, Boney Kapoor. They have no reason to call me or be good to me. It’s been very flattering. He reminded people a lot about the angry young man. Shabana ji told me it’s been a long time since she’s seen someone this charismatic on screen.
You see, as the show progresses, as he grows, his body language starts changing. His watch and his style, the entire attitude changes. The same stock exchange where he was just one of the jobbers becomes something else. He becomes a superstar. What that moment does is tap into this aspiration that exists in all of us. To make it so big that the whole world notices.
In his case, it’s also a class struggle. He’s the classic outsider. He wants to be part of the suits but the suits spare no opportunity in showing him his place.
Now that you think about it, the characters in your films, whether it’s Shahid Hashmi in Shahid, Professor Siras in Aligarh or Deepak in Citylights, they all belong to the margins and nurse a desire to belong.
Even with a film as flawed as Simran. The character was on the fringes. In Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, Manoj Bajpai’s character was someone who is a mechanic but is in love with a Bombay Times journalist. The class divide in my films is very pronounced because as a filmmaker, I’m trying to contextualise our realities. As I’ve learnt over the years, no matter how far you go, there is always somebody to put you down. I’ve lived through that in the film industry. And breaking through class barriers is a very real desire. No matter how philosophical we get, materialism is something many of us seek and it overwhelms us. Why am I living in Prithvi House? Why am I Shashi Kapoor’s neighbour? Because I wanted this address.
In the show, it’s the Lexus. He buys it only to prove a point.
If adjusted for inflation, that car would cost Rs4 crore today. Harshad bought it for Rs45 lakh and paid Rs10 lakh to the dealer just so that he doesn’t sell it to his rival, Ajay Kedia. We bought the exact model for the show. That particular model cost us Rs5 lakh and we spent Rs6 lakh to get it in working condition,
What happens to it?
It’s there, we’re paying an insane amount of money for parking. (Laughs)
Who does it belong to?
To Applause, the producers. They’re willing to give it to me as a gift but I don’t want it. I know it has issues! The coolant keeps leaking. The car won’t start. It’s refurbished but also 30 years old! It was a gold mine getting that, it’s very comfortable and plush inside. Everything is fine but it’s just an old car. The bonnet is also broken so we used a bamboo stick to balance it when it had to open. Imagine, everytime they wanted to open the bonnet to fill the coolant, there was this bamboo to keep the bonnet up. It was so hilarious.
Were there issues with seeking permissions, using real-life names etc, in the course of the show?
We went by what was available in the public domain. So that wasn’t such a big problem but there were a lot of things that happened. My son, Jai, was the co-director on this. He’s young blood so there were times where he would get worked up and angry. I would tell him that the fact that things are going wrong and not working out on time means that the show is going to be good. It’s a lesson I’ve learnt, that if things come easily to you they might not be right. The best things come with a lot of difficulties and pain. Like Shahid came with an immense amount of pain and uncertainty. Nobody knew what was going to happen with that film. First we didn’t know whether we would complete it. It took 11 months to make. And then we didn’t know it’d release.
We had no money. UTV came in later. They watched the movie and then acquired it. UTV Spotboy with Sidharth Roy Kapur. We didn’t even have Rs35 lakh at that time. We had not paid anyone. I borrowed money from my father-in-law to complete the film. Everybody was so frustrated. I thought if I didn’t have money to complete the film, what would I do with the film? That was a constant concern everyone had. My writer Sameer had disappeared on me too, thinking this film is going to be in cold storage.
What kept you going at the time?
The spirit of that time keeps me going today. If it seems difficult, then it’ll work out. The Toronto Film Festival was a turning point. When we got the news that it was selected, it was a big thing for us. It got us noticed and we knew that someone saw something in us. I was coming back after some really bad films and a long hiatus and if Shahid hadn’t worked, I don’t know what would have happened. I had made Woodstock Villa before that, it was awful. Before that, there was Dus Kahaniyaan. I was indifferent to it.
From the early days, when you made films like Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai, to phase two, where you made Shahid, Aligarh and Omerta to now, Scam 1992 and Chhalaang, what changed?
I don’t know. Your restlessness is your driving force. Your own work, after a point, has to make you restless. You shouldn’t get comfortable. You should want to change it. I think I just needed to find a new drug, although I shouldn’t be using that word (Laughs).
I need a new drug every time. It’s that quest for that new high that drives you. That high is about telling stories differently, not just effectively, communicatively or to a larger audience. All those things happen later. How do you do them differently from the way you’ve done them earlier? That challenges you and makes you nervous when you’re shooting, writing and editing. It’s like how you want your next scoop to be bigger than your last!
Despite having such a, well, rich history of scams: 2G, Coalgate, Adarsh etc. why do we so little about it in mainstream cinema? Any other industry would have leapt at it and mined it for the drama, the intrigue...
We, unfortunately, believe that films are only meant for the lowest common denominator. We have oversimplified and over-trivialised the business of filmmaking. The success is measured on a very oversimplified benchmark. “This movie’s Friday wasn’t good.” or “This movie’s weekend wasn’t good.” decides that it was shit. How does good or bad get equated with such oversimplifications? This yardstick is a reflection of a completely depraved intellect.
Yes, it matters that the producer recovers his money and makes a profit because that’s their main interest. At the same time, a good film cannot be just about that. It also has a longer shelf life which cannot be measured by the silly weekend. So, because of that, our stories keep getting limited. We keep having to rely either on stars to consent to an important story or to making a good story formulaic. Both ways it’s a constant battle. How to say it differently and how to pitch it to a producer?
Long form has allowed us to go beyond that. That complexity of data has allowed us to tell more nuanced stories. In the long run, it will benefit films. We will be able to make more such films. The success of Scam 1992 has given me a lot of confidence for telling these kinds of stories . Otherwise I felt I reached a dead end after Omerta. The film received a mixed response when it got released and I thought people did not get my film. It was one of my best pieces of work. There’s something so internal about it which was simmering. 2 years later when it came on OTT, it was a huge success. Zee 5 had not seen that kind of surge when this film came out. It acquired a certain cult status. That gave me a lot of courage.
How do you look back on the experience of ‘Simran’?
Do you really want to know?
I don’t know. I mean, I sometimes wish I never made it. There was no need. It was an unnecessary aberration in my career. It makes me sad, it could’ve been a much better film. It had the potential to be a great film. It used to sadden me but now it’s…
A painful memory?
Yeah. It was a painful time. Every day. Beyond that, it’s difficult to speak about it. I don’t even revisit it. There was a time after the film released, I went through a very low phase mentally. Took therapy. The film affected my mental health. I went into a shell, I did not want to meet people. I was in a period of very low self-esteem. Omerta also came and it went, it didn’t help me heal. I realised you can’t depend on one film to heal the wounds of the other. You have to heal yourself. Ultimately, we started writing Scam in 2017. That writing process and working with these writers gave a very positive spirit. It was beautiful, I had a great time writing the show. Then Chhalaang happened. Just being on set with Raj was uplifting.
Would you say that the actors, how they get along and the overall energy on set, makes or breaks a film?
Of course. The process, if it is painful on a personal level, it’s not worth making the film. These aren’t the struggles you want to have. The process should be pleasurable. The people should get along, because you spend so much time together. I’ll be honest with you, I enjoyed Kangana’s company outside the set and I had a great time with her. We used to go out and she would always ask me to choose restaurants. We’d have a great meal together, party together, I would choose good wine, all that was fun.
What happened on the set then?
It went out of my control completely. That’s not a happy situation to be in. Other than dealing with the fact that she completely took charge of the set and began directing other actors, I lost a lot of money too. Which had nothing to do with her. Financially it hit me badly. I was stupid enough to sign some papers when the film was stuck for some reason, which got me into a financial and legal tangle. So almost a year-and-a-half, there was arbitration going on in court. I’ve sort of emerged back. You have to go through what you have to go through. It was tough.
There was a financer who I had signed some papers as a confirming party, it was very complicated. I was made liable for it and I had to pay up. It was a substantial amount of money, nearly Rs 2-2.5 crore.
But it’s all right. I will always fight. I have never given up. Before Shahid too, I went through a low. I had done such bad work that I wouldn’t even look at myself. But you slowly pick up the pieces and get up. I don’t have any bitterness. With Simran, I have regrets but no bitterness.
Do you have any equation with Kangana today?
No, we haven’t spoken for a long time. On Twitter we’ve had some pleasant exchanges. She invited me for tea one day just to talk so it’s fine that way. There’s no reason to have any interaction. If I see her, it’ll be very cordial. I have no ill feelings for anyone. I consciously did it, she didn’t pull me in. The reason I haven’t been bitter is that you have to always keep the room open for mending. You never know who you’ll meet and when. I am very philosophical about it. Manoj and I did Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar 20 years ago. He was one of my best friends but we fought during the shoot and had a fallout. For 6 years, we did not talk to each other. We would cross each other and pretend to look the other way, it was that bitter. Then we met at Sanjay Gupta’s place for Dus Kahaniyaan. I had to interact with Manoj professionally. Then after the shoot we went for drinks where Manoj and I happened to be sitting next to each other. We wondered why all those years we never spoke. I was so bitter for those 6 years and I always wondered after that…
Nothing, a silly fight! I don’t even remember but it was a misunderstanding. He was in the US, and he called up and started screaming at me over something. I screamed back and I banged the phone down. After that we never spoke. But we wasted a lot of years. Ultimately what happened, we made Aligarh together. If we had stopped talking, how would Aligarh come about? Without Manoj, what even is Aligarh? You can’t close those doors.
Kangana, everything aside, is a good actor.
That’s what hurts the most.
She’s a fantastic actor. So who knows? Tomorrow there might be something and we might want to make a film together. Bitterness is pointless.
Coming to Chhalaang, it’s a space you haven’t ventured in before. While the trailer looks promising, I felt it gave out too many details.
It doesn’t matter I think. I liked the trailer. I think it was important for the trailer to give out the details. It’s not enough. When you watch the film, you’ll get entertained and you’ll know.
What attracted you to a subject so far removed from the world that you usually dabble in?
I call it a Luv Ranjan film directed by me. It’s his script. I wanted to try a script that’s not come from within me and see if I could pull it off. Luv had called me from London and narrated it to me. He said he has signed Rajkummar Rao. I agreed immediately because I wanted to be on set with Raj. That was it. In these things I’m old-fashioned. If it clicks, I’ll do it. I, too, was looking for some change from Omerta. We had gone into a dark area. I was looking for something to direct that would take me away from all that I was doing. It was an opportunity. Luv has a very good flair for language and for the small-town flavour. What you call nok-jhok. There’s a lot he brings in a film.
Would you say doing this film is also to prove a point that you can do a genre such as this?.
Yes. But I’m not proving any point except to myself. I wanted to break away. Raj and me, in our journey, have done all kinds of films. I wanted to make a commercial film with him and yet have that authenticity of the world we’re trying to represent. It’s set in Haryana and Raj is Haryanvi, so is Satish Kaushik. It’s nice to have Zeeshan (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) on set, he’s an influence. So positive and such a fine actor.
Let’s talk about some lighter topics, like contemporary politics…
When I interviewed Shyam Benegal, he said that as a filmmaker, he is a critic of the present. Do you share that idea of an identity?
I’m a man who tells cautionary tales from the present or the immediate past. I tell tales that warn you about the future. Through my films, I am saying, ‘if you don’t take these tales seriously then these mistakes could be repeated’. That’s how I see myself. I’m critical in the lens with which I see a story but my storytelling is more human. Even if it’s the system we’re talking about, it is from an individual’s perspective which conveys a broader idea. There’s this idea by Salman Rushdie that influenced me a lot at the time. It was before Shahid. He spoke about the personal and the public. How stories are always about the personal and the public forms the backdrop and the context. The public cannot be larger than the personal. Doctor Zhivago might be set in the Russian revolution but it’s not a film about the Russian revolution, it’s about Doctor Zhivago. That always stayed with me. Through the styles, it’s a personal story. I find Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi a great film of our times. It conjures this intimate portrait wherein you get the emergency and everything without the film becoming exclusively about it.
I get neutrality but how do you read this aggressive endorsement, the rise of this specific kind of films which are essentially government pamphlets masquerading as cinema?
You still have Article 15, Serious Men, Mulk, Thappad. You have different political lenses that you still wear while you’re telling those stories. There are still people who are unafraid to tell those stories. There is a Paatal Lok too.
When I made Shahid, the Congress was in power. How many films were made where we actually spoke about the marginalized? When I was making the film I remember, a studio guy asked me why I couldn’t make the character Hindu. Like, seriously? He said the name Shahid wasn’t the best way to sell the movie and that I should change the title. A senior filmmaker, I won’t name him, said I should change the title to “Death of a Lawyer” or something.
They said don’t call it Shahid. Nobody wants to watch a Muslim protagonist. This is something I was told in 2011. Congress was in power then, Manmohan Singh was in his second term. Indian cinema went through a dark phase at that time. We only had someone like Anurag Kashyap or Dibakar making alternate films but not with a very distinct voice. It was only with Shanghai, it was a good political comment that came in.
Unlike Hollywood which has a more united front against an oppressive administration, the problem here seems to be that some of the major players are active supporters of the current dispensation...
US as a democracy is far more evolved. You can tweet nonsense about Trump every day and people will enjoy it, criticise it, revel in it. Trump will also attack you but you are allowed to do that. We cannot do that here, there’s no humour. If I make fun of somebody, there’s no humour. Our institutions too aren’t strong enough to protect us.
All I want to do is continue telling stories that can bring people together. I cannot join active politics. What I can do is my bit. We need to focus on it rather than tokenism or the selfie-diplomacy. We need to get away from it. We need to send a signal that says, let us do our job.
What is the fear? Why do you think they do it even if they may not be ideologically aligned to the BJP?
Why do you say it’s only fear? Have you paused and thought that it could be that they want it too? When you have access to Shah Rukh Khan, even if you don’t like him, won’t you show up for dinner if he invites you? It’s a power trip. An oddly symbiotic relationship that exists between Bollywood and the government. It has existed for years. It just is a lot more blatant now than it ever was.