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regular-article-logo Friday, 31 May 2024

Jai Mehta, Suparn Varma and Shaailesh R. Singh on the making of Disney+Hotstar’s Lootere

Lootere stars Vivek Gomber, Rajat Kapoor, Amruta Khanvilkar, and Chandan Roy Sanyal in key roles

Sameer Salunkhe Calcutta Published 24.04.24, 04:17 PM

After a journey of almost five years, Lootere is finally streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. “It has not been easy to bring this scale,” says series director Jai Mehta, and it is echoed by writer Suparn Varma and creator Shaailesh R. Singh. We chatted with the trio at Singh’s Mumbai office about all things Lootere, from its inception to its release.

How did Lootere’s journey start?

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Shaailesh R. Singh: It’s a four and a half years’ journey. It started with a very basic article somewhere in the news about hijacking and piracy. We thought of exploring this world and the story behind the article. Then I approached Gaurav Banerjee from Disney+ Hotstar about it. He said, ‘The world is exciting but we need a story.’

So, my close friend Anshuman Sinha and I wrote a 20-pager storyline and went back to Hotstar and they liked it. Then I asked Suparn Varma to take this forward because we needed someone experienced like him. He created a team. We started in December 2019 and then the pandemic happened. But it was a blessing in disguise because we got a lot of time to develop the show.

After two years of writing, we met Hansal Mehta and Jai Mehta and they took it from there. After another two and a half years, we are here with the show.

Was the show titled Lootere from the beginning?

Shaailesh R. Singh: It was titled Pirates, but we didn’t want it to sound like Pirates of the Caribbean.

Jai Mehta: Pirates are called ‘samudri lootere’ in Hindi, which was not a cool title. Lootere had this vibe of the ’80s films. It had this pulp feel to it. It felt old-world but also cool. It felt like a nice mix of the two worlds. It’s an international show but it’s called Lootere.

How did you decide on casting Vivek Gomber as the main lead?

Shaailesh R. Singh: We knew we were going to require a bigger budget, and Vivek produces big-budget indie films like The Disciple (on Netflix). We thought if we ever ran out of money, we would have him as backup [laughs]. I am kidding!

Jai Mehta: A lot of credit goes to casting director Mukesh Chhabra. It wasn’t an easy journey to find the right actor. The casting process was five months long. It wasn’t easy for Vivek either. He did almost six tests, one every month, till he was finalised for the part. His last test, I still remember, was almost a 22-minute take that I directed myself. I kept on giving him cues from behind. I wanted to know how he reacted to change because I have a knack for changing certain things sometimes on set. So, I wanted to know if these actors were going to be okay with responding to these changes. Because not everyone can work like that. A lot of people come prepared. I didn’t want them to be prepared. I wanted them to react to the situation that was presented to them.

Does this process come from Hansal Mehta, given his choice of Pratik Gandhi for Scam 1992 and Gagan Dev Riar for Scam 2003?

Jai Mehta: Gagan, surprisingly, was being tested for Lootere. It almost came down to Gagan or Vivek. But then while we were seeing it, it just felt like Vivek was the right fit. Also simultaneously, Telgi was being cast and Gagan was perfect for Telgi. It just so happened that in one audition process, both shows got cast.

Suparn, what was your first reaction when the story came to you?

Suparn Varma: It was like ‘Let’s start writing immediately’. Vishal Kapoor and I started working on it and breaking down the story. We didn’t want to make it a mere hijacking story. We wanted it to have layers and tell it outside in, which is through the point of view of Vivek’s character — he being the catalyst, and it being much more than just the ship, but the politics of Somalia, and give perspectives of all the sides, whether it’s the pirates, the crew or the perpetrator, which is Vivek, and his story being the main driving force. We didn’t just write the first season, we wrote the story for the second season as well, which we have ready. And while writing this show, we also ended up writing the prequel to give motivation to the actors.

I love setting stories in a new world that has not been seen before. With my journalistic background, it’s the stuff that you have researched and explored in the past that you can put into the storytelling format. Also, we had Shaailesh and Hotstar backing this story to the hilt. When Jai and Hansal came on board, they were like, ‘We aren’t going to compromise at all on the vision because it is ambitious’. Jai never held back. He went all in and he has been unrelenting in getting this on celluloid. I think he has worked himself to the bone getting this show to be made the way it has to be made.

Where did you shoot the Somalia portions?

Jai Mehta: South Africa. If I could have gone to Somalia with a minimalist crew to shoot the B-rolls, I would have. It’s not that you can’t go to Mogadishu (Somalia’s capital), but you have to fill in a declaration form that you are taking responsibility for yourself if you’re going there.

What were the challenges for all three of you in your respective roles?

Shaailesh R. Singh: The story itself was a challenge. Something like this was never done before. We were clear that we wanted to maintain the authenticity of this world, including the use of language. Hotstar was also more than willing to support and that’s how we could do it.

Jai Mehta: The ambition of a big Hollywood blockbuster with an Indian budget — it’s not been easy to bring this scale. Our budgets, compared to Hollywood projects, are very modest. That is the truth. Other than that, filming on water… Don’t do it. It’s very unpredictable. You can’t choreograph anything on water. You can tell them to go straight, but they have no idea what straight is because it’s like 360 degrees, right?

Also, the walkie-talkies that are allowed for public use don’t work on water. These frequencies only reflect on hard surfaces. So, me communicating with the guy on the boat there is impossible. Also, even if you are yelling, your voice is not reaching anywhere, unless it’s night. Even at night, the voice goes where the wind is flowing. It’s bizarre.

Suparn Varma: When Shaailesh said, ‘We are doing this’, in my head, I had some key visuals. The problem with the visuals is they were very big. Now you’re trying to live up to your imagination and your ambition visually. And then you decide to pop it with a lot of characters. Then you decide to go in all directions.

One of the key things that I enjoy doing is juggling a lot of balls in the air when it comes to screenplay, a lot of threads, and burning as much story as possible. We packed in a lot of stories in each episode, with multiple parts moving rapidly. And we’re not pausing, trying to explain to you. We are hoping the audience will catch on, which they do. So, balancing all the characters, and their tracks and stitching it all together was the biggest challenge.

Were there any happy accidents during the filming?

Jai Mehta: I think happy accidents were those when we didn’t realise the camera was still rolling and the actor ended up doing something fun. In the first episode, there is a sequence where dogs are fighting. Those dogs were not fighting. We’ve shot a dogfight sequence. It’s quite gruesome. Filming with animals is not easy, especially when there are two massive rottweilers.

I remember there were two cameras. One was on my shoulder and one was on Jall’s (cinematographer) shoulder because nobody else wanted to get into the dog pin. When we asked the dogs to play, they started crying. We finally threw a tennis ball. Then they both started playing with the tennis ball, and dogs, even if they play nicely, look like they are playing rough. In VFX, we erased the tennis ball and it looked like they were fighting.

What is the strategy behind releasing one episode every week instead of all episodes at once?

Shaailesh R. Singh: The platform decides how they want to stream a show. But they discussed it with us. They are backed by their research and previous releases, and they felt that releasing Lootere in this way would be good for the show and the platform. We were fine with that. The people who know us wanted to binge-watch it. But those are the 50-odd people we know. The platform has a number of close to five million. They know it better than us.

How do you pick the stories you want to tell?

Suparn Varma: For me, it’s a click that happens in my head of what I can do differently or not, then try and add value to it.

Shaailesh R. Singh: The story has to excite me. There has to be something new in it. Something that I would like to watch. That’s how I have picked my films till now.

Jai Mehta: I don’t think I’ve reached a place where I get to pick. In the case of Lootere, the story chose me. If there is one thing I have learned, it is you don’t say no to work, especially when you enjoy what you are doing. I had no reason to say no to this. I have grown up watching action movies. That feeling of being able to recreate that same exhilaration is such a great feeling. If another kid can sit and watch this and feel the same thing I felt the first time I saw something like that, full circle for me.

Which projects of yours have been instrumental in shaping your career?

Shaailesh R. Singh: Tanu Weds Manu came in 2011, and since then, I can say that I started making my choices. I made Shahid, Shaitan, Aligarh, Omerta, and Madaari. The turning point was Tanu Weds Manu and Shahid.

Jai Mehta: My life changed twice. The first time was when I assisted on Gangs of Wasseypur. I think I turned 19, 20, 21 on that movie only. That film also took a while to make. The second time I felt like that was Scam 1992. That show changed all our lives. Both Hansal sir and mine. It became easier for us to tell the stories that we wanted to. The stories that we have always been telling were finally being accepted.

Suparn Varma: My life started with Chhal, which I wrote, which was a big one. And when the door completely opened again for me was The Family Man Season 2, which I wrote and directed. After that, I’ve just been making sure the door gets as open and as wide as possible, and then keeping it open and doing as much hard work as I possibly can and having a blast doing that. Everything else in the middle has been a massive learning curve because it brought me where I am.

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