Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

I don't underestimate the intelligence of my audience: Hansal Mehta

After the success of 'Scam 1992', and more recently Netflix's 'Scoop', director Mehta reveals his love for the long form and how 'Shahid' was a turning point of his life

Naini Thaker
Published: Jun 28, 2023 09:08:59 AM IST
Updated: Jun 28, 2023 10:00:08 AM IST

I don't underestimate the intelligence of my audience: Hansal MehtaHansal Mehta, National Award-winning director is known for delivering many critically acclaimed films and shows such as Shahid (2013), Citylights (2014), Aligarh (2016), Omertà (2018), Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story and most recently Scoop; Image courtesy: Netflix 

Hansal Mehta was first introduced to world of “binge watching” back in 2009-10 when he started watching drama series, Mad Men. It was still a world where no OTT platform existed in India, so he would buy DVDs and binge watch with Don Draper’s “Old Fashioned” cocktail. “At the time, I thought to myself, I want to make such long-form series. When the opportunity came along, I grabbed it with both hands,” says Mehta. Following Mad Men, he watched The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and many more. The binge watching never stopped and “I told myself, I want to be a part of this story-telling revolution.” 

Cut to 2020. The release of Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story on SonyLIV. The success of the show not only brought Mehta into the limelight, but also got Indian originals global fame. The National Award-winning director is also known for delivering many critically acclaimed films such as Shahid (2013), Citylights (2014), Aligarh (2016) and Omertà (2018). 

More recently, though, he enjoys working with the long form. Why? “Because it has given me success. It has given me a little bit of prosperity for the first time in my life. I have been able to tell a lot of stories because of the introduction of the long form in India.” Mehta’s latest series on Netflix, Scoop—based on journalist Jigna Vora’s book Behind Bars in Byculla: My Days in Prison—has also been critically acclaimed and loved. The platform has recently entered a multi-series partnership with Mehta for more web series like the Scoop. In a conversation with Forbes India, Mehta talks about picking off-beat stories, the evolution of the entertainment industry and how Shahid was a turning point in his life. Edited excerpts: 

Q. The stories you pick are always quite off-beat. How do you decide what project you want to work on? 

It is a very instinctive process. I look for a compelling story. For me, more than the plot, the story is always about the characters—not just the protagonist, but the supporting characters too. Then, of course, the storyline and how it resonates with me. 

These are subconscious things, I don’t think I have a check list. It is a seamless process, you just know when a story connects… I think it is about capturing the zeitgeist of the moment. 

Q. Is that also what happened with Scam 1992 as well? 

Harshad Mehta had captured the nation’s imagination when I was just graduating from college. He rose so swiftly and fell even faster. This story of his rise and fall always fascinated me. Sometime in 2005, I read Sucheta Dalal’s book and I pitched it as a film idea to producers. But people didn’t think it was material for a film that people would watch. 

Twelve years later, the book was given to me again, and the rest is history. 

Also read: In the limelight: Pratik Gandhi, 15 years in the making

Q. How did you come across Jigna Vora’s story? 

In February 2020, I was given Jigna Vora’s book by the producers of the show—Matchbox Shots. They asked me to pick between making a film or making a show, I chose the latter. Though the book is a prison diary, I felt there was a lot more possible. 

I asked Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul, who had written Thappad, to be part of my writing team. She built her writing room during the lockdown period, including Mirat Trivedi, Anu Singh Choudhry, Karan Vyas, along with Deepu Sebastian, who is an ex-journalist from the Indian Express, and Ankur Pathak, who has been a part of newsrooms and entertainment journalism earlier. We started writing, and, by the end of 2020, Netflix came on board and decided to green-light the show. 

Q. While most would prefer having big stars as part of their cast, you don't seem to follow that trend. Why is that? 

It's not that conscious. Mukesh Chhabra has been a big part of my casting process since I made Shahid, which was a transformative period of my life. That's when I realised I need to cast honestly, meaning whoever is right for the character should be playing it. You don't force an actor into a character, even when the two don't match. That force-feeding becomes a strain and pressure. That's why the honesty shines and so the actors in their roles shine too. To see them successful makes me feel equally successful—be it Rajkumar [Rao] in Shahid or Pratik [Gandhi] in Scam 1992 or Karishma [Tanna] in Scoop

Q. You call the making of Shahid a transformative period of your life. What changed? 

My life pre- and post-Shahid are like two completely distinctive chapters of my journey as a filmmaker. Right before Shahid, I took a longish forced sabbatical from work. In that time, I reflected on why I was making films. I realised I just wanted to tell stories and I wanted to be honest with my storytelling. 

Before Shahid, I was really fascinated and immersed with the toys of the craft. For me, technique was everything, I would make up for poor or non-existent scripts with flashy technique. The storytelling was non-existent. That’s when I decided to make a change. 

I started focussing on the story and characters, and use my craft to create a world where the audience gets immersed. For instance, with Scoop, the newsroom, the prison or the interrogation room. That immersive world comes from a secure place, where you know your craft is invisibly creating that world for the audience… it is not the reason you tell the story. I stopped showing off my craft, that was a big change. 

Q. You saw a lot of success, particularly with Scam 1992. Does it add pressure to ensure that every piece of content lives up to that standard? 

If I wanted to do that, I would have used the Scam 1992 formula with Scoop. I consciously thought of making Scoop differently, I picked up this subject because I did not want to replicate. Replication is boring. We tried something new here, with the very same conviction and passion. The success of Scoop is just a vindication that I chose a direction, which was not the easiest, but instead I made the choice my heart dictated. 

Q. How do you balance what you want to make, versus what people expect you to make? 

The only thing I do differently is that I don’t underestimate the intelligence and the sensibility of my audience. Sometimes we try to dumb down things for the audience at the altar of good storytelling. 

With Scam 1992, we realised that our audience is ready to watch something that is not necessarily being served to them on a platter. A difficult financial concept can fit into a drama as long as the drama is fed to people in a palatable manner. So the moment you balance those two things and treat the audience like intelligent equals, you respect them. 

Q. Over the course of your career, how do you think the entertainment industry has evolved? 

We have definitely progressed a lot in terms of being more organised and technically more savvy, which makes our work more refined. There are far more avenues that are now available for a storyteller. The arrival of the long form has actually opened up the space for many good stories. 

When I first started out, the industry was quite unstructured and very personalised. I miss that personalisation. Right from the producers, directors, actors... the line between personal and professional was quite blurry. Some of the most enduring friendships I have are from those times—Manoj Bajpayee, Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha, among many others. It has become far more professional now. 

Q. How do you bring in the personal touch? 

I try to have fun, I don't like working in a place where I don't enjoy myself. So, I would rather not spend that much time doing that thing. It is also why I do very little of advertising. Money has never been a driving force for me, I strongly believe money follows. If money becomes a driving force, your work suffers. Ultimately, we are an industry driven by passion and no amount of professionalism can replace passion. So I try to maintain that balance between personal and professional. 

Q. India always had long form in some form with the dramas on television. But the content is very different on OTT as compared to television. Why do you think there is such a big difference? 

I think it's a matter of demand and supply. In the late 90s and early 2000s, our family dramas were on the heels of the success of films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995). It captures the imagination of the entire nation. That formula became the formula for success. 

Then, we straightaway jumped head-on into the world of OTT in 2018, with Sacred Games on Netflix. We entered the game quite late, but I think we’ve done fairly well and the learning curve is still on. The kind of shows that India has produced in a very relatively short period of time—six to seven years—has been quite remarkable. Some of the best writing has come out of these places in the past decade. 

Q. Over the last couple of decades, what has been your greatest learning? 

I'm still learning. That never ends. The day you say I know everything, that's the day you are heading for disaster. What keeps you going is how much you reinvent and challenge yourself, and do newer things that resonate with the times we are living in—I don't like to live in the past.