I won’t lie when I say that I was fairly skeptical about Netflix India’s attempt at the horror genre largely due to Bollywood’s shaky history with it. But as soon as I started watching Betaal, I realised that I can’t stop myself. Hence, I ended up bingeing all four episodes of it and had a bunch of questions regarding how it was pulled off. Thankfully, the stars of Betaal i.e. Viineet Kumar, Aahana Kumra, and Manjiri Pupala agreed to virtually chat with me and walk me through the whole experience of making the show.
1. With Betaal, it was your first time going into the horror genre. How was it like and do you see yourself coming back to the genre in any shape or form?
Viineet: “This is a new experience because as an actor I have never worked in this genre. I love to experiment and whenever I get to do something new, I get to learn something new. This is something that I have experienced. When I used to go to shoot for Betaal, a lot of technicalities were involved in it in terms of VFX. Then I had to perform according to the instructions given by the technical team. So, that was new to me and I am certain that will help me in the future. And will I work in this genre? Absolutely, why not? I have fun doing new things and if something great comes along the way, I will definitely do it.”
Aahana: “Yeah, like an algae [laughs]. Well, yes, it was my first time going into the genre of horror with Betaal and I think it was a very thrilling and very fruitful experience. I learned a lot through this. This was the first time I was shooting with prosthetics on my face. We shot with arms and ammunition in our hands constantly, so we had an M4 that I had to constantly carry with me. I think, barring the first few days when I felt a little strange about the fact that I had a scar on my face, it kind of became a part of my skin and me. I am very grateful to the prosthetics team headed by Rebecca [Butterworth] and Carolina. Do I see myself coming back to the genre? If you’re talking about coming back in Betaal Season 2, that’s something really up to the makers. I definitely see myself doing a lot more horror. I think this is a very unexplored territory because it is very expensive to shoot horror.”
Manjiri: “Yes, Betaal has been my first experience in the horror genre and I’ve learned a lot of things. Mainly I have learned to watch horror films. Before this, I haven’t watched this much horror [laughs]. But because you’ve been part of the process, you understand what must’ve gone in the making. So, that kind of helps you digest that. And the entire experience has also kind of educated me in a way. So, it has been a big, big learning process for me and I would love to explore this genre even more if anything comes up my way. I am looking forward to it. Let’s see what kind of projects open up and what kind of things are there for me to explore.”
2. How much of the characteristics for your character that we saw on screen was from the script and how much of yourself did you put into the role?
Viineet: “I usually follow what’s written in the script because I believe that the script is like a railway track and we should follow the direction it is going in. While doing I so I prepare the character by learning about the backstory, and I depend on my writers and directors to back me up on it. So, I had received all the information about Vikram Sirohi from Patrick and Nikhil and we had a lot of discussions about the character. That said when I read the script and the brief, I thought that I could approach Vikram from a different angle. Because normally for every other character you get a stereotype where you can draw references from. But even though Vikram was an army man, I tried to approach differently. I used my expertise in being a doctor and tried to show how his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is eating him from the inside. His mind is always somewhere else because of his past. But since he’s a good man, it haunts him, unlike a bad person who can commit 10 crimes and then continue to make future plans. A bad person moves on, a good person suffers from guilt. That’s why he’s unable to tell the truth to Saanvi. He covers it up with his external image. But internally he’s vulnerable and weak. And it has broken him down to such an extent that his teammates don’t trust. So, I tried a new approach of portraying an army man by showing the sadness in his eyes, the pain on his face, and the weakness in his voice.”
Aahana: “You put a piece of yourself when you’re doing anything and I think you look for inspiration in yourself and then you try to find inspiration in someone you know. I feel like being an actor is all about observing. If you see any good actor, you’ll see them bring real-life details into their character. I am no different, I do the same. With Ahluwalia, I brought a lot of my own characteristics into the show because I come from a family of female officers. My mother’s a police officer. In fact, my upbringing was in a police station/kotwali. It was a very different upbringing. We didn’t see our mother be weak. We always saw her multi-tasking. I am somebody who really has an opinion, is very strong-headed, who likes to speak their mind. With DC Ahluwalia you see a lot of that on-screen. She has a scar, which means she has a past. There’s a backstory that I kinda worked out before I started shooting. I was told that they [Ahluwalia and Vikram Sirohi] trained together as cadets and they were recruited together. I love the bond that Ahlu and Sirohi share and I think Patrick and Nikhil have been able to show it so well because we rarely see such amazing bonds between a male and a female character on-screen.”
Manjiri: “I think Suhani Kanwar and Patrick have done an amazing job writing this character. The entire character of Puniya starts with this angst against CIPD and eventually she goes through a certain kind of dilemma and we see how her character ends up as a saviour. So, I think it’s beautiful to have this kind of graph for an actor to explore. And honestly, as an actor, I believe in surrendering more and when you are in the hands of such able directors, it’s possible for an actor to, you know, take that leap of faith. And because this character was something so alien from the world that I’ve been born and brought up into, which is like an urban setting, I realised that I have to put in that extra effort. So honestly, my entire focus was bringing in that authenticity and that conviction in Puniya’s character. I think all that has been my contribution. The rest, the characteristics, the entire credit goes to my writers and my directors. The language, the costumes, the make-up was done amazingly and everything when put together by the team, you see what Puniya is.”
3. Betaal was primarily a one-location show. So, you had to spend a lot of time together in a singular space. How did you play off of each other?
Viineet: “You’re absolutely correct. The whole incident takes place in less than 24 hours, so the shoot was planned accordingly so that we could be at the same place. And since CIPD, the fictional force, moves as a unit, most of the days we were shooting together and the bonding between us was great because of the training period where we had to practice moving in the uniform, carrying guns gracefully. That happened at the Red Chillies studios. That’s where all the actors opened up to each other and we became good friends. And that translates on to the screen. That makes the work easier. Just imagine na, a bunch of friends working at great locations [laughs]. It’s automatically fun to do. So, yes, it was a great experience.”
Aahana: “[laughs] Gosh! Oh my god, you’re so right. Betaal is primarily a one-location film that is shot in three locations. We shot in Lonavla, which is outdoor. We shot in Igatpuri, which is the tunnel. And we shot in YRF studios, where we built the set for the interior of the barracks. The ice-breaking happened through the workshops and through our reading and the physical training that we went through and it was the Baaz squad that went through the training together. That was a beautiful icebreaker that Patrick and Nikhil kind of designed for us where we had to be trained under the guidance of Yakub Bhai, who’s a professional trainer. I think during the training I had completely forgotten that I will be treated as a woman on the set and I knew it’s going to be a very different communication and I knew there’s going to be a different vibe on the set. Only when I’ve to go to the washroom then I’ll be treated like a girl. But [laughs] other than that all will be like the same. Once we started shooting I remember we were all loaded in that big army truck and we were shooting the evacuation scene. It was 45 degrees and I was wearing a patch on my face and I had that whole army gear. I was like ‘OMG I weigh like a hundred kilos’ [laughs]. It was amazing! At that point, I realised what the vibe of the show was going to be. I was like now I know we went through such crazy physical training. And honestly, I’ll tell you I know there aren’t too many scenes where we played off each other but at no point in time were there only one or two actors. Every scene had like all of us together all the time, at least the Baaz squad did. And it was INSANE because we forgot we were just shooting. It just felt real at all times. And BELIEVE ME, believe me when I say this, I have really earned friends for life through Betaal.”
Manjiri: “I think we didn’t really play off each other. We played with each other. And that was the main thing I feel was very unique about the Betaal team and most of us belonged to the theatre background. So, we had those similar sensibilities, relatability, in essence. I always had these amazing experiences be it with Jitendra Joshi or Viineet or Aahana or Suchitra where every single person was contributing towards each other. It wasn’t only that they were coming and taking their cues. We were committed to doing our job and we were contributing towards each other. And the environment was very playful. There was no competition. We would stand by each other.”
4. The Maharashtra Government has given permission to restart filming again. What are your opinions regarding that and which project of yours is going on the floors next?
Viineet: “In order to restart filming, the rules that have been placed by the govt, I haven’t read them yet because I’ve been embroiled in Betaal promotions. That said, if they have taken a decision, I am sure they’ve thought it through because they’ve more info than the common man. And I think that we should follow it because this is the only way. This is the time to stand united and if we work together in one certain direction, then we can overcome this situation. Because there’s no medicine to cure COVID-19 yet. So, the only route is taking precaution measures. Prevention [of the spread of the virus] is of utmost importance and we’ve to keep that in mind while doing our job. I have four other projects in the pipeline. One is Tryst with Destiny which was supposed to be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. So, I should’ve been in the US for it in April. And I was excited about it because the film festival is founded by Robert De Niro saab, and I am a huge fan of his. Also, I was nominated for Best Actor and that would’ve given me the opportunity to meet Robert De Niro and take a selfie with him. But this wretched virus [laughs] has snatched away that opportunity. But no worries, I have Betaal, as an actor, to entertain people and I am glad that they’re liking it. Other than that I have Gunjan Saxena, Aadhaar, and the Hindi remake of Thiruttu Payale 2, which are almost complete.”
Aahana: “I think it’s a very good thing that they’ve started filming again because I know a lot of actors who are going through hell right now because of financial issues. They need to start working. But having said that, it’s not going to be easy for actors per se. Because honestly, we’ll be the only ones without the masks on-set and this has happened to me. It is scary because honestly, there is nobody who’s going to take responsibility for you or your health. Your health is really your responsibility. I have been on shoots where things have happened to you and nobody has bothered. And actors just have to kind of pull things through and make sure that the shoot happens. The film industry is one of those industries is where the show must go on. Whether we like it or not, we’ve to complete our work and most actors, technicians, even if they’re sick, they really have to pull through shoots. So, I know this is a very hardworking industry and my heart has really been going out to the technicians, whether it’s our spot-boys, make-up and hairstyling department, lighting department, etc., they’re really not earning an income right now. So, it’s good that they’re starting although they’re going to start with smaller crews. We have to begin somewhere. Right now there’s nothing of mine that’s going on floors immediately. But if there is then I am sure that it’ll be taken with the utmost seriousness. Everybody’s going to be extremely careful about how they shoot. So, ya, I am looking forward to working again.”
Manjiri: “Well, I am glad to hear that the government has given permission to start the shoot because in this entire lockdown I’ve really, really praying for all the technicians that we’ve in the industry and how difficult it is for them to survive in a city like Mumbai without having work. Since we work with them in such close proximity, we know their problems, we know what kind of family issues they have, financially or space-wise. And knowing that I am sure Maharashtra govt has taken a good decision and I am really glad that some of the shoots will start. That said, I feel that when all’s said and done, we have to make sure that whenever we’re going back for shoots, we have to extraX3 precaution towards this spread of the coronavirus. We’ve to change our habits, we’ve to change our ways of working, we’ve to have a lot of checks, we’ve to have medical facilities. So, all those things have to be in place and only then it makes sense to start the process. Because all we want is that the people we are working with to be healthy. For my next project, before the lockdown started, I was shooting for an Amazon series called Fallen. It was directed by Reema Kagti. I was shooting for it in Rajasthan and I am looking forward to starting the shoot whenever we can. I am hoping to get back on the sets as soon as possible.”
I had become a fan of these three after watching Betaal (Except Viineet. I am his fan since Gangs of Wasseypur). And post this conversation I am certain that I love them more because of their dedication to their profession and because they’re horror fans! I truly, truly wish that this virus leaves our planet, unlike the Pretaas that just keep coming back, so that these dukaans-of-talent can get back on set again and give us more mind-blowing pieces of work.
Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India