Kay Kay Menon
There might have been scores of stories centred on Mumbai and yet, every few years, a filmmaker has something new to tell about the city. Last week's release Bambai Meri Jaan, in that sense, is familiar yet novel. The gangster drama, reportedly inspired by real-life characters, sees Kay Kay Menon play Ismail Kadri and Avinash Tiwary, his on-screen son Dara Kadri. The real names must not be taken, the act of Voldermort-ifying it almost adding to the hype. Instead, we have reference points that are quite telling - Menon's Ismail Kadri is an honest cop while his son Dara rises through the ranks to become the city's most dreaded gangster. Tiwary immediately discourages us from connecting the dots, as he begins, "It is a fictional account of all the stories we have heard of the underbelly, and we have added our own colours to it. It's a new painting!"
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For co-creator and director Shujaat Saudagar, Bambai is the show's primary character along with the protagonists Ismail and Dara. The Amazon Prime Video series, set in the '60s and '70s, harks back to the city it once was. "We had to visually get Mumbai right, but more importantly, we had to capture the experience that the city is. There is a pulse and euphoria to it," says Saudagar.
In fact, the co-creator says he witnessed the "euphoria" second-hand through his US-based DoP (director of photography) John Smith, who first arrived in Mumbai in February 2020 to shoot the series. "We shot the first schedule over 20 days in February right before the lockdown. We restarted a year later on January 31, 2021. [Then] John got COVID and was stuck in a hotel room for nearly two months. We had to fly him out because it was monsoon by the time he got better [and we couldn't shoot in the rains]. When he came back to shoot the next schedule, he was hit by dengue." Despite Smith's harrowing time in the city, he is smitten by it, laughs Saudagar. "John jokes that he still wouldn't mind settling in Mumbai if his wife agrees."
Kritika Kamra in Bambai Meri Jaan
Saudagar's tryst with the gangster drama began in 2019 as he developed the story with co-creator Rensil D'Silva, and wrote it with Abbas and Hussain Dalal. He took it on floors in February 2020, unknowing that he was embarking on a tumultuous three-year journey. The first wave of the pandemic hit in March 2020, stalling his production. A mammoth set of old Mumbai that had been built in Madh Island lay unused for months, shooting up the show's budget. "During the first wave, for five months, we had no idea what was happening. There were fears we wouldn't carry on at all. We had not shot in the Madh set for a single day. We rebuilt it twice over [over the subsequent months]," says the creator-director, who then filmed the show intermittently through 2021 and 2022.
He wasn't alone in living with the story for years. It was an equally demanding process for actors Menon, Tiwary and Kritika Kamra. Menon says that staying true to his role for over three years has been an elaborate process of switching on and off. "If there is a long gap between two schedules, it's no longer about the continuity of what you are wearing. It is also about the continuity of the character's headspace. It is a re-investment of everything an actor puts into the character. I believe that an actor primarily is in the business of emotions. [You have to] re-process to immerse yourself into a scene whose last beat was shot a while ago," says Menon.
Tiwary's approach, however, was different. Contrary to his co-actor's on-and-off process, Tiwary had become Dara for the past three-and-a-half years. "My mind hadn't stopped thinking about Dara. For over three years, this was the only thing I had. When I chose it, I felt it needed an immersive dedication. I feared letting go of the character, because if I did, I would never be able to find that magic again," recalls the actor. In hindsight, he admits he could have "chilled a bit", before telling Menon, "I want to get to a point like you where I can switch off and on."
It helped that everyone on the set was on the same page. Tiwary recounts, "There were 300 people cheering for the same thing. I remember there were days I would walk in and they would call me Dara bhai. As an actor, I tend to do better when I am looked at in a certain way. It was fun getting the lingo right, and I enjoyed the touch of brotherhood, where every [line] ended with bhai."
When telling a story about the mafia, novelists and filmmakers are sometimes faulted for glorifying them. The examples are many - from Gregory David Roberts's ever-popular book Shantaram, to Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. Bambai Meri Jaan too adds a tinge of heroism to its morally ambiguous characters. Point this out to Saudagar, and he views it differently. "Storytellers are merely telling a story, and there is a human fascination with the world of crime. Martin Scorsese's entire repertoire is replete with great gangster films. The fascination exists because these are regular people who did deviant things and one wants to live vicariously through them. As a filmmaker, I don't want to glorify or judge them. I want the audience to judge the characters. I only want to humanise [the characters]. It is futile in any society to glorify crime. There is a moral framework in this show where you see two men struggling to find their version of right and wrong. Here, we are telling the story of a family, the choices they made and how they dealt with its outcome."