With its unique visual tone and soundtrack, Shaitan (2011), a Faustian morality tale, arrived on screen with anarchic flair. Nambiar, co-writer Megha Ramaswamy and male lead Gulshan Devaiah relive the film's making.
10 years of Shaitan: How Bejoy Nambiar's stylistic crime drama was shaped from uncertainty
Mumbai - 10 Jun 2021 12:32 IST
Updated : 14:08 IST
The year 2011 was an interesting one for India. It saw the release of films like Singham, Rockstar, The Dirty Picture, Delhi Belly and Ra.One. It was also the year India won its second cricket World Cup. A year of breakthrough developments. No surprise, then, that Bejoy Nambiar's Shaitan broke out on the screen in 2011.
A film that was as anarchic as it was stylish, Shaitan broke quite a few rules of popular cinema.
In a testament to the changing times, the film was born out of a reality show. Nambiar had won the show, Gateway to Hollywood, in 2010.
"As part of the prize, I was supposed to direct a film with Ashok Amritraj's company, Hyde Park Entertainment," he recalled. "I had gone to [Los Angeles] to work with Hyde Park, and as part of the brief, he told me he wanted me to work on something based on true incidents. So I had collated a couple of ideas. One of them was Shaitan, based on the Adnan Patrawala [abduction and murder] case [of 2007 in Mumbai]. The English version was to be called Spiral."
Though the Hyde Park team was fascinated, the film did not take root in LA. "I started developing the story in LA and worked out a basic structure," said Nambiar. "Once I finished my internship and came to Bombay, I kept writing. Initially, there was Ahlam Khan and Megha [Ramaswamy]. Megha and I jammed the most on it. By then, Hyde Park was no longer interested in it. I was disheartened since I was living and breathing it."
So, Nambiar decided to go it alone. He approached Ashok Amritraj for permission to make the film in Hindi, which was graciously given. Not that things were any easier in Mumbai.
Co-writer Megha Ramaswamy said, "I was 26 when we wrote the film. We were all very young. When you are doing something for the first time, you are not aware of the audience or rules. There is a boundlessness that comes through how you approach the writing."
Shaitan was a complex tale of five dysfunctional youngsters (played by Kirti Kulhari, Kalki Koechlin, Gulshan Devaiah, Shiv Panditt and Neil Bhoopalam) who discover the evil within them through an unfortunate set of circumstances. It had danger, thrills, music and shock value wrapped in a cinematic style that had not been explored in Hindi cinema before.
A key part of its attraction was the creation of a Faustian tale of youngsters seeking a thrill. Megha said, "They [the gang] are not intentionally evil, but they are inherently evil. There is something unforgiving about the darker side of Shaitan."
Gulshan Devaiah played Karan Chaudhary aka KC, the brash, unpredictable instigator of the group, winning a Filmfare nomination for Best Debut. Speaking to Cinestaan.com on the phone, he revealed, "I wanted him [KC] to be the 1980s rock-and-roll guy, not in the way you dress but in the attitude. I was not too sure how it would fit in with the script. Then, Bejoy would rein it in, nudge me in the right direction. It took a little push and pull for the character to finally come in."
Nambiar revealed that Devaiah had initially been marked for Rajeev Khandelwal's cop character. He said, "Kalki [Koechlin] was a constant in the cast. I remember seeing That Girl In Yellow Boots (2011) and I was blown away by Gulshan. Then, I was curious to see if Gulshan would be better for Rajeev's part. We did a test shoot with Gulshan as a cop. Then we realized he was a little too young to play a cop. Hence, we shifted him to play KC, the more interesting character."
This chopping and changing had, by then, become a necessity for the director. "I couldn’t get the movie off the ground," he said. "I had one cast ready, and by the time I got the funding going, someone had bounced off. I had to get it going all over again. The casting was quite difficult. There were a few mainstream names that were thought of for the key roles." Arjun Mathur of the web-series Made In Heaven (2019) and Namit Das were among those in the running for the roles.
Among the contenders was one Rajkummar Rao. Cast in the role of the sly and corrupt cop Malwankar, he appeared for about 15 minutes in the film. One of the key scenes is set in a bar with the group of five friends trying to coax Malwankar to hide evidence of the accident they had committed. As the man who knows he has the upper hand, Rajkummar Rao is gripping.
Nambiar said that scene was improvised. "I had to convince Raj to take on the role because he was not sure he wanted to take on such a small portion," the director recalled. "I am so glad he came on board. He stayed away from the rest of the group during the workshops, kept his distance because he wanted that scene to crackle. I understood that. That scene you see is fluent. The slap, Gulshan didn’t even realize he was going to slap him. It is because of the tension and surprise that the scene worked."
Devaiah, though, claims he had caught on to the director and actor's plot. "Bejoy wanted him to be unpredictable, but I have this curious habit of watching people," he said. "So I saw them talking and guessed these guys were cooking something.
"The blocking of the scene was such that I was sitting next to him [Rajkummar Rao]. The scene is confrontational and has only two occasions where it gets aggressive. So, I guessed one, he could go and slap Kalki. But she was seated all the way across. I was seated next to him!" He laughed, "I could guess it was coming, just not as hard."
For the director, though, the scene remains memorable for other reasons too. It was the same day that Guneet Monga, Anurag Kashyap and Abhinav Kashyap paid him a visit to ask him to stop shooting for a while. "I had started planning the shoot for 10 or 12 days," Nambiar said. "I did not have a backer. I had got an investor to put in X amount of money, with which I could only shoot for 10 or 12 days. Just when we were about to start shooting, we got Viacom18 involved. That’s how Viacom, Anurag and Guneet came on board. It was a week before we started shooting."
Having gone through a lot of uncertainty already, the director feared the film would be grounded once again. "They were new into the process as well," he said. "Guneet then couldn’t figure out how it was happening. She had to take stock of everything and needed time. She came in to tell me to stop shoot to plan better. I was livid that after all this work the film was again getting shut down. I thought this is over. But Guneet just needed that time to get her team together."
Megha added, "The way we suffered during Shaitan! It looks like a well-produced film, but only we know the kind of fights he went through to pull off the film in a time slot."
The co-writer also revealed that despite these elements, Nambiar had a structured screenplay which he adhered to. Among them was the now-iconic slow-motion action sequence set to the track of Mikey McCleary's 'Khoya Khoya Chand'.
"It was so intricate and Bejoy was so faithful to its shooting," she said. "It was planned as a slow-motion action sequence, and the song came in during the edit. There was a small detail of the guys running through a madarsa to escape. To me, it felt like a quirky detail to add to the screenplay. Every detail of that is there as well."
Devaiah added, "I remember me and Neil [Bhoopalam] were talking to each other about the film and Neil said, 'I don’t know, but I have a feeling this guy is going to make something. It is going to turn out well'. So, one day we were called in for some dubbing edits. The film was shot in synch sound, but there are always some portions that need correction. Kunal Sharma, the sound designer, called me in. He showed me the 'Khoya Khoya Chand' sequence. My jaw was bouncing off the floor."
The visual dissonance of a bloody gunfight in slow motion, set to the background of a catchy, nostalgia-based number, made it one of the unforgettable moments of the film. This dissonance continues throughout Shaitan. The darkness in its storyline and narrative is contradicted by the hip, rocking musical score which had multiple contributors. Both director Nambiar and writer Megha credited composer Prashant Pillai for that idea.
Nambiar said, "The soundtrack of Shaitan was kickstarted and shaped by Prashant Pillai. He had done five or six albums. It was through him that collating different sounds for the film started. It was his first film as a composer, but he came up with the idea that the film will benefit if we collate sound from different musicians."
The soundtrack has names that are now familiar to the Indian musicophile like Amar Mohile, Ranjit Barot, Prashant Pillai, Anupam Roy, and the band, Bhayanak Maut.
Nambiar added, "Since Shaitan, I have only done that with every film. I have worked with more and more musicians. Now, I have 12 or 13 tracks. Sometimes I think I overdo it."
Devaiah revealed, "If I had listened to a song in isolation, I would think it is cool, but I wouldn’t know how to visualize it. Bejoy would put things together. When the film was released, that was the first time we figured out how it worked."
Megha said she had never visualized music as a key part of the story. "I did not imagine so much music in the film at all," the co-writer said. "I remember when I saw the first cut, I was mind-blown by the music. There was nothing called a song sequence when we were writing. Bejoy brought in structure and music enhanced that. He has developed such a specific signature style which no amount of writing can bring about."
Shaitan was also Megha's first film. She has since gone on to direct Newborns (2014) and What Are The Odds? (2020) herself. "We weren’t that self-aware then," she said. "We had no references. We were a bunch of kids who wanted to make a kickass film. We were just authentic to who we were at that point in time. I have never made anything quite like Shaitan ever again. I remember I called my cousins to watch the film. Our family was our biggest audience, and they were so excited watching the film. For those 12 days, I became a bit of a hero in our circle."
Nambiar, who has since established his own visual style and tone with films like David (2013), Solo (2017) and Taish (2020), remembers Shaitan despite the struggles, or perhaps because of them: "Sethu, our cameraman who was initially on board for Shaitan, told me, 'Enjoy this. This is not going to happen to you after this. This is your first film, and all the trouble you are going through, this will not happen again. So the trouble that you go through when making your first film, cherish every moment. It is okay'.That stayed with me. I look back on it with a lot of fondness. There was a lot of learning that happened."
One of the experiences he cherishes is being part of the background chorus for songs. "In 'Hawa Hawaii', the chorus was me and [dialogue writer] Abhijeet Deshpande and his brother [Salil]. We had tagged along for the recording. So the music producer came to us and said, 'We might need a chorus for this'. I told him we had absolutely no money for it. So he simply asked us to do it. The three of us did the male chorus part.
"I did beatboxing for 'Sound Of Bali'. If it is your first film, you go out and do everything," he said, laughing.
Devaiah remarked, "Those were times when people were brave, or foolish, enough to take on the whole theatrical system. It is a very cut-throat business. Some tried, some failed, some succeeded. This kind of bravery is necessary."
Explaining that not all cinema is meant to be successful, he said, " Someone would look at Anurag Kashyap’s career, or Dibakar Banerjee’s career, and say, 'What blockbuster hit film have you made? When have you made money?” But they will leave a legacy behind which will inspire a new generation of storytellers. The purpose of cinema is to also spawn new cinema. Shaitan fulfils that criterion, so one should look at these films through that lens, the relevant criterion."
Ten years later, the film feels like the product of a different era. A refreshingly radical take on morality, its soundscape and visual style set it apart from anything that was released that year. Personally, the film reminds me of the line in the Lord's Prayer, 'Lead us not into temptation'. Particularly because no one ever knows if they will be able to resist the temptation of evil when it comes. As long as that battle goes on, Shaitan will remain relevant.