When Mumbai-based filmmaker Sandeep Modi was approached to do an Indian adaptation of the hit British TV serial The Night Manager, he was not fazed.
The Night Manager, a spy thriller based on a John Le Carre novel, which was released in 2016, tells the story of hotel night manager Jonathan Pine (played by Tom Hiddleston of ‘Loki’ in ‘Thor’ fame), who gets unwittingly embroiled in the nefarious activities of an influential, wealthy businessman Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). This leads him to be recruited by an intelligence officer (Olivia Coleman) to spy on Roper, who is actually a notorious arms dealer, and bring him down. The series is packed with suspense and action, as Pine manages to become part of Roper’s inner coterie. But, danger stalks him at every moment, as it seems his cover can get blown anytime.
In an exclusive chat with The Federal, Sandeep, an ad-filmmaker-turned-movie director confesses that he had liked the original, a much-loved award-winning show but he wasn’t intimidated by it. “I never saw it as a classic, it’s a good show but I felt I could do better,” he says. At the same time, he admits, when he did get the project, he was warned that an Indian adaptation of a popular show might well turn out to be a ‘recipe for disaster’.
He was advised not to take it up. The Indian version could easily be compared with the British one, which is actually running on Amazon Prime right now.
“I was trying to remake a modern classic which had featured top-notch actors. I knew I would be putting myself out there to be compared. Earlier, I had done Aarya (with Sushmita Sen), which was also an adaptation, but of an old Dutch show that not many had seen,” he recounts, adding that this audacious move to make The Night Manager was akin to remaking the Hindi cult film, Sholay.
Sandeep, whose Aarya was a huge success, stuck to his guns to ‘better’ the original and his gamble seems to have paid off, as he has a winner on his hands. The Indian version of The Night Manager with Anil Kapoor as Shelly, the menacing arms dealer, Aditya Kapoor as the night manager Shaan Sengupta and Tillotama Shome as RAW officer, Lipika Rao, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, is a stylish, well-made adaptation and keeps you hooked.
Changes in the Indian version
One of the critical changes that Sandeep did in the Indian version has to do with the reason behind the night manager’s decision to become a spy. In the original, the night manager Jonathan Pine agrees to risk his life to bring down Roper because he falls in love with one of the gang members’ mistress who gets killed.
“Love is a good angle, but I felt the need for a stronger motivation. It needed to be something more for a regular guy to uproot his normal life and turn into a spy. And, I felt guilt is a better trigger,” says Sandeep. So, the night manager, Shaan Sengupta (Aditya Kapoor) tries to help a 14-year-old wife of a powerful businessman connected to the international arms dealer Shelly Rungta (Anil Kapoor). When she is killed, Shaan is wracked by guilt and wants revenge.
Sandeep reasons, “If I want to make it my way, I needed to add my own spin to it. But, there are many scenes I retained which are similar to the British serial because I thought why fix what ain’t broken?” For example, he retained the crucial scene in Episode 3 when Shelly Rungta interrogates Shaan before allowing him to become part of his ‘family’.
“The heart of any spy genre is when the spy who is lying that he is not a spy comes face to face with the person who can catch him. Those scenes are the time bomb scenes in the series, I loved that scene in the original and the structure is similar to the original,” says Sandeep.
Easter eggs in The Night Manager
They read the John Le Carre novel many times and made extensive notes, he says, pointing out there are plenty of Easter eggs in the show for all who have read the novel. “I am looking forward to people telling us where we’ve used elements from the book. Many things stayed with us from the book. For example, in Le Carre’s novel, the antagonist Richard Roper had his own ship but we had no access to a ship so we made him into a shipping tycoon. We peppered our show with such small elements to bring Le Carre‘s work alive,” he adds.
Cairo to Bangladesh
Also, in the original, the British series starts in Cairo against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In the Indian series, the setting is moved from Cairo to Bangladesh.
Sandeep explains, “When we started this journey, we tried different versions to come up with a good reason for this story to be made in India. It could have been very easily dubbed in Hindi and people would have enjoyed it, so, we spent a few months trying to crack this. That’s when Sridhar Raghavan, (the screenplay writer), the toast of the town today after Pathaan, came to me.”
“Though he writes a lot of spy genres and loves it, he is an extremely articulate and well-read man. He brought up the backdrop to me – he told me if the 1993 Le Carre book was set around the Gulf War, the 2016 TV show was set against the backdrop of the Arab spring, what is the epoch-making event for Asia in the last five years? We zeroed in on the Rohingya crisis, which we felt had a huge impact in the region. It is a humanitarian crisis not many people in India have paid heed to. We thought that we could use it to move the story forward. It is the spark that lights the fire.”
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More excerpts from the interview:
How did you convince Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor to play a negative role, where he is often referred to as “the worst man in the world”?
Anil sir asked me if I thought he was capable of playing a bad guy because he has been the most-loved guy on screen. He has the most honest laughter. But, I told him it is not what is on the surface but what is lurking behind him. To which, he replied, “Oh gosh, if you can see a villain in me I should be worried”. But, I told him there is a bone in him somewhere and we need to walk that line to find it. Also, I assured him that when you say you are a villain, it doesn’t mean you are the bad guy. You are a hero in your own story, but if I am the hero in my story and you are in my way then you are my villain. It is as simple as that.
I assured Anil Kapoor to play the role as a hero, the villain is for me to bring out.
How do you approach slick action thrillers like Aarya and The Night Manager?
I am a middle-of-the-road filmmaker. I completely enjoy offbeat films that play at film festivals but at the same time, I completely love single-screen films where you whistle and have a great time. I’m comfortable doing both. So, I try to present my work like a commercial film but at its core, it is an indie film. My films have gorgeous people; everything is picture perfect with great costumes, completely commercial fun music. Yet, you will find moments where we have nuances, pauses, silences exactly where you like them to be, just like in an indie film.
Is that why you cast Tillotama Shome, whose oeuvre includes films like Monsoon Wedding, Qissa and Sir?
Yes, the casting of the show will give you an insight into how I like to make my films. I wanted a clash of both worlds. Anil Kapoor (a commercial film actor) on one side and Tillotama, a familiar face in indie cinema, on the other. For this reason, I also roped in Saswata Chatterjee from the Bengali film industry, who plays Shelly Rungta’s close friend and right-hand man. The Night Manager is not a show exclusively from the Bombay film industry.
When it came to casting, we started with Anil Kapoor and found Aditya to be a better fit around him – it was a chalk-and-cheese foil. For the other actors, we went for the best actors who would suit the part and did not opt for a sardar or a South Indian just for the sake of it. We already have DK and Raj (The Family Man creators) bringing in south talent for us.
Was Tillotama the first choice?
Absolutely, she was my only choice. The day I got Anil Kapoor I knew it had to be Tillotama. If the antagonist is an actor like Anil Kapoor, one assumes the hero automatically has to be someone physically strong and big. The hero in the series is equally Tillotama, (the RAW agent Lipika Rao) as much as Shaan.
People often mistake strength to be physical strength. I wanted to ensure I cast in a way which breaks the mould of what is the idea of a strong woman. This fragile, less than five-ft-tall woman is capable of bringing down an international arms dealer just by her mental strength and will, makes for powerful story-telling. She’s also this funny, fumbling, slightly dark character but her actions speak louder than her personality. That is how we played her – I’m so happy the character is turning out to be an iconic one.
You did take a music composer from the south though?
Yes, we had south music composer, Sam CS, who had worked on films like Vikram Vedha. He was brilliant, he interpreted the music of the show so beautifully and brought his ethos to it. He got a Macedonia orchestra to perform for the show. Songs are easier to do but to compose an orchestral score which has to become intimate when needed, is quite something. We are all big fans of the talent down south.
It does seem like a long wait till June to see the rest of the series?
I just hope the series becomes a cult and people get excited enough to wait to see the rest of the series in June. That was not my decision. However, despite all the many challenges we faced like the pandemic while making the series, we have struck gold at the end. I hope it will pave the way for more well-made adaptations of foreign shows.