At a time when everyone in the entertainment business is chasing stars, director Hansal Mehta has his eye out for “reluctant actors”. “I cannot just go in and have a star vehicle,” Mehta told Film Companion. “That I’m uncomfortable doing, which is why I veer towards all these unusual choices.” We’re talking about Harman Baweja, who delivers the breakout performance of Mehta’s new Netflix show, Scoop, as joint commissioner of police Harshvardhan Shroff. “I had to blackmail him,” Mehta said, grinning unapologetically. “At the time, his father was a bit unwell and I said, ‘Your dad will be proud when he sees you. I promise you that’.” Mehta was right. Baweja is a revelation as Shroff, whose charm is as unsettling as his ruthlessness.
Scoop’s lead is another unexpected though not reluctant actor: Karishma Tannaa. Best known for her appearances in reality tv shows, Mehta chose her because he was “looking for someone hungry” for the role of the protagonist, crime reporter Jagruti Pathak. “She’s been around for nearly 20-21 years,” Mehta said of Tannaa, “and she’s still hustling, trying to find work, trying to prove to people ‘I can act’.” Having only been part of supporting casts, Bangera couldn’t believe it when she learnt, while on vacation, that she’d been cast as Jagruti. The role would be daunting for even the most seasoned performer because Jagruti has the task of carrying Scoop. Jagruti is central to every episode in the show, which is about an ambitious and capable young journalist whose life is destroyed because she’d stood out among her peers.
Created by Mehta and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul, Scoop is based on the experiences of journalist Jigna Vora who was among the 11 people named by Mumbai Police in its chargesheet on the murder of senior crime reporter Jyotirmoy Dey. Vora spent nine months in prison as an undertrial despite there being only flimsy, circumstantial evidence connecting her to the crime. She would later be acquitted of the charges, with the Bombay High Court concluding that the Central Bureau of Investigation had failed to provide any direct evidence connecting Vora to Dey’s murder. For those who follow the news, there are more recent parallels of arrests and harassment despite the lack of evidence, like the case of actor Rhea Chakraborty who was painted guilty in a horrifying media trial (particularly by television news channels) and spent almost a month in Byculla Jail after the tragic suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput; and actor Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan who spent 20 days in jail and was recently cleared of all charges.
For Mehta, Scoop started with a question: What makes the reporter into the reported? “For me, it was an ordinary girl’s journey and the reporter becoming the reported,” said Mehta. As he and Waikul started working out the story during the pandemic, more questions came up and one stayed with Mehta. “The question that arose later was, is this a sign of things to come? All these people who think they’re safe right now, when they’re not doing the right thing, are they really safe?” said Mehta. “The ordeal is just telling you that this could happen to anyone, someone so ordinary. It started from that.”
Set in 2012, Scoop is at its best when it’s a workplace drama, showing Jagruti navigating both the politicking at her workplace and the sexist dynamics of being a crime beat reporter whose job revolves around winning over police officers and other sources. “Ever since I saw Mad Men, …whenever I would see workplace things, I would think why don’t we make this?” said Mehta, whose depiction of the stock market in Scam 1992 showed a masterful blend of artistry and research. In Scoop, the newsroom isn’t necessarily the most visually striking place, but everything from the lighting to the conversations people have in it feel realistic. “It’s always been a frustrating experience to see the workplace shown in a particular way. Whether it’s a broker’s office whether it’s a corporate office, people are usually talking complete nonsense. It’s very one-dimensional,” said Mehta of conventional portraits of offices in Indian entertainment. “We show the workplace without dumbing it down beyond a point. You maintain that balance. It’s dumbed down, but it’s not completely stupid.”
The newsroom in Scoop is a refreshing contrast to the ridiculous depictions of journalism and journalists that’s common to most Hindi films and shows (like, for example, Rani Mukerji as the editor of a magazine in Karan Johar’s film in the Bombay Talkies anthology). It looks and sounds like a real one, complete with a perennially disgruntled political editor and an entertainment beat reporter who is never there for edit meetings. “I wanted it to be smarter than what we did in Scam,” Mehta said of the workplace in Scoop. “There was so much information,” he said, talking about the extensive research. He gave the example of how the perspective on the crime beat changes completely when seen through the lens of gender. “Men are on back-slapping terms [with police sources],” Mehta pointed out. “As women, you are always on guard.”
Along with the newsroom, the police officers add a layer of authenticity to Scoop. From the jailers to constables and senior officers, everyone feels credible. “All the policemen that we cast, if you look at them, they’re very normal,” said Mehta. Alongside their ordinariness is the ease with which they play with people’s lives. Parallel to the police are the journalists, ranging from the integrity-rich Imran (played brilliantly by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) to an ambitious newbie who confuses sensationalising the news with reporting it. The strength of the supporting cast, particularly those playing journalists and police officers, goes a long way in making Scoop an engaging show in its first half. When these characters make way for the courtroom and prison drama in later episodes, Scoop feels more dramatised and less compelling.
Audiences of a certain age will be able to pick up on which real newspapers and people inspired Mehta and Waikul. (For those who notice any resemblance between Tannishtha Chatterjee’s pushy tabloid editor and former Mumbai Mirror editor Meenal Baghel, Baghel spoke to Waikul and is an old friend of Mehta’s.) Ayyub as the idealistic editor is a joy to watch and brings some-much needed hope to this portrait of a decaying institution that is crumbling under the weight of various pressures. “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both,” Imran says at one point in Scoop. “Your job is to look out the fucking window.” Imran’s struggles with his boss, who wants the newspaper to make money and keep the government happy, is a reminder that Scoop is set 10 years in the past, when resisting pressures and maintaining journalistic integrity was held as the norm and not considered exceptional. “Zeeshan is magic,” Mehta said of the actor, adding later that Ayyub and Rajkummar Rao have changed how he works as a director. “Rajkummar and Zeeshan both, the give and take that they gave (during Shahid, 2013), there’s a selfless give and take, and that taught me a lot about the way I work with actors.”
When asked if he felt more at home with the longform format of streaming shows, Mehta said, “Frankly, success is a lot of fun. I’ve seen success here. I naturally enjoy it.” His upcoming projects include a film with Kareena Kapoor Khan, who is neither the unknown nor the unrecognised actor to whom Mehta usually gravitates. “I have Kareena there as an actor,” Mehta said. “The stardom gives me the resources to make the film and I’m very happy about that.” He’s also discovering the pressures that come with success. “I got this opportunity because of Scam,” he said of Scoop. “I could cast the way I wanted to. But there is still pressure. There is still that underlying pressure to cast stars. That’s not the point. I see that success as a means to continue doing that, to continue doing genuine stuff.” A director who doesn’t care for stars? That’s a scoop.