What if, instead of being an ancient cosmic evil, Pennywise the clown was actually the spirit of a dwarf who hung himself after the woman he loved rejected him for being too short? What if a mother's love was all it took to save him? That's the backstory writer-director duo Ankush Mohla and Glen Barretto wanted to explore while adapting Stephen King's 1986 horror novel It for Indian television. The only catch – they hadn't read a single page of the book.
Their show, Woh, was loosely based on the second half of King's novel, in which the adults who fought the clown as children, reunite once a new batch of kids go missing. Starring Shreyas Talpade, Ashutosh Gowariker and MM 'Liliput' Faruqui as the titular clown, it ran for 52 episodes on Zee TV in 1998. Even now, comments as recent as a year old on YouTube recall how terrifying it was.
It all started with Mohla coming across a copy of King's novel. The 10-line synopsis on the back hooked him instantly. "It opened up this whole new world for me. What fascinated me was seven friends reuniting to fulfil a promise. That stuck with me – that there was this great story about friendship and that it had a great villain," he says. Still, he had no desire to read beyond those 10 lines – he just didn't have the patience. The length of King's tome (1,138 pages) also put him off. "I don't think I've read that many pages in my life," he adds, laughing. Fresh off the shoot of Akele Hum Akele Tum (1995), on which he was an assistant director, he wanted to bring that "small-town, college campus" vibe to Woh. He asked Barretto, a chief assistant director he'd met as an apprentice on Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), to help him adapt the book into a series.
Barretto was unconvinced. He didn't think clowns, which he associated with the circus, could be frightening. What changed his mind was watching the 1990 two-part American It miniseries, which stars actor Tim Curry as Pennywise. His next task was 'Indianizing' the show. He moved the setting from Derry, Maine, to the hill station of Panchgani, linked the resurgence of the clown to a solar eclipse (considered inauspicious in Hindu mythology) and wrote it such that the evil could only be defeated by a crystal found inside the well of a local temple.
In 1996, the two shot a 40-minute pilot at Madh Island "just for fun". They were in their 20s and, as Barretto puts it, "had nothing to lose". As he had assisted Gowariker on Pehla Nasha (1993) and Baazi (1995), convincing the director to play the part of Ashutosh, whose son is kidnapped (and later possessed) by the clown, was easy.
What's harder was finding takers for the show. "It was a concept that not everyone understood. Everyone said log samjhenge nahi. Ek joker tum kaise villain dikha sakte ho?" says Mohla. Sony passed on the pilot. Doordarshan picked it up but gave the show the 6.30 PM 'child programming' slot on seeing the clown. Baffled, Mohla and Barretto decided to turn down the offer. A year passed. The two were beginning to think they should just cut their losses and write off the Rs 3 lakhs they had spent on shooting the pilot. Editing a music video at UTV's United Studios one day, they mentioned the episode to then CEO Bhaarath Sundar, who asked for six months to pitch it to networks. Three months later, he told them Zee TV was interested in the show. "We got to know this in November 1997. January 1998 was supposed to be the telecast date. Everything moved quickly after that," says Mohla.
The title track happened overnight. Mohla and composer Raju Singh holed themselves up inside a room and listened to English electronic band Prodigy from 11 PM to 5 AM. They emerged with an eerie, childlike 'na na na na' tune. The voices chanting 'woh woh woh woh' over what sounds like a sick turntable beat are theirs. The resulting opening credits were a spooky, seemingly Se7en-inspired montage, featuring shots of a bloodied knife, scorpions, barbed wire, tribal masks and a mud crab (to represent Madh Island, where parts of the show were shot).
The pilot that aired on April 1, 1998, was edited down to 22 minutes, setting up the basic storylines of Ashutosh and his superstitious wife Radhika (Sukanya Kulkarni). The clown was awakened by two bumbling archaeologists but didn't make an appearance. One episode down, 51 to go.
As neither writer had read the book, they borrowed much of their characters' personalities from the actors playing them. A string of ads and music videos had given Nasir Khan the image of a funnyman. He was cast as Raja, an overly flirtatious actor. Mohla himself, who had what Barretto calls a "James Dean vibe" played Shiva, a local don. The physically imposing Mamik Sharma, as the novelist Rahul, got a scene in which he fights with (and eventually stabs) the clown. As most of the cast were friends, dialogues were born out of their banter. Scenes and subplots were written, rewritten, added or subtracted to accommodate actors who had become more popular over the course of the show and were now busy with other projects.
Mohla asked his sister to read the book and help out with ideas, but even she grew weary and couldn't complete it, he says. Still, from his viewing of the 1990 miniseries, Barretto knew that some scenes were so iconic, he could not get away with not having them in the show. But compromises had to be made. The paper boat scene and Pennywise's emergence from the sewers in King's novel was set at a swimming pool in episode 3 instead. "We don't have good sewers here," Barretto says simply. Shooting with two children meant that the lakeside could not be an option, for safety reasons. Luckily, the budget allowed for a bungalow with an attached pool.
Another sharp deviation from King's novel was the ending. Woh only turns vengeful after a lifetime of taunts about his height. All it takes is his mother saying she isn't ashamed of his height, but his behaviour, for him to renounce his evil ways. His spirit finally leaves Earth as a beam of light. "The idea was to scare the hell out of everyone and then justify the clown's actions via his backstory. I didn't want to kill the myth of the clown – they're so happy, they bring smiles to people's faces. I didn't want to destroy that. So his backstory needed to be tragic," says Barretto.
Liliput's own life experiences heavily influenced the ending. He told Mohla and Barretto anecdotes of being publicly laughed at and discriminated against because of his stature. His move to Mumbai and success as an actor despite these obstacles made them determined to give the character a great sendoff in the finale. The actor would later say this show was one of the few times he wasn't relegated to just the comic relief.
The show's limited budget, most of which was earmarked for VFX and prosthetics, forced both directors to be more creative when it came to the writing and editing, they say. "We didn't have the budget for steadicams and cranes. For a scene in which the adults walk into Madh Fort, we follow them, then the camera pans so close to the wall, the screen goes black. When it comes out from behind another wall, you see the younger versions of the characters in sepia. We edited it to look like one long single take. People assumed it took a lot of money to shoot, but it was a simple device," says Barretto.
Both say they'd like a shot at remaking the series now, given the vast improvements in VFX. "Maybe we'd be able to make it quicker. What took two days back then would probably take two hours now," says Mohla. "Mobiles had just entered the market back then so we didn't have them in the show. Now, you can have the characters use mobiles, make it so much more contemporary. But the fear still remains the same."