It was pitch dark outside. A junior artist lay inside a body bag 3 feet underground, loosely covered with mud. It was supposed to be a simple scene. A trio of cops would exit a hotel, spot a patch of freshly dug mud in the courtyard, investigate and discover the corpse. The whole scene was meant to take less than three minutes. He waited. But things had already gone wrong.
Since the courtyard was vast and sprawling, the show’s production team had been instructed to sprinkle some grass around the area with the buried bag, a signal to the actors telling them where to dig. There had evidently been a miscommunication — the entire courtyard had been covered with grass. The actors panicked. They were on minute 87 of a 111-minute long one-take episode. To stop rolling now would mean all that time and effort wasted. They could see the camera making its way towards them. Walking quickly, they began covering as much ground as they could. “I’m a 110-kg man and I wound up stepping right on top of the bag,” said actor Dayanand Shetty. “The moment I felt it under my foot, we all just yanked it out.” The artist was alright. The actors calmed down. And the shoot continued.
The Inheritance went on to secure the Guinness World Record for the longest single take, making it the first Indian production to do so. The setting of this record, however, began with the quest to break another. It was 2004 and BP Singh, producer and creator of India’s longest-running television show CID, had just heard about Russian Ark, the 96-minute-long documentary that had nabbed this record two years earlier. CID was a police procedural with episodes of 45-minute runtime until now, but this didn’t deter Singh. This special episode, he decided, would be a single shot of a 100-plus minutes.
“The crew thought I was nuts,” said Singh. Their confidence was boosted somewhat by having seen Singh shoot entire scenes in one take before. He’d carry the camera himself, easily panning between the actors for dialogue-heavy moments. Despite any misgivings they may have had, they quickly came on board. “The first step was to come up with a story that had to fit into this one-shot scheme,” said Christabelle D’Souza, CID creative director and writer. “The rules were that we could not have a single cut. We couldn’t do transitions or dissolves. We couldn’t have a ‘next day’. It had to be one constant episode with the camera never moving away from the actors.”
She and episode co-writers Virendra Shahaney and Rajat Aroraa began to narrow down the possibilities — a story in which a death had to be discovered, investigated and resolved within two hours, set at a single location where the characters had assembled so that the camera didn’t have to be transported across long distances. At the same time, the setting had to be large enough to accommodate several actors and provide room for the camera to move around so the episode didn’t lapse into visual monotony. They came up with the idea of a classic inheritance tale, in which a wealthy man suffers a near-fatal accident after his distant family members move in with him. Gradually, each relative suspects the other of the crime.
“You get all the chemistry and the angst of a big joint family: Who’s going to get his money? Who’s going to inherit his diamonds?” said D’Souza. Having figured out the broad strokes, the writers struggled to plot the specifics of the scenes. A third of the way into the writing process, Singh showed up with photographs of a semi-constructed hotel in Lonavala that he had spotted on his way back to Mumbai from Pune. It had a pool, one central staircase, another that descended into a dark, dank basement, and enough corridors to ensure camera movements could be as twisty and serpentine as the plot.
While the visuals buoyed the writing, they also imposed certain limitations. “If we had scripted a scene inside a bedroom but the photos told us that it would be too difficult to get to the spot quickly from our previous location, we would have to move the scene to the corridor or somewhere else,” said Arora.
Meanwhile Singh, who had undergone a coronary bypass surgery a few months earlier, began exercising in earnest. He wasn’t going to be the cameraman for this episode, but he insisted on accompanying whoever would do the actual shooting for the entire duration. He also visited the hotel and explored potential walkthroughs, making his way up the staircase and through the corridors to ensure that he was strong enough to do it.
Eight months later, The Inheritance, a 92-page script, was complete. A hotelier, who’d made a fortune mining diamonds in South Africa, returns home and is swarmed by distant family members hoping for a cut. A few pages in, one of them is shot. Soon enough, he is shot at too. Shaken by the attack, he calls the CID to help him identify his assailant.
Now to convince the actors.
“We were all in a fix,” said Shetty, who plays Daya in the show. “We were like, ‘Is he talking sense? A single continuous shot for two hours? How will we do it? Where will we do it? The biggest question was where we could find a cameraman.” Only Shivaji Satam, now synonymous with ACP Pradyuman, was unruffled. He remembered Singh pulling off a 23-minute-long single-shot episode of the previous show they’d collaborated on, the Marathi police procedural Ek Shunya Shunya, in the late Eighties. He also knew that he could rely on his theatre training to help him deliver a nearly two-hour-long performance without a break.
His confidence hit a snag when he reached the hotel, along with nearly 175 more cast and crew members, on October 1, 2004. “The theatre is just one stage. This building had four storeys, two of which were underground, four corridors on every floor and a massive staircase.” It was dusty. The toilets didn’t work. It was also unfurnished. The production crew had brought along two beds and other furniture to make the guests’ rooms feel lived-in.
From the next six days, the cast, which included Kay Kay Menon and Raj Zutshi, held readings and performed walkthroughs of the entire episode. Many had been selected for their theatre background. Satam remembers returning to his room after dinner, and settling down to memorise the script and make notes about the blocking. “We would suggest changes so that the dialogue was crisper, so that the sentences weren’t too long and could be memorized more easily,” he said. The writers often took those notes and delivered fresh pages to the cast the next day.
They’d rented out the hotel for a week, which meant they needed to film the episode by the 8th. Two hours, one shot. How hard could it be?
Not hard enough for Singh, who upped the stakes by then deciding that the episode had to begin at the magic hour — just after sunset — and with a bird’s-eye view of the hotel and the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. He would climb onto a crane with cameraman Nitin Rao, to whom the 36-kg steadicam would be attached, for the opening shot of the landscape, then the two of them would be lowered onto a platform at ground level, from where they would make their way up the road that led to the hotel. The crane operator was instructed to lower them gently so that the camera did not shake.
It was on set that actor Kruttika Desai came up with the idea of adding a flashback scene to the story, reasoning that it would be better to watch the crime play out rather than just hear the murder’s confession at the end. This meant the actor, after delivering his monologue at the end of the corridor, would have to run all the way across it, behind but in sync with the camera, slip back into his room to commit the crime, and then run back to finish his speech. Surely with a few rehearsals, they could pull this off?
On October 7, 2004, it was time to shoot. D’Souza and some of the crew got into a control room with three monitors. Her job was to talk to Singh, who was accompanying the cameraman, and tell him if he needed to go slower (thus giving the crew needed time to reset or clean up) or speed up. The big fear was that they would run out of camera roll, which could only capture a maximum of two hours of film. Meanwhile, Shahaney would coordinate with the massive crew and ensure they were out of sight as the camera travelled across the hotel.
The shoot began well, but at one point, a crew members noticed a character walking across the room in the background when he was supposed to be wheelchair-bound. They called it off and decided to try again the next day. “The channel was getting antsy because this episode had cost them Rs 34 lakh,” said D’Souza. “But we knew it was not meant to be that day.”
There were nerves on the next day, but the initial stretch went smoothly. Then, for a scene in which Kay Kay Menon’s character had to make a call, the crew realised they’d left the prop phone in another room and there seemed to be no way to sneak the phone in without being caught on camera. So the prop master slid it across the floor. Menon picked it up, and proceeded with the scene.
There were two other big moments of tension. The episode required an explosion, but since the crew did not have permission to stage one on the property, they had to create the impression of an explosion with effects. Inspector Freddy (Dinesh Phadnis) was to enter a room while the camera remained in the corridor. The lights would flicker, the camera would shake, and Freddy would emerge, bloodied and spattered with mud. The sound of the blast would be added in post production. “There were three crew members throwing mud and fake blood at him,” said D’Souza. The CID team would also discover a second set of bloody footprints exiting the room, which would lead them to the perpetrator, also injured in the explosion.
The prints had been painstakingly laid down previously, but were fully covered by mud by the time the cameraman arrived at the spot. Singh, who was the “steering wheel to Rao’s car,” as Shetty puts it, veered the camera away before it became noticeable that the cops were talking about footprints they could not have seen.
In another scene, Aditya Srivastava was supposed to fire at a character he had suspicions about. During rehearsals, the prop gun kept jamming, which raised concerns about how to respond if this happened during the shoot. To stop would mean ruining the entire episode. “We told him to react as though it had fired anyway, because we could always add the sound of the shot in post,” said D’Souza. Fortunately, the gun fired as intended.
Despite the near-mishaps, the shot continued. Minute 30 passed. Then 50. Then 80. Everyone was on their toes. “When you watch the episode, you’ll realise that the acting is very loud and over the top,” said Shetty. “This is because each actor was focussed on delivering their lines loudly and clearly, without a mistake. If we said them at a normal pitch, there was a possibility of flubbing the dialogues.” It just so happened that one actor did forget his line at the end, which then had to be added in post-production.
The episode aired on November 7, 2004, officially earning the Guiness World Record, a plaque of which hangs at Singh’s Andheri office. “It was like a clock that we had spent six days oiling, maintaining and winding up. Then, on the seventh day, all we had to do was let it run,” said Sattam of the shoot. “We were like a tightrope walker who had finally found his balance between two peaks.”