Vishal Bhardwaj’s Charlie Chopra & The Murder in Solang Valley adapts Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery, bringing it to the hills of north India. Leading the cast is Wamiqa Gabbi as Charulata “Charlie” Chopra, who is not your typical detective. She breaks the fourth wall, letting the audience in on her thoughts in a way that’s distinct from the conventional ways of sleuthing. Her grudging assistant is Sitaram Bisht, played by Priyanshu Painyuli, who is a Hindi news journalist, tasked with covering the murder of Brigadier Meherbaan Singh Rawat (Gulshan Grover).
Gabbi and Painyuli spoke to Film Companion about making Charlie Chopra. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:
Wamiqa Gabbi: Well, he (Vishal Bhardwaj) always gives that (creative) freedom. It's obviously always a collaboration, he wants you to do the work, he wants you to come and give him as much feedback and inputs that you can. After we give our input, he makes it even better. Vishal sir is someone who is always open to suggestions and open to ideas. Because you know, art is always evolving, right? Even if you make the best painting of your life, you can always like to paint some more on it. So I really liked that about the show also that even till the end, like till we say action, we are always like, you know making it better. So that's nice.
Priyanshu Painyuli: I think my approach as an actor has changed after working with him. A lot of us younger actors are preparing for a character in a very technical way, and get caught up in our heads. We are building the character to the tee before going to the set. But I think I also realised with the show that sometimes just diving into the world with your director, and playing with the environment can help your understanding of what you want to do.
He'll (Bhardwaj) give you the freedom, we were improvising a lot. Of course he's going to use some, not use some, which is okay, but he's gonna play around with you. That's the best part. It is like a chef and a sous chef sitting together and you know, deciding what all is going to go into the dish.
WG: Well, for me, it was more about a detective series coming from Agatha Christie who's like the queen of whodunit murder, and Vishal Sir adapting, and that formula. Like, “Oh, great, this, this can be like a really cool combination”, you know? So I was really interested in that, and we don't have a lot of female detectives. Even if we have a few of them, they are not as cool as Charlie Chopra. She is written very nicely, she is fun.
PP: I definitely did not read it (The Sittaford Mystery). I was clear that I didn't want to read it before we started. I'm stepping into a world which is already written by Vishal Bhardwaj. I need to understand how he's looking at the story. I need to understand how he's looking at his character. There's so much Indianisation. I'm a fully local Himachali reporter, Wamiqa is a proper Chandigarh girl. So, I think it is more important to understand what he interprets.
WG: First of all, also, because I knew that I'm going to be in the same frame as these actors, I was thinking “please, I hope audiences are looking at me when I'm talking”, and I am not in the background when Naseer sir, Ratna ma’am and Neena Gupta are in the frame. I was very nervous and intimidated by the names. And obviously, I have so many scenes with all of them. And with us they're so nice. One thing that I learned is that they are so focused on their characters, they do their homework, but they are very relaxed on the set. They are so humble. I've learned this from them, you know that acting should only be in front of the camera and not off-camera.
PP: It's nerve-wracking, initially. But it becomes very easy just because the way these guys are very thoughtful, they're very simple and effortlessly beautiful people. You know they don't pretend to be something else which is what makes it very very comfortable for you to be on set with them. And as they move on to the mark, and you know as we begin the shot they just blend into the character.
But I do remember the first day I had a scene with only Naseer sir. I had butterflies in my stomach. Later, Vishal sir told me “you know it's good because then that's when you put your ‘A ‘game forward, you start new you realise as a young actor how much you need to prep and you know how much you have craft has to come in more.”
WG: So you know, just last year, I had watched Fleabag (2016) and I didn't know that I'd get to break the fourth wall in any of the projects that I'm going to be doing. I got so excited, the first reference that came to my mind was Fleabag obviously. After that I watched Enola Holmes also, and a few others also where the fourth wall was broken. I got really excited because I thought it'd be so interesting to see her (Charlie’s) point of view, you know, and it's like when I'm breaking the fourth wall, it's like I'm talking to someone who's really close to me, which is going to be the audience.
It could have been just a normal detective series but to break the fourth wall added that layer to the character where you know, she has this relationship with the camera and with the audience, where she's kind of speaking her mind, and she's only talking in Punjabi when she's talking to the camera. That was so much fun. Generally, even in my (own) life, when I'm talking to people here in Bombay, I'm talking in English or in Hindi, but my inner thoughts are in Punjabi. So that really was really interesting to do.
WG: So I feel like mountains and specially snow covered mountains can really give you that field, right? It gives you that eerie feeling, that lonely feeling, so I think for this story the snow covered mountains and shooting in Manali was perfect for sure. And also the characters you see, the kind of clothes they're wearing, all those layers of clothes, it just really creates those beautiful characters, they all are dressed in a particular way. It is adding more character to them.
PP: Day one is in Solang Valley, which is up from Manali, towards the cable cars and where people go skiing, and there was very heavy snowfall. We're falling in the snow, we can't even walk properly, and we have to perform a scene. And I was like, “How are we supposed to act here for 12 hours?” And then we shifted our shooting shifts. The tourists were also coming in quickly and just clicking selfies. And I remember a lot of times when I was putting up stories on Instagram, everybody was like, “Oh, so lucky. You're shooting in such beautiful snowfall and beautiful mountains.” No no, it's not like you're even there. And you could get up at 3am or 5am. It is difficult initially, but when you look at the set, when you look at people around you, and then it becomes more like an adventure.