Sub-inspector Anjali Bhaati (Sonakshi Sinha) may technically be junior to her colleagues Devi Lal Singh (Gulshan Devaiah) and Kailash Parghi (Sohum Shah), but she’s very much the leader of the pack in Dahaad, the new series created by Reema Kagti and Zoya Akhtar. The slow-burn crime thriller follows Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Varma), a Hindi teacher at a local college, and the three police officers as scattered reports of missing women reveal themselves to be a sinister serial killing spree. Kagti, who also directed Dahaad along with Ruchika Oberoi, spoke to Film Companion about delving into the psychology of a predator, and how our society often facilitates their crimes.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Can you tell me how Dahaad’s story was conceived?
It started with Zoya and me wanting to do something in the crime space. We knew we wanted a very strong, female lead. Then we started talking about it, researching what is out there. There were a lot of newspaper articles we looked at. The theme we wanted to play with was violence against women. It started with those kind of thoughts.
From the very first episode, we know who the killer is. How do you ensure that the story remains engaging for the next seven episodes?
See the thing is as a viewer, you know, but the cops don't know. There's a certain amount of tension in that. We played with that and what we were trying to do was go beyond the cop and serial killer drama. We were trying to look at…in our society, what are the things that are almost helping violence against women. Yes, there are evil people but I think there are things that are making these girls very vulnerable. When you take agency away from a woman, when things like dowry, the pressure on women making them feel like unless they're married or have a man in their life, somehow they are lesser or incomplete… these kinds of things make you vulnerable and an easy prey to the evils that are out there. We were trying to tell a story like this.
Some things work, some things don't work. When you are starting out, you're going on a set of assumptions and all of it is a big experiment. A hundred per cent of the things that you set up may not land, but you're lucky if more things land than don't. At least people see it for how you meant it.
Can you tell me about the Dahaad writers' room?
Totally, there were six of us. There was Ritesh Shah who was the lead writer. There was me, Mansi Jain, Sunayana Kumari, Karan Shah and Chaitanya Chopra. I think that the writers' room we were in for almost a year and a half. Then I took all the drafts and did a pass of my own. Then Zoya took all the drafts and did a pass of her own. There was a good bond in the writers' room and I remember having a good time with all of them.
How did Sonakshi Sinha’s casting come about?
That happened once we finished writing. Zoya, Ritesh and I were talking about who we should be approaching for the different parts. Ritesh actually popped up (with) Sonakshi’s name. She's somebody that both Zoya and I have always thought was a very good actor … We approached her that day and in the next 16 hours, it was a done deal. She had heard it, read it, said, “Okay”, and we were on.
What about Vijay Varma’s casting?
Same. I sent it to him and he read it, called me the next day and said he'd like to do it.
Was his casting as Anand Swarnakar inspired by his role in Darlings (2022)?
No, because we started shooting Dahaad way before Darlings I think even came up. We had got locked down because of COVID. So I think actually he started shooting Darlings after Dahaad.
How do you find space for nuance in a story that has a cop-killer chase at its centre?
Each person is symptomatic of something. There was Anand who was really evil, but then there are antidotes to him which are Anjali, Devi Singh and Kailash Parghi. For us, Anjali was a parallel to the victims almost. If you (give) the victims agency, you end up with Anjali Bhaati. In terms of Devi, he was just a guy who is not a superhero, he's not even heroic. He's just a normal guy who's the SHO (station house officer) of a station. He's married, he's got kids. Every day, he wakes up and tries to do the right thing by himself, by the people he's supposed to protect and his kids. When we're talking about patriarchy and we're talking about violence against women, I think there is a conversation about how people bring up their kids. So with Devi, we tried to get into that place. With Kailash, it was more…there are people sometimes who make mistakes, but those people can always have a change of heart and do the right thing. Each character was doing something in the larger story and through them, we were exploring themes.
How did you land on Gulshan Devaiah and Sohum Shah to play Devi Singh and Kailash Parghi?
I was looking for actors who had calibre and gravitas because they were extremely important characters. But at the same time, they're not author-backed (as characters). I was very clear that I wanted people with heft and really, there's nobody else but Gulshan to do that part and there's nobody else but Sohum to do his part.
Do you have a favourite character from the series?
I love Anjali, Devi Singh and Kailash Parghi, all three of them are my favourites.
Why has Dahaad been set in a small town in Rajasthan?
We wanted a place that had attributes which would help the story, and there was a Rajasthan which is not the touristy Rajasthan. The arid dusty Rajasthan (has) a lot of beautiful old architecture. There's a lot of decay at the same time, there's modernity. It felt very fitting.
Were there any cases the series is inspired by?
We did pick up a lot of whatever was out there in the public domain of a serial killer from the South. There were a couple of books… I think the way we approached Anand was kind of inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I think Farrukh Dhondy had written The Bikini Murders, that book was something that also really inspired me. And daily if you read the news, there are so many atrocities. We were not really making anything up because we were taking things from newspaper articles.
What is your idea of a strong woman?
Someone who has agency.
How do you approach writing a character (Anand) who has a sinister core but is seemingly a good human being?
Mostly you look at these kinds of antagonists as monsters, but the (epithet) was really to say that he's not a monster, he's a human being who does this.
When we find out what Anand’s father did to his mother, was the intention to make the audience empathize with him for having a rough childhood?
The intention was not to show sympathy for a man like this, but understand that he is a human being, he comes from somewhere and he's going to a certain place. He's not a four-headed monster or anything like that. He's like you and me on a level, but something went wrong. We tried to not make too many obvious connections between childhood trauma and this kind of behaviour but almost all serial killers, they've been exposed to violence. Early on in their lives, somebody has validated it for them. But the intent was never to exonerate him. The intent was to see how does a person end up doing things that are so bad. It was about getting behind the psychology of that. We never saw him (Anand) as very powerful. We actually saw him as a coward, as somebody nonconfrontational, who is not really getting validation from his family or social circle. He feels a bit like a loser. So his evil is not coming from strength, his evil is coming from something broken in him.
What are the challenges of writing and directing a series compared to a film?
The good thing about it is also the bad thing about it. The good thing is you get so much time to invest in your characters, themes, and story, but it's three feature films in one. The challenge of it is…it's a lot of content. It's like eight to nine hours of content. So though it's good that you get all this time to invest creatively, it's also a lot of work.
Do you have a preference between writing and directing?
Not really. I see the directing as an extension of the writing. It's the same process. It's difficult to say I like one or the other more. Though writing is more peaceful because it's normally just me, or me and Zoya, or me and a couple of writers. But shooting also comes with its own kind of adrenaline.
Do you have a favourite film from your own filmography?
I won't say in filmography and all, but who I love the best is Bagwati. That was something quite special that we came up with. This friend of mine and I were broke and her older sister organized for some friends to bring us to Pune. And the friends had a package in the car that had some kind of fragile object in it. The lady was quite worried about the box. So at one point, we just like gave her a name, just for a laugh.
Years later, when we were writing Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), I remembered that incident and then Zoya and I developed that. Zoya was like, “It should be this bag.” I didn't even know that kind of a bag (a Hermes Kelly bag) existed at that point. I was horrified when Zoya told me how much the bag cost. I took something funny from the past that actually happened and then Zoya kind of added her own thing to it and that's how Bagwati came up.