How Do You Adapt The Night Manager to An Indian Context?

Creator Sandeep Modi and producer Simon Cornwell spoke about adapting this celebrated espionage thriller. The show is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar
The Night Manager interview
The Night Manager interview

What does one keep in mind when they’re adapting a show that has been nominated for more than 30 awards and won (among other awards) Emmys for direction and writing, as well as three Golden Globes for the acting performances? Adapted from a John Le Carré novel, The Night Manager, directed for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) bu Susanne Bier, was widely appreciated for its charismatic retelling of the story of a hotel executive who is recruited by the British intelligence service to bring down an arms’ dealer. Now, an Indian adaptation written by Shridhar Raghavan, who is currently riding high on the success of Pathaan (2023), sees Aditya Roy Kapur playing the titular role that was made famous by Tom Hiddleston (best known for playing Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). In the Indian The Night Manager, the much-feared arms dealer Richard Roper becomes Shailendra “Shelly” Rungta, played by Anil Kapoor. Other notable cast members include Tillotama Shome, Sobhita Dhulipala and Saswata Chatterjee. Created by Sandeep Modi, who was the co-creator of Aarya along with Ram Madhvani, The Night Manager is directed by Modi and Priyanka Ghose. 

Modi and producer Simon Cornwell, who heads up The Ink Factory and is also Le Carré’s son, spoke to Film Companion about the Indian adaptation of the celebrated show. Edited excerpts below: 

When you're adapting something that has been such a massive success, what aspects are you looking to retain and what do you decide to do differently? 

Sandeep Modi: I think the choice is very simple. You are in a sweet shop and you choose your best sweets and decide that these are the top five that you really want to eat today. We had the opportunity to go back in time and say, ‘Okay, this is what we had done. This is how it was. These things worked out, and these things we feel like we could do better.’ We could go even further back in time and go back to the book; scrounge that and see, okay, is there an answer here? Something that we missed out? 

We took the best from both the book and also from David Farr's version with Susanne Bier of the show. Then we had Shridhar Raghavan who added his own desi-ness to it. That’s what we wanted to do with the tale.

Simon Cornwell: Sandeep and Shridhar brought something very special and very distinctive to the adaptation. They drew on the original show and on the book, but my feeling was that they drew on them as a starting point, actually, and then they brought their own soul and own vision to it. 

Aditya Roy Kapur in The Night Manager.
Aditya Roy Kapur in The Night Manager.

So when you looked at the book for things that you wanted to do differently — can you give me an example of some of those? 

Sandeep: Some things I could do, some things I couldn’t. Only after you try do you realise why certain things aren’t in the previous screen adaptation. … What I realised is that Richard Roper is a man fascinated by boats. So while we couldn't borrow that climax from the book, we always said our man should be in the business of shipping. …These are small things that you find the gold in, in the book and then you go back to the show and watch the absolutely fabulous scenes based on it. My motto was to make sure I retain these scenes. You don't touch the iconic moments.

If I were making Sholay (1975), I would never touch the tanga scene with Basanti. The toughest thing was that while we had a starting point, all our characters found their own journey within it and sometimes their paths didn’t lead exactly to where the British version went. We had a wish list of where we wanted to go, but the characters didn’t listen to us. After a while, you're just holding the reins and trying to get these horses to run the course that you want. But they’re people and people don’t listen, right? That's the joy of good writing.

You mentioned David Farr and I was reading this interview with him in which he spoke about how what initially attracted him to this project was this sort of contemporary political anger. When you're making something now, in this fraught political climate where people get easily triggered or take things out of context, how does that complicate your job? 

Modi: It's a great question. It’s complicated. You have to ensure that you are being true to your creative soul and true to your value system. But, at the same time, you have to be aware of the realities of our world, the fraught times we are dealing with each day. But somewhere, this felt like it was a humane story. It was beyond religion, it was beyond borders. It felt like, as long as the story was humane, people would connect to it. No one's going to question it. We never saw the characters for their identities. We never saw the characters for their nationalities. We just saw them for who they were and what they wanted. That's what resonated with us.

While the political aspirations attracted David Farr, what attracted me was the journey of what makes a regular guy become a spy. That was the genesis of why I wanted to go on this journey — to find the answer. … There’s one whole chapter of Jonathan Pine stuck in the cellar of a hotel and while it never made it into the plot of either David Farr’s adaptation or what Shridhar and I have done, it conveyed to me that this is a very personal story. It’s a philosophical story, it's a story of redemption. It's a story of somebody trying to find himself. I was fascinated by that and I was trying to find the beating heart of this character.

Anil Kapoor in The Night Manager.
Anil Kapoor in The Night Manager.

Speaking of that, I wanted to ask you about the characters of Freddie and his wife, because he is, of course, a terrorist and she becomes a whistleblower in the first episode. When you were writing these characters and developing them, how did you want the audience to see them? Were you at all conscious that they were falling into this stereotype of the ‘good Muslim’ and the ‘bad Muslim’?

Modi: I just saw the characters who were caught in a situation in which one human was appealing to another human for help. And it just felt like a tale set in a country that is predominantly of a certain religion. Not that they identify with it, but that's where the names given to them come from. These things were not at all on our radar, genuinely.

Tell me about the relationship between Shaan and Safeena because in the earlier adaptation, they were around the same age. They had flirtatious banter going on; here it's more of a paternal vibe. What made you decide to change that? 

Modi: I think what happens in one night can change the course of the rest of your life. For me, while love is a great emotion, I find guilt to be an even stronger one. And that, for me, became a genesis of what happens. You will feel protective of someone who really needs that protection and the fact that you couldn't help them will haunt you for a longer period. That became my reason for wanting these small changes to the tale.

We've done a lot of adaptations of Hollywood shows over the past few years, what goes into getting the Hindi remake right? What are some of the pitfalls to be avoided? 

Cornwell: Sandeep and Shridhar and the cast found a way to take the essence of the story, the themes, the feel and the thrilling structure of the story, but evolve it into a place where it became completely its own thing. They had the confidence to say, “Actually, if I'm going to look at this story again, my ambition this time around is going to be to do it better than it was the first time around.” From my point of view, I did The Night Manager once. I don't want to do the same thing again. It's got to be something new, something exciting, and an opportunity to explore things in new ways. So I think it's about letting the story live and breathe in the world in which it's set. The difference between the first episode of the original show and this one is that Sandeep and Shridhar have created something emotionally engaging. It pulls you into the story in a fantastic way right from the opening. 

There are things that aren’t taken from the original show, they came about from interrogating its emotional logic and saying, “Well, did that really stand up? Can't we do better here?” I think the answer is that we can.

Sandeep: I was the co-creator on Aarya season one with Ram Madhvani, I was the showrunner, leading the writers room there. And one of the key things there was always, “How do we adapt a tale culturally?” It was the biggest battle, to make each story look like a tale that originates from this country. How do we make it look like these people belong here? How do we make it look like the story belongs here? That’s critical. You’ll see that we’ve also interpreted relationships differently. 

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