The mythological thriller ‘Mahakumbh’ on Life OK stands apart for a number of reasons. TVP unveils the story of how the small seed of this show was sown and nurtured into something big over a period of two and a half years.
The phenomenon of Mahakumbh has fascinated people for years. For example, director Arvind Babbal has long been curious to know the history of the mela (fair) and why people gather there every 12 years in such large numbers. “The basic premise is that people go there to wash away their sins in the holy river Ganga. But what burden do the pilgrims carry and how do they atone for their sins?” Babbal says.
With the skeletal concept in mind, Babbal first met Star Plus GM Gaurav Banerjee and was later introduced to former Life OK EVP Ajit Thakur and content head Aniruddh Pathak.
Aiming to build a new approach for the channel after having done ‘Mahadev’, Pathak and Babbal put a lot of research and effort into the writing. The Garuda Purana gave the team a different approach to the concept.
Pathak began writing some parts of the story and went on to write seven chapters that later made up the screenplay.
The show took about two and a half years to make. “Some elements in the story are fictitious. Amrit Manthan is very closely related to the Mahakumbh and a lot has been written about it and the history of the Mahakumbh. We have tried to capture what happens in those 50–55 days of the Mahakumbh. For the fictitious parts, we did a lot of research so that they do not look completely out of tune with the mythology,” Babbal states.
To capture real footage, Babbal visited the 2013 Mahakumbh in Allahabad. The team shot there for 10 days with 8–10 cameras. “For the scenes that we shoot in chroma now, we use that footage in the backdrop. The use of 2D does not impart realism. For our show, a full 3D background has been used. Hence, if you can see a tent behind, you also see people walking inside those tents. On the contrary, in 2D you just get a static background,” Babbal explains.
Not being a VFX expert, Babbal sat for one week to learn and understand how CG works. Presently, there are 30 people in the CG team working day and night for the show. The director says that the folks have captured and prepared each background according to the eye level.
The costumes and the atmosphere of the Mahakumbh are still being researched by the team. They have been taking note of the kind of clothes pilgrims wear at the mela, the ambience at different times of the day, behaviour of people, etc.—all this courtesy of YouTube footage of the Mahakumbh.
On entering the set, one immediately gets a feel of the amount of research that has gone into making the show. Rudra’s house in Allahabad has been recreated in Mumbai. A huge mansion highlights the nuances of the city. The mansion also houses a huge chroma floor where the backdrop of the mela is shot.
The 120-episode series is almost halfway through it, with 50 episodes being shot and 40 already being telecast. The first 25 episodes have seen extensive outdoor schedules in Benaras, Poland, and the 2013 Mahakumbh. The story now shifts to Allahabad, which is why the mansion of Balvesh has been erected.
Besides, the team travels to various locations outside Mumbai. By March end, they will be in Gujarat to shoot an outdoor sequence for 20 days.
“We can’t shoot this show in Mumbai for want of appropriate locations. After Gujarat, we might do another small schedule in Benaras. We aim to show this visual treat till the end and thus the shoot is not limited to the set,” Babbal explains.
Laying out before me more than 100 A4-size papers marked with pencil sketches of the set and the characters, Babbal says that his team sketches each scene to see how it looks from different angles.
“I have tried to present the story as both larger than life and believable. Keeping this realism in mind, we have developed Rudra and the back story, along with other characters like Mai Mui and Oriya Baba,” he explains.
Donned in signature strings around his neck and bracelets, actor Gautam Rode, who plays Rudra, says, “When I was offered the role, I was sceptical because it was a completely different character from what I had played before. We did not have much time as we had to start shooting, but Babbal had a vision and it was he who took it forward.”
The two had taken a number of workshops where Babbal would explain the mannerisms of Rudra such as diction, body language, voice, and look.
“It took about two days for us just to decide on the kind of hair Rudra that would have.We used to cut it, click a picture, and then repeat the process. We worked on the character for 15–16 days,” he adds.
Straight from the set
Gautam Rode: The outdoor shoots went fine, but all of us were very tired. We all wanted to come back after 20–25 days because every day was a fight. Everyone would get up at 4 am and pack up by 7 pm. We would reach the hotel around 9 pm.
Arvind Babbal: We were shooting a scene in Poland where a character was required to get out of the helicopter with a gun and stat running. One of the three cameras was placed very close to where the helicopter was to land and we were sitting on the ground. When the helicopter landed, the blades started tilting downwards. Not realising this, I got up and one wing almost touched my hair. I didn’t know that the pilot had been signalling frantically. It was quite nerve wrecking for me.
Arvind Babbal: We once shot in Benaras in 46 degrees Celsius on the ghats. No one could stand there for more than two minutes. We would get up at 4 am and reach the ghats by 6 am to shoot as we needed day light. Some of the girls blacked out due to the heat. Limewater and glucose were our only recourse.
Nevertheless, shooting the scenes was no cakewalk. Though no artists were involved in the first outdoor schedule at the Mahakumbh, the team faced a problem with the shooting contraption called jib. The district magistrate had refused permission for use of the jib for security reasons. The team finally procured the permission after a lot of convincing. However, the team could not shoot for three days due to heavy rain. Babbal quips that the show has a weird connection with rain.
“We had to shoot a stampede following a bomb explosion. We assembled a crew of 120 people, who did all the struggling and shrieking, but the work was far from perfect. This continued for four days. We couldn’t shoot the entire day because it was cloudy. Many a time, a sunny day would turn cloudy in a matter of minutes,” says a team member.
The show has also been shot in the Polish cities of Wroclaw and Krakow. A Nazi torture camp that was half above the ground and half beneath it perfectly served the purpose. But this time too, rain and fog played spoilsport. The team finally pulled it off, thanks to the assistance of a Polish agency that worked with the Indian crew.