Indian television

On the sets of ‘Naagin 2’, Mouni Roy, a few trees and imaginary snakes

The superhit Colors TV show is in its second season.

Illusion is everything in show business, and it is needed now more than ever before to believe that a handful of trees and burning frankincense represent a jungle.

At a studio lot in suburban Mumbai, beyond air-conditioned vanity vans and to the right of a garbage heap, the shoot for an episode of the highly popular television series Naagin is underway. Produced by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms for the Colors television channel, Naagin is in its second season. In the first season, Mouni Roy played the shape-shifting Shivanya, who encountered various obstacles during her quest to hunt down the killers of her parents. In the second season, Roy is back as Shivangi, the daughter of the original character. Dressed in a gold costume and with brown contact lenses to emphasise her reptilian connection, Roy is the picture of poise and professionalism.

Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

The visual effects in Naagin 2 are added later, and before the eyes are scenes stripped of their true impact. White canvases are held up to balance the light, while frankincense is constantly burnt to create a misty effect. Beyond the set lies a typical bustling Mumbai street, and were the camera to move a bit to the left, it would capture mounds of plastic and trash.

Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

There have been several films and television shows on snakes in human form, and Roy counts Sridevi’s performance in the 1986 blockbuster movie Nagina as one of her favourites. Roy attributes the TV show’s success to its snappy narrative and promise of a finite number of episodes, unlike other competitors that drone on until eternity. “You feel good when a show is so successful, and you feel a sense of responsibility that makes you want to act better and do your scenes better,” Roy told Scroll.in.

Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

Naagin and Naagin 2 meet the demand for fantasy fiction in India in the same way as Game of Thrones and Twilight do in the West, Roy added. “Each episode is pacy, and the show is not stagnant and starts and ends on a different note,” she said. “When I read an episode, I want to know that happens next.”

Roy has become a major star after the show, and she describes it as a milestone in her career. Are the movie offers rolling in? “I am okay with being where I am – I am not very ambitious, and while I would want to do different roles and projects, they have to be really good and substantial,” she said.

Naagin is aired on weekends, and everybody in the crew puts in 12-hour shifts to wrap up the week’s offerings. Roy’s life resembles the video game Temple Run, she said.

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Mouni Roy talks to Scroll.in.

As the shoot rolls on, actor Kinshuk Mahajan, who is perspiring in a patterned cape and a velvet dhoti the colour of stage curtains, patiently performs retakes of a scene in which he has to lie unconscious as Shivangi attends to him. Mahajan plays Rudra, a snake in male form who teams up with Shivangi to protect themselves against evildoers who want to grab a powerful stone.

The drama in Naagin 2 is combined with visual effects, which have been criticised for their tackiness. But series co-director Rakesh Malhotra points out that it is impossible to create magic on such tight shooting schedules. “We run two episodes of an hour each every week, and we barely manage to finish shooting them,” said Malhotra, who has been with the series from the beginning. “For better special effects, you need time. Hollywood films take months for pre-production.”

Kinshuk Mahajan. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
Kinshuk Mahajan. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

Viewers don’t seem to mind the ’80s-era visual effects. There are other elements in Naagin that provide distraction: the glamorous cast, the heavy costumes (by Anuradha Khurana), and the fast-paced narrative and numerous twists. “Ekta Kapoor wanted the episodes to be fast to hook audiences – if you show them something for too long, they can figure out the gimmicks,” Malhotra said. “With Naagin, we can experiment unlike in a daily soap – we have romance, drama and a thriller element too. And there are snakes involved.”

Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

All the snakes have been created on computers, alongside other creatures, such as mongooses and peacocks. This season, the snakes have acquired colours. “They are orange and blue – something different,” Malhotra said.

Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.