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.