In more ways than one, Mirzapur — Amazon Prime Video's newest original Web series from India, out now — is a story that isn't suited for Bollywood's traditional space: the big screen. None of it has to do with the fact that Mirzapur is an episodic drama, which allows writers to explore characters and chart subplots in manners that isn't possible on film. Instead, it's the characteristics and behaviour of those characters, and the level of violence and sex that India's moral-driven censor board, the CBFC, wouldn't allow.
“It's very refreshing because there are very few roles written for women in which their sexuality is acknowledged,” Rasika Dugal, who plays Beena Tripathi, the second wife of the show's big crime boss in Mirzapur, told Gadgets 360. “We don't have these conversations about women. Usually, women are objects that have been sexualised, as objects of titillation or as objects of sympathy.”
Films from India that have bucked that trend in recent years, the likes of Lipstick Under My Burkha and Veere Di Wedding, can be counted on one hand. Dugal remarked that the scripts she has read for TV shows in the past year have been “far more interesting” than any film scripts she's read in the past few years. She believes that writers are possibly censoring themselves when it comes to writing for cinema, in contrast to streaming which isn't regulated by the CBFC.
"Our films are certified in a very, very broad manner: it's either U, U/A or A,” Ritesh Sidhwani, executive producer on Mirzapur, said. “But there is nothing in between. If you look at TV, you've a channel like Discovery Kids, which is only for 9-11-year olds. And there's a show there, which I was quite surprised to learn, called Little Singham.”
Little Singham is an animated spin-off based on the Ajay Devgn-starrer 2011 action film Singham, which is itself a remake of a 2010 Tamil film. “They started with 60-70 episodes in concept and it's reached 180-190 episodes,” Sidhwani added. “[That shows] there is an audience for every kind of story. With films, you can go to a 13, 15, and 18 [age bracket], but there shouldn't be censorship. Beyond 18, once you're an adult, you can't tell me to cut something.”
But until the CBFC gets its act together, stories like Mirzapur's will be best told in the streaming domain. In fact, the ideal way to watch even Lipstick Under My Burkha is on Prime Video, which has the film's uncensored version and not the theatrical release version that was subject to cuts, after originally being denied a release altogether.
That's not the only way Mirzapur is pushing the envelope. Unlike the majority of filmmaking in India which still relies on ADR (automated dialogue replacement), colloquially known as dubbing, where actors re-record their lines in a studio after filming, Mirzapur made use of sync sound, in which the audio is recorded on location.
“Whenever someone mentions dubbing, I get upset. How will we recreate it in the studio?” Pankaj Tripathi, who plays the show's central crime figure, Akhandanand Tripathi, asked rhetorically.
“Dubbing, I feel, cheats actors,” Divyendu Sharma, who plays Munna Tripathi, the son of Pankaj's character on Mirzapur, added. “It's like, 'You said it once, now do it again.' And this time, in a dark room, all alone. It's so wrong to ask someone to repeat everything. And then, the person on the mic tells you, 'We're not getting the right emotion.' Of course, that's going to happen. That was filmed in extreme heat, and here I am wearing a sweatshirt in an air-conditioned room. I think it's a crime to not use of sync sound in this day and age.”
Mirzapur is also available in 'Ultra HD' 4K, the current gold standard for visual fidelity, just as with Amazon's two previous scripted series, Inside Edge and Breathe. The series was filmed with the RED Weapon digital camera at 5K resolution, with VFX and the final master rendered at 4K. Theatrical releases in India, be it from Bollywood or Hollywood, are still limited to 2K.
Mirzapur comes from the same team behind Amazon's International Emmy-nominated original series Inside Edge, including producers Farhan Akhtar and Sidhwani, and co-creators Karan Anshuman and Puneet Krishna. The last of those — Krishna — did much of his schooling in the Purvanchal region, the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh the show is based in, which meant he knew people who dealt in the illegal arms and drug business Mirzapur depicts.
None of the on-screen characters are directly based on someone they know, though. “They are all a mélange of many characters and characteristics of many people that we put together,” Anshuman said. “That's what writers do, right? We steal from real life and make them better.”
And given the large size of the ensemble, Mirzapur is able to paint a vivid, unflinching picture of what life is like in some of India's most impoverished corners. Anshuman thinks a common theme is “the angst that small-town India is going through, in terms of the aspirations they have, why they can't fulfil their dreams, and how that goes haywire”.
“And I think we are very, very political in terms of what we stand for, and what our beliefs are,” he added. “The entire writing team — and Ritesh would agree with that — [wanted] to say something beyond just putting a fictional piece out there.”
Mirzapur was part of the original slate that was unveiled at Prime Video's India launch in late 2016, but having the same creative team as Inside Edge, which premiered in mid-2017, meant it could only go on the floors early this year. Anshuman and Krishna revealed they spent about nine months scripting the first season, going back and forth with Amazon, exchanging drafts and feedback.
“The key here is to accept the fact that the battle is won and lost with the script,” Subramaniam said. “With cinematic TV, you tend to either make it too plot-heavy or not define the motivations of characters as strongly as you need to. But that's the whole point of the iterative process and we are extremely collaborative.”
That process is still new to a lot of people in India, he noted, and he praised the writing team for how they embraced the improvements that were required, especially with the story architecture. “They weren't looking it as, ‘Oh, you're telling me how to do it',” Subramaniam added. Additionally, Amazon also organises writers' workshops, where it flies in seasoned writers from the US to coach the writing team.
For Dugal, all that work showed. “It's rare to find scripts which have well-written dialogue. Mostly as actors, I keep feeling the only job we have is to correct the dialogue,” she said with a laugh, and added, “to make it sound real.”
The creators paid back those compliments to the actors. Mirzapur director, Gurmmeet Singh, said they never had to molly-coddle the actors for filming in trying conditions, including high temperatures and thousands of on-lookers. “There's a scene in which Vikrant [Massey, who plays one of the two leads, Bablu Pandit] was sitting in a truck for almost 4-5 hours, and he didn't want to come out, because he said this is my character and this is where I'll be,” he added.
Anshuman noted that Ali Fazal, who plays the other lead Guddu Pandit, would hit the gym at the end of each day — the character's primary focus is bodybuilding, as he wishes to compete in a regional competition — which consisted of a 12-hour filming block sandwiched between three hours of travel, for over a month. Mirzapur was filmed on location, in and around the titular city in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
"It does take a toll on you physically, and you've to be there emotionally as well,” Sharma said. “In the heat, you're wearing a leather jacket, and you're trying to be cool and everything, because the swag has to be there. But deep inside, there's that one drop of sweat that is flowing down your back. Mirzapur is a very intense show, but the beautiful thing is that the writing has a layer of humour to it all.”
Update 18/11: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mirzapur was not filmed or mastered in 4K, because Amazon had told us so. But after seeing the show streaming in Ultra HD upon its release on Friday, we reached out to Amazon, which rechecked the facts and said its spokesperson was mistaken.