ZEE5’s web series Kaafir is creating plenty of buzz for its refreshing take on patriotism, love and humanity. The cast of the series, Dia Mirza and Mohit Raina, talk to Titas Chowdhury about the relevance of the show, democracy in the digital space and their upcoming projects
In Kaafir, Dia, you play Kainaaz, an emotionally charged character and Mohit, you play Vedant, who comes with his own story. How much did these characters affect you because it seems you had to visit some dark areas in your mind?
Mohit Raina (MR): Well, personally, it did affect me a lot. I have realised over the years that there are certain traits, emotions and characteristics of the characters that you play which stay with you. I lived Vedant’s life for two-three months, pre-shoot, during the shoot and post-shoot. So there are certain characteristics that you imbibe without even realising it. I learnt a lot of patience from Vedant. I would like to keep him and his patience with me for some time.
Dia Mirza (DM): I think Vedant has imbibed a lot from Mohit. I really see a lot of Mohit in Vedant. As for my character, given Kainaaz’s life experiences and circumstances, it was very important to experience it fully. And I don’t think those experiences will ever really leave me. They shouldn’t because they have enriched and empowered me; Kainaaz has given me shakti. There’s so much I learnt from her that I hope I never forget it.
Kaafir marks the digital debut for both of you. How do you look at the web space? What do you think is the biggest advantage this platform offers?
DM: It’s the most democratic space. It’s a space that has unified artistes across the world and empowering them. By artistes, I mean storytellers, writers, directors, cinematographers and actors. The fact that it’s devoid of censorship and it’s such a liberal, open and democratic space gives an opportunity to really fulfill the priority that art, cinema and storytelling was created to engage, involve and evoke feelings. It can be all types of feelings, whether terror, love, happiness, joy or whatever the genre or theme of the narrative is.
As a woman, an artiste and a producer, I feel liberated and empowered to find myself part of good narratives because I understand how much goes into creating content and how many pitfalls we face as creators because of the box office. Otherwise, there are too many conditions imposed on us right from the word ‘go’. Censorship begins at the writing level. The fact that OTT platforms give you freedom is a big plus. You get to really thrive.
MR: I, personally, think the web has completely changed the dynamics of the creative industry. And the best example is Kaafir. I come from a television background and Dia comes from a film background. At no point did either of us imagine that we would work on a platform that was different than the one we knew. There was a huge gap between television and films. That has been bridged by the web.
DM: There is a solid bridge that is being formed. That is why I call the web a ‘unifier’. It’s not just television and films, but television, films and theatre. There are so many extraordinary theatre actors who are now featuring in digital shows. These shows would never have been part of moving pictures.
MR: I think it’s the best phase for anybody in the industry right now. You can be an actor, a creator, a director. There is so much work happening. On average, there are no less than 50 shows being made every month. There is so much work being consumed. The demand for content is so high that new avenues and more platforms are being generated.
DM: It’s a great time for everyone. It’s also a time that will reveal our maturity as storytellers.
And we are already making some good stories for the web.
DM: Yes, and Kaafir is one of them. We’re very proud that Kaafir is our digital debut. It’s the kind of story that resonates so deeply with so many people and, especially, us. We did it because we genuinely cared for it and believed in it.
MR: Kaafir has got its due because it released on the digital platform. The story was with the writer, Bhavani Iyer, for 13 years. Our producer, Siddharth P Malhotra, was trying to produce it for the last eight years.
DM: So it is really the digital platform that gave the story the opportunity to be told.
MR: And look at the outcome! In a few days, the kind of response that we are getting is amazing.
DM: It is unbelievable!
MR: I don’t think it would have received so much love otherwise.
In light of the political fabric of the country right now, do you think it was important for a story like Kaafir to be told? As actors, do you think you need to shoulder some responsibility?
DM: We’ve talked about this as a team and discovered that this narrative couldn’t have been better timed. It’s not just about what’s happening in India, but also about what’s happening in the world. There is this whole idea of ‘them’ and ‘us’, divisions and polarity. This narrative of hate that has been taking over our communication needed to be addressed and done as poignantly, poetically and lovingly as Kaafir.
Despite the fact that people might think it’s an India-Pakistan story, I think it’s a story that transcends borders because it’s about two human beings who are trapped in human conflict and what that does to their lives and their freedom. It could be happening anywhere in the world right now. It could be in any area of conflict.
MR: What she has said is absolutely true. When we started making this series, we didn’t know about timing.
DM: But the Pulwama attack had just happened and there was a certain political narrative that was dominating the country.
MR: But we didn’t know when Kaafir would release. It was a big coincidence that the India versus Pakistan match took place on June 16. Kaafir started streaming on June 15. I don’t think any of these things were planned. I’ve a team member who’s been in Bombay for about 24 years. While I was coming here, I asked him how the city had changed over the years. He was explaining how people have changed. Today, we don’t have time to meet each other; we’re constantly racing to achieve our goals. This series makes you stop, breathe and think.
DM: You know, there’s a poem by Harivansh Rai Bachchan: Jeevan ke aapaadhaapi mein kabh waqt mila kuch der kahin par baith… It means that we have no time to stop and stare. Kaafir makes you stop, stand, stare and think. And we all need to do that because we don’t (Smiles).
Dia, you recently produced Mind The Malhotras for Amazon Prime. How did that happen?
DM: We’ve been in the production business for eight to ten years. We’ve made feature films. The idea was to obviously expand into digital and do more. I’ve always respected and looked up to Sameer Nair. He met with us and offered us the opportunity to make something for Applause (Entertainment). Mind The Malhotras was one of the few things that came our way.
It’s an interesting programme, a sitcom; it’s a space that we haven’t explored in India at all. It was an experiment and we really enjoyed it. As producers, you’ve to create platforms and opportunities for all departments to thrive and do what they do best. It’s really good to see how wonderfully it has come together and people are enjoying it which is great (Smiles).
Mohit, there were talks about you being part of Mrs Serial Killer, a Netflix Original. Are you doing that?
MR: Well, I cannot say much about it unless something is officially announced.
DM: I know! Can I tell you? I know all his secrets (Laughs)!
MR: And yet she hasn’t cast me in any of her production ventures. When you asked her the previous question, I was thinking that she would talk about casting me since she has been producing so many things.
Dia, you have to cast Mohit.
DM: Yes, I have to. He’s too talented. If he does Mrs Serial Killer and other amazing things, then maybe, I’ll cast him.
MR: To sum it up, the digital space is giving rise to so much work and so much content. There are so many creatively great people to work with and there’s so much freedom. Had it not been for this space, we wouldn’t have been able to tell a story like Kaafir. I hope we keep pushing boundaries and doing the right things. We tend to take these platforms for granted sometimes. We need to respect the audience a lot. They are very intelligent. They will turn away from their laptops or phones if the content can’t keep them involved or if it doesn’t make sense to them.
DM: But you’re not taking anything for granted.
MR: I’m not talking about myself in particular.
DM: I’m just clarifying. I should be his formal cheerleader.
MR: But you still haven’t cast me in a project.
Coming back to Mrs Serial Killer, is it happening?
MR: Oh, so I couldn’t dodge the question successfully? (Laughs) I hope it happens. I am keeping my fingers crossed. I want it to happen.
DM: Mohit, are you a convincing liar? (Laughs)
Finally, what is next for each of you?
MR: If I bag Mrs Serial Killer, I will do it (Chuckles). And then there is Shiddat. I hope to do some great work.
DM: For now, I’m just soaking in the love for Kaafir. It has been an incredible journey. What’s next is compelling, exciting and a lot of hard work, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a historical show that is being directed by Nikkhil Advani. It’s going to be my first historical. I’m so excited. (Smiles)