Lights, Camera… Zoom!

Screen + Sound + Stage

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

Voot Select’s four-episode murder thriller, written by Mautik Tolia, Nikhil Nagesh Bhat, Ayesha Syed and Radhika Anand, and directed by Bhat, released on Thursday. The Gone Game – with an ensemble cast that includes names like Sanjay Kapoor, Arjun Mathur, Shriya Pilgaonkar and Shweta Tripathi Sharma – has innovatively adapted to the circumstances that we are all living in and firmly rooted its narrative in the present crisis. The very first scene places the action in the initial weeks of lockdown as statistics about the pandemic flash across our screens, along with the names of cities across the globe that . We learn that Sahil Gujral, a lead character, has recently returned from Bangkok and has isolated himself at home because he exhibits symptoms of COVID-19. To say more at this point would be a spoiler.

Produced by Bodhi Tree Multimedia, The Gone Game is the first scripted Indian show to incorporate the pandemic as an integral part of its plot and cleverly draws from the real-life restlessness of being resigned to life indoors, waiting for the crisis to end. The way the “unit” had to function was new territory for its physically separate cast and crew, who pulled out all the stops to offer a different experience for viewers as well. Bhat refers to his labour of love as a “whodunnit and a ‘howdunnit’ with many twists and turns in the episodes.” He says, “We have pushed ourselves to achieve these as we shot from the confines of our homes. I hope the audiences are suitably entertained – at least I would expect them to be. This is perhaps the most challenging project of our lives.”

Bhat and actors Arjun Mathur and Shriya Pilgaonkar talk about the excitement of participating in this cutting-edge exercise that culminated in a taut thriller.

Excerpts from a conversation… 

How did the idea for The Gone Game come about?
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat (NNB): The concept for The Gone Game was developed by Bodhi Tree Multimedia’s producers Sukesh Motwani, Mautik Tolia and Persis Singanporia. It stemmed from the thought of how we would grapple with the situation when we were stuck in different places and what would we do if one of our near ones got infected with COVID-19. Initially, only government hospitals were admitting patients and phones were not allowed. As a result, getting news of your loved ones was tough. So, what if one day a person suddenly disappears? What if that person has gone missing? And so then a question arises: has the person has died of COVID-19 or something else? All this uncertainty, anxiety and panic formed the germ of this idea. We started writing it in April when the lockdown had just begun. None of us knew if we were in it for just 21 days, a few weeks or even a whole year. I believe this is the first series that has been released, which has this pandemic as its central subject. And may perhaps be the first in the world to have been conceptualised, written, shot, edited, produced and aired during the pandemic.

Nikhil, what went into the selection of the cast?
NNB: The fact that there were many layers to the story. The Gone Game is not just a whodunnit. It is the story of a dysfunctional family that has many skeletons in the closet, which eventually begin to tumble out. We were looking for actors who were fabulous performers and could show a string of emotions in a matter of seconds. It was a joyride to work with the final team. And the first question we asked each of them was not about the availability of dates, but whether they had good internet connectivity in their homes!

Shriya and Arjun, what was your first reaction when you received this proposal in the lockdown? Shriya Pilgaonkar (SP): I had just finished shooting for Apoorva Lakhia’s action series, Crackdown. I was waiting for my debut Tamil-Telugu film Haathi Mere Saathi to release all over India in April, but things went haywire with the pandemic. When I was approached for The Gone Game, I was so excited to have got this opportunity. There was a huge sense of curiosity surrounding how we were going to pull it off. And my character was an interesting one. I play Suhani Kapoor Gujral, a popular health and beauty influencer whose life revolves around sharing the smallest things on social media. She is the alpha male in her marriage; her husband Sahil is not always comfortable with her life choices, and there is an underlying ego tussle. Tragedy strikes and he contracts COVID-19 – there are questions around his passing away and somewhere, they lead to Suhani.

Arjun Mathur (AM): Just before the lockdown happened, I was committed to two or three projects. One of them was the second season of Made in Heaven, for which we were supposed to start shooting in May. But then, of course, with the pandemic, everything was thrown up in the air. Initially, we were busy with what everyone was occupied with – cleaning, washing utensils and the like. But soon, all of us were aching to get back to work because there is only so much TV that you can watch; you can’t spend all your time thinking about food or planning your next meal. So when the call came, I was glad that this was being done right now, within the lockdown. The idea behind The Gone Game was very interesting, and of course, the fact that it was Nikhil who was brought on board to direct it! I’ve done a film with him before called Brij Mohan Amar Rahe, and that had been a special experience for me, so I jumped at the opportunity.

What did the initial preparations entail?
NNB: Thanks to the producers and the DOP, we did a test shoot and a few workshops with the family members. We shot on iPhones and cameras and wanted them to get as comfortable as possible with both the cameras and apps.

SP: We were involved in the project from day one. The script came to me in April, and we immediately did a bunch of reading sessions. We did one-on-one readings and honed our craft. Piyush conducted workshops with us on how to shoot at home and showed us and our family members how to use the FiLMiC Pro app. Later, when the situation eased out, some of us were given lights and DSLRs for certain shots. We did test scenes; we were sent references of shots – and all of this was so dependent on technology that you couldn’t afford to have a bad WiFi connection!

AM: We had a couple of full cast readings. But other than that, this was quite an isolated experience because every actor was shooting in their own home. Usually, you meet the director and are a part of his thinking process as well. I didn’t know what was being shot by the other actors. I wasn’t physically interacting with them. So, honestly speaking, I did not prepare too much because I was already in the situation that the narrative required me to be in – lockdown. Every shooting day, I would completely submit myself to Nikhil’s direction, which was very easy for me to do because we trusted each other explicitly. So I was like, “I don’t know where I am. I don’t know why I’m doing this, I don’t know where I come from right now, I don’t know where I’m going as the character. So, whatever you require for me to do on a shot by shot basis, you tell me. Hold my hand and take me through it, and I’ll give it to you.” So that’s the way I kind of approached this, and I enjoyed that.

Shriya and Arjun, give us an example of what you, as actors, found challenging during the shoots?
SP: In one scene, I had to shoot how someone threw a stone at my window and broke it. So, different glass pieces were sent to me. We had to cut the glass to make it look like a broken window. We cheated and positioned the camera to make it appear as if it was outside the window – we put it between two books, attached glass pieces to it and executed the shot.

AM: One of the symptoms of the virus is a bad dry cough, so I had to dry cough a lot. And coughing, when you don’t actually need to, is not good for your throat. So at the end of almost every shooting day, I would have a very bad throat. I would avoid doing those bits until the end of the day, or as late as possible, so that I could finish everything else with a clear voice. Also, many of my shots were taken in a dark room, in front of a computer screen, and the only light in the scene came from there. I have a black cat at home, and if he was sitting on the bed, we couldn’t see him. So, often, we would take a shot, which would go well, but then we would turn on the lights and realise the cat was on the bed. And we would have to redo it. Once, I had to shoot a scene outside my apartment and ensure that I lay low. I couldn’t just reveal to everyone that I was shooting at home because the rules were quite strict then. So for the scene that we had to shoot outside, we completed the discussions inside, went outside, did our work without saying a word and returned. We would then discuss the shot and go back to take some more.

What was the creative experience of collaborating in isolation?
SP: Since the serial is set against the backdrop of the pandemic, the experiences were those of isolation. The character was going through what I was in real life – although I was lucky that the disease had not touched anyone close to me. I was not operating from a personal space. It came down to having faith in your director. Nikhil was clear about what he wanted, and he was on the same page as our DOP – their presence on the Zoom calls helped guide us. The team was willing to improvise along the way. You need that attitude when you are shooting like that. And my parents (Supriya and Sachin Pilgaonkar) were very supportive. They were curious to see how we were going to pull it off. I don’t think they realised how serious we were as I didn’t give them the full idea of the project. I wanted them to experience the final version.

AM: I was getting an opportunity to create something, which in itself was extremely satisfying. Creation comes in groups or alone; this was just a new and different way of creating. I was isolated from other actors, but while shooting, of course, there was me, and there were Nikhil and Piyush on the Zoom call. I had two people on Zoom and two people at home helping me. And we were all following the same vision. Hats off to Nikhil who has performed as every single character on the show because he was the one giving all the cues to everybody. It was his voice that I would hear, and I would imagine the rest. It was not easy, because in any scene with another actor, you certainly want to look into their eyes and, and actually feel the emotion. Honestly speaking, the show is a lot of cheating. And it’s a lot of imagination on the part of the actors.

NNB: Our real-life experiences helped us in the writing as we were grappling with the same situations that the characters were facing. It was easier for us (the writers) to visualise how the players would think or react in such scenarios. But executing the same thing became a huge challenge. On a film set, there are live interactions, and we can change things at the last minute. All this was not possible here. We had to meticulously plan things to the last detail because the actors were also their own stylists, make-up artists, production designers and gaffers, and their family members were the cameramen. Piyush (Puty, the DOP) and I were constantly with the actors on Zoom as they shot their bits to see how it was going, but we did not want to overwhelm them with queries and instructions because actors need to be left alone to perform.

Would you be game for an encore?
SP: If one has the option of not shooting this way, I would take it. You do miss being around people. As much as I loved it, I am ready to get back to an actual set and do it the normal way. It is so much more fun to be in that chaos.

AM: I would certainly be game to do it again, but only if the plot and narrative absolutely demanded it.

NNB: Now that I know how to shoot in such a time, I will try and up the game. It all depends on the story. It should be different from The Gone Game. But it should be as demanding and innovative.

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