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Netflix’s ‘Ghoul’ Is All Kinds of Fascinating

Director Patrick Graham and lead actor Manav Kaul deep dive into the process behind the latest Indian screamfest.
August 20, 2018, 5:30am

It’s midday in Mahim, Mumbai. Patrick Graham, the director of Netflix’s latest India original, Ghoul, steps inside the vanity van listening to the Sex Pistols. The mini-series’ male lead, Manav Kaul of Tumhari Sulu fame, walks in with his 'special chai', the ingredients of which remain largely unknown. He then asks his spot boy to get one for Graham as well, as we settle into our interview.

Ghoul, without giving any spoilers, is about a new recruit in a specialised interrogation team based in a secret military facility in the middle of nowhere, but clearly in India. When she (Radhika Apte) arrives there, she finds that a new prisoner is on his way who's also a terrorist leader. Once they start interrogating him, she and the other soldiers realise there is more to him than just terrorism, as he starts to turn the table on his interrogators.

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VICE: Had you already shot the series when Netflix came on board?

Patrick Graham: Netflix came on board at the beginning of this year. A lot of the series had been shot, and we were at an edit stage.

What kind of feedback did you get?
Graham: They asked us to juice [up] certain sequences. Rethink where we ended our episodes, because they’re big on the cliffhanger format. They were instrumental in rebalancing some of the weight of the drama to make it that much more watchable, so that you binge-watch it.

Did you have to shoot anything extra?
Graham: We did, and we put back a few scenes that perhaps in a film format would’ve elongated the drama more than advisable. But for a series you have time to let things breathe. We shot an extra 30 minutes of footage, but the great thing was that everyone involved knew where the footage could go to increase the emotional content of the story.

Manav, what was it like working in a large ensemble cast in a closed set-up?
Manav Kaul: Everyone was amazing. I know Ratnabali [Bhattacharjee] very well. Radhika–I’ve seen perform on stage also. And we did lots of rehearsals; 15 days for each and every scene. So when we were on the set, only the physical structure had changed; apart from that we all knew everything. We hardly wasted time on anything.

Your recent play Chuhal, about two opposites in a match-making meeting, did really well. How do you plan to balance your time between theatre, film and TV/web series'?
Kaul: Actors have a lot of time (laughs). I don’t know what to do with the time. I play cricket, badminton. I do theatre, I read books. I travel a lot. And even then, there’s time left. Actors are like lazy bums. I realised this when I started. I sit in the vanity van and read books. I finished the entire collection of [John Maxwell] Coetzee in one film.
Graham: What was the film?
Kaul: Kai Po Che.
Graham: That’s a good film.
Kaul: Yes, it’s a nice movie, but I had to wait. The idea is that actors have a lot of time. Just take books. Take a writer and finish his entire collection.

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How does that help you in the acting process?
Kaul: Reading makes me concentrate. When you go for the shot with something very interesting you have read, you are very focused. I think it’s a very interesting exercise all actors should try, rather than sit and gossip, which is also fun at times.

Mahesh Balraj in Ghoul. Image: Ishika Motawane/Netflix

You had a very interesting role in Tumhari Sulu, playing a man conditioned in patriarchy, but trying to come to terms with a ‘progressive’ wife. Why don’t we have more such substantial supporting roles for men?
Kaul: I've waited and waited [for them]. I didn’t do anything for a year and a half before Tumhaari Sulu, because everything I was getting was part Wazir, part Kai Po Che. I had to wait for something interesting. Ghoul was one of them. It’s something we haven’t seen in India. I’ve really wanted to be a part of these things rather than, you know, do a lot of stuff and have people say, “Why are you doing the same thing again and again?”

On that note of not doing the same repeatedly, Patrick you made a TV movie a while ago. Do you think your experience with Phir Se helped with Ghoul in any way?
Graham: (Laughs) Phir Se was like an inauguration to the industry in India. I made it in 2011, and I had been here for just a year.

So I was going through your Twitter account…
Graham: Shit! About two weeks ago I went to my Twitter [account], and I was like ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck.’ I should just delete the whole fucking account.

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You have a fairly political Twitter feed.
Graham: Shit! (Laughs).

The world in Ghoul is a dystopian future, with certain sections of society marginalised. While we are all currently operating within a politically charged environment, does Ghoul make a political statement?
Graham: The primary goal of Ghoul as a story is first and foremost to provide entertainment. And that story is within the context of a dystopian future, and with a dystopian future there are certain boxes you have to tick, otherwise it’s not a dystopian future. I would hesitate to say that there is a very specific political statement. Whatever the audience wants to interpret, they are welcome to.
But first and foremost, it is entertainment. And it is fiction. And the dystopian future is presented as a fairly generic dystopian future, almost a westernised version, with barbed wire, dogs, guns, people in helmets being nasty to other people.

But fundamentalists do get killed in the goriest way possible on the show.
Graham: Do they? (Laughs) Don’t give away too much!

Would you guys work together again?
Kaul: Of course, because we laugh so much. I miss his [Patrick's] charm. And I really love his humour.
Graham: It was fun because we were working on quite a grim set, but Manav still provided comic energy, so it livened up everybody when he came on set and started making stupid remarks.
Kaul:I used to imitate everyone.

What’s your best imitation?
Kaul: Of Jai, our Director of Photography. Also when he [Patrick] wants to talk to anyone in Hindi, it’s really funny. He would just get exasperated, and scream, ‘ Arre yaar Manav,’ in a very funny accent.

Netflix’s Ghoul drops on August 24.

Follow Parthshri Arora on Twitter.