Sending up Bollywood
The makers of Netflix original Call My Agent Bollywood reveal how they brought this Indian adaptation of French comedy-drama Dix Pour Cent to the screen.
Since 2015, viewers tuning into France 2 and Netflix’s award-winning comedy-drama Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent) have followed the changing fortunes of the staff and clients at the ASK talent agency in Paris.
Now Netflix is the home to a new international version of the series set in India. Following in the footsteps of the original, Call My Agent Bollywood centres on four savvy, street smart talent agents who must manage fragile star egos and real human emotions to save their agency from closure after the sudden death of the founder.
Written by Abbas and Hussain Dalal and directed by Shaad Ali, the cast features Aahana Kumra, Ayush Mehra, Rajat Kapoor and Soni Razdan in the lead roles, while viewers will also see an array of Bollywood stars make guest appearances. The six-part series is produced by Applause Entertainment in association with Banijay Asia.
Here, Banijay Asia CEO Deepak Dhar, Applause’s head of content Deepak Segal and writers Abbas and Hussain Dalal tell DQ how they took the idea behind the original series and gave it a Bollywood makeover.
What are the origins of Call My Agent Bollywood?
Deepak Segal: We really liked the original French series, Dix Pour Cent, as it resonated with the film culture in Mumbai. Call My Agent Bollywood takes us on an exciting wild ride into the world of Bollywood, glamour and celebrity culture. It’s a funny, quirky, heart-warming and emotional take on the cutthroat world of showbiz.
Hussain Dalal: Banijay came to us with the idea of remaking Call My Agent. We had heard about the show but not watched it. So the first thing we did was watch the original. I had planned to watch only two episodes, but then I couldn’t stop. We binged all episodes in one night – and instantly knew that this was something we wanted to adapt.
Abbas Dalal: Me and Hussain watched the show together. And while watching it, we had a lot of moments where we just looked at each other and laughed because we could relate. I feel the traits of ‘artists’ around the world are the same.
Why did you think the original French show would be a good series for adaptation?
Deepak Dhar: Since the creation of Banijay Asia, we have focused on quality content and cutting-edge formats. It is the curiosity of our ever-evolving audience that inspires us to fiercely chase new formats and plots to adapt. Moreover, the entertainment industry is at the very heart of our Indian audience. The French original has a very interesting plot that highlights a whole new side of the industry, from the talent managers’ perspective. It had a lot of potential. After all, reimagining a series according to the local milieu is all about finding that one common thread of relatability between the two worlds and we found it with Call My Agent.
Segal: The Indian film industry, Bollywood, is a colourful universe in itself. All the necessary ingredients from the original show, be it starry tantrums, their inflated egos or the managers for different stars, are also part of this world in Mumbai. We saw a lot of potential in exaggerating the characters of the actual star cameos and used it in building the screenplay. Another important aspect was the agents and their personal lives.
Abbas Dalal: Because of the insight it offers into the lives of artists. It was an opportunity to show a humane, vulnerable side of actors and bring one of the many unsung heroes of the film industry, agents, into the limelight.
What was your approach to adapting the source material?
Segal: Adapting and contextualising without losing the essence of the original show is always the aim. But unlike the original show, we wanted to give a colourful and vibrant spin to Call My Agent Bollywood, just like our movies. We decided to use Victoria Terminus/CST (one of the oldest railway stations in Asia) as a backdrop for its Gothic architecture. We placed the agents’ office next to the grand structure and opted for an art-deco look for the agency interiors. We designed a bright, colourful and stylish costume palette for the agents, which gels with the stars they represent.
Hussain Dalal: This show couldn’t have been set anywhere apart from Mumbai, so that was a straightforward decision. Since this was a very character-driven show, we focused on creating the Indian personas of the agents first.
Abbas Dalal: As in the original, every episode is centred on an issue revolving around an actor, so in a way we had to do the casting at the writing stage itself. We had to write specifically for the actors we thought would be in the episode.
How was the series developed with Netflix?
Dhar: First and foremost, Applause Entertainment picked this up and we partnered with them to produce it. After the huge success of Hostages one and two, we ended up producing Call My Agent Bollywood for Applause Entertainment, who, in turn, partnered with Netflix. We had already brought on Shaad Ali, who has directed hits like Saathiya, Dil Se, Bunty Aur Babli, and Hussain and Abbas Dalal who have worked as writers on Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, 2 States, Karwaan and Kalank. We planned some great cameos, from Jackie Shroff and Dia Mirza to Lara Dutta and Farah Khan. Overall, the team worked really well and made it happen.
Abbas and Hussain Dalal: Netflix came on board much later. Before that, Applause gave us complete freedom so we could have fun with the source material. French humour is quite different to Indian humour, so there was a lot of scope for change, especially in the dialogue. We tried to doctor the story as per Indian sensibilities.
What changes have you made, either to the storylines or characters, for local Indian audiences?
Segal: We really liked the original storylines and tried to stick to the original plot. However, we did make some changes to appeal to our audience. We introduced ‘kalaripayattu,’ a form of Indian martial art for [guest star] Dia Mirza in episode one. Also, the song during the agency bosses’ prayer meet was originally written by singer Ila Arun, who is an esteemed actor and singer.
Hussain Dalal: In the original show’s plot, an actor was afraid of swimming. In our last episode we gave Jackie Shroff, the action hero of yesteryear, a unique phobia: fear of acting with dogs. It added a unique dimension to the macho actor who has previously acted with a dog in a super-hit film Teri Meherbaniyan.
Abbas Dalal: In the French version, the veteran agent Arlette was very different. For the Indian version, we made Arlette into Treasa Matthews. We modelled the character on my teacher, because we wanted her to be an endearing lady who could say the harshest things in the politest manner. The casting of Soni Razdan was just the icing on the cake.
What elements of Bollywood did you want to explore that make it a unique industry to be a part of?
Segal: Celebrities and fame combined with personality, egos, apprehensions, likes and dislikes, and the fun that takes place behind the scenes.
Hussain Dalal: The chaos of Bollywood, that’s what we wanted to explore. Our audiences had a macro vision of the movie-making business. We wanted to give them a micro-vision of Bollywood. Actors are very interesting beings, so we wanted to provide an insight into their psyche, their insecurities and their struggles.
Abbas Dalal: Agents are also one of the many essential members that keep Bollywood running smoothly. They do all the so called ‘unglamorous’ background work, from contracts and dates to dealing with actor issues. This is our tribute to not only agents, but to the unsung heroes of Bollywood.
Tell us about the characters. How do we follow them through the series?
Segal: Of four primary characters from the show, Monty Behl [Kapoor] is one of the most promising agents at ART, the talent agency. He is calm, manipulative and knows how to get his work done either by any means necessary. His family matters to him but his career is always the priority. An opportunist, he is well connected and has a strong network in the industry. When his illegitimate daughter joins the agency, Monty uses all his resources to get rid of her.
Mehershad Sodawala [Mehra] is an earnest, emotional and sincere agent. He gets hyper occasionally and is discouraged quite easily. After falling for Nancy, the receptionist at his office, he helps her in getting roles at auditions.
Amal Ahmed [Kumra] is an ambitious, street-smart agent who is involved in countless lesbian romances. Amal has anger issues and loses her patience easily. She understands how to manipulate people by sweet talking and is good at her job.
Treasa Matthews [Razdan] is an older, veteran agent at the agency. Treasa guides her fellow agents at the agency in times of crisis and motivates them. By the end of the season, she holds the agents together when they face uncertainty about their future and job.
Hussain Dalal: Like Abbas said about Treasa, all the agents are fragments of the people we’ve met and worked with closely. As an audience you follow them through thick and thin and see them in situations where their patience is tested, because in filmmaking you’re just a step away from crisis. Seeing your characters in crisis gives you great scope from comedy.
Abbas Dalal: Bollywood is a make-or-break industry with high rewards and high risk. Through the characters journey, we’ve tried to give you an insight into how when an actor is struggling the people working with them are struggling too.
Which guest stars feature in the show? Were they keen to take part and play ‘themselves’?
Segal: Dia Mirza, Lillete Dubey, Ila Arun, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sarika, Akshara Haasan, Farah Khan, Lara Dutta, Sameer Saxena, Ali Fazal, Richa Chaddha, Nandita Das and Jackie Shroff were all very keen to play themselves and came up with lovely ideas during the shoot to enhance their characters.
What was the writing process like?
Segal: The main reason for adapting this show was the universal theme of showbiz, which resonates with everyone throughout the world. We tried to stick to the original core idea of the French show and ‘Indianise’ it for the audience. Hussain and Abbas executed this brief perfectly.
Hussain Dalal: Fun. A lot of fun. Dramedy is one of our favourite genres to write. We loved the original show and characters so much that it was a breeze to write.
Abbas Dalal: The humour was free-flowing for us. I think humour and sarcasm are something that come naturally to us. So, like Hussain said, it was a very fun show for a writer to write.
What kind of visual style did you want for the series?
Dalal: One that captures the chaos and glamour of Bollywood.
Abbas Dalal: Every episode also has a different visual style in a way, depending on what the story demands.
What challenges did you have filming the series?
Dhar: Soon after we announced Call My Agent Bollywood, we went into [Covid-19] lockdown. We had to hit pause on production and spend time figuring out how we could make this work. We shot Call My Agent during the pandemic when very few other productions were. We, at Banijay Asia, take health and safety of our employees and crew members very seriously. Hence, we spoke with our Banijay colleagues around the world to make sure we were using internationally recognised best practice alongside the local guidelines.
Segal: Due to the pandemic most of our narrations, discussions and readings happened online. This was also the first production that started post the first wave and post-production was completed during the second wave.
Abbas Dalal: The production crew did a commendable job in executing the show during the tough times of a pandemic.
Why should viewers of the original series watch Call My Agent Bollywood?
Dhar: Call My Agent is an inherently quirky and interesting plot that drew viewers. For the audience who have seen the original series, Call My Agent Bollywood will be like peeking into an alternative universe of the entertainment industry. As in the French show, we see many known faces appearing in the episodes. Great cameos like Jackie Shroff, Lara Dutta, Dia Mirza and Farah Khan were lined up. Call My Agent Bollywood is an exciting, much-needed extension.
Abbas Dalal: The French show was a beautiful insight into the French industry. This is our attempt to show you the world of Bollywood.
What do you think real agents in Bollywood will make of the show?
Dhar: We worked closely with our writers to translate the real experiences of these talent managers into the script and present a very close to reality picture of the agents, whilst taking some creative liberties along the way to make it more entertaining. I hope they found a strand of relatability in our characters.
Hussain Dalal: I hope they relate!
tagged in: Aahana Kumra, Applause Entertainment, Ayush Mehra, Banijay Asia., bbas Dalal, Bollywood, Call My Agent, Call My Agent Bollywood, Deepak Dhar, Dix Pour Cent, eepak Segal, France 2, Hussain Dalal, Netflix, Rajat Kapoor, Shaad Ali, Soni Razdan