Sonakshi Sinha and Vijay Varma on their ‘jugalbandhi’ in ‘Dahaad’
Sonakshi Sinha recalls receiving a text message from director-producer Zoya Akhtar, asking to meet. Soon enough, she was sitting across from two women filmmakers she had admired all her life and desired to work with. “Zoya and Reema (Kagti) narrated the first episode of Dahaad and gave me the synopsis of the series,” Sonakshi shares. Under ordinary circumstances, she’d have asked for a full script and a few days’ time to mull it over. In the event, though, she couldn’t suppress her excitement. “Even before I left the table I told them I have to do this role.”
The role in question is Anjali Bhaati, a sub-inspector in the small Rajasthan town of Mandawa. She is the driven, uncompromising, and occasionally overreaching protagonist of Dahaad, an eight-episode series co-created by Akhtar and Kagti and streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Directed by Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi, the series centres on a string of mysterious suicides; young women, all runaways from oppressed backgrounds, have been popping cyanide pills and dying in public toilets. Anjali, convinced a serial killer is on the prowl, accosts demure college professor Anand Swarnakar (Vijay Varma). This sparks a complicated cat-and-mouse that spans multiple districts and an escalating kill count.
Dahaad was shot through the pandemic in 2020-21 (it premiered in the series programme of the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year). Sonakshi and Vijay had contrasting training regimens for the show. Sonakshi, playing a female cop in an emphatically male department, learned to ride a bike and trained in Judo. She was dialect-coached by language trainer Varat Bhatnagar (“There’s a roughness and sweetness all at once in the Rajasthani tongue”). Vijay was voiced-trained too, but beyond that his transformation was wholly internal. “I consulted with practising psychologists and psychiatrists to understand the mind of a serial killer,” Vijay says. “Though I didn’t feel for it, I had to put myself in his position.”
Pairing — if that’s the word — Sonakshi and Vijay in its central crucible is one of the neater ideas in Dahaad. Though they have limited scenes together, the actors play off each other well. Sonakshi uses the classical music term ‘jugalbandhi’ to describe their collaboration. She says Vijay would turn up on set in character, keeping a distance and not letting his actual persona pour forth. “It was only later that I discovered he is such a chill, light-hearted guy,” Sonakshi says.
We ask Vijay if he’s concerned about getting stereotyped — before Dahaad, he had turned up the creepiness in Darlings, She, and Pink. “This is one of the last ones,” he assures us. He reels off his list of favourite evil performances: Anthony Hopkins in his Hannibal Lecter films, Al Pacino in Scarface and The Devil’s Advocate, Robert De Niro in Cape Fear, Nana Patekar in Agni Sakshi, Fahadh Faasil in Kumbalangi Nights. “There was a strange kind of evil and magnetism in Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread,” he adds.
Dahaad paints a realistic picture of caste hierarchies and how they enable violent crimes against women. “Reema has skillfully woven these elements into the script,” Sonakshi says. In the series, Anjali, though an empowered police officer, faces misogyny and discrimination at her workplace. This is compounded by catcalls and the ubiquity of marital pressure on Indian women.
Sonakshi asserts she had personal resonance with some of these themes, and needn’t have visited interior Rajasthan to grasp their all-pervasiveness. “Every time I open my social media, there are thousands of questions about when I am getting married,” she says. “My independence and happiness appear to matter less than my marital status. It’s quite bizarre.”
Dahaad is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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