Hansal Mehta is repeatedly attracted to true stories and biopics. From movies such as Shahid and Aligarh to the web series Scam 1992, he has mined reality for drama. Mehta’s latest series, Scoop, is a fictionalisation of Mumbai crime reporter Jigna Vora’s memoir Behind Bars in Byculla: My Days in Prison. Vora was an accused in the 2011 murder of journalist J Dey (she was eventually acquitted).

The newsroom-prison-courtroom drama will hit Netflix on June 2. The cast includes Karishma Tanna as the journalist Jagruti Pathak, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub and Harman Baweja. Mehta told Scroll about what attracted him to the story, which has been created by him and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul and adapted by Lagoo Waikul and Mirat Trivedi.

Why did you think Behind Bars in Byculla made for a compelling show?
It came from Jigna’s character, who is now Jagruti in the show. The book was mainly a prison diary of her time in Byculla Jail. But I felt there was a larger story about the city, about a Gujarati woman in the city. I felt there were so many layers that could be explored. We took the book as a starting point and went beyond to explore the character beyond the book.

We also wanted to look beyond Jigna where the real story needed to represent every woman and how the reporter became the reported. That fight for a byline, for that front page, and you pay such a big price for it that you become the headline. And then you are forgotten. You are fighting a legal battle for seven years to get an acquittal.

I thought the way these things happen is fascinating. It’s a story of hustle, a story of spirit, of the breaking of the human spirit. It’s very easy to break an ordinary person’s spirit here, because you feel powerless. I decided to pick up elements from Jigna’s life and story and build around that while also fictionalising the drama.

As for Jagruti’s character, the show is a non-judgmental look at an ordinary person who is not always conventional or perfect in her methods, but an ordinary hustler trying to find a story, trying to make a better life for herself. That hustle attracted me to the character.

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Karishma Tanna in Scoop (2023). Courtesy Matchbox Shots/Netflix.

What makes prison dramas an interesting playing field for a creator?
Actually, my motivation for filming this book and this story was not quite the prison drama aspect. The prison drama, documented in the book, was the starting point.

I was interested in Jigna Vora’s life before prison and the larger world as a story of how aspirations push someone, at what cost? Here is an ordinary person but also someone who is in a perceived position of power as a member of the Fourth Estate. These people are bylines, but behind that byline is a story of ambition, aspiration, the struggle of ordinary city life. Here is someone you would not recognise on the street who suddenly becomes part of this big underworld conspiracy.

Honestly, I was very scared to make it a prison drama. I didn’t want to do that because there is already Orange Is the New Black, Ek Hasina Thi, so many references. What could I do that would be different? For example, with Orange Is the New Black, after a point there is visual nausea. Like how much will I see the same colours, the same rooms? You feel like you’re in prison.

The larger story fascinated me. Then, as we started exploring the undertrial prison, it became fun. Undertrial prisons are jam-packed with people stuck in these dormitories. There are small gangs operating there. It’s fascinating.

Why have you changed the names of the main characters – editors, cops, journalists but retained the real names of the underworld dons?
That was consciously done. We have made composites of different characters who were around at that time. For example, a police officer is not exactly one person but an amalgam.

I felt the issue is more systemic than personal, as a story about individuals – media, underworld, police, politicians – who are in this unspoken alliance. But when it came to the dons, I felt they deserved to be named. Ultimately, their role in various things is well documented, beyond the book, and I thought it was within the parameters of truth.

Will there be more seasons of Scoop? And what else are you working on?
Yes. We are developing season two right now, which will be very different from season one. I am trying to tell stories about the media, tackling different aspects of this world through the stories of journalists, the media and news breaks and the stories they become.

Right now, I am deeply immersed in the pre-production of Gandhi, which is based on Ramachandra Guha’s books. We begin shooting later this year. It’s a big responsibility and an ambitious project. I feel this is one of the things I want to leave behind as a legacy – as a document of the times, to understand our world, to understand India. I am also in post-production of my film starring Kareena Kapoor Khan.

Hansal Mehta.

You’ve done many films based on real life incidents. What repeatedly draws you to these stories?
The story. It just so happens that these are real stories. When you see a compelling story and you realise it’s actually happened, the urgency of the story becomes even more. You feel for it.

It just so happens that all these years I have been drawn to these stories, or the stories have come to me and I’ve been at the right place at the right time. And now I am also getting paid to tell those stories.

You began your career with a cookery show for television, followed by fictional TV shows. You made a feature film for TV, Jayate, in 1997. Do you see yourself back on TV?
Television has such immense reach that I feel a show like Scam, while on OTT, would have reached so many more people if the episodes were released weekly on TV. The reach of television cannot be challenged.

What needs definite reflection is what we are giving the TV viewing audience. America had glorious years of TV when the best characters, stories, writing came from television and streaming – such as Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos. But, in India, we skipped the good part and jumped from ’90s television to Netflix. Creators have had to evolve with the sudden change. The learning curve from TV to OTT or film to OTT has been very sharp.

Scoop (2023).

Also read:

Arrested, acquitted: Jigna Vora recounts her trauma after being accused in journalist J Dey’s murder