Amit Kumar made his directorial debut with critically acclaimed Monsoon Shootout (2013) that screened in the Midnight Screenings section at the Cannes Film Festival, and after a gap of over seven years, the filmmaker has resurfaced for The Last Hour, his debut web series for Amazon Prime releasing on Friday, 14 May. A supernatural thriller set in a small Himalayan town, the series that is backed by British filmmaker and Academy Award winner Asif Kapadia, explores the story of a shaman (a person who is thought to have special powers to control or influence good and evil spirits; a popular belief in parts of Assam, Nepal, Himachal Pradesh to name a few) who joins a newly-transferred cop to track down a mysterious killer.
Kumar and Kapadia go back in time. Kapadia was making a student film in India in 1996 when he first met Kumar at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Kumar was working on his short film, The Bypass (2003), when the duo met the late Irrfan Khan for the first time; the film was produced by Kapadia whose first feature film The Warrior was shot in the Himalayas and deserts of Rajasthan. "Amit and I share an interest in the supernatural, and he is particularly fascinated by the concept of playing with time. We wanted to create a series that was original, authentic and riveting," said Kapadia.
Kapadia bagged the Academy Award for the Best Documentary (Feature) in 2016, for his film Amy. "Asif and I have worked together since our film school days, we have collaborated on movies, television series, short stories around the world and when the chance to collaborate on this idea came up, we grabbed it. Together with Anupama Minz, my co-creator and co-writer, we have created a unique supernatural show," says Kumar. The Last Hour features a stellar cast including Sanjay Kapoor, Shahana Goswami, Karma Takapa, Shaylee Krishen, Raima Sen, Robin Tamang and Mandakini Goswami in pivotal roles.
Kumar says that his obsession with supernatural ideas goes back to his childhood. "I grew up in South Africa and we used to have a flock of chickens at home, we had 30 to 40 of them. Unfortunately, when some of the chickens would die I used to wonder what happened to them, did they just evaporate? Where did they go? I am really fascinated with the idea of death and after, what happens to the soul? The idea of something existing beyond what we can see, or measure. That was my introduction to supernatural things. My dad was practical and my mother more religious, so I grew up realising that there is no one fixed way of looking at life. This idea of two approaches to life was always there, and I ended up packaging all this into a thriller called The Last Hour," says the director.
"I don't think of death more than I need to, I am a very practical person and believe in science. I can see that a lot of people do believe in coincidences, unexplained stuff and I give room for that thought that okay, maybe these are unexplained mysteries and maybe there is some answer to it. But I always look at science to answer those questions. So when Amit came up with the idea, our endeavour was to make it as believable as possible. Maybe not in a scientific way but from a story point of view and that is how setting and people came into the picture," says Anupama Minz.
"My background is from India, I am from India but I grew up in London. And London, England, Europe, India..there was always this discussion over superstition, religion, spirituality...I got attracted to this magical realism and was always interested in something spiritual, supernatural. Complexities of playing with different storylines is Amit's forte and I believe that in reality something magical could happen, so it was a meeting of different minds and ways of thinking. And Anupama is interested in science, so that tension between different people added into creating the series. But this show has been a long journey," says Kapadia.
The Last Hour is anchored by actor Sanjay Kapoor, who plays a police officer on a mission of finding someone with the help of a young shaman, played by Karma Takapa. "I have played a host of diverse roles in films over the last 26 years but I had never played a cop, and I couldn't have played a cop in this kind of a show. It is an authentic show and I am not a supercop, he is very humane, he has got his anxieties and his stresses. He is just like any other person just that he happens to be a cop. If I ever had to play a cop I always wanted him to be as real as possible. And then the series being a supernatural crime thriller shot in the mountains has added to the script, our performances and has given that eerie feel to the show. It is not a story about ghosts, it is about this character who has the power to see what happens in your last hour. It is very real and authentic," says Kapoor.
On casting Kapoor, Kumar says he wanted an actor who would look believable. "I cannot choose an actor unless I see them performing. Sanjay auditioned for the role and only later revealed that he had never auditioned in his life!" Raima Sen, who plays a mysterious character in the series, too, auditioned for the first time. "I have a phobia, I can never screen test. All my life I have never done a screen test. But since the story is intriguing and unique, and then you had a director who had a great vision, I ended up doing the series," says Sen.
However, the biggest challenge for Kapoor shooting the film was being thrown into the mountainous terrain, "because I come from a big city, we go around in cars, whereas, for the cast members from North-east it was so easy climbing up and down the mountains. But all these uncertainties added to my performance as I am shown to be a very normal cop," says Kapoor. While acclimating to the space and weather was easier for Takapa, he faced a challenge of a different kind. "Good portion of interior scenes were shot in Mumbai which we were shooting in costumes meant for Sikkim in winter. So, I was wearing a shirt, sweater and a thick jacket in the peak summer of Mumbai. It was a physical challenge," laughs Takapa, who says that he feels gratified that the show has a backdrop of the northeast. "It really feels good. It is something long overdue. It allows the region to be pulled into the mainstream. As of now, there is a certain level of alienation and cinema is a very important medium to bridge the gap. Hopefully, it will start a trend and will open up newer possibilities to explore," he says.
Further, talking about his character, Takapa says, "I am aware of the tradition but I had multiple discussions with Amit on how we want to approach, project and structure my character so as to mould it in the nature of the film. It had to be grounded and steeped in reality."
Goswami, who plays a cop for the first time, says, "When I read the script, it felt like I was reading a thriller book which I couldn't put down. I really liked how something as complex as shamanic traditions was weaved in, in a beautiful and subtle way," she says, furthering, "Also, it is nice to play a cop in a different environment and setting. In the Northeast, it is all quiet and peaceful and the job of a cop is like an administrator. Suddenly a surge of violence starts, murders pick up the pace and that is when my character Lipika's expertise comes into play and she uses her intelligence looking for things deeper. Also, it is great working in a stunning place like Sikkim, it is almost like a paid holiday."
However, it wasn't that easy for the director considering the thriller genre, as often believed, is difficult to delve into. "The tricky part with The Last Hour was where you want to set this on the margin of believability. Do you want to treat it as a complete fantasy film where anything could happen, there would be a magic spell, you can fly a horse, or do you want to take it on the realm of complete believability that actually this could be happening in some part of the world. This could exist but you have not explored it. To keep it in the realm of probability, whatever you are doing, whether it is a performance or a scene, we don't want people to say, 'How can this be?' That is a challenging thing in this kind of genre, to say, 'where do you want to draw the line, and what do you do so that you don't cross the line'," concludes Kumar.
The Last Hour is currently streaming on Amazon Prime