Abhimanyu Singh is gearing up for one of his most ambitious projects from his production house, Contileo Pictures. His show— 21 Sarfarosh: Saragarhi 1897 is premiering on new GEC Discovery JEET on February 12 and will continue to air from Monday to Friday at 7 pm.
This fiction show is inspired by the real-life story of 21 brave soldiers of 36th Sikh regiment of the British Indian Army who defended an army outpost at Saragarhi in North West Frontier Province against an onslaught by over 10,000 Pashtun and Orakzai tribes in September 1897. Mohit Raina, Mukul Dev and Luke Kenny star in pivotal roles in the show.
Abhimanyu, who is known for producing hit shows like Maharaja Ranjit Singh, Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat, Bharat Ka Veer Putra — Maharana Pratap, Adaalat, Sankat Mochan Mahabali Hanuman, Emotional Atyachaar, Savdhaan India @11, Crime Alert, among others, says that as a production house, they have always told stories that go beyond entertainment.
“Look at our shows like Jhansi Ki Rani, Maharana Pratap or others, they are stories about great leaders, freedom fighters and national icons. Saragarhi was in line with those kinds of stories. My father, and even my wife’s father and grandfather were in the Indian Army so we have been bought up in an ecosystem where we have heard about Saragarhi or similar incidents on numerous occasions.”
He says that as a story, the Saragarhi battle always fascinated him. “Imagine 21 soldiers continuing to fight against 5,000 soldiers even though they were asked to abandon their post. But they fought against the enemy and even ended up giving up their own life. I think it’s one of the bravest stories of the Indian Army.”
He says that a lot of research has gone behind making the show. “Anand Neelakantan, who has written the Baahubali trilogy, also wrote this. We also had three consultants, an expert on Sikh history and the Indian Army who shared a lot of research material. Then, Anand came up with the structure of the story,” says Abhimanyu.
But while making historical or mythological shows, how much creative freedom do they allow themselves? “When you work on such shows, things keep getting added. But all this needs to happen under the guidance of experts. For this show, it was impossible to know what kind of conversation did the soldiers have 120 years ago or how did the story move from one point to another. We had to fill those gaps but they were done under the guidance of military experts. That’s why we say that the story is inspired by those true events,” he explains.
But making 21 Sarfarosh... wasn’t easy. There were several key challenges, says the producer. “One was shooting the battle sequences. They were extremely tough. We went to Ladakh with over a hundred of horses and nearly thousands of people to shoot the sequences. Managing a crew of 2,000 people in harsh weather conditions was tough. We had never done something like this before but we were able to do it well. The end product has come out well because these sequences look grand,” he says.
21 Sarfarosh... will soon be available on Netflix after its run on Discovery and Abhimanyu says that the show will be available in 190 countries. “I am happy that it will be viewed across the globe because it’s a great story about Indian soldiers,” he says.
It’s becoming a common trend among TV producers to spend crores on their shows (Porus and Prithvi Vallabh). But it’s also a risky proposition for makers because the Indian audience is quite unpredictable. “Yes, so you have to ask: Does your audience really care about your show? Also, the money needs to be spent correctly. Producers are making huge investments but they have to understand how viable is it,” he says, adding,
“We spent on 21 Sarfarosh... to build the authentic sets, and get the terrain and war sequences right. We did not spend on costumes or jewellery but to bring authenticity to the show.”
When it comes to mythological shows, producers do not go beyond the traditional stories of Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna and Lord Shiva. But Abhimanyu believes that there are several aspects of their lives which people still don’t know. “In Vighnaharta Ganesh, we told the Parshuram story which not many are aware of. Indian mythology is a lot about philosophy, so it’s fulfilling as a maker to tell those stories. Even the audience gets to learn a lot and use it iwn their day-to-day life,” he says before signing off.