Pippa Hughes is extremely entertaining as Julia in the Varun Thakur creation Shaitan Haveli. That series is now streaming on Amazon Prime, every fan of retro should watch it. And before you watch it, here’s an excerpt of an exclusive tete-a-tete Saamri.com had with Pippa.
How does a Pippa Hughes land up in Bollywood?
Actually I have no idea! Good question! I just sort of followed whatever feelings I had at every turning point and it all just kind of happened. I am a half superwoman when it comes to setting life goals and aspirations and actually whilst in Mumbai I realized I was ticking more off my list of life goals than back in London, so it just made sense for me to stay.
How did Shaitaan Haveli happen and what made you say yes?
SH was the fastest, craziest thing ever. A friend of mine who also knew Varun messaged me and said they were searching for a foreign actress, so I sent over a self-tape… next thing I knew I was invited to a meeting to discuss the role. Varun and Ajay both spent time talking me through the concept and I met a few from OML there too and I just remember being in fits of giggles the entire meeting. We worked through the ‘Hariman ji, mujhe Hindi aati hai!’ scene and really broke down Julia and I just came away feeling like YES.
How much of cult Bollywood did you know before you signed up with Shaitaan Haveli?
Honestly, absolutely nothing. I spent my childhood in the middle of England with 3 TV channels and the nearest cinema was over an hours drive away. The whole concept of Indian culture or Bollywood never even crossed my mind, even in London I never thought I would be lucky enough to come to this side of the world. Actually the first ever Bollywood movie I saw was Sultan. But just before SH I’d been in and out of Mumbai for little over a year so I was aware of current movie releases and I’d seen a fair few but here there is SOOOOOO much history and culture surrounding the film industry. I’ve been doing my best to catch up but the biggest lessons in 80’s horror came from Varun himself, as you probably know his vocabulary is such that anything he is describing becomes super vivid, it was like falling into the actual 80’s… and I was born in 94 so that’s incredible right there. So yes I felt very lucky he was willing to explain the background to me to speed up the learning process.
The art direction of Shaitaan Ilaaka was perfection to the hilt, right down to the soiled bathtubs. Did you know such was par for the course in Bollywood films before you worked in Shaitaan Haveli?
I always knew huge efforts go into any art direction on set and although as an artist you never see it, you turn up for work and it’s all done, but it’s clear the vision and talent of these people is always incredible. However for this set I genuinely thought the Haveli was like this only.. the entire sets were so authentic. I remember chatting to Varun before one take when the ceiling was dripping and covered in green slimy mold and he said the entire place was like that when they arrived… so from that moment on I realized they had all put in a huge amount of hard work into that set.
How did you prepare for the role? Did you see some of the films that inspired the show? If yes, which is your favorite one?
We had next to no time to get sorted before the shoot started, I started watching Purana Mandir which Varun mentioned if I have no other time then I should at least watch that. However, I was also shooting for another project so I never reached the end of the movie! I remember being totally shocked at that swimming pool scene, for Indian culture it was the complete opposite of what I expected! And although the Hindi was very challenging, I was still able to get a general idea, which really helped me to bring some flavors to Julia.
How was your shooting experience? How long did it take to wrap up the entire shoot? Did you have a bound script from day one, were you allowed impromptu changes?
The shooting experience was the best, although we had random delays depending on the rain, everyone pulled together and worked incredibly hard and OML were super organized, this entire series was shot within 24 shoot days. It was just insane organization. We worked out we shot about 2 movies of footage in less than a month! But actually we had no other choice, we had deadlines and that was that. The script was more-or-less the same, Occasionally Varun would just be like.. ’say this!’ and we’d roll. He mentioned he would have loved more time to actually shoot some of the ideas he got on the set because that is sometimes the best material, being so in the moment. But unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of time for much of that.
Shaitaan Ilaaka has been well received by critics and fans alike, how’s the response been for you? Do you see any change in your life?
Insane, actually if I’m totally honest I had no idea… I loved the concept, I loved Julia, and I got totally carried away with the shoot and was super upset on the last day. Carried on with my other project, went off to London for Christmas to see my family and then all of a sudden I was in Delhi and I got a message from Varun saying ‘Trailer is coming out today, I’ll send you the link and share like crazy because it releases day after.. we have no time for promo!’ and I was like ‘Whaaaaat’. But yes it actually all happened that fast, I never had time to think about if people would actually watch it. My Instagram following went up by over 600! I had messages from hundreds of people. It was really incredible to see that whatever people were going through, this series had the ability to take them away from all that for 20 minutes. I even had one guy shout ‘Mujhe Hindi aati hai’ at me in the street… I realised that Amazon Prime has a huge audience and by putting yourself up publicly, you are open to both compliments and also criticism, so it’s important to do your best and be confident in your own decisions. But yes, SH has had amazing reviews and I feel so blessed, comedy horror is such a fun genre.
What’s the one aspect of your character that you’ll never forget? How close is your real-life character to the one on screen?
I’ll never forget that shot, ‘tumhare ghand faat rahi hai’, we shot that scene up on the courtyard and the entire crew was silently sniggering, after cut everyone broke down, and I looked at Varun like.. ‘what did you just make me say..?’ But in terms of characteristic I’ll never forget the way Julia just totally ignores Monty most of the time, for this side of Julia I was completely influenced by my own sister who is the queen of the ‘you’re so ridiculous I’m laughing at you inside my head right now’ face. I would love to say Julia is like me when it comes to picking up a weapon and fighting those Zombies but in all honesty, I would probably run a million miles if that was to happen to me! She’s the brave and intelligent version of me because that Mantra took me half a day to memorize!
Did you, as a crew, meet any of the actors, directors and other crew who were active in the cult movie industry in the 80s or 90s?
That would have been super fun. Let’s see what the future holds. I’m still getting to know Indian actors and I’m learning every day about such cult movies so maybe one day will get lucky and be able to pick apart the brain of some of these legends. But we had really brilliant actors on set and I feel totally privileged to have worked with them.
Who’s your favorite character in the Shaitaan Ilaaka?
Favorite was Gangu, he was so cute and silly, Julia found him disgusting but as Pippa I just loved him. Favorite in terms of hard work was Monty because Hemant put in so much work to mold Monty into Monty and he did such a good job. Hariman was Julia’s favorite because she silently laughed at him every single day.
Are you a horror fan? If yes, what’s your favorite horror film?
Ever since the age of 12 when I watched 28 Days Later at a friend’s sleepover I’ve been a total chicken when it comes to horror. I get so scared, can barely sleep at night after watching anything which potentially could happen to me! But something like Shaun of the Dead is hilarious and that kind of horror is just my cup of tea.
The ending hints at a Season 2. Would you like to be part of it, if it happens?
Of course, I know for sure if a Season 2 is announced it will be something totally unexpected because Varun is an absolute king of creativity. I would like to think Julia would be there.. who knows. But for sure I would love to be back with the team again and get the chance to bring some more spice to Julia.
What’s next for you?
Next, I’ll be on Discovery Jeet, 12th February 8.30pm as Teresa. The complete opposite to Julia. It’s a historical drama, 21 Sarfarosh Saragarhi 1897.
Pictures by Vahishta Bharucha