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How The Night Manager Aces The Adaptation Conundrum

The Anil Kapoor-Aditya Roy Kapur series manages to Indianise the hit franchise, without losing any of its ethos. Manik Sharma writes.

How The Night Manager Aces The Adaptation Conundrum
Detail from the poster for The Night Manager. Disney+ Hotstar
  • Manik Sharma

Last Updated: 11.41 AM, Feb 17, 2023

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YAHAAN TAK aate aate toh gulab jamun bhi khatm ho jaate hain,” an agent demoted to the archival section of her RAW office says about her declining career, in The Night Manager. It’s a scene that subtly locates this story of spy intrigue in a milieu that doesn’t naturally yield to the sensuality of the genre. There aren’t gadgets or superfluous tech on display here, except maybe the metallic, dogged determination of a handful of people who look nothing like spies. This Indian adaptation of a popular BBC original would have always run the risk of comparisons but in Aarya director Sandeep Modi’s meticulous hands, the landing has, unexpectedly, stuck. This adaptation adds its own colour, and helped by an excellent cast, also manages to re-christen the fledgling career of one Aditya Roy Kapur.

Roy Kapur plays Shantanu Sengupta, the night manager at a hotel in Dhaka. The crossing of wires with an international criminal pushes Shantanu into the path of arms dealer Shailendra Rungta, played by the excellent Anil Kapoor. Rungta is the kind of mercenary who rarely reaches for the gun. He instead choreographs an empire that succinctly deals in death and war. He is supported by a coterie of partners, most impressive of whom is the audaciously named BJ (Saswata Chatterjee) and the mysterious Kaveri (Sobhita Dhulipala).

Unlike the original, the impetus here lies with Shantanu who is given a more intimate mission to grasp, rather than the arbitrary fuselage of patriotism to hitch his motivation to. He is clean-hearted but not necessarily heroic. His blocky physique and perfectly etched jawline for once serve as appendages and not the main piece. Interactions between Shantanu and BJ make for some of the best scenes in a series that manages to extract nail-biting drama without the noise of bullets and explosions. To add to that, for a series headlined by Anil Kapoor as a flamboyant, globe-trotting weapons magnate, The Night Manager does an excellent job of mining intrigue from its peripheral subjects. The radius of cause and effect here is drawn impressively wide and the endeavour, clearly, is to not restrict the story to being an echo of the original.

Detail from the poster for The Night Manager. Disney+ Hotstar
Detail from the poster for The Night Manager. Disney+ Hotstar

Kapoor is creatively used, and by that I mean he is economically used. Never has an actor’s presence so convincingly been injected into the bloodstream of a show, without over-exposing him to conjecture or fact. Rungta is regularly spoken of, discussed and imagined but is also deliberately obscured in exchange for ingredients built around his myth rather than his personality. It’s a job that the supporting cast carries well. Chatterjee is infectious while being greasy. Dhulipala is hard to look away from. Tillotama Shome, on the other hand, is a delicious mix of uncommon wit and casual angst as the intelligence officer Lipika Saikia Rao. A scene where she rants about being pregnant while on a mission highlights just how carefully this adaptation has been cast and written to meet the Indian viewer half-way. This underdog narrative, as is typical of Indian stories, is built around challenges rather than aspiration alone.

It would of course be remiss to not address Kapoor’s giant presence here. He is ecstatically in-form, casual yet bubbling underneath with just the right amount of discomfort and dread. He never quite becomes the archetype don, the foul-mouthed godfather of vice if you will and yet he commands a certain eloquence that the screen feeds off of. This a welcome contrast to streaming’s many antagonists, who either deal in philosophical jargon or phonetic cosplay. Kapoor, instead, is himself, in the voice and in the person. He just adds a hint of menace to his gaze. Opposite him, Aditya — the lesser actor — manages to hold his own, aided possibly by the fact that he has to embody someone who is hiding in plain sight — endowed with courage, but not necessarily guile. His face and bizarrely perfect body might be on display here, but they rarely overshadow the brittle ideas his character must build itself over.

Adaptations have been a theme of late, and it is encouraging to see that they are trending upwards. Notwithstanding the question about whether we even need them in the first place, there is enough tactile craft and superlative performances on display here to suggest subcontinental tendencies need not borrow from biblical cultural tropes of the west. We can, possibly, write and make our own thing. That said, it’s maybe not the worst thing to successfully import a universal story, and set it, rather impressively, in a milieu that feels closer to home; attested with anxieties, burdens and socio-economic considerations relatable to us. Not to mention, help a promising, directionless actor finally find his footing, to an extent. If only we could now conceive something of our own.

The Night Manager is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.