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Karan Vyas – “On OTT, people look for more authenticity”

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Why did you want to be a screenwriter?

Screenwriter Karan Vyas (Courtesy the subject)

I think anybody who wants to be a part of the film industry either wants to become an actor or a director. That’s how most of the stories begin. You ask anyone at an early stage, and they would say either of those two things. It’s only later that some of them get into other aspects of cinema. I wanted to be a director, and I went to film school at UCLA in California for a two-year programme. I was looking for an internship and found that getting one in direction is very difficult in California. I did work on a couple of feature films and short films as one of the assistant directors there. But that was something I could have done in India as well. I thought, “What am I getting out of LA where everything from food to accommodation is so expensive?” Somebody randomly suggested to me that I should assist a producer instead because in the US, you can get paid well doing that. I got a job as an intern at a producer’s office; I was one of the seven or eight interns there. Our job was to just read scripts. That job was essentially divided into two parts. The first one was — because that producer was chiefly into reality shows — to look through the Facebook profiles of potential contestants and see if they were interesting. It might sound a little creepy but that was part of the job. That’s what we did for the first three hours of the day. Then we would break for lunch, and after lunch, all of us just read scripts. I was reading a script a day and I think that’s where I fell in love with scriptwriting. I fell in love with the movies by watching them; I fell in love with scripts by reading them. They were, of course, all kinds of scripts – good, bad, ugly. In about five months, my internship was over and I went back into production. There I was doing script continuity and stuff like that. So, again, a very script-related job. I had to read one script multiple times.

After that, I came back to India and went to Ahmedabad, where I am from. I had decided that I was coming back for good. But everything had changed; my friends had moved on. Some were getting married and all that. So, after a couple of weeks, I came to Mumbai because I knew that was my ultimate destination. I tried to meet anyone I could from the industry – friends’ friends, anyone at all. For about 15 days, I travelled all over the city meeting people. I had no acquaintances except for a relative who lived in Ghatkopar and ran an iron manufacturing business. The only film connection he had was the memory of meeting Amitabh Bachchan at a store in the 1980s. At that time, I had no idea of the map of Bombay. I’d take a rickshaw from Ghatkopar to Bandra, then another from Bandra to Malad to meet people, and I thought that life was very difficult because LA, in comparison, was very laid back. In LA, the bus transportation was quite nice and the buses would be empty most of the time. Mumbai was another world and it was a culture shock.

So, then, I went back to Ahmedabad and I met a production house that was making Gujarati films. They had made one film in about 80 lakhs and another for about a crore-and-a-half. They had started making ads for some local brands too. I was from LA and they thought I knew everything so I got a job with them. For about nine months, I was making some local masala and real estate ads in Ahmedabad. I would write them; be the assistant director; do the casting for them; it was an all-in-one thing. I would even pitch to clients because, in those days, there were no ad agencies in Ahmedabad. We’d go to the cinema halls and see who had put up an ad. Then we’d tell them, “You have budgets to buy an ad spot in the cinema halls but you don’t have a proper ad so let us make one for you.” We pitched through cold calls and then presented scripts to them. One day, one of the directors spoke to me about an incident that was all over the newspapers. He said, “We should make a film on this.” I told him, “I have already started working on that subject.” He had already written something, and I had jotted down some bullet points of my own, and that’s how we started writing a feature film.

Within a year, we made Wrong Side Raju, which won the National Award for Best Gujarati Film. Luckily, it was co-produced by Phantom, which was booming at that point in time. This was the only regional film Phantom ever produced and because of their involvement, it became the first Gujarati film on Netflix. Because of Wrong Side Raju, we got a lot of attention from Mumbai. Nitesh Tiwari had seen it and Ekta Kapoor had seen it. Anurag Kashyap, Vikram Motwane and Vikas Bahl were already involved because of Phantom so we got a fair amount of attention. After the National Award and the Netflix release — both of which happened almost simultaneously — we got even more attention. Initially, we had only got a limited Gujarat and Mumbai release but then the film started getting invited to film festivals. So we thought of making a sequel and decided to call it Wrong Side Raghu. By the way, Wrong Side Raju was Pratik Gandhi’s first full-length film. At the time, he was still working with Reliance. He had taken a 20-day holiday from office, using up all his leaves for the year, to shoot the film. For the patchwork, he would only be available on the weekends. He’d finish work at his office in Mumbai, take a flight to Ahmedabad, work the whole weekend, fly back on Monday morning and directly go to office. This was 2015-16. Anyway, my director and I took a long time working on the sequel. We decided to make it in Hindi with Rajkumar Rao and Boman Irani and renamed it Made in China. It did not do well at all.

Raj Kumar Rao and Boman Irani in Made in China (Film still)
Raj Kumar Rao and Boman Irani in Made in China (Film still)

A number of things happened during the making of Made in China, which made me realize that I don’t enjoy production and being around on sets as much as I used to. Made In China took about four years to make whereas Wrong Side Raju took a year. I realized that Hindi films take a long, long time. During that time, Anuj Dhawan, the guy who was the DOP of Made in China, recommended me to Hansal (Mehta), who was looking for a Gujarati writer. Two more people had independently recommended my name to him around the same time. He decided to meet me. At that time, Gujarat-based writers were very few and he wanted someone who specifically understood Gujarati culture. He was chiefly looking for a dialogue writer because one round of screenplay was already done. The show I am talking about is, of course, Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story.

Hansal sir invited me home and we talked for about an hour-and-a-half. Most of the conversation wasn’t about work at all. He did not tell me which project he was meeting me for. Then he asked me to write three episodes as a trial; just the dialogue. I took a month and went back to him with those. I narrated all three episodes at one go, in one day. He liked them and said, “Okay, tomorrow, we are going to go and narrate them to Applause (Entertainment)”. That’s how my journey with Scam 1992 began. I took around six more months to write all 10 episodes. I was literally on my 10th draft when the shoot began. It was that cut to cut. Made in China was released while I was working on Scam 1992. As I said, the film bombed the day it was released. At that time, my girlfriend was living in Canada and I decided to go there and spend a couple of months with her. A week before my departure, I went to PVR Juhu and asked for a ticket to Made in China. I realised the film wasn’t running any longer. I felt terrible. My first film did not even run for one week! This was the film to which I had given three-and-a-half years of my life.

Then, I went to Canada, where I had a good time. At that time, while Scam was being worked on, none of us had any idea what it would become. We were working on it knowing it was a small show without any stars. In fact, I was banking far more on Made in China, which bombed badly. So, in Canada, I made up my mind that I was going to give up my Bollywood dreams. My girlfriend was a Canadian citizen and I thought, I’d move with her and find a job there or go to college and study management or something. Having decided that, I came back to Mumbai for 15 days – just to try my luck once last time. I came back and Covid happened! It was a massively uncertain time for me. But then Scam 1992 came out and became what it became! So from being on the verge of quitting the industry, I found myself right back in it.

A scene from Scam 1992 (Still from the series)
A scene from Scam 1992 (Still from the series)

From a writing point of view, what was the difference between working on Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story and Scam 2006 – The Telgi Story?

When I joined Scam 1992, it was my first long-format show. Till then, I had written one Hindi and one Gujarati feature film, but nothing long-format. Besides, never before had I done just dialogue for a project. It was a new experience for me to write dialogue for someone else’s screenplay. I had three contributions to make: one was to get the Gujju flavour into that world; the second was to make the show understandable for the general public. The beautiful screenplay that Sumit (Purohit) and Saurabh (Dey) had written was in places too technical. Because the world of the stock market was complex and the original screenplay was written in a way that stock market people would talk to themselves in. My task was to make the stock market jargon easy to understand for the audience without making the characters sound weaker or dumb. That was the difficult part. My third task was to differentiate the speeches of the characters. Almost all of them were from the world of the stock market, and they used similar jargon. I had to make them sound different from one another. For instance, how does Harshad speak differently from his brother? Or how do the members of the rival gang – the Satish Kaushik gang – speak? To add the element of difference to the characterisation through dialogue was a challenging task. I made a diary of my own and wrote some of the dialogues that Harshad would say. I knew from my research that he was a little filmy. So I thought he’d have dramatic one-liners and Gujju idioms. I did a similar exercise for all the characters and then started getting the hang of each one’s speech and dialogue. The good thing is that the actors caught onto those quirks as well and it became what it became.

On the second season – the Telgi Scam – my role was bigger because I was doing not only the dialogue but also the screenplay. I had two other writers, Kedar and Kiran, working with me. This time, my role was much bigger. Scam 1 and 2 are very different from each other philosophically. My take is that Harshad went into a system and the system corrupted him, but in case of Telgi, it was the opposite – he went into a system, and he was the one who corrupted it. The cops and the Nashik office and all these systems weren’t so corrupt before he entered. That was a huge difference for me between the two seasons at the thought level.

A scene from Scoop (Still from the series)
A scene from Scoop (Still from the series)

Tell me about the experience of writing another superhit show with Hansal Mehta – Scoop.

Scoop was brilliantly created by Mrunmayee (Lagoo) and Hansal (Mehta) sir. The show had two other writers as well who worked on the screenplay. For Scoop, again, I did just dialogue. But Mrunmayee was quite clear that she wanted the dialogue writer to be involved from the beginning. I was involved in Scoop from the beat sheet level and was part of the writers’ room before they even started writing the screenplay. Mrunmayee had a few sessions with me where she walked me through each and every episode including their beats, the character graphs, what happened in reality, where she had taken a bit of cinematic liberty, etc. After that, they started writing the screenplay and I had a break for a couple of months. The first round of screenplay I got was half the season, which is three episodes as Scoop has only six episodes in all. So, the first episode that I wrote was the toughest from a dialogue-writing point of view. The first draft I wrote was terrible and Mrunmayee got panic attacks. Hansal sir told me it was not working at all. I realized that I was still a little hung over from Scam and that I was writing Scoop with the Scam tone of voice. So, then I started looking at Scoop with a fresh perspective. It took me four months just to crack the first episode! But once I did, the others went far more smoothly. To create the lingo of the newspapers and journalists in Scoop, I went through the description in the screenplay and then I tried to map those newspapers with real ones in my mind. For instance, I said, this newspaper is like Times Of India, that one is likeHindustan Times, another one is like The Hindu. Because you know, the journalism of The Hindu is very different from that of a TOI, or the journalism of Times Now is very different from that of NDTV. So, this is how, just for myself, I created associations with real-world newspapers and journalists and then wrote the dialogue for the characters at those media houses.

Three of your biggest successes are based on real-life stories. OTTs, both in India and internationally, seem to favour stories based on real incidents. Do you think that’s a good thing or do you believe that fiction and imagination are being lost in this process?

Of course, it’s a good thing that stories based on real incidents are being made because maybe at an earlier time, there wasn’t much scope for those stories to get told. Web series and cinema are different. In cinema, you have larger-than-life stories where fiction has a lot of prevalence. But on OTT, people look for more authenticity. When you make a true story, 50 per cent of the battle for authenticity is won because the audience knows that this happened in real life. Both fiction and real-life stories have a phase. 80 percent of the films that I am working on right now are fiction. Some of them are larger than life. If you look at the Bollywood films that have worked from Gadar 2 to Pathan to Jawan to Zara Hatke Zara Bachke, they are all in the zone of fiction and even fantasy. They are our Indian masala films. Even down south, from Vikram to Ponniyin Selvan are all high-octane fictional films.

On the other hand, I think, the web is very much a content-driven platform. You have to literally hold the audience’s attention. Each episode has to be approximately one hour long. Plus, you have to make the show binge-worthy. On the web, you are also constantly fighting for attention against many factors that are part of the audience’s life such as disruptions at home, maybe a kid walking around, the doorbell, Swiggy and Zomato orders, cooking happening while the TV is on, people at home wanting to talk to the audience while they are watching the show… So, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to attention spans and capability. Of course, you might find examples of fiction shows doing well. Take Mad Men as a case in point. Mad Men was never written for the web. It’s from the golden era of TV. It’s an HBO show that now resides on OTT but was never made for it. By the time it got onto OTT, it had already achieved cult status. Fargo comes from the Coen Brothers, so it already has a certain following because people want to know what the Coen Brothers have been up to. When it comes to real stories, take Harshad Mehta for an example, people know the person, but they don’t know the story. So, they have an instant reason to watch the show because they want to know the story. Even shows that had none of these elements and yet became successful had some element of reality in them. Take Paatal Lok for example. It’s a work of fiction but it had elements of reality; parts of Paatal Lok were based on a book.

I think fiction is very exciting. You can create whatever you want, you can take it anywhere, it is very, very exciting, but we, as long-format creators, are very new to this world. In India, the wave of long-format narrative started in 2018 with Inside Edge and then was followed by Sacred Games. Our TV never had a Mad Men, our TV never had a Breaking Bad. TV in India was quite different from TV in the West. What the West could do – which is to take learnings from their TV and use them on their web shows – we couldn’t or can’t. Most good writers of the web in the West are the same ones who wrote great TV there.

Now that your initial struggle is over, are there any genres or specific type of stories that you want to explore?

I want to explore many genres. I definitely want to do something in the superhero space – a very Indian kind of superhero. You know, our cities don’t have the infrastructure for something like a Spider-Man to function. Our superhero should be able to get out of traffic, come out of potholes when he falls into them, he should take an auto-rickshaw to go to school or college and stuff like that. I want to create the kind of superhero who is international in appeal but very Indian at heart. Then, I want to work on a crazy espionage show or film. I also want to work on a creature film. We don’t make films like Anaconda or Jurassic Park – I’d like to work on something like that. Now the budgets are shaping back up, the theatres are coming back too. I want to do so many things. I have this keeda for science fiction as well. I’d like to work on something like Oppenheimer. I’d like to work on an alien thriller some day – Not like Koi Mil Gaya but more like Prometheus.

Which films and filmmakers have influenced you?

I think my first big influence was Lagaan. I must have been about 10 years old when I watched it and it felt like a complete film to me. To date, I have a Lagaan poster at home. It really inspired me to be into films. Once, I had the good fortune of meeting Aamir Khan and I told him, “Sir, you are so familiar to me that I wake up looking at you.” He asked, “How?” And I said, “I have a big poster of Lagaan in my bedroom.” He cracked up.

Then, later when I started discovering cinema, I got fascinated by Steven Spielberg. His selection of subjects amazes me. He is one person who can make a Jurassic Park and also make a Schindler’s List – I find that range fascinating. As a writer, I want to explore all kinds of genres and as much as possible. Spielberg is a figure to look up to in that regard.

At some point, I started understanding Indian cinema and what works and what doesn’t. Dialogue writing in Indian cinema is a different kettle of fish and I think Salim-Javed and Kader Khan are people whose work I really look up to in terms of dialogue writing. I try to follow in their footsteps in how to structure a scene, etc. I know some of these are clichéd answers but they are cliched because they work.

The diner scene from Pulp Fiction (Film still)
The diner scene from Pulp Fiction (Film still)

Then, I really admire Quentin Tarantino. I admire him most for his scene work. He writes brilliant scenes. For instance, in Pulp Fiction, they keep talking about burgers for a long time and then suddenly a shoot out breaks out. That’s an example of masterful scene writing. It has a surprise element, it has a quirk, it has character buildup in a very twisted manner – it pretty much has everything that a great scene should have.

When it comes to the vision of a writer-director, I think no one comes close to Walt Disney. I have been a huge fan of Disney World, and I must have visited Disney Land at least 15 times in my life. I can totally see why it is the biggest media company in the world. It’s primarily because of this one man’s vision. He took the family audience, and especially kids along on the journey of entertainment. At a time when noir was booming, he started with animation, going against the tide. Walt Disney was actually looking to create and share happiness through cinema, which is what I have learnt from him. I want to create happiness through this medium. I want people to relate to my expression, and I hope to evoke some sort of emotion in people.

I started my journey, in many ways, with Hansal sir. And the most important thing I learnt from him is we should not take ourselves too seriously in our journey. I think that will always remain with me.

Tell me the worst decision you made as a writer.

In Made in China, within five minutes the character should have gone to China. But I changed that structure and unnecessarily prolonged the film. That remains a regret. I could have restructured the film and written it better.

If you got the chance to work with any director in the world, who would you choose?

It would be Steven Spielberg. I hope he decides to work on a story based in India and I could write it for or with him.

Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.


Why did you want to be a screenwriter?

Screenwriter Karan Vyas (Courtesy the subject)
Screenwriter Karan Vyas (Courtesy the subject)

I think anybody who wants to be a part of the film industry either wants to become an actor or a director. That’s how most of the stories begin. You ask anyone at an early stage, and they would say either of those two things. It’s only later that some of them get into other aspects of cinema. I wanted to be a director, and I went to film school at UCLA in California for a two-year programme. I was looking for an internship and found that getting one in direction is very difficult in California. I did work on a couple of feature films and short films as one of the assistant directors there. But that was something I could have done in India as well. I thought, “What am I getting out of LA where everything from food to accommodation is so expensive?” Somebody randomly suggested to me that I should assist a producer instead because in the US, you can get paid well doing that. I got a job as an intern at a producer’s office; I was one of the seven or eight interns there. Our job was to just read scripts. That job was essentially divided into two parts. The first one was — because that producer was chiefly into reality shows — to look through the Facebook profiles of potential contestants and see if they were interesting. It might sound a little creepy but that was part of the job. That’s what we did for the first three hours of the day. Then we would break for lunch, and after lunch, all of us just read scripts. I was reading a script a day and I think that’s where I fell in love with scriptwriting. I fell in love with the movies by watching them; I fell in love with scripts by reading them. They were, of course, all kinds of scripts – good, bad, ugly. In about five months, my internship was over and I went back into production. There I was doing script continuity and stuff like that. So, again, a very script-related job. I had to read one script multiple times.

After that, I came back to India and went to Ahmedabad, where I am from. I had decided that I was coming back for good. But everything had changed; my friends had moved on. Some were getting married and all that. So, after a couple of weeks, I came to Mumbai because I knew that was my ultimate destination. I tried to meet anyone I could from the industry – friends’ friends, anyone at all. For about 15 days, I travelled all over the city meeting people. I had no acquaintances except for a relative who lived in Ghatkopar and ran an iron manufacturing business. The only film connection he had was the memory of meeting Amitabh Bachchan at a store in the 1980s. At that time, I had no idea of the map of Bombay. I’d take a rickshaw from Ghatkopar to Bandra, then another from Bandra to Malad to meet people, and I thought that life was very difficult because LA, in comparison, was very laid back. In LA, the bus transportation was quite nice and the buses would be empty most of the time. Mumbai was another world and it was a culture shock.

So, then, I went back to Ahmedabad and I met a production house that was making Gujarati films. They had made one film in about 80 lakhs and another for about a crore-and-a-half. They had started making ads for some local brands too. I was from LA and they thought I knew everything so I got a job with them. For about nine months, I was making some local masala and real estate ads in Ahmedabad. I would write them; be the assistant director; do the casting for them; it was an all-in-one thing. I would even pitch to clients because, in those days, there were no ad agencies in Ahmedabad. We’d go to the cinema halls and see who had put up an ad. Then we’d tell them, “You have budgets to buy an ad spot in the cinema halls but you don’t have a proper ad so let us make one for you.” We pitched through cold calls and then presented scripts to them. One day, one of the directors spoke to me about an incident that was all over the newspapers. He said, “We should make a film on this.” I told him, “I have already started working on that subject.” He had already written something, and I had jotted down some bullet points of my own, and that’s how we started writing a feature film.

Within a year, we made Wrong Side Raju, which won the National Award for Best Gujarati Film. Luckily, it was co-produced by Phantom, which was booming at that point in time. This was the only regional film Phantom ever produced and because of their involvement, it became the first Gujarati film on Netflix. Because of Wrong Side Raju, we got a lot of attention from Mumbai. Nitesh Tiwari had seen it and Ekta Kapoor had seen it. Anurag Kashyap, Vikram Motwane and Vikas Bahl were already involved because of Phantom so we got a fair amount of attention. After the National Award and the Netflix release — both of which happened almost simultaneously — we got even more attention. Initially, we had only got a limited Gujarat and Mumbai release but then the film started getting invited to film festivals. So we thought of making a sequel and decided to call it Wrong Side Raghu. By the way, Wrong Side Raju was Pratik Gandhi’s first full-length film. At the time, he was still working with Reliance. He had taken a 20-day holiday from office, using up all his leaves for the year, to shoot the film. For the patchwork, he would only be available on the weekends. He’d finish work at his office in Mumbai, take a flight to Ahmedabad, work the whole weekend, fly back on Monday morning and directly go to office. This was 2015-16. Anyway, my director and I took a long time working on the sequel. We decided to make it in Hindi with Rajkumar Rao and Boman Irani and renamed it Made in China. It did not do well at all.

Raj Kumar Rao and Boman Irani in Made in China (Film still)
Raj Kumar Rao and Boman Irani in Made in China (Film still)

A number of things happened during the making of Made in China, which made me realize that I don’t enjoy production and being around on sets as much as I used to. Made In China took about four years to make whereas Wrong Side Raju took a year. I realized that Hindi films take a long, long time. During that time, Anuj Dhawan, the guy who was the DOP of Made in China, recommended me to Hansal (Mehta), who was looking for a Gujarati writer. Two more people had independently recommended my name to him around the same time. He decided to meet me. At that time, Gujarat-based writers were very few and he wanted someone who specifically understood Gujarati culture. He was chiefly looking for a dialogue writer because one round of screenplay was already done. The show I am talking about is, of course, Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story.

Hansal sir invited me home and we talked for about an hour-and-a-half. Most of the conversation wasn’t about work at all. He did not tell me which project he was meeting me for. Then he asked me to write three episodes as a trial; just the dialogue. I took a month and went back to him with those. I narrated all three episodes at one go, in one day. He liked them and said, “Okay, tomorrow, we are going to go and narrate them to Applause (Entertainment)”. That’s how my journey with Scam 1992 began. I took around six more months to write all 10 episodes. I was literally on my 10th draft when the shoot began. It was that cut to cut. Made in China was released while I was working on Scam 1992. As I said, the film bombed the day it was released. At that time, my girlfriend was living in Canada and I decided to go there and spend a couple of months with her. A week before my departure, I went to PVR Juhu and asked for a ticket to Made in China. I realised the film wasn’t running any longer. I felt terrible. My first film did not even run for one week! This was the film to which I had given three-and-a-half years of my life.

Then, I went to Canada, where I had a good time. At that time, while Scam was being worked on, none of us had any idea what it would become. We were working on it knowing it was a small show without any stars. In fact, I was banking far more on Made in China, which bombed badly. So, in Canada, I made up my mind that I was going to give up my Bollywood dreams. My girlfriend was a Canadian citizen and I thought, I’d move with her and find a job there or go to college and study management or something. Having decided that, I came back to Mumbai for 15 days – just to try my luck once last time. I came back and Covid happened! It was a massively uncertain time for me. But then Scam 1992 came out and became what it became! So from being on the verge of quitting the industry, I found myself right back in it.

A scene from Scam 1992 (Still from the series)
A scene from Scam 1992 (Still from the series)

From a writing point of view, what was the difference between working on Scam 1992 – The Harshad Mehta Story and Scam 2006 – The Telgi Story?

When I joined Scam 1992, it was my first long-format show. Till then, I had written one Hindi and one Gujarati feature film, but nothing long-format. Besides, never before had I done just dialogue for a project. It was a new experience for me to write dialogue for someone else’s screenplay. I had three contributions to make: one was to get the Gujju flavour into that world; the second was to make the show understandable for the general public. The beautiful screenplay that Sumit (Purohit) and Saurabh (Dey) had written was in places too technical. Because the world of the stock market was complex and the original screenplay was written in a way that stock market people would talk to themselves in. My task was to make the stock market jargon easy to understand for the audience without making the characters sound weaker or dumb. That was the difficult part. My third task was to differentiate the speeches of the characters. Almost all of them were from the world of the stock market, and they used similar jargon. I had to make them sound different from one another. For instance, how does Harshad speak differently from his brother? Or how do the members of the rival gang – the Satish Kaushik gang – speak? To add the element of difference to the characterisation through dialogue was a challenging task. I made a diary of my own and wrote some of the dialogues that Harshad would say. I knew from my research that he was a little filmy. So I thought he’d have dramatic one-liners and Gujju idioms. I did a similar exercise for all the characters and then started getting the hang of each one’s speech and dialogue. The good thing is that the actors caught onto those quirks as well and it became what it became.

On the second season – the Telgi Scam – my role was bigger because I was doing not only the dialogue but also the screenplay. I had two other writers, Kedar and Kiran, working with me. This time, my role was much bigger. Scam 1 and 2 are very different from each other philosophically. My take is that Harshad went into a system and the system corrupted him, but in case of Telgi, it was the opposite – he went into a system, and he was the one who corrupted it. The cops and the Nashik office and all these systems weren’t so corrupt before he entered. That was a huge difference for me between the two seasons at the thought level.

A scene from Scoop (Still from the series)
A scene from Scoop (Still from the series)

Tell me about the experience of writing another superhit show with Hansal Mehta – Scoop.

Scoop was brilliantly created by Mrunmayee (Lagoo) and Hansal (Mehta) sir. The show had two other writers as well who worked on the screenplay. For Scoop, again, I did just dialogue. But Mrunmayee was quite clear that she wanted the dialogue writer to be involved from the beginning. I was involved in Scoop from the beat sheet level and was part of the writers’ room before they even started writing the screenplay. Mrunmayee had a few sessions with me where she walked me through each and every episode including their beats, the character graphs, what happened in reality, where she had taken a bit of cinematic liberty, etc. After that, they started writing the screenplay and I had a break for a couple of months. The first round of screenplay I got was half the season, which is three episodes as Scoop has only six episodes in all. So, the first episode that I wrote was the toughest from a dialogue-writing point of view. The first draft I wrote was terrible and Mrunmayee got panic attacks. Hansal sir told me it was not working at all. I realized that I was still a little hung over from Scam and that I was writing Scoop with the Scam tone of voice. So, then I started looking at Scoop with a fresh perspective. It took me four months just to crack the first episode! But once I did, the others went far more smoothly. To create the lingo of the newspapers and journalists in Scoop, I went through the description in the screenplay and then I tried to map those newspapers with real ones in my mind. For instance, I said, this newspaper is like Times Of India, that one is likeHindustan Times, another one is like The Hindu. Because you know, the journalism of The Hindu is very different from that of a TOI, or the journalism of Times Now is very different from that of NDTV. So, this is how, just for myself, I created associations with real-world newspapers and journalists and then wrote the dialogue for the characters at those media houses.

Three of your biggest successes are based on real-life stories. OTTs, both in India and internationally, seem to favour stories based on real incidents. Do you think that’s a good thing or do you believe that fiction and imagination are being lost in this process?

Of course, it’s a good thing that stories based on real incidents are being made because maybe at an earlier time, there wasn’t much scope for those stories to get told. Web series and cinema are different. In cinema, you have larger-than-life stories where fiction has a lot of prevalence. But on OTT, people look for more authenticity. When you make a true story, 50 per cent of the battle for authenticity is won because the audience knows that this happened in real life. Both fiction and real-life stories have a phase. 80 percent of the films that I am working on right now are fiction. Some of them are larger than life. If you look at the Bollywood films that have worked from Gadar 2 to Pathan to Jawan to Zara Hatke Zara Bachke, they are all in the zone of fiction and even fantasy. They are our Indian masala films. Even down south, from Vikram to Ponniyin Selvan are all high-octane fictional films.

On the other hand, I think, the web is very much a content-driven platform. You have to literally hold the audience’s attention. Each episode has to be approximately one hour long. Plus, you have to make the show binge-worthy. On the web, you are also constantly fighting for attention against many factors that are part of the audience’s life such as disruptions at home, maybe a kid walking around, the doorbell, Swiggy and Zomato orders, cooking happening while the TV is on, people at home wanting to talk to the audience while they are watching the show… So, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to attention spans and capability. Of course, you might find examples of fiction shows doing well. Take Mad Men as a case in point. Mad Men was never written for the web. It’s from the golden era of TV. It’s an HBO show that now resides on OTT but was never made for it. By the time it got onto OTT, it had already achieved cult status. Fargo comes from the Coen Brothers, so it already has a certain following because people want to know what the Coen Brothers have been up to. When it comes to real stories, take Harshad Mehta for an example, people know the person, but they don’t know the story. So, they have an instant reason to watch the show because they want to know the story. Even shows that had none of these elements and yet became successful had some element of reality in them. Take Paatal Lok for example. It’s a work of fiction but it had elements of reality; parts of Paatal Lok were based on a book.

I think fiction is very exciting. You can create whatever you want, you can take it anywhere, it is very, very exciting, but we, as long-format creators, are very new to this world. In India, the wave of long-format narrative started in 2018 with Inside Edge and then was followed by Sacred Games. Our TV never had a Mad Men, our TV never had a Breaking Bad. TV in India was quite different from TV in the West. What the West could do – which is to take learnings from their TV and use them on their web shows – we couldn’t or can’t. Most good writers of the web in the West are the same ones who wrote great TV there.

Now that your initial struggle is over, are there any genres or specific type of stories that you want to explore?

I want to explore many genres. I definitely want to do something in the superhero space – a very Indian kind of superhero. You know, our cities don’t have the infrastructure for something like a Spider-Man to function. Our superhero should be able to get out of traffic, come out of potholes when he falls into them, he should take an auto-rickshaw to go to school or college and stuff like that. I want to create the kind of superhero who is international in appeal but very Indian at heart. Then, I want to work on a crazy espionage show or film. I also want to work on a creature film. We don’t make films like Anaconda or Jurassic Park – I’d like to work on something like that. Now the budgets are shaping back up, the theatres are coming back too. I want to do so many things. I have this keeda for science fiction as well. I’d like to work on something like Oppenheimer. I’d like to work on an alien thriller some day – Not like Koi Mil Gaya but more like Prometheus.

Which films and filmmakers have influenced you?

I think my first big influence was Lagaan. I must have been about 10 years old when I watched it and it felt like a complete film to me. To date, I have a Lagaan poster at home. It really inspired me to be into films. Once, I had the good fortune of meeting Aamir Khan and I told him, “Sir, you are so familiar to me that I wake up looking at you.” He asked, “How?” And I said, “I have a big poster of Lagaan in my bedroom.” He cracked up.

Then, later when I started discovering cinema, I got fascinated by Steven Spielberg. His selection of subjects amazes me. He is one person who can make a Jurassic Park and also make a Schindler’s List – I find that range fascinating. As a writer, I want to explore all kinds of genres and as much as possible. Spielberg is a figure to look up to in that regard.

At some point, I started understanding Indian cinema and what works and what doesn’t. Dialogue writing in Indian cinema is a different kettle of fish and I think Salim-Javed and Kader Khan are people whose work I really look up to in terms of dialogue writing. I try to follow in their footsteps in how to structure a scene, etc. I know some of these are clichéd answers but they are cliched because they work.

The diner scene from Pulp Fiction (Film still)
The diner scene from Pulp Fiction (Film still)

Then, I really admire Quentin Tarantino. I admire him most for his scene work. He writes brilliant scenes. For instance, in Pulp Fiction, they keep talking about burgers for a long time and then suddenly a shoot out breaks out. That’s an example of masterful scene writing. It has a surprise element, it has a quirk, it has character buildup in a very twisted manner – it pretty much has everything that a great scene should have.

When it comes to the vision of a writer-director, I think no one comes close to Walt Disney. I have been a huge fan of Disney World, and I must have visited Disney Land at least 15 times in my life. I can totally see why it is the biggest media company in the world. It’s primarily because of this one man’s vision. He took the family audience, and especially kids along on the journey of entertainment. At a time when noir was booming, he started with animation, going against the tide. Walt Disney was actually looking to create and share happiness through cinema, which is what I have learnt from him. I want to create happiness through this medium. I want people to relate to my expression, and I hope to evoke some sort of emotion in people.

I started my journey, in many ways, with Hansal sir. And the most important thing I learnt from him is we should not take ourselves too seriously in our journey. I think that will always remain with me.

Tell me the worst decision you made as a writer.

In Made in China, within five minutes the character should have gone to China. But I changed that structure and unnecessarily prolonged the film. That remains a regret. I could have restructured the film and written it better.

If you got the chance to work with any director in the world, who would you choose?

It would be Steven Spielberg. I hope he decides to work on a story based in India and I could write it for or with him.

Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.

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