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It’s showrunner time, folks!

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on August 21, 2020 Published on August 20, 2020

Calling the shots: Scriptwriter Sudip Sharma has been credited with the recent success of Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime

The pivotal role that the scriptwriter plays in the making of a long-form web series is slowly changing the hierarchy of the crew

* If you aren’t engaging the viewer with your story, he or she can abandon you with the click of the remote. The only thing that can sustain that kind of interest level is engaging writing and charismatic characters — and the only people who can deliver that are screenwriters

* And now long-form television, which we know in India as OTT (over-the-top) series, or web series, is making the scriptwriter the star of the show — literally the showrunner.

To make a good film, you need three things: The script, the script, and the script.

- Alfred Hitchcock

That’s from a man who made 52 films, each better than the other. But let’s put that primacy of the script to test. Four acclaimed films. For how many of them can you name the screenwriter?

Masaan?

Piku?

Gone Girl?

Zero Dark Thirty?

Film enthusiasts will reel off the names of directors easily: Neeraj Ghaywan, Shoojit Sircar, David Fincher and Kathryn Bigelow.

But scenarists?

Masaan: Varun Grover

Piku: Juhi Chaturvedi

Gone Girl: Gillian Flynn

Zero Dark Thirty: Mark Boal

If you got all four, well done; you’re a devoted film buff. If you didn’t know the answers to any of the four, don’t worry: You are still a film buff, except that the writer of the film is not someone you think about.

It’s a widespread malaise. All the visual pyrotechnics are the director’s and while the classy dialogue actors speak never fails to impress you, the role the scenarist played in making it happen is largely glossed over. That’s been the case through some 120 years of cinema history, in spite of what some of the masters, such as Alfred Hitchcock, said about the ascendancy of the script in film-making.

In India, the only exception is a brief phase in the 1970s when Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar got top billing in blockbuster films such as Sholay, Deewaar, Zanjeer, Shaan, Trishul and Kaala Patthar. Salim-Javed was at that time a name that towered over even the stars of the film. But before that, and since, scriptwriters have had a borderline presence in films.

Ironically, it is television that is giving writers their place under the sun. Long considered cinema’s bête noire, television has always been a writer’s medium. Soap operas always relied on the writer’s ability to coin the turn of the phrase and keep it coming. And now long-form television, which we know in India as OTT (over-the-top) series, or web series, is making the scriptwriter the star of the show — literally the showrunner.

Recurring interest

So, how did the scriptwriter’s resurrection happen? It’s the nature of the medium that brought about the transformation. Cinema is a spectacle. A two-hour film on the big screen, unspooling in the darkness of a theatre, can mesmerise the viewer with luscious images, directorial flourishes, and strong acting. You are there in the hall, and have earmarked time for it. Nothing — short of a cringe-worthy plot — is going to make you leave halfway through.

But a long-form series needs more, much more, to go down the audience’s gullet. It needs a story that can hold interest. This new genre is consumed intermittently; it means asking the viewer to come back to the story the next day, or the next week, to watch subsequent episodes.

“If you aren’t engaging the viewer with your story, he or she can abandon you with the click of the remote. The only thing that can sustain that kind of interest level is engaging writing and charismatic characters — and the only people who can deliver that are screenwriters,” says Sudip Sharma, a stellar scriptwriter whose recent success with Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime is sufficient cause for envy in the industry.

The pivotal role that the screenwriter plays in the making of a long-form series is slowly changing the hierarchy of the crew.

Scriptwiter Smita Singh

 

Smita Singh, among the brightest of the young screenwriters and whose film Raat Akeli Hai is earning critical plaudits, says in the long-form series the writer comes first; the development phase begins with the writer. “In a series, several things are locked in before things are turned over to the director,” she says. “With its interconnected storylines, multiple character arcs (as opposed to a principal protagonist in a film) the format is such that even the most impulsive director wouldn’t be able to change things during the shoot without getting the writer involved.”

Singh is currently working on a horror show for a streaming platform. And she is its showrunner, an apex role, usually responsible for every aspect of the show — from conception to shooting, all the way through to post-production and delivery.

Scriptwriter Karan Anshuman

 

If the director is the ship’s captain on a film, that role belongs to the showrunner, or a creator, on a series on OTT platforms. Karan Anshuman was billed as the creator on Mirzapur and Inside Edge. He too believes there is a definite change in the hierarchy. “The showrunner, or the creator, is the most important creative person. In fact, the director is often chosen by the showrunner/ creator.”

An example from the US will help explain this change in the social stratum of a film-making crew. David Simon used to be a crime reporter for Baltimore Sun. He had strong relationships with his sources — police, drug dealers and local residents — which he used for writing books, and then famously in writing The Wire, an acclaimed TV series on the Baltimore drug scene.

Through 60 episodes and eight seasons (2002-08) Simon was the creator of The Wire and the one constant through its six long years. Ed Burns, a former Baltimore cop, whom Simon pulled into the project, wrote 42 episodes of the long-running series, and more than two dozen different folks were credited as directors.

That’s complete inversion of film as the director’s medium, a theory propagated by film critics in the 1960s to extol the personalised film-making style of American and European film directors of that time. “The script,” says Anshuman, “and with it therefore the scriptwriter, has become the star. Shows are unwieldy beasts and writers know them best. There’s a great premium on original ideas and different treatment and that has brought us writers to the forefront.”

The writer-director pair

Director Neeraj Ghaywan has a somewhat different perspective. “For me it’s a more democratic vision where on long-form the writer and director collaborate closely,” says Ghaywan, whose debut film Masaan in 2015 was so exceptional that everyone who meets him asks him when his next feature film is coming. That second film may still be in abeyance, but Ghaywan recently formed a formidable creative quartet with Anurag Kashyap, Vikramaditya Motwane and Varun Grover to give viewers the second season of Sacred Games on Netflix.

Motwane chose to be the showrunner on the second season of Sacred Games after performing directorial duties on the first season. “As showrunner,” says Ghaywan, “Motwane had larger responsibilities and was creator of the whole thing, and he left direction to Anurag and me. If you find creative cohesion in a five to eight hour web series, it is largely on account of the showrunner’s role — he or she sets the tone and doesn’t let things drift.”

Sharma of Paatal Lok, this year’s outstanding long-form series, knows the drill. Prosit Roy and Avinash Arun directed the nine episodes of the series between them, but, as the creator, it took four years for Sharma to shepherd the series from writing to post-production. The filming itself was no more than a hundred days.

“OTT series is about running a tight ship and being organised to pull it off in the least possible time,” he says.

In the US, long-form series are mostly shot episodically. Not so in India where budgets and production convenience are guiding principles (so, you could even have the climactic scene shot first).

Scriptwriter Sumit Aroraa

 

And, yet, we see multiple directors helming different episodes. Doesn’t having different directors create creative confusion? “It doesn’t because of the showrunner/ creator,” scriptwriter Sumit Aroraa says. “Some of the responsibility that a director would have on a motion picture has shifted to the showrunner, who is the glue that binds everything together.”

Aroraa, who co-wrote two recent long-form series, Family Man and Selection Day, says writers are happy to find themselves on the driving seat for a change.

Besides, the streaming companies now have to bring out the big bucks to pay this new breed of uber-talented screenwriters, with scenarists’ incomes having doubled or even tripled since the previous decade. And the whole collaborative process is streamlined — from contracts, credits, timelines, to remuneration. Singh, who wrote three episodes of Sacred Games, says it felt the writer’s contribution was valued. “And all then as a writer you need to do is write the best that you possibly can.”

Streaming race

Opportunities for the erstwhile unknown and unnamed, not to mention indigent, screenwriters are only set to grow. Big guns Netflix and Amazon Prime apart, there’s long-form content galore on Disney+ Hotstar, which has seen its subscriber base swell to 8.63 million in India. There’s also Sony Liv, Zee5, Eros Now Select, Alt Balaji, Voot, and dozens of regional content OTT players.

The arrival of tech giant Apple can only imply that music is likely to get even sweeter for screenwriters. Apple has the might to take on the biggest players. In June this year, Apple TV announced that the content catalogue of Eros Now Select would be available on its streaming platform. As the race for streaming content hots up in India, it is not difficult to predict Apple — which, in the US, has already produced excellent original shows such as Little America, Dickinson and Defending Jacob — doing its own original Indian content.

In this bountiful scenario, the role of the scenarist is bound to bloom further. Streaming video content and consumption habits are a boon for writers. On Paatal Lok, Sharma was the showrunner. On Mirzapur and Inside Edge, it was Anshuman. Writers both. No wonder, then, long-form television is becoming home to good writing. Writers run the show; directors shoot what’s on the page.

What is more, this trend of writers donning the showrunner mantle is likely to grow. A showrunner would appear to be the traditional executive producer of a film. But it’s a creative role too, which is why it is likely to increasingly come the way of the screenwriter.

And let it be said again: the showrunner is the new boss in tinsel town.

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

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Published on August 20, 2020
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