Inside the Writers Room: Where too many cooks don't spoil the broth, but only make it soupier

The streaming boom in India has encouraged creators to build and maintain a writers room for every project, which has brought much-needed focus on harmony of diverse voices.

Karishma Upadhyay November 07, 2021 09:46:29 IST
Inside the Writers Room: Where too many cooks don't spoil the broth, but only make it soupier

Writers room. Representational image

What kind of food is served on a film set? Who picked out the paintings for the hero's bedroom? What does an Executive Producer do? Karishma Upadhyay's monthly column Bollywood Inside could attempt to answer these and other questions you might have about all things Bollywood but were too shy to ask.

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For a significant part of 2018, a motley crew of writers, led by Gazal Dhaliwal, sat together in a sterile WeWork centre in Andheri, Mumbai to adapt Sandhya Menon’s bestseller When Dimple Met Rishi for screen. They discussed plot lines and character arcs as someone from the team noted down everything that was been said. There were no bad ideas. The youngest among them was barely out of college. This helped because much of the show is set in a college campus, and the protagonists are 18 and 17. They met for anything between four and eight hours a day for weeks until the San Francisco-based story was transplanted to Jaipur. This was the first step in the process of creating Netflix India's Mismatched, starring Prajakta Koli and Rohit Saraf. 

A writers’ room is a very Hollywood concept. Think of it as a cauldron of ideas where every minute detail of a series is pitched, discussed, criticised, and eventually, maybe implemented. Think long nights, white boards, loads of snacks, creative differences, and lifelong friendships. Depending on the length of the series, this would include anything from five to 20 writers. While trading ideas around a table and criticisms are integral to the raucous process, there is a hierarchy in the room – the showrunner is ultimately in charge.

Closer home, from the days of Salim-Javed, and maybe even before that, writers would get together with the director, and at times producers, for what they called a 'sitting,' where they would discuss the beats of the story. But it was rare for more than two people to write one script. It was the same for shows like Hum Log and Nukkad from the '90s, and it continued when saas-bahu shows took over prime time. It was only when the industry started making shows for international platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video that creators realised there might be merit in adopting the Hollywood approach to writing. 

Inside the Writers Room Where too many cooks dont spoil the broth but only make it soupier

Salim-Javed - the OG writers room

One of the earliest writers’ rooms in Mumbai was for Inside Edge, Amazon Prime Video’s first India Original that launched in 2017. Once the 10-part first season, that was set in the world of cricket, was greenlighted, Karan Anshuman, the creator of the show, knew he needed help. “I knew we had to have a writers’ room because it was very overwhelming to write what ended up being over 400 pages for the first season.” It helped that Anshuman was not just aware of how these rooms work but was a fan of it. “In order for the room to work, I knew that you couldn’t have someone very experienced. We hired a bunch of young people who were willing to collaborate, and weren’t set in their ways.” Apart from Anshuman, there are four other writers credited on the first season.  

Like Anshuman, author and screenwriter Anu Singh Chaudhary, who has Aarya and Grahan to her credit, is also a fan of the process. “What it teaches you is to be collaborative while making sure that you don’t lose your unique voice. If you write in isolation, I am not sure you understand and learn as much about filmmaking as you do when in a room. You immediately know what’s working and what isn’t. This process also makes you think out-of-the-box and be flexible. I really enjoy that kind of energy.” 

Inside the Writers Room Where too many cooks dont spoil the broth but only make it soupier

Sushmita Sen and co-director Sandeep Modi on the sets of Aarya

Chaudhary wrote the first season of the Sushmita Sen-starrer Aarya along with Sandeep Shrivastava, whose writing credits include Shershaah and New York. “I recognised that Sandeep was fantastic with characters like Shekhawat and Sampath, and injecting humour in their dialogues. He, in turn, felt that I was good with plotting the moments between Heena, Aarya, and Maya.” While they would jam together on ideas, both Chaudhary and Shrivastava wrote specific episodes individually but “we’d always incorporate each other’s ideas.”

Both Anshuman and Chaudhary, who briefly worked together on Grahan, believe that the role of a showrunner is crucial to the process. “It’s the showrunner's responsibility to make sure that all the voices are cohesive. Internationally, most showrunners are also lead writers. Hopefully that will become the norm here as well. A showrunner needs to constantly keep an eye on the room so characters and the tonality of the show are consistent,” explains Chaudhary. In the early writers’ rooms that Anshuman headed, there were ‘massive disagreements’ and ‘things hurled’ but not anymore. “No writers’ room is a democratic place. Everyone's ideas are welcome but ultimately, it's the showrunner's call. I’ve learnt to be a mediator though now I just nip disagreements in the bud,” he adds.  

The Importance of Diversity 

After running multiple writers’ rooms since the first season of Inside Edge, Anshuman puts the ideal number of writers in a room between three to five, 'with one of them being a showrunner and another a dialogue writer.' “You can start with one set of people for ideation, and then the composition of the room can change at the screenplay stage,” he says. Diversity is an important part of putting together a room.

“The first season of Inside Edge had no women but we quickly realised that we needed to correct that. By the third season, the room had fifty percent women. Beyond gender, the subject drives how diverse the room needs to be.

A show that I am going to start shooting soon has characters from Hyderabad so we had writers from there on the team,” Anshuman says.

While not a big fan of writers’ rooms, Scam: 1992 writer Sumit Purohit (“I am not sure I’d be able to work if the timings are fixed. One of the reasons why I want to work in this industry is that I didn’t want to do a nine-to-five job”) does recognise the importance of having different voices aid a project. While Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu’s book The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away formed the backbone of what he and fellow writer Saurav Dey wrote, they had two other writers – Vaibhav Vishal and Karan Vyas – step in to add flavour to the dialogues. “Both Saurav and I are not from Mumbai or Gujarati, and this show needed someone to add that element. Vaibhav and Karan stepped in about a year after we had written the dialogue and screenplay draft. But again, they worked individually.”

Inside the Writers Room Where too many cooks dont spoil the broth but only make it soupier

Scam 1992 writers room. Image courtesy: Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival

The only time Team Scam: 1992 got everyone together to go over the script was just before the show went on the floor. “We sat with Hansal (Mehta, director) and the teams from Applause (producer) and Sony LIV (platform) for about five days, and went through everything. That was probably the closest we came to something resembling a writers’ room.”

The Zoom Room

Like a lot of other workplaces, writers’ rooms went online last year when the pandemic triggered a worldwide shutdown. One of the biggest advantages of going virtual is that writers do not have to live in the same continent, leave alone city. Anshuman is currently working with writers in Spain, Goa, Oman, and Hyderabad while he continues to live in Mumbai. Meeting virtually has also made writers more focused and disciplined. “When we met physically, half the time was wasted in figuring out what to eat and where to order from. Our Zoom calls are from 10 AM to 1 PM, after which everyone disperses with their respective assignments. It’s very efficient,” says Anshuman.

Inside the Writers Room Where too many cooks dont spoil the broth but only make it soupier

Writers room on Zoom. Representational image

On the other end of the spectrum is Aarsh Vora, one of the writers of Mismatched, who missed the human interactions. “Our room of writers is very close, and we missed being in the same space as each other. We wrote Season 2 during the lockdown, and that just took so much longer than the first season where we were all in the same room. A huge part of this process is feeding off each other’s energies that can’t happen in an online space,” he says.

Author of Parveen Babi: A Life, Karishma Upadhyay has been writing about movies and movie stars for almost two decades. On Twitter, she goes by @karishmau.

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