As more web shows are being green-lit in South India, we are slowly seeing a collective effort to bring tightly-structured plots and speed to the table. The Hindu Weekend finds out more
If you have a favourite American TV show, it probably has a writers’ room. Where storylines are thrown about, episodes created, and scripts fleshed out. But in India, this collaborative model had less appeal, at least until recently. When global streaming giants such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ came down, they brought with them industry standards from the West. Today, not only are writers’ rooms fast becoming a staple in Hindi programming, web series with multiple seasons have also highlighted the indispensability of a writer.
Interestingly, the trend is trickling down to the South now, especially in Tamil and Telugu, and increasingly Kannada. The pandemic, which created new interest in southern content — SonyLiv acquiring Tamil releases, Jio Cinema picking up Malayalam titles, and the big OTT players making more intense inroads — has only helped accelerate this.
How streaming platforms do it
- With long-form storytelling usually involving not just multiple writers but directors and cinematographers, the script becomes the unifying, mobilising force. Streaming platforms have internal teams which respond with detailed notes regarding introduction scenes, cliffhangers, length, character development, and the like. They are closely aligned with the writers’ room from the development of the logline to the full-bound script. Aparna Purohit, Head – India Originals, Amazon Prime Video says, “We have worked relentlessly to formalise and instil the rigour of the writers’ room for all [our] projects, across languages and content formats.” She notes that, as of now, they have various productions in Tamil and Telugu collaborating with the rooms of production houses such as Wallwatcher films (founded by writer-directors Pushkar and Gayatri), Stone Bench (co-founded by writer-director Karthik Subbaraj), Studio Shakti, and Trendloud. The practice is to allow the creator to compile their own rooms based on the specific requirements of the story, which will then be helmed by a senior creative executive from Amazon.
The concept isn’t new, though. Director Barath Neelakantan says that writers’ rooms were part of Tamil cinema, albeit informally. “They used to call it ‘script discussion’ or ‘scene sollaruthu’, where the director would write a story, which would then get a ‘treatment’ where every scene was developed.”. Sometimes, there wouldn’t even be a story, just the whiff of an idea. Like when Tamil neo-noir director Mysskin walked into his writers’ room — dingy and cluttered, filled with odd paraphernalia such as a DVD of Taxi Driver, a broken shower head, and a Salman Rushdie portrait on the walls — with only a vague notion, “A detective follows demons into hell, only to discover they are actually angels.” His team of writers thrashed out a screenplay from that seed, which eventually became the 2011 hit, Yuddham Sei.
So, what has changed today? Writers’ rooms in the South are becoming formalised, with contracts, NDAs and salaries. Depending on the project, writers make anywhere between ₹2 and ₹20 lakh (usually around 10% of the budget is reserved for script development). Hierarchies are being broken, too. Where once only the director would be listed as the writer, today everyone involved gets credited.
Clockwise from top left: Rakshit Shetty, Syam Pushkaran, Hemanth Rao, Bejoy Nambiar, and Barath Neelakantan
Bringing in discipline
In this format — used in Netflix’s Sacred Games, which ran for two seasons, Amazon Prime Video’s Paatal Lok, now renewed for a second season, and in several upcoming Tamil and Telugu projects — writers sit together and formulate a script, dividing episodes, scenes, or character arcs among themselves, before finally tying it all together.
“The reason most OTT platforms opt for a writers’ room is because it is faster. If they sign me up, for example, I can buy some time to finish a project. But with a team, they can nudge them towards a definite deadline,” says Neelakanthan. Kannada writer-director Hemanth Rao agrees that this is a more efficient model for long-form content. “You have one person coming in with a solid idea, getting on board like-minded people, and writing 10 episodes in half the time. It democratises the entire process, and creates more jobs.”
Stills from ‘Soorarai Pottru’, ‘Kirik Party’ and ‘Avane Srimannarayana’
With different perspectives also come different skill sets. People are being recruited for specific talents: comedy, writing dialogues, local referencing, in-depth thematic knowledge. Writer-director Bejoy Nambiar, who started a writers’ room last year as an experiment, says that he is always on the lookout for people. “When putting together a room, you have to think of who would be right for the subject, what are the strengths you need to make it whole,” says the director of Wazir, Taish, and most recently, the short Edhiri for Mani Ratnam-produced anthology, Navarasa.
Writing for anthologies
- The anthology is becoming a popular genre today. In the last couple of years alone we have had Aanum Pennum and Cheraathukal in Malayalam, Addham and Pitta Kathalu in Telugu, Paava Kadhaigal and Putham Pudhu Kaalai in Tamil, Katha Sangama and Pentagon in Kannada. From a production point of view, they make sense. They are faster to shoot, you get a bigger cast of stars, and more star directors sharing the poster. “An anthology is a micro project. In one, you will get to collaborate with four directors, four writers, four cinematographers, and four different kinds of stories. It is a way of getting a sense of the terrain,” says Rao. But this cobbled-together quality — getting filmmakers, especially during the pandemic, to write and shoot something small and patch it together — means that they don’t use writers’ rooms. “An anthology is usually director or writer-driven,” says Nambiar, who didn’t use one in his short for Navarasa. But with the largely tepid responses that anthologies have got so far, we wonder if the existence of a writers’ room could have pushed makers to work strongly around a central story, like a web series — which was what Naravasa was initially meant to be, anyway.
Another advantage is the fresh perspective brought in with multiple voices. This was why Kannada writer-director Rakshit Shetty began 7 Odds, his writers’ room — to polish a script he had written, which eventually became Kirik Party, the successful 2016 romantic-comedy. “For me, a writers’ room is very important. Once a script is ready, even if it is written by one person, the rest can come up with inputs. That opens a new dimension to the main writer. It’s also more of a feedback, which can be important.” Since then, the team co-wrote the 2019 fantasy-adventure, Avane Srimannarayana, and is working on new ideas now.
However, there is still hesitance to adopt these formal rooms for feature films. This stems, perhaps, from the fact that production houses usually ideate movies around directors or film stars (and their tight schedules), while web series — that can take up to a year to develop a script — are built around the writing. “With films, there is often a compulsion to churn it out, start to end, within six months. So I see a bit of resistance,” says Abbhinav Kastura, a former supervising producer at mobile VOD (video on demand) service VuClip who is now independently developing commissioned Tamil web shows.
Heart of the matter
Does Tamil cinema need a writers’ room? According to Pushkar, one half of the Pushkar-Gayathri writer-director team (behind Tamil hits such as Vikram Vedha and Oram Po), all writing is a synergy between the heart and the plot. “One thing Tamil cinema is really good at is the heart part of it — the depth of emotion, flavour, nativity. But we generally don’t have too many writers good at plotting.” He is working on two fairly large Tamil web series at the moment, adds, “With web series it is important to have a tightly structured plot to hold through eight episodes and possibly more seasons. It needs a build-up, a hook, a surprise; structural requirements that are very plot heavy. To get this combination, we think a writers’ room comes into play — with some focussing on the heart, and some focussing on the plot.”
The Malayalam industry, meanwhile, is yet to pick up on the trend. However, industry insiders say change is imminent. “Writing is an independent, personal process in Kerala, being a small-scale industry compared to that in Tamil Nadu,” says Syam Pushkaran, one of the most prolific writers (Maheshinte Prathikaaram, Mayanadhi, Kumbalangi Nights, Joji). He prefers writing alone because “there is something lacking when two or three people are working together; that personal point of view is missing”. But in the last six to seven months, with OTT platforms shifting their attention to the state because of the pan-India success of films like Premam, Bangalore Days, and Drishyam, he notes that commissions for web series are coming in. In fact, he’s hired two associates and set up a writers’ studio in a rented house, to pen a web series and a film. It’s still too nascent to comment on how the small industry will reorient its working style to fit the demands of the sudden spotlight, he cautions.
“A writers’ room must be created keeping the story in mind. If you are making something about a social minority, you need to make sure they are represented in the room. This is very common in Hollywood. [2002 drama] The Wire, for example, had a journalist and a cop writing, which is why it rings so true,” says Pushkar.
“When you go through such a rigorous review process in long-format storytelling, with different stages, different iterations, it naturally calls for a writers’ room,” says Jayendra Panchapakesan.
Abbhinav Kastura’s writers’ room working on developing commissioned Tamil web shows
Keeping egos in check
With so many voices in a room, it is important to have a binding vision. When established directors convene their own writers’ rooms, they become that voice. In a studio setting, however, the emergence of a showrunner (someone with directing experience) or head writer fulfils that role. “It is not effective if we have six writers in a writers’ room with each one wanting to take the show in a different direction,” Hemant Rao says.
A showrunner will also bring a distinctive personality to the film or show. For example, director Sudha Kongara notes how she uses her writers’ room to debate plot points. In Soorarai Pottru (2020), she was insistent that Suriya’s character borrow money from his wife, despite everyone asking her to rethink it. A woman’s perspective helped to create a pivotal plot point.
“It is inevitable that there are clashes in writers’ rooms because a lot of writing is subjective. That’s why we have a rule: we never say ‘your script’ or ‘your character’,” says Abbhinav Kastura. “It is always why ‘this character wouldn’t say this’. These semantics matter in an ego-filled, highly volatile room.”