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#Throwback2020: Scriptwriters on the new normal

Writers believe they are finally getting the recognition they’ve longed for.

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MUMBAI: The great irony about the year 2020 is that a year that will forever be defined by one of the worst pandemic known to humankind is also one that redefined entertainment and paved the way for many millions. It would not be wrong to say that 2020 was the writer’s year. Over the course of the last 12 months, streaming platforms served us gems like Scam 1992, Mirzapur, Paatal Lok and Panchayat, to name a few. The television industry is also experimenting with content. While film and TV producers are grappling with challenges in production, writers are swamped with creating content to meet the consumption demand.

Production houses are in need of scripts more than ever – a kind of a blessing in disguise for writers, who are working furiously to wrap up pending episodes and current seasons. From the lows of lockdown to the highs of the post-Covid production boom, writers have one thing in common: they have had to adapt swiftly to a new normal.

The lull of lockdown

Screenwriters Association member Satyam Tripathi revealed that with the abrupt imposition of lockdown, work came to a grinding halt, and just like any other industry, writers were also affected. But personally for him, working in the confines of his home and coordinating through online platforms was a welcome change, as otherwise a lot of time is wasted in the physical meetings.

Zoom also provides a workaround, albeit a rather clumsy one, to the key feature of the writers room – the whiteboard, where character arcs and plot lines are scribbled, erased and obsessively rearranged until final things get into place.

“For a creative person, perhaps this was a time where a lot of introspection was happening in terms of the content we write, in the manner in which we approach our work. When you face a hard time it is then you realise how much you are really connected with the emotions you write about. In those times there was so much insecurity around us in terms of money, work, and life itself,” Tripathi mused. 

Author, writer, documentary filmmaker Jaya Mishra, who has written for shows like Kehne Ko Humsafar, Cold Lassi aur Chicken Masala, spent her time dashing off scripts in the first few months of the lockdown. “There was pressure to deliver the scripts because nobody realised how much time it would take to get back to normalcy. People wanted to finish the writing processes of all the shows; basically that was the only work we were doing at that moment,” she shared. “But how does one write about normal life when life was not at all normal? The world was at a standstill. I couldn’t focus because all my shows are romantic comedies and there was no romance, I mean how do two people even meet anywhere without the fear of the virus?”

She went on to add that shows which were almost ready to go on floors required last-minute changes. So, there was a lot of rewriting that happened during that time. 2020 eventually gave Mishra the chance to take a pause from hurtling between writing and delivering scripts. She devoted this free time to her other love – crocheting.

At present, her in-tray is overflowing. She has started work on her second book, which has been a long time coming. Mishra’s first book was the fiction novel Kama~the story of Kama Sutra published by Om Books. She has her hands full writing for Alt Balaji’s Toxic, Married woman, United, and is also penning screenplay dialogues for an unnamed original series with One Life Productions.

Director, lyricist, and Happy New Year writer Mayur Puri defined the first few months of lockdown as tough, with shoots cancelled and no dubbing taking place. Apart from this, Puri’s company which does a lot of translation projects for OTT platforms saw a period of lull.

Said he: “Before the lockdown, my company produced 30 hours of content and the idea was to make it to 45 hours of content till 2021 but now it looks quite difficult to achieve. In fact, for the first three months, there was no work but from October onwards we have reached our monthly targets. I am hoping by the first quarter we will be back on track as far as bulk business is concerned.”

On the bright side, more projects have started flowing in from June and July onwards. Puri now has three projects lined up for release this year, including Disney and Marvel Studios’ Black Widow, and Free Guy. All the movies were commissioned in 2020.

Besides volume, the nature of work has also changed for writers. People who were earlier writing two movies are now working on four projects. The past year has also been a wake-up call for screenplay writers. “For instance, when it comes to OTT, there is more pitching and development before actual writing happens. So, writers are becoming more disciplined, they now understand that style of working. Since the writing activities have increased, hopefully it will harbinger better content for us.”

Production blues

The industry breathed a sigh of relief when the government allowed filming to resume, under strict guidelines. Of course, production while being Covid compliant comes with its own share of hassles.

Writers are now being asked to rethink what could be feasible as there are restrictions in terms of shooting, budget, people and much more. They are asked to lean on fewer characters along with special effects and VFX to provide scale and make the show more relatable.

To make the scripting process more convenient, multiple staff are splitting into mini-rooms, with senior-level producers doing Zoom sessions while lower-level personnel work offline on script changes or other details. Some showrunners are also scheduling one-on-one Zoom or Google Meet sessions with members of the staff in an effort to ensure that everyone is getting the support they need.

Despite the occasional technical hiccups, like bad internet connections, sound and the transition to teleconferencing has been a source of comfort to many in this new quarantined world.

Mirzapur writer and creator Puneet Krishna is currently basking in the success of his original series. But the behind the scenes story is not so sunny. Mirzapur was in the middle of post-production, so it was an ordeal for him to shoot while following Covid protocols. Due to this, the dubbing process became elongated.

Tripathi, who is busy developing an OTT series with Reliance Big Synergy, did not have any programmes on air so he did not face any immediate challenges. He got an ongoing show – Zee TV’s Ishq Subhanallah – just when the lockdown was lifted. The only problem he encountered was when somebody on set tested Covid positive, forcing him to rewrite certain scenes.

Regardless of directives, that vary from studio to studio, screenwriters say their anxiety lies largely in the uncertainty looming over them. 

Puri asserted that it is important for a writer to have the freedom to take his pick of work. “What we look at is we get enough choice of projects and decide what is best suited for me and when the work stops you are not left with any choices,” he noted. “Not having a choice of subject was one big challenge. I am a small entrepreneur who runs a business of writing. For me, it was very difficult because payments stopped coming and I have a team of writers I need to pay. Thankfully, when work started my team picked up the pace and we started working harder and we accommodated Diwali bonuses also. I think the worst has passed and we are in a better position.”

The silver lining

The emergence of OTT platforms has been a gamechanger for writers. Puri said that thanks to these streaming services, writers are now getting recognised. In addition, with most theatres shit or running at 50 per cent capacity and no big budget movie releases happening, the race for box-office numbers is virtually non-existent. Now, it is completely a contest of skills, which is why Puri believes the overall quality of writing should go up.

He quipped, “With OTT there are so many stories which can be now explored which are not conventionally box-office. The only criteria is to make the content right and think of the audience as an intelligent audience. The value of writers is going up, in terms of the value, payment, and respect for their work. I am hoping this continues even when the theatres are open.”

Acknowledging that there has been a spike in OTT consumption, Krishna noted that people who were releasing films in cinema halls are now opting for OTT release –so it has become a level playing field. At the same time, he is hopeful that once things normalise, people would flock back to movie theatres.

Forecast for the future

Digital adoption in various walks of life surged by leaps and bounds in 2020 and writing is no exception. For a while now, more and more people have voiced that TV, movie and OTT scripts shouldn’t be made with paper, as paper scripts being tossed around a set might cause problems. So, writers suggested alternatives such as electronic scripts and electronic sign-in/out should be explored in the post-Covid world.

But what about the big picture? Mishra was of the view that the entertainment industry is going very strong.

“Fortunately, the market has been pretty good to writers. A lot of ideation went on, it has helped me to work on new shows. All this work came to me in the last five months. We are still in a better position compared to directors, actors and producers,” he said.

Tripathi opined that the market is still picking up and will take time to settle. The entertainment industry was already facing issues after TRAI’s intervention, digitisation, and then the BARC incident happened. And while the OTT juggernaut is no blip on the radar, traditional linear TV still has a lot going for it. “The industry was kind of settling in when the pandemic knocked on our doors. I also believe that the OTT spike is just a rumour, it is more of an urban phenomenon. Because during the lockdown we have realised that reruns are doing much better than any form of content,” he added.

A lot of negativity that has come to be associated with daily soaps will decrease, and audiences will react to it, claimed Tripathi. That is why a lot of older shows are working as they bring a sense of nostalgia and good times.

Writers also echoed the view that smaller budgets and fewer crew on sets would force directors to tell more intimate and pertinent stories.

These are exciting times to be a screenwriter, with the industry in transformative stage, new forms being explored and a burgeoning need for content among new and diverse consumers. The page is fresh and the quill is ready, now it remains to be seen what story they write.

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