Whither, Content?

A few years ago I resigned from being a bureaucrat in the Indian railways to work in films and TV. My response to shocked well-wishers used to be, ‘I know there’s bad stuff everywhere, but this is the bad stuff that I am signing up for.’ I took up writing full time. From stand-up comedy, to historical shows, to medical tales – I managed to get my foot in the door of a totally unknown zone.

The ‘stuff’ merits a discussion. Especially now. The playground is much bigger. Over-the-top (OTT) platforms are increasing by the day. Films are getting released on the web, foreign players have entered the domestic market. Networks are opening subsidiaries which are going to address either ‘Bharat’ or ‘India’. Safe to assume that we are going to need a lot of variety in our storytelling.

We are looking at the start of an important cycle, and if we don’t address some critical issues now, writers like me will have to remain in that same rut of narrative patterns that have defined Indian television for ten years now.

The situation now

Currently this is how content seemingly gets created:

  • Bold? Come up with stuff which is akin to soft porn. Sex sells.
  • Appeal to the millennials? Think in English, translate those half-baked thoughts to bad Hindi.
  • Immediate impact? Buy the rights for foreign shows, give a neither-here-nor-there version to the audience.
  • Tier-2 towns? Perpetuate stereotypes to amuse the big city viewers, and compulsorily add a few Hindi cuss words.
  • International show look-feel? Add some English dialogues, create characters who have no presence anywhere in India.
  • Liberated Indian women? Make them say ‘sex’, ‘condoms’, ‘periods’, ‘f***’, ‘BC’ and ‘MC’ and most certainly ‘FEMINIST’ out loud. And show them smoking.
  • A political show, addressing different ideologies? Huh? What’s that?

You get the picture. There’s a complete lack of vision.

And whatever vision that does exist is blurred because it is informed by factors that are themselves coming from the wrong place – pure commercial considerations or trying to be safe. Or, perhaps, content decisions are guided by consumer insight studies with shallow conclusions like ‘millennials like this, millennials want that’ or ‘small-town India wishes to see this because even they consume content on their phones’.

The ideal scenario

After getting one honest brief from the network head, it’s the writer’s responsibility to deliver a bound script a month before pre-production is to begin. All discussions ensue after that. The writer must be able to defend his or her writing, take constructive feedback, alter where required. In those conference rooms, as long as nobody is working only to justify their salaries, we will all be focused on the product. Otherwise, too many cooks most definitely spoil the broth.

The collaborative process must have more trust. Just as the writer is constantly aware that he or she has to accept the client’s brief and feedback, the network executives need to be conscious of the fact that they are not the writer. A cosmopolitan, Anglicised junior executive cannot be tasked with giving feedback to a writer who is coming from the heartland and knows the pulse of the nation better. An executive with no reading habit must not be allowed at all in any creative meeting.

The networks must treat the writer at par with other heads of departments (HODs). Unfortunately, currently the writer is the most dispensable part of the system. Writers themselves are partly responsible for that. More focus on quantity and very little on quality has resulted in the cheapening of their status. I remember the first call I ever received. It had gone something like “Hello? Writer ho? 4 baje meeting hai. Aa jaana.” (You’re the writer? Meeting at 4pm. Be there.)

Had I not been so relieved about landing my first assignment, I would have been more amused at the way the caller used ‘writer’. It was representative of how the breed is perceived. And I repeat, ‘writers’ need to take the blame too. It is up to the writer to be honestly invested in the project and not be reduced to a typist. For that even if one has to lose some lucrative ‘daily’ stuff, writers must hold their ground. Only then will the writer have the moral authority to say no to flawed suggestions or the insistence on doing something just because ‘that Korean show did it.’

A uniform vision (along with justified suggestions on the way) and its in-depth execution on screen, will ensure holistic content. The soul of the story will be in place. Don’t we all want that? To create original content that we are proud of?

Anukriti Pandey is an ex-bureaucrat and current screenwriter based out of Bombay, in the second half of the third decade of her life.She posts original photos and content on Instagram @Qissago, which is Persian for storyteller. 

Featured image credit: Tina Rataj-Berard/Unsplash