Long ago, the Bollywood eras could be understood by easy couples of actors and genres – Salman Khan’s action thrillers of the past decade, Shah Rukh Khan’s romances of the 90s, heroes of the left and of the working class by Amitabh Bachchan. ’70s and’ 80s. The OTT era, however, can be best summed up by these words from Bo Burnham: “Can I interest you in everything, all the time?” Today, every major streaming platform aims to have something for everyone. Because of that, there has never been a better time to be an enterprising screenwriter. Within the hierarchical structure of Bollywood, the rise of the screenwriter has been palpable. Where the script was once subject to the whims of the stars, today’s producers above all want original and distinctive stories.
Mirat Trivedi co-wrote the screenplays for Manoj Bajpayee’s Bhonsle (2018) and the highly acclaimed 2017 thriller Ajji. He says, “In the early years of streaming, we (writers) only had Netflix and Amazon to offer, but today there are a lot of platforms out there looking for original concepts. They know that the expectations of a streaming age TV episode and today’s web series are completely different.
While providing greater amounts of work, OTT’s longer run times also positively impact the quality of the writing itself. Screenwriter Srinivas Annamraju, for example, owes the OTT boom to a new interest in his two favorite genres: fantasy and science fiction. “I do a lot of world building,” he says. “When you are building a fictional world from scratch, you need that extra runtime to get that new, unknown world properly incorporated into your story. “
Hardik Mehta, who co-wrote four episodes of Amazon Prime Video’s Paatal Lok (2020-) series, talks about the differences between writing a theatrical movie and a web series. “If this was a two hour film, Paatal Lok could not have explored the stories of the assassins in such great detail.” Indeed, when the series features Tyagi “Hathoda” (literally “hammer” in Hindi), we only see him as a prolific, hammer-wielding killer. But in the following episodes, we learn so much about Tyagi’s past, anecdotes that don’t necessarily explain his violence, but facts that add vital context to a deeply human story, filled with human weaknesses and weaknesses. “Because of the episodic structure, we could get audiences to sympathize with so many characters. It only comes when you invest a certain amount of time in these people, ”Mehta explains.
As a screenwriter, there are basically two types of jobs in the streaming world. One, where you are the “showrunner” of a series. This comes with absolute creative control and the final say over scriptwriting decisions. The other is in the writer’s room. Basically, once the showrunner and producers agree on the basic plot and narrative direction, a group of writers is hired who writes up each episode in terms of how the plot progresses. It also allows individual writers to tap into their strengths.
Having written episodes of Netflix shows such as Leila (2019-) and Betaal (2020-), Suhani Kanwar strikes a slightly more circumspect note. “A year ago, I was very excited about the increased workload for writers,” she says. “A year later, I feel like we’ve leveled off a bit. We (writers) believed a little naively that increasing the volume of work would necessarily mean many different types of work, but this is not always true. But, yes, the increase in work is encouraging for writers. Kanwar also highlights another aspect of the OTT era that benefits the screenwriter: sharply reduced page-to-screen turnaround time. If your script is approved today, you could see it posted on a streaming platform in about 18 months. “It’s very rewarding for a writer. Previously, this process could take up to four or five years.
There is no doubt that some of the most ambitious and exciting works in Indian entertainment today are taking place in the OTT space. And if this “first generation” of writers kept their original promises, the beginning of the OTT era could be remembered as a historic turning point.