When A Bitter Coffee Tastes More Bitter
Caste biases run deep in the Hindi entertainment industry. There is no surprise if we bring a Dalit character only when we have to tell a ‘Dalit story’ and we write a Muslim character only when we have to tell a ‘Muslim story’.
I am, of all other things, a writer.
I have been living in Mumbai for the past six years. For coffee and wonderful croissants at Blue Tokai, I do random work in the film and television industry like acting and (sometimes) directing. But mostly I write to pay my rent.
Writers in Mumbai make an amazing tribe. We carry a million stories within ourselves, and we work hard to be able to tell these stories. Stories which we believe in and stories that matter to us. The city of Mumbai is quite fascinating in that respect. People are always surrounded by a million stories in a perfect three-act structure. These stories always travel in rickshaws, local trains or on a jetty from Madh Island to Versova village.
We are, sometimes, approached by production houses who want us to write for them. More often than not, they have a synopsis or a story idea. But sometimes, they have a full-fledged broad story and want us to rework it. Their requirements vary and we try to fit in as much as we can. Sometimes, they want to hire writers to write the bible of sorts of a series (a precise word for a document which consists of a logline, broad story, character sketches and episodic breakdown—many Hindus and Muslims are writing bibles in Mumbai throughout the day). Sometimes, they want us to write screenplays and dialogues only. So, you know, a writer who does not have a single release to name but claims to be working as a writer for a few years must have worked on at least a dozen series or film ideas. I just had my first release in September 2022. And I have worked on at least 10 series. Some of the stories are still with the production houses, while some might be lying on a director’s desk at this very moment. Some could be with a small producer who is pitching them to bigger production houses and OTT platforms. I guess either this is the general ratio or I have a low success rate.
Now that you have a fair idea about this writer, let’s come to the main story. I was recently approached by a pretty big production house to rework on a series based in the heartland India. A senior writer had recommended my name to this house for developing the series. Contrary to the general belief, writers are paid well. It helps us to survive in the city that Mumbai is. As writers, we are always looking for such opportunities to further our careers.
So, this senior writer friend of mine called to inform me that a woman from this big production house will call me to discuss the series. He gave me a general background of the storyline and it was kind of exciting. Maybe, I liked the idea because I didn’t have any commercial work at that time. Who knows at this point? Later in the day, I received a phone call from this wonderful woman from the big production house. let’s call it BPH—it will save us some time in our finite lives. She worked as a senior producer for the BPH and had over two decades of experience in the entertainment industry. I knew about her.
She seemed like a nice person; it didn’t take us long to break the ice. We talked, cracked a few jokes and she told me that a senior writer has praised my writing skills. She blindly believes him, because he has given hit shows in the past. It was quite flattering. We talked a bit about the series and what needs to be done about it. She shared that they have an initial draft of the story prepared by another writer, but they needed to rework on it as it had some problems. I shared my thoughts on the idea of the series and gave my inputs about what can be done to make it more interesting. I told her, I can create a real world with real characters, with real motives. She asked me if I could make it funny. “of course, I can,” I said.
Then, we talked a bit about me. It was mostly like an interview. Questions like what I have done in the past, what are my thoughts on the ‘universe’ of the show, where do I see myself in five years, my thoughts on quantum physics. You get the gist, right? She asked me to go through the existing documents which the previous writer had prepared and share my thoughts. This document contained the detailed story of the series, with character sketches and story arcs. She wanted me to rework the story and then work on the screenplay and dialogues of the eight-episode series. This was for a reputed OTT platform, and they had plans to rope in a big star for the show who had worked in an earlier series by the BPH. I agreed. The whole conversation was so positive that I felt it could be a real boost in my commercial writing career. She was considering me to be the sole writer on the show. I was excited. That’s how magical the city of Mumbai is! If everything goes well, it has the capacity to give you such excitement when you are least expecting it.
I digitally signed a non-disclosure agreement. This is precisely why I cannot write the name of the BPH, the story or the name of the woman from the BPH. Soon, the series document appeared in my inbox.
As I glanced through the documents, I instantly knew the problems with the story. I thought, of course, I am the guy for them! I must rescue the project.
The major problem in the story, I discovered, was that every character belonged to one particular caste, Brahmin. The characters were not from the same family. The story was neither of a Brahmin priest nor of a Brahmin household. They could have been from any caste or religion. I say to myself, “Rookie mistake, I’ll fix it.” There were other problems with the story, like story structure, characterization and so on.
I made my notes and called the woman from the BPH. We, once again, had a nice chat and I shared my thoughts on the story. She was a good listener. I said, “I think the caste needs to be addressed in the story. Every single character, out of the 12 characters mentioned in the story, belongs to one particular caste. And it isn’t relevant to the story. We can have characters from various castes, and it will add many layers to the story universe.”
The woman from the BPH says, “But ours is pulp fiction. And we do not want to touch caste.”
This, for me, was a full-toss delivery. I said, “The moment you say you do not want to touch caste you are touching it heavily.”
“But we are creating a fun series.”
I added, “It’s not that only Brahmin people can have fun. Everybody can add to the fun quotient.”
The wonderful lady asked me, “But how will it add to my story if you just changed names?”
I paused for a second and said, “It will make it real.”
My reasoning resonated with the wonderful woman from the BPH. She asked me to prepare a document with what I think is the best. Generally, writers are paid for such work. So, I said I could write once I came on board. She said “See, I have to pitch your name to the OTT people. You have not worked with them as of now. So just work on this document and then we will make things official.” Fair enough. Makes sense to me. I am a person of reason.
I worked on the document on a priority basis. It took me a day to create it. I sent it to the woman from the BPH. In my head, I have fixed all the fundamental problems in the series document. I also think I have created a great document, something I can be proud of, with my understanding of society and humour.
The woman from BPH messaged me and said the document reads really well.
This made me happy. I shared this with a friend and told him I just won a tiny battle and made somebody realise through my writing that representation of people from various castes can add layers to a story. Even in stories which are seemingly not about caste politics are simply fun stories. Representation of people matters because characters from OBC and Dalit communities are generally absent from the Hindi film and television industry. We bring a Dalit character only when we have to tell a ‘Dalit story’. We write a Muslim character only when we have to tell a ‘Muslim story’. Why can’t a character from Dalit, OBC or Muslim background not have fun? They are made invisible from the stories around us.
I was such a proud writer that night.
The next day, the woman from the BPH called me to discuss the financials. This is certainly a positive conversation. I quote an amount. She seemed fine with it. She tells me that somebody from her commercial team will call me to discuss the money. This is good news, I thought.
Later that day she asked if I could visit her office to discuss the series in detail and take things forward. We decided to meet the next day.
All excited, I visited the BPH.
Sitting at the reception, I am looking at the posters of wonderful shows they have created. Various reputed award trophies are on display. I am impressed and think maybe with my story, I can add more trophies for the BPH to display.
She is on time. She doesn’t make me wait for long. We greet each other, share a smile and repeat the same old phrase, “Finally, we meet.”
We proceed to a conference room. As I am sitting, she asks me what I will have, I say, “Black Coffee, maybe?”
Within minutes black coffee is served. We have short conversations.
And then she says, “Nihal, the document you shared was actually very good. But this series is, you know, pulp fiction. I also shared the document with the OTT platform. We discussed what you said and wrote. You want to make this story about casteism…”
I humbly add, “Not at all. All I said was that all the characters belong to one particular caste. This can be a bias which the previous writer may not be even aware of.”
“But the names sound good, no?”
“Because we have been listening to them for years.” I share my opinion.
The wonderful woman has a smile on her face, “See you are very intelligent. I have no doubt about it. Leave this story. Give me another story, with a strong female character. You can do it. I know. What do you say?”
I love black coffee. This black coffee tasted bitter. Slightly more than usual.
I smile and say, “But what will be the name of this strong female character?”
She smiles and says, “Anything you want.”
I finish my bitter black coffee. The meeting is over. The usual phrase is repeated, “We must work together next time.” Sure, we must,” I said.
As I walk past the trophies on display, I think, “How can you be so naive, Nihal?”
Courtesy : Outlook India
Note: This news piece was originally published in outlookindia.com and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights
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