Life as a serial writer is at the mercy of the 9.30 pm slot.
“They’re launching a new show with a 20 year old girl marrying a 12 year old boy. We’re screwed!” My Creative Director slumped in her chair. The writers around the round table let out a collective groan.
It had finally happened. The insane-est thing that could happen on prime time television had happened. In my head I had imagined it would be a horny Swamiji fornicating with a has-been actress on Bigg Boss 24, but life had different plans. Paedophilia had stepped ahead of PDA with this chhoti si love story. And that too in my slot. 9:30 pm.
I’m a writer. And sometimes to be able to pay my rent and afford breathing in Mumbai, I write soap operas. If you ever chance upon a popular show on a popular GEC (General Entertainment Channel), you might spot my name in Mangal font tucked under “Kahani- Patkatha” (Story- Screenplay). In exchange for sleepless nights, stress eczema, a non-existent social life and scripts that send channel executives orgasming and Creative Directors panicking, I get paid Rs. 5000 per episode. With 20 episodes a month, I make a decent living which I pay for with brain atrophy and a general sense of embarrassment when I’m asked what I do for a living. Since the past 2 years I have been writing for Indian television and my life’s graph changes according to the TRPs of my show. Lately it had gone through a series of 1s and 1.5s (on 10) which is just about average, pretty much like my writing career. But now with this new paedophilia trend, my major source of income was about to get, like we say in serials, a jhatka.
Paedophilia + child marriage - new levels to aspire to. Image source: india.com
“We need to brainstorm next month’s story. Forget about the Sonia (the vamp) carrying the hero’s najayaz bachcha (illegitimate child) track. It’s getting stale” our head writer Bhairon Singh Ji announced.
“Maybe we can revive Ananya’s (the heroine) dead parents? Like it was all a conspiracy for their property, they weren’t really dead. Ananya is not anaath (orphan)” Meera ji, another associate writer pitched in.
She was only 4 years older than me but since she was married with kids I was supposed to call her Meera ji. A lot of her ideas were either about reincarnation, bringing the dead back to life or coming back with plastic surgery. Sometimes it made me wonder about her life.
“How about a new entry? We can have a Sunil’s door ka cousin visiting and he falls in love with Ananya!” The new intern with an Afro suggested. Bhairon Singh ji glared at him.
With his expensive college air and his hairdo from another planet, he reminded me of my first time as an intern. No one took me seriously and everyone rolled their eyes at me so much that I had started to wonder why everyone kept looking at the ceiling. No, I wasn’t very bright. And neither was the afro-haired intern with his extra marital affair suggestions.
“Ananya is the heroine. She can’t have an extra marital affair. She has to be true to her sanskaar” Bhairon Singh Ji spat through his gritted teeth. He was getting old and tired of explaining the same things to new kids every year. It didn’t help because Afro was still confused.
“But her husband is having an affair. He’s having a child with the Doosri Aurat in front of his wife!”
Bhairon Singh Ji was rubbing his eyes. I tried to help.
“See, when the husband falters, it’s the wife’s duty to win him back. If the wife falters, she becomes a vamp” It’s very hard to be feminist AND work for serials.
“So then how about we make it Sunil’s college friend Faraz or Farhan or something and Ananya helps him stand on his feet?” Afro’s enthusiasm was still hope. I guess he wanted his name in Mangal font really badly.
“Muslim character?” Meera ji wrinkled her nose. “We’re not Jodha Akbar. Who cares about a Muslim character if it’s not part of history?
Also a popular opinion in the country, I thought to myself.
Afro’s face dropped like a pooja ki thali from the heroine’s hands. I wondered if he was Muslim, trying to rack my brain for his last name, or even first for that matter. Chances were that he might not survive the next few meetings. There weren’t many Muslim, Catholic, or even Dalit writers in the industry. Most had upper class Brahmin surnames like Sharma, Tiwari, Tripathi, Jha or Pandey. A fact that was pointed out to me by Meera Ji one day. She was a Sharma.
“It’s too progressive” Bhairon Singh Ji dismissed it.
Ooh. Strike one. Afro might not survive this meeting either.
It’s only when you join the TV serial industry that you realise that `progressive’ can be a bad word. Worse than the most lewd abusive word you can think of. And there was an unspoken rule that you if you gave more than three progressive ideas on the writers’ table you were out. Afro was probably never getting a chance to try his hand at an episode. It was probably for the best - he was better suited for a Roadies or one of those reality shows that run on channels once meant for music.
I still remember my first chance at writing an episode. An associate writer had been on leave and Bhairon Singh Ji had suddenly waved his pen at me. “You write this episode.”
It was like I was on a dark stage and the spotlight had just shone on me.
I took his notes with shaking hands like a new bahu takes prashad from the matriarch of the family. After months and months of trying to get a word through the cacophony of loud writers high on their ideas, I finally had a breakthrough.
I was up all night pouring my 3 years of education in Literature and 2 years at film school into one long 30 minute episode. Revising Aristotle’s Poetics, going through theory of tragedy, carefully constructing the heroine’s hubris, hamartia, climax based on the classic 5 point plot structure. With bleary eyes I finally hit ‘Send’ at 3:30 am and hit the pillow with a tired head, still buzzing with the excitement of writing my first episode.
I walked in the next day with the air of those who had accomplished great things overnight, smiling and waving at all. But the copy of the episode that was handed to me was something else. Ananya had spilt Rangoli colours on her MIL’s sari and her MIL and co were now scheming about how to throw her out of the house.
I gasped. Where was my episode? Where was Ananya getting the idea of starting her own app for dabba services while cooking for her MIL’s kirtan? I stomped down to Bhairon Singh Ji’s cubicle. I demanded to know why.
He coolly fingered the thick malai floating on top of his chai. “Beta, your episode was too progressive”
I blinked. “So what Bhairon Singh Ji? Let’s do something different! Let’s be the clutter-breaker! Let’s inspire women to step out of their kitchens and be free!” I had in my voice the krantikaari zeal that I usually reserved for protests in college.
Bhairon Singh Ji wasn’t perturbed. He blew on his cup. “Who do you think watches our show?”
I frowned. Umm… My mother, my aunt, my maid, my neighbourhood auntie, almost every 35+ woman I know. He seemed to have caught on to my thought.
“It’s watched by your maid in Mumbai. It’s watched by your aunties back home. It’s watched by Munni, an 18 year old electrician’s wife somewhere in Itawah, with 2 rooms to call a home. You think Munni in Itawah gives a rat’s ass about some app? Munni wants peace with her MIL. She wants her husband not to hit her when he comes back home. She wants to forget about her life when she’s watching her serial. She likes to watch the colourful, sparkly saris and the elaborate jewellery. She wants someone to sympathise with, someone who knows what she is going through. Ananya understands, because she goes through the same things. When her MIL berates her for putting more mirchi in her dal, Munni identifies. When Ananya wears a new blouse, Munni goes to her tailor, gets a copy made to wear to her brother’s wedding in Bareilly. Because in her 2 room house Munni lives her life through Ananya”
I stood there unblinking. I had goosebumps. This is why this man was paid 50k per episode.
“Next time write keeping Munni in mind” he told me when I left the room. And I did.
Ichhadhaari Naagin. Image source: india-forums.com
That day saw the beginning of my career as a serial writer. I churned episode after episode of too much sugar in teas leading to ghar ka batwara (division of property), sarees being burnt by vamps as acts of sabotage and my personal best - getting the vamp Sonia to fake a pregnancy claiming that it’s Ananya’s husband’s najayaz aulad. It gave us the longest story line ever. It’s been 2 years - she’s still pregnant. I even brought in an aunt of Ananya’s from her village who dabbles in magic and keeps a pet nagin, to keep up with the trend ever since Simar turned into a makkhi thanks to kaala jaadu on Sasural Simar Ka, and Naagin broke all TRP records. Tv writers always need a back up plot, you know, in case of emergencies. And this was definitely an emergency.
The meeting was going nowhere.
“What if Sunil was to lose his job because he refuses to do milawat (adulteration) at the factory and then Ananya goes out to get a job and makes both ends meet. AND she’ll be supporting Sonia too. And her najayaz bachcha” I suggested.
“But Sunil is an industrialist. Why will he be given the job of milawat?” Afro asked.
Bhairon Singh Ji got irritated. “Don’t go by logic. Go with emotion” He considered it. “Hmmm… But will she be harassed by a sleazy boss at work? It’s still one of the biggest fears of small town women going out to work”
I thought about it. Let it go, let’s just keep to the kitchen.
I racked my brain for more. I could use my brahmastra (Tv jargon for ‘ace up my sleeve’) the black magic auntie. But how can we do it differently? There was already a Naagin, a bahu turned into makkhi, and King Kong-esque chimpanzee falling in love with a heroine in Thapki. What can we do? I really couldn’t afford to have this show shut down. My other non-fiction English shows don’t even cover my grocery bills. And I was getting too fond of my latest Zumba classes, which I absolutely could not let go of. Think, you dumb bitch, think!
The meeting got over without coming to anything usable. We decided to sleep on it. Late at night I was on Netflix, doing exactly the opposite, not sleeping on it. Foolishly watching American shows in the hope of striking upon a desi soap idea. I needed some coffee. I stirred my coffee with my mind on a mental list of my monthly expenses. Ouch! I had a sudden twinge of pain on my hand. It was a red ant. I had left a trail of sugar from my cup to the jar. Now a queue of ants was marching up to it to gather the loot. One had made its way up my cup and on to my hand. That’s when it struck me. It was genius!
I dialled Bhairon Singh Ji. He didn’t pick up immediately and when he did, he grunted into the phone. It was 1: 45 AM. “What?”
“What if Ananya went to her Chandeli Chachi for help with Sonia the vamp, and Chachi does some jadu-tona on Ananya and turns her into a cheenti (ant)?”
A second of silence. He was buying it.
“Then the aunt offers Sonia some saunth ke laddoo for her pregnancy. But Sonia doesn’t know that sitting on that laddoo is Ananya as an ant! She eats the laddoo and Ananya goes down her stomach, to the uterus and see that there is no baby! Sonia is not pregnant!”
I didn’t hold my breath. I already knew it was brilliant. Because it had no logic. Only emotion.
“Write it fast and send it to the creatives and the channel. They’ll have to get a graphics team ready. Achha hai, the actress playing Ananya had been asking for leave for many days”
Ka ching! Idea sold. Zumba classes, mamma’s coming!
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By Serial Writer
Cover photo credit: YouTube.com