The world of Indian streaming continues to grow and change at a rapid pace. Along with it, the approach to creating shows is also evolving. With the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video having set up shop here, creators seem to be moving toward a more structured process that leans towards systems that have been followed for aeons in the West, but are still new to us.
As a result, there are new roles and screenwriting terms flying around, like a show’s ‘bible’ or a showrunner. Some of these are not entirely new. For example, the concept of a writers’ room has been in existence in Indian television for years, but now the approach is different. “Even the saas-bahu TV shows had a writers’ room …The biggest difference is the amount of time spent to crack the show. Also on TV, it’s an ongoing process to shoot and write at the same time whereas here you have a bound script before shooting,” says Varun Grover, head writer of Netflix’s flagship Indian show Sacred Games.
To better understand these concepts, we spoke to a number of creators of leading shows across platforms to get their take on what they mean and what purpose they serve in storytelling.
We begin with what’s referred to as a show’s ‘bible’. Best described as the world of the show on paper, this is a detailed outline of the story, setting, characters and their arcs. It’s a screenwriting document that is typically created even before the script. A bible doesn’t need to follow a set structure or format and can be in the form of words or pictures or a mix of both depending on the nature of the show.
A series’ bible can also be referred to as a pitch docket which is typically put together before pitching a new show to platforms or producers. However, the bible is a far more detailed outline that is fleshed out once the show has been greenlit. In the case of Netflix’s latest Indian original series Leila, filmmaker Deepa Mehta (who directed the first two episodes) said she came on board before the script was written but after she was given the bible, written by showrunner and screenwriter Urmi Juvekar.
Netflix’s Sacred Games also had a bible in place before the script. This is how showrunner Vikramaditya Motwane explains it: “The purpose of the bible is ‘this is my show, this is what it’s about. This is what the flow of my story is in one season…and two seasons. But most importantly, these are the people inhabiting my show and these are their arcs’. What’s their beginning, what’s their end? It’s what every show must have.”
Motwane says amongst its many uses is having the show defined and set out on paper before embarking on writing the script “so you’re not wasting your time when you’re writing a screenplay, trying to figure things out.” Motwane strongly recommends a number of bibles available online such as the Stranger Things bible for its rich visuals, the Fargo bible and the very first bible of cult sci-fi show Lost.
A writer’s room is quite literally a room where the writers of a series come together to conceive the show. It can have how many ever writers are needed, based on the show’s requirements. It is run by the head writer.
Before any scripts are actually worked on, time is spent on creative jam sessions. This includes defining and discussing the story, characters and larger arcs and making the show the best version of itself. Eventually, this gravitates towards breaking down the beats of each episode and once the show is defined, writers tend to split off and write individual episodes.
“If the writing of the show takes 9 months, then out of those 9 months, the first 4 the writers spend together. We started by talking about the book and our favourite characters and arcs,” says Varun Grover, the head writer of Sacred Games, an adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name.
Karan Anshuman, showrunner of Amazon Prime Video’s gangster drama Mirzapur adds, “It’s not just about getting four people around a table, that’s been done. It’s about really enabling them and giving them the time and resources to bounce ideas around and crack the idea.” In terms of volume of work, he says writing a show is like writing three feature films together which is also why a writers’ room needs multiple writers.
As the title suggests, the showrunner is the head creative voice of a series. Given the enormity and scale of a show and the number of writers, directors, actors involved, the showrunner is tasked with looking at it in its entirety and coordinating all aspects. “The showrunner is the only one who has an overarching view of the entire project more than anyone else… The one who sets the creative direction the show is going to take. Everyone else is an executor of that vision. That includes the director,” explains Anshuman.
He adds that the advent of web series has led to a reshuffle of sorts in the power structure on a set. In the world of shows, the ultimate call sits with the showrunner. Directors are bought in to execute specific episodes, something Anshuman says that many Indian directors struggle with.
The showrunner may also be a writer and/or director on the show or neither. There is no ‘correct’ one-size-fits-all approach as each show tends to develop its own ideal structure. Made In Heaven on Amazon Prime Video had four directors, two creators and one showrunner. Nitya Mehra, who was the showrunner, also directed a few episodes.
In the case of the first season of Sacred Games, there was no creator. Instead, there were three writers, two directors and one showrunner. Motwane served as showrunner and director of the first season. On the second, he’s just the showrunner, but hasn’t directed any episodes.
On whether showrunners need to also be writers Mehra says, “It really depends. For me it was imperative. I do believe showrunner needs strong creative execution skills which I think writers in India haven’t been exposed to that much.”
Motwane adds, “You have to have a voice in the writing. The question is do you want to be more of a helicopter during the writing or do you want to be actively involved? … If you look at your major showrunners that we know of Vince Gilligan, David Benioff and DB Weiss, these guys will write the first couple of episodes and the last couple of episodes, and then other writers will sort of fill in along the way. Some showrunners can be directors also. All the good ones tend to direct the first couple of episodes to set the tone and then they sort of let other directors take over.”