Turning the narrative over its head

Scripting game on point (From left) Vikramaditya Motwane with writers Smita Singh and Vasant Nath, Neha Sinha Roy, former head of development at Phantom Films, writer-room assistant Mantra Watsa and Varun Grover.

A larger-than-life gangster, an upright cop, enigmatic Mumbai, and a rhetoric of religion running throughout the narrative. Netflix’s recent release Sacred Games has everything to keep the viewer hooked and at the edge of his seat. With the formidable cast of actors, including Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte, the first season of the series directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap, saw the Vikram Chandra’s tomb of a novel being adapted into a crisp, fast-paced crime thriller.

After binge-watching the series, I found that the real heroes of the show were not Nawazuddin or Saif, but the three writers who shaped the lengthy, layered narrative into a tightly scripted eight-part TV show.

Roped in for the project by Phantom Films, the writing team of Varun Grover, Vasant Nath and Smita Singh had the monumental task of converting Chandra’s 900-plus magnum opus that spans over a time period of 40-45 years, into a well-crafted show. It took them a year to come out with a cohesive script that would create a beautifully filmed series on screen. “What Varun, Smita and I did was wisely spend the first few months putting the book aside after we had read it. We just spent our time talking about what interested us in the book and taking a fresh look at each character,” Vasant explains. “Once we had the milestones for the first season ready, we worked backwards from there to see what the characters will engage with, keeping in mind the larger concerns of morality, religion and politics that the book deals with,” says Smita.

Writing in a group and then working with two directors who have different approaches to filmmaking, is likely to have ruffled a few feathers. Varun calls it “a frustrating and enriching experience.”

“Writers are generally used to working on their own and we don’t really like interference, we don’t like people telling us this is a bad idea. All of us would put three to four ideas on the table and at the end of the day, it would be a miracle if they would approve even one of them,” says Varun, who is known for scripting Masaan. The disagreements and the arguments were part of the process for the trio but the result came in the form of a richer script. “I clung on to the fact that Varun could always adjust my idea perfectly for tone and I knew that Smita would always see whether it could fit into the narrative as a whole or not,” Vasant chimes in.

Chandra’s work was heavily descriptive and had a documentary-like feel, with each chapter (100 plus pages) focusing on either Gaitonde or Sartaj. Staying true to the book was also an uphill task. Varun agrees that the idea was not to remain completely loyal to the book, but it was to stay true to the soul of the book. For Smita, the challenge was to balance the story tracks. “While Sartaj’s plot was bare and internally rich in character, Gaitonde’s was bursting with action, he had an ever-evolving character arc. The problem was of a dearth of a plot on one side and excess of it on another,” she says.

Speaking about the risks involved in turning the novel on its head, Vasant says, “The question that we asked early on is how happy or angry is Vikram Chandra going to be if we changed what he has done. And we met him before we started writing and in the first meeting itself, he was so open to the adaptation in the true sense that we found it very liberating.”

The writers also managed to find a rightful place for female characters in what was essentially a male-centric narrative. Be it Cuckoo, Subhadra, Anjali or Kantabai, these women seem to be the moral voices and driving forces behind the two protagonists.

“Netflix had just given us a cue to not ignore the possibilities for the women and we were in absolute agreement with them. Cuckoo, for example, had only one paragraph in the book. But we decided to give her a prominent role as Gaitonde’s lover,” says Vasant.

Dialogues dotted with cuss words and explicit sex scenes also seem to be an essential part of the narrative. “Have you read the book?” asks Vasant, adding, “The book is full of cuss words and sex. In fact, there were parts of the book, which our moral compass did not allow us to replicate. There was never a decision to go to town with the sex, violence and bad language because we could. There was only the truth of the world and the truth of the characters and what we need to show.”

The storyline that shuttles between two polar opposite characters demanded similar treatment on the screen. Which is where Motwane and Kashyap stepped in. Known for their different approach to filmmaking, Motwane dealt with Sartaj’s narrative, while Kashyap set the stage for the flashy Gaitonde. When asked how the writing helped in the filmmakers’ vision, Vasant explained, “We never fashioned our writing to serve the strengths of the directors. In fact, the directors said that they just wanted a strong script.”

Now that the season one seemed to have garnered much attention and praise, we can only hope that a pacier narrative follows the first act. However, the trio remain tight-lipped about what’s in store.

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Turning the narrative over its head

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