Sacred road to Emmys

Updated: Nov 23, 2019, 07:23 IST | Varun Grover | Mumbai

As Sacred Games battles it out at International Emmy Awards this weekend, screenwriter pens its journey from book to screen to global acclaim

A still from Sacred Games
A still from Sacred Games

VarunThe beginning

Every time I sit down to write something, my first feeling is that it won't happen. It will never be complete and nobody will get to see it. The 1000-page novel by Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games, was even scarier. And there were two of us sharing that feeling — me and Smita Singh (my co-writer in Season 1). Our second co-writer, Vasant Nath, was more hopeful and pushed us to get down to work.

Our process began by discussing the broad themes and character arcs, which took six to eight weeks. Then, for the next few weeks, we started chipping away at the individual arcs for every character and the clouds started to part, but only a bit.

At this point, showrunner Vikramaditya Motwane joined us and started giving our wild horses some fodder and some reins. We spent another few weeks refining those arcs and divided the eight episodes among the three of us.

The Netflix process

Their process is distinctive. It operates within a well-set framework, and is different from filmmaking. Netflix first asks for a "Bible" from the writers, which is a set document that includes the individual character arcs in the context of the larger story as well as episode summaries. When you are writing, you can get carried away. In this context, the Bible becomes useful, by providing a general roadmap.

The research

A lot of research came from Smita Nair — our research head for both seasons. She had been on the city/crime beat for Indian Express for almost 15 years in Mumbai, and she knows the city like nobody else I know. Her keen eye, rigour, and obsession with details (including the kind of clothes an intelligence officer may or may not wear) made our job a little tougher, but also a lot easier.

Our ground research involved meeting cops, lawyers, police historians (Deepak Rao especially), scientists, intelligence officers, and journalists over a period of two months to get a sense of Mumbai and the world between 1992 and 2018 — our focus years for Gaitonde in Season 2. We got some fascinating stories about India's covert operations in international seas.

Anurag KashyapAnurag Kashyap

She gave us some beautiful nuggets including why all Mumbai cop stations have an aquarium, and why the big police operation in Season 2 was called Operation Maqdoom. (Hint: It was named after Maqdoom Ali Mahimi of the Mahim Dargah fame.)

Season 2

In Season 2, there were four of us in the writers' room: Pooja Tolani, Nihit Bhave, Dhruv Narang, and I.

Since we didn't have as much time as Season 1 to finish the scripts, we had to hit the ground running. Since Season 1 had blown up way beyond our expectations, the pressure on the entire team was a bit unreal. But for better or worse, we were already done with most of the writing by the time Season 1 dropped (July 2018).

Since the book is darker and more complex in the second half (the all-powerful Gaitonde has to reach a point where he kills himself), our aim for Season 2 was to make things more dense, and the characters more disillusioned. Seeing the kind of world we are living in right now, we arrived at the central theme of 'Is the world even worth saving?' We were lucky to have new character additions played by brilliant actors like Amruta Subhash (KD Yadav), Pankaj Tripathi (Guruji), and Kalki Koechlin (Batya).

The reception

While Season 1 got a unanimously positive response, the verdict for Season 2 was split. Many critics seemed to love it, but some audiences were vocally disappointed. Both Motwane and I were expecting this split opinion because of a drastic shift in tone from Season 1 as well as our choice to go with an open-ending (no, that's not a cliff-hanger!) as opposed to a clean, happy one. The risk may have backfired a bit, but given the chance, I would do it exactly the same way again.

The learnings

That is not to say there are no learnings. The biggest one, at the end of two seasons, is that people prioritise character depth over plot twists. A lot of plot twists we were worried about (in both the seasons) didn't get any criticism but characters behaving inconsistently or boringly becomes a huge let-down for viewers.

Vikramaditya MotwaneVikramaditya Motwane

And there's one more learning on a philosophical level. Writers collaborating is not always a smooth process because writing primarily is a solitary journey, writers have egos, and the writers' room is a product of capitalism more than natural selection. And still, when it works (like it did for the six of us), it's a beautiful experience that makes the world of a writer a little less lonely.

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