Poised for the release of her next project - Citadel India - Sita is currently working on the script of Farzi 2
Shahid Kapoor’s sensational OTT debut - Amazon Prime Video's Farzi - made headlines not just for its splendid star cast - that included Vijay Sethupathi, Kay Kay Menon, Amol Palekar and Raashi Khanna - but also because of its genre-bending narrative that revolves around a disillusioned artist dabbling in counterfeit money. Created by Raj & DK, the eight-episode web series ushered a new era in the world of black comedy crime thrillers in India. Edgy plot twists, etched-out characters and some incredible performances kept audiences glued to their seats. It was co-written by Sita Menon, who has also penned the script for the India chapter of Russo Brothers’ much talked-about spy thriller series Citadel.
So, has there actually been a revolutionary change in screenplay writing in the age of OTT? To discuss that and more, we recently indulged in a freewheeling conversation with Sita - who has previously worked on screenplays for projects like Happy Ending, Go Goa Gone and Shor in the City. Excerpts from the exclusive OTTplay interview:
Q. What triggered the explosion of content in the digital space? Would you call it an opportune time for writers in India?
A. It’s actually very simple. This was always going to happen with the huge burst of OTT content consumption. But I think most of us overlook the fact that we don’t give enough credit to the Covid-19 pandemic, which gave this whole new momentum in writing. The thirst for more content and the urge to experiment more with content stems from there. This was actually not very common, at least in India, for audiences to be able to embrace all kinds of content. That has opened up largely in the past two-three years since Covid.
This is honestly the best time for creators, content makers, writers and anyone who’s in the content business. And it’s only going to get better because the great thing about ideas and storytelling is that it’s not restrictive. You move according to the time and keep experimenting. So in that sense, I like to keep calling it a springboard, at least as far as Indian content is concerned. There’s so much more exciting content that people are ideating and coming up with.
Q. In terms of favoured genres on OTT, currently there’s a huge demand for crime thrillers or stories based on true events. How would you describe this trend in the country?
A. I think most people in India are clued in as to what is happening in the nation. The average person today is aware of what’s happening around, even though they might be more concerned about their own daily survival. Movies and films inspired by true stories have always been a huge draw. Remember Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout at Lokhandwala? [A 2007 action thriller film, based on the 1991 Lokhandwala Complex shootout]. Even Ram Gopal Verma’s gangster trilogy - from Satya in 1998 to Company in 2002 and D in 2005 - all of these had to be literally fictionalised at that point, but they were all true crime inspired stories.
I see this as a positive thing that people are now able to come out and say this story has been inspired by this event. For instance, there are films and shows based on the 9/11 attacks, while there are also stories that draw inspiration from unsolved mysteries. And all of these are in the thriller genre.
Such stories get your pulse racing. And I think that’s the best kind of content that people consume on OTT in general around the world. It’s not just restricted to India, because that ‘what next?’ factor is always there. That’s what keeps you going, engaged and invested. And content makers - like good writers and directors - know how to keep you hooked to keep you consuming or going to the next episode and so on.
Q. The emergence of long-format content also means that every character in a show needs to be fleshed out, without compromising on the curiosity factor and keeping the tone of the narrative crisp and interesting. Do these factors mount a lot of pressure on the screenplay writer?
A. Yes, it does - incredibly and intensely! It’s become hugely challenging for a writer now. One, because today’s audience has seen everything there is to see. They are an experienced audience. It’s not like you’re serving content to a newbie.
So there are two perspectives to this notion - one is from the audience’s point of view and the other is from the writer’s point of view. The audience keeps the writer on their feet, because as a writer, you do not want to dish out content that is common. You want to challenge yourself, so that the viewer watching your show would say, “Oh, I didn’t think of that in the story. Oh, this is a new way of reacting to a situation. Oh, this is a new twist I didn’t see coming. Oh, I didn’t expect this character to have that shade in him or her”. So, that’s what keeps you going as a writer.
Secondly, from the screenwriter’s point of view (or from my point of view), it is incredibly challenging and sometimes even frustrating (mostly, frustrating in a good way!). Because I tell you honestly, and I don’t know others will agree with me on this, the first idea that strikes your mind in terms of like - a girl meets a boy; they quarrel and they make up; then they lived happily ever after; then there is a villain, somebody who doesn’t agree with their match; he troubles the couple; and then the hero bashes him up. The first line of thought is usually the default plot.
It’s only after years of experience that I have now gotten to this stage where I usually trash the first line of thought, because I know I shouldn’t be heading towards that. Then comes the challenge of ‘what’s new’? How do I tell the same story in a better way? Let’s say, for Farzi, the template is something that we’ve all seen before - a small-time guy, who is thrown into a big-stake world and he takes panga with the kingpin and the law, and then he turns into this grey-shaded protagonist. We have all seen various versions of such a character in the past, right? But in Farzi, the setting made a lot of difference - the backdrop of counterfeiting and the artist - these made a huge difference to the same story that we might have been trying to tell.
The other aspect that needed attention was to give justice to each character in the show, and that’s a constant struggle. Fortunately, the long-format gives us the freedom to deep dive into all the characters in a way which is satisfactory. My constant effort has been to be kind and respect all my characters in a story, so that their voices are heard; that people get to know who they are and not just see them. I try to focus on everything - their flaws, highs and lows as well as good and bad qualities. And if I have managed to achieve that, that’s great. I’m happy. So yeah, long story short, it’s hugely challenging to write and to do justice to all characters in a show. That said, it’s how my journey has been from the beginning - to give space to each character, no matter how long or how short their actual screen time is. You shouldn’t hopefully see somebody who has just one line in my story. You should, at least, be able to register or remember that person even later. That’s been my effort.
Q. Is your writing influenced by the female gaze? Do you consider it a responsibility as a woman screenwriter?
A. I’m hugely aware of that, and I’m very responsible when I write a story. These days, the word that has come about to describe the ‘gaze’ is ‘agency’. That’s the industry term for it. And yes, I’m intently aware that the female character has to have her own agency, and so does the male. My effort is not to have the woman as a reactionary, but rather have her effect change and plot progression. I consider myself successful, if I can show both the female and the male character equally impacting the story. Traditionally, women’s characters are mostly shown as reactionary. And that’s the result of years and years of social conditioning.
Like I told you, that first line of thought to have women as reactionary should be cancelled immediately. I want my women to rather take charge in the story. So yeah, it’s a responsibility I take very seriously. It doesn’t sit very lightly on me. And I’m fortunate to have worked with people like Raj & DK, who completely understand and recognise that responsibility.
Q. What’s your take on generative AI? In the wake of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike, how much of a threat do you think ChatGPT is for script/screenplay writers in India?
A. You know, it’s interesting you ask me this. I recently had the privilege of meeting Sadhguru, at Isha Foundation. I asked him about his views on what’s going on around the world and how does he stay up to date? Then, I asked him to share his perspective on ChatGPT or AI. To that he laughed and said something which really struck a chord with me. He said that this is the best time. I welcome AI and all the automated stuff. Why? Because it will give the writer or the director or the actor enough time and mental space to come up with ways and means to actually express themselves better without any restrictions. Let the machines take care of what they want. You figure out ways to innovate yourself and truly express yourself. I think that has been a huge takeaway for me.
Why are we even thinking of AI as a threat! We should rather use it as an assistant - something which is meant to make our life easy. Instead of fretting over AI, we should focus on what can make our life better. We can concentrate on newer, innovative things that only our minds can come up with.
Q. Any interesting projects that you are currently focussing on?
A. Of course, there is Citadel India (starring Samantha Ruth Prabhu and Varun Dhawan), which is likely to be released in the first half of 2024. Then, Farzi 2 is in the works. I’m also writing a period show for Netflix. I can’t really go into it more than that at this point, but this project is something that I’m very excited about. More so because it’s a space I have not actively handled before or deep dived in before. I just love the fact that I’m able to go into different spaces, worlds and genres through my writing, and I feel totally blessed that I’m able to do it. And I hope that I keep experimenting with stuff.
Q. What is it that you love watching on OTT?
A. These days, I’m hugely into Korean, Chinese and Japanese dramas, only because they give you a perspective into relationships that we naturally don’t think of. The way they approach relationships, for me, that’s most fascinating. Be it man-woman, mother-father, husband-wife, sister-brother or sister-sister - all their relationships are so unique. And it’s very singular. Culturally, there’s a huge difference. And for me, that’s really fascinating. It just gives me a lot of ideas on how to structure my stories. I mean, they’re just the springboard. Let me make that clear. Also, the backdrops that they come with and the settings for these stories are very distinctive.
Q. What do you have to say about gender pay parity when it comes to writers in the industry?
A. Honestly, I think I’m horrible with money. I’m not at all good with negotiations and stuff. But I do believe strongly that - and this is only coming with experience, both in the film and series space - the story originates with the writer. So, it’s only fair that you give that person their due, monetarily. This is something that I believe in very strongly. We still have a long way to go actually, but we are working towards it.
It’s actually not ‘gender pay parity’ for writers, but ‘pay parity’ for writers. The effort is not at all to equate yourself with a director or an actor or others in the unit. But keeping in mind the genesis of the story, the due credit monetarily needs to be accorded to the person who actually puts pen to paper and gets it going.