“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” beautifully wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her famous sonnet. Imagine you are a writer pitching Squid Game to the great producers of India (including to Amazon and Netflix in India whose executives are but by-products of the same Bollywood cloth). I guarantee you unless you are a big name in which case anything goes and the reason why you see so much nonsense made – the producers will quote Miss Browning back at you: “How do I reject thee? Let me count the ways.”
Let me recount the ways in which your Squid Game idea would have been rejected by Bollywood producers. How do I know these? Well, some of the lines I mention have literally been slapped across my cheeks multiple times as I have gone to pitch my ideas.
One comment you’ll hear often is: “The hero has a mid-life crisis caused by poverty? That means he’s a loser. Who would want to watch this?” As you wait for the thoughtful producer to drop his turds of wisdom, he’ll say: “You know the essence of our industry is that the hero is already a winner, and he faces a challenge and you make him a bigger winner. Arre, that's why we call him a hero yaar.”
If you dare ask him: “But what about those heroes who are poor in films? Pat would come the answer, “Baba, that’s his circumstance na? You can’t choose where you’re born. But you can choose to find yourself a rich girl and make her yours for saat janam.” He’d wink on the last bit.
This next one I have been told so many times that I don’t even blink when it’s told anymore, “Can we make the hero younger, say in his early 20s, you know to suit the demographics since we have a young population. Besides all our older heroes love to play the young guy and feel good about themselves.”
Though I have not been said this next line, writers I know have been told a variation of this: “Can Akshay Kumar play the lead, you know do some martial arts scenes in between. And can we have him waving a national flag at the end? Or better let’s have a contest between Indian and Pakistani teams and Akshay Kumar will defeat and kill an evil Pakistani villain by inserting the flagpole through his abdomen, saluting the flag as the national anthem plays. Crowds will love it.”
Producers who make action films will tell you, “Can our hero overpower some of the guards, take their gun and break out of the game after killing everyone and destroying the island a la Commando style?”
Another known for making love stories will say, “Can’t we have a young woman contestant, a beautiful do-gooder he will fight in the beginning but will fall in love as the series progresses. And in the last episode, it will be him versus her: the pyaar of a maa waiting outside the game versus this new pyaar. How will our guy get out of this dharmsankat?” If you remind him he has to get out of the Squid Game he’ll convince you that dharamsankat is a much bigger thing to wriggle out of.
A wise MBA guy would say, “Can you add more humour in the story, like make 30% of it funny.” You’d retort, “But it’s about death and violence.” And the guy would look at you blankly as if you are the idiot. This is a line that has been told to my face by a big studio executive when I went to pitch a film about an accident in Mumbai’s past where hundreds of people died. Needless to say, I haven’t pitched anything to them ever again.
Let us assume, despite all your struggles you do manage to find a producer who finds a director and makes the series. But by the time you see its final rushes, it is possible that what you will see on-screen will only bear a passing resemblance to what you had pitched. Oh, and don’t be surprised if ‘Squid Game’ becomes ‘Cricket Game’ in the end.
I cannot speak with authority about the other film industries in India as I have not interacted with them much, but Bollywood is mostly the art of making money while making terrible films. This is done in various ways: boosting the ego of the hero so he can pump his fan base into watching the crap in theatres, reducing the number of clothes the female lead wears for the same reason, having some unrealistic and needless fight sequences where the weak hero takes vengeance against a sea of villains giving your audience a sort of catharsis for the powerlessness they feel as they are ground to dust daily by the state etc.
That’s it. That is most of Bollywood for you, a bear-trap not just for audiences, but writers, directors, and even producers who come here with brilliant ideas in their heads, but once they come out of this factory, they remain not even a hollow shell of their former selves. Why do you think they make so many triumph over adversity films? Because the people making it rarely triumph over theirs.
It isn’t difficult to make a Squid Game in India. Not just because India has a similar socio-economic grinding of its poor but because we have the creative talent to make much better shows and films than any in the world. But it will never get made for one specific reason: no one ever comes out creatively alive of the Squid Game called Bollywood.
(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. He loves to let his pen roam the intersection of artificial intelligence, consciousness, and quantum mechanics. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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