With Netflix’s Bard Of Blood launched on the streaming platform this week, producer of the show, Gaurav Verma, CRO, Red Chillies Entertainment, and Monika Shergill, Director, International Originals, Netflix, talk to Bhakti Mehta about the book-to-screen adaptation, writing digital series being an entirely different ballgame from films and the collaborative process between the two organisations
How did the journey of Bard Of Blood start? When did Bilal Siddiqi’s book come into the picture?
Gaurav Verma (GV): Bilal’s book came out in 2015 and at that time, series in India was not so prevalent and if I am not mistaken, Netflix came to India in 2017. At that time it gave creators a window where they could probably tell stories other than films. The Internet gives you an opportunity where you can probably do much more with stories. That’s how we wanted to tell our story and Bilal works with us in Red Chillies in various capacities. That’s how everything happened at home, we kept it in the family.
When did Netflix come into the picture and what was the potential in the story that you all saw?
Monica Shergill (MS): That’s not a fair question for me to answer. I just joined two months ago.
GV: I’ll answer that. Our relationship started with Netflix on the licensing side and that has been growing from then continuously. Then we wanted to do something in collaboration with Netflix, in fact, Netflix came up with this idea and we also wanted to do something. Also, Netflix was probably the only choice that we had.
MS: Also, what I can just add to that is that when the book was pitched, Shah Rukh (Khan) and Reed (Hastings) announced it together so there was a lot of excitement around the book and the material they presented. From then on, it’s been a very wonderful journey creating this show with them. When you see it, you will realise what a labour of love it is.
It is very important to find the right kind of collaboration with these kinds of series, especially since this is the first that Red Chillies is doing. How did you all ideate to get it done in the episodic format?
GV: We have learnt a lot about the series. As I said earlier, it’s a pretty new thing. As an industry we are still learning how to script series, basically where all the seven or eight or nine episodes are released for the audience at the same time to maintain the right hook. We are still learning this. For us, Netflix played a crucial part in terms of making talent available to us. We had Ethan (Reiff) and Cyrus (Voris), who created Sleeper Cell and Kung Fu Panda, coming in and working in the writer’s room and helping us understand the basics of writing. See, everyone understands that part but it was just to see it in terms of how it works from a series point of view. For us, it works really well with Netflix because they can collaborate and they have been at it for such a long period of time. They have access to such great talent. It works both ways. We understand the Indian market and they understand how this business works. For us, it’s been like going back to school and learning from Netflix.
How was the collaboration on the casting front?
GV: When you work with a partner, it’s not about who has a say or who doesn’t have a say. You are trying to collaborate and work on ideas which work for both parties. Of course, there is a casting process, which I think Netflix has defined, yes, everyone has to go through the casting. But at the same time, we all understand the characters really well. The fun part of writing a series is that here you can establish the character more than you can in films. So while you are writing also, based on what people have done in past or based on the potential that they have, sometimes you can surprise people. It’s an exhaustive kind of process but both partners have an equal say on this one. It’s more of an absolute collaboration.
You had said that Netflix looks into Indian as well as foreign sensibilities. A show with an Indian sensibility, how do you pitch it to the global audience?
MS: Actually, a series particularly is such an immersive world that you create that the more authentic it is to the country where the story originates from or the world that characters are in, more light it is to travel across the world. That story in its milieu, in its space, closely mirrors the taste and smell and feel of where it belongs. For example, Money Heist, which is titled La Casa De Papel in Spanish, has moved like that. Kingdom From Korea is another example of the same. Those stories are so authentically from their own world. Same goes for Bard Of Blood. It is so authentic to an Indian Intelligence Agency, the spy space, how it works and it is true to its DNA.
GV: I would like to correct myself, not Indian sensibilities but Indian story-telling. We want to tell Indian stories and I think that’s what they are also looking at. Every possible thing should be as rooted as possible and if the story is good then it will have traction. Now we are in a world where everyone reads subtitles. So content is now language agnostic.
MS: And also particularly for Bard because it’s a spy thriller, an action-packed genre and we know how films of this genre are watched by audiences across. So in that sense, by its very nature and its genre, it has more global appeal as a subject.
Speaking of global appeal, first of all, congratulations on the International Emmy nominations. How far does it help to get the right push in India and also, what about the international acknowledgement?
MS: The Netflix audience has loved those shows and they have watched them so there will be a matter of pride more than validation. We are making world-class content and it is getting noticed. So pride is a more powerful emotion for us.
Is there any basic criterion that you have while choosing a project for Netflix Original?
MS: Actually, the criterion is a slightly limiting word, I feel. We have, in India particularly, 1.3 billion people with such varied and diverse tastes. We see that every 500 miles ahead that we go, there is a change in our cuisine, our culture, our language and our films. Basically, our TV, cinema tastes, everything changes. We are looking at this huge and diverse audience. So, what Netflix slate is attempting to do or what we are attempting to do through our shows, series and films, is to cater to everyone in the widest manner possible.
And does RCE have any elements they look into especially when they are selecting stories for the digital space?
GV: I think the idea is to tell good stories. It doesn’t matter if it is long format or short format. If you have a story and if you see that you can hold the interest of the audience in a longer format then you go for that. If you think that a certain story needs to be told in a shorter format then you opt for that. It is defined by stories.
Also, I want to add something to the question on the Emmys. I think for creators, what matters more is the reach than the validation. On a theatrical point of view, Mr Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is probably one of the widest followed stars in the world. But with a movie, at best we can go to 70 countries. After that, I have to paddle the film all across through this festival and that festival. In this case, with Netflix, I have access to about 190 odd countries. If my film, my series has any value then consumers will watch it. What else do you want? You want reach and you want the viewers to see it, nothing else.
I also think we are language agnostic now. We are also country agnostic. Most of the foreign language series, we don’t even know where they originate from unless someone goes online and starts doing research on it. Like the show Spy which has come on Netflix, I don’t know where it is from, I just saw it. For me, if it is good then I will watch it. It is likewise for the stories that we will tell too.
With the other two collaborations you have, Class Of ’83 and Betaal, do you feel that there is a liberation of sorts for content creators in this space as you have not tapped these genres earlier?
GV: Firstly, we are on an expansion drive where we want to create more and more content. Genre is a limiting word so we will go with stories again. If you are chasing a story, it will fit into a particular bracket at some point of time. How the story is, what it wants to say will also find a bucket. But we are not necessarily chasing the bucket. We are quite open to everything. If you like a good story, just go ahead and tell it. Then you figure things out, talk to your partners if they like it or not. But most of the times they are kind enough to like it so we end up working together. (Laughs).