This week, Game of Thrones released the second episode of its highly anticipated seventh season, and unsurprisingly, captured all of social media's imagination. Meanwhile, in India too, a "royal" TV soap garnered widespread attention - but for all the wrong reasons. Sony TV's Pehredar Piya Ki had a migraine-inducing effect on anyone who heard its story-line — an 18-year-old woman marrying a 10-year-old royal kid to "become his saviour".
To make things worse, the show's pilot episode had this 10-year-old stalking his to be "wife" until she literally fell in his arms (quite nauseatingly unromantic.)
It’s pretty amazing how while the west is creating compelling shows like GoT, Black Mirror and True Detective, Indian TV show-makers remain content with the same old exaggerated family dramas that thrive on bad scripts and terrible acting. It must take a really special kind of ignorance to be this disconnected from quality storytelling — especially in times of Netflix and Amazon, platforms bringing together brilliant content from Australia to Sweden, Israel and New Zealand, among many others countries.
How is it that an industry which has produced gems like Hum Log, Office Office and Malgudi Days, is now creating such terrible, cringe-worthy content? For anyone listening, here are my two cents for Indian TV show-makers: take some lessons from Game of Thrones.
Learn from mistakes
In its seven years of production, GoT has emerged as one of the most watched TV series and the most pirated one as well. Despite this overwhelming success, show-makers David Benioff and Dan Weiss chose to cut short the final two seasons by three and four episodes respectively, for better storytelling — they had been severely criticised for needlessly stretching scenes in seasons 4 and 5.
The results are wonderful and visible in the ongoing season. The episodes are gripping, well-made and leave viewers asking for more.
For Indian soaps, this should mean letting go of most of their current habits like running all year, hiring terrible actors, and working with mind-numbing, regressive scripts.
Actors are for acting
When it began, most GoT actors weren't very popular, nor did they have a great fan following — they were hired because they were good actors (I hear your duh). In India, though, the trend is to hire actors for their "looks" and their fan base to garner ratings (and again, I hear your duh.)
By taking such short-cuts, Indian TV show-makers seem to suggest their audience isn't smart enough to appreciate good content, which, seeing how well Anil Kapoor's series 24 did, would be a very callous assumption. In a country of a billion people, it can't be that hard to hold auditions and get a few real actors?
Produce less and save budget for big episodes
Believe it or not, Indian TV soaps have long captured the west's imagination for their ability to produce episodes almost daily (more than 200 episodes per year) and work on a comparatively tiny per-episode budget. Even considering a humble 5 lakh per episode budget, an Indian soap's yearly expenditure can go upwards of a 100 million (10 crore) which is pretty much the same as Game of Throne's current budget for seven episodes.
Clearly we don't lack efficiency or money, it's the demanding pace that hurts. There are no seasons, so no real climaxes, and story-lines get boring and unwatchable. It also clearly affects the writers, who perpetually seem short of good content.
Then, there's the obvious advantage of breaking a series into seasons — if the show is good, people wait on the edge for it to return, creating lots of anticipation, increased social media presence and effectively, increased viewership.
There's also a lesson or two in Game of Thrones’ budget allocation for each episode. For example, in the latest episode, that final sea-battle is pictured in the dark and wrapped up in under-five minutes, without the usual GoT-esque extravagance. Show-makers clearly held back and saved money for bigger episodes in the offing.
Build-ups are overrated and annoying
Game of Thrones learnt this the hard way. In seasons 4 and 5, show-makers spent entire episodes following characters' journeys or building up to a fight sequence and it got on viewers' nerves. In this season, however, show-makers are covering weeks' worth of developments in five minutes.
For example, when Daenerys asks Tyrion to send a raven to Jon, Snow can be heard reading it in the very next scene. The effect is that even an unexciting episode doesn't particularly become boring.
Compare that to Indian soaps, where multiple episodes are wasted in advertisements, build-ups and exaggerated unreal reactions from characters.
For years, Indian TV soaps have continued to peddle misogynistic sub-standard content under the garb of Indian culture and traditions. Plots remain more or less the same, and so do the characters — a woman suppressed by society, a man who can either be her saviour or her abuser, a mother-in-law who hates her guts, a female relative who plays the super vamp and bunch of other people who either pity the woman or abuse her further.
Game of Thrones had its own trysts with patriarchal story-lines, unnecessary female nudity, and rape scenes, but now the series has made a 180 degree flip, with female characters emerging as rulers, assassins and saviours.
When it's not some overused, dilapidated story-line, you can always trust Indian show-makers to throw in a few bizarre, unrealistic scenes. Like a woman taking a bullet to her forehead and staying alive:
Or a woman being ignorant enough to wash a laptop:
I find it hilarious that GoT – a fantasy series – is real enough for people to identify with and follow, but Indian TV shows picturising the saas-bahu epidemic (which unfortunately is real) are as far from relatable as possible.
With literature and history as rich as ours, surely there's space for better storytelling?