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A spy who loved Shakespeare

Director Ribhu Dasgupta and author Bilal Siddiqui talk about their upcoming project Bard of Blood, soon to premiere on Netflix

The highly-anticipated Netflix Indian original series Bard of Blood is all set to premiere on September 27. The series, directed by Ribhu Dasgupta, stars Emraan Hashmi, Shobhita Dhulipala, Vineet Kumar Singh, Kirti Kulhari, Jaideep Ahlawat and Rajit Kapur in pivotal roles.

Bard of Blood is based on a 2015 espionage thriller novel of the same name by Bilal Siddiqi. He is also the co-writer and creator of the series. It revolves around the lives of Indian intelligence officers, their clandestine and high-risk missions to keep the country safe from all kinds of threats and dangers. The series is produced by Red Chillies Entertainment.

Here, Bilal and Ribhu talk about the complex and painstaking process behind adapting The Bard of Blood into a full-fledged Netflix series while touching upon the creative scope of the long-form narrative series.

Excerpts:

What is The Bard of Blood about? How was it conceived?

Bilal: The Bard of Blood is a fictional spy-thriller about an Indian spy turned English Professor. He teaches Shakespeare’s works. It’s a character’s journey where he battles demons from his past and takes on adversaries that stand to be a threat to his country. I always enjoy reading spy fiction by Robert Ludlum, Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, amongst others, and wanted to create an Indian character who could take readers along on a gritty, action-packed journey. Along with my mentor S Hussain Zaidi, I conceived the plot for the book and wrote it out when I was 19. Hussain Sir showed immense faith and confidence in my writing and I am glad my publishers at Penguin thought the book was up to the mark for them.

How true is the Netflix Indian original series to the novel? How do you see the process of adaptation of literary works for the screen?

Bilal: Adapting a novel for the screen, especially for a TV show, is an entirely different ballgame. Mayank Tewari, an acclaimed screenwriter, was helming the screenwriting process. We worked together to write the episodes out. We were very clear that we would rebuild and rework things from the book to tell the best version possible for the screen. Mayank’s distinct voice and writing style comes through very clearly in the way the episodes have been written out. I think it’s awesome!

Ribhu: The book is a fast-paced thriller and I loved it when I read it last year. I think the series has been adapted very well from the book. There have been some additions and subtractions in terms of characters and story narratives, but all that was only to make the content and screenplay more thrilling and enticing. The overall story structure is same as the book.

At what level were you involved in the adaptation process for Bard of Blood? What kind of challenges did you have to deal with while trying to adapt it in an episodic format? What kind of interactions did you have with each other?

Bilal: I was very involved with the process right from the time it was pitched. Gaurav Verma at Red Chillies facilitated the entire deal and was instrumental in bringing the series to life. Gaurav and I made a pitch to Netflix, using Shah Rukh Sir’s inputs. We lived in major suspense until it was green-lit by them. After that, Mayank and I collaborated on the screenwriting process. Ribhu Dasgupta helped us shape the scripts after we were done, so that he could direct them in the best possible way. Post that, I was involved in casting and production too. So, I was a part of the show from start to end — as it is one large collaborative process.

Ribhu: Bilal is a friend now. He is an extremely talented writer. We jammed a lot during the writing process in the pre-production stage. Between Bilal, Mayank, Gaurav and me, we spent long hours discussing even the smallest things in the screenplay. It was a great working experience as everyone wanted to do the best for the show.

How do you see Netflix as a platform for telling complex stories with multiple characters?

Bilal: I think the entire format that web allows is very liberating. You get time to invest in characters much more than you do with films. In that sense, a series allows you to write the way you would in a novel. You can take your time to develop everything – the story, the characters, the setting and aren’t rushed into the plot. Of course, plot is a crucial element, and Bard of Blood is very plot heavy. But I think the characters stand out in this show and each of them has a very interesting journey. I loved the experience of working on Bard of Blood and developing the script with Mayank.

Ribhu: Netflix is the best thing that’s happened to the content-driven audience in the recent times. Stories, whether they are complex or not, should definitely be layered, and Netflix as a platform pushes you to write content which is dynamic and edgy. It is a great platform for filmmakers and writers.

The role of casting directors has become more important over the last decade or so. How important is casting for a series like Bard of Blood which is based on a popular novel? Also, tell us about your approach to the casting process.

Bard of Blood

Ribhu: Casting the right actors for each and every part is extremely important as characters make your story. They drive the narrative. We had an extremely intensive casting process during our pre-production phase. An example of this is Vineet’s casting as Veer which was the key to completing the trio of Emraan, Sobhita and Vineet. Vineet playing Veer changed the dynamics for better, in this team of three.

How relevant are the series and the book to today’s global state of affairs? Certain sections of viewers in Pakistan have objected to the content of the trailer. How do you react to this?

Bilal: The book and series were developed way before the current state of affairs came into being. The series is a work of fiction based on a fictional novel I wrote long time back.

Ribhu: Makers, writers and creators are here to tell stories. Netflix provides the platform that reaches audiences across 190 countries in one go. That’s a huge thing for anyone who is creatively working on any content. Those who have reacted to the trailer or objected to it have their own point of views. We are just making a fiction novel into a series and there is nothing more to it. Bard of Blood tells a fictional story and is based on an award-winning book by Bilal Siddiqi. There is no connection with any real-life situation.

What portion of your novel gets covered in the seven episodes of Bard of Blood?

Bilal: The series is seven-episode long and the whole book has been covered.

Ribhu: For upcoming seasons, we have to sit and figure. But right now, we are all geared up for Season 1 on the 27th of September.

Tell us about your upcoming projects.

Bilal: Well, I have just completed my fourth book now, which should be out next year some time. The Bard of Blood, The Kiss of Life (co-authored with Emraan Hashmi) and The Stardust Affair were the previous three works I did. I’m also working on another series but it’s at a very nascent stage and it is too early right now to talk about that. I want to keep the ball rolling and do my best work and grow as a writer. And the only way to do that is to keep writing!

Ribhu: I am currently in London, shooting my feature film based on the bestseller novel by Paula Hawkins — The Girl on the Train — with Parineeti Chopra in the lead, which is a Dreamworks property and is being produced by Reliance Big Entertainment.