Ever since I read Venita Coelho’s ghost story book Washer of the Dead, I was captivated by this writer. I did a little research. Turns out that Coelho’s first book goes by the name Soap! Writing and Surviving Television in India.
Soaps in India are not like the television dramas you see on Star World. There are a couple of stock characters—the evil mother in law, the conniving sister in law, the clueless husband, the manipulated brother in law, and of course the Heroine/Victim, whatever you choose to call her.
Coelho has spent a great deal of her career writing television dramas. She’s seen the serial evolve from the multi-layered 13 serial story to the non-stop melodrama of never ending soaps. She believes that to survive in the cut throat world of the Indian soap, you need a couple of tools. It’s a predictable science.
TV has changed since the days when dads of the house adjusted their TV antennae just so that they could get good reception, but one thing that hasn’t changed is that to be a successful writer you need to adjust your own antennae. Coelho tells us about her own TV experiences and she also talks to TV writers who throw in a lot of advice.
Now if you think writers are impractical beings who only need a magical writing desk to fix their woes, you are mighty wrong. A writer needs to register her idea, otherwise no point in whining that someone walked away with your idea. Once you have an idea, you have to flesh it out into a concept and approach a production house.
These are the things that industry insiders normally don’t tell you. For some reason, anything that has to do with writing has an invisible cloak over it that you need a magician’s instinct to uncover. In India, the cloak is called Contacts. That’s why this book is so incredibly fresh. Here is someone who is actually telling an aspiring television writer what to do. She doesn’t want stupidity to prevail in the guise of inexperience or lack of contacts.
Coelho tells you how to pitch your idea and draws a Development Flow Chart, a Relationship Flowchart, a Family Tree, pretty useful even if you are not writing a melodrama and prefer to focus on fiction instead. She lists Television terminology and gives the math:
“As a professional soap writer you should be able to produce at least one story/screenplay every two days. So in a month, your output should average at least 12 screenplays. That’s six hours or three films worth of writing. Sounds scary?”
Who would think that so much thought goes into the mindless insanity of the evil mother in law who plans to douse her daughter in law in kerosene? As an observer of the soap loving populace, I wonder sometimes what holds the housewife and the elderly retired government officer to the small screen. Perhaps it is the daily drama that is absent in their own lives or the preference of their own drama to another.
Ultimately, someone has to write all this down and it is not as mindless as it all seems.
The proverbial Heroine’s journey is delineated. Story graphs palpitate to a climax and then drop into a crevasse of disasters. Coelho speaks in jest when she reveals how the writer weaves the plot:
“Hmm…can’t put the story thread of losing the mangalsutra* here. Already have a lot going on. I’ll just shift it down to month three where we are building up all the misunderstandings….Should I introduce the best friend now? Hold it back? We already have a heavy-duty story-line running with the preparations for the marriage…We need to sow the first seed of suspicion here—hmmm- what event shall I figure out?…Oh damn!”
Writing is not just about writing books—writers can get a lot from reading books about writing plays, television dramas, movies. Soap! is an eye-opening read about the work that goes into creating a never ending story where THE END only signifies failure. In Part 2, we delve deeper into Coelho’s Bible and if I’m lucky I get to talk to a writer from the world of Indian Soap.
*mangalsutra: an auspicious thread which is knotted around the bride’s neck.