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Writer-director Nikkhil Advani discusses the process of adapting Israeli drama Hatufim (Prisoners of War), which became Homeland in the US, for Indian audiences.

When it comes to successful US remakes of foreign-language dramas, there aren’t many bigger hits than Homeland.

Based on Hatufim, the Israeli series about three soldiers who return home after 17 years in captivity, the story was transplanted to Washington DC as CIA agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) investigated whether returning prisoner of war Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) was planning a terrorist attack on American soil.

Currently in its sixth season, the series has been renewed by US premium cable network Showtime through to season eight, which co-creator Alex Gansa has reportedly said will be the series finale.

Hatufim has now spawned another remake, this time in India, following a deal with Hatufim distributor Keshet International. POW Bandi Yuddh Ke (Prisoners of War India) follows two Indian soldiers who were captured 17 years previously while on a mission with their unit during the Kargil conflict in Kashmir. They return home and must re-adjust to life with their families, while a secret investigation seeks to uncover the truth about their capture.

The series – produced by filmmaker Nikkhil Advani’s Emmay Entertainment and also distributed by Keshet International – debuted on India’s Star Plus in November 2016, with seasons one and two running to 110 episodes. It concluded last month.

Writer-director Advani, who oversaw the project, tells DQ how the drama arrived in India, the approach the writers took and the similarities and differences between POW Bandi Yuddh Ke and the original series on which it was based.

Nikkhil Advani

How was Prisoners of War brought to India?
Nikkhil Advani: Star Plus has been a pioneer and always sets the benchmark in bringing some of the most thought-provoking shows and progressive characters to the homes of Indian families. When I saw the show [Hatufim] I was totally blown away. Although it’s called Prisoners of War and it tells the story of prisoners that have returned from captivity, it also deals with the wives, the children, the people who have been living in limbo unable to move forward with their lives as they are waiting for closure and clarity about their lost loved ones. In a sense, the people left behind are also prisoners of the same war.

Moreover, it was the channel’s initiative to bring this show to its audience before they approached me to work on it. The story strikes a chord emotionally with every Indian, and with a platform like Star Plus, it was possible to ensure that the story reached the masses.

How was the story developed for the network Star Plus?
In terms of sparking the spirit of patriotism and keeping the audience on a razor’s edge, it’s not different from Hatufim. In every detail it is parallel to its contemporaries in international markets as these emotions transcend geographies.

What is starkly different [in the Indian version of Hatufim] is the characters and the relationship dynamics of Sartaj and Harleen, and Imaan and Nazneen. The role that the women play in these relationships and their spirit is representative of the strength of Indian woman. The personal conflicts and relationship dynamics have been created in line with the Indian ethos. The cultural unit of a family and their imprisonment is what makes you wonder, “Who is the real POW?” The emotions were kept so that it’s relatable to every Indian family and uniquely Indian.

The writing team took care to recreate the details of army life

How has the original Israeli version influenced the Indian version?
Hatufim is a legendary show in Israel, so the pressure of making it work and adapting it correctly to everyone’s satisfaction was paramount in my mind. The reaction that Gideon Raff [the creator of Hatufim] had when he saw the pilot episode gave me a lot of confidence.

Of course, we have a historical enmity with our neighbour Pakistan, which echoes the Israel-Lebanon/Palestine conflict. As a result, the adaptation became almost too easy to do. It’s the cultural differences and the role of the women that has been a challenge, but I think my writing team has managed to pull that off. Like I said earlier, the women and the children have also been prisoners of the same war.

What elements did you introduce to make the show more appealing for Indian viewers?
Human emotions and drama. The show is beautifully entwined between human drama and the spirit of patriotism. Television gives you a platform to explore the depths and complexities of human emotions and relationships. The journey of these characters and the emotional graph, given the thriller backdrop, will have high viewer involvement and have to be told with time.

The series is fast-paced and has a logical, finite ending and hence the story spans a period of five months only. A large-scale, high-octane family drama with a thriller backdrop, the story takes the viewers through the journey of the lives of the two couples, Harleen and Sartaj, and Nazneen and Imaan, and the aftermath of the return of the war heroes following 17 years in captivity.

The female characters are key to the POW Bandi Yuddh Ke story

How would you describe the writing process?
The writing team has been constantly working to compile details and create a real-life experience for actors as well as viewers. Right from the medals on the army uniforms to the coded and crisp language used by the agents, the costumes while at war, the hairstyles, the shoes and other props, all have been aligned accurately to allow the viewers to travel into the world of Kargil in every episode.

The cast went through various workshops and readings. The male actors had to train with guns and understand the nuances of fight sequences. Manish Chaudhuri, who plays a sceptic in the show and has worked with me on [movie] D-Day, helped the team prepare for their roles.

We carefully based the story in North India, showcasing the culture and viewpoint of the rural and urban in the locations. To retain the authenticity and flavour of real locations, we have shot across multiple cities including Delhi, Karnal, Mumbai and Patiala.

POW Bandi Yuddh Ke follows two Indian soldiers who were captured for 17 years

Who are the lead cast members and what do they bring to the series?
We have Purab Kohli playing Sartaj Singh, Satyadeep Misra playing Imaan Khan, Sandhya Mridul playing Nazneen Khan, Amrita Puri as Harleen Singh and Manish Choudhari as Vikram Singh – the lead roles in the show.

They bring their immense experience in theatre and movies, their attitude of getting into the skin of the character and their sincerity and hard work towards giving excellent performances. The two leading ladies, by the end of the show, were able to cry at the drop of a hat and their emotions towards the characters stayed with them even after the shoot was over.

These actors understood the milieu and the ‘zone’ and helped me to push the show to the next level as a director. Everyone we have cast has been applauded and received accolades for sterling performances in the films they have worked on.

Where was the series filmed and how were locations used in the script?
Delhi, Patiala, Karnal and Kamalistan Studio in Mumbai. All these cities are in India.

What were the biggest challenges during production?
The only challenge I had in mind was to do justice to Hatufim and my own series, POW Bandi Yuddh ke – to ensure the sentiment and essence of the show maintained the message that we wanted to take to every Indian.

What do you hope viewers take away from the series?
I want the audiences to be moved and identify with the emotions that the characters are going through, and at the same time be placed on a razor’s edge. I want the audience to be yearning for the next day, the next episode and for everyone associated with the show to hold their head high and say we did something special.

What are you working on next?
Emmay Entertainment is working on two other productions, the films Lucknow Central and Oonchaiyaan. Bazaar [a movie about the world of stock markets] will kick off this year.

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Scripted formats show writers’ double vision

Hardly a week goes by without some new development on the scripted format front. So here we explore 12 of the shows that have been adapted – successfully and unsuccessfully – for the US, and the writing teams behind them.

Where images have been included, the original series is on the left and its adaptation on the right.

Broadchurch-GracepointBroadchurch was a big hit for ITV in the UK when season one aired in 2013. It then sold around the world and was adapted by Fox in the US as Gracepoint, with the same lead actor (David Tennant). The UK version, which then had a moderately successful second season, was created and written by Chris Chibnall – who is now working on a third and final run before taking over on the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The 10-part US version was set up by Chibnall before being handed over to Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who wrote all of the remaining episodes except for number six (Jason Kim). Gracepoint was pretty well reviewed by critics and sold to other English-speaking markets. But it was not renewed after failing to secure a sizeable audience (average ratings were around 3.5 to four million).

Collision, created by UK writer Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War), attracted an audience of seven million when it aired on ITV in the UK during 2009. In November last year it was picked up by NBC as a 10-part series. Interestingly, Horowitz will be the showrunner for the US version, with CSI exec producer Carol Mendelsohn on board as partner. Mendelsohn is also exec producer of Game of Silence (see below), suggesting she is now regarded as a safe pair of hands for format adaptations after her many years working on CSI.

The original version of Collision comprised five episodes but Horowitz says he has no concerns about the project being extended because he believes the storyline will benefit from the extra episodes. Sometimes formats suffer from being stretched in this way.

Forbrydelsen-KillingForbrydelsen (The Killing) is a Danish series (DR/ZDF Enterprises) created by Soren Sveistrup. Active across three seasons, it became an international hit and made its star Sofie Gråbøl a household name. It was adapted by AMC in 2011 and has so far run to four seasons – despite being cancelled a couple of times along the way. It was saved by Netflix, which came on board as a partner for season three and then took over the show in its entirety for season four.

The US version was developed by Veena Sud, whose previous big credit was CBS procedural Cold Case. Sud shared writing duties with a large team, including the likes of Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Jeremy Doner (Damages). She stayed with the show through season four, by which time writing duties were shared with Dan Nowak, Sean Whitesell, Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich (the latter two a writing team whose credits include Chicago Hope, FlashForward and The Education of Max Bickford).

Hatufim-HomelandHatufim, aka Prisoners of War, is perhaps the most celebrated example of a successful scripted format. Created in Israel by Gideon Raff, it was adapted as Homeland for Showtime in the US by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Five seasons of the US show have aired so far, with a sixth ordered in December 2015.

As is common with US series, there is a big team involved in writing a show like Homeland. The latest season of 12 episodes involved 11 writers altogether. Key names include Chip Johannessen, who has been involved with the show since the start. A new name on the season six team sheet was David Fury, who has worked on an array of titles ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Hannibal.

Janus is proof that US networks are looking further afield in search of great ideas. A crime story originated in Austria, it was picked up by ABC last autumn. Kevin O’Hare, who has written pilots for ABC and Syfy, is adapting the thriller and writing the pilot. The original version was written by Jacob Groll and Sarah Wassermair.

Prior to this seven-part serial, Groll was best known for documentary The Sound of Hollywood, while Wassermair’s credits include musicals for children’s theatre. However, the pair have also been working together on ORF’s popular crime series Soko Donau.

JanetheVirginJuana La Virgen is a Venezuelan telenovela that was adapted for The CW network in the US as Jane the Virgin. The original was created by Perla Farias and the US version by Jennie Snyder Urman, whose writing efforts are supported by a large team (the show has 22 episodes per season).

As evident from the titles above, a lot of adaptations don’t get further than the end of their first season. So the fact that this one has just been greenlit for a third run is a notable achievement. Although season two ratings are down compared with season one, the show has settled into a stable 0.9 to one million range.

Revenants-ReturnedLes Revenants was hailed as evidence that French TV drama had become a force to be reckoned with. A hit for Canal+ in 2012, the format was snapped up by A&E in the US – where it was remade as The Returned. The French version (based on a film) was created by Fabrice Gobert, who then wrote the screenplay for season one with Emmanuel Carrere and Fabien Adda (with writing credits also going to Camille Fontaine and Nathalie Saugeon).

A second season was aired at the end of 2015, with Audrey Fouche joining Gobert and Adda as a key writer (also credited on one episode was Coline Abert). Despite being led by showrunner Carlton Cuse alongside Raelle Tucker (True Blood), the US version failed to secure a second-season renewal following lacklustre ratings.

Øyevitne is a Norwegian crime thriller that is being adapted as Eyewitness for USA Network. In the US it has received a 10-episode, straight-to-series order. The US version comes from Shades of Blue creator Adi Hasak, who wrote it and will serve as showrunner. The original series creator is Jarl Emsell Larsen, who will executive produce the US version.

The series explores a grisly crime from the point of view of the eyewitnesses, two boys involved in a clandestine gay affair. While the Nordics have been getting a lot of attention in recent times, this is actually the first Norwegian scripted show to be adapted for the US.

Penoza-RedWidowPenoza is a popular Dutch drama created by Pieter Bart Korthuis and Diederik van Rooijen for KRO-NCRV. The show has run for four seasons (2010-2015), with a fifth, commissioned in February, set to air in September 2017. The format was acquired by ABC in the US in 2012 and ran for one season during 2013 with the name Red Widow.

The US version performed poorly and wasn’t renewed, dropping from 7.1 million at the start of its run to 3.47 million at the end. That was a rare blip for writer Melissa Rosenberg, whose credits include the entire Twilight saga of movies, Showtime’s Dexter and Netflix hit series Jessica Jones.

RakeRake is an Australian television series that centres on a brilliant but self-destructive lawyer. It was created by Peter Duncan, who then shared writing duties with Andrew Knight across the first three series. A fourth season will be broadcast this year on ABC Australia.

The show was adapted for Fox in the US in 2013, with Peter Duncan at the helm of a writing team of five. However, the show didn’t rate well and was moved around the schedule before being cancelled.

ShamelessShameless: Company Pictures produced Shameless for Channel 4 in the UK before it was picked up as a format by premium pay TV channel Showtime. The UK version was the brainchild of Paul Abbott, who also wrote a number of episodes. Other high-profile names involved included Danny Brocklehurst, who is now enjoying some success with Sky1’s The Five. Another prominent writer among many was Ed McCardie (Spotless).

Abbott was involved in setting up the US version, which may explain why the show has been a success, with six seasons already being aired. Key names in terms of transitioning the show included John Wells (ER, The West Wing) and Nancy Pimental – both of whom are still heavily involved, alongside a team of five writers for the latest season. Interestingly, the last season of the UK version also used a team approach, with eight writers penning 14 episodes.

Suskunlar-GameofSilenceSuskunlar is a Turkish drama that first aired on Show TV in 2012 and was then sold in its completed form to 30 countries. It was written by Pinar Bulut, who has also written a number of projects with her husband Kerem Deren, including fellow international hit Ezel.

The show was picked up by NBC in the US and has just started airing under the title Game of Silence. The pilot for the US version was written by David Hudgins, whose credits include Everwood and Parenthood. The second episode was penned by Wendy West (The Blacklist and Dexter). Hudgins has expressed a desire to take the show on into a second season, but early ratings suggest that it will need to do better for that to happen. After attracting 6.4 million viewers for episode one, it dropped 39% to 3.9 million for episode two.

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The UnREAL deal

UnREAL is a hit with the critics but its debut attracted disappointing ratings
Marti Noxon’s UnREAL is a hit with the critics but its debut attracted disappointing ratings

A+E Studios’ reality TV satire UnREAL launched on Lifetime in the US this week, and has attracted positive plaudits from critics. Time Magazine called it “dark, deft and empathetic,” while the Hollywood Reporter said the show “moves along at an engaging, entertaining pace.”

The LA Times, meanwhile, suggested UnREAL might help Lifetime shift perceptions about the kind of shows it airs: “Built on a pair of strong, nuanced, cliché-free performances by Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer this is a Lifetime series that transcends the words ‘Lifetime series.’”

Created by Marti Noxon (Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro – whose short film Sequin Raze inspired the series – UnREAL is about the seedy goings on at a hit dating show that is loosely based on The Bachelorette. It follows a young producer called Rachel (Appleby) who is willing to do anything to please her executive producer boss (Zimmer). Her main job is to manipulate contestants in order to get outrageous footage for the show, which she constantly feels guilty about.

Noxon, the senior partner in the creative team behind UnREAL, is a TV industry veteran who first came to prominence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which she wrote or co-wrote 22 episodes. Since then she has written and produced for a number of projects. Looking specifically at writing credits, Noxon has penned episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, Mad Men and Glee, as well as serving as head writer on the first season of Private Practice.

The last couple of years have been particularly fruitful for Noxon. In 2013, it was announced she would write a reboot of Tomb Raider for MGM and GK Films. Then, just ahead of the debut of UnREAL on Lifetime, she launched Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce for cable channel Bravo. Centred on a self-help author whose private life doesn’t measure up to her public persona, the show was the channel’s first foray into original scripted production. Noxon wrote five of the 13 episodes, including the first and last. With a decent ratings performance and positive reviews, Girlfriends’ Guide has been renewed for a second season.

Grace and Frankie, from Marta Kauffman, will return for a second season
Grace and Frankie, from Marta Kauffman, will return for a second season

Noxon’s skill, it seems, is her ability to create storylines based around authentic female characters who attempt to juggle career progression, family, romance and friendship. In particular, she is able to run through the full emotional range, from humour to heartache. Commenting on Noxon’s early episodes of the Bravo show, the Chicago Sun-Times said they reveal a “nuanced, poignant tale, punctuated by some genuinely funny scenes.”

Having said all this, the initial audience figures for episode one of UnREAL were not good, with the show failing to pick up the ratings baton from Devious Maids, which led the programme in on its launch night.

Given the positive reaction from critics, this suggests two possibilities – first that audiences are not comfortable having the fantasy of ‘reality TV’ shattered (like meat-eaters who would rather not visit the abattoir); or, second, that the show is not a good fit for Lifetime (think back to that comment from the LA Times in the opening paragraph).

We’ll need to wait a few more episodes to develop an accurate picture of the show’s performance. But if it carries on in the same way, Lifetime will have to make a decision about whether it cut its losses or if renewing UnREAL will send out a message to audiences about where the channel actually wants to be in terms of brand profile. Internationally, the show might work well for channels that have a tougher, more satirical edge than we associate with Lifetime. Either way, UnREAL is likely to enhance Noxon’s status.

Sticking with talented female writers/producers, Marta Kauffman has been in the news this week. Kauffman will forever be known as the co-creator of Friends, arguably the most successful sitcom ever. But she has been consistently busy since that show ended way back in 2004. Her most recent project is Grace and Frankie, a sitcom for Netflix that was renewed late last month.

A US version of Doc Martin is in the works
Electus and Marta Kauffman are working on a US version of Doc Martin

This week it was announced that Kauffman is teaming up with Ben Silverman’s producer/distributor Electus to make a US version of Doc Martin, a British comedy drama about a successful London surgeon who moves to a sleepy village in Cornwall. Doc Martin is something of a phenomenon, having been remade in territories such as France, Germany and Spain and sold as a completed series worldwide. With Kauffman and Silverman on board, it now stands a real chance of cracking the US too – though the sedate UK version will probably need to be injected with amphetamines to appeal to US cable channels.

Commenting, Silverman said: “Doc Martin has charmed viewers worldwide with its excellent concept and unique style of comedy, and we’re proud to be working with Marta Kauffman. She and her team are brilliant partners.”

In one of this week’s high-profile scripted stories, Showtime’s hit series Homeland has just started production on series five. The new set of 12 episodes will be filmed in and around Berlin – making Homeland “the first American TV series to shoot entirely in Germany,” according to Showtime and Fox21 Television Studios.

Echoing our comments about Mad Men in an earlier Writers Room, it’s fascinating to see just how many people are involved in making big US dramas work. Typically, Homeland is credited to Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, the US and Israeli executives who successfully transformed Israeli series Prisoners of War into the long-running US show. But if you look at the executive producer line-up for season five, it also includes Alex Gansa, Alexander Cary, Chip Johannessen, Meredith Stiehm, Patrick Harbinson, Lesli Linka Glatter, Avi Nir and Ran Telem.

Gansa, who previously worked on The X-Files and Dawson’s Creek, is actually a co-creator of the show alongside Gordon and Raff, and has handled a number of key episodes throughout its life. Cary, Johannessen and Stiehm have also been writing on the show since the beginning, which presumably gives the production the kind of stable creative spine that ensures longevity.

Meredith Stiehm is part of the big team behind Showtime hit Homeland
Meredith Stiehm is part of the big team behind Showtime hit Homeland

Continuing this week’s bias towards successful female writers, it’s interesting to note how Stiehm has built her career in a broadly similar way to Noxon and Kauffman, mixing writing jobs with series creator/showrunner roles. After breaking into the business on classic series like Northern Exposure and Beverly Hills 90210, she went on to create Cold Case, which ran for seven seasons on CBS. After Cold Case, she came on board Homeland but still found time to adapt Nordic drama The Bridge for FX.

Stiehm was also linked to Cocaine Cowboys, a project originally developed by Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay for HBO. In the endlessly shifting world of US TV, however, that project ended up being piloted for TNT and written by Michelle Ashford, the creator/executive producer of Showtime’s Masters of Sex and a writer on HBO’s 2010 miniseries The Pacific. The latest word on Cocaine Cowboys is that it is undergoing creative surgery.

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