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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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USA Networks reboots Mr Robot

Mr Robot: Already renewed for a second run
Mr Robot: USA Network has already renewed the show for a second run

NBC Universal cable channel USA Networks did a strange thing this week. It commissioned a second season of cyber-hacker drama Mr Robot before the first season has even begun.

It’s not unusual for channels to renew dramas after a few episodes of the first season have aired, when they have had a chance to crunch the audience data, but why did USA Networks act so precipitously?

The answer is that it had already released a sneak preview of the pilot online. Since May 27, it has been available via Xfinity On Demand, USANetwork.com, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, Vudu, Xbox Video, PlayStation Video, IMDb and Telemundo.com, to name just a few.

The result was a very impressive 2.7 million views and a positive critical response. It was on this basis that USA decided to greenlight an additional 10 episodes for 2016.

“We knew from the moment we read Sam Esmail’s provocative script, and witnessed the brilliant performances of Rami Malek and Christian Slater, that Mr Robot is a stand-out series that is unlike anything currently on television,” said USA Network president Chris McCumber, announcing the renewal.

“The overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to the pilot and the broad sampling of it reaffirms our confidence in the series, and we’re excited to see where this drama will take us for season two.”

The show, for those yet to view it, sees Malek play a computer programmer who is a cyber-security engineer by day and a vigilante hacker by night. He finds himself at a crossroads when the leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect.

“Sam Esmail has captured and distilled our ongoing cultural conversation about identity, privacy, value and self-worth,” said Jeff Wachtel, president and chief content officer at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment. “We are all talking about the central themes of Mr Robot – Sam has just done it in a completely original and uniquely compelling way.”

Elsewhere in the NBC Universal family, flagship free-to-air network NBC announced this week that it had cancelled Hannibal, the Silence of the Lambs spin-off that is currently in its third, and now final, season.

Hannibal has been cancelled, but is it really the end for the popular drama?
Hannibal has been cancelled, but is this really the end for the popular drama?

In a statement, NBC said: “We have been tremendously proud of Hannibal over its three seasons. (Showrunner) Bryan Fuller and his team of writers and producers, as well as our incredible actors, have brought a visual palette of storytelling that has been second to none in all of TV – broadcast or cable. We thank (producer) Gaumont and everyone involved in the show for their tireless efforts that have made Hannibal an incredible experience for audiences around the world.”

By and large, the show has been well received by critics, but its cancellation is the result of low ratings. For an ad-funded channel like NBC, no amount of glowing reviews can justify persisting with a show if it isn’t delivering enough 18-49 adult impacts.

However, the fact NBC is pulling out does not necessarily mean this is the end for Hannibal. The show was initially picked up by Sony Pictures Television (SPT) for its international cable channel AXN, with NBC coming in as a US acquisition. So if SPT and AXN decide Hannibal is worth preserving, they and producer Gaumont could go in search of a new US partner for season four.

While the show is unlikely to attract the other major networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), it might appeal to a US cable net or streaming service. Not only does it have a high quotient of murder and mayhem, it also has the kind of in-built brand equity that would help it stand out from the crowd.

Fans of the series are already campaigning for Hannibal to find a new home, with the hashtag #SaveHannibal trending on Twitter.

The obvious partner would be SVoD platform Amazon, which already holds the rights to air the first two seasons of Hannibal and has a track record in reviving axed shows – such as Ripper Street, for example.

Fuller (who is also commencing work on American Gods for Starz) would welcome a reprieve and has suggested there is a chance it might happen. He told Deadline: “I would say 50/50. Because I’ve been down this road before and there’s that brief wave of ‘Oh it could be possible’ and then it just doesn’t happen. But it feels like the way this particular show is set up there is potential for a deal to be done. I know conversations are being had. It’s just a matter if they can come to an agreement that is mutually beneficial to the studio and the distributor.”

This week also saw the long-awaited launch of True Detective season two on premium cable network HBO in the US. In ratings terms, it started well – with its audience of 3.17 million making it the top cable show on Sunday night.

The show also had a good launch on Sky Atlantic in the UK. To capitalise on pre-launch buzz, the channel elected to air the show at the same time it was on in the US – which in the UK meant a 02.00 transmission time. This gave it an audience of 131,000. It then replayed the episode at 2100 on Monday, securing a further 251,000 viewers. While the latter figure is only marginally ahead of the channel’s 2100 slot average, the combination of the above two figures is a decent 382,000.

No Offence has done enough to earn a second season
No Offence has done enough to earn a second season

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the prospects of Paul Abbott’s offbeat police procedural series No Offence, which airs on the UK’s Channel 4. While the ratings declined quite quickly after a strong opening, our view was that there was enough of a spark in the set-up for it to justify a second series.

This week, C4 confirmed that the show will return for another eight-episode run in 2016 – with a story involving warring crime families. Despite the audience dropping from around 2.5 million to just over one million, C4 head of drama Piers Wenger said: “No Offence is not just unlike any other cop show on TV, it’s unlike any other show on TV. Paul and the cast have set the bar high in terms of thrills, spills and belly laughs this year.”

The renewal is good news for FremantleMedia International, which holds the distribution rights and has already sold the first season to the likes of the ABC in Australia and Denmark’s DR. However, Abbott is going to have to find a way to breathe life back into the ratings if No Offence is to last as long as Shameless.

Sticking with C4, the strong performance of the show’s new futuristic drama Humans was confirmed this week with the release of consolidated ratings data. After the initial wave of results showed the Kudos-produced robot thriller achieved a record-breaking four million viewers for its debut episode, that figure has now been recalculated to take account of time-shifted viewing. The result is an aggregate audience of approximately 6.1 million, making Humans the biggest original drama on C4 for 20 years.

The Saboteurs garnered impressive viewing figures on More4
The Saboteurs garnered impressive viewing figures on More4

As we have mentioned in previous columns, the UK’s niche channels have become a useful testing ground for non-English language drama seeking to get a foothold in the international market. C4’s sister channel More4, for example, has started airing The Saboteurs (aka The Heavy Water War), a six-part World War Two drama about Allied attempts to foil the Nazis’ plans to build an atomic bomb.

The series attracted an impressive 1.7 million viewers when it debuted on NRK in Norway. On More4, the debut episode attracted 336,000. This was well ahead of the slot average, though the fact that a third of the audience was aged over 65 probably dampened More4’s enthusiasm.

While there is an understandable temptation to focus on the ratings performance of new shows, it’s always worth keeping an eye on how schedule stalwarts are holding up. It’s interesting, for example, that the top-rated US cable show of the last week was Rizzoli & Isles, a TNT detective series based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen.

Starring Angie Harmon as police detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as medical examiner Dr Maura Isles, the show started its sixth season on June 16 with an audience of 4.4 million. Judging by its past performance, the show’s ratings are likely to tail off slightly after a few episodes but, with 18 episodes in the upcoming series, it’s a very reliable part of the TNT schedule.

Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years
Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years

Looking back over historical ratings, Rizzoli & Isles has been a top-five basic cable show for the last five years. In 2014, it was actually the top-rating basic cable series, with an average of 7.6 million viewers in Live+7. With its strong ratings record and an episode count just shy of 100, it’s no surprise the show also does well in international distribution. Networks that have aired it include Net 5 in Netherlands, Vox in Germany, UK network Alibi and Rete 4 in Italy.

Away from the drama scene, another noteworthy international story is the news that US sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond is being remade in Hindi for Indian entertainment channel Star Plus. Raymond is a global phenomenon, spawning local versions in Russia, Egypt, Israel and the Netherlands, and selling to numerous other territories in its original form. Steve Skrovan, a writer on the US series, is working with the show’s Indian scribes to help get the adaptation right.

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