“Believable nonsense” — that was the motto of police procedural CID, India’s longest-running television series that aired between 1998 and 2018. At least that’s how creative director Christabelle D’Souza puts it. Audiences could be watching cases involving radioactive hair or ghosts or telekinesis, but they would eventually conclude with a perfectly rational explanation. Anything from stolen uranium to a single grain of rice could be a clue. No door was so sturdy that it couldn’t be broken down, no drug was so complex it couldn’t be analysed in the span of a few hours (sometimes through remarkably unorthodox methods. Remember forensic expert Dr. Salunkhe testing a white powdery substance by just licking it?).
“Forensics takes time, DNA doesn’t come back in a day. So those are liberties you have to take when you’re writing a 45-minute show,” said D’Souza. “The science was always right, even when the techniques were not.” Take poisons. The effects on the body and symptoms exhibited needed to be accurate, but the names of the drugs would always be fictitious. “If a doctor was watching the show, he had to be able to identify the poison, but for anyone else watching, we didn’t want to give them ideas about how to carry out these crimes,” said writer Naila Chogle. Since every case solved by the show’s investigative team of ACP Pradyuman (Shivaji Satam), inspector Daya (Dayanand Shetty), Dr. Salunkhe (Narendra Gupta), senior inspector Abhijeet (Aditya Srivastava) and inspector Freddy (Dinesh Phadnis) had to be backed up with science, several stories emerged just from the forensic textbooks creator BP Singh had around his office. Interesting tidbits from newspaper reports, scientific facts, rare disorders — all made their way into the writing.
For all the vast sources of inspiration available to draw from, there were also several restrictions. Since a large percentage of the show’s audience comprised children, scenes of gore or intense violence were never depicted. No episode contained sexual or sensual content, or toilet humour. “The rule was that we should never show something that a child might ask his parents uncomfortable questions about. We weren’t trying to titillate anyone, just entertain them by getting them to solve the case alongside the CID team,” said D’Souza. Other no-go areas involved violence against children or women — women could be victims, but the attack on them was not to be shown. Attacks such as stabbings were either suggested through camera angles instead of being portrayed outright or were referenced as having already happened off-camera. “We never wrote about rape. A cop couldn’t touch a woman, even if she was dead. A woman cop would handle the dead body,” said Chogle.
Also, no bad language was permitted. “The actors couldn’t use terms like ‘saala’. If someone said it by accident, we had to remove it in the edit,” recalled D’Souza. The actions of a killer could not be taken as a representation of an entire community. “There might be an episode in which a doctor commits a crime, but he’s depicted as a mad guy, someone who might have gone astray. We couldn’t blame an entire profession for a crime,” explained writer Gopal Kulkarni. To avoid hurting the sentiments of any community, the characters were rarely given surnames. Despite, or as some say precisely because of these limitations, the show became a massive success, particularly among Indian families.
Here’s a look back at some of the CID’s writing team’s favourites from the show’s archive of 1,500-plus episodes:
Abhijeet shoots Daya, nearly killing him. That’s not a plot twist you’d ever see coming in a CID episode and that’s exactly why Christabelle D’Souza knew she had to do it. D’Souza joined the show around its 250th episode and estimates that she wrote or co-wrote 600 more episodes. With Behrupiya, she and her co-writer Tanmay Singh wanted to create a mystery within the team itself, playing around their dynamics and trying to figure out what would happen if a formerly solid unit developed cracks. “We talked about Abhijeet and Daya not liking each other, arguing throughout the episode and then Daya getting shot,” she said. While the aim was to create a high-stakes guessing game as to why Abhijeet, a now-familiar character, was behaving out of character and to create an emotional upheaval with Daya’s near-death, the writers didn’t want to cross the line of turning a beloved character inside out. “If we had to create rifts within the team, they had to be ideology-based. Something where both of them were right in their own way,” said D’Souza. “We couldn’t show a CID member being wrong or committing a crime. So how do we crack an episode like this?” The solution came to them in the form of a one-liner — an imposter infiltrates the team. Oh, and he gets plastic surgery to look like Abhijeet while he’s at it.
Since the episode was a 100-minute-long Independence Day special — more than double the usual 45-minute runtime — it had to not only be gripping enough to hold the audience’s attention, but also had to end with an emotional wallop. “Episodes usually had 20 scenes and so we had gotten into the template of setting up the story by the sixth or seventh scene, and the fifteenth scene was when the investigation needed to end,” said Singh, describing the regular format. For Behrupiya, the challenges of writing 60 scenes necessitated subplots such as the death of a secret informant, a bomb blast and a detour to a dance bar. What Singh remembers most fondly is getting feedback about audience members who cried at the prospect of Daya’s death.
The first story Nitika Kanwar ever wrote for CID came with a massive caveat: Create an episode about the terror of being attacked and killed by a dog…except that the dog couldn’t actually be shown on camera. At first, the idea came to her while she was browsing one of many scientific research books BP Singh had stored at his office for reference. She learnt that specific breeds of dog could be trained to react to certain smells negatively. “We used that basic idea of animals getting triggered by smells to write about a killer who manipulates that to his benefit. He trains his dog to attack in response to a certain scent, and then he gets his victim to wear that perfume,” she said. Since the channel didn’t want to depict household pets negatively — they didn’t want to scare young children who watched the show — and the short turnaround time meant that the studio would’ve been unable to secure permissions to bring an animal to set that quickly anyway, the episode relied on sound, strategic camera angles and the power of suggestion to create the illusion of an attack instead.
Gopal Kulkarni, who wrote around 50 CID episodes, knew that he wanted to write a story in which the victims would traditionally be the villains on any other show. In Khooni Drugs, a man, whose sibling died of a drug overdose, begins murdering drug dealers in the area. “I wanted to explore what the family of someone who has overdosed goes through,” he said. “The episode was designed such that the CID would investigate the deaths of drug dealers, people who are otherwise looked down upon.” He had read about German anatomist Gunther Von Hagens who invented the process of plastination, in which corpse tissue can be prevented from decomposing if certain fats are replaced by plastic. In one scene, Dr. Salunkhe is shocked to discover that the body is that of his former college girlfriend from 25 years ago, who doesn’t seem to have aged a day. “We used devices like these to grab the audience’s attention and get them to ask, ‘What the hell is going on? How does she look the same?’ But then you have to have a good explanation in the end and no loose end so that they don’t feel cheated.” It took the controversial Paris exhibit Our Body, which put plastinated human bodies on display, for Kulkarni to realise that the science was sound.
Prabhal Baruah owes his eight-year-long CID writing career to a medical checkup. At Mumbai’s Breach Candy Hospital for a series of tests in 2001, he found out that former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was undergoing a knee surgery there at the same time. He began thinking about the challenges of setting a murder mystery at a hospital, a place with a vast campus and several entry points, but also a place currently housing a VVIP, which meant Z-level security. “You go through a whole security check to enter, there are CCTV cameras everywhere, you can’t smuggle in even a penknife,” he says. “So how can someone bring a bomb into the hospital to kill someone?” At the time, Baruah was an executive producer at Sony Entertainment. He pitched the idea to B.P. Singh at the office parking lot, who then insisted Baruah write the episode. One month and eight drafts later, Baruah had his story of a VIP admitted to a speciality hospital, only to die when a bomb explodes in his room. How is it assembled? Through gunpowder smuggled into sealed tablet packets and syringes filled with acid, while a dose of sleeping pills knocks out the victim.
“Some of the best stories we planned were never made — and those are the ones I tend to remember more,” says Shridhar Raghavan, who wrote for CID on and off for nearly a decade. Some of his favourite unshot episodes include one set entirely on a high-rise ledge involving a potential suicide and another in which the cops have to solve a murder at a vipasana centre…without saying a word out loud. After Ashutosh Gowariker, who played senior inspector Virendra, announced that he would have to leave to begin filming Lagaan (2001), Raghavan wrote him an exit episode, in which his character died. “He wasn’t too keen on being killed off so he could potentially return to the show in case the film didn’t work out, so I wrote another exit for him,” said Raghavan. Aditya Srivastava, who joined as senior inspector Abhijeet that same year, wasn’t keen on doing more than a few episodes of CID initially. To convince him, Raghavan narrated the “death of a cop” episode he had written for Gowariker and told him that anytime he wanted out, this was his ticket. The episode remains unshot.
A former cop is hired to kill a woman only identifiable by the tattoo of a phoenix on her shoulder. He’s fatally wounded, but his last words to the police are that his intended victim is in danger. They don’t know her name or what she looks like. How do they find her? “More than the story, I was thinking about the visuals,” said Santosh Shetty, who went on to write or co-write around 60 episodes for the show and direct 700 more. “I wanted to shoot at Marine Drive, at Nariman Point, at The Gateway of India. I wanted to shoot a boat chase. The idea of how to find one person among millions was also thrilling.” Eventually, the case is cracked when the team see the name of the photo studio in the reflection of a mirror in the woman’s photograph, get her address, find out she’s left for a birthday party at the Gateway of India, and then engage in a high-speed yacht chase to nab the killer.
After his car breaks down, Daya checks into a remote motel with only seven other guests. When they begin turning up dead one by one and the power goes out, he must attempt to solve the case alone since he has no way of reaching the rest of the team. Chirag Salian, who wrote or co-wrote nearly a 100 episodes, was inspired by the James Mangold horror-thriller Identity (2003), which itself was loosely based on Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery And Then There Were None. “I came on board by the time CID had completed 800 episodes. So the challenge was to keep coming up with new ideas. I was very influenced by noir setups,” he said.
For Naila Chogle, who worked on the show for 12 years, the tricks to writing a good CID episode were to always work backwards and think from the perspective of a cop. “You know that a cop will spot a certain clue or inconsistency,” she says. “So you have to realise that if a case is easy for you, the writer, to solve, then it will obviously be easy for a cop. You need to make it hard at the writing stage.” Chogle’s favourite episode, which came about through her research into potential weapons, combines the classic locked-room mystery with the modern technology of a tiny, remote-controlled bullet. “I read about this robot bullet and thought of writing about a dot-like, almost too tiny to see bullet that could feel like a mosquito bite. The person wouldn’t even know that they’d been shot.” In the episode, the team arrives and is confused as to how someone could be shot inside a locked room that no suspects have entered or left. That is, until they check the air vents.