Karan Anshuman hates the term 'web series'. He finds it derogatory and limiting in some way, saying he prefers 'streaming show' or 'cinematic television'.
It's fair to assume these are terms he hears a fair bit as one of the foremost creators in the Indian streaming space. Anshuman is the mind behind Inside Edge, one of the first big bets by a global platform (in this case Amazon Prime Video) in India back in 2017 when global platforms were stilling setting up shop in the country. Based on the murky world of T20 cricket leagues (specifically, a fictional league called the 'PPL'), the first season explored sports betting and match-fixing.
Shortly after, Anshuman moved on to another, altogether different world with the heartland gangster drama Mirzapur, also from Excel Entertainment, which is rumoured to be among the most-watched streaming shows to come out of India. Now Anshuman is back with the second season of Inside Edge, the first Amazon show to dish out a Season 2.
While Anshuman served as the writer, director and showrunner of the first season, the second has a new director in indie and ad filmmaker Aakash Bhatia. The new season is written by Anshuman along with Saurav Dey, Ameya Sarda and Niren Bhatt whom he insists I name as he feels they don't get enough credit.
Over coffee at a suburban Mumbai café days before the release of the new season, Anshuman seems deceptively relaxed for someone on the eve of a big release. He speaks passionately about serialised storytelling, saying he feels lucky to be working in the industry at a time when series have taken off quite like they have. 'I'm very much sold to the world of series. I can't imagine myself being constrained to two hours' he says.
With Inside Edge out for release and the second season of Mirzapur already in production, Anshuman has already moved onto the next thing. Next up for the writer/director is a series called Kashmirnama – a political thriller based on his own novel of the same name. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. He says he's got a whole bunch more brewing in the pipeline in various stages of production and development. 'If I tell you the real number you won't believe me' he says, adding 'I haven't slept in a couple of years but this is what I've been waiting for. When there's too much to do, it's brilliant.' This is a good problem to have for someone who's been through what he calls the 'stereotypical struggle' for 10 years pitching various scripts.
Anshuman spoke to me about researching the scandalous reality of the cricketing world, how series have shaken up Bollywood and the response to Vivek Oberoi's character.
The first season of Inside Edge was one of the first Indian streaming shows of its size on a global platform and the streaming landscape has come a long way since. Did the kind of shows and storytelling that we're now seeing on the web since change your approach to season 2 at all?
When we did Season 1 it was almost like an experiment. Amazon Prime wasn't seen as the platform it is now. I don't think they even had a plan at the time because their next show came out much later. It's only because I had this idea and concept in hand and Excel was on board, we just got the ball rolling.
Casting it was tough though, because the actors thought it was some small YouTube show, but when we started shooting, they realised it was big. But it was very difficult to get bigger names and faces to even consider this. But I knew what I was doing because I was obsessed with TV shows. I really studied serialised storytelling and just felt this is what I'm meant for because you can do so many more things with this format. So I sort of knew what I was doing, but we had to reinvent the wheel of how to do it. It's like shooting three films at once which is very taxing.
And people just assume that when you have a big production house backing you, it's like you have unlimited funds. I read some ridiculous things during the first season. I remember getting drenched in the rain trying to get to a shoot when I saw this article in the paper saying Inside Edge had a 70-crore budget and I was like 'I wish!' (laughs).
The show is based on the murky world of cricket and what goes on behind the scenes. How much of it is based on research and how much was fiction?
It's all fiction, but anyone who's seen any cricket will know certain incidents are real. The bigger things like match fixing or doping is all based on research. When I was growing up two of my closest friends were cricket journalists and another one of my friends ended up working at the BCCI so I know that world.
But I spoke to a lot of people for both seasons, whether it was team management, rookie players, bookies. And the kind of stories I got, they're so outrageous and mad that I actually had to whittle them down to make it believable! (laughs). I had to dilute it, or else people won't buy this so reality really is more outrageous than fiction in this case.
And now a lot of people automatically come to me with stories. My inbox is full of random tips and gossip and scandals. And other things you try and actually scale up on the show like the auctions of cricket leagues. They're so dull. I told my team that we have to set the template of what they should be doing, whether it's team names, uniforms or auctions, this is our way of saying 'this is how you should be doing it'.
What were the key lessons you learnt from the first season that changed your approach to Season 2, in terms of writing or production?
Everything was learning from scratch going into the first season. But this time around we had a new director Aakash Bhatia. For me that was my personal struggle – to handover something that was so personal to me and part of my DNA to someone new. For the first season I was writing, showrunning and directing which will kill you after a point which is why they don't do it in Hollywood. There you have one showrunner and different directors. But we've got a lot more ambitious with Season 2. Amazon was happy to make it much bigger than the first one. That gave us the liberty to cast more people, shoot overseas and spend on VFX. We have almost 5 times the amount of cricket this season.
There's a certain fluidity to series which tend to have new writers and directors each season. Do you feel that's a good thing? Is there ever a fear that new creators will change the fabric of the show?
That's exactly why you have a showrunner heading the project because without them you'd be lost. And people really need to realise that. Directors will come and go, actors will come and go, even writers because you can't keep writing the same thing over and over again. That's why the showrunner is so important because he or she is going to be the soul of the show.
There can be a debate but at the end of the day it has to be the showrunner's call. That's something, that they have a whole legacy and tradition of in the West but it's such a new idea in Bollywood, in this town that doesn't respect its writers. They're really shaken with this idea that the director is there to execute.
One of the criticisms of the first season were actors pitching their performances at different levels, specifically with Vivek Oberoi's character. Was that by design?
Look, we tried something with that character. We went for it. A lot of people loved it because there's a certain kind of audience that wants to see that. He's such a nutcase evil man with no grey, we went for that comic book villain. It's something a lot of shows do. We tried something and it may or may not have had a chance to work but luckily with the second season we got the chance to completely reinvent the character. But he's still the same person.
Do you have a favourite character?
Rohini played by Sayani Gupta. She's me. She's who I am. Someone who loves the game and watches all these guys mess it up for her. That's all of my traits in her.
You've said the reason you made the show is because of your love of cricket. Is it tough to maintain your love of the sport when you realise what goes on behind the scenes?
The reason I made the show is because I love cricket and I love Test cricket. It's such a pleasure to watch. But when the T20 franchise stuff started, that's when you could clearly see the sport getting diluted and heading towards entertainment. That was irritating and the show is my reaction to that. I need to raise some questions, and this is my way of doing it in the mainstream.
The second season is more about doping and after we'd written it, this documentary called Icarus came out and I was like 'shit, that's exactly my research!'. And the players are fully protected because there's no way you can go out there and do that night after night and perform like that. Once you hear what goes on before and after a match, especially when they have to be ready and recover in time for the next game, you cannot do that as a regular human being.
And the players are fully protected because there's no way you can go out there and do that night after night and perform like that. Once you hear what goes on before and after a match, especially when they have to be ready and recover in time for the next game, you cannot do that as a regular human being.
Amazon and Netflix are known for not revealing the viewership numbers behind their shows. As a creator, do you wish they would reveal that information?
No, I think if they're commissioning a Season 2 that's all that matters. No creator wants to know numbers. It makes no difference. Yes, it's nice when more people when more people have seen it.
But it's also tough to measure success because they don't share numbers. They can hint at it, but they'll never say it. I remember I was with a few Amazon executives at the Emmys when Mirzapur had just come out and these Indian execs were telling these other American execs 'you won't believe the numbers of this new show we've made called Mirzapur' and I thought 'finally I'll find out!' and then he speaks in code like 'it's a QAFL5!' and I was like 'shit!' But from what I understand, and again this is based on rumours, but I've been told Mirzapur was the most watched piece of filmmaking last year of any film or show.
Do you have a larger arc in mind of where you want the story to go in future seasons?
Not really, we always put all our good ideas into the current season. Then we have to start from scratch. For Season 1 we went all out. But obviously the treasure trove of information is relentless and you're continually getting new ideas and controversies to explore about cricket and where it's headed.
What do you make of the Indian streaming landscape so far, do you feel we've cracked it?
No, I think we're telling some very interesting stories. We may not be telling them in the most efficient manner yet, but I think there's such a boom of good ideas. We may not be translating those ideas into world class looking productions yet, but we'll get there. I just hope it isn't a bubble because that would be really sad.