How Bilal Siddiqi Turned A Spy Novel He Wrote At 19 Into A Netflix Show

A guest lecture by author Hussain Zaidi, a chance meeting with a former CIA interrogator and an internship-turned-job at Red Chillies all shaped Bard of Blood
How Bilal Siddiqi Turned A Spy Novel He Wrote At 19 Into A Netflix Show

"I've just been at the right place at the right time," says Bard of Blood writer Bilal Siddiqi. The spy novel he wrote at 19 is now a Netflix show starring Emraan Hashmi, Vineet Kumar Singh, Sobhita Dhulipala and Kirti Kulhari, a day away from being released. Hashmi plays Kabir Anand, a former Intelligence-operative-turned-Literature-teacher tasked with rescuing four Indian spies captured by the Taliban.

The language of the book is quite cinematic – The blowing wind made the dust swirl up behind him, making him look heroic – but Siddiqi says the Netflix deal gave him the chance to revisit his writing with a fresh perspective and tone it down a bit. "I did write some things I wouldn't write now. Because I've also grown as a writer since then. Back then I was just having fun. It's visual and dramatic and can be extremely over the top at some places. That was the 19-year-old me." A series of intriguing coincidences led to this point, most notably the fact that Hashmi, who launched the book in 2015, is now the star of its show.

Where did it all begin? The Mumbai-born writer credits his father's "less TV, more reading" policy during his childhood with his love for books, before adding that the Tintin and Asterix comics were all he read back then. Opting for a Bachelor's in Mass Media from St. Xavier's College not only gave him confidence in his own writing, but the chance encounter that would change his life.

Writer Bilal Siddiqi.
Writer Bilal Siddiqi.

At the end of a guest lecture at the college in 2014, author Hussain Zaidi asked for 10 volunteers to help him with research for his first fiction novel, Mumbai Avengers. "There was this wild rush. Almost every journalism student wanted to do it because the exposure would have been great," recalls Siddiqi. Then 19, he was shortlisted.

For the next few months, Siddiqi would wake up at 6.30 am every day and rush to town from Bandra. After college ended at 12 pm, he'd steal a quick nap and go to work for Zaidi. "I was sleepy throughout college. But I had a great time and clearly made use of it," he says. Work involved research,  transcription of legal documents and sitting in on meetings with filmmakers who wanted to adapt the book. A month into the job, Siddiqi, drawing on his fondness for the Bond novels, Robert Ludlum and Fredrick Forsyth, created the character of Kabir Anand. "I enjoyed Shakespeare in college and so thought of the 'spy turned Shakespeare teacher' angle. It was just me having fun. It got serious pretty soon."

Five months later, when Zaidi asked if he'd written anything of his own, Siddiqi sent him the first few chapters. The author didn't respond for a month, but what Siddiqi didn't know was that he'd sent the draft to Penguin. The publishing house asked him to complete at least half the book so they could see the direction it was going in, and to move the setting somewhere "more unique". Siddiqi sent the characters to Balochistan and made the pacing faster. While Zaidi put him in touch with officials formerly part of spy agencies and documents available in the public domain gave him a basic idea of how they worked, a stroke of luck helped him round off his research. "I'd gone to Washington DC with my family and met my childhood friend. Turns out he was dating the daughter of a former CIA interrogator. I didn't get to meet him but I emailed him later and his answers were helpful in shaping the narrative," he says.

Zaidi's guidance helped Siddiqi refine his "meandering" writing and the book was finished within the year. In the meantime, Siddiqi had begun working on promotions for Happy New Year (2014) Red Chillies, after a three-month-long internship at the company writing for the Kolkata Knight Riders blog. "I'd come to work by 3 pm and work till 10 pm because that film was right around the corner. I'd go back home and write a lot," he says. Shah Rukh Khan was the first to get a copy of the book – Siddiqi's own. "He happened to come to work and was leaving for a shoot that night. So I ran up and gave him the book, we took a photo which he later tweeted. He just hugged me and smiled."

A still from Bard of Blood.
A still from Bard of Blood.

As Red Chillies was trying to expand into original content, Khan suggested he make a pitch to Netflix. After six months of brainstorming, Siddiqi and Red Chillies producer Gaurav Verma had a 30-page-long pitch. Khan's biggest contribution was the character of Balochi woman Jannat Mari, played by Kirti Kulhari in the show. "We had  to work backwards to fit her into the show. She's an integral part of the hero's past. There's a very interesting dynamic when they meet again when he goes back for the mission. It's not clichéd or romantic as one would imagine," he says.

They sent it to Netflix and after two weeks of expectant inbox-watching, got the greenlight. With the deal came further changes to the narrative. While the show still follows a large part of the book, Mayank Tewari (Newton), who Siddiqi co-wrote the screenplays with, and he came up with ways to crack new characters and eliminate some others. The biggest change? Characters who are vulnerable, yet so much more intriguing, he says.

Tips To Cracking The Spy Series By Bilal Siddiqui

Embrace the tropes: Once you step into the spy genre, there are some tropes you can't do away with. There will always be a large betrayal from the person you expect the least, there will always be someone who gets out – the way Kabir becomes a teacher – but will always get sucked back into the game. If he's not operating alone, he can assemble a team and that's fun.

Strike a balance between reality and fiction: I didn't want to write Kabir as Bond because in our cinema, heroes are over the top anyway. I wanted him to be rooted and grounded and vulnerable. He's been out of the game for so long that when he goes back, he's struggling. He doesn't start from the top. There's a larger emotional graph that's more important that the action – the internal demons he's battling. In many ways it's the story of him exorcising his ghosts. Spy films also have, for instance, this trope of the extremely good-looking receptionist leading you to a cabin. But I wanted the book to have a more realistic quality. Another trope is spies who go abroad and meet girls and fall in love. We haven't done that here.

…But also have a flair for drama: The opening of the book is extremely dramatic – a  chopper lands up at Kabir's college. But those are things Hussain sir encouraged me to have fun with. He said, 'Let's make this a fun ride. You don't have to stick to the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy mould. Make it as dramatic as you can.'

Make your streaming platform pitch detailed: It was easier for me since it was based on a book. So I could have a more detailed storyline in the pitch versus starting from scratch. When you pitch a show initially and you don't have something to fall back on like a book, you end up pitching just a synopsis.

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