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Bilal Siddiqi and the escapist world of thrillers

Bilal Siddiqi   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

How Bilal Siddiqi wrote an espionage thriller when he was barely 19 and later it was adapted into a web series (Bard of Blood) is a story well known in entertainment circles. The author-screenwriter has come up with a new book, a spy thriller titled The Phoenix (Penguin publication), which has already been taken up by a production house for a movie adaptation. Though he won’t reveal details of that film production, Bilal discusses The Phoenix that revolves around investigative officers Aryaman and Randheer who have to thwart a biological warfare terror threat.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

How did the idea of The Phoenix come about?

I wanted to return to writing a spy-fiction novel and was thinking of a bio-terrorism premise. Of course, the virus situation right now has brought up all of these theories and discussions to the forefront. But when I was thinking of writing the book in late 2017/early 2018, I thought it was a nice idea for a thriller. I completed writing the book two or three months before COVID-19 broke out. I had read up on biological warfare and then concocted a storyline. I then floated it past my mentor S Hussain Zaidi sir; he liked it and we pitched it to Penguin.

Were there certain archetypes for the characters of Aryaman and Randheer?

I think every novel of this kind operates on archetypes, in a way. However, you have to figure out vulnerabilities and strengths to attribute to the characters that are unique and set them apart from other books in the same genre. Aryaman is a down-and-out action hero which we may have seen before, but he draws strength from his child and his mother to fight his personal and professional setbacks. He isn’t a superhero. Randheer, on the other hand, is driven by loyalty to Aryaman and patriotism for his country and the two sometimes collide. That dilemma is an interesting one for his character, but he still makes the right choices.

Bilal Siddiqi and the escapist world of thrillers

Since your previous book has been made into a series, did that change your writing style?

I wouldn’t say it has changed it substantially. I hope it has evolved for the better, though. Hussain sir, when he was guiding me while writing my novel Bard of Blood, told me something that stayed with me... He said you have to make sure your writing conjures up images in the minds of the readers. So I consciously try to create images in the minds of my readers, and it may not always work, but this particular tip is a function of the genre I dabble in.

Aryaman goes through tumultuous life events and is on the edge. As a writer in his 20s, how do you try to understand the psyche of such a character and his relationships?

As a writer it’s important to try and live out the situations you create in your head before you pen them down. What would this character do in this particular situation? You have to keep asking yourself that once you’ve created your characters. I read a book on acting that speaks about a similar technique, where you have to channel your emotions that you may have faced in a real situation and project them onto a make-believe situation. So when Aryaman lost someone, I just tried to recreate what loss feels like at it’s base level and then amp it up to a point that my story needs. I don’t know how to explain it really, but it’s something that comes to you as you write more. I am still learning a lot of things.

What’s the trickiest part about writing an espionage thriller?

How to set it apart from the rest of the thrillers out there. That is a challenge I think every writer faces. What you bring to the table that is unique, outside of your writing style. It’s a challenge for sure.

How do you navigate the common tropes associated with espionage thrillers, so that the narrative doesn’t become repetitive?

I think tropes exist, in every genre, to help a writer out when he needs it. You have to embrace them, not fight their existence. The skill lies in subverting or hiding the trope from a reader in a way that he doesn’t realise it. Or you can also take the trope head-on and make it interesting by treating it uniquely enough. It’s extremely hard to do, especially with commercial fiction but many writers have mastered it really well.

What drew you to the world of thrillers?

There is a certain escapism that comes with the genre. I started reading them when I was very young. The Bond series, the Bourne series, Frederick Forsyth’s books all sucked me in with the intricate plotting and heroic characters. There was a certain adrenalin rush that came with thriller books and films/shows that really drew me to the world of thrillers.

What are the other genres you would like to explore?

I would like to attempt a coming-of-age story — a fun, light-hearted, drama that explains what the youth expects of the generation before them.

Bilal Siddiqui’s ‘The Phoenix’ is available for ₹299 across major online and offline retailers.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 5:43:00 AM |

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