Bollywood screenwriters are finally getting their due, sort of
Jaideep Sahni, the writer of blockbusters such as Bunty Aur Babli and Chak De! India, is getting top billing in promotions for his new project Shuddh Desi Romance, a rare honour for a screenwriter in Bollywood.
Sahni spoke to Reuters about the curse of film intermissions and the reason his movies have so many layers. Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: You and director Maneesh Sharma share top billing in the promotions for Shuddh Desi Romance. How did you pull that off?
A: Maneesh and I were quite embarrassed by it. Because we are not used to it, I guess. But our marketing colleagues felt it might do its little two bits in attracting people. I guess it is a bit of body of work and largely the producers and directors I have worked with. They are the kind of people who respect writing.
Q: I cannot think of any writer who would have top billing in a movie promo.
A: I hope it doesn’t stop here, and it happens with every writer and becomes systemic. It is a start, but when it becomes a norm, that is when it will be time to celebrate.
Q: Does that mean that producers are not as good to writers as they should be?
A: It depends. Filmmakers who know what good writing can bring to a film make sure they recognize them. The good guys do it and the shady guys don’t do it. It has changed since the time I started out. A lot more people know that writing has something to do with films. It used to be like that with Salim-Javed, but somewhere our department lost its space and it is coming back again slowly. A lot of people have started looking out for who the writer is. Even reviews didn’t mention the writer … The work also has to be good enough. To a certain extent you have to earn it.
Q: Don’t you want to give the people what ticket sales suggest they want: lots of bang and flash?
A: My films are very strong on environments and ensembles and people. They are people who have professions. They are not people who don’t go to office and toilets and who don’t eat. I can only do those kind of films, because I want to tell stories of our people to our people. You also need to respect their time and it has to be entertaining.
Q: So you keep the audience in mind when you are writing?
A: In a broad sense – that I shouldn’t be boring them. Beyond that you have to think of the characters, no?
Q: You don’t do too much work. Why?
A: I have done seven, eight films in 13 years. One reason is because I work with people who respect writing. I don’t care whether they respect me or not. Then they can interpret it in any way. That is one reason I haven’t become a director, because I like giving my material to more talented people and seeing what they do with it. I take a lot of pleasure in seeing them interpret. Half my payment is seeing them work.
Q: What is your process of writing? How does it start?
A: It is different for different films. For me, a film is about the characters, not about the genre. A subject catches my attention, and I spend a lot of time finding out more about the subject. Some of them end up becoming films; some of them end up becoming time well spent. I don’t have a routine — I write very rarely. Some films are very research-heavy, like Company or Chak De!. Company (a film about Mumbai’s underworld) especially. I hadn’t even stolen a pencil from anyone (laughs). Some like Khosla Ka Ghosla weren’t so tough because (director) Dibakar (Banerjee) and I were both brought up in the same environment. My films are about ensembles. I don’t get the whole hero-heroine thing.
Q: Why? What don’t you like about the hero-heroine?
A: I don’t know. I am just greedy for characters, I guess. And dialects – I love learning and using them. It’s a writer thing. Because of that greed for dialects, that greed for different ethnicities, different socio-economic groups, it just ends up getting bloated. It is also about caution – mainstream films are a very blunt tool … and there is always the chance of subtleties getting lost. Out of that fear, I over-layer the hell out of everything, because I know that in the process of reducing it to a mainstream film which everyone is supposed to like, I am going to lose stuff.
Q: What is the toughest part of writing?
A: Nothing. Actually, the tough part is commissioned stuff – if I have to do a subject which I don’t care for. Because when I care for a subject, I really care for it. It is tough when you are doing something for reasons other than wanting to do it.
Q: In an industry where writers are not the best paid, can you afford to be picky?
A: That’s tough. You deal with it. You reduce your expenses … It helps if you don’t need the money that bad. It doesn’t help to pick up expensive habits (Laughs). And anyway, I don’t have any ambitions for myself. My ambitions for my characters are bigger than my ambitions for me.
Q: Hindi films often have the curse of the second half – where you start off with a great idea but cannot take it to its logical conclusion. How do you deal with this as a writer?
A: It is not the curse of the second half. It is the curse of the interval. In a certain kind of film, the interval really gets in your way, like in Rocket Singh. You are trying to build a mood, it is introspective and then you send the audience out and then recreate it. You have to start building up towards it, and it adds a bit of a flab, which is a pain.
Q: How do you write romance of the kind in Shuddh Desi Romance?
A: I don’t have too much experience with romance. Even with Bunty Aur Babli, I didn’t think it was much of a love story. And towards the interval, when they started to feel for each other, I declared the interval and ran away because I didn’t want to deal with it (laughs). I knew at some point that they would fall in love but I didn’t force them to. I never force my characters. I keep a very light touch, so in that sense this is my first romantic film. I don’t even know whether it is good.
Q: So what kind of a love story have you tried to tell?
A: I find it is useless to make a romantic comedy, because I find all romance comic. But the way the youth of this country has been conducting their relationships, has completely changed over the last 10-15 years. They are braver than the earlier generation. If they are in and out of four relationships, it is because they are trying things out … What is different between Jaipur (where the film is based) and mega-cities is that they have a traditional way of life co-existing with completely modern influences and they keep rubbing against each other all the time. It is fascinating. Our culture is so hypocritical and yet these young people are finding their way around like water. In the film, Parineeti (Chopra) is an instructor who teaches at an English language institute and has been through a few relationships, lives on her own and knows what she wants. These are real people. Why are these people not in more movies? Why aren’t we writing about them?
(Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay)