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Monday, January 25, 2021

Bhavani Iyer: Feminist writer who remains ‘utterly unafraid’

Bhavani Iyer, who has films like Black, Lootera and Raazi to her credit, on what it is like to be a writer in Bollywood who doesn't compromise on ideology and doesn't create 'star vehicles'.

Written by Priyanka Sharma | Mumbai | Updated: November 29, 2020 8:53:44 am
alia bhatt ranveer singh sonakshi sinha bhavani iyer lootera raazi kaafir breatheBhavani Iyer celebrates her 40th birthday today.

Bhavani Iyer calls herself a maximalist. “The more I write, the better,” she says. In fact, the screenwriter currently has 47 scripts in different stages of development. Yet, her career of 15 years in Hindi cinema has seen only 10 works on screen, some of them adaptations. This irony somehow encapsulates Bhavani’s relationship with cinema — a relationship she has nurtured with her individualistic voice.

Of growing up away from cinema

Bhavani Iyer derives much of her strength as an artiste from her growing-up years in Bengaluru, which was far removed from the charms of cinema. As a child, Bhavani read books and wrote letters to her father, who stayed away from the family due to his job in the Indian Foreign Services (IFS).

“My father reads like crazy. He is responsible for making me aware of written words and also for me becoming a writer. When I was six, he told me, ‘Why don’t you write letters to me and tell me how your day was.’ Then he would tell me to write a story, later a story with only one character. And then about only one thing from different people’s point of views,” she says.

bhavani iyer writer bollywood 15 years Bhavani Iyer says her childhood was spent in the company of books, which became a base for her screenwriting. (Photo: Benoy Roy)

At a young age, Bhavani Iyer was learning about different perspectives, that shaped her empathy-driven storytelling years later. “Once, we had a lesson on independence in school, so he asked me, ‘Imagine you were eight or 10-year-old when India got independence, what would you write to the PM?’ The next week he told me, ‘Now imagine you are Jawaharlal Nehru. Write to that child what the freedom struggle was all about,'” recalls the screenwriter.

“So, I learned a lot about perspective and the craft of storytelling without being aware of it. My father and I would talk about everything, from William Shakespeare to Julius Caesar. It was so much fun. This was the world I grew up in.”

Her taste in books later translated into her choice of stories — slow-burning, dramatic and poignant — from Black to Kaafir. “I read a lot of Shakespeare, Somerset Maugham, Roald Dahl, poetry by Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf. These favourites of mine shaped my ability to tell stories that cut very close to the heart, which is why I cannot write a light-hearted romantic comedy,” Bhavani says.

Her love for words decided she would pursue writing in future, but cinema was still never an option. This changed only when Bhavani moved to Mumbai to study genetic engineering.

Of a city and three men

19-year-old Bhavani Iyer started watching films with her classmate and it was Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se in 1998 that touched a chord.

“I was blown away by it because I thought if I were to tell a story ever, this would be the kind of story I would love to tell. It wasn’t a typical boy-meets-girl. There were layers, subtexts, metaphors, and a point of view on politics. I was surprised that this was also how you could tell a story in films. I earlier thought that was possible only in books,” she says.

Taking a departure, she pursued a career in journalism and it was her interview with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap that made her take her cinematic voice seriously.

“After the interview, Anurag asked me if I would like to join him for a screening the next day. Because I reached before time, I decided to sit at a coffee shop and write. Anurag came and asked what I was writing. I told him it was just a notepad and all my writings are in a book. He asked me if he could read it,” recounts Bhavani.

A week later, Anurag Kashyap called Bhavani Iyer and told her that she should quit her job and immediately start writing for films. Around the same time, Bhavani left her job, post which Anurag asked her to meet then aspiring director Vikramaditya Motwane for a story he had in mind that was similar to something Bhavani had written.

“Vikram and I got along so well. At that time Sanjay (Leela Bhansali) had just finished Devdas and he was looking to collaborate with a writer for his next. Vikram, who was an assistant director on Devdas, told him that he must meet me. I met Sanjay and it was a wonderful meeting. It was March 28, 2003 and on December 17, we were shooting Black. It’s unreal. It just doesn’t happen and I know that because Lootera took nine years to get made while Kaafir took 15 years,” says Bhavani.

Black and beyond

When Bhavani Iyer met Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director presented her two ideas that interested him — a remake of 1967 film Balika Badhu, and the biopic of American author-political activist Helen Keller. Having read a play on Keller’s life only a few weeks before their meeting, Bhavani jumped at the idea.

amitabh bachchan rani mukerji black Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukerji-starrer Black marked Bhavani Iyer’s debut in Bollywood. (Photo: Twitter/amitabhbachchan)

A 23-year-old with no professional experience in screenplay writing collaborating with a big filmmaker would be a huge deal. Not for Bhavani. She credits her nonchalance to the absence of any prior attachment to films and to her director’s insistence on equality.

“A lot of people would wonder, ‘Were you in awe of SLB when you were working with him?’ But to me, he was Sanjay. He was a wonderful, brilliant man, but I wasn’t in awe of him,” says Bhavani.

Bhansali Iyer’s intimate, ethical working style also helped her establish ground rules for her future career.

“He has spoiled me for life. I don’t know any other way to be than be considered as a collaborator on a film. (Today) I am not a writer who can hand over the script and move away. That’s because as soon as I finished the script of Black, Sanjay would keep asking me, ‘Come tomorrow we have this, we are meeting for that. We have a meeting with the casting director.’ So, he would involve me in everything.”

She remembers Bhansali once told his assistant directors that Bhavani might be their friend but on set, she should be treated as the film’s writer.

“I was so young, maybe younger than his ADs, but he would make sure I had a seat next to him. There were scenes I disagreed with him on and he would listen to me. He gave me so much strength. That’s the kind of artiste he is, extremely generous with his art. He wants you to learn and keep getting better. That’s the schooling I had that stood me in good stead for the next 15 years,” she says.

Of making Lootera and finding her voice

Even before Black, the first script that Bhavani Iyer wrote was Bombay Talkies, set in Bollywood, which Vikramaditya Motwane was supposed to make his debut with. “He even got Amitabh Bachchan to play a part but couldn’t get the rest of the cast because he was a first-time director and the film was big in scale and scope. Producers were a little wary whether he would be able to pull it off,” reveals Bhavani.

After Vikram’s mother suggested to them to not rely only on one script, the aspiring director discussed with Bhavani the possibility of adapting O Henry’s The Last Leaf.

 

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It was the winter of 2004 when I wrote the first draft of ‘The Last Leaf’, based on a beautiful O. Henry story that also happened to be my friend, fellow newbie and director Vikram Motwane’s favorite story. I remember how excited we both were about the script. I remember us sharing the draft with our partners and reveling in their appreciation for it. I remember our big dream for the film, how we would win all awards as debutant writer and debutant director. And I remember the years and years after that, when we didn’t know whether the film would ever get made. It finally got made. Nine years later. As ‘Lootera’. No, we didn’t win any awards, in fact the film didn’t do too well at the box office either. But today, my feed is filled with people tagging me on #sevenyearsofLootera, with beautiful analyses of scenes, of songs, of moments and their meanings and of the silences and their subtexts… and I wouldn’t trade this for any award. ❤️❤️❤️

A post shared by Bhavani Iyer (@bhavani.iyer) on Jul 5, 2020 at 6:35am PDT

“He had written some treatment of it. I read it and asked him if I could change it and do whatever I wanted to do with it. He said, ‘It’s all yours.’ So, I sat at my desk writing Lootera and he sat at my table in the living room writing Udaan. They were developed at the same time,” says Bhavani.

Lootera is special to Bhavani Iyer for many reasons, most importantly because it’s solely her voice, a work that’s a pure representation of who she is as an artiste. “At the point I wrote it and we made it, Vikram and I were so aligned, our thoughts… Both of us wanted to tell the same story. Lootera, the film, is 98 per cent the script I wrote.”

sonakshi sinha lootera ranveer singh Sonakshi Sinha’s performance as Pakhi in Lootera is often considered her best work. (Photo: Instagram/ishikamotwane)

Pakhi, the protagonist of this aching romance, is also who comes close to the woman Bhavani is. “Pakhi is a lot of me. She is an aspiring writer. She wants to leave a mark as a writer. She feels so deeply about things. She also has health issues, which I have also struggled with all my life,” she says.

Among the many striking aspects of this 2013 Sonakshi Sinha-Ranveer Singh-starrer is the assertion of female agency. Bhavani Iyer says she doesn’t know any other way than to be a feminist.

“I’m not very conscious of saying that this is a woman and I need to give her agency as a woman. My women naturally have agency because that is how I have known them to be. I’ve grown up in a South Indian home with very educated parents. I never knew that a girl didn’t get the same degree of freedom as boys in so many homes. That’s because I have known my parents being okay with me living alone at 19, coming into a different city. That’s the only way I have known. So, I want to imbue that respect and depth to every character that I write — man or woman,” says Bhavani.

What adds to Lootera’s feminist politics is it shows the woman making the first move, owning her vulnerable heart and taking pride in her sensitivity, all the qualities that are associated with weakness in a woman.

“Pakhi tells Varun, ‘Even if you don’t mean it, just say that you love me…’ and you immediately attribute somebody saying that to desperation, when it’s done with so much dignity. So, it’s really about wearing your heart on your sleeve and being yourself… To me it was very organic for Pakhi to do that, because she doesn’t have any baggage. Varun is the one with baggage. So, she finds it easy to express. She finds it so easy to say out her thoughts. She can articulate, she is a writer,” she says.

Lootera’s failure must have been heartbreaking for the writer? Surprisingly not, because Bhavani Iyer’s personal measure of success is rooted in her experience of telling a story, and it’s also why the only thing that affected her about Lootera’s commercial performance was the bump in her relationship with Vikramaditya Motwane.

ranveer singh sonakshi sinha lootera vikramadity motwane Bhavani Iyer says Vikramaditya Motwane struggled to get Lootera made for years before it finally released in 2013. (Photo: Instagram/ishikamotwane)

“Vikram and I had a bit of a fight after that. That hurt me. He took it badly because his Udaan was so loved that he felt very upset about it. That’s also because he had done so much for it. He moved around with this script for so long, to so many different actors. Different producers were about to make it, just when it would be ready to go on floors, it would be cancelled. He went through a lot more than I did. He’s the one who had to take the script to people. It hurt him, I think, and because of that he said a few things to me,” the screenwriter says.

The fight lasted a year, until Vikram turned up at Bhavani’s place one day. “He broke the ice. Everything is sorted now. He’s a very dear friend. You are only hurt by people close to you.”

Of Raazi and rage

After establishing her distinctive voice with Lootera, Bhavani Iyer turned towards the small screen, as director-writer Rensil D’Silva approached her for an adaptation of hit US limited series 24 in 2013. She followed it up with Ashutosh Gowariker’s ambitious drama series, Everest (2014), and Deepti Naval-led Meri Awaaz Hi Pehchaan Hai in 2016.

So, how did the medium treat her? “It was so much fun! And that’s because I didn’t write to TRPs. There was always a finite story, with a beginning, middle and end. It was just long story-telling. Jitna likhne mile utna acha.”

Director Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, however, was when Bhavani truly returned to public consciousness. The adaptation of Harinder S Sikka’s Calling Sehmat made use of her tender gaze to subvert the populist notion of patriotism.

alia bhatt vicky kaushal raazi Alia Bhatt and Vicky Kaushal-starrer Raazi established writer Bhavani Iyer as a liberal, emphatic voice. (Photo: PR)

It marked Bhavani’s evolution into a liberal, emphatic voice, unafraid of going against the tide. It only grew stronger with last year’s web series Kaafir, which told the story of a Pakistani woman held prisoner in India.

Bhavani calls herself both naive and courageous. “I am utterly unafraid, like a fool. I don’t care. I just have to tell the story that needs to told. I don’t like my characters to be repulsive or repugnant. I don’t want them to represent anyone ideologically. If you believe that one community is lesser than another or one community does not require the same rights, that is repugnant and horrible to me, and I will not allow that into my storytelling. I don’t fear any backlash. If somebody is saying X doesn’t deserve to live but Y does, I’m not ready to say, ‘No, X doesn’t deserve to live, Y does.’ I will say, ‘Y deserves to live as much X does. It’s how you present an argument,” she says.

Bhavani Iyer believes her strength as a writer is her innate softness, that pierces through the loud noise of divisiveness currently prevailing in the country.

“Raazi released with the same BJP govt and nobody said, ‘You are Pakistan lovers just because you presented Pakistan in a sensitive light,’ because we didn’t defame India in order to say Pakistan was right. Also, I’m not very aggressive in my storytelling but I am very emphatic. My voice is very strong, but it’s not strident. It might be a whisper, but it is very clear,” the screenwriter says.

vicky kaushal sam manekshaw Bhavani Iyer says she has tried to stay true to the story of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw while also commenting on the politics of that time. (Photo: PR)

Bhavani says she has followed the same conviction while telling the story of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw — who served as the Chief of the Army Staff during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 — which she says may not be palatable to many.

“It represents a time. His life was such a remarkable one. (But) truths of that time have to be told the way they happened. They may not be very palatable for us because now we have grown as people. There is a lot more sensitisation now, and we have the ability to see things a little deeper. But what happened then, you have to say for what it is. Also, it’s important to make a comment while retelling history, because that is how you give context. That is why you are writing. Otherwise you would make a documentary. If something that happened was wrong, you have to say what you believe in. You have to take a stand,” she says.

Bhavani Iyer’s uniqueness lies in her ability to lend emotional gravitas to her characters and shape them beyond the binary of good and bad, irrespective of the story template. Case in point, her latest series Breathe Into the Shadows, where her sensitive treatment of mental illness and the emotional arc of the story’s supposed villain took it beyond a thriller.

She says she cannot look at people’s actions in isolation. “I’m an extremely non-judgemental person. I love people. Even someone who’s been angry with me or they’ve had a fight with me, I feel there’s a reason. So, I always try to understand. All my characters have been born out of me. So I can’t not love them. If I want people to love them, I need to tell them the genesis of their negativity and where the hate comes from.”

It explains why she humanised Abhishek Bachchan’s J’s angst and turned it into a metaphor to make the larger point of invisibilisation of the marginalised. “Our world is full of Js, who are on the outside of things and always looking in. J to me was that person, who would always be the spectator, never the star. He is not somebody hidden inside but one hiding in plain sight. These are the people you see all around you. These are the people who are so hurt but they can do nothing about it because they are unseen. The society chooses not to see them,” says the screenwriter.

Her profound understanding of the character is rooted in her own introversion, and while J wears a physical mask, Bhavani uses writing as her cloak. “For someone who is slightly introverted, I have the ability to write, so that’s my outlet. But if I didn’t have it, I would have been as stumped and as unseen as Jay.”

abhishek bachchan breathe amazon prime Bhavani Iyer deconstructs the character Abhishek Bachchan played in Breathe: Into the Shadows. (Photo: Instagram/abhishekbachchan)

Bhavani Iyer’s journey in films is as much about her unflinching perceptive on storytelling as it’s about protecting her own voice. She knows she is an anomaly in an industry which largely operates in isolation from the rest of the society. But her commitment to her politics makes sure her stories breathe every ounce of her beliefs.

“It’s impossible for writers to separate their ideology from their work, because then the honesty in your work is lost. Then you are manufacturing an argument.”

The writer has stepped away from projects due to ideological differences with prospective creators. “I wouldn’t choose to put myself in a position where I have to work with somebody whom I don’t morally or ethically look up to. So, it becomes very tough. I have walked out of more films than I have done. My agents go like. ‘Let’s make this one work,’ but I just cannot. If I don’t feel right about it, I can’t be with that project. I need to feel proud of being part of that,” she says.

Of 47 stories and waiting

Bhavani Iyer is not just about the stories she has told so far, but also the ones tucked in the corner of her room.

 

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While I (try to) write…! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ #homeoffice #librarymates #writingpartners #furfamily #dogsandcats

A post shared by Bhavani Iyer (@bhavani.iyer) on Oct 17, 2019 at 11:37pm PDT

“I have a folder which has all of these stories, and the last count was 47. Some of them are complete scripts. Some of them are just stories, some are like 25 pages. But I am not a hustler. So, I cannot tell somebody that I have a story, because I feel it sounds wrong and tasteless. Most of the stories that I have are not, mainstream. Mainstream as it was defined three-four years ago. They aren’t star-vehicles,” she shares.

Doesn’t she feel the urgency to bring them to screen? Bhavani says there’s a lifetime to bring out those stories.

“One of these stories could be of a musician, one of a circus. These are so dear to me and now people are more open to listening to my voice as a writer. They want to know what I want to say as opposed to telling me what they have in mind, so I am hoping that I will reach out to the right people with these stories. And maybe they will get made in my lifetime,” Bhavani Iyer concludes.

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