‘I don’t have the luxury of a writer’s whim’
You started your career as an art director in the advertising industry and now you have bagged two National Awards for your writing. How did the switch happen?
At Ogilvy, where I worked, there’s a saying: Ogilvy ka executive, na art ka na copy ka. The agency makes close to 250 TVCs a year and you may be in the art department but at some point the two begin to merge. That’s when I started writing scripts although for ads. In that course, I ended up working with Shoojit (Sircar, director) quite a few times. So when he wanted to make Shoebite, he asked me if I would write for him. Growing up in the 90s and watching the cinema of that time, I had no inclination to work in the film industry but when the offer came by, I thought since he is taking the risk and trusts me, I have nothing to lose. It wasn’t until I was on the sets of Shoebite that I fell in love with the medium. But I didn’t tell anyone I had begun to nurse this dream because there are so many people in this city who wish to write a film.
What changed on the sets of Shoebite?
I had of course been on a set before during my stint in the ad agency but this was different, it was more instinctive with a whole team of people battling weather and other problems to create something with a common vision. You can’t compare an ad with a feature film. Its too big a canvas and way more intense. I felt that on the sets. I understood the seriousness of the script, Shoojit’s vision, on the set. I was carrying my daughter full term when Shoebite was being shot. That was Simla in 2008 and I came down with pneumonia due to the bitter cold. But by then I was so taken in by it that I went back to be there for the last schedule with my two-month-old daughter in my arms. It would be easy to dismiss my change of sentiment as hormonal at the time but that wasn’t the case because I was alternating between the joy and anticipation of motherhood and the sadness of the stale relationship between the husband and wife in that script.
Did your husband have to bear the brunt of the mood swings then?
When I was writing Vicky Donor, I wanted him to read my script and asked him to a few times but he didn’t. That made me little upset. This was my first script and I wanted inputs because I wasn’t even sure I knew how a script was written. I couldn’t say this to Shoojit because he had liked my idea and asked me to develop it. My husband, on the other hand, did not want both of us to get too involved and later face disappointment in case the film didn’t work out. It was a real struggle and I had to deal with it alone. Firstly, because I didn’t have friends in the film industry, I still don’t. I had to learn on the job, by going back to the script once the film was shot, being on sets, sitting through the edits. Secondly, because I had a full-time job then and a small child home, so my writing time was really very limited. Even today, I work after my eight-year-old’s gone to school and then after she’s gone to bed.
Writing, for you, then, is another chore.
I don’t have the luxury of a writer’s whim. I have to work between incessant doorbells, courier deliveries, house helps and other home chores. May be that is also why there is so much domesticity in my writing. I thrive on this.
The only time I was given my space was when I was writing Piku. The part when I finished writing the scene of Bhashkor’s passing, I howled for long. I couldn’t bring myself to accept that a character not a person has died and wasn’t myself for about four days. The loss felt personal. Everyone at home realised something important is happened in the script and gave me that space. Seeing me that disturbed, my husband also suggested I reconsider the character’s death in case I was caught up with the fact that it is Mr Bachchan, a popular star whom we all love, who would die on screen. That was his way of helping me.
Did the actor contribute to your grief over Bhashkor’s death?
I knew it was the right time for Bhashkor to die – he had come back to where he belonged, to Champakunj and had had the best motion possible. He was satisfied. His purpose was served. He died a happy man — just what he had wished for, all his life. Therefore his death, in some sense, is his achievement.
Where did Madras Cafe fit into your mindset?
I admit I wouldn’t have ventured there on my own as the subject is too alien for me. But when Shoojit asked me to write the dialogues for the film, I came on board aware that it demanded a certain language. But I cannot do the desh prem dramatic dialogues so I chose to view them as real people. The characters were spies, soldiers and bureaucrats but also regular people.
If Madras Cafe was being made today, would the dialogues be more “nationalistic”, given the current mood in the country?
I believe not everyone’s expression of nationalism is the same. And it is sad that any film with such a subject has to be made with utter caution. Tamil Nadu banned the film even before it released but when the DVD came out, the state witnessed the maximum sales. I don’t understand why a filmmaker is targetted for making what is an interpretation of a political event unless facts are being completely twisted. Films don’t go down in the archives of history, they go down in the archives of film history.
Would your writing have been different had you not been juggling it with home life?
I’m not even sure if I’d have become a writer at all if it weren’t for the chaos that surrounds me. I love this life but there is a need to escape from it, which writing fulfils. I am a control freak who cannot take things falling apart around me. I do things right, but I am not so correct in my head. That’s where writing comes in, it channels my wild side.
Piku is you, then.
Piku is any woman. I see most of my friends concerned about their ageing parents while still wanting to have a life of their own. And that is why Piku says, “Ek age ke baad parents apne aap zinda nahin rehte…unhien zinda rakhna padta hai aur ye zimmedaari bachchon ki hi hai.”
But you’ve said you borrowed a lot from your own experiences while writing Piku.
Most of the writers do draw inspiration from either their own lives or what they see around. I wont say Piku is me or the film is my story but yes, I have the first-hand experience of a father and daughter sharing the same home. Even though I am 40, I am answerable to my father as to where I am going and when I will come back home. Champakunj is the name of our house in Lucknow, where I grew up. We sold it off but in the film, I ensured Piku doesn’t let that happen. That was my way of letting my home belong to me forever. And the idea of constipation, while it has been borrowed from my grandad, who suffered the problem, Shoojit feels that only Bengalis suffer it. So maybe my grandfather borrowed the bowel problem from Bengalis and I borrowed it from him on paper. A lot of nuances came alive also because Shoojit brought in his own life experiences.
Part of why the audience connected with Piku is because she is so real. Do you feel Hindi cinema mostly has uni-dimensional women characters?
Most urban women characters in Hindi films are stereotypical. If they are modern, they wear only a certain kind of clothes and if they are shown working, their ‘ambition’ is shown as a vice. The ‘good girls’ are expected to pay attention only to home and family. There is no milieu to these women characters’ lives. The only interactions they have are waiting for the hero’s call, waiting to meet his family or dressing up to meet him. Hero seems to be the only centre point of her purpose. Which is slightly putting off because that is not true in real life. Which why perhaps people connected with Piku. They could see many other dimensions of her life. We don’t need to see too many characters in the film but to be able to connect with your main character, we need to get a sense of their world. Of course there have been exceptions too, like Alia Bhatt’s character in Highway is that of a thinking, evolving girl.
Do you think it is important that a woman be on board in a film with women characters in crucial roles?
It only takes sensitive people, men or women, to write strong women characters. If that weren’t the case, Satyajit Ray wouldn’t have written Mahanagar or Bimal Roy wouldn’t have penned Bandini.
Where did Vicky Donor come from?
From the time I spent in Lajpat Nagar after I moved to Delhi from Lucknow. It made me understand the dynamics of refugees. The Punjabis are said to be show-offs but during those years I realised where that need comes from. They have suffered a lot during the Partition. So what they have now is what they have earned after moving here, which perhaps makes them want to show off and live it up. It’s a characteristic Vicky has and so do Biji and Dolly.
And you chose to draw a contrast with the Bengali culture.
I grew up with a bengali family for neighbours and I realise their mindset is very different. They are more academically and culturally inclined and literary, unlike Punjabis who have a fantastastic business sense. Even though I come from a UP family but much like Bengalis, there is a certain openness in our conversations. We are allowed to voice our opinions, likes and dislikes. I would say I have been brought up with well groomed openmindedness, like Bengalis. This is evident in both Vicky Donor and Piku.
A lot of writers become directors so that they can make a film where their vision isn’t diluted. Do you have plans, too?
To me, direction is specific craft. As a screenwriter, I may not necessarily be a good director and vice versa. For the vision to not be diluted, it is important to work with a good director who will be able to bring what isn’t on paper, the nuances. For instance, in Piku, the scene where Deepika Padukone is pumping the water out of the clogged sink isn’t there on paper but Shoojit had the understanding of Piku’s anger and frustration, so he wanted to shoot it and it came out nuanced. And there many such small little gems that directors do throw in, other than being in charge of everything that goes into filming. As a writer, I must acknowledge that a good director is able to fine-tune what may already be on paper or may have missed out on paper. For now, I am enjoying my phase as a writer.