She remembers crying hysterically on the entire train journey from Meerut to Dehradun. This was the early 1940s. Screenwriter Kamna Chandra was being packed off to study at the Mahadevi Kanya Pathshala, Dehradun, to continue her studies. She was 10. “My brother was escorting me. Co-passengers were wondering if I was being forced to leave. But I was just upset at the thought of leaving my family behind for the first time. But I also knew that it was a big step for my mother. She had sent me to a hostel to study, despite opposition from the extended family, who wanted me to get married,” says Kamna Chandra, screenwriter of many hit films such as Prem Rog, Chandni, 1942: A Love Story and, the recent hit, Qarib Qarib Singlle (QQS), which she wrote originally as a radio play in the early 1970s. We meet her in Mumbai at her Bandra residence, where memorabilia and photographs of her famous children — film critic Anupama Chopra, director Tanuja Chandra and novelist Vikram Chandra — dot every available surface of the tastefully decorated flat.
Writing stories, then plays and, eventually, movies, in retrospect, was something Chandra was subconsciously preparing for. Born in a small town near Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, Chandra’s father was a teacher and mother a homemaker. “My father inculcated the importance of education in all of us. He was the first graduate from his village. By the time I was 10, I had already read Jaishankar Prasad and all the works of Premchand,” says Chandra, who confesses that unlike her siblings (two sisters and a brother), she was never a topper in academics. Chandra lost her father — the biggest influence in her life — very early. He was 42. “But my mother held her ground and made sure that all of us sisters were educated. She even realised my father’s dream — to make my brother an engineer. He got into Thompson College, now known as IIT Roorkee. The fees were so high, I don’t know how she managed, but she did,” says Chandra.
Dehradun is where Chandra discovered her writer’s gene. “My teachers encouraged me,” she says, adding that, in 1947, “the hostel was shut down and converted into classrooms, as there were many refugees who came from across the border. I then moved to Allahabad where my brother was working and completed my school.”
As luck would have it, Chandra lived very close to the All India Radio Station in Civil Lines, Allahabad. One day she just walked in and auditioned to be a voice artist. “I was selected, but the rules were stringent. You would only be called once in two-three months — we got paid a cheque of Rs 20. But I loved the challenge,” Chandra says.
Her experiments with the airwaves also continued after her marriage in 1953 to Navin Chandra, a business executive. She moved from Modinagar to New Delhi in the late ’50s and started writing regularly, including radio stories and plays for Behano ka Program and Hawa Mahal.
In 1984, Chandra ended up writing the screenplay for the TV show Trishna — based on Pride and Prejudice. In 1977, the Chandra family moved to Mumbai, on account of her husband’s work. Chandra had always been fascinated by Raj Kapoor and since she was in Mumbai, she picked up the phone and dialled the number of RK Studios in Chembur. “Kapoor saab’s assistant Harish picked up. I told him that I am a writer and I have a story to narrate to Raj Kapoor. He said, ‘Raj sir is busy, you narrate it to me’. I refused but I left my number. After a week, the phone rang and I had a meeting with Raj Kapoor,” says Chandra.
“Rajji listened to my story, which went on to become Prem Rog. It was a real incident that my mother had narrated. For that time, the story of Prem Rog was unconventional — the story of a widow. He said, ‘Kamnaji, I am not making an art film. I shall make some changes’. In the original story, the heroine ran off, but he said ‘Our heroine cannot run off’,” recalls Chandra.
Her next film was Chandni, where she worked with Yash Chopra. This is also around the same time she wrote the TV series Kashish — all with strong female leads.
“I think that women deserve more,” she says. In the early 1990s, Chandra cold-called another director, Vidhu Vinod Chopra. The result was 1942: A Love Story and Kareeb.
The conversation turns to her current success, Qarib Qarib Singlle, which she initially wrote as a radio play. The original traced the journey of a poet whose pen name was Viyogi. “I had started the story with him being 16 and in love. The heroine was his neighbour, whom he met later. She would listen to his shenanigans about how all his ex girlfriends are unhappy without him. Then one day she remarked, ‘Why don’t you go meet your ex paramours and see how they are doing?’ That’s how he embarks on this journey. As it was the ’70s, she couldn’t have accompanied him. But she cleans his house in his absence and then waits for him,” says Chandra.
Chandra feels her journey has been surreal. But despite it all, she says she has one last story she wants translated onto the big screen. “I don’t think I can call anyone now and ask them for a narration even though I have written six hit films — with big banners and stars. But I still have this one last story left in me, which I think is my best story. I really want Shah Rukh Khan to act in it. I did call his office once — his assistant or secretary picked up. But nothing came of it. Maybe after reading this story, who knows…” Chandra wonders aloud. There’s time yet to be third time lucky.