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‘Mahesh opened up first, Leander took a little longer’: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

The writer-director on the Paes-Bhupathi docu-series, why it was important to tell their story in their own words, and her debut novel

Written by Alaka Sahani | New Delhi |
October 16, 2021 7:01:08 pm
Ashwiny Iyer TiwariAshwiny Iyer Tiwari

Known for directing the much-talked-about films Nil Battey Sannata (2015), Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) and Panga (2020), with regular, “flawed” people for characters, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s latest directorial outing, co-directed with filmmaker-husband Nitesh Tiwari, Break Point is an insightful docu-series (on Zee5) about the legendary partnership, friendship and fallout of tennis champions Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. Prior to this, this year, came her scathing yet optimistic short film on the loneliness of a migrant in a big city, for the recent Netflix anthology Ankahi Kahaniya, and her first novel. In Mapping Love (Rupa Publications, Rs 295), the advertising professional-turned-filmmaker Iyer Tiwari explores the complexities of relationships through the story of a girl named Oorja. On its cover, she chose to put the image of a cannonball flower. Iyer Tiwari, 41, shares a “deep connection” with this unusual flower that started years ago during her visits to her maternal grandmother’s house in Mumbai’s Sion. “My grandmother’s building premises has an old cannonball tree. What fascinates me is that the flowers are so layered. You take out one part of it and you will discover something beautiful within. Then, something else within that. For me, it is like peeling off layers to reveal secrets and dissecting relationships,” she says. Edited excerpts:

Mapping love Mapping Love poster

How did the docu-series on Paes-Bhupathi come about?

The lockdown in March 2020 had just started when I got a call from Vijay Subramaniam of Collective Artists Network asking if Nitesh and I would be interested in telling the story of Leander and Bhupathi. That’s the fastest ‘yes’ we’ve said. The proposal came as a hope during the lockdown when we could put our creative energy into developing something challenging. We started with the thought: ‘Let’s make something which hasn’t been done before and make it world-class.’ We were talking about two legends who made India proud. It was important to tell the story in their own words, where they are the heroes and they are sharing for the world to listen to what went wrong.

What was the immediate task for you?

Unlike a documentary, where filmmakers interview people and create a structure, we and our co-writer Piyush Gupta decided to create a structure beforehand. We had to ensure the emotional graph was intact and focussed on their humanness. We were telling the story not just from the perspective of two champions, but also talking to sportspersons and sports lovers about the dos and don’ts of a great partnership.

How did you make them open up in front of the camera?

Mahesh opened up first. Leander took a little longer. First, they needed to trust us, to know that they were going to tell a story from their perspective, a story that’s emotionally binding, and talk about the ups and downs in their lives. That we weren’t interrogating them. Once they knew we weren’t going to be judgemental, they spoke to us frankly.

Considering this is an emotionally-charged story, what was the experience of talking to them and those around?

When we got Leander and Mahesh together on the same screen during a video call, they did not know we were asking the questions together. It was during the initial days of making the series. Leander was in tears. This was the first time after many years, in spite of living minutes away from each other’s home, they were talking on screen. It was healing.

All the interviewees had to go down memory lane. So many people were a part of their journey. Mahesh’s father (CG Krishna Bhupathi) and Leander’s father (Vece Paes) went through similar emotions. A lot of the time, we had to make decisions in the moment. Maybe, when you look back 20 years later, you think what you did was correct, or you could’ve done it differently.

Tell us about co-directing the series with your filmmaker-husband Nitesh Tiwari. Would you two be sharing the director’s credit anytime soon again?

We’ve been working together for a long time, whether it’s in advertising or co-writing a feature. We’ve always focussed on our strengths. While working on Break Point, we knew who was taking up which responsibility. When Nitesh asked the questions, I was behind the monitor, listening in and looking into other aspects, like the art and lighting. It was all pretty organic.

We never decide it beforehand. If we like something and find it intriguing, we will do that. We never expected Break Point to happen but it did.

Your characters are mostly regular people. What goes into creating them?

All my characters are flawed in some way. I show my character as real as possible and give a lived-in experience. Nil… was about education for all and saying no dream is small. Bareilly… is about certain rules that the society sets.

LEANDER AND MAHESH ‘Let’s make something which hasn’t been done before and make it world-class.’

During the pandemic, you published a novel, made a short film and now this series.

It is important to keep evolving and innovating as a storyteller with new stories and formats. The world is moving fast in terms of technology. You can see various kind of movies from across the world. We should be on a par with it. Next, I will be working on my web-series.

At what point did you feel strongly about writing Mapping Love? Did the novel take you by surprise?

People always tell me even when I’m writing a synopsis, it’s like writing a novel. I write 20-30-page synopses with details. For films, I write character sketches which run into pages. I want to know everything about the person — their food habits, the music they like, the kind of friends they have. I would have been a good anthropology student. When I started writing this story, I felt it cannot be a film. I always dreamt of writing a novel, I didn’t know it would take shape so early. The biggest problem for writers is to start but we barely manage to finish. I finished it diligently. No one, including the family members, knew what I was doing. It was my own journey.

For the many roles you juggle, do you follow a routine?

Developing a ritual is necessary for any creative pursuit. A screenplay has to be written before a film is made. Writing a novel is tougher because you aren’t writing one-liners. You know your start and end and are somewhere trying to find your middle. For me, the best time to write is between 4 pm and 7 pm. I usually don’t go back to what I’ve written, else I keep correcting. I keep writing till I finish and then revise it as a second draft.

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