May 31, 2013

#5: Officially in Love

“Thank you for the movie today. It was a gift.” – Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ (2011) 

I hardly felt bad when my parents and brother left me that Sunday evening, my first day at hostel. The reality set in the following morning when I woke up at 5 am and found myself in a new and alien world. None of us knew each other, so we hardly talked while getting ready at the common wash basin. It was dark and gloomy and I felt a painful lump in my throat. Life had changed from that day. That afternoon, we were informed that the last two lectures have been cancelled for a movie screening! Our Principal, who was to be changed after my first month there, preferred sports and extra-curricular activities over studies. “Wow”, we thought, “and they call it the best school in this part of the world!” The movie screened that day from a VHS tape was Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” (1948). I hardly knew then that the actor-director was the maker of “the greatest film ever made” and that I would be idolizing him some 15 years later. That movie bored us all. I much preferred ‘Karan Arjun’ that I had watched only five days ago!

During the days that followed, ‘Karan Arjun’ was to soothe me in ways more than one. We had no source of entertainment except sports at specified hours and a couple of hours of TV on Sundays. During our leisure time in the hostel, my friends would ask me to sing film songs. Those born and brought up in today’s era of iPods and laptops can’t even understand what it was, as I sang and others, all in their beds, quietly listened. The song that I always ended up choosing was “Sooraj kab door gagan se” from ‘Karan Arjun’. I was reminded of my brother and my Mom every time I sang that, and possibly that emotion was felt in my voice. It’s often the distance from your loved ones that makes you realize the intensity of your love.

And the same happened with my first favorite film that I had watched nine days before joining hostel, with Mom and brother, reaching theater late and missing the opening credits. We had loved the film and kept talking about it, comparing our favorite moments and our favorite songs. But it was only after I left home that I realized how much I loved ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun’ (1994). During the summer vacation, it was still running in our home town. Encouraged by Dad’s gesture of taking us to ‘Karan Arjun’, Mom suggested that we watch it again, this time with Dad. Surprisingly, he agreed. We went back to the same theater – Neelam Talkies, and missed the opening credits this time too. I don’t remember how much I read into the film, but it was to remain my favorite film for the next six years. It was also to give birth to the crazy cinephile in me around the end of 1999. How that happened will be covered in a later chapter, because this is dedicated to my first ‘official’ love!

Loving ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun’ came naturally to me. It was so close to the world I lived in, the world of joint families that ate and danced together. And it was also as far away from reality as it should be – the romance of the lead pair was a stuff of the movies. At a time when Hindi cinema was at its shameful lowest, here came a film devoid of all formulae that were in practice. There was no effective villain except destiny, and no violence except one now-famous slap. Grace prevailed over vulgar hip-shaking dance numbers, and people sang for their loved ones in the family, and played household games. After it became such a huge hit, and created a trend that was to be used and abused for the following years, we feel the film itself was based on a contrived formula. It was not. It gave birth to the formula, and changed the content and commerce of Hindi popular cinema forever. I was to watch the film several times in the years that followed. Diwali 1997 was when it came on TV and I watched its Opening Song, only to be blown over. Imagine discovering an exceptional quality in your loved one, years after you have known her! And it was to happen again. Last month, I watched the film again and watched the song “Mujhse juda ho kar” for the first time as it was edited out of the versions I had seen before. And I so loved it, especially the moments where the lovers are imagining their marriage and their married life. I was haunted by the presence of Pooja, Nisha’s elder sister, in those dreams, because I knew the painful end she is going to have. And I wished – what if she had not died, what if they all lived together as they had imagined.

But if Pooja had not died, there would have been no ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun’. Her death and everything that follows, which is covered only in the last half hour of the film, is its Conflict, Confrontation, and the Resolution. The entire 150 minutes before that is the Set-up. I have not seen a single film, from across the world that can entertain you, and hundreds of you sitting together, for more than two hours without any real conflict. It was the conviction of Sooraj Barjatya, who until today is my most revered film-maker, that he just made the audience spend time with these endearing characters, and made them fall in love with them and care for them. The audience was living with the family, attending their functions and playing games, and dreaming about the future, until that unexpected tragedy. No other film-maker that I have seen has managed to achieve this. Name some if you can think of, and please do not name Tarkovsky because we all know how difficult to watch his films are. To my relief, when I watched the film again last month, I could see the perfect ‘cinematic language’ used by Barjatya, something I could not have appreciated as a child. I was scared that my knowledge of film-grammar would spoil my first love. It didn’t. It can not. There is not a single shot in the film that does not seem to have born out of meticulous planning and a purposeful design. People who understand film grammar will agree to this even if they hate the film, that the writer-director had everything under his control, and it was not a fluke that this ‘marriage video’ made by a 28-year old went on to become the highest grossing Hindi film of all time, a record that was to be broken only in the new millennium.

From dreaming to buy a mandolin and eventually getting one after my Class X exams, to creating the story of an endearing family celebrating a child’s birthday (my first screenplay), ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun’ is an inseparable part of me. It started this love-affair that eventually became my raison d’etre.

May 30, 2013

Must Watch Before You Die #35: Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

I love you in my selfish way, and I think you love me, in your fussy, pestering way. We love each other like people do here on earth...

There are two realities I have lived and experienced in the nearly three decades of my life, when it comes to the topic of marriage. Both realities are as intimate with me as they can be, and both are as opposite from each other as possible. And as expected, these realities reflect in my love for movies as well.

I was born and brought up in a world where marriage was, and still is, an undeniable truth of adult life. Small towns in our country, almost everywhere in this vast cultural collage that we call India, have a very traditional and typical way of looking at the institution of marriage. One has to marry after reaching a certain age, and mostly, the marriage is arranged by the elders of the families. Those getting married are supposed to accept the decisions of these elders with respect and dignity and, if possible, joy. Love marriages are rare, and if it is an inter-caste or inter-religion marriage it is almost certain that the families will not approve of it. It takes a lot of courage from a parent, who always claimed to have loved his or her child, to agree to that against the norms of the world around them. After marriage, the couple is expected to live through it in good times or bad and make sure the problems between them do not escape their bed-room. I have immense respect for such an institution of marriage. I am amazed to see how successful most arranged marriages are. It intrigues me how two families are bonded forever after one stressful night of unending rituals. It scares me to know how two people are almost forced to be united in body and soul without actually getting to know each other. It pains me to realize how a daughter leaves her home forever, to set-up a new world for herself. This reality is a part of my family, my traditions, their expectations from me, and I can never detach myself from it completely. This reality is the reason why I loved 'Vivah' (2006) despite its uni-dimensional characters and trite situations. I cried and smiled while watching that film, and I completely understand why the biggest success this film had was in the state of Bihar. If you accept the culture and beliefs of the people of that part of India, you will understand too.

However, I know that I do not want to be a part of that reality. And the answer to that is in the other reality that I discovered later. I left home when I was eleven. And have grown up to be an individual more concerned about himself than his family. I am more-or-less self-reliant in every way. However I long for someone to take care of me when I am not well, and bear my tantrums, and serve me good food every day. For the past eighteen years of my life, I have been away from all these privileges. All others from my world have got all this whenever they wanted. Add to this the kind of environment I was brought up in - eight years in an ashrama during my adolescence, and five years in an army institue during my early adulthood. My emotional side was almost forced to get suppressed by the intellectual disciplining of mind. I became more and more detached from my first reality. That my first love-affair ended badly did not help either. And around the same time, I discovered the expression of my self-centered, intellectual, alienated self in the cinema of Europe. Kieslowski became my favorite director and psychological dramas became my favorite genre. This new reality was a world of greys, complicated and difficult, less romantic than the world of Rajshri but very real. All my relationships after my first have been complicated. My sense of morality is pretty radical from that of the world around me, and I believe a man's biggest duty is towards himself. I also find myself not judging people but trying to understand the mechanism behind their allegedly wrong or right behaviour. I am completely fine with the morality of the lead characters in Kieslowski's 'White' (1994). If my people, back home, can accept the culture and beliefs of the world that is inside and around me, they too will be fine with it.

But most likely they will not. Ever. These two worlds will never understand each other. The characters from 'Vivah' will turn completely silent if they meet the characters from 'Three Colours: White'. The characters from the latter will possibly laugh at those from the first, but in their heart of hearts admire and envy them. And amidst these two conflicting worlds, marriage for me is and will remain a fascination, and a puzzle, that I will constantly try to figure out, whether I get married or not. It is a truth I can not close my eyes to. I will miss it if I don't experience it, and I will bear its pains if I do. As of now, I will leave it to destiny.

Ingmar Bergman's 'Scenes from a Marriage' (1973) will remind you of the films by Kieslowski. And it will remind you of the films by Gulzar. It will make you wonder how Sooraj Barjatya would react to it. Unlike any other Bergman film, a master film-maker whom I had always admired cerebrally for his surreal and philosophical dramas that never really tormented my heart or affected my soul, this film will make you think about your married life, whether you are married or not, and will remind you of all couples around you. Most importantly, it will make you cry miserably, deep within if not the actual act of weeping, and will connect you at an emotional level that you'd crave to go into the lives of the lead characters and help them out. But it will also make you believe that you can not. The man and the wife will have to do it themselves, amidst the magical bliss and the ugly pains that marriage brings with itself. Perhaps the only connection between the two realities is that the problems between the two should not leave the bed-room. Often, that is not the case.

Love. Finally.

Dear Shraddha,
I am in love. With you. It happened only a couple of days ago, and now I suddenly realize that I am very late. A little explanation is required and I hope you read on and let me tell you all that I want to.

Three years ago when I had first seen you in 'Teen Patti', I did find you immensely attractive. But the film was very unimpressive and your role was brief. Time went by, and although I always remembered how infatuated I was with you for some time, I never pursued you. And then, day before last, I watched your latest sensation, the film the entire trade is talking about, the film that has shattered various records at the box office and has surprised us all with its extra-ordinary run. I am sure you know all about it, including the fact that in the last 10 years, this film is the second highest fourth-week grosser, behind only '3 Idiots'. In the last ten years when we have seen huge numbers piled up by superstar-driven films, this little film of yours has managed to supersede all expectations. And let me tell you, a major portion of that revenue is actually a result of you and your work in the film, because you have done something in the film that no actress could do in recent times. Ask any man in the audience and you will know.

I apologize for going for the film almost a month after its release. I know you will never forgive me for that. But I tried to make up, you know. I watched it on Tuesday. And went back on Wednesday, this time only for you. I don't think I have ever done this. And I think I can go to watch it again. Not because I loved the film, but because I have fallen in love with you. I understand that I might be loving the 'image' of you projected on the screen. I do feel like Scottie from 'Vertigo', chasing the image of a woman played by an actress. (If you haven't watched that film, we will watch it together some day!) But somehow, I feel you and your character Aarohi are not two people. It seems both of you were born together, as one, and it will break my heart to see you doing the run-of-the-mill roles that other actresses are doing. If only my advice mattered, I would strongly advise you to keep playing the same character in all your films, because you have that rare quality of making men lose their sleep over you, in a way that is hardly lustful, but born out of the innocent charm that you possess. I am sure there must be millions of men like me, lost in your thoughts, and hoping to meet you some day.

Shraddha, I loved every moment of your presence on screen. I loved the way you brushed your delicate fingers against your wrists while singing your first lines of the song "Chahoon main ya naa', and later when you rehearsed in the balcony with your legs up the chair. I loved the way you said "nahin baba" with tears in your eyes, just before your first recording. I loved the way you ran up and down the stairs at the amphitheater, 'presenting' RJ to the audience. I loved the way you sat on the floor, against the door shut on you, trying to cajole him and help him. I loved the way you ran down the corridor of the recording studio and hugged him with that expression of infinite affection and unending support. I loved how your eyes were always fixed on him, whether in public or alone, as if everything that you were receiving was futile in front of the man you loved. And I loved the wonderful monologue you had just before the climax, when you talked about how you will accept 'his love' in order to bring him back. My eyes were wet throughout the film, looking at your beautiful face and worrying for you and wanting to take care of you. But that monologue broke my heart. I was crying. Your simplicity had won over me.

Looking at you, I felt you should be taken away from this cruel world to a land where all joys can be yours. From your fingertips to your hair, from your eyes to your smile, from your voice to your tears - I felt like treasuring them all. I have never felt like this for any other woman on screen. I am not a person who falls in love with heroines. I am not a person who falls in love so easily. But you have managed to do that. Today, I am dying to meet you, and tell you how special you are, and wish you all joys in the world. However, the biggest pain for me is that it indeed seems possible. I am not an unemployed goon-of-a-man lolling around the lanes of a my small town in Bihar, suddenly lovesick about an angel on the Big Screen. I am a professional working in the same industry as yours and the feeling that you are very much here, near me, and that there is a possibility that we could meet, however distant, is making me restless. As soon as I finished watching the film, I called up my manager-friend and asked him to get me your number. This mixed feeling of being near and yet so far is killing me.

So, I decided to write this letter to you. And leave it in the infinite cyber space. It is just one click away from you now. And I will wait for that fateful moment when you somehow receive this link, and click on it, and read my first love letter to you. I am hopeful it won't be my last.

Enjoy this success that you so truly deserve. And keep making the world a beautiful place by that wonderfully magical smile of yours.


P.S. I hope you don't take this letter as a trivial word play I do with every woman. Main us tarah ki ladkiyon se is tarah ki baatein nahin karta!

May 10, 2013

#4: Changing Times

"Choose carefully. Memories are all we end up with. At least pick the nice ones." - Juan Jose Campanella's 'The Secret in their Eyes' (2009) 

It must be some time in 1990. My Mom and my Bua were contemplating on recommending a movie to my Baba and Dadima. “This is a film they should not miss. It is more decent than they can imagine” – my Mom suggested and my Bua nodded. “Except, for the opening title sequence”, Mom thought out loud. “If it were not for that song, we could have definitely recommended it to them.” But my 20-year old Bua thought otherwise. “What’s wrong with that song? It’s the dance of Shiva and Parvati. I’m sure they won’t mind that!” And the two ladies burst out laughing.

My grandparents did not go to watch ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’, the beautiful ‘family film’ that opened with a song where the shadows of two lovers, dressed in tights, danced with passion. The popular Hindi cinema of the early 90s was too embarrassing for such a suggestion to be made to them. Those were the times when ‘Sexy sexy sexy mujhe log bole’ played at Saraswati Puja near our house. Once on our trip to the holy town of Deoghar, the bus constantly played the song “Sarkaaye lo khatiya jaada lage, jaade mein balma pyaara lage…” On our way back perhaps I was missing that song that I started singing it. My mother snapped at me – “Don’t sing that song. It’s dirty.” I must have been nine then, too young to understand why that song was dirty. But yes, I did not sing that song before her ever in my life again.

After Bua got married, in 1993, our little domestic movie club was broken. My Mom still managed to watch some movies, very few indeed, when we were at school, with some neighbor or guest visiting our home. I remember how impressed she was with ‘1942: A Love Story’, especially how ‘clean’ it was. And I remember she narrated to us how Rahul Roy turned into a lion in ‘Junoon’. I haven’t watched that film yet, but it seems I have actually seen that scene of the ‘werewolf inspired’ transformation, so vivid was Mom’s description of it. She always had some insight into films that I could never think of. After watching ‘Saajan’, she remarked how by making Sanjay Dutt slightly bent over his walking stick, his tall frame did not appear too awkward with Madhuri and Salman by his side. While watching the opening credits of the movies on TV, I used to ask her what a ‘Nirmaata’ (Producer) or a ‘Nirdeshak’ (director) was. And when my teachers prepared us for an upcoming cultural program at school, I used to tell my friends which teacher was the ‘Nirmaata’ of this show and who the ‘Nirdeshak’ was. A couple of teachers once over-heard this conversation of mine. They were amused and smiled lovingly at me, their favorite student among all, one who barely spoke.

Dad, unlike what the first post of this series suggested, never regained his interest in the movies. In fact, he was not interested in anything except his work. But yes, when ‘Saudaagar’ released, even my Dad could not resist the temptation of watching Dilip Kumar and Raj Kumar back on the big screen. One evening, after making the two of us sleep, Mom and Dad went for the 9 pm show at Konark Talkies. As far as I remember, that was the only movie my Mom and Dad, just the two of them, watched together.

Amidst all this, something else was to change. Once on his trip to Deoghar, Dad found about this school-ashram that was known for its spiritual ambience, disciplined lifestyle, and wholesome education. He wanted me to prepare for its tough entrance exam. I attempted twice, after failing to get through the first time. Having trained under my Mom, that included 5 am study hours, getting admitted to Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith was the first goal I consciously strove for. It was dreamt by my Dad, and my Mom and I fulfilled it. My admission into that prestigious institution was a matter of pride for my entire extended family. “Your son will now be an IAS officer” remarked my Dad’s friends. All knew this was a significant achievement in my life as a student. And perhaps no one knew, least of all I, that this was the first Plot Point in my life as a whole – an irreversible change, that was to transform a shy, introverted child into the boy I was to become. End of March, 1995, I left my home, never to return back, except for the small vacations. What happened after that and how it affected my life as a film-buff will form a major chunk of the posts to follow. But let me end this post with something totally unexpected that happened just a couple of days before I left home. My Dad took us for a movie! It was 22nd of March, my birthday, and Dad took all three of us – Mom, my brother, and me, to watch ‘Karan Arjun’ (1995). It was a rare birthday gift, when all four of us watched a movie together for the first time. That it happened two days before I left my home is perhaps one hint at the emotional side of the stern persona my Dad sported.

May 09, 2013

Celluloid Man

I watched some of Sooraj Barjatya's films on YouTube last month. It has been made officially available there by Rajshri. I just had to spend about ten seconds and the movie was playing on my screen. If it were not available there, I could have (illegally) downloaded it, or hired a DVD from the nearest library. Watching films, in the age that we live, is as easy as that. The availability, mostly, is not an issue. Now let us go back to the late 60s. Can we, those living in this era, imagine how difficult it would have been to watch movies way back then? There was no DVD or VCR, and the only way to watch a movie was to wait for it be screened at a theatre near you. Perhaps, those from our generation will never be able to feel the longing and the joy that cinephiles experienced back then. Romance has definitely changed completely, with technology, and it includes the romance with films.

So when Sanjeev Kumar signed Satyajit Ray's 'Shatranj Ke Khiladi', and realised that he hadn't watched any of the master's films, he could not download it from the internet or order it from BigFlix. He did not have UTV World Movies on his TV. And he definitely did not want to face Ray without having any knowledge of his cinema - he was too embarrassed. So he went to Pune and contacted Mr. PK Nair, the founder and director of National Film Archive of India. The Archive had several of Ray's movies. Sanjeev Kumar rented a flat in Pune, stayed there for several weeks, and watched all these films, projected at the Archive auditorium. Imagine, what he would have done if there were no Ray movie there, or worse, there were no Archive!

The first Indian talkie, 'Alam Ara', was made in 1931. Today, the movie is untraceable. It is lost. That invaluable film of historic and aesthetic significance is not with us any more. Possibly its last print is buried in some abandoned junkyard, fungi growing over spools of a dream that its maker Ardeshir Irani had made possible, of a film that had driven the Indian audience crazy just because the characters on the screen had begun to talk! The state of India's first fiction film 'Raja Harishchandra' (1913) is much better. Of its 40 minutes, only about 16 minutes have been found and archived. At the film club in our medical college, we once had the screening of whatever has survived of that remarkable film - the precursor of what we call Indian Cinema.

We, Indians, have had a glorious past, but a very poor history. The West has had a significant past, but a very significant history. These lines from the documentary 'Celluloid Man' (2013) ring so true even with respect to our cinema. There is so much to regret about what has been lost - so much of dream and passion and hard work now gone forever. There is a scene in the documentary where spools of film are sold at the rate of some hundred rupees per kilo, and then silver is extracted out of the film, reducing the magic of motion picture written over it to uselessly non-biodegradable plastic - hauntingly blank and colourless, reminding me of the ghastly slaughterhouse scenes from the 1949 French documentary: 'The Song of the Beasts'. So yes, there is a lot to regret about. But what 'Celluloid Man' does manage to achieve is honour and thank and celebrate the efforts of Mr. Nair, who can be rightly called the custodian of the Indian film tradition.

It is a long documentary, two hours and forty minutes. And it has numerous references to films and film-makers from across the world. So, I don't know if I can recommend it to all. But for me, it was perhaps the best way to celebrate the Centenary of Indian Cinema. I hope you can feel my joy when I saw the villagers of a small Karnataka village talk about 'Bicycle Thieves' and 'Rashomon' - having watched them during the screenings held there from the prints archived at NFAI. Or the moment when Mr. Nair is mouthing the lines of Charles Kane, with the 'greatest movie ever made' playing on the screen behind him. Or the theme music of '8 1/2' rising in the background. Or Naseeruddin Shah talking about Vittorio Di Sicca. 'Celluloid Man' is a film its maker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur can be proud of. It is relevant, and it is moving, and I didn't want it to end. Of the powerful images from it, perhaps the most unforgettable and hair-raising would be the images of abandoned film cans, shrouded with cob-webs, neglected and ignored, and the unforgettable line from Ghatak's 'Meghe Dhaka Tara' (1960) - "Dada, aami baanchte chaayi" (I want to survive, brother!) echoing on the sound-track. It was a moment that made me feel helpless and sad, for all films that are lost today. If cinema is forever, it is only because of the tireless efforts by people like PK Nair, who unarguably is one of the biggest cinephiles this land has produced.

May 07, 2013

Do You Have it in You?

The title of the post was the tag-line of the adverts for Indian Army during my school days. While thinking of the title as I write these words, it just flashed into my mind. Five years in an army medical college, and several army doctors as close friends, have given me a good idea of what life in the armed forces is. It's tough. Very tough. And still, I am using this tag line to mark a post that talks about the attributes or qualities of a screen-writer. The reason is simple. Writing, too, is an extremely tough profession. I think it is one of the toughest in the world. Those who disagree have no idea what writing is. Those who agree, well, please send me a cheque. I badly need one.

I recently chanced upon this website, which is an amazing source of inspiration and knowledge for a screenwriter. It is so vast that I am struggling to keep up with my daily subscription of its posts. Every day, it gives me something that rejuvenates my spirits. A few weeks ago, it ran a series on the attributes of a screenwriter, the skills and traits one should possess if he or she is bitten by the film-writing bug. For long, I wanted to share those traits here on this blog. Finally, I am doing it:

1. TALENT: This is the most insignificant of all qualities. Insignificant and overrated. How can one ever tell that he has got talent? How can someone else do it for him? If I believe I have talent, don't I have it? If I believe I have talent, do I really have it? This quality is insignificant because there is no point in dwelling into it. But still, you've got to have talent. I wish I were a good cricketer. I really do. But I just didn't have the talent. So, if you can assess your writing skills the way I can my cricketing skills, ask this question to yourselves. If not, just forget it and believe in yourself.

2. PASSION: This is also insignificant. Because passion alone can take you nowhere. But this is essential. The passion you have for movies and writing will help your longevity in this tough industry, will heal your wounds, will keep you on with an empty stomach and worn out shirt. If you are not doing it for the love of movies, quit NOW. But how do you know if you've got passion? Well, I think just ask these questions: Do you eagerly await the release of some movies? In your conversations with friends, do you often bring up movies? Do you think of movies every day at least once? If you haven't watched a movie for some time, do you feel a void within you? In my case, a big YES is the answer to each of these questions. Hope the same for you.

3. COURAGE: It takes courage to isolate yourself from the entire world, trying to create something. A couple of years flash by and people start asking - what about that script you were writing? It takes courage to answer that question. It takes courage to tell your loved ones that your time will come. It takes courage to tell yourself that the usual pleasures and conventional life enjoyed by others will have to wait. It takes courage to spend months and years on a script, knowing very well that the film may never be made. It takes courage to finish the draft and send it out to others to judge it and take their feedback. And it takes courage to start all over again, re-writing, and giving your all, again.

4. CONSISTENCY: Can you consistently come up with good ideas? Can you willingly and sincerely go into the research for your script and work hard on it? Can you get yourself to the chair and write every day? Can you write a fresh script after one you have just finished? Or every time you do one of these things, you feel the need to take a break and go on a vacation. Quit NOW, if that is the case. Writing, as I always say, is manual labour. You have to churn out work hours. Or you will go nowhere.

5. PERSISTENCE: The more you get into screenwriting, the more you realise the truth behind the mantra: "Writing is Re-writing." Can you write several drafts of your screenplay? Can you keep working on it for months and years together, trying to perfect it to your heart's content? Persistence, according to me is the most valuable quality a screenwriter can have. Read about David Seidler. His first widely recognised work 'The King's Speech' (2010) came when he was 73. He received an Academy Award for it and today he must be proud of his life that was spent in order to create that one magnificently inspiring screenplay. After all, it might just take one week of magical inspiration for a writer to create a masterpiece of a draft. But no one can say when that one week will be bestowed upon him. The answer to this is persistence. If we keep looking for it, working hard, may be ten years down the line, or twenty, or thirty, we will get that one week of magical inspiration and we will create our masterpiece. If Seidler had given up after reaching the age of 65, we wouldn't be talking about him here.

6. FLEXIBILITY: The script evolves as you work on it. Do you have it in you to acknowledge that evolution? Do you have it in you to evolve as a person with time or you are too rigid to change? Are you open to feedback? Can you take feedback without being defensive? Can you consider each feedback with an objective mind? Can you acknowledge and accept all kinds of emotions that a writer feels in his journey with each script? If you are not flexible, writing a great script is still possible. But will you be able to survive as a great writer, all your life?

7. VOICE: Have you got anything to say? Do you have a world-view, a perspective on things? Have you experienced life in a way no one else has done? Do you feel the need to interpret things in your way and make it accessible for others? In short, are you an author? Or you are someone who is interested in churning out genre films, doing the same thing again and again, not bothering about finding your own, unique voice?

8. KNOWLEDGE OF THE CRAFT: Screenwriting has to be learnt. It's not poetry that you do for yourself. It's an art and a craft, and needs to be structured in such a way that hundreds of people can use it to work as a team and create a film, that financiers back it, that distributors buy the film it results into, that audience loves it. A musician who says - I don't give a damn about the theory behind the musical notes and rhythms is saying no to the valuable information his predecessors have accumulated for him. Screenwriters who believe there is no need to learn the craft know nothing about screenwriting.

9. EXPERIENCE OF WRITING: How many pages have you written as a writer? How many drafts have you written? Until today, in the past six-seven years, I have written around 25 drafts of various screenplays. It would be roughly 2500 pages, not counting the short scripts. I know I could have done more. I know the more you write, the easier it gets. Every time you start a fresh draft, after a gap of a few weeks, writing the first page is so damn difficult. And once you have been writing regularly for just about seven days, the eighth day is that much easier. There are a lot of 'writers' who have a lot of ideas and concepts, which they believe are 'kick-ass'! But when you ask them if they have ever completed one 100-page draft of a screenplay, their face says it all. Like all things in the world, experience of actually doing it always helps.

10. CONVICTION: Do I need to say more. Conviction - this one word tells it all. Self-belief. The funny thing is, if you have got conviction, you can afford to ignore all the above mentioned qualities. "I do not have too much of talent or passion. I don't work hard and I'm not disciplined. I can not take criticism, and I fear failure. I do not have anything unique to say. I don't know the craft and I have never written a word. But I believe in myself and one day I will prove it to you!" See, conviction works even for this writer friend of ours. So, if you have any one of the above mentioned qualities, you should feel lucky! But if you do not have conviction, then all the nine qualities mentioned above will fail to take you anywhere. I believe conviction is the soul of our profession, persistence is the body, and passion is the heart. If you have these three, all the rest can be learnt or acquired. After all, what makes an artist other than a journey of seeking forever? Who said this? James Joyce? Perhaps.

May 02, 2013

Test Your Idea

The first idea I had had for an original film script was when I was seventeen. I am yet to develop that idea into a screenplay. In the years that followed, innumerable concepts fascinated me, and I thought I was going to be one of the greatest film writers, versatile and universally loved.

Today, I understand that most of those ideas can not be made into commercially viable films aspiring to find an audience. And several of those which fascinated me are not good ideas at all. Storytelling in cinema is different from writing a novel or a play or a nostalgic memoir of a distant past. Storytelling in cinema is different from social activism and aspiring to change the world. But still, when a new idea strikes us, we are excited and inspired, and believe we have a film in hand. What works and what does not, in cinema, is an elaborate argument and let us spare it for later. For now, I have come up with a list of 15 questions that may help you judge whether your idea is good enough for a film.

Not all, but most of these questions should be answered in affirmative, if you want to check the promise in your idea. Take this test. See the result. Then either believe in this questionnaire or reject this post of mine. The least I promise is - it will enhance your understanding of the film 'in your head'.
  • Have you got nine other ideas with respect to which this is the best? Remember - the best way to find a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
  • Are you really inspired to tell this story? If yes, do you think you can work on it even if the script may not see the light of the day and the film is never made? Developing a script is the riskiest phase of film-making. No one can guarantee that the film will be made. You should not regret later if it's not made, because if you are inspired with your story, you will 'make it in your head' as you write it and you can 'watch it' all your life when you read it.
  • Is it original enough? Have you not seen this idea flourish into films/scenes from films/ soap operas/plays/novels before? Beware of the subconscious influences!
  • Do you have an appropriate ending in mind? It is important to determine the ending of the story before deciding to work in it. It's not absolutely essential. But it is important.
  • Is it emotionally involving? Will most people relate to it? An emotionally involving story is universal, unlike an 'intellectual' or 'cerebral' one. An emotionally involving story is also more likely to be made.
  • Are you sure you do not have predictable elements or cliches in your story? If there are, can you find solutions to get rid of them? We hate cliches in others' films, but we somehow do not mind them in ours! Please check and re-check.
  • Do you understand the world your story is set in? If no, can you shift it to the world you know? Or, are you willing to understand the world inside out? This can be taken as an opportunity to learn and experience new worlds. But it will require a lot of effort.
  • Do you know the characters well? If no, can you take inspiration from characters you know in real life and fuse them to create the characters of your story? Characters around us are amazing. Start with yourself!
  • Are you sure your characters are not stereotypical? What can you do to make them 'original' and interesting? Instead of creating characters as seen in films, try to create characters as seen in life.
  • Does the idea have the merit to suit the running time of your intended film? The story of the clever crow managing to quench its thirst is good for a two-minute animation, not for a two-hour live-action film.
  • Are you sure that in your story, you are not relying too much on chance events? If no, can you change them to character-driven events? We cringe as audience when too much is dictated by chance. Even in our favourite movies, such moments are the least favourite!
  • Are you sure that you are not relying on evoking the sympathy and pity of the audience for the characters? If no, can you find ways to make the audience empathise with and admire your characters rather than pitying them? No one wants to see a cry baby on screen!
  • Do you have a theme to guide you through whenever you need it? Is the core philosophy of the story something you believe in? The theme need not be something as profound as the Aatman-Brahman Theory. It can be something as simple as - Life is Beautiful! Whatever it is, it's important that you believe in it. Otherwise, you won't be true to yourself as a writer.
  • Do you see the film as a conflicted journey of the protagonist(s) that causes some significant change by the end? If there were no conflicts, 'Lagaan' would have been a 30-minute short film that everyone would have hated. If there were no change, most stories would appear sterile and ineffective. Conflicts and change are the body and soul of your idea. 
  • Do you have the courage to fail and the conviction to succeed before starting on this journey? If this is the only question you have answered in affirmative, go ahead even if the rest fourteen have been negative. If the answer to this question is 'No', even fourteen positives will not help! This last question is also the disclaimer for my post: You may choose to ignore the entire post if you don't believe in it. But in any case, believe in yourself! I would be most happy to read a good script that is born out of an idea that did not conform with most of the questions above.

Satyajit Ray (2nd May 1921 - Forever)

"Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon." - Akira Kurosawa

Happy Birthday, Ray Babu!

P.S. It's heartening to see Google honor the master with this day's doodle, with an unforgettable moment from one of the best films the world has seen.