Smriti Kiran: Filmmaker, producer, writer Dibakar Banerjee and comedian, lyricist, writer and filmmaker Varun Grover co-wrote Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. The film dropped on Amazon Prime Video on 20th May and has exploded in the best possible way. The appreciation is unanimous. Dibakar and Varun wrote the 20-page outline of the film together over a month-long trip to Uttarakhand for research and writing. After the outline was done, they both wrote a draft of the film separately, exchanged them, and then started mixing the two drafts to arrive at the final script of the film. They were ready with the script in September 2018.
Dibakar and Varun talk about the journey of writing Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, a film that has found widespread resonance, and creating characters that are infinitely memorable and relatable.
Bank Manager played by Sukant Goel, Aunty played by Neena Gupta and Uncle played by Raghubir Yadav have no names in the film. Other filmmakers have done this before, and a recent example of this is The Great Indian Kitchen by Jeo Baby. What is the intention of the writer and director when they leave their characters nameless? We did find out the bank manager’s name. It’s there in a subtitle. I think it’s Sumit. Aunty’s name is on the Aadhar card but their names are not credited. What was the intention behind leaving the characters nameless?
Varun Grover: Naam nahi hai, aisa koi bada conscious decision nahi tha, because film mein bohot baar aisa hota hai ki naam hote hai aur iske bawajood – apne khushi ke liye naam likh lete hai – film mein woh naam aata nahi hai kai baar. Phir aise hi aap ko IMDb pe jaa ke dekhna padhta hai ki uss actor ka koi naam tha kya, hum ne rakha tha kya? Isme thoda fayda ye hua ki jab Uncle bolo toh saare Uncle jo aap ne zindagi mein dekhe hai woh saamne aa jaate hai. So, it’s making them so generic that they become everybody, or everybody that you can associate them with. Aisa nahi hai ki ek Uncle ko dekh ke sirf ek yaad aayenge. Bohot saare yaad aate hain. Also, basically, script mein hum ko utni zaroorat nahi lagi characters ko naam dene ki. Woh ek jagah par hai naam, jaise jab woh ‘Sumit sir…’ bolti hai, lekin aisa kuch bohot bada reason nahi tha.
Dibakar Banerjee: Varun’s answer triggered another answer in me because in our lives we know people who are called Manager, Security, Uncle, Aunty, Tamatarwala ya Tamatar Uncle, and we manage. So, I think that lifelike-ness also happens because of that. They must have exchanged names, but hamare yahan pe hum naam leke nahi bolte, na? Hamare yahan pe woh rishta ban jaata hai. Everybody’s a part of an extended family.
Smriti Kiran: You know, I felt that Sandeep, played by Parineeti Chopra, has hints of Shalini Sahay from Shanghai, in terms of a character in crisis who’s also dealing with loss and unresolved grief. Sandeep lost a relationship that was probably more important to her than her partner. She refers to her pregnancy many times. She’s very mindful of the fact that she’s pregnant and she constantly refers to that. What does holding onto her pregnancy mean and then losing it?
Dibakar Banerjee: When we write, we write lots of things. I remember an earlier draft where Sandy is at a local mother care shop sizing up cots because she’s the kind of person who wants to measure cots before she buys them. At that time, we had shown her preparing for the pregnancy in the way she would prepare an Excel sheet to present to the government of Mauritius to move 30,000 crores of Indian money offshore. So, it’s a project. I think in our minds though, the pregnancy was real. Sandeep’s attitude towards it, in the beginning, is project-based, it’s artificial because according to me the capitalist life, the corporate life is being yoked to that chain of capitalism, which makes us change our behaviour towards organic and natural things in a certain way. That’s quite interesting, especially when it comes to women because now you have further entangled threads of the feminist movement. The feminist movement taking on the acquiring of capital as one of the things to get equality, by doing so them being yoked to the same depredation of the chase for capital the way men are – all of that. Ab itna bada bolenge toh lagega ki ye kya hai? Tum film thodi bata rahe ho. Tum toh koi sociology ki class kar rahe ho. Toh ye sab definitely, amorphously hamare dimaag mein thi. As the film progresses, the pregnancy starts becoming more and more real to her; and it’s at its most real when she loses it.
Smriti Kiran: Arjun Kapoor had it written down in his contract that he’ll workshop with you for three months for the film. He’s given his career’s best performance in the film – from being called Pinky to trying to strangle a pregnant woman to making chapatis and dressing up as a woman. He has ventured far outside of his comfort zone in the film. What is this process that gets them to make these intrepid choices?
Dibakar Banerjee: The way I do it is as if there is a ball of fear inside me, which propels me to sort of prepare, prepare, prepare, prepare and prepare. The preparation is not for the scene. The preparation is to reach the scene in a way where you’re relaxed and you’re inside the character as much as you can and then you’re going. I’ve found out by trial and error that these are the methods of normal preparation that actors do and these theories were worked out by many great theatrical and dramatic masters before us and in a much deeper way. It’s just that we, in our own way, very amateurishly, are clutching at straws and working at it.
With Arjun, the process was, first of all, about the language. We kept on talking. I think languages are not words. Language is also the ideology that lies behind that particular language. Agar koi bole, ‘Aap ko baap mana hua hai, sir ji,’ woh Hindi shabd hai, sab samajh sakte hai. Lekin ek ideology hai jo Hindi ko English se alag banata hai aur jo Hindi ko Eskimo se alag banata hai, kyunki har language ke piche ek ideology aur way of life chhipi hoti hai. So, that ideology was discussed over and over again. We sat with my assistant directors, with my creative assistants and with Tarun Gahlot, who was our language coach. By the way, Tarun is the guy who’s there in the car – the guy in the front who is reminiscing and who gets shot. In fact, the gentleman sitting behind him is Tarun’s childhood friend. He’s not an actor. So, all those discussions, all those things were the process. Of course, reading the scenes and everything, too, and then the language, which was very, very rigorous. Tarun sat with him, kept working, working, working, working, working and Arjun just kept at it. Even when I wasn’t there, Arjun kept at it. After that, what Arjun remembers and I don’t remember is that we had lots of personal chats about life. That was the first part of it.
The second part of it was a long trip to Delhi, where he did an orientation with a certain Delhi Crime Branch police personnel. We basically tried understanding their lives, their behaviour and their behaviour with each other, because it’s a very kin-based tribal-based, patriarchy-based kind of relationship. They are looking at each other like chacha, mama, tau and sometimes they are related as well. There are also young dudes, who watch Bollywood films or Hollywood films. They’re normal dudes. And at the same time, they’ve had these long assignments about staking out criminals, going in disguise, being cops out of uniform – that’s what the Crime Branch does. They are not in uniform, especially the Special Branch. Then, their own lives with guns, people, killing and violence and their own lives with their own families. One of the people who was coaching us, Dharmendarji, had lost his son when he was 18 or 19. So, he was living through that trauma.
Arjun saw how an interrogation is done. We actually got a police informer, and the cops and the police informer staged a drama for us, and Arjun wasn’t told. The cops actually beat him up. I mean, they did not beat him up. They were very good stunt people. I called Arjun saying, ‘There’s an interrogation going on, jaldi aa ja, dekh le.’ Arjun came, and this guy was being beaten up. It was all a drama but it seemed very real because these guys are always acting. They are threatening and cajoling. All of that translated into, for example, the way Arjun is interrogating Sandeep in the car. It comes out of a huge discussion and that kind of a process and observation of how cops interrogate. Darana, puchkarna ya acting karna. Woh sab acting hoti hai. Kaafi hadd tak acting hoti hai. Aur isme ye bhi layer tha ki Pinky khud bhi dara hua hai.
When you listen to what they’ve gone through, Varun ek nahi, teen filmein likh daalega usme. Hum ko teen filmon ka material mil jaata hai. Just the breadth of incidences that coalesces to form something like life for them, it’s quite intense.
Smriti Kiran: There are no small parts in the film. From Archana Patel, who plays Sejal, to Jaipreet Singh as Gary, who flings his shoe at the orderly in the house, everyone makes an impact. How do you achieve this?
Varun Grover: It’s difficult to say if something is achieved in writing or at the shooting stage, or because of the way actors were directed, or because they were retained in the final edit. So, a lot of it actually is responsible for creating memorable characters. As a writer, even as a film lover, I believe main achi film ussi film ko manta hoon jahan background mein bhi sab kuch sahi lage, real lage – nahi toh aap ne bohot mehnat ki aur background mein koi hai jo bohot hi disinterested hai, toh woh film ka pura magic toot jaata hai. Iss wajah se mujhe bohot pasand hai uss tareeke ki filmein ya uss tarah ki detailing in films where every character has some motivation or some backstory. Even if that backstory is never told to you, you can sense it if you probe thoda sa. Iss liye koshish rehti hai ki har character ko ek dusre se alag banaye likhte hue, un ki thodi si samajh hum ko ho jaye ki woh kahan se aaye hai aur kahan jaa rahe hai. For example, Bank Manager. Though not a minor character in terms of the film, the film has Sandeep and Pinky, Tyagi, Uncle, Aunty – there are lots of characters. So in that hierarchy, I would say, and in terms of screen footage time, also – kaafi kam time hai.
Dibakar and I spent a lot of time talking about each character. There used to be days when we would not talk about Sandeep and Pinky. This was during the discussions when we were fleshing out the outline. We would talk about this. In fact, Manager ko leke hum ne bohot baat ki. Woh kahan padha hoga, kahan se MBA kiya hoga ya kahan se kya kiya hoga, Commerce ki degree ki hogi, pehli posting kahan thi, ye posting usse kaise mili, Dharchula jaise jagah ka bank manager hai, toh isse pehle how did he rise up the ranks? Toh utni hi detail hum ne uss character ke baare mein ki thi aur utni hi detail hum ne Munna ke character ke baare mein ki thi, who, again, I would say, is not in the top five characters with maximum screen time in the film.
We talked a lot about Munna. Usko karna kya hai life mein? Film mein toh hum itna sa hissa dekh rahe hai, par usse pehle uska bachpan kaisa raha hai, usko ghar mein kis tarah se treat kiya gaya hai, uske jo bhi odd choices hai life mein, uss jagah ke hisaab se, jo ki wahan ke logon ke liye odd hai, usko kaise deal kiya hoga.
I have a friend, Raj Shekhar, who’s a lyric writer. He told me a story which I told to Dibakar and that day we figured that this is probably our Munna. Raj Shekhar ek music contest mein judge ban kar ke gaye the. In Patna, there was a local Indian Idol kind of a thing. Stage pe live ho raha tha. Maybe on satellite TV. So, Raj Shekhar was one of the judges, and the finale was happening. All 10 finalists were asked, ‘Aap kaunsa gaana gayenge final mein,’ aur dus ke dus ne kaha, ‘Sun raha hai na tu. Ro raha hoon main.’ Sab ne bola wohi gaana hai. Toh fir jhagda ho gaya ki saare log kaise gaa sakte hai. Fir unhone kaha, ‘Aap parchi utha lo. Koi ek hi gaa sakta hai. Dus ke dus kaise gaa sakte hai? Janta bore ho jayegi.’ So, only one guy got to sing that song. The song happened, and then there was a break in the flow of the events. Raj Shekhar went to the washroom. When he went to the washroom, he saw a guy who was sitting on the stairs and crying his head out. He was bawling. Raj Shekhar went to the washroom, came out and the guy was still crying. So, Raj Shekhar went up to him and asked him, ‘Bhaiya, kya hua? Aap ro kyun rahe ho? Kuch ho gaya kya, bhai?’ He just went on crying, looked at Raj Shekhar and said, ‘Bhaiya, ye jo gaana hai na, bohot lagta hai yahan.’ Just that song made him step out of the auditorium and cry. So, we figured that this is Munna. This is the level of sensitivity he has, this is the level of attachment he has to something which may feel very abstract and very stupid to us. We found that character in Patna, when Raj told us the story. We haven’t used that scene in the film, but it still informs us and it also informs the actor in a way ki kya karna hai, kaunsa sur pakadna hai.
Smriti Kiran: At a creating level, when a film is delayed in its release for many other reasons that are not relevant to either the writing or creating team, what happens to the team then? Do you feel the need to tweak it and constantly tinker around with it before it comes out when it comes out?
Varun Grover: I didn’t have that long an association and investment in the film. After I finished writing, I moved on to Sacred Games and other things. Dibakar spent much more time. Till the film came out, I’m sure he had a much more traumatic time than I had. Letting-go wala process toh bohot pehle hi shuru ho gaya tha, ki jo film bana rahe hai ab woh apna kaam karenge and I won’t have any expectations in terms of ye likha hai, ye aisa hoga ya woh waise hoga. Haan, ye expectation phir bhi rehta hai ki film aayegi aur log dekhenge, aur jo bhi hoga, acha-bura, jo bhi bolenge, woh sab bolenge.
I had completely given up. I was like ye film kabhi bhi aayegi. So, my only hope was, main IMDb pe jaa ke apne naam add kar du ki chalo ye film thi. Nahi aayi aur IMDb pe page bana hua hai toh shayad woh likh le mera naam ki acha is ne likhi thi, ye writer hai. Profile mein naam aa jaye, usse zyada mujhe laga nahi mil sakta hai iss intezar se. Finally, as luck would have it, it came out and we are having this session.
Dibakar Banerjee: For me, it’s not the first time that something like this has happened. Khosla Ka Ghosla! happened exactly like this and that was my first film. There was a point when we were almost a hundred percent sure that it wasn’t going to come out. In fact, I had started working on my second film and then it suddenly released. When Oye Lucky! happened, the Taj attacks happened. It didn’t have a theatrical run the way it was supposed to. So, I’m used to it now. I’m also used to the fact that someone like me, who after making my kind of filmography, is still surviving and still making films, then that itself is a miracle. So, now I don’t look for a gift horse in the mouth. I mean, making another film is enough. Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar didn’t release, but I went on to my next film, which is close to finishing now. Who can have better luck than that! I’m not counting my blessings at all and I’m just chugging along. I generally try to not think of these things because I’m used to them. Also, if I suddenly start making films and all of them start becoming blockbusters, main ghabra jaunga. Toh mere liye yahi acha hai. You have time for introspection as well. Of course, there’s frustration, there’s the fact that your films are not going into theatres, your films are not going into the kind of mass audience that everybody says that you must have to make your films and all that, which I had aspirations for too. But what happens is that after a point you are extremely conscious of the fact that you’re mortal and extremely conscious of the fact that you can’t control everything but you can control a few things. So, ultimately it comes to that. I have resigned to a state of mind where I know that this may be my lot for the rest of my filmmaking career. And one has to go on because the rewards still outshine the lack of a huge audience or huge success. I’m still making the films and exactly the kind of films that I want to make. And all the mistakes in the films are mine – not one forced mistake. So, I stopped thinking about it.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Deepanshu Malik: What were the first two weeks of writing like? How do you get over the anxiety of writing something new? How long did it take to finally finish the script?
Varun Grover: Pehle do hafte toh kuch nahi hua tha. Hum vada pav aur fried fish kha rahe the aur baatein kar rahe the. Hum directly film ya plot mein nahi ghuse. I prefer, and I think Dibakar also prefers, talking about characters, the world, and the times it is set in.
I don’t like getting into the story quickly. In fact, I get into the story as late as possible. I get into the characters, the world and anything that is tangential. Jo uski aas paas ki cheezein hai, duniya hai, usme jaaye toh zyada acha hai. Dheere-dheere jab aap usse comfortable ho jayenge tab apne aap kahani ke elements fit hote jayenge ya aap kar sakte hai. Utna shuru mein pressure lene ki zaroorat nahi hai. Of course, you may be working on a deadline jahan aap ko teen mahine mein khatam hi karna hai, toh dusri baat hai ki tab bhi aap uss tarah se hi shuruat mein sirf characters ke baare mein soche. Likhe bhi mat. Hum ne likhna bhi kafi der baad shuru kiya. In fact, in the initial meetings, I was going to make notes. But Dibakar specifically said ki nahi-nahi hum sirf baatein kar rahe hain aur baatein hi karenge. Toh thode din hum ne baatein ki. Aur phir jab cheezein itni pakki ho gayi thi dimaag mein ki ye character aur ye duniya malum hai ya hum ko thoda usme interest hai, toh hi hum aage badhe.
About time spent on writing this: har film mein alag-alag time lagta hai. Par ek saal se kam mein nahi hoti hai koi bhi film. Ek-dedh saal lagta hai. Uske baad bhi, script writing khatm kab hoti hai? Jab shooting shuru ho jaati hai. Kai baar tab bhi nahi hoti. Lekin best case scenario mein aap maan le ki jab shoot shuru hoti hai. So, the last day of writing is probably a week before the shooting, in most scenarios, but ek saal, dedh saal maan ke chalo. Of course, deadline bhi ho sakta hai ya koi kahani aise bhi ho sakti hai jahan aap ke andar sab kuch ho, shabd bhi bane ho, characters bhi bane ho, aur aap ko sirf type out karna hai.
Dibakar Banerjee: I have been doing some kind of an experiment over the last seven-eight years. I don’t consider myself a good writer and I consider myself as an okay director who has writing ideas scenically. But over the last eight years, the trick that has worked for me is something that Varun just said. I don’t write, until as late as possible, because what happens is that writing a book or a novel is different from writing a screenplay. The book or the novel is written in a way that the end consumer of the book or the novel reads the words and gets the story in his head. But the screenplay is a technical document. A screenplay is not for the use of the end consumer. We don’t write a screenplay and FedEx it to you for you to read. We use the screenplay to make the film. Therefore, the screenplay must be treated as a technical document, which harbours the structure, the core of what we are trying to say by way of the film.
A good analogy would be a blueprint of a very, very intricate nuclear reactor. That blueprint doesn’t create energy or anything like that. That blueprint also cannot be understood by the normal lay person. That blueprint can only be understood by professionals who will take that blueprint and go forward and make the film. So, I think a large part of the screenplay is that it’s a technical document. However, this technical document has people doing and saying things, and over time, which is imaginary time, which is showing three years into two hours, 15 days into two hours or two hours in two hours. So, the understanding of a screenplay as a chain of events over time, which when seen together says something beyond the events, means that we need to narrate those events in some kind of real time to ourselves, however haphazardly they may be done because the story is still forming.
So, I started doing something for my short films, like Lust Stories and Ghost Stories, I had to work on my own. I never wrote those stories. I started narrating those stories to any unsuspecting, unfortunate listener that would come. I would catch that person, sit that person down and narrate. And often the stories would change every time I would narrate because I’ll tell them that I have a half a story. And sometimes I would find scenic flourishes or climaxes or sequence ends or sequence beginnings which I was not aware of till one second before they popped out of my mouth. So, obviously my subconscious was working. On the other hand, the moment you open Final Draft and write, ‘Exterior such and such, such and such,’ it binds you down. It cuts off half your brain. So, the technique that I follow, which is why I very amateurishly told Varun ki abhi baat karte hai, and only in retrospect am I beginning to analyse this, is that feature films, plays, any narrative enacted drama is essentially a series of events in time. The tellers must go through the oral phase. The oral, psychological phase in their heads in imaginary time to get a grasp of it, because then life springs out rather than us trying to impress ourselves by either flowery description or flowery dialogues. Ye hum sab ne kiya hua hai, including maine. Toh isse nikal ke agar kya ho raha hai aur kyun ho raha hai aur log kya kar rahe hai, uske baare mein hum abstractly soche, I feel that you can hit harder or higher when you start writing.
That doesn’t mean that I do it correctly. I don’t know about Varun because Varun has his own process. But I’m saying that narration and stories are about events in time and not about words. Words toh dialogues mein aate hai. Aur aise scenes ka kya karoge jahan pe dialogue hai nahi? Kyunki silence bhi toh hote hai na hamare life mein. So, how will you imagine the silence? Kuch likhne ka toh hai nahi. So, something like that has to be worked out.
Subhankar Bhattacharya: I loved how certain themes were organically woven into the script like the corruption of the financial institutions, the multiple Indias we live in, corruption in the higher echelons of society, the callousness of the rich towards the poor and a sensitive, moving take on masculinity. Do you start with these themes from the get-go or does the plot come first and then you braid it together? What is the key to a successful writing collaboration/partnership given there are two mercurial and independent voices like yourselves?
Varun Grover: Sabse pehle characters aate hai, aur characters ke saath do cheezein aati hai. Ek toh character ki duniya aur dusra character ke duniya ki politics ya theme aate hai. Uske baad kuch aap ke duniya ke theme aate hai, jo uss character ki duniya mein nahi hai, jo ki aap daal na chahte hai – nahi toh aap film kyun bana rahe hai. You want to say something. It’s not politics. It’s a worldview. It’s simply what you think about the world or what you think the world could be doing – the world that you’ve seen from a certain perspective. Uske baad, aap ki jo understanding hai uss world ki woh aati hai. That’s a slightly fake layer, as in, that’s an improvised layer; it’s not the actual layer of the world that we are talking about. Teesri baat ye hai, main kahunga, ki aaj ke zamane mein agar aap authentic koi film bana rahe hai, if you’re telling any story that is authentic, which is of our times, it is not an effort to put ideas of patriarchy, gender politics, corporate greed and class divide in it. You don’t really have to make an effort to put these kinds of things in any story. They should be a part of any story being told right now, which claims to be close to authentic. Un themes ko nikalne mein zyada mehnat lagegi. Agar aap kahani bana rahe hai aur usme bole ki patriarchy ka koi asar nahi dikhega, toh aap ko bohot mehnat karni padegi. It’s as simple as paani ki boond jab aasmaan se padti hai, toh boond spherical kyun hoti hai? It’s because the forces of nature act on it. There is no way it can’t be spherical. It can’t be a cube. Woh cube banane ke liye bohot mehnat karni padegi evolution aur nature ko. Usi tarah se, agar aaj ke kahani mein politics nahi hogi aaj ke samay ki, toh it’s almost like sphere ko cube mein convert karne mein jitni mehnat lagti hai, utni karni padegi.
Dibakar Banerjee: I have no idea about collaborative writing. Because I am the director, I have to get the film written. I can write. That’s a huge thing. What do you mean by you can write? I can’t write well on my own. The whole point is to take on a co-writer. I’ve done it from my second film. My first film was written by Jaideep (Sahni). Then you go out and do what you want with it during the shooting and everything. But from Oye Lucky!… onwards, I always collaborated. I always had a treatment note. I gave it to the writer and the co-writer. Then the co-writer came in with his or her own thoughts and pushbacks. That’s about it.
I mean, collaboration depends on good tea and good snacks, to begin with. As long as you have, good fish fry, vada pav and tea. Khaana acha hona chahiye. Good, healthy food, not oily food. Good whiskey helps, in limited measures. I think red wine is more conducive to collaboration than white wine. And you have to respect the other person. What else do we need to do to collaborate? You tell me.
Varun Grover: Worldview same hona chahiye. Same nahi toh complimentary hona chahiye. Ye na ho ki ek Allopathy mein vishwas rakhta hai aur ek Allopathy ko gaali de raha tha. Aisa nahi ho sakta. Utna toh common sense ho na chahiye.
Dibakar Banerjee: I think ideologically Varun and I are both terrified of unchecked power and many other things. The same thing scares us. So, that wasn’t difficult. But then these things happen automatically. I mean, whoever I’ve collaborated with – be it Urmi (Juvekar), Varun, Kanu (Behl) or Gaurav Solanki – woh pata chal jaata hai. Woh toh unke kaam se pata chal jaata hai na. So, you get to know that you are on the same path.
Kashish Aggarwal: Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar jumps into the plot right from the first scene. I want to understand how it’s decided what details are relevant to keep and what information can be skipped and left to the audience’s interpretation.
Dibakar Banerjee: You arrive at it. Some of the things that people used to say such as ‘Less is more,’ or ‘Let the audience imagine rather than tell them,’ and ‘Whenever in doubt, say less,’ are things that I’m understanding now. Earlier, I did not. I’d be like, ‘Ye kya badi-badi baatein kar rahe hai.’
This question of what to leave out and what to show while not losing out on what you want to tell is the core of all dramaturgy, whether it’s theatre, TV series or films. We have to find events that are metonymic. What I’m saying is, we have to think of events that remind, touch and connect to other events which are not there in the script, but flash like a train of domino cards in the audience’s mind, as long as they belong to the same culture. And slowly, universal things like ma or child, pregnant woman and embryo, will evoke the exact same emotions in an African or a Czechoslovakian. People anywhere will have exactly the same emotions. The closer to the human experience they are, the more power they have, to some extent, to trigger the other unseen and unsaid emotions through that one incident. So, what I’ve understood is that the best screenplays are events. And they also don’t have to be events. They can be somebody finding their father’s glasses after their father is no more. You open your father’s drawer and you find his reading glasses, suddenly a chain of events of your father looking for his reading glasses, all through when you were nine to forty flashes to you. So, I’m just saying that we have to find events, objects, things and words which trigger uncertain emotions and images inside the depth of our mind so that in 10 seconds we can do the job of 10 minutes. Easier said than done.
Varun Grover: Writing ka jo pehla rule hai, mere hisaab se, woh hai rewriting. Rewriting ka pehle rule hai: Give it time. Aisa nahi ho sakta hai ki aaj aap ne khatam kiya aur parson subah phir se likhna ya reassess karna shuru kar diya. Aap ko time dena padta hai beech mein cheezon ko. Jaise aap chawal dhote hai ya dal dhote hai, jisme chhed ya jo halka hota hai, jisme keeda hota hai, woh apne aap upar aa jaata hai. Dobaara dhona padta hai. Agar aap ek baar dho kar daal banaye toh ho sakta hai ki aap keede wali daal kha jaaye. Toh aap ko samajh na hoga ki aap ko iss script ko kitni baar rewrite karna hai taaki woh hisse jo redundant hai usse nikal sake. Pehli baar mein yeh nahi pata chalta hai. Toh apne woh hata sakte hai. Aur kuch hisse jo redundant nahi hote hai lekin aap hata dete hai, woh aap ki human frailty ya human failure hai. Kuch cheezein hai jo instinct pe kaam karte hai, kuch cheezein hai jo technical craft pe kaam karte hai. Woh hoga hi. Agar aap ne aaj kuch bhi likha hai, jo aap ko lagta hai ki duniya ki sabse perfect script hai, chhe mahine baad agar aap usko padhenge toh aap ko zaroor usme chaar cheezein lagenge ki honi chahiye thi aur ye nahi honi chahiye thi. Woh apne aap ho jayega. It needs time.
Dusra ho gaya ki aap ki instinct kya hai, aap ko samajh na hai ki ye kahani main kitne samay mein ya kitne panno mein kehna chahta hoon. As a writer, I generally take a call on that. Main ye kahani dedh-sau page mein nahi kahunga. Kehne ko bohot kuch hai, abhi bhi isme bohot kuch hai jo kaha jaa sakta tha aur bohot kuch hai jo nahi kaha jaa sakta tha. But at the end of the day, you go with your artistic instinct, your discipline, your general practice and a mix of art and craft. Toh usse aap tay karte hai. Ek pehla scene tha ki Sandy ek makaan dekh rahi hai kahin pe, kharidne ke liye, aur usko dekhte-dekhte usse pata chalta hai ki woh pregnant hai. Usko shaq tha, lekin woh uss samay pregnancy test leti hai aur usko pata chalta hai ki woh wala nahi lena chahti, makaan bada lena chahti hai. Pinky ka pehla scene ek film ki shoot par hai. Salman Khan ki film ki shoot hone wali thi, hamare script ke hisaab se. Aur vahan pe woh security pe duty kar raha hai. Salman wahan ek gaana gaa rahe hai, jo baad mein film mein aata bhi hai shaadi mein, jis pe woh naachta hai. Toh ab ye sab cheezein thi. Aur jab hum ne likhi thi toh we were very confident about this idea. It was not like ki kisi ne bola hum ko ki hata do. Hum ne khud hataye hain kyun ki humein ek point pe laga ki ye redundant hai – ye bata ne ki zaroorat nahi hai character ko jaan ne ke liye. Character toh hum vaise bhi jaan rahe hai. So, it’s about how little footage or real estate you can use while giving the maximum carpet area. Jitne kam mein aap jitna zyada kar sakte ho, jaddo-jahat wohi hai puri likhne ki. Woh dheere-dheere hota rehta hai.
Dibakar Banerjee: Generally, a 29-year-old scriptwriter who will write a fantastic script will probably take two to three years to write that script because first they will overwrite, overwrite, overwrite, but that overwriting is very necessary to bring the emotions, the thoughts and the concepts to a boil. Then they will take time. They ‘ll go back to the script, then they’ll cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, but the emotions that have been brought to the boil will stay. One scene will become one line, and that is enough because you will do it in that tempered way. But you’re 40 or 50, ideally, it should take one to one-and-a-half years because the experience of overthinking, overwriting, then culling it to something manageable should become faster and faster. Now you shouldn’t think about it. Now you should overwrite, as long as you remember that abhi overwriting chal rahi hai aur abhi kaat na padega. Uske liye time dena. Do something else. Go away and come back, and then cut. And the emotions that come up must be authentic emotions because we all make films about other films. Nowadays all of us are seeing so much, we are exposed to so much that we don’t make films about things that are direct impressions of life. Our impressions of life are also culled from an impression of life that we see in a film. So, usko bhi cull karne ko time jaata hai. That’s how you ween and that’s how you weed out extra material from a screenplay. That’s what I think. This comes from somebody who overwrites maniacally, Varun is here to attest it. He kept on warning me, ‘Ye zyada hai, ye kaato.’ Baad mein kaata. Pehle kaat ta toh aur kuch ho jaata shayad.
Mukund Narayan: Varun, jab aap koi scene likhte hai toh aap usko ek certain way mein imagine karte hoge. Kya, jab shoot ho raha hota hai, aap director se discuss karte? And Dibakar, do you discuss scenes with your writer? What happens if their vision is much different than yours? What happens in cases when you’re not collaboratively writing?
Varun Grover: Aisa bohot rarely hota hai. Masaan aur Sacred Games mein writers alag the aur directors alag the, where the directors were not directly involved in writing. Aap ne kuch likha hai aur usi ko interpret karna, toh koi kitna hi tangentially interpret kar lega usko. Filmmaking is a director’s medium. Writers are the foundation and all that is true. But hai toh director ka medium kyunki ye visual medium hai. Ye textual medium nahi hai. Yahan pe aap script likh rahe hai, thik hai, lekin us ko bohot saare technicians mil ke interpret kar rahe hai. Usko DOP bhi interpret kar rahe hai, baad mein editor bhi interpret kar rahe hai. Set pe main toh kehta hoon, har insaan – jo boom mic pakda hai, jis ko kabhi aap frame mein nahi dekhenge is influencing your film.
In film, writers only have two jobs. One, writing the script and two, letting go of the script. Jaise hi aap ne khatam kiya, uske baad just let it go. Uske baad jisko jaisa interpret karna hai, woh vaisa kare, aur woh sahi hoga kyunki woh unka kaam hai. Mere ko aake koi aisa toh nahi bol raha hai ki ye aisa kyun likha tumne. Main usko nahi bol sakta ya DOP ko ki aap ne ye aise kyun interpret kiya. It’s absolutely okay and that is the easiest way to live as a writer in the film medium.
Varun Grover: You start with the characters, you start with the world. Aisa nahi hai ki aap ko real life mein preachy log nahi milte hai. Bohot saare log milte hai. Aur aap khud bhi hote hai preachy. Aap usko preachy nahi kehte hai kyunki woh real lagta hai. Puri filmmaking ka maksad yahi hai: to keep it as authentic as possible. For me, authenticity is the most important aesthetic value. Authenticity apne aap mein ek complete aesthetic hai. Jitna authentic hoga, it will hide the preachy-ness. If you think there is preachy-ness woh chhup jaata hai kyunki woh insaan aap ko acha lag raha hai. Uski baatein aap ko phir sach maanni padti hai. Ek toh woh hai.
Dusra, of course, aap jo bhi likhe, woh uss duniya ya kirdaar ke liye sach ho, aur thoda sa tangential ho. To put ideas in a tangential way is something that I like and I know Dibakar also likes. Seedha bol ne se aaj kal koi baat hi nahi sunta hai, aur mere khayal se har art ka purpose bhi yahi hai ki tangential ya metaphorical ya allegorical cheezein kahi jaayi, jo art ban kar aap tak pohoche aur statement ban kar na pohoche. Isi liye humour ya satire itna powerful hai, kyunki woh pehle aap ko hasata hai bhale aap ko idea pasand nahi hai, uss mein jo baat ki jaa rahi hai aap ki thinking se theek ulti hai, lekin kyunki woh joke ke form mein aa rahi hai, toh aap ka instinctive response jo hai – it’s almost a chemical, biological response – woh aisa hai ki aap ko hasna hi padega kyunki woh joke mein surprise value hai. Uske baad aap sochte rahenge ki ye joke toh mere hi baare mein tha ya mere kisi idol ke baare mein tha jise main bohot maanta hoon, aur baad mein aap ko gussa aayega. Lekin tab tak joke aap ke andar jaa chuka hai. Tab aap kuch nahi kar sakte.
Similarly, kahani mein when you think there’s a slightly heavy material, I’m not talking about politics, which may repel you in the very first instance, toh aap usko thoda sa tangential rakhe, aap usko thoda sa light rakhe, thoda clever rakhe. Agar aap aware hai aap ke script ke baare mein ki woh kis level ki disturbing hai ya kitni mushkil hai logon ke liye, toh aap uss tarah easy kar sakte hai logon ke liye. This is what I feel.
Dibakar Banerjee: I’ve been chasing this lifelong because you see preachy kya hai aur kya nahi depends. Jo theatre mein preachy nahi lagta, woh film mein preachy lagta hai. Cinema is a different kind of medium and it’s changing constantly because the distance between the camera and the subject is reducing. With the way the technology is going, the camera is becoming more and more unobtrusive. The camera is becoming more and more of a fly on the wall. The camera is more or less reminiscent of a time when the camera was not there. It’s pretending to not be there. The core of cinema is where the filmmaker, the cameraman, the camera and everything is hugely pretending not to be there. Stage mein kya hota hai ki darshak saamne baitha hua hota hai. Aur actor dialogue deke darshak ki taraf dekhta hai aur darshak taali bajata hai, let’s just say. Hamari star system wali jo films hai kaafi theatre like hai. It’s like pictures of people talking. Yahan pe ye system chalta hai because it’s a convention. Hum baatein karenge, log baate sunenge, aur just as on stage, log taaliyan bajayenge, aur hero almost camera ke taraf dekh ke, darshak ke taraf dekh ke acknowledge karta hai ki tumhara mera ek direct relationship hai.
By chance, in the kind of films that Varun and I do, we are pretending that we are not there and we are pretending that the actors and the stars in the film are not aware of the audience. So, in this kind of pretend game, what needs to happen is that whatever you need to say needs to come out of a combination of what the characters are saying, what the characters are not saying, what the characters are hiding and the difference between what the characters know about each other and what the audience knows about the character. The characters often don’t have the same amount of knowledge about each other that the audience has. For example, in many places in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, we know a little more about Sandeep and Pinky than they know about each other. Slowly, they come to know each other. So, this combination is a web of who knows what, says what, hides what and who doesn’t know what, add to the illusion of that golden chidiya jisko Varun authenticity bol rahe hain. Kyunki hamari life mein jo bhi kuch hota hai woh resolve nahi hota hai. Har situation resolve nahi hoti. Hum ek shabd bolte hai aur fir ruk jaate hai, fir koi aur kuch maan leta hai, fir silence ho jaata hai, aur fir koi kuch chupata hai. If we can depict that while communicating what we are trying to say, that is closer to a life-like situation. So, you have to write and think like that. And for that, you need to know your characters. When you know the characters, then you know what they will hide and what they will say because all of us are pretending.
Hardik Kaushal: Koi bhi kahani ya screenplay mein protagonist hona zaroori hai kya? Kya uss film ya kahani ki jo theme hai, woh as a protagonist uss kahani ko aage nahi badha sakti? Secondly, film ka ek structure hota hai, jaise 15-page mein theme complete honi chahiye. Is it necessary ki uss particular structure ke saath aap ko jaana hi hai?
Varun Grover: Protagonist na ho aisi bohot saari kahaniyaan hai. Usko hum log ensemble cast film bhi bolte hai. Uss mein koi protagonist nahi. Bohot saare log hai, jinki apni-apni zindagi hai. Mahabharat hai jaise. Koi protagonist nahi hai. Mahabharat pure samay ki aur bohot saare logon ki kahani hai, aur sabki apni-apni kahani hai. Aisi bohot saari filmein hoti hai. Ab aap agar chun rahe hai aisi kahani jo ek ya do ya teen logon ke hi POV se hai toh usme protagonist log apne aap bana lete hai, ki ye lead hai, ye second lead hai, ye third lead hai – iss tarah se ho jaata hai. But nahi, bilkul zaroori nahi hai ki protagonist ho hi. Ye bhi zaroori nahi hai ki aap soche nahi hai aur janta bhi soche ki nahi hai. Ho sakta hai ki aap ne socha ho ki nahi hai, koi bhi nahi hai, fir jab reviews aati hai toh likha hota hai ki ye protagonist hai. Tab aap kya kar sakte hai? Kuch nahi kar sakte hai.
Dibakar Banerjee: Ek evolution hota hai hum sab ka. Syd Field ke baad Robert McGee. Hum ko Syd Field ne bata diya tha ki page 17 mein aise full stop aayega, page 58 mein aise aayega. Woh kaafi din tak hum ne follow kiya. Robert McGee thoda sa aage gaye. Unhone kaha ki page chhodo, tum story ke andar jao. Iss tarah se aage hum chalte gaye. Maine iss baare mein kaafi padhai ki hai kyunki mujhe structure ki hawa kuch thi nahi. Main bhi sochta tha ki structure kya hai. Ek baat mein ek baat se kisi ko do rai nahi hai. Main uss din apni 7 saal ki beti ko suna raha tha kahani ke baare mein. Toh ek structure zaroor hota hai: the beginning, the middle and the end. Isko hum jhutla nahi sakte. Ye abhi tak nahi hua hai ki koi beginning hoke end ho gaya hai, ya middle se chalu ho ke end ho gaya hai, ya beginning aur middle hai aur end nahi hai – ultimately, uska sequel ban hi jaata hai. Iss structure mein ek cheez aap dekh sakte hai ki beginning, middle and end are not necessarily in that order. Ye ache-ache, interesting filmmakers, jinhone structure ke saath tod-phod ki hai, woh keh chuke hai. Toh beginning hai, middle hai, end hai. Itna hi main thos tareeke se keh sakta hoon.
Baaki, structure is dependent on time. Agar aap dedh ghante ya do ghante ki film bana rahe hai aur kisi ko pakad ke baith ke usko kahani suna rahe hai, mere hisaab se uss structure ka ek hi maksad hona chahiye. Main ye nahi keh raha hoon ki aap har waqt darshak ko entertain karein. Kuch-kuch jagah pe darshak bore ho sakta hai. Lekin ek jagah pe aake aap ko samajhna padega ki main itna tak bore karunga kyunki ye zaroori hai aur uske baad achanak se uska collar pakad ke main kahani mein le aaunga. Ye ek structure ka ek aur chakkar hai jo main abhi-abhi seekh raha hoon. The thing is, it’s a continuation of interest while it is not a continuation of constant entertainment. You don’t need to entertain. That’s what structure should do. Everything else is dependent on where you are at that particular time in history and what kind of a story you’re telling. Agar aap ko structure ke baare mein jaan na hi hai toh I think you must go through all the Tarantino films kyunki woh nayi bhi hai, hamare zamane ki bhi hai, aur aap ka interest bhi rahega un ko dekhne mein. Structure ke saath woh jo khelte hai, usse pata chal jaata hai ki unhone bohot kuch sikha hai aur aage chale hai.
Varun Grover: When we get into the screenplay after finishing the outline, you start breaking it down into sequences. Seven sequences hote hai film mein, etc. At that time, I didn’t show that I had no idea what Dibakar was talking about. So, I just pretended that I knew the sequence theory, went back home, Googled it and tried to add up to what was happening. But I had no idea what sequence theory was.
Dibakar Banerjee: Sequence theory is like the beginning, middle and end. These are just ways of controlling parts of the narrative. It just divides the film into parts that are linked so that you can approach it a little more economically. Ek, do, teen jam raha hai; chaar, paanch mein jhol ho raha hai, aur chhe, saat mein kuch problem ho rahi hai. How do you define one sequence from the other? Woh kehte hai ki har sequence ke piche ek chotisi film hoti hai. Kya ye character ye kar payega? Kya isse ye milega? Kya ye khoya hua hai ya apne aap ko dhund paayega? Ye questions hum khud hi design karte hai, aur in sequences ka koi number nahi hai. Whatever works, works. Beginning hai, middle hai, end hai – ye koi nahi jhutla sakta. Then you see.
Shraddha Chauhan: In a runaway crime drama like this, do you know the end of the film before you start writing and then you build the scenes in a way which is a build up to the end?
Varun Grover: Actually, we had no idea how to end it until very, very, very late. In fact, we still had three endings probably just before we finished the last draft.
In one ending, Pinky and Sandy go to the AGM. Pinky makes sure that Sandy enters the AGM and kind of blasts Parichay in front of the whole world and takes the mic almost and tells everybody that Parichay is a monster and all, while Pinky outside trashes Parichay’s new, very expensive car. I don’t know which car we had thought of, but it was going to be a very expensive car to be trashed by Pinky outside, while he dodges Tyagi at the gate or something like that. So, it was a very Tezaab-type ending.
So, we kept thinking how to end it, how to end it not on a big high but at least on a note where the characters have learnt something or we see that they have learned something, that they’ve had a journey. Especially in the second half, since the film is quite dark and quite disturbing. We wanted to have a sense of hope, some sense of okay-ness for people who fight or at least have the courage or at least have thought about fighting, or at least have seen the light get something out of it instead of being either lost to the world or forever feel defeated. Plus, we also knew that Sandy knows she has done a crime by designing that scheme and looting people. Us ko bhi ek tarah se apne paap ki sazaa milni thi. So, we kept playing with these elements of how to give them redemption plus justice from the ordinary bank customer point-of-view also, uncle-aunty ko bhi justice milna chahiye kahin pe aur Sandy-Pinky ko bhi milna chahiye aur kahin pe Munna ko bhi milna chahiye. Jin characters se aap kisi-na-kisi tarah se associate kar sakte hai, har ek ko ek sense of justice thoda sa mile ya redemption mile – jo bhi mil sakta hai. We played on many, many elements and zeroed down on this. I still don’t know how any other ending would have played out.
Dibakar Banerjee: In one ending, Parichay is having lunch with his extended family, and Sandy comes in and tells him that she is going to go and confess to the authorities about what he has done. Another which is closer to the ending in the film, where Pinky and Sandy are in the truck, Pinky changes into his clothes, jumps out and we never see him, and we hear gunshots. So, we kind of imply that Pinky dies. From there, we kept going forward and forward because I remember this impulse I had, which is not a script impulse but a film impulse, about the core of every story, or the propulsion of every story, being the characters’ need to exit the story.
The characters are always fighting to get out of the story in a successful film because whatever’s fucking them up is actually making the stories. So, what are they saying? I don’t want this fuck up. I want this to disappear. Main aise kar lunga, main vaise kar lunga, mera ye ho jayega, mere ko paise mil jayenge, aur ho gaya. Ab karte-karte life happens to them, and that gives us the story. But the character is trying to find the simplest way of exiting without reaching the climax, and that gives the narrative propulsion. So, for Pinky’s exit, I wanted something magical. I didn’t want something which was blood and guts real. So, I’m really happy about what we came up with, where he just rafoo-chakkars, seen later and imagined later through Sandeep’s point-of-view when she receives the photos. So, that was also another impulse, which led to that climax as we have today. I wanted Pinky to genuinely, metaphorically escape the story by (makes a whooshing sound). There is no other way to explain it. I can’t even say it in words. Hamari kahaniyon mein kehte hai na ki woh udan-choo ho gaya. That shot of Tyagi and Pinky crossing him and his arms on both sides of Tyagi’s head and all that were all visual interpretations of that core indescribable feeling of udan-choo. We were kind of lucky that we went through lots of bad, good, middling good and better endings to have reached here. But I’m sure that if we hadn’t thought of Pinky thrashing Parichay’s car, we wouldn’t have come here. It’s just that we kept on pushing.
Aryan Singh: Please talk a little bit about the song design in the Faraar song sequence. It’s ambient yet it’s playback, we can hear the mouthing as well. What is the idea behind that kind of music?
Dibakar Banerjee: The idea behind the sound design is the situation. The situation is that there is a song playing at a very high volume at a party and a common man, like Pinky, is dancing to that song where he’s mouthing those words and at the same time, he is sometimes forgetting those words and sometimes he is tired. I remember from somewhere I got a video where this Sikh boy was doing the most amazing impression of Sridevi in Nagin.
So, there was this marriage where this Sikh boy, some 17- or 18-year-old boy, beautifully did Sridevi on the stage, and then we kept talking about ki usne kitne din sheeshe ke saamne khade ho ke, matlab hatta-katta Sardar apna, practice ki hogi. He really captivated us. Wahan se Pinky ki gender fluidity aur woh jo sab ke saamne ek moment milta hai ki hum aise karenge woh aaya.
Documentary filmmakers Samreen Farooqui and Shabani Hassanwalia made a film called Being Bhaijaan. Woh tha ek Salman (Khan) jaise dikhne wale, ek nakli Salman ke life pe. Bohot hi badhiya documentary hai. Uss character ke through hum dekhte hai ki Salman aur youth ka jo relationship hai woh kaisa hai. Wahan se bhi mujhe woh idea mila. Uss documentary ka pura daromedar tha ki kaise woh ladka apni behen ki shaadi mein stage pe Salman ka ek gaana karega.
For us, it was ki woh gaana chal raha hai aur woh gaana dono Munna aur Pinky ko pyaara hai. Pinky ke life mein aur chakkar chal raha hai. Sandy usko bol rahi hai ki tum ye karo, woh karo, wahan pe kuch fraud chal raha hai bank manager ke saath. Toh aise bohot si kahaniyan chal rahi hai. Aur Pinky ne daaru pi li hai. Ab gaana chal gaya, Munna ne usko stage pe bula liya, ab woh stage pe dance kar raha hai aur stage pe dance karte-karte woh words bol raha hai. You can hear Anu Malik, you can hear Pinky and the crowd – jo khichdi hamare shaadiyon mein pakti hai, wohi. Usme jo Arjun dhap-dhap-dhap kar ke ucchal raha hai, uss ki bhi awaazein hai. We basically took that, as Varun said, the authenticity of the situation and faithfully went for that. Kuch aisa nahi tha ki hum aisa creative karenge. Stage pe koi gaana gaa raha hai, aur woh filmi gaana bhi nahi hai, matlab aisa nahi hai ki Shah Rukh ki awaaz mein achanak Sonu Nigam bol pade, which is the convention. We are all connected to it and we know ab Shah Rukh gaana gaa rahe hai aur ye kisi aur ki awaaz hai. Aisa nahi hai. Anu Malik ka gaana loudspeaker pe chal raha hai aur ek sadharan ladka uss gaane pe naach raha hai. So, that was the core of the sound design.
Monica Gyamlani: The portrayal of Sandy in her vulnerable place is done with a lot of nuance and quite politically too. Could you tell me a little about the process of writing for that particular sequence where she decides that she doesn’t want to cross into Nepal and stay?
Varun Grover: We struggled with how to make it convincing, the final change of heart, that she doesn’t want to escape but rather go back and sue Parichay or fight Parichay or fight the entire system. It was really at the core of our discussion for a long, long time. I still don’t know if we managed to pull it off as convincingly as we wanted it to be. Personally, this is one of the things in the film which I know is not a hundred per cent convincing for me, even at this point, though we gave it a lot of thought. What convinced us at that time was the slow process of her initially being thrown into this new world, this new India, which she had been a part of. It’s not like she was born into a rich family. She is what all of us think of as middle class, which is probably not the middle class in a way if you go by data. It is probably only the top 10% in India. Still, there is the top one percent, which she became once she started working for the bank. So, it’s a journey from that one percent and back to that 10% and then opening the window to the other 90%, towards whom her scheme was targeted. So, we wanted to show her journey back into this thing.
Through the miscarriage, we wanted to show the emotional electric shock of sorts that hits her that helps her realise exactly what she was fighting for and why she wants all that money. She had finally found something. As Dibakar said, the baby started as a project for her, but slowly as the film progresses and as she journeys forward, from a project it probably becomes a part of her being and finally the only thing she cares about. So, woh journey jo hai, uska humne ek emotional arc bhi banaya tha aur ek uska bohot hi logical arc bhi, jo ki functional arc hai jis mein the journey goes from her meeting a few people outside of her small bubble and realising how they have been impacted by her choices in life, which were very conscious choices, and were considered merely as numbers. Number se insaan ki journey uski bani. Apne body mein andar jo changes ho rahe hai, uska project se insaan ki journey bani. All these journeys we felt, at the time, were enough for the final trigger in that moment. I still am not very, very sure if it works for everyone or for most. I don’t know. For me, it is still one slightly unrealised part of the arc.
Dibakar Banerjee: My part of the debate with Varun is, puri film bhi real nahi hai. Usse pehle bhi jo aap dekh rahe hai, woh dikhne mein real lag raha hai par woh real nahi hai. Agar Sandy jaise kisi pe attack hota hai toh woh Pinky jaise ke saath nahi bhaagegi. Woh pehle Parichay ko jaa ke bolegi ki chal yaar tu jo bol raha hai main woh maanti hoon, kuch apna sulta ke kuch kar lete hai, because you have to survive. So, I feel that reality is less real than it seems.
I also remember Varun and I discussing that what we read in newspapers is the tip of the iceberg. Isne confess kar liya, iska encounter ho gaya, is ki dead body mili, woh hum dekh lete hai, we digest it, but uske piche ek human story hoti hai. I am mostly convinced ki koi bhi newspaper report dekho, chahe woh kitni bhi mundane ho, uske andar ghusoge na, toh tumhe blockbuster milega. Insaan ke andar ghuse, matlab blockbuster. Itna sab kuch chal raha hai, itne sab firkate chal rahi hai, itne sab paintre chal rahe hai, ki it’s a genuine maze that can be very nicely exploited.
Coming to this last bit of Sandy going back. It’s a very common trope. Though it’s hidden.. It’s a very common trope of somebody wanting to escape and then realising escaping is not freedom. Engaging is freedom. If you see Kanu Behl’s Titli, we go through the same arc. The same thing happens in the end. Instead of escaping, which he has been trying to do throughout the film, he engages and in there, there is some kind of a flawed and confused, and a rather inadequate freedom, but freedom nevertheless.
Anshul Gupta: Dibakar sir, your films have their own political voice. How much of your ideology is affected by choosing the kind of stories you want to tell? Varun sir, how do you go into the story and from where do you get your ideas? Also, how much effort goes into detailing and world building, because it feels very real and lived in?
Dibakar Banerjee: Behind every language stands an ideology though we are not aware of it. You called me sir. Behind that, there lies an ideology. Bado ko sir bolna chahiye ya professionally senior ko sir bolna chahiye. Ya jisne tumse pehle dharti pe accidentally aake thoda kuch kar diya toh usko tum sir bolo. I’m serious. The ideology is, bado ka aadar karo chahe woh umr mein bade ho ya kaam mein bade ho ya stature mein bade ho ya social acceptance mein bade ho. ‘Bado ka aadar karo,’ is an ideological construct of some kind of a political system, which wants to maintain discipline by instilling in you the quality of mimesis. You copy your elders. You respect and copy your elders. That’s why you called me sir. But you were not aware of it because ideology andar se aisa program kar deti hai ki hum sochte hai ki ye natural hai. Ye natural nahi hai, ye man-made hai. Jise aap politics kehte hai, usse main ideology keh raha hoon. Main keh raha hoon ki duniya ka ek bhi insaan ideology se alag nahi. Shuru se ye planting ho rahi hai. Hamari film mein bhi hai. ‘Jo lipstick pehn ke aayi hai, woh soch ke aayi hai, aur jo lipstick nahi pehn ke aayi hai uske mann mein koi khot nahi hai.’ Woh acha bhi hai, woh bura nahi hai, aur director ne sincerely banaya hai, lekin uske piche ek politics hai
Ideology is the core of the most unthought of our behaviours because it is the most potent tool for conditioning a huge group of people, called the society, into collective action. Uske bina hum kuch nahi kar sakte aur karte bhi nahi. Toh main jo bol raha hoon, woh thodi Western ideology hai, ki tum individual ho, nahi tumhe anti-patriarchal hona chahiye, aurtein bhi same hai, mard bhi same hai, Africans bhi same hai, Blacks bhi same hai, Muslims bhi same hai, Dalits bhi same hai. Toh ye ek aur ideology hai. Main uske bina bol hi nahi sakta. Koi bhi insaan ideology, jise aap politics keh rahe ho, ke bina ek shabd apne muh se nahi nikal sakta. Film toh aage ki baat hai. Aap jo bhi kar rahe ho woh political hai. Ye kehna aaj kal mushkil ho gaya hai kyunki ideology ka ek aur part hai jahan pe humein sikhaya jaata hai ki politics is now taboo. Gandi cheez hai.
Varun Grover: Jo bhi main likhta hoon, usme research ka bohot-bohot zyada hissa hota hai. Bina research ke I don’t think any writer can write. In this film also, we had some great research people. Sagarika Chakraborty helped us with Sandy’s and Sejal’s characters. Yashasvi Mishra got lots of information about the cops, how they behave, and what kind of a character Pinky would be. Then, as Dibakar said, we had a person for the dialect, specifically for Arjun Kapoor. Apart from that, Dibakar knew much more than me about Uttarakhand jaise wahan ka dialect, aur chhoti-chhoti cheezein jaise bichhoo ghaas ki sabzi ya kis tarah wahan chhote-chhote hotels ke beech competition hota hai, ya wahan ki ya chhote gaon ki jo politics.
It looks lived in because we already knew a lot of things and we went into it knowing ki ye world hum ko pata hai aur itna pata hai ki hum thoda aur jaan sake. It wasn’t that we were absolutely blank about this kind of world. Hum sab ke koi-na-koi dost hai jo corporate world mein hai ya banker hai ya, iss film mein jaise aap ko dekhne ko mile, koi business journalist hai aur unke parties. We knew some of these things and then we worked towards getting to know more. Also, if you can afford to, hire a researcher, which is a specialised job. If you can’t and you feel like you have the time, then there’s nothing like going for research trips on your own.
For Masaan, we spent time in Benaras. During Sacred Games, we met a lot of cops in Bombay. During Sacred Games, we had Smita Nair, who was a journalist in Bombay with The Indian Express, at that time. She works the crime beat. Toh wahan se humein information mili. Sagarika Chakraborty has her own firm which specialises in catching financial fraud for big institutions. Toh woh saari jo andar ki cheezein hai, kaise kya hota hai, jaise jo Sandy karne gayi thi bank mein raat ko jahan pe the bank manager assaults her, that modus operandi we could never know. We never knew how it could have worked. Woh kahan se message kis ko jayega, kaise woh pakda jayega. All these things came from research.
It’s simply about detailing and seeing how much attention to detail you want. Filmmaking is nothing but attention to detail, and there is no limit to it. The scale is infinite. You can keep doing it, keep working at it and ultimately, jaisa maine kaha, aap ke haath se papar chheen liya jaata hai kyunki time khatm ho gaya hota hai. Woh writer ke haath se bhi chheena jaata hai, woh DOP ke haath se bhi chheena jaata hai, woh actor ke haath se bhi chheena jaata hai aur director ke haath se bhi chheena jaata hai. So, ultimately, there are limits to how much you can do without compromising on other stuff. Jitna bhi aap kar paaye, utna woh aap ko help karega aur film ko help karega.
Vedashree Adige: During the initial process of writing, when most of the story is still in your head, how do you look at it and analyse it from a third person perspective to see if it’s all coming on paper? And when do you actually share your writing with somebody for feedback? What kind of feedback or criticism is healthy?
Dibakar Banerjee: What you write is a function of who you are. And who you are is a function of where you are and what you are exposed to, by way of books, films, life, experiences, friends, parents, travel. All of that has to reach a point where you start writing about it. Then, I think the first person that you should go to should be somebody who knows you so that they can connect who you are and what you’re trying to do and tell you something that works for you. I know objectivity is given a lot of importance. You know, where you say things like, ‘Show it to me blind.’ But sometimes we have germs of ideas in our heads which sometimes don’t come out right. If your dad, your mom or some friend who knows you sees what you’ve written and can see the unformed connections between what you have done and what you’re trying to do, then they may be able to talk about it better.
I think a lot of reading has to happen before you put something out. There are lots of good screenplays on the net. Just download and read. Don’t think. Just keep downloading and reading. Don’t even form an opinion. For the next two-three years, keep reading. And out of every 10 things that you feel like sharing with other people, share only the top two. Don’t share the rest. That’s my formula.
Varun Grover: For the first part of your question, you have to give yourself time. You can’t immediately dive into writing. You have to become the third person. You have to get a certain distance from the idea that you have thought about in the first round of writing or first round of even ideating. Agar aap ne outline likhi hai, then take a while, go back to it after a while. It requires a bit of practice. In the initial years of writing, you may not be able to do it that easily because it’ll feel like an achievement to have written something. So, when you feel it is an achievement, it is slightly difficult to criticise it or look at it with a third person perspective. Lekin dheere-dheere woh ho jayega. Practice karni padegi. Toh time gap beech mein rakhe.
Use people who are outside of the process. Woh zyada acha feedback denge. And I believe there is no unhealthy feedback if you believe that the person is giving a truthful perspective. Theek hai, woh jo bhi bol rahe hai imandari se bol rahe hai bhale woh ye bol rahe hai ki saara hi bakwas hai. So, you have to get to the core of it. People really don’t know how to criticise feedback or how to understand a script. Film dekh ke log fir bhi bata dete hai ki ye performance kharab thi, yahan pe slow ho gayi, yahan pe dheela ho gaya mamla, ending utna maza nahi aaya. Script is a technical document, and not everybody can really understand it. Toh jab woh kuch bol rahe hai toh unse aap ko kuch pointed sawal puchne padenge. You can take a day for it. First time you get feedback, take everything in – whatever they say – but ask for a second meeting where you kind of absorb the feedback and find specific questions to ask them. If they say, ‘Mere ko beech ke 20 page bohot boring lage,’ and that’s all that they say, then you go to those 20 pages, see if there is anything you have done differently from the first 50 pages and then ask them specific questions. ‘Ye particular character ke scenes boring the, ye wala chunk boring tha, kya boring tha?’ Also, what do they mean when they say something was boring? It is always helpful to know what they like also, so that you know how they are judging things. If they like something, it may be because wahan dialogues ache the, aap ne pure dialogues wahan likh diye. Baaki portions mein dialogues pure flesh out nahi kiye hai. Then you understand that the person is only responding to the dialogue and not to the proceedings or the structure or the plot. You will have to figure this out.
It’s also good to know which person is good for which stage of feedback. There are people who are very good at the idea stage. They may say, ‘Okay, isse mujhe woh kahani yaad aayi.’ There are people who are full of stories and full of life experiences. Unko aap jaldi sunaye so that they give you some feedback. And then there are people who are very academic, who are about details. Unko aap tab sunaye jab aap ne likh liya hai pura-ka-pura, so that they can point out nuances. So, all feedback is good.
Karan Nagwekar: What aspect of getting your first films made, whether it is actually writing it or getting it produced, commissioned, you wished you knew as a novice that you know now?
Dibakar Banerjee: Nothing. My first film was an ideal example. Everything went right. I was making ad films and I was bullshitting about making features. I was not doing anything about it. Then my good friend, Jaideep Sahni, introduced me to a producer in Delhi. And just based on Jaideep’s words, the producer, who was a first time producer, took an untried, untested first-time director to direct the film. Shooting the film wasn’t a big problem at all and finishing the film wasn’t a big problem at all. It was only after the film was finished that marketing and release became a problem. So, there was nothing that I wished for that wasn’t there during the shooting of my first film, because I knew I had to do it cheaply. It also probably helped because I was coming from ad filmmaking and I had made lots of ad films by the time I got around to doing my feature film. So, I had the basic knowledge about the environment of a film set and all of that. So, that didn’t faze me. There was nothing. When I made my first film, I was a lot more arrogant than I am now. I just hope that I am not as arrogant. But that’s age. Uska kuch nahi kar sakte ho.
Diganta Dey: Varun, what is your opinion on the situation of screenwriters in the film industry after SWA or any other association came up with lots of rules and regulations for screenwriters’ benefits? We can still see that there is no film credit to writers, and sometimes writers are not even invited to the premieres. Dibakar, you deal with urban and rural audiences. Do you categorise them as such?
Varun Grover: It’s an ongoing process. I’ve been talking about it a lot for the last few years. Writers ki izzat ka jo sawaal hai, woh SWA ya koi bhi rule banane se nahi solve hoga. India mein vaise bhi koi bhi rule banne se koi insaan apna behaviour badal le aisa hota nahi hai. Kisi bhi case mein nahi hota hai. Toh writer’s ke case mein toh aur mushkil hai. I feel it’s a cultural thing. It’s something we have been trained to think for many, many years.
There’s a very logical, technical reason for that happening, which is basically that films are supposed to give you a sense of life happening; that nobody wrote it, nobody directed it, nobody gave music. Jo bhi aap dekh rahe hai, woh ho raha hai. Film has evolved from magic. Agar magic trick hi koi shuru mein bata de, ki main ye jo kar raha hoon ye jhoot hai, koi ladki ko hum kaat nahi rahe, woh haath ka khel hai, then magic won’t work. You won’t feel invested in it. That’s how cinema evolved: to keep the background artists really in the back. They are never seen, and you are supposed to feel it is happening. Woh magic toot jaata hai agar writer ya koi bhi saamne aaye.
But industry ke andar woh izzat honi chahiye. People inside the industry also started forgetting that there are people making this magic happen. I’m talking especially about producers. But slowly and slowly, I feel with social media empowering everyone and more and more people talking about it and now with OTT services coming in, this is a small window of opportunity to change things. I don’t know if they will change. I honestly don’t think they will change, but I still want to try and change it. So, agar woh koshish mere khayal se karte rahenge toh ho sakta hai ki chhota sa ek kankad atka ho aur woh puri-ki-puri chattan gir jaye niche. Zaroori nahi hai, par ho sakta hai aisa.
Dibakar Banerjee: I think it’s very important for writers to be acknowledged because drama, whether it’s in films or it’s an epic or it’s on the stage, is known by the dramatist. In the film’s case, it’s the director and the dramatist. So, if the writer and the director, if he’s written the film, and if the writer alone is not known, what will happen is, we will give ourselves more and more often to the star system. The star system sometimes, or most of the time, devolves into lazy filmmaking and lazy storytelling, which devolves into a slightly jaded relationship between the audience and cinema. That jadedness leads to other things, which takes away the fundamental reason of why we are telling stories to each other. We are telling stories to each other to make sense of who we are. There’s no reason why we are here. It’s completely random and accidental. The stories are making meanings. So, those meanings become jaded. If the storytellers and the story writers are given a little bit more importance, then the importance of meaning, whatever the meaning is, will be more.
Coming back to the audience. When I started making films, I thought that my films would capture the audience of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Then I devolved my ambitions down to the audience of Dil Chahta Hai. Then I brought it further down to, let us say, the audience of Satya, although Satya’s audience was very big. Then I realised that no matter what I do, I won’t be able to exactly mathematically capture that audience.
When Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar released theatrically, the criticism that came on was polarized. There was very, very good praise and there was also a kind of a dismissal of the film like it was a waste. That’s the way the theatrical criticism was going. Suppose, there hadn’t been any COVID and lots of people had watched the film theatrically, God knows where the criticism would have gone and what the audience would have become. Today, we are saying that people are watching it. But we all know that we are living in our own echo chambers, which are constructed of our digital universe and our virtual universe. We don’t know the audience of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. We don’t know whether Pinky is the audience of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. We don’t know how much of the Hindi speaking audience, which the film is made in, will Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar percolate down to. I don’t know and I’ve given up.
There are two kinds of films: one kind of film tells the audience everything is okay, here is the popcorn, very good film, and the other kind of film while remaining entertaining has this ki ye galat hai, ye dekho, this is who we are. Uske andar you have all emotions. I fall, by chance, in the second category. My films are to some extent not pretending to be films. When you watch my films, the only thing that I can say is common between them is ki unko dekhe thoda uneasy feel hota hai ki arre yaar ye toh mere saath bhi ho chuka hai, ye main hoon kya. Those films, I have a feeling, in a society which is hugely trying to forget its problems, have a lesser audience. So, looking at the stage that we are going through right now, I think films like these are more likely to be suppressed. If you are planning to make films like these, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. Tumhari bajegi. Chahe yahan se baje, chahe criticism se baje, chahe star-system se baje. Aur usme koi galat nahi ho raha hai. Aap ko genuinely kaha jayega ki aap ki koi audience nahi hai, aap boring ho, aap arty ho.
Aisa bhi hoga ki the state will find your voice unpalatable. If an insecure society faces films which are looking at its own insecurities, then it tries to reject them. I’m not making an excuse. Aaj agar Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar theatres mein normally release hoti, toh jitne crore bante, utne crore pe hamari boli haaki jaati. Ab theatre ke liye release nahi hui. Bohot se log kahe ki tum toh bach gaye yaar. Tum ko prashansa mil gayi, ye ho gaya – woh ho gaya, internet pe sab ne dekh li, tum ne apna chat kar liya, sab ho gaya, very good. Woh audience hai, echo chamber mein, angrezi mein apni peeth thap-thapa li aur sab thik ho gaye. Waise bhi sab filmmakers hai, wannabe filmmakers, darshak toh koi hai nahi in mein se.
So, if you’re asking about the audience, you must realise where you are situated in society and what we are seeing, what we are consuming and what we are trying to ignore or shove under the carpet. Then my life or Varun’s life will become apparent to you. We don’t know anything. We are just doing what we are doing and trying to make films that cost very little.
Smriti Kiran: Do you feel that the OTT release was a better release for Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar if this was the first window and a longer window, because usually films would have a longer theatrical window and then come to an OTT?
Dibakar Banerjee: I feel that a release is only when people see it. Arjun himself told me that it looked like a release only after the Amazon release because people had seen it. Otherwise, who would have gone to watch it? Some of my own relatives didn’t go when I told them to go and see it. So, this is something which is an outlier. Take COVID away and imagine Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar releasing in some 200, 300, 400 theatres. Now you tell me what would have happened, you as an industry expert. Do you think the Pinkys would have watched it? Somebody who was shooting with Parineeti mentioned a very big number. I’m waiting for some expert, who’s watched theatrical trends, to tell us how much money Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar would have made. We all knew that this was a small film and though it had some Bollywood stars, it was a completely different kind of a treatment, and probably it would stay a niche product. I have been told and almost brainwashed into believing that I’m niche, and I won’t have, no matter how much I try and unless I don’t change the kind of films I’m making, a very big audience. I’m living with that. So, that’s where the question of the audience comes in. What are you doing? What are you telling? Who are you telling it to and who is listening to you? That’s what I’m trying to say.
Smriti Kiran: Without naming names, do you feel that bigger names, bigger stars that have a draw at the box office, would be open to surrendering to your vision?
Dibakar Banerjee: I’ve always been very cautious and conscious of the fact that if I take on an actor who believes more in the star system than in the story system, then there will be a clash. Therefore, what happens is that before you start a film, you have countless conversations with the actor. It was a conversation with Parineeti and Arjun that convinced me that we should go. Adi (Aditya Chopra) had left the choice to me. I could have cast anybody. Those conversations prove to you that this person’s willing to walk away from the star system. The star and the audience have a relationship which is above the story and which is away from the story. The story trudges on at one level, while the star and the audience speak directly. When that happens, then the story has to formulate that, and I can’t do it. That’s not my strong suit. When I spoke to them, it was very clear from the conversation that we are jumping into the unknown and we are happy jumping into the unknown. We know what we are doing. We know the risks we are taking, and it’s okay. Once you have that clarity amongst adults, then it becomes easier. And I would rather always go for that. Then, as I said, make the cheapest film possible, so that you also protect the producer’s money.
Smriti Kiran: Dibakar, most of the people that I have met have said that you’re their favourite filmmaker. Who’s on your list?
Dibakar Banerjee: Too many! Akshay Kumar said this once, ‘Idhar likhi hoti (pointing towards his forehead) kaunsi film tum banaoge kiske saath.’ (It’s written in your destiny, who you will work with.) I completely believe in that right now. What is on my list right now are actors like Sukant Goel, Jaideep Ahlawat, Rahul Kumar, Archana Patel. These are the nameless actors, to begin with. Jaideep, thank God, today is a name!
Can you imagine Jaideep of Lust Stories, Jaideep of Paatal Lok, and Jaideep of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar? Can you imagine Sukant Goel of Ghost Stories and Sukant Goel of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar? Half the people didn’t know that it was the same guy. When I said that it was the same guy, they were like, ‘Oh! Acha!’ This is the kind of world-class caliber that we have. I think that’s the true part of brand India that we can unleash. These are the people who can do Indian cinema proud. My personal wish is to combine them with Arjun and Parineeti and other such names, so that we achieve what Adi said, ‘Why are we coming together? Can we try and see if we can change the popular taste a bit?’ Very ambitious. I think that the tweaking and the pushing of the popular taste, when you see Arjun and Jaideep going head to head and you enjoy it, is my listed ambition. That would be the combination that probably would make Bollywood films a little unpredictably fun.
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