Ritesh Shah’s filmography boasts of versatile films ranging from Kahaani (dialogues) and Commando  to CityLights (Adaptation) and more recently Te3n (dialogues). The screenplay and dialogue writer also shares a long standing bond with Director Nishikant Kamat. The duo have been working together for six years now, during which they have given us films like Force and the super hit Lai Bhaari.

Ahead of the release of their latest film together, the writer talks to Pandolin about crafting the screenplay for Madaari from what he calls an audacious idea and how comfortable it is to work with secure artists like Irrfan Khan.

Ritesh Shah

Ritesh Shah

What was your first reaction on hearing the story of Madaari? How did the project come to you?

I was part of the writing team of the film D DAY which had Irrfan (Khan) in it. We met on the sets. Once while talking, he mentioned that they had an idea which they wanted me to listen to. Now one doesn’t expect a very great, creative idea of a film from an actor. You always feel that they might have a very hero-centric story that they want to make, if somebody else isn’t making it with them. Though I’d said that I would go and listen to the story, I hoped that he would forget to call me or completely give up on the idea of roping me for it. But Irrfan remembered and called. That’s how I went to his house where Shailja (Kejriwal, writer) narrated this idea, which was really audacious. I was really happy that an actor had come up with this idea. And because it was so audacious, I agreed to be part of it.

I was really happy that an actor had come up with this idea

The story is written by Shailja Kejriwal. Can you please talk about the collaboration between a script writer and screenplay/ dialogue writer?

Conventionally a story is a 15 page description of the idea or say an idea written in 3 acts. Here, what they essentially had was a broad idea and the real event that the idea was inspired from. Sutapa (Sikdar, producer), Shailaja, and Irrfan contributed to the whole story and I directly started writing the screenplay. I would narrate 15-20 scenes to them and we would then mull over it. Most of the time it was in sync with their thought process, sometimes better and sometimes not-that-good, but we brainstormed on it regularly. Once Nishikant Kamat came into the picture, it was him and me who mostly worked on the script. Nishi liked how first half of the film had turned out and we reworked the second half. We were writing and rewriting even while shooting and editing the film.


What was Irrfan’s involvement in the screenplay, given that he’s also the producer?

Irrfan was not only involved as an actor and producer but also as a citizen. When you are working with secure people you don’t feel a sense of hierarchy. We were making this film like three Indians living in contemporary times and reacting to the things around, discussing it like citizens of a vibrant country with varied views. We couldn’t afford to make something inauthentic.

Irrfan has worked with Nishi earlier as well, and I have been working with him since he past six years now so there is a comfortable space that we enjoy. I have even done a Marathi film (Lai Bhaari) with Nishi, even though I don’t know much about the language. Nishi and me have many common things, in terms of our backgrounds and upbringing, so the collaboration becomes easier.

When you are working with secure people you don’t feel a sense of hierarchy

Do you collaborate with or keep the actor in mind while writing or consider how the dialogue will ‘look’ on him onscreen?

Sometimes it’s an advantage when you know who the actor is and you can collaborate (with him/her) but sometimes it’s not. The question isn’t about how will the actors say the dialogues but will they even understand it at all? But if you have Irrfan, you don’t have to think. You know he will bring the best out of the dialogues. His biggest contribution is that if he interrupts you, you don’t feel bad about it. Because you know that he knows and understands things.

It is advantageous if you know who the actor is. It isn’t that you surrender the character to the actor, but practicality is important. There is no point in putting efforts when you know that the person in front of you won’t understand the rhythm. If you don’t know (who the actor is), then you are free, imagining the most ideal situation.


Ritesh Shah (Third from Left) with the team of Madaari

Ritesh Shah (Third from Left) with the team of Madaari

How long did it take you to write the screenplay and dialogues for the film? Was any part particularity difficult?

It took me around 14 months, from the basic idea till we started shooting. Though I kept writing during the shoot and edit as well. Also it is one of the longest scripts that I have written and so it had to be made precise for the film’s length.

We got stuck with the climax. When you are exploring a unique idea, it is difficult to reach an unconventional end. Normally the ending of each film is always the same in Indian films. Everybody from the filmmaker to the paanwala knows this. But then we write stuff like this, which hasn’t been written since Krantiveer, that came in 1994, then things take difficult turns.

Irrfan would get really angry, as would Nishi and it’s because of this anger and frustration that we could write something novel. Their anger was novel. I took small lines from there and finally built a climax.

Normally the ending of each film is always the same in Indian films

What is the process that you follow to choose your projects and while working on a film?

For a long time, I didn’t have choice. I was available to write anything except something casteist, anti-women or pornographic. Otherwise I wrote everything and took up anything in terms of writing. But even if I got ‘anything’ I have always given it my 100% and treated it like my Godfather. Now with age and experience, I can tell people that even if they give me a fat cheque or threaten me on gunpoint,  I will not be able to write something worthless. With Madaari, the idea was crazy, they (makers) were crazy and that was the fun part of it.

The first time that I heard the idea, I was wondering,” How do I write this!” That was the exciting part about the project. So I took it up. Also, the time is such that the film holds relevance. We live in a very newsy time. It is very difficult to not be aware of happenings around you. If you don’t read the newspaper, you will get the news on your cell, or TV or even Facebook. Social Media will find you and tell you everything. Nowadays petitions come via email. When had that happened earlier?

It’s that awareness that we are tapping in this film. I don’t know how good or bad it is. It is not conventional, nor is it made by what one calls ‘conventional’ filmmakers. Instead I would say that the project is made between real people.


How do you make sure that the style and flavor of every script is distinct from each other?

For one it happens naturally, because of the genre. The genre inherently decides the pace, characters, region, gender, etc. And so the style and flavor changes in itself. There is no effort required. Also I try to write different genres one after the other. While writing, you are not only the lead character but all the characters surrounding that main protagonist. You play all these 4-5 characters present in the scene, so you imagine the characters and their characteristics differently. As an exercise you even go to the terrace and speak their dialogues, even if people looking from far find you stupid. But you have to do this; enact the scenes before the actors enact them, to see how the scene flows. Thus the characters or their lines don’t get repetitive.

Repetition is possible while working on several projects but you need to take note of it. Also be aware of the fact that the first 19-20 ideas that come to your mind, would have possibly been discovered by some other writer too. Thus you need to then think about the 21st idea. While writing Madaari, even the 21st (idea) didn’t work. Hence I had to derive the climax from the anger and frustration of the people around me.

You have also adapted the script of films like Rocky Handsome, CityLights. How difficult is it to write adaptations?

It’s the worst thing in terms of decision-making. You get tempted to work on it, but then it gets difficult. In case of CityLights, Hansal (Mehta, director) came with the entire concept and story, so ultimately what you see onscreen, good or bad, was his vision all along. The director of Korean film The Man from nowhere wrote the screenplay keeping the edit in mind. So while adapting it for Rocky Handsome I didn’t get much liberty. The difficulty that one faces is that the material to be adapted is attractive and you yearn to rewrite it in your way, but then the fear of adapting it according to the sensibilities of our society and our people surrounds you. It looks nice as an assignment but there isn’t much liberty (in adaptation), in fact there is much fear of how it will turn out as the expectations are higher.


You’ve mostly been associated with serious films. Any plans to venture into the light-hearted space?

My attempts at comedy weren’t much appreciated, I guess. But Namastey London was one light-hearted film which was well accepted. Political dramas are my favorites. I enjoy writing them. As for comedy, right now I don’t see a comedy coming my way.

There isn’t much liberty (in adaptation), in fact there is much fear of how it will turn out

There are screenwriters in the industry who will soon be debuting as directors. What are your future plans?

People look at direction as a promotion. You will get a better pay, more weightage, audience, respect, more visibility etc. But I don’t think ambition will guide my directorial work. It could be that I have written something but somebody isn’t able to work on it or understand it, then I could probably step in and direct it. When I feel that I have to make a film because nobody is making it, then I might. I am trained as a filmmaker but nine out of ten times, I will go with somebody else’s strength. I know that Nishi is a much better director than me. So I would use his strength. I do not live with complexes. I am comfortable with my writing and love writing. It makes me happy.