Akshat Verma
Akshat Verma – ( Photo courtesy – Rakhee Yadav )
Pandolin chats with the candid and eccentric writer behind one of the most hilarious movies in Bollywood. In Conversation with Akshat Verma – the man or should we say the hand behind Delhi Belly.

Do you write for yourself? 

I believe that you can write only for yourself if you are being true and honest towards your work. You can never really predict what would work with an audience, so I don’t see the point in writing something to please them. You can always write keeping a small set of people in mind. When you sit with a blank paper and pen in your hand, you write in a manner that interests you. For instance, when you like a movie, you develop a sense of taste. And once that taste is developed, you want to recreate something similar to it. When we say, ‘we are influenced by filmmakers and writers,’ we mean these are the people who have formed our taste. Therefore you should develop a good taste because eventually you create what you like. So if you like the bad stuff then that is where you are heading. To answer your question, I definitely write for myself but I write from a world of influence. When I am actually putting words down on a page, it is for me and what I think is right because that is the only time, at least in film making, when you can let your imagination run wild. Once you are out of the page, the compromises begin.

How did your interest in writing originate? 

I think most writers are first readers. You read a lot and that forms your worldview. You meet amazing characters. You spend more time with these characters and you live in an imaginary world. If you read enough there will be a moment in your life when you say, ‘Oh, I can do this’ or ‘this is bullshit, I am better.’ It was the same with me.  I figured I have a love for language. Besides that, I am inclined towards the visual media and I love photography and music. And if you notice, a film is the only place where everything sort of comes together. So if you have no focus in life, you should make films.

 What inspires you? 

You are always inspired by ideas and everything else is just a medium to express the idea. It doesn’t matter if you paint or are into photography or if you write or do poetry. At the end of the day it is an idea that you want to express in a certain way. At some point in my education I started working in advertising, which in many ways is based on ideas. In advertising you write something and quickly execute it. Thinking of ideas fires me up.

My inspirations would basically include a lot of photographers like Helmet Newton, David Bailey, and Aaraki who is simply a genius. Rody Doyle is awfully amazing and then Edward Estlin Cumming. When you enjoy their work you want to do something on the same lines and it becomes a challenge.  Saul Bass is a graphic designer who created the Godfather poster. If you look at him as an artist, he has taken the visual medium and expressed something in such an amazing way. Besides artists, I have been influenced by music. Chris Doughty, the lead singer of the band Soul Coughing is again remarkable with his work. If you look at these people they take emotions and life and express it in a manner that makes one look at things in a new way.

How would you describe your style of writing? 

Honestly speaking, I am still unaware about my style of writing. I am finding out what my concerns are. I have realized watching Raju Hirani’s work that he tends to deal with people who are kept away from what they really want; education and family are his concerns. His movies depict characters who are pushed by society and parental pressure and who try to fight through. The Munnabhai series revolved around that subject and so did 3 Idiots. I still don’t know about my concerns and I will find out as I move along. Hopefully I will find characters that are intriguing and I would just hold on to their shirttails and move forward. Therefore writing can sometimes be difficult because if you are writing about a violent character it can pull you and affect you. When actors talk about getting into character, most people don’t realize that before the actor, the writer has to be in the shoes of the character. People tend to write on the surface but if you do it right, you are pulled in and sucked into a different world. And the entire process is overwhelming. What we do is unreal. Film is fake reality. But we are trying to magnify the same reality and that affects the viewers. Why do you think people cry when an actor dies? Do they not know that it is fake? So in a way you are trying to reach out and grab people’s emotions.

‘Writing is grueling’ 

It’s true. Anyone who says that they love writing is lying because it’s too painful. My professor, Richard Walter used to say, ‘The only person for whom writing is difficult is a writer,’ because when you slap stuff together it is okay but when you do it right, you realize what it takes and how much you are pulled into it. I am sure there are people who say they enjoy writing and that it is fun but honestly speaking it’s painful for me. I believe that if it comes too easily you are doing something wrong. For me personally, writing is difficult. There are good days and bad days but at the same time, I wouldn’t deny that I take joy in these words and imagination. I take joy in imagining characters that say something that surprise me and I hope, will surprise other people.  So having said that it is difficult, there is nothing else that I would do. I see myself as a writer first. I plan to direct soon but I see myself as a writer-director first. The difference is the glory, which comes with the fact that you are the one who faces the blank page first. It is like being a pathfinder. When you are climbing Mt. Everest, many of us would literally walk up the mountain. The pathfinder is the one who has nothing but the mountain to conquer. He is the guy who is truly doing his job and the rest follow. So maybe I am a masochist. As a writer I take pride in the fact that what you see and what you hear came out of my head. Every character, every line, every scene has been created by me. When I am dead and gone, at least there will be something left behind. I don’t want to be someone who took something someone gave me. There are things that I want to say and there is a certain way in which I look at the world and I want to say it my way and so I will always be a writer first and not a director who takes someone’s script and then executes it. That is the difference between Fincher and Tarantino. Tarantino will write his stuff and execute it and Fincher will get scripts and then execute it and he is still one of the best directors today. So it doesn’t matter if you do it either way. What matters is what fires you up or what motivates you.

 Other Indian writers? 

There is an interesting thing called ‘voting with your wallet.’ Go out and support things you want to see and don’t give your money to what you don’t want to see. I believe that all kinds of stuff deserve to exist. I am not going to say whether a particular film should have been made or not because tomorrow someone might just say that to me. The thing with creative expression is that you may do what you want and then leave it for people to decide. And if that takes you away from what you should make then you are being dishonest. I do get exasperated with a lot of films that I see and it is a mystery to me how they work. The thing is unless we show people what else is possible, they will not know.  It’s like we have lived with ambassadors and fiats for decades. We are a stoic nation and we take our punishment and keep going with it. When they say that the audience will never know, they are wrong. The audience is always ten steps ahead of us. When people say that the audience will never realize, it is their own laziness; that is their own bullshit.

How I feel about other writers? I don’t really care. I do have an opinion. I sit down and I look at stuff and I can see how things cannot work but that is not what interests me. What I am interested in is Indian stories told with a level of skill and passion and intelligence that you see in global filmmaking. Honestly, if the Romanians, Persians and Koreans can make a good movie, then why can’t we? We are the largest industry in the world. So when I say vote with your wallet, I want you to go and support movies that you like no matter how small it is and download the movies you don’t like. We need to be aware of which standards we need to hold onto. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are great genre stories. They are pulp fiction; there is blood and gore and killing. They are just amazingly told stories. We do have a tradition.

What mistakes do young writers make? 

I don’t think the business is something that you can worry about. If you take care of writing, everything else will take care of itself. I would suggest the young writers to read a lot and also to keep writing. Often, people say that they want to be writers but they don’t know how. The answer is quite simple. You just have to keep writing. Problems arise when we start thinking of ourselves as artists. We raise art and put it on a pedestal but craft is not like that. Craft is working with your hands and making things anew. So if you think of our artistic work as craft, it demystifies things a little. It is like if you put the camera here or if you write things in a certain way, it will imply something else. Things like these are learnable. Unlike what people believe, it is not a mystery. When a carpenter gets up in the morning to make a chair, he plays the role of an artist as well as a craftsman. He gets up daily to do the same thing. So as creative people, we need to do the same. In the beginning most of the writers spend time in research. What they don’t realize is that no matter what you do, your first draft will always be shit. You don’t know what it is that you want to say. It is like learning to ride a bicycle. You are going to fall off. Nobody sat on a bicycle and took off. So the sooner the writer gets the crap out of the way, the better it is. So write the first draft, finish it and put it in a drawer and never look at it again. Keep on writing until it all begins to come together.

How does the Industry treat writers? 

In our industry, I have seen that a producer will never hesitate to drop a crore on an item song. That same producer will not pay the writer enough. This kind of attitude can be seen throughout the world. Writers still have to fight for their rights because they are not treated well but in comparison with other countries, it is much more prevalent in Indian cinema. Our industry is not driven by stories. We have a system that is completely star driven. Once you put the entire package together it is almost like it doesn’t matter what the story is and a lot of our movies prove that. It’s frightening to know about our condition and hopefully it will change. There are writers who are coming in who write stuff that is interesting and successful. Even a small film like Pyaar ka Panchnama made a dent because of its writing. If you look at small budget movies, they have nothing but the story and if the story is interesting, they pull in new actors and it still works. People don’t realize that stories make stars and not the other way round. Every actor for where he is was in a memorable scene in a memorable movie. That is what we remember actors for. They did something amazing in a scene that we can’t forget and if you have a movie with scenes like that, the movie becomes memorable. So it’s quite simple; write memorable scenes for a movie to be remembered and if you want to be a star be in those memorable scenes.

What is the best advice that you have received from someone? 

It’s not so much advice, but every time when I did not have people who believed in me, I always found someone who did have some belief and that restores confidence in you.

It’s like, just as you were about to give up, there is a little ray of hope. Also, I was fortunate enough to have amazing teachers at the right time. For me, it was a big thing to go to the United States and study in UCLA. The program in which I had enrolled myself held writing in a high regard and so many of my classmates were so driven to get the scenes right and get the right words on the paper. I had professors who were great writers and who taught well and who actually cared about what their students wrote. Stories are built brick by brick. It is like putting up a house and as you break it down, you understand what went into it. It is a learnable process. That is why I keep saying that the craft is far more important than the art. If you get the craft right, you will eventually create art.

I haven’t received any advice that I can pass to other hopeful writers but I was encouraged a lot. Also, it is always good to take rejection. The more people reject me, the stronger I feel because then I have to prove another person wrong. So the best thing that has ever happened to me was that I got rejected by FTII, an esteemed institution for higher education in India. I am really grateful to them. Rejection will help you to understand whether you are serious about writing or not. Some people give up after facing rejection. So the question is, whatever it is that you are doing, are you doing it because you want to do it or do you need someone to tell you that you are good enough to do it? And if you don’t get the approval would you give up? Or do you say “Screw you, I don’t need you. I will do this regardless of what you say”. If you were serious about your work, nothing else would matter. You wouldn’t require anyone’s approval. You have to find motivation from work itself.

Best Indian screenplay? 

It wouldn’t be fair if I would just name one script. In the last decade, our industry has churned out many great screenplays. I really love Dibakar’s work. I would include Khosla ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. Also, Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday was good. I would also put Abhijit Joshi and Raju Hiran’s Munnabhaiand 3 Idiots.

If you consider older works, the screenplay of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was genius. Also, everything that Hrishikesh Mukherjee has ever written.

Adaptation v/s Original? 

It is an entirely different beast to tackle. The challenge is always to start from a blank page. In the case of adapting something that has already been done, there is someone out there who has already gone through the trouble of conquering the blank page. So in essence, it is easier. What makes adapting a novel different is that novels don’t have to be visual even though they create pictures in your head. The challenge here is, how do you transfer that to screen? How do you put it out there so that it becomes appealing to the audiences? It is not just someone talking. Also, novels are huge and one of the biggest challenges is to compress it in such a way that it remains true to the story. Sometimes it also becomes difficult to connect to a voice that someone else has created.

What do you do when an idea strikes? 

You instantly write it down. I have a small notebook and a pen with me most of the times and if I don’t, I will scribble it down on my hands. I have a piece of paper next to my bed because sometimes you might think that the ideas will be there in your head in the morning but in most cases, the idea seems to flow away in the night. So as soon as an idea strikes you, write it down. Sometimes our subconscious does a lot of work and it will surprise you how you will be able to use those thoughts. Ideas are the currency of what we do. It is like dollars and pounds for us. So keep a notepad with you all the time and write down the ideas. Don’t let them go so easily.

Unions in India?

I am not very familiar to how our unions are set up. We should be more enlightened. In Hollywood, the writer’s guild gave away full copyright to the writers. If you notice, that is the problem everywhere. The studio comes in and takes away the copyrights. Now a novelist always has a copyright to his works and the same holds true for playwrights. You cannot change the words; you cannot do anything without the permission of the author. And that is why writers get fired every time because once the studio buys your work, you don’t own the copyright anymore.

So I hope that we don’t make the same mistake and that the writers get the fruits of their creation. Writers should be correctly compensated. If rewards don’t trickle down in this industry, then where are we going to go? Young writers who make a choice to earn a living out of writing would be discourages. It would be very difficult for them to earn a living and if our industry plans not to do it, then you won’t get the best people to do it. These people writing the scripts are unique who have fun chasing stories that are different. Therefore a lot has to change in the way things work.

American Cinematographer

Akshat Verma


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New Delhi,

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