Dialogue writing documents the way people speak in an era for posterity: Ishita
‘Arre o Saambhaa… kitne aadmi the?’, ‘Ek chutki sindhoor ki kimmat tum kya jaano Ramesh babu?’, ‘Rishte mein toh hum tumhare baap lagte hai, naam hai Shahensha’.. Bollywood wordsmiths have bestowed Hindi cinema with some memorable dialogues that have been etched in the minds of cinephiles. Dialogues play a crucial role in a film and have the power to either make or break a film.
To know more about this art of dialogue writing, we speak to Ishita Moitra who has written for television and an array of films, the most recent ones being Half Girlfriend, Noor and Bank Chor. She has also wielded the pen for web series like ALT Balaji’s Romil And Jugal and Nagesh Kukunoor’s The Test Case. One of the few female dialogue writers in the industry, she has proven her writing prowess in a short span of time. An ardent Bollywood lover, Ishita Moitra talks to us about how dialogue writing was a conscious decision, difficulties of working on a film adapted from a book, her thrill for the digital medium and more.
How did you choose writing as a profession? Have you formally trained to master the art?
I think it was the other way around. Writing chose me. Even as a kid, instead of playing “ghar –ghar”, I used to device these elaborate plays masquerading as games involving princesses, secret islands, space ships and what not! And then I’d give all my cousins parts to play. I also always wrote for school magazines and essay competitions and the works, so studying journalism from Delhi University for my graduation was a very natural choice.
However, the big epiphany for me was that it wasn’t non-fiction or even journalistic writing in English that I was most inclined towards. I realized I have a deep bond with Hindi cinema and that actually, all I ever wanted to do is write mainstream Hindi films. So, I then enrolled at Jamia University for my Masters in Mass Communication and my journey began from there.
What interests you the most about dialogue writing?
I have always been very fascinated with languages. Dialogue writing in a way documents the way people speak in an era for posterity. For instance, I was recently re-watching Guru Dutt’s Mr and Mrs 55 and it was fascinating to hear how English was used in Hindi dialogues back then vis-à-vis how it is now.
Watching your name go up on the big screen in a dark theatre full of people is a joy unlike another
The dialogues of a film have to be in sync with where the film is set, the era the film belongs to, the local lingo and slang so that they flow naturally in the script and don’t sound forced. How do you research for your characters’ dialogues?
If it’s a language that I am unfamiliar with then I set out to meet someone who speaks it. For instance, for Half Girlfriend, I met my friend Vikas Chandra who is originally from Patna and has also studied in Delhi University like the character Madhav Jha. He enlightened me a lot about the nuances and verbal quirks that one could add to a character such as this.
You have written dialogues for varying genres like Bank Chor (comedy), Half Girlfriend (drama/romance), Ragini MMS 2 (thriller). How different is it writing comedy vs romance vs thrillers?
For comedy, timing is everything. Exchanges have to be written like a Table Tennis match, there has to be a play to them. For drama and romance, one line can say a lot. There is a need for silences. What is unsaid is where the romance lies. For thrillers, dialogue is mostly terse and communicative. Nobody, if they were in a situation with a ghost, would actually have the time to speak in long-winded sentences!
Comedy forms a large part of your filmography, how naturally does humor come to you? Also, do you keep in mind the actor and his comic timing while penning dialogues?
Mere Dad ki Maruti was the film that got me noticed as a dialogue writer. And that was a comedy. So as a result, a lot of comedy work was and continues to be offered to me, for which I am very grateful. I think my humor writing is more observational and again has to do with the fact that I love hearing people talk and then documenting that as dialogue.
Regarding the actor and his comic timing, that is mostly at the second stage. Once the actors start reading their parts then we go about improvising the lines to suit the actor.
I realized I have a deep bond with Hindi cinema and that actually, all I ever wanted to do is write mainstream Hindi films
As a dialogue writer, you lend voice to a character in a film, your art is highly reliable on how well an actor delivers a particular dialogue. How involved are you in the character building process?
Fortunately for me, I have always had wonderful actors who take the lines to a different zone all together. For instance, I absolutely loved the way Sonakshi said her lines in Noor. It was exactly how I had imagined it in my head and perhaps a bit more.
And how does one leave scope of improvisation for the actor?
There are multiple readings with actors where most of the improvisations are assimilated into the script. Once a shooting draft is ready mostly every one sticks to the plan. Maybe, a few minor changes here and there, depending on the take, but most of it remains the same.
Recently you’ve worked on two book to movie adaptations, Half Girlfriend and Noor, how does a book influence your process of writing?
Books already have their loyal fan base. So it’s a tough, tight ropewalk. On the one hand you want the original story lovers to have an enhanced experience while watching the film and on the other, film as a medium is about structure and time. We can’t have pages and pages of character development. Scenes have to be quick, they have to fulfill several purposes simultaneously – take the story forward, add humor or emotion and establish character.
My humor writing is more observational and has to do with the fact that I love hearing people talk and then documenting that as dialogue
You’ve largely focused on dialogue writing, is it a conscious decision or are these small steps towards a bigger picture?
It’s been a very conscious decision. Early on in my career, I realized that I had a nose for dialogue and fortunately for me, in India, dialogue writing is a specialization that can be pursued as a career option.
You have also written dialogues for ALT Balaji’s Romil And Jugal and Nagesh Kukunoor’s The Test Case. How is it writing for this new age, fast paced medium?
Writing the dialogues for these two shows has been an extremely rewarding experience because they break new ground in terms of storytelling. Romil and Jugal is a gay adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a show I am extremely proud to be associated with. The Test Case on the other hand tells the fictional story of the first girl to be part of an active combat in India. I come from an army background so for me to be able to write lines for a show like this has been a dream come true. Both these are stories that are best suited for this medium.
Short fiction that can be consumed on the go is a trend that the world is gravitating towards
Is there a particular medium you prefer writing for from TV, films and web?
I honestly enjoy all three. The joy of TV is that it’s instant. You get feedback daily on Twitter from viewers of the show. It’s almost like being on stage. You know exactly what is working or what is not holding. Films are special because they are like comets, you can wish upon – few and far in between. Watching your name go up on the big screen in a dark theatre full of people is a joy unlike another. As for the web, I think from House of Cards to Game of Thrones to Stranger Things to The Crown – all the content that has blown my mind over the past few years has actually been created for the web. This is the medium of the future and the best part about it is that it is heavily focused on story and story only.
You have started a production house Starry Eyed Films and Aamad, a short directed by Neeraj Udhwani was the first film under the banner. What led to the expansion into production from writing?
Neeraj and I first met during Mere Dad Ki Maruti. He wrote the story/screenplay and I wrote the dialogues. He has been one of my best co- writers, best friends and is now also my husband. We have often discussed that as writers we would like to own the material in a slightly larger way. I have no directorial ambitions as such, so for me producing becomes the logical step.
With Starry Eyed Films we hope to wrack our brains together and get some interesting, quirky yet thought – provoking content out. Again, short fiction that can be consumed on the go is a trend that the world is gravitating towards. For us, it’s like being a baby in a candy store. So many stories to tell, and now the system is also democratic, lateral and quick on the up take or upload, so to speak.
Web is the medium of the future and the best part about it is that it is heavily focused on story and story only
Which other films are you currently working on?
Currently, I am working on a very interesting show for Amazon that is being produced by Ishita and Rangita Nandy and directed by Anu Menon. I am also working on a film with YRF on a theme that I have never explored earlier.