Film writing is more of a craft than art – Mayur Puri
Screenwriter, lyricist, filmmaker, storyteller, Mayur Puri is a man of many talents. From penning the stories of blockbuster films like Om Shanti Om, ABCD – Any Body Can Dance, and the soon-to-release Happy New Year to writing lyrics of chartbuster numbers like Be Intehaan (Race 2), Saree Ke Fall Sa (R…Rajkumar), Tu Hi Tu (Kick), Johnny Johnny (Entertainment) and several others, Mayur has carved a niche for himself. He speaks to Pandolin about his writing journey, various projects and the changes he would like to see in the Hindi film industry.
From theatre and regional television to a screenwriter and lyricist. Tell us about your first Bollywood project. Have you had any formal training in writing?
I was fortunate to be born in a family where books were respected and it made me a voracious reader since childhood. I came from an ordinary school but moved to a convent in high school and the only thing I had in my armour was language. Language became my weapon to fit in and I started participating in various extra curricular activities. When I went to college I did a short-term course in theatre and learnt basic theatre direction from a renowned Gujarati play director called Suresh Rajda. That was my first exposure to the craft of direction. I then started working in Gujarati plays and would do everything there – composing, lighting, ghost direction. When I was doing my graduation in literature, my professor, Shrikant Bilgi, persuaded me to formally join the drama department. Though I wasn’t sure about studying dramatics, I did a diploma and even topped the university in the first year. But then I stopped. For someone like me, who is in a hurry to live life, it is difficult to have formal training, as it is too slow. I wasn’t a rebel but was this curious boy who would ask too many questions, find faults with the syllabus, the education system etc. I’m the perfect person to have written F.A.L.T.U.
Post theatre, Television was a natural progression. I wrote a show for Doordarshan in Ahmedabad and my acceptance as a screenwriter happened very fast as I was writing well. Before me there was a lack of urbanity in the work of other writers, who were still writing in an old-fashioned style, there. And, I brought in a sense of youth, freshness and urbanity that immediately made me successful. Having achieved everything a person could in Ahmedabad at that time, I finally moved to Mumbai in ’99. I came with the sole intention of becoming a director and the easiest way was to assist someone. I was lucky enough to meet Sanjay Gadhvi and got the opportunity to assist him. While working on our first film, Tere Liye, he realized my aptitude for scripting and offered me his second film, YRF’s Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai. So I became his writer by default. Lyrics too happened by chance. Pritam was a friend and I had been writing dummy lyrics for him since ’99. Though, I never took it seriously, he always wanted me to write lyrics for him. When I quit YRF in 2004 and became an independent writer, he said that we should work together which will also give us a chance to hang out together. So, in a way I started writing songs just to hang out with Pritam.
Be it lyrics or dialogues, where do you seek inspiration for your writing?
Film writing is more of a craft than art. The biggest inspiration for us is the situation. If I’m writing a song, it is not just a flight of fancy, a certain functionality is expected out of a film song. I have to be inspired at core level from the situation itself. If I am writing a love song, for example – ‘Teri Ore’ where Akshay Kumar is singing for Katrina, it is not my feelings or Akshay’s feelings but that character’s feelings in that particular situation. Originally ‘Teri Ore’ was not supposed to have a male voice but Akshay wanted to lip-synch the song so I had to write lines for him too. My thought was, how can Akshay who plays a don, is a jat from a village, sing a romantic song. But I took inspiration from his character and wrote a line like – ‘Ek heer thi aur tha ek ranjha kehte hai mere gaon mein’, which was probably the only love story that his character would know. So it’s a function of the situation and mostly the character’s thoughts. But like every actor brings his sensibilities into the character that he is playing, even a writer brings a certain sensibility and a certain part of his soul into all that he writes.
It is the same for dialogues as well. Dialogues need to be written according to the situation and how the character is likely to behave at that given time.
Quirky and ‘hatke’ lyrics have become the norm of the day. What are your views on this recent trend?
I don’t whole-heartedly agree that this is a recent trend. Earlier also there were songs with quirky lyrics, ‘Sar jo tera chakraye’, ‘Eena meena deeka’, ‘Muthu kodi kawadi hada’ and so on. It’s human tendency to be nostalgic about things. We either live in the past or dream about the future. The older generation always says that songs during their times were better while today’s songs are senseless. But the fact is that the language has changed. So earlier you had a romantic song like ‘Chudi nahi ye mera dil hai, dekho toote na’, but in today’s times it won’t work. Today one may sing, ‘Saree ke fall sa kabhi match kiya re’ which is more in tune with today’s lingo. The language is a function of the age it is being written in. There have always been good and bad songs. We always reminisce that we don’t have a Kishore Kumar or Mohammad Rafi anymore. But 100 years later, people will say we don’t have a Sonu Nigam or a KK.
While writing dialogues, is it a conscious decision to have that one punch line that stays with the audience even after the film is over. Does it add to the pressure of writing?
Yes, it’s true that there is constant pressure and ever-increasing demand to tantalize. But I don’t want to blame filmmakers for that. If anybody has to be blamed it is the audience. You should choose wiser films rather than making films with bad dialogues and senseless stories earn 100 crores. Why not make a film like Lunchbox a mainstream hit? Every society deserves the entertainment it gets.
Could you take us through your writing process for dialogues and screenplay? Is it the same for lyrics as well?
There is no fixed formula and the process differs from project to project. The first thing that comes is an ‘intention’. A lot of people write a one-pager where they need a funny first half, an emotional second half and so on. They call it a story but in reality it is just their intention. The basic requirement of a story, if you see the standard definition, is any narrative with a definite beginning, middle and end.
Then starts the execution where you start developing every sentence and you try to milk it and make four sentences out of that. So for example, if it says that the hero is a cop then you develop it further. What kind of a cop is he? Honest or Dishonest? And taking cues from the intention behind the story you develop a character and give him action. Slowly you arrive at a phase called the ‘screenplay’ where you have a scene flow – how the narrative will unfold on screen. In Hollywood, it is called a step-outline, which is a chronological list of all scenes from the first to the last. To this screenplay, we add dialogue. Hollywood doesn’t have a separate dialogue-writer’s credit as the screenplay is inclusive of dialogues. In Bollywood however, dialogue writing is a separate craft because of the great poets and writers from early movies who have evolved this craft. From Wajahat Mirza to Salim-Javed to Kader Khan, everyone has contributed to evolve dialogue writing into an independent craft. There has been a special breed of writers who can write dialogues that enhance and embellish your scene. They see the screenplay and then write each scene in detail – where the character will walk, what will he do, what he will speak. And he is the one who gives the final shape to the first draft of the script. In Hollywood the screenplay is the shooting script but here the shooting script is the script with dialogues. So, the script is developed through these three stages – story, screenplay and dialogues. Post that there are several drafts and revisions till the film is made.
When it comes to lyrics, most of the times the filmmakers will sit with the composer and brief them on the situation. The screenplay writer would have already said which song (club song, wedding song, friendship track etc.) could come where as per the scenes. The composer then makes the tune and the director approves it. Post that they call the lyricist to write on the tune. Basically we are matching the words to the composer’s tune. Rarely does it happen that I have written something and someone has composed on that. Sometimes you sit together and ‘jam’. In that, the lyricist and the composer both have been briefed and they wrack their brains to come up with a song. For instance, while working on ‘Bezubaan’ from ABCD, Sachin-Jigar were clueless about the tune and the words. We just sat in the studio for hours doing nothing. Then, I started writing a few lines and they composed a tune for it. Then they changed the composition and I rewrote the lyrics and so on. Finally, we had a song. Like I said it’s a different process every time but most of the times a lyricist gets the tune and he has to write on that.
You have written the lyrics for Entertainment. Could you tell us about the songs you have written and what was the brief that you were given?
I’ve written ‘Johnny Johnny’ and ‘Veerey Di Wedding’. For ‘Johnny Johnny’ the brief was that there is a song where the actors are going to have a party and have a fun time. For me Entertainment is a very child–friendly film and kids will love it. But this song was going to be in a completely different direction as it was for an adult audience who are drinking and partying. While the producers and the director-duo wanted a song for alcohol, I thought that if we do a typical party song, that would take away from the innocence of the film. Then we stumbled upon the idea of using Johnny Johnny. The song has cuteness and an innocent vibe to it with lines like ‘Sunta nahi baap ki, adatein kharab ki’.
Veerey Di Wedding, on the other hand was a total group effort. I wrote ‘Twitter pe hai trending’ and Sachin-Jigar gave ‘Long-time se pending’. That was fun.
Your next project is the highly awaited Happy New Year. Tell us more about your association with the film and your collaboration with Farah Khan after Om Shanti Om?
At this point I can’t say much about the film except for two things. Firstly, it is always fantastic to work with Farah and Shahrukh Khan. Shah Sir is one of the most dignified and graceful people to work with. We talk about a number of things from global warming to parenting to movie trivia. So, it’s a lot of fun just hanging out with him. Secondly, Farah is a genius in her own right; no one can come up with quirky story ideas like her. She is really gifted and when it comes to writing, I feel Farah is like my writing soul mate. I know exactly what she wants and if she gives me a brief, 9 out of 10 times she likes what I do with it. As a person, Farah is extremely easy to work with.
As a production house no one can match Red Chillies. I get immense respect and satisfaction working with the Red Chillies team. They have kept me totally involved in the progress of the film from pre-production to marketing and publicity. It is very heartening and gracious of the production house, director and a star as big as SRK to involve the writer in all stages of the film. I wish that every writer in India gets such an opportunity and this luxury.
Have you ever faced a Writer’s block? If yes, how did you overcome it?
To be very honest with you, I didn’t even know that there is something called a Writer’s block, till a few years back. I would always think that it was a lazy writer’s excuse. I mean, how can you not write if you were a writer? It should be like a normal everyday function. You are a writer, sit down and write. What’s the big deal?
But after I achieved a little bit of success, I suddenly became conscious of the quality of my writing and the message my writing was going to send out. And even though, on-screen, it is not me but the character saying it, I wanted to keep my words controlled. I wanted to avoid stooping down to toilet humor or humor that makes fun of gender, races, disabilities etc. That would be irresponsible writing. I don’t have writers’ block as such, but the more success you find the more self-critical you become. So it takes me longer to write now. Earlier, I would show my first draft to anyone, but now I wouldn’t even read out one page to anyone, till I have done three drafts of it. Case in point being Farah’s films. I wrote Om Shanti Om in about 2 months. But for Happy New Year I took almost a year to write.
For songs, I do get stuck sometimes, when I have written something similar already. In that case, I go for a walk, do some exercise or something physical and try to take my mind off work. And invariably, when you are not thinking about it, inspiration strikes!
Any great learning experience with a director/ music composer that has been unforgettable for you?
It is impossible to pick just one. I was in Yash Raj Films for around five years. We made Dhoom where I was the associate director and Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai where I was the writer and chief assistant director. I had the pleasure of interacting with Yashji and Aditya Chopra on a daily basis. It was the best film-school-cum-job ever. From Sanjay Gadhvi to Farah Khan, I have written for completely different kind of directors and have learned from all.
Working with Pritam has taught me a lot about understanding the value of how a word sounds, not just what it means. I did two songs with A R Rahman and realized how one can remain calm in chaos. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people and it is difficult to narrow it down. Everyday is a learning experience in this industry.
What would you say is a trend that the industry is currently witnessing in terms of lyrics and dialogues?
I’d written a scene in ABCD where the negative guy says we must dance to impress the people and in the intercut Prabhu Deva says that we must dance to express, not impress. And I think that holds true for all arts. Sometimes I feel that today there is an increasing desperation to impress people. There are songs that don’t mean anything and scripts that have no logic. I’m not passing judgment but I feel that increasingly the audiences are asking us to make dumb stuff like that and as filmmakers, we are giving in to their demand. We have become desperate to please the audience but somewhere we are losing out on our expression, which ironically is the first reason for a creative person to work.
What are the changes that you would like to bring in the industry?
I want to challenge the way lyricists have been working. I’m trying to tell everyone to involve the lyric writer from the scripting stage. My logic is that even a lyricist is trying to tell a story through the song. The music label will go by past records, for instance if the previous film had a hit club song, even this film should have one. But does it go with the narrative, is the big question. I believe that we should get an opportunity to contribute to which kind of song works and where it should be placed. But again this isn’t something new, I’m not starting a revolution, this is how people used to work earlier. Imagine a situation where the hero is being stoned by the people and the heroine sings ‘Koi patthar se na maare mere deewane ko’. No filmmaker of today would have expected a song there. But the song fits the situation beautifully. If a lyric writer is there, he can say that in the Laila Majnu story that scene is very important and I can write something on it. You will get better songs if lyricists have a say. We don’t want to change the story but want to have a say in where the songs should come in the film. That will really bring back the glory of olden times.
Words of wisdom for aspiring writers & lyricists.
Write as much as you can. Show it to people and take feedback and don’t be afraid of rejection. You will face rejection everyday but it is not rejection of you as a person but the idea or the writing that is not working on that particular day for that particular person. You need to take criticism positively. If there is something that you have written and 10 people are not liking, then there is a problem with your writing and you need to reassess. Learn to self assess and be realistic about your place in life.
The biggest problem I have with budding writers is that everybody calls themselves a writer but none of them write. They are plain lazy. If you give them one scene they cannot write another option for it. When I had started writing, I’d give five options for one scene. For Om Shanti Om I wrote the second half twice. I wrote one version based on the screenplay and one, which was my own version. We then picked the best scenes from both the versions and incorporated in the final script. So, basically writing is rewriting.[box_info]
Screenwriting in a nutshell
Story – Basic intention and a small one or two pager with a definite beginning middle and end
Screenplay – Detailed narrative of how each scene will unfold on screen, scene after scene in correct progression. You have to know where the song, the flashback, everything will come exactly.
Dialogues – We add dialogues to the screenplay and write the scenes properly to give full impact. Minor details are all written in the dialogue script, it is the dialogue writer’s job in India.
Tips to avoid writers block
Go for a walk, jog. Do a physical activity, sweat a little.
Make a distraction; don’t think about what you have to write.
Go out and meet people. Sitting alone in a room will not necessarily help
If you stop pressurizing your brain, writing will automatically happen.