Find out what your screenplay lacks!
Anjum Rajabali is a name synonymous with some successful and powerful dramas like Ghulam, Pukar, The Legend Of Bhagat Singh, Raajneeti, Satyagrah and others. So, who better than the noted screenwriter to talk about the evolution of a Hindi film script and its future? In a candid conversation he tells us all that and more.
Since the last few years you have been extensively conducting screenwriting workshops and programs. What has steered this move?
I got interested in screenwriting in 1992, which was quite by accident. I came from a discipline where if you want to do something then you need to at least learn it. But when I went around to figure out how I would learn the craft; there was nobody to teach, no institution, no course, no workshop, even no books. So, one had to look at work that had been done earlier, to try and analyse it and understand how it is written. What I could have learnt in two years took me five-six years. I clearly remember it was a frustrating phase. So I felt that if I am in a position to help new writers then it becomes my duty to do so.
Also, in November 2003, when I had visited Film & Television Institute of India I complained at the seminar that there is no course in screenwriting and as a field it has been lagging behind. Some good writers had come in, did good work and went away, but it didn’t institutionalise screenwriting. Being an important filmmaking institute I felt they should have taken lead in doing it. So, they went and got an approval of the Ministry to start a course. But then came the problem of who would run it. So unfortunately the responsibility fell on my head because if I didn’t say yes they would not be able to kick start the course. I could not step back. I wasn’t a trained teacher or didn’t want to teach, I was happy being a writer. But I took it on and I guess it worked.
Now I notice that students are earnest and sincere, raw in their ambitions and talent is real, they just have to be honed and allowed to develop the art. Also, when I go in the industry and see people struggling and suffering because there aren’t many people around capable of reading scripts and assisting them, then you feel that your responsibilities extend even further. You can’t just teach and get out. You have to make sure that there is some degree of professional support that you continue to give them. And believe me we have extremely talented people out there. You just have to give some guidance and little bit support, it will do wonders to screenwriters. If you look around every year five-six wonderful films come out that are by young talented writers whom you have never heard about. And the entire film is good because they are led by good scripts. Scripts are beginning to make the difference and I think one should continue to push writing, accelerate this process and encourage good people to come into this field. This is my passion, I guess.
You have been around since the early 1990s. According to you how much has the Hindi script evolved?
Actually a lot of good things have happened. First and the most important thing is that today there are many more people who are interested in screenwriting than in our times. Of course because now there is a professional definition of a screenwriter. I feel that large number of people make a difference; because if a hundred people write scripts then definitely four to five out of it will hit the mark. If only ten people are writing scripts then not even one might hit the mark. So by sheer numbers I feel the chances of getting good material has increased exponentially. Two, I find there is a certain degree of courage that these youngsters have. While they are keen that their films should do well, they don’t compromise their creativity most of the time. I find it very assuring, refreshing and inspiring. These youngsters with their conviction and confidence are breaking new grounds. Kudos to them. When we came in there wasn’t a professional platform available to screenwriters. We had to really struggle from getting out of the shadow of the director and having a voice. We were told that we are there to execute the director’s vision. Now a script is written independently then the project takes off. And the awareness that the craft isn’t merely to come up with good ideas and stories but to have a screenplay structure, character definition, screen design, dialogues – all these are important because it is a cinematic expression. So that I think is helping.
The thing I am apprehensive about is that from the large mass of scripts I receive and hear from friends who read scripts is that the emphasis of plot continues to rule at the expense of actually exploring the character. One should remember that it is actually the character’s experience that should drive the film forward. It is the decisions and choices that the character takes, that make the plot believable. This, I find, is missing in the young writers. They have great plots in mind but characters are to fit around to make it happen rather than having an organic interplay between the character’s experiences and what plot demands. The trick to have a good script is this distinctive play between plot and character. I wish the youngsters would concentrate a little more on exploring their characters and understanding their psychology. One more thing I would say is that some plots that they choose demand certain kind of complex characters, I feel that sometimes these young writers may not have the experience or maturity to be able to explore the character in the nuanced way. It becomes very superficial if the character is driven more by action than what the character feels.
Any words of wisdom to be a good scriptwriter?
One thing every writer should remember is that when you write a full script you have the full freedom to write and it is your vision that is driving it but it will be passed on to the director and he will want to express that script on celluloid as he understands, so the collaboration begins then. If the director’s sensibilities or his style doesn’t match 100 per cent then I am afraid the scriptwriter has to adapt the script to what the director wants to tell, without losing the story. That is a different orientation that is needed for things to come about. Scriptwriters have to learn to do that. Most of the times I hear complaints that the director wants to change things. Change by itself is not a bad thing. Eventually, the director is telling the story on screen. You can’t control that or say ‘execute it this way’. This process becomes uneasy for a lot of young writers because they have not accounted for it while writing. Scripts are a work in progress. Your script rarely reaches the screen as it is written. Yes, the final draft you write for the director should reach the screen. It is a professional tip to avoid frustration.
Any particular reason why in the last few years you have only associated with films made by Prakash Jha?
When Prakash Jha was writing Gangajal he needed some help, so he asked me to be a script consultant. That was the first time we met through common friends. It worked rather well because it was about the 1980 Bhagalpur blindings and looking at it politically, which is my orientation too. In the same way it worked well in Apaharan. I think what attracted me to him (Jha) is that whenever he discussed a concept that was highly political in nature, which perhaps some producers and directors may not necessarily want to touch, he was quite ready to do that. Look at Rajneeti, the main character played by Ranbir Kapoor goes into extreme darkness and starts doing questionable deeds. And there is no redemption for him until the end, which is how it is in real life too. He was quite happy with that. It’s his willingness to take on films that have highly political and stirring core premises. Look at Aarakshan, Chakravyuah or Satyagrah. Whatever happened in the end is not what I am commenting on. So we worked together till Satyagrah, but now we felt that we should be friends and professionally go our own ways.
When do you get to watch your next script on the big screen?
I have written one script that will be directed by Mr. Mahesh Mathai. We are in talks with studios and actors. It is a biggish film so we do need A-list actors for it. We have tentatively called it Salute. And it isn’t politics, I need some fresh air too. All I can reveal is that it based on the life of a real person.
Do you have any plans to direct like your peers?
No. I am very clear about it. I have never had any ambitions of becoming a director. A lot of writers become directors became they get frustrated because their vision gets distorted and, in our industry, the prestige, status and authority a director demands is incomparably higher than what a writer commands. I have also faced that but that doesn’t motivate me to become a director.