You can literally count the female filmmakers around the world
Devika Bhagat’s screenwriting career spans across varied films including Manorama Six Feet Under, a noir thriller, to Jab Tak Hai Jaan, a classic love story, among others, and also a slice of life television series, Mahi Way. Not only has she progressed to direction with the urban Abhay Deol-Preeti Desai starrer One by Two, but is noted for her distinct individual voice in the industry.
Currently Devika is on the advisory panel of the 3rd edition of the New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters offered by the Asia Society India Centre, the theme of which is ‘Making Heroine The New Hero’. Read on to know what she says about the art of screenwriting and being a female creative expressionist in the Hindi film industry.
How did you come to be a screenwriter for Hindi Cinema?
I had decided to pursue a career in film. I was studying to be a creative writer at IBC Wales, where my creative writing teacher felt that my writing was more visual than literary. Up until then, I had actually considered studying English to become a creative writer. There was a video service where films were constantly being screened, which made me want to study film, which I did at the Tisch School of Arts, NYU. But I graduated right around the time 9/11 happened, and I had to come back to India, Mumbai, where I initially jumped on to becoming an AD for movies until I could work up a script. Except the work involved with it is more logistical than creative. So I jumped onto screenwriting.
Your first movie as a screenwriter was the highly acclaimed Manorama Six Feed Under which was loosely based on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. What are the challenges when adapting the plot base from an existing screenplay?
The movie didn’t start out intending to be adapted from Chinatown in any way. It was a noir inspired film. Navdeep Singh, the Director, wanted a small town pulp fiction writer to be embroiled in a controversy. And since it was in Rajasthan, the plot line started to include water scams, and corruption. It just happened that in certain aspects, it bore closeness to Chinatown, especially with the pedophile angle that Navdeep wanted to bring in.
Your writing repertoire consists of a wide range of work, from Manorama… to Bachna Ae Haseeno, Aisha and Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Is there any specific genre you enjoy working on
Psychological dramas, if I had to pick one, because they in general have very interesting characters. I prefer character studies that help etch out a good story. For example in Mahi Way, the idea was to create a character, and then carve out a story for them.
As a screenplay writer, have you ever felt frustrated by the final output of your written work?
Yes, because you write a character in a particular way, in a certain tone. I write my screenplays in English, along with my dialogues. Then, a Hindi dialogue writer writes them in Hindi, which in India, can cause several changes, because there is always something lost in translation. Then there is the interpretation by the Director, then the actor, and between all this, there will always be certain gaps. And then when you watch the movie at the premier, you realise that this isn’t what you originally had in mind.
You also wrote the screenplay for the critically acclaimed TV series Mahi Way. How different was that from writing for a movie?
The show signaled the launch of a new branch from Yash Raj, which was YRF TV, and the best thing was that we went about it in an international way. I had initially pitched Mahi Way as a film, but then it seemed nearly impossible to get a mainstream actress to wear a fat suit, let alone gain any weight for the role. Aditya Chopra then suggested adapting it into a TV series. And I wrote the entire 25-26 episodes before the shooting even began. So there was a lot of independence for character development, because in a TV show, the depth of the character is more important than the plot.
Mahi Way was incredibly well liked by its audience for its slice-of-life depiction. What do you think is the reason we don’t have more of such candid television humour?
Television is an incredible medium because it lets you explore the characters and establish them, rather than a movie where you have to rush the story in 2-3 hours time. When we set out to do Mahi Way, it was the character of Mahi that was most appeasing, that of an overweight girl who does not consider herself overweight; we didn’t want to do slapstick humour. We wanted to break assumptions people have about weight, that the world has enforced on them. But YRF TV shut down, cause it was not profitable for either parties.
Only recently has there been a surge of female screenwriters and directors, with the industry being largely male dominated earlier. Do you also see a distinct female voice in the creative work being produced?
The only notable female voices, so to speak, are those of Farah Khan and Zoya Akhtar. Zoya, too, inspite of belonging to a film family had to wait for 6 to 7 years to make her first film. Producers feel that women are unable to handle big budgets or be good directors. You can literally count the female filmmakers around the world. Hollywood has the same problem.
In the 3rd edition of the screenwriting fellowship, it’s all about making women centric scripts. Do you think there has been a shift in the industry as well?
Women centric films deal with female issues, whereas making heroine the hero is like making a superhero film with a woman. It’s about understanding if a movie with a male protagonist can be made with a female protagonist instead. For me NH10 was women-centric, because misogyny was against her. So was Queen where a girl gets ditched before a wedding. So there isn’t really a shift cause those are a few movies from a 100. In fact, Rajshri Ojha, the director of Aisha, was asked to make the character a boy, else nobody would make money. It was only when Anil Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor stepped in that Aisha could be made, which sort of set a trend for women-centic films.
Do you feel that when you wrote Aisha, which had a central female protagonist, a female Director and a female Screenwriter as yourself, that women get wrongly accused of producing candy-floss work?
I really like Zoya, especially her first movie Luck by Chance and I hate that this criticism often surfaces that her films are about first world problems. But Hollywood does that too. It builds a larger than life space, and don’t they have poverty? True, we have a much higher percentage of people under the privileged line section, but should movies not be made about the remaining 5%? Everyone’s a critic these days. But you need to take the film as property and not get personal, as was not the case with Bombay Velvet, for example. When I made One by Two, one reviewer said that Preeti Desai’s character lives in Kala Ghoda in a huge apartment. What problems can she have?
Who are the female voices in the industry you admire?
I definitely like Juhi Chaturvedi. She’s a really sound screenwriter, and I admire her work. I also do admire Zoya, because she is very sure and resolute of what she wants and she gets it.
You’re one of the guides for the New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters. How do you see yourself training an amateur writer?
The one thing that I believe is that everybody has at least one screenplay. You just need to teach them to mould it into a format. You cannot teach people how to form a story.
What would you say are the elements to a strong screenplay?
The First, would be the central idea. Second, the characters. Third, the dialogues, and fourth, the flow of the screenplay.
What is the piece of advice you have for screenwriters looking to approach a studio or a filmmaker?
The one major advice I’d give them is not to be scared of rejection, be prepared and hand them a registered script.