In television you can build the character every day
She has written lines for characters on live stage (Kissa Yoni Ka, Hindi adaptation of Vagina Monologues), the big screen (Aisha and London Paris New York) and the small screen (Gumrah, Left Right Left, Yeh Hai Mohabbatein and the recently launched Bhaage Re Mann). Clearly, the mediums don’t impede her craft. Excerpts from an exclusive chat with the talented writer Ritu Bhatia reveal the hard work and hardships involved in her art.
Did you always want to be a writer?
No, I wanted to be a director. As a young apprentice you try to get all sorts of experiences and writing is one of it. I’ve also worked as Director’s Assistant and Script Supervisor on Taare Zameen Par. Then I worked with Goldie Behl at Rose Movies, and was the creative director on their TV shows Remix, Jeet and Bacha Party. As writing came to me naturally, I was also the Script Head. And that’s how I began writing. In any case, most directors in our country end up being writers too.
You have written dialogues for films, TV shows and theatre. What approach do you adapt when penning lines for the characters from these diverse mediums?
In films you have a lot of time as opposed to television, for which you have to really think on your feet. In movies you say less. But in television there’s a lot more dialogue, everything has to be said and underlined. We are still in the family-viewing space and still don’t have a Game Of Thrones kind of captive audience who will look into the details and read the unsaid. However, we are definitely getting better, in terms of writing.
One of your recently launched shows Bhaage Re Mann is the first original Indian show on Zindagi channel. Can you tell us about how you got involved with it?
Mitu, the producer-writer of the show and I have known each other professionally and happened to be from the same college (Lady Shri Ram College). She got in touch with me as she really liked my work, especially Ekta Kapoor’s Yeh Hai Mohabbatein.
The reason I said yes to Bhaage Re Mann was that it was not the stereotypical show about a girl facing difficulties in her sasural. Bhaage… is about a bohemian girl, who ran away from her marriage when she was 18, and returns at the age of 39, still single, to face the family. She didn’t run away to become Indra Nooyi or for a guy. She ran away because she felt nervous about marriage. I felt it was a very modern show, so I knew I had to do it.
What guideline did you follow while working on Bhaage Re Mann as it isn’t being projected as a typical TV show?
I remember when I was first writing and creating the lines for the characters, the channel head Bharti, who is the Head of Fiction at Zindagi, said, “Ritu, you’re not gonna make the dialogues dramatic, no? And don’t use words like ehsaas, it is too filmy.” So I knew I had to write dialogues like the way we speak. I always liked that kind of writing. Even in my films like Aisha or London Paris New York, I’ve always tried to keep the dialogues as spoken and casual as possible. Real people don’t talk in full sentences and complete the thoughts. That kind of writing is always something to look forward to. For Bhaag… I knew I had to I keep the dialogues real, feminist, humorous – not the laugh out loud and slapstick humor – but the wit we experience in daily life. We hardly get to see wit in our shows because we don’t know how to laugh at ourselves. We either have extremely loud comedy or drama in television. And writing lines for the girl was so much fun ‘coz she is quirky and constantly having a battle of wits with her neighbour, Raghav.
What is your source of inspiration and creation when working on dialogues?
You observe people, but when you take morality out of the scenario, the dialogues become real. Till you’re guided by some strange morality, it becomes difficult to write real dialogues. By that I don’t mean my characters are immoral. What I mean is when characters are guided by who they are and not what they should be, the dialogues will be natural and realistic.
Also, it’s all about the creation of the character. Agar woh aapke pakad mein aa gaya na in the first few attempts, then you’re kind for the rest because, thankfully, television is a repetitive medium. Every day you can build the character. Obviously, you spend some time on the dialogues and script before you go on air. Once you have your characters set then they guide you, the story, create its distinct voices. Also, in television it is an assembly line kind of work, all story writers, screenplay writers sit together and figure out. We discuss and then draft accordingly.
You wrote dialogues for Kissa Yoni Ka, the Hindi adaptation of Eve Ensler’s ‘The Vagina Monologues’. What was the experience like?
You know I find that was my most exciting accomplishment – translating ‘The Vagina Monologues’ (TVM). I was working on Taare Zameen Par when I got in touch with Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, who has the official rights to produce TVM in India. She had asked me to help her find a Hindi writer to translate TVM and I immediately said that I would do it. Her reservation with the Hindi version was that it could sound crass. And that is exactly why I took it up. People have made Hindi into some huawah. If it’s said right and in the right context, it can be great fun. Our language has so many dialects to make it culturally unique and hilarious. Eve Ensler has laid down strict guidelines and a format to maintain uniformity across the thirty-three languages it has been adapted in. So that made my task easier. Again, the good thing with theatre is that the actors give so much to it.
I had collaborated with Jaideep Sarkar on TVM. We have done some really crazy things to find Hindi words for each reproductive body part and sexual conversations. Jaideep and I had called all our friends and their nanis and dadis to know these words. They had a very humorous way of talking about sex and sexuality and came up with such hilarious anecdotes. Once I was at the airport bookshop and noticed a book by a sexologist in Hindi, titled ‘Sex Kya Hai’. I bought it and shamelessly read it on my flight without a care about what people would think. In the book the sexologist had described the reproductive system and answered queries from people. It is the funniest thing I have ever read in my entire life. It had weird anecdotes of the doctor giving weird kind of advice to the patients. But it made it lighter and funny. The Hindi TVM is called Kissa Yoni Ka. Yoni is a weird-sounding word. In the play, we’ve actually made fun of the word.
Films, TV or Theatre – which medium do you enjoy writing the most for?
Films. Because it’s magic, right? For me, film will remain the purest form. Although, television is going through a great period, writing wise because digitization is forcing everyone to explore and experiment. But television has its constraints. So, that becomes tedious. You’re under tremendous time pressure all the time. You can do only so much and then you have to put down your pen. In films you have the time to perfect it.
Who have been your influences as a writer?
Gulzar, at all times. I don’t know if I’m influenced by him or inspired by him or anything. I just find extreme beauty in his writing. I think he is a great screenwriter though he’s mostly writing lyrics, nowadays. I also love Vishal Bhardwaj’s writing, he is a great filmmaker, director, composer, but I think it comes from the fact that he is a great writer. And Aaron Sorkin (writer Steve Jobs, The Social Network, The Newsroom TV show, etc.).
So, eventually you will direct a film?
Yes. Lately though I feel that a writer-producer is a great combination. You can actually work from conception to execution to the last day and see the project through. And I’m finding that a very exciting space to go into.