Kai Po Che – Writing High
A release to her name straight out of film school, Rock On!! writer Pubali Chaudhuri is a bundle of energy and words, as she awaits her next release ‘Kai Po Che’. Drinking water straight out of whiskey bottles and philosophizing life, cinema and the world, Pubali, who’s name means ‘hailing from the East’, tells us all about her next film and more. Pandolin caught the very animated writer over a few cups of coffee and a whole lot of conversation. We suggest you grab your cuppa as you join in this tête-à-tête as well.
Pandolin: Let me start off on a very politically incorrect note. A woman writer in what is considered a men-dominated industry. Do you get that often?
Pubali: My limited filmography hasn’t pitted me in any space where being a woman was a hindrance. I will admit I’m not here to write an outright action film. I don’t know if that’s a gendered reaction or if it’s the genre that doesn’t speak to me very well. On the other hand, women have done very well with crime fiction, so that way I wouldn’t correlate a genre with a gender. I mean, Kathryn Bigelow made ‘The Hurt Locker’, and she was touted as a woman filmmaker making a ‘non-woman’ film…
Hollywood and Bollywood do have a tendency to do that, don’t they? Make a huge ga-ga about a woman director, a woman writer…
I think part of my feminism right now is immersed in the cause around the Delhi incident and I have really tangential views on things that are going around on Facebook, and I don’t agree to what my women friends are saying. I think my thumb rule w.r.t my profession has been that I have a degendered view of self, whether in ad film production, as a content writer, journalist or screenwriter. I don’t like to be considered a woman first and then my profession. I’m a professional first. Yes, being a woman professional entails certain things and limitations. Like in ad film production, it’s not easy to carry heavy props on your back, but I have and have never asked a guy to do it for me. Those are the choices I’ve made.
In terms of writing, I don’t know if these are gender-specific things or the person that I am, but I’m a very character-driven writer, so the first thing that appeals to me is the character. I’d doubt it if you said, “Oh because you’re a woman, you can’t think of a plot!” I’m sure there are lots of woman writers who are excellent at thinking plots, but it’s my tendency that makes me write about drama. I’m not even that concerned about genre. I know that my process is such that I will look at a character first. Even if I have to write a thriller, I know it’s the characters that will take me into the narrative. So these are the personal choices that I make…
How did your journey as a writer begin?
(sighs) Oh, that’s a long, long, long and winding journey. I’d done a few other things before I came to film writing, all related to writing in some way or the other. I did Literature, Mass Comm, so therefore you think if you want to write for a career, Journalism is the only thing that pays. I did a little bit of that with the Times of India group, got tired of a desk job, so moved on to ad film production. I came to Bombay from Calcutta when script-writing course at FTII was just a year old. My friends from the institute told me about it. I was mid-career, and thankfully, it was a one-year course, as I didn’t want to take the four-year hiatus that FTII usually demands of you. Writing is part of my core competency, and having done other few things I knew yes, I make a decent executive producer perhaps, but there is a part of me that is interested in doing creative things. So that was almost like a chance thing. I got through the entrance exams and was on campus for the interview. FTII looks beautiful in the monsoons, so I thought, “Jo bhi hoga, I can always go back to ad film production. Let’s spend a year at this place, I like it!” So that’s how it happened.
I did the course, came back and thankfully didn’t have to take up any odd jobs. I stuck it out for a while; I was really doubtful whether film writing was going to be my thing. I was sure I wasn’t going to write for T.V.
Fiction T.V. I have nothing to contribute to. (Points to a tiny T.V. set covered with a quilt) I don’t even have a dish antenna! (laughs)
Having said that, my first paid script-writing job was for T.V. It was non-fiction for Discovery Channel, was writing in English…so that’s that. Evidently I’m much more interested in feature film writing.
I’d love to write a ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Mad Men’, but maybe I’m scared of T.V. They have crazy deadlines, you don’t have a life. I’m a freelancer! I want my afternoon siestas! (laughs) I keep my meetings before lunch or later in the evening. I want to be the mistress of my own time. I don’t want be on call 24/7. “Yeh change kar do, woh actor aa gaya, plot change ho gaya!” It’s too ad-hoc a process for me. Writing itself is crazy enough. I don’t want the production around it to be so ad-hoc that it’ll drive me up the wall.
Tell us about Kai Po Che!
Kai Po Che was a bloody long wait! Soon after Rock On!!, around 2009, either Excel or Abhishek, or both of them, had figured out that they wanted to work on Chetan Bhagat’s novel, The 3 mistakes of my life. I hadn’t read a single Chetan Bhagat novel then, and haven’t as yet- apart from the one I’ve adapted. I think I flipped through Five Point Someone.
So I thought to myself, an adaptation, this is interesting. This is one of Chetan’s heavier novels. It’s not just a love story; it tries to tackle a lot of things together. I read the book. Obviously, Chetan Bhagat doesn’t feature amongst your top-ten literary writers for anybody who enjoys reading literature, and I come from a literature background. But also having known Chetan now, having interacted with him professionally, he himself doesn’t have any pretenses of being that. He knows what he is doing. I respected that honesty, which even his writing exudes. It’s simplistic… wait, am I going on record with this? (laughs)
Pretty early on, we’d decided on a deviation from the novel, which made it immensely more exciting for me. We changed something in the end, which meant working backward, redoing an entire track and the entire dynamics would change and lead up to that. Abhishek was a director I’d already worked with, and it takes time for a writer and director to establish a tuning together, so I was up for this project.
What was Abhishek’s brief to you for Kai Po Che?
It’s basically the novel. The change in the story was also part of my brief. It was like “How about doing this, and that means this would happen…It sounds like a good idea.”
How long did it take you to write the screenplay?
Kai Po Che’s been one long journey! I have 18 drafts of it before it went to the dialogue writer. It’s been 4 years in the making for Gattu and me. Not 4 years of constant working, though. We got stalled, waited for actors to come along, Excel dropped it, UTV picked it up. Rock On!! wasn’t so much of a challenge for us as Kai Po Che was.
Are adaptations easier?
Between my two-film filmography, I’d say Kai Po Che was a harder journey, but I don’t know it that’s generally true for all adaptations. It’s incorrect to say an adaptation is easier because you have a ready story. I don’t agree with that, having gone through this process myself. This material was written to be made into a film. Chetan obviously knows his target audience and is writing to be accessible. If you read ‘The 3 mistakes of my life’, you see romance, cricket, friendship, and all the things that go into making a popular film. Yet, apart from production and logistical challenges, it took us a while to get to the film script. I realized that no matter whether you’re adapting Milan Kundera or Chetan Bhagat, the film script needs to have it’s own life. Irrespective of how Kai Po Che does, I will never defend myself by saying this was how it was in the book. That’s no reasoning. You’ve chosen to adapt it into a different medium and it needs to work on its merits.
Was Chetan Bhagat involved in the scripting?
Chetan is part of the writing team. He’s shared, read drafts, given his suggestions. He helped us crack one major thing much later. Length was always a problem for us, it was going to be a bulky script and we weren’t able to shorten it. I reworked the opening, even though Gattu had begun work on the dialogue draft. We felt we needed to do something to make the opening crisper, and Chetan had a great brainwave that cut 15 pages off the script.
That’s the thing about adaptations. It takes a long time to kill the ghost of the book. Yet it’s not a contest. You can’t say that my film script is going to be totally divorced from the book. Then it’s not an adaptation. It needs to capture the spirit of the book and yet can’t let it weigh down the script. After ten drafts, I identified what’s wrong with the structure. (laughs) I was like “Ok, let’s go back to the drawing board as this is not taking us anywhere!” It wasn’t about reworking a few scenes, we had a fundamental story problem. I like talking about that day because I used a lot of screenwriting jargon with Gattu. I asked him, “Where’s my belly-of-the-whale moment?” I was looking for the darkest hour of the narrative in the hero’s journey. After reworking the basic template I told myself I don’t want to look at the book at all. I knew what the book had and had to do this as a film narrative. You feel tied down that just because it’s in the book, it should be in the film too. It’s a tale once told, so I have to follow the sequence of events. You’re constantly editing things out, keeping only that which is important to the narrative. It wasn’t easy, took a lot of time and was a great learning curve for me.
Are you apprehensive about your adaptation of the book? Whether it will go down well with those who’ve read it?
Like I told you, there is a deviation from the book. The ending’s changed. When Gattu first told us this should be the ending, none of us had thought it through. No one realized what it would mean for the narrative. It’s like this joke I keep saying. Abhishek Kapoor after Rock On!! and Chetan Bhagat for what he is, is a winning combination. And then I happened. And all the actors started saying, “No, we don’t want to do this film!” (laughs) “This is too serious, this is too heavy,” they said. I’m like a Chetan Bhagat book is too heavy? What have I done? So yes, we did have to change quite a bit, and take out some things as they weren’t working for the film, but I can’t say I’m apprehensive. Generally, as a thumb rule the film never lives up to it’s book, but stands in correlation and independent to the story. Like Charulata did. It’s an ambitious benchmark for Kai Po Che, but I’d like it if people recognize it as based on the book, but be content with the film’s narrative. So I’m not worried about the adaptation.
I’m more worried about things I feel we missed out on. Some things get lost in translation from script to the film, some great things are added thanks to the director and actors. Just the fact that we shot in real locations made a lot of difference, I think.
Some things you wish you’d done in retrospective. Others you let go for the sake of the project, or meeting the director halfway. For example, in Rock On!!, I never wanted Debbie to come back immediately to the concert and patch up with Joe. I fought and fought and for a long time, my drafts ended with Joe breaking away from her and going to the concert. Debbie is shattered by then, by the burden she’s carrying and her own journey. She’s totally betrayed and I just couldn’t see how she’d work around that and end up so soon in the wings of the concert. I felt it would do a disservice to her character, and we had a prologue in mind, where Abhishek said we’d do this concept and cut to sometime later and we see them in their personal space. One of my first takes on Debbie and Joe’s relationship was that they part ways as husband and wife and earn back each other’s friendship and respect. We see the child coming to spend time with the father and see the couple’s essential connection has survived. Gattu just didn’t buy that. It’s not that he didn’t understand the point of view I’m talking about, but he is making a Hindi film and the audience wants their happily ever after. No one complained, not even the critics. Maybe you did, but we, as audiences, are minorities. Nobody questions the perfectly rounded off worldviews. This is the nature of classical popular narrative.
Were you present for the shoot as well?
Abhishek doesn’t like me being on set, so no involvement there at all.
So does he come back to you if and when there are any problems?
No, I have not had any trouble after the film’s gone on floor. Not with Abhishek. He’s been the director for my two films, so I will have to work with another director to figure out what all can happen. More or less, in the working process with Abhishek and Excel, we do a lot of rewrites so lot of differences and creative confusions are cleared on paper. I know a lot of directors say that the film is made on the shooting floor, which is valid, but it’s made again on the edit table. There’s no end to making a film, but at the scripting level, the amount of time we spend and the amount of rewriting we do, you’re not going with an underworked script.
How is your tuning with Abhishek Kapoor?
It’s a love-hate relationship. (laughs) I don’t know how else to describe a writer-director relationship. It’s very collaborative, in the sense that you need to trust that the director will be able to fructify your mental vision you’ve written on paper. It’s an equally demanding equation from the director’s side. He has an idea about the kind of film he’d like to make. Will the writer be able to develop the world he has in mind?
It’s an exercise in faith building. In the six years that I’ve been working with Gattu, I can say we have that. We differ and disagree a lot, but we have the basic faith. He knows I’m coming for somewhere, I can see where he’s coming from. I may choose to agree or disagree, but I know what he’s talking about. We can tell the story in each other’s language. Also, there are not too many people in this town who can read and understand a script. I have to say Gattu is great at that. I have zero practice in narration, because my director and producer are people who read scripts and then have discussions about it. It’s great.
Abhishek Kapoor and Chetan Bhagat. Who’s the target audience for Kai Po Che?
Can I rope in a few intellectuals also to see my film? Is that what you’re asking? (laughs) Rock On!! has its credentials. It’s not the artiest film, and yet it’s not the outright commercial kuch bhi ho raha hai masala kinds. It’s given Gattu and me a very decent positioning about the kind of substance we deal with. If a repeat of that happens, added to Chetan’s broader reach, that’ll be good. I’m sure we’ll at least get the Rock On!! audience. The way people have responded to the official trailer, I think we’ve definitely created the curiosity.
What are your expectations from Kai Po Che?
100 crores? (laughs) 100 crores without a star cast and you know the script is King! (laughs)
We’ll see. I’m happy our second film is not a Rock On 2. I’m happy it’s not a star-driven vehicle. I’m not against star-driven vehicles, but I’m glad it got made even without stars. It’s got a good buzz. People are calling me up after seeing the first trailer, and when people call writers you know they really liked it! (laughs) Chetan has a huge fan base, and I don’t know if they will like it or not, and it will be interesting to see what happens. I’m not ashamed of either of the two films. Things could get better, they always can, but I’m not going to say we did it all wrong.