Manjhi Bridges the Gap Between Arthouse and Commercial Cinema
Manjhi is the story of making the impossible possible. A story that aspires to inspire by connecting with the Indian audience. We reached out to the film’s screenplay writer Mahendra Jakhar to tell us all about the story behind documenting Manjhi’s story and how the greatest stories begin with just a line.
You went from being a journalist to a screenplay writer to an author. Have the transitions come naturally to you? What has been your favourite form of writing?
Well I started as a journalist on the crime beat in Delhi and after seven years, moved to Mumbai. All my writings for TV shows like CID, Maano Ya Na Maano, Seeta Aur Geeta proved to be my schooling in script writing. I worked on film scripts with Tigmannshu Dhulia, Mahesh Bhatt, Hansal Mehta, Abhinav Kashyap and picked up the finer nuances from them. My first novel The Butcher of Benares came out only last year. As a script writer, I realized that I had many stories to tell and it won’t be possible to turn all of them into films. So I turned them into books. As far as being an author is concerned, it gives you complete freedom to be the writer, director, cinematographer all at the same time as you are creating each and every thing in the novel. That definitely is a big high. However while scripting for a film there are many people involved in the process, be it the director, actor, cinematographer as everyone has a point of view and wants to add something. I enjoy both mediums as one gives me the joy of solitude and the other lets me work in a team environment.
Writing credits for the movie have been given to seven writers. Was there a division of tasks in terms of conducting research, penning dialogues and writing the final screenplay? How did you work out the dynamics?
There is not much available on the life of Dashrath Manjhi and whatever has been written is very sketchy. We needed to research his life, especially his personal life, from his childhood till he died in 2007. So we hired two young film students from Bihar who understood the people, language and the local dialects and could travel deep into villages and towns to unearth those facts. Later we used them to give the local flavour to dialogues.
Once the script was ready, Ketan was still apprehensive about whether we are on the right track on not so he brought in a senior script writer, Anjum Rajabali as a script consultant to give his feedback. Anjum’s feedback really helped and we could further polish the script and make it more dramatic.
Tell us about your association with Ketan Mehta. How was the experience of writing the script along with him?
Ketan and I were developing another script before Manjhi which eventually did not materialise. As Ketan was doing his research on Manjhi’s life, he invited me to work with him on the screenplay.
Ketan as a person is very chilled out. However, as a film director, he has very high standards and is a master of visuals. I had to write each scene in five or six different ways till he was impressed. He would keep telling me jaadu nahin ho raha and at times I would get bugged that kahan se lau jaadu. But I managed to rise up to his expectations and finally created the jaadu on screen.
Walk us through the writing process for Manjhi’s screenplay. Were there ever any dead ends and frustrating moments or did the script flow freely?
We started with creating the narrative structure as to how to tell the story right from Manjhi’s childhood to a road being made in 2011. We nailed it using flashbacks and cutting to the present. The big problem was to make the whole story interesting. So I came up with the device to weave the story of a changing India with Manjhi’s story. We started the story post independent India and one can see the issues of untouchability, feudal system, Naxalism, emergency, political campaigns and so on. The problem was that I had assimilated many historical incidents into Manjhi’s life and there was difficulty deciding whether to stick to these historical events or to tell his love story. Finally, we decided to stick to the love story. The idea was to keep it simple yet dramatic for the Indian audience. I was clear from the start that I am not making this film for film festivals or to win awards. I wanted this film to connect with the Indian audience and get a pan India release like any other commercial film. Finally, we succeeded.
How much of a biopic’s screenplay is fact and how much fiction? As a writer, did you feel the need to add exaggerated elements to make the script more interesting?
It depends on whether you want to stick to real events and the true story or you want to add fiction to it. We had the liberty to dramatize the story as there’s hardly anything written so extensively about Dashrath Manjhi’s life. Obviously you can’t dramatize Gandhi’s life as so much has been written about him and movies have been made on his life. In Manjhi, we didn’t exaggerate anything but we did add drama to certain events to make it more cinematic. The greatest challenge was that we had a one line story – Manjhi broke a mountain using a hammer and a chisel for 22 years and carved a path out of it. From this and using all the research work produced by our team through extensive interviews with Manjhi’s family, village elders, local journalists and government officials we started to create Manjhi’s life story.
Is there a specific writing flow and technique that you personally follow and incorporate in all your processes?
The only writing technique that I follow is that there is no writing technique. It is an organic process that grows and moves as you start writing.
According to you, what makes a screenplay strong?
Well, screenplay writing is more of a craft where you have to place the right pieces at the right places that should appear at the right moments. The most important is the structure; as in the progression of the story, it is the five acts that provide the thrust to the flow of the story, the sub-plot and the characters.
Your film Bhiwani was selected for the co-production market of Film Bazaar 2013. How has that progressed? Is direction the next turn you plan to take in your career?
Bhiwani has gone through many drafts. I didn’t want to turn it into another arthouse film. In fact, I am trying to bridge the gap between commercial and arthouse cinema – something Manjhi has succeeded at. We plan to begin Bhiwani soon. As far as my plans for direction are concerned, I would love to direct. I’m a storyteller first. If I have an awesome story that I feel I should direct maybe one day I will don that hat.