Socially relevant and entertaining but not preachy: Garima & Siddharth on Toilet Ek Prem Katha
They created magic with their debut film, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. Since then, there has been no looking back for writers and lyricists Garima Wahal and Siddharth Singh who have a natural way with words. From a historical drama (Ram Leela) to a romantic reincarnation saga (Raabta) and now Toilet Ek Prem Katha – the socially driven drama with oodles of humor and a quirky love story, the duo has a flair for acing any story that comes their way.
Garima and Siddharth (Sid) are like two peas in a pod; while they don’t spill the beans on their individual forte, it’s their teamwork that is their biggest strength. From their love for satire to their complete involvement in every film, the importance of socially relevant stories and why they are waiting for the right kind of web series, the duo shares all in a candid chat with Pandolin.
How different is it writing a historical drama or a story inspired by real events as compared to out and out fiction?
Garima – We learnt as we went along for Toilet Ek Prem Katha (TEPK). Given the subject, it was a very research oriented issue, which is why the first thing that we did after we had our one-liner (where we wanted to take the story to), was to head for a detailed research. We started with Mathura (Uttar Pradesh), where the film is now based. The research was a process where we discovered that fact is far stranger than fiction. The characters that we have included in the film are real, inspired by people whom we actually met during our journey.
Sid – It’s different because when you’re writing complete fiction, you don’t have any boundaries, you can take it anywhere. Actually, the same thing applies for other films too, like for TEPK – you get an idea, but how you convert it into an interesting script and make an impact with it, is what we need to work towards.
Garima – And it has to be in a manner that you’re not preaching something. Sometimes, real things can weigh down on people, so you need to correctly marry them with fictional elements and create something entertaining. That was a challenge in this script.
It was very important for us to avoid the quintessential toilet humor
What were your learnings from talking to the local people as part of your research?
Sid – People in those parts of the country are not ready to talk about toilets, forget doing something about it. So we faced a lot of opposition, but luckily there was a woman amongst us, so we could approach the local women.
Garima – And having a man amongst us was equally important because you need to know the perspective of the local men (on this issue). Somehow the men in those parts don’t want to talk to women, that’s why at least both of us as a team could interact with people.
The strangest thing when we met these women was that they would turn around and tell us, “Behenji humko nahi chahiye, hum khule main kar lenge. Char by char ke kamre main hum nahi baith sakte, humko khuli hawa main karna hai.” (We do not want toilets; we are fine with doing it in the open. We cannot sit in a small room; we want to do it in open air). They also told us how this practice has been going on since olden times and everyone is fine with it. What these people don’t realize, or refuse to understand, is that the population has increased multi-fold since the olden times.
Sid – We’re also running out of open spaces.
Garima – We even spoke to them about the increasing crimes against women. In fact, when we were there, we got to know that just two days ago, a girl was molested around 80 kms away from where we were doing our research. But for the people there, these things have become a way of life. They feel that ‘you need to be careful’.
Sid – It’s only and only about the mindset. The government needs to tell them what happens if they defecate in the open. Women need to take a stand. Some people have been criticizing the trailer of TEPK saying that at the end, it’s a man who is making the toilet. What they don’t realize is that a woman is the strength behind it. I think it should start with women taking a stand, because they are facing a problem. Being very honest, men don’t really care, because they can stand anywhere.
Garima – And it’s not a problem related only to rural areas. It happens even in Mumbai, you have men peeing on the road, but as women, where do you go? The film touches upon these points that people don’t know.
How important was it to take a lighter, satirical approach to convey a social message like this?
Sid – I think it was very important. Both of us read a lot of satire; one of our favorite writers in Hindi is Harishankar Parsai. But these days, there is no satire left in our country, it’s mostly in the fiction zone but barely any satire based on real life. Our natural inclination is towards humor. Both of us think and write in humor. So, we thought that this is the best way to convey a social message, without sounding preachy.
Garima – Especially for an issue like this, it was very important for us to avoid the quintessential toilet humor, which could also be a dangerous route to take, because it can put off people. The route had to be this love story between two people with a lot of humor, which are the elements that you’ll find in the film.
The research was a process where we discovered that fact is far stranger than fiction
How involved were you’ll with the casting? Did you’ll have any actors in mind while writing the script?
Sid – We don’t write with any actor in mind; it’s much easier that way, because you never know who will end up playing the part. We definitely have a say in the casting. We suggested Akshay Kumar’s name to Neeraj Pandey (Producer), long ago, much before he was cast.
Garima – He seemed like a perfect fit.
Sid – But at that time, Neeraj said that he wasn’t looking at Akshay for this role. So that chapter was closed and we tried other people. But like Akshay has mentioned, a lot of people rejected the role.
Garima – A lot of people would have liked to do it, but it’s a risky proposition. Also, we are happier that a bigger star is doing this film because that will help increase the reach and communicate the message to more people.
When it came to the rest of the cast too, we were completely involved in the process. We wanted Divyendu Sharma to play the brother, which has also turned out beautifully in the film. For that matter, both of us were completely involved in the entire process of the making from casting to costumes. We would also like to credit our director, Shree Narayan Singh and even Akshay sir, we were all working hand in glove with each other. And that shows in the film.
You’ll have also written the songs of the film, how did you’ll approach the lyrics to keep them in tandem with the story?
Sid – We believe that songs are an extension of the screenplay, what you don’t say in a screenplay or dialogue, is what you should say in the song, ideally. But the ideal case has become redundant now, which is why I think that the music and the film become completely different these days. Earlier, when you saw movies by Hrishikesh Mukherjee or Basu Chatterjee, you wouldn’t realize that the song has come and gone, because it’s taking the story forward. And that’s our attempt too.
Garima – Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela was our first film and we did all the songs for the film. Initially, we didn’t actually know that we were doing the entire album for the film, but we would keep writing little mukhdas in the screenplay, wherever the situation would arise. When Sanjay sir saw this, he really liked them, because those were the lines he was looking for. For instance, the line in the song Lahu Munh Lag Gaya, is not said in any dialogue in the film, it is present only in the song.
That’s what we have been trying to do. We were very worried about the music of TEPK, because this is not a film where you can just add any dance number, or expect it to play in the disco.
How many times in our career will we get a chance to say something so big, which has a multi-fold impact on people?
It’s also important to retain the milieu and keep the local dialect coherent in the songs.
Sid – Our songs are always a part of the screenplay; we always mention probable situations where a song could come. We always write a hook line as well. With TEPK, there were several discussions about the music and many people wanted to do it, but nothing worked out because there was a sudden change in the tone, which none of us were happy about. The film has a particular tone, which isn’t revealed in the trailer yet. So, we didn’t want the songs to have a different tone altogether and were more than happy to write them.
Garima – Also, we always see that the song reflects what the character is feeling at that given time. In Hans Mat Pagli, as you can see in the trailer, there’s this man who has not been married for all these years, so the way he would behave or what he would try to tell the girl are things that we kept in mind. Bakheda too comes at a very distinct point in the film, so when you watch the film, you’ll know when and why we have devised these numbers. All those lines in the various songs communicate something, which we knew had to be true to the film.
People in those parts of the country are not ready to talk about toilets, forget doing something about it
Much has been said about Hans Mat Pagli promoting stalker behavior. What are your thoughts?
Sid – There is a simple truth behind it – films are a reflection of society, it’s not the other way round. Jo ho raha hai, wahi dikhega (What you get to see is what is actually happening). A writer is also influenced by the things that he/she sees around them. But we’re not glorifying anything; we’re showing what is happening.
Garima – It’s a character that we’ve created and right now, we can all be judges of something by merely watching a small trailer. You don’t event know what is happening in the story. So, someone can’t say that we’re promoting stalking without knowing the context.
These days, plagiarism is another issue plaguing writers. How do you’ll deal with it? What message would you like to give co-writers to avoid such instances?
Sid – We have around four cases against TEPK but none of them are true. We registered the script three years back, so we have nothing to worry about it.
Garima – The first and foremost thing, the only thing that’s securing a writer is to register your script. In fact, we have registered the script from the concept stage, right from the word go. We had taken the concept to Neeraj Pandey way back in 2012, so we are not worried about any allegations. But if someone has not registered their script, then I really don’t know what they can do.
There was a documentary filmmaker whose documentary released last year and he claimed that we’ve picked up the idea (of TEPK) from him. But we’ve done a counter claim on him since our script was registered much before that.
Ultimately, it’s an idea; it could come to anyone. But if I’ve registered it first, and got the money to make it, then I’ll obviously go ahead. One should always fight back in such a situation.
The ideal case has become redundant now, which is why the music and the film become completely different these days
In one of your interviews, you’ll have mentioned that it’s important to you’ll that this film reaches more people, more than just good numbers at the box office. How important is taking up such social subjects through films?
Sid – It is important, that’s the reason we chose to write a film like this, because we wanted to make a big impact. Having said that, we are showing what happens in society and only a medium like cinema can help to bring about a change; it can at least make a point, if not change things.
Garima – We feel fortunate that as people who are from the entertainment industry and write to entertain people, we came across a subject like this and actually decided to take it up and succeeded in making it. How many times in our career will we get a chance to say something so big, which has a multi-fold impact on people? We’d love to do more of this in the future.
Sid – And it is a responsibility, but responsibility is too big a word. At the end of the day, we are making a film; our primary objective is entertaining while the secondary objective is getting a message across to people.
Having started with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whom you’ll look up to as a mentor, how has he influenced you as writers?
Garima – Raam Leela was more like film school for us. That process has been rooted into us. For instance, during Raam Leela too we went to Kutch for research, we were on the shoots and were a part of everything. Now, we follow that for all our films. There are some production houses that like it while som don’t, but we cannot leave our scripts alone. Those things come from learning from such a man. Even attention to detail, understanding good writing, telling good from bad; we’ve learnt it all from him.
Only a medium like cinema can help to bring about a change; it can at least make a point, if not change things
On TEPK, how did it help to have an editor turned director helming the film?
Sid – He’s not an insecure director, which is very important for a first time director. You need to see what’s best for the film, which we as writers also do. No matter where or whom the suggestion comes from, if it helps the film, you go for it.
Garima – When an editor turns into a director, there is this clarity on how long the shot should be, where to cut etc. And the one thing we have to give Shree Narayan Singh is he stuck to the script and then shot the scenes to the best of his ability. Like Sanjay Leela Bhansali, he too believes that it is a level playing field for all and that shows in the output.
You’ll work as one unit, but what are your individual strengths that come together to form this strong team?
Sid – That’s a trade secret (laughs)
Garima – Both of us write everything together!
Sid – But there are strengths like she can work in chaos, I cannot.
Garima – His strength is revisions and attention to detail. He can keep chiseling a scene till it is perfect.
Our natural inclination is towards humor. Both of us think and write in humor
Considering digital is the norm, and having done a web series in the past, are you’ll be open to writing for the Internet?
Garima – A short film would be more like.
Sid – We are open to web series too. But the reason for currently not doing web series is that the people who make TV in our country are the ones largely heading the web divisions too, so, you get to see the same content. You need new minds, new people.
Garima – Some of the Shaadi Boys’ episodes were made like soaps, even though they were not written like that. So we were very disappointed.
Sid – We’re not demeaning television, there is an audience for that but at least on the web you need to do something different. If something like that comes our way, then why not.