While writing screenplay, you play God
He’s endearing, he’s sincere, he’s honest, he’s selfless, he’s full of stories like a true writer should be. He is writer and lyricist Mayur Puri. The man who penned ‘picture abhi baaki hai mere dost‘ speaks his heart out about Story Circus, Film Goa and his upcoming movie, ABCD 2.
Taking off from where we left it last time, how has life changed after Happy New Year?
(laughs) Fortunately or unfortunately, it hasn’t changed much. I was hoping that it would but… When Om Shaanti Om released, there was a flurry in the industry. I became the most sought after writer and got many projects of which many didn’t work out. I was always scared of that kind of a scenario where there is too much work but I’m unable to deliver. So I’ve become wary and choosy about my projects this time. I decided to choose wisely. It has been six months since Happy New Year released and I haven’t signed any film yet. Whatever came to me for doctoring or additional screenplay were stories that I didn’t connect with. As of now I am developing my own scripts.
There are two kinds of writers in the industry – commissioned writers or studio and speculative writers. I have always been the former. Producers would come to me with a story and say write the film. For the first time, I am not happy with things coming my way. So I am taking a backseat and actually becoming a struggling writer. I will write my own scripts and then sell them. It is not a financially wise decision. But in the long run, it is like a big leap, which I need to take. So you can say I am chilling.
It may appear as if you are chilling but this is the time that there is more chaos than before… in your head.
Yes. My status on social media platforms, is often ‘Poised before leap’. It’s that time for me. I am assimilating ideas and trying to be calm before I leap.
Amen! So you write lyrics, story, screenplay and dialogues. Is there any specific technique you follow for each?
Writing lyrics and dialogues are similar. For both, you need to think like the character. You need to understand the situation, the language of the character and write accordingly. Screenplay is a distinctive craft. While writing screenplay, you’re not the mortal. You play God. While writing lyrics, you become more human. I avoid overlapping these things and work on one thing at a time. Especially for dialogue writing, I go absconding from the network or ‘off the grid’. I may just cuddle into my writing pad or go to a hotel and work at a stretch. Writing dialogues needs you to be very focused. When I write lyrics, I go out, hang out with friends.
There are different approaches but there is no formula to it. These are my observations. This is how I work. But there maybe one formula that works with the entire industry and that is ‘the deadline’. It is the need of the hour.
Aah! So you don’t really have the luxury of following a technique?
That is exactly why I haven’t been able to write my own film. There is no deadline for that. Everyone has told me to get a script and they’ll make my film. The problem is that other people come with deadlines before I get working on my script.
Talking of your own script, you did have your own venture called ‘Story Circus’. What was that about?
By the time my son was three, my wife and I ran out of things to do for him. How many workshops could we take him to? How many times could we take him to the zoo? A child needs to have different experiences. We grew up in a small town and were exposed to a lot of things unlike the limited options in the city. We did some research and figured that storytelling was an extremely powerful tool of edutainment. It is a great form of entertainment as well as a learning platform for basic values. Research also revealed that the basic morality of a child is shaped between three to ten years of age. ‘Chori karna bura hai’ ya ‘Chori karke pakde jaana bura hai?’ The foundation is set at this time after which it’s a pucca ghada. His thoughts and experiences may change but the basic ethics will not. So we decided that this was the age group we should work with.
At that point I was in the industry and working on a project, which, did not turn out too well for me. I was disillusioned by the grown ups around me. I decided I didn’t want to deal with grown ups. My wife and I started an institution called Story Circus. We had a bungalow in Versova, which was the center for all activities. Every week, kids came there, listened to our stories, participated in activities related to those stories. We would have healthy food and do things to reinforce the morals of those stories. It ran for a good eighteen months. Thousand of kids and parents became a part of this. We met a lot of like-minded people. It was also like a community center for parents to discuss issues and parenting tips. The Facebook page still exists but the center has shut down. We ran out of funds, I had to put my own money into it. Eventually it was not financially viable for us to continue. As an idea, Story Circus still exists. I had taken a sabbatical at that point to run Story Circus and my Film Institute. I had to get back to writing for films around 2012. One needs to make money for philanthropy. Hopefully in the near future I will have some financial freedom to explore them again.
You mentioned your filmmaking institute. That was Film Goa, right? I was intrigued when I read about it since the spirit was the same as the idea of Pandolin.
Yes. I studied literature and theater. I never learnt filmmaking or writing academically.
There are not many institutes for filmmaking. Whistling Woods is fairly new. The only film students were those who passed out of FTII.
And that’s how many, 30 people a year? What about the rest who wanted to learn? Such education requires a commitment of a couple of years. In set ups like Whistling Woods, there is a huge financial commitment too and yet, your future in this industry is not guaranteed. Banks don’t even recognize us as an industry. Parents may not encourage their children to pursue it as a subject. It is a very expensive hobby. Not to blame these institutes but it does require that kind of investment on their part too. It is not something you can learn from books. Apart from this, they teach in a very structured or formal manner which is not how the industry functions. I met a lot of FTII and NSD pass outs who were disillusioned with the reality of the place. On the field, you start out at the same point where someone who had no film education did. I realized that there was a huge gap between the industry demand and the supply.
I am not a great academician or a man with a vision. All I had was some experience, which I thought I could share honestly. The problem is that no one tells the truth about this place. That’s how Film Goa started. Goa University partnered with me and gave me space to conduct classes. I invested my own money, yet again.
Because I was shooting there, I had met a lot of people there who wanted to learn filmmaking. The traditional idea of ‘pack-your-bags-and-go-to-Mumbai’ is not the best today. When I came here, there was no YouTube, internet was not that pervasive and accessible. Things have changed. Today, you can shoot a film on your mobile; edit it on your computer and distribute it worldwide on social networks. The idea of Film Goa was the decentralization of the Film Industry.
My students made a film on anti – smoking in less that a hundred rupees which included the cost of the cigarettes. They sold it to the Indian Medical Association for ten thousand rupees. For a film made in a day, in that budget, there was a higher return on investment than any Salman Khan film, or even a Hollywood film. I was inspired by these stories. I put in my money since I did not want any corporate meddling. I shuttled between Mumbai and Goa to mentor around 80 students over a period of eight months. Another learning was that one didn’t have to become a Hindi Filmmaker after the course. That was not the only way forward. If you knew the art of filmmaking you could use it to your advantage in any field. One of my students was a priest who made a film to spread the message of God. So that was Film Goa, which happened in 2010, when I had spent a good decade in the industry and had ample experiences to share. I will need to spend some more time to do a Film Pune or a Film Gujarat, I don’t know where.
Can’t wait! Coming to ABCD 2, it must have been easy since you’d already worked on the previous film, right?
It was even more difficult. The more you do something, the more critical you are of yourself. Things that did not bother me in part 1, started annoying me in part 2. There were similar situations and the challenge was not to do something similar again. How could I keep my interest alive in the same genre?
Personally, I am wary of doing the same thing again. I was an Assistant Director on Dhoom. When they did the next film, I didn’t do it purely because I was not excited about the story anymore. Fortunately, ABCD is a brand, which can explore aspects other than dance. Maybe I was not wise enough then but when I saw Dhoom 2 and 3, I realized that you can have franchises. However, making franchises is like a basic grammar rule of syntax. The first word limits your choice of words for the remaining sentence. The more you do, the more limited you become. ABCD 2 also has a Ganpati song. My initial reaction was – ‘Not again! What can I write about Ganpati that hasn’t been written before?’
True but I am sure you cracked it. What was the brief this time?
ABCD has always been self-briefed. That’s the best thing about working with Remo (Director). Of course there is a story and there are characters but he never restricts you with language, concepts or thoughts about the song. Sachin, Jigar, Remo and I work in a way that we constantly inspire each other. Remo may not be credited for music or lyrics but there is a lot of his soul in it.
What makes this hit combination of Sachin-Jigar and Mayur Puri work?
Work is not even 30 % of my relation with Sachin-Jigar. The same goes for Pritam. We are friends. We talk. We hang out and we happen to make songs. But the more I work with Sachin-Jigar, the more it defines us. They have tremendous respect and understanding of lyrics. Sorry to say, but a lot of music directors do not and neither do people. The first person who comes to your mind when you hear a song is the actor and the next is the singer, maybe. Eventually, when you understand the song, it is the idea that stays with you. I would like to work with people who understand that grammar is important, even the difference between a ‘ka’ and a ‘ki’.
I am an accidental lyricist. I do it because I hang out with friends. Gaane ban jaate hain. I am not out there to win awards or be the next big lyricist. When I retire, at most, I will be recognized as a minor poet of this generation. In my career of ten years, I have written just hundred songs, which is hardly a number. I have a very small fan base but I will never disappoint them. If it is my song, they know it will be something quirky, something fun, something interesting and definitely grammatically correct, unless the character speaks otherwise. There are loads of people who don’t use correct grammar.
Intentionally, you mean?
Not intentionally. They don’t know the grammar.
How could no one correct them until the song is sung and out?
I’ll give you an example. My own friends Pritam, Amitabh Bhattacharya and Ayaan Mukherjee in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani have done it in Balam Pichkaari. Tune hawa mein bhang milaya? Shouldn’t it be ‘milaayi’? This is wrong kaafiya. Things like that pass off and don’t matter to people. I will never do something like this consciously. Call them my limitations or my assets.
When you do a dance-based film, how important is it to know the technique?
As long as I am not required to dance, I am good. Right from childhood I have loved watching people dance. The human body, in the dancing form, is the pinnacle of evolution. After 300 years of modern science, we have not been able to make a robot, which can emulate a human being’s walk cycle, forget dance. Dancing is a super power. It is very inspiring. When I wrote ABCD, I wrote a few scenes about dance, which Remo loved. He thought I was the best writer for that film since I love dance but I don’t dance, myself. I just observe. I have immense respect and love for people who can dance.
You said it was difficult to revisit the same thing again. What about ‘Bezubaan Phir se’? How did you pull that off?
We found a situation, which mirrored the one we saw in the previous film. Here’s a guy who’s down and out and being pushed even more. You don’t even give him an opportunity to speak. And I said, ‘Yeh toh phir se bezubaan ho gaya.’ Everyone was excited and Remo was also keen to do it. I don’t know what I’ll do if there’s ever a third Bezubaan that I have to write.
Which is your favorite track from the album?
I love Chunar, which captures the emotion between a mother and son! There are many fun songs in the album too.
Was there any particular song that you just couldn’t crack?
Every song took us twenty days to do. It was not just about writing lyrics for me. It was more of collaboration. Remo is so accommodating that even if he’s already shot a song and you come up with something, he’ll let you do it. He would go back and shoot a close up if needed. In terms of ideation and cracking it, this time we were faster than the previous ACBD. We also decided to keep it more commercial, widen the audience and have more entertaining songs. It is a bigger film, the stakes are higher and it is a different emotion this time.
Since you are so honest and candid about your experiences, could you share one mistake you made and would tell others not to make the same?
I wouldn’t think of it as a mistake but it is definitely a deterrent. I am too serious about my work and don’t tend to hang out with people I am not working with. I have realized that it is important to be fun to be around. You may not be at backslapping terms with everyone. You don’t have to become a shallow person but you can surely have fun. I had this image of a person who was too serious about work. It will be difficult to get work because actors like to work with people who are fun. You may not be a great writer but if you’re fun to be around, the actor will go for you. They are not wrong, mind you. They know they have to spend the next 200 days with someone and that someone needs to be fun. Probably being all about work and no play is not the best way to go.