Pubali Chaudhuri is a Bollywood screenwriter who has had two of her scripts turned into blockbuster Bollywood films. Rock On!, a movie about four friends who reunite to relive their moments of glory as a rock band, which released in 2008 was Pubali’s debut screenwriting effort for the Hindi film industry. This was followed by Kai Po Che four years later and was directed by Abhishek Kapoor who had helmed Rock On! as well. Like Rock On!, KPC is a story about friends but the tone, mood and feel of the film is totally different. It tells the tale of three friends, Ishaan, Omi and Govind who start a training academy to produce the country’s next cricket stars. Adapted from Chetan Bhagat’s novel 3 Mistakes of My Life, the story is set in Gujarat during the turbulent times of the Godhra riots. The film recently won a clutch of awards and earned Pubali her first Filmfare Award for screenwriting. Here she talks about her writing, discusses the story decisions she took while writing Kai Po Che and ponders on life as a sceenwriter in this candid interview. But a word of caution to readers who haven’t yet seen the film, there are a few spoilers…so first watch the film and then come back and check out this interview. And now, over to Pubali….
You did a film screenwriting course in FTII and you land a top assignment, writing Rock On! for a top production house in Bollywood! That sounds like a screenwriter’s dream come true. Could you tell us a bit about that journey?
Perhaps you never know when you’re living a ‘dream’ … but yes, there was hard work and happy coincidence behind it. A friend and colleague Aditya Kripalani had introduced me to Abhishek in 2006, who had a story idea about a music band reuniting after a gap. At that point there was no producer or actor attached to the project, so I started the project as a spec thing that the director is trying to mount. The fact that Abhishek could rope in Farhan and Excel Entertainment and the film got made was good luck for us. And perhaps some merit in the script?
As a writer of a “hit” film you should have been flooded with screenwriting offers. But there seems to have been a bit of a gap between your first and second assignments. Care to talk about it? Were you dejected? Or were you taking it cool and doing other things?
Define ‘hit’ film! Rock On! certainly wasn’t a blockbuster hit like the Rs. 100+ crore plus films are touted to be. It did fairly well at the box office and was noticed for its difference in content and treatment. I think Rock On! gave us recall value and a certain branding more than commercial success.
Maybe it’s just my awful networking skills or maybe it has something to do with the position of a writer in the film industry that my phone stayed steadfastly silent after the film released, at least as far as job offers went!
I’m sure I had one or two assignments but I certainly wasn’t well known in town… I started working on Kai Po Che in 2009… the fact that it took four years in the making is the story of how unpredictable and uncertain the process of film making can be! In between I had also worked with couple of other directors, was hired by studios for couple of other assignments but none of them made it to the shooting floor. I was also teaching part time at Whistling Woods while writing KPC. I’ve been working consistently …well, as consistently as freelancers can or do! But the number of scripts you write and the number of films that happen are rarely equal for a writer.
Kai Po Che has established you as one of the top writers in the Hindi film industry and you have the Filmfare Award as testimony. a) How does that feel? and b) how scary was the prospect of adapting a popular book by Chetan Bhagat?
I have one Filmfare Award to show for KPC. But it definitely felt like an acknowledgement from the industry for the hard work one puts in. It also felt, in many ways, as if it’s the end of a chapter of my life – since my move to Bombay, starting off a new career to finally getting a public acknowledgement for my work. Honestly, my first thought was if I can retire from “Bollywood” now. LOL. Or it’s just the beginning of the miles ahead.
To answer your second question, I don’t think I was daunted at the thought of adapting 3 Mistakes of My Life. Having been a literature student, you would feel daunted if you had to adapt the works of a literary giant like Tagore or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I think my bigger concern that the film should not be a total embarrassment for me in front of the discerning audience.
Did you have a brief from director Abhishek Kapoor on the adaptation? Can you tell us a bit about your process for adapting the book into a screenplay. And the inputs provided by Kapoor and Chetan Bhagat?
Many screenwriting gurus insist that the protagonist of a film should always “drive the action”. However, in Kai Po Che, the three protagonists are kind of victims of circumstances, things happen to them and they react to it. Your thoughts?
Umm, I think in KPC you have a balance of characters driving the story and things happening to them. And that’s closer to life, isn’t it? The boys decide to open a sports shop to take charge of their future; Ishaan specifically goes out to spot Ali and makes it his mission to train the boy; it’s Govind’s ambition that drives them to book a store at the upcoming mall. Vidya drives the romance between her and Govind. Omi is perhaps the most passive of the three lead characters – but that’s part of the design of the story. It is because Omi is the ‘lackey’ amidst the three friends that he finally gets swept away by the importance he finds in the political party, thanks to his uncle’s influential position. The external events that impact the characters’ lives shape up into a specific form of dramatic situation because of who they are. For example, after the earthquake, when Ishaan takes Ali and his family and neighbours to the relief camp, it is Ishaan’s secularism and Omi’s latent communalism and weakness of character that leads to the big fight between the two friends.
It’s often said that the antagonist is just like the protagonist except that he/she doesn’t have the moral core. Ishaan’s character was almost similar to Bittu Mama in terms of his zeal and passion but of course while Bittu is obsessed about religion, Ishan’s passion is cricket. Even so, it seemed to me like Ishaan’s character has something less than noble about it — given that he is motivated also by the fact that Ali’s success will translate into money and fame for him as well as help him redeem himself — Omi even hints at it when he says: “Ishaan only cares about himself”. Did this flaw in his character bother you during the writing? Did you worry during the writing that Ishaan was too much of a grey character/anti-hero? Your thoughts about the crafting of a nuanced character such as Ishaan.
Well, to begin with, flawed characters fascinate me. Nice guys not only finish last, they make for boring stories! Nobody is perfect and neither should our heroes be, for them to become relatable and identifiable as characters. You look at Mahabharat and each and every character is nuanced… the Pandavas have their faults and Krishna is a manipulator. That’s what makes it great story telling.
It is interesting that you mention Ishaan’s interest in Ali’s cricketing career as ‘less than noble’. The Ishaan-Ali ‘love story’ so to say, is the emotional core of the film for me – it’s the purest relationship I have within the plethora of characters. Ishaan brings Ali under his wings not because Ali’s cricketing talent can someday bring rewards to Ishaan (and that would have been a really weak motivation to drive the film) but because Ishaan spots the potential in Ali and believes that the boy should get a chance to realize it. Ishaan himself has not been able to succeed in cricket and perhaps it is his sense of failure that makes him passionate about Ali’s chances at the game. In that sense, his motives are ‘selfish’ to the extent that he wants to relive his dream through this boy. But a coach–protégé relationship goes much beyond personal gains… do you think Ramakant Achrekar’s fame or riches compare with Sachin Tendulkar’s?! So it is certainly not material success that drives Ishaan. As for Omi calling Ishaan selfish, it’s actually Omi’s hurt talking. I wanted to build Ali-Ishaan-Omi almost like a ‘love triangle’. Omi is Ishaan’s trusted shadow and he suddenly feels his position usurped by this two bit Muslim boy. He in fact says that how could Ishaan hit him in front of so many people just for the sake of that boy…that’s jealousy talking!
Ishaan is more self absorbed than selfish (though the lines can be blurry) …but I guess people who are dreamers and have a passion like a malaise (as cricket is to Ishaan) can be like that – the world blurs out and you only have eyes for your goal.
Real life events — like the Gujarat earthquake, the riots, the India-Australia cricket match — anchored the story and yet didn’t overwhelm the fictional story. How hard was it to achieve this balance?
The real life events impinging on the fictional lives is one of the reasons why KPC is more than just a buddy film. I suppose we had two kinds of problems – on one hand finding how something like the earthquake would affect the personal stories and on the other hand, how the riots should not overshadow the personal stories. The Gujarat violence is still such a raw scar on our nation that it took quite a bit of effort not to have it overtake the entire narrative. It was well possible to make a sharper political statement with KPC but Abhishek was sure that he wasn’t making a ‘political film’. When your film’s climax is set against the genocide it’s tough to stay away from the politics of it. But on the other hand we were in no way making a propaganda film – so the idea was to stay focused on the characters and how the events impact their life paths.
One of the most visually and emotionally dramatic moments in the film is the scene where Ishaan and Omi resolve their differences and it’s cricket that provides the bonding force. What is your special moment in the film and why?
My favourite would probably be when Ishaan goes to make up with Ali, after having slapped the boy. I always had a mental picture of Ali’s den…a room on the terrace that is the boy’s own personal world. Ali has locked himself in that room and Ishaan asks him politely if he can come inside…in answer Ali rolls out a marble and then as we enter Ali’s room we see that Ali has drawn the same diagram of the cricket field that Ishaan had drawn to explain on and offside to the boy. It’s a small little moment, but I have always felt that it conveys so much of the relationship between Ishaan and Ali without having to take recourse to dialogue. In like about 15 seconds I am able to convey the crux of the bonding between these two characters – that Ishaan does not ask Ali to come out but instead requests to be let in- thus signaling that he is ready to give up his ‘top’ position to reach out to the boy. And in turn Ali trusts him enough to let him enter his personal space …and through that diagram we get a sense that the boy hasn’t been blind to Ishaan’s lessons – that he is in fact trying to learn and ingest the passion that Ishaan shows for the game.
Did you ever toy with the idea of giving screen time to Ishaan’s back story (his failure as a cricketer)?
Too much of lame screenwriting happens because filmmakers don’t trust the audience’s intelligence. I do not agree that the audience has to be spoon-fed.
This film is about three friends who have known each other since childhood and we catch them in medias res…in the middle of the action. Or rather at a critical juncture when they are getting together to start a new initiative. It was imperative that we have trust in our story telling and not fall back upon lame flashbacks to explain what happened before. We don’t get into how their friendships were formed -we just see 3 characters and through their current day interaction we come to know that these boys have known each other for ages- they exude that kind of familiarity. Similarly Ishaan’s passion for cricket is signaled right from the first scene and then in subsequent scenes we get to know that he failed a selection test. When Omi tries to flatter Ishaan by reminding him of some brilliant match he played earlier, Ishaan simply responds with a half sarcastic comment ‘world famous in Belrampur’. Effective writing exists between the lines and in the nuancing of characters and actions. So, no, I never considered giving out back-stories through flashbacks and resisted using voice over to retain the tone of the book in the film.
You said somewhere that you wrote 18 drafts of the script… how do you keep going and not lose focus and motivation during the revisions?
Lately I’ve realized that there hasn’t been a single project where I haven’t felt like it’s beyond me; I cannot do this and I should give up! As a writer when your project doesn’t get greenlit, when actors repeatedly turn down the roles pointing that the script isn’t working for them, it just adds to the huge shadow of self doubt that anyway a writer battles on a daily basis while writing. Somewhere around the tenth draft, I realized, thanks to a meeting with Mr. Javed Akhtar, why the script isn’t working. A year’s work had already gone in and I guess I was both daunted and challenged by what lay ahead to make this story work on screen. So I went back to the drawing board and rewrote the story first – because we had a fundamental story problem with three characters having three different goals.
Rewrites can be painful but it’s an essential process. It tests the writer’s grit and conviction in the story. I realized that the script is not working but I guess I had too much ego to give up on the project – I had to get it right. Or somewhere close to right.
What are you writing next and when does one get to see the next Pubali Chaudhuri written film?
A career in films is a career in ‘speculation’ …especially for directors and writers who start from scratch and have no idea what the fate of the project will be. Somewhere along the line, you dismiss making any plans for the future. Its like Krishna’s famous saying ‘work without expectations of results’. So frankly, I don’t even know, that there will be another ‘Pubali Chaudhuri’ film, as you so kindly put it 🙂 The Rock On sequel has been an on going project for more than 2 years – maybe it will some day become a film. Maybe I shall quit midway. Like a good plot, you never know what’s coming next in life!
Your advice to women scriptwriters who want to break into the Hindi film industry.
Hmm, to begin with, I don’t like being labeled as a ‘woman’ in my line of work. That way, I have been a ‘woman content writer’, a ‘woman line producer’ etc etc. I would like to believe that in the work arena, I’m a professional first and a woman second.
Having said that, I would be lying if I said gender politics doesn’t play a part in our everyday lives or in our professional dealings. In that sense you should be ready to face a double ‘handicap’.
Generally speaking, a film writer is not regarded as an important position in the film industry. Over and above that, if you’re a woman it will be tougher to get yourself heard or taken seriously in a room full of men who are sure they know better than you! I’d say you need a hide as thick as a rhinoceros, the tenacity of a long distance runner, and over and above all, humility and a dedication to your art that must be safeguarded against everything else you face in the industry.
Thanks a million, Pubali, for taking the time to do this interview and all the best for your future writing assignments. 🙂