A workshop for screenwriters, discussion by authors of their books ranging from fantasy to history, and glimpses of contemporary literary trends… the writers attends some of the events on Day 2 of The Hindu Lit for Life 2014
Craft of the Screenplay
Something must happen in the first five minutes of a movie, reiterated screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan. At the two-hour workshop she conducted at The Hindu Lit for Life 2014, Sabrina highlighted the importance of asking the question ‘why’ and dealt in detail about scripting a screenplay from scratch.
Why does something happen today? Why can’t it happen three days from now or after a week? This question was repeatedly thrown up at the workshop. “It means that something happens on that day that changes everything. That’s the most critical part of writing a screenplay,” she said. “Establish the goal. What does the character want? What does he need?”
The workshop also talked about creating a tension in the story, so that it gets the audience hooked. “Why does your character want something?” questioned Sabrina. “You have to make the audience care about it.” And when the character gets what it wants, the goal is reached. “Sometimes this happens, sometimes this doesn’t. At other times, the protagonists don’t get what they want but get what they need.”
While openings are fun to write, Sabrina warned that it’s the middle of the plot that’s the hardest. “You have so many ideas about how your story should start, so openings are always good to write. But the middle of the story is the toughest because that’s where you bring your first turning point and the mid-point crisis. This is tough because you have to do this without losing enthusiasm. The characters, on the other hand, evolve. They frequently reveal to us who they are through the situations we put them in and the decisions they take,” she explained.
Whether it is the juxtaposing of fiction and fact in Ashwin Sanghi’s writing or the creation of a completely new dystopian world in Samantha Shannon’s books, the world of fantastical writing is something to explore. This was spoken about in detail in Tall Tales: Fantastical Stories from the East and West by Ashwin and Samantha and the conversation was moderated by Shovon Chowdhury.
Samantha felt the uncontrollable need to kick down the walls of literature. “I just can’t stick to a story that does not have magic. I have a need to create. That’s the wonderful thing about writing, isn’t it? That you can create an imaginary world where everything you have dreamt of can be real,” said Samantha. Ashwin talked about adding fiction to fact and making it more approachable. “A myth is a lie that conceals or reveals a truth. But if it reveals even a strand of history or truth, that’s what gets my adrenaline going.”
Writers in the West, Samantha feels, have not yet begun to explore myth in fantasy writing. “We draw from religion and myth because they provide a trajectory of stories. When you are a fantasy writer, you can’t really be too original because you will be destroying so many stories that are already associated with it. Besides, if you combine the two, people tend to think you are preachy,” she explained. Approaching the story with a sense of respect solves this problem, pointed out Ashwin. “That respect reflects in your story. Our country has the oldest tradition of storytelling and this was much before writing stories even became a norm. Oral storytelling goes back so long ago and those stories that were told orally were always layered and changed with time.”
Samantha’s books also explore the dark side of the world just as Ashwin’s books look at some stories that are about the divine. “People strive to understand darkness and do so through their writing. In books, you can experience horrible things without them really happening to you,” she added, while Ashwin said, “What is divine? It is simply that which man has not been able to understand. Once you do, it loses its divinity.”
Return of a King
William Dalrymple began with a flourish of his hand. “Relocate yourself on a desert road in 1837.” And from there, he took the audience on an hour-long journey through the deserts of Baluchistan, the streets of Kandahar and into the minds of the British army and the Afghan warriors. Introduced by Ranvir Shah, the session brought to life Dalrymple’s history book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan.
The talk began with a messenger riding back to the British camp with news. “It’s a winter night and suddenly, it gets very cold. A solitary figure rides his horse in the desert. He has been riding for three or four days and is exhausted. At some point, he falls asleep. When he wakes up he realises he is lost. Then, he sees something approaching from a distance. So he quickly hides in a cave with his horse. What he sees is a crowd drawing near that changes the history of Afghanistan, India, Iran and many other countries,” he said.
William narrated the events leading up to the First Afghan War such as the spread of the empire of the British East India Company and Russia. “India was being rapidly conquered by a public limited company which had the largest standing army in Asia,” he explained. On the other side, the Russians were conquering many nations. “These two enormous European powers advanced towards Asia. Decade by decade, they were getting closer and the only logical conclusion is that they would meet somewhere in the future. This place was what we call Afghanistan today.”
And the author did not stop with narrating the story but offered interesting insights, reading from letters written at that time or from diary entries of some of the men in the army. When the British army began marching towards Afghanistan, William noted that they took 20,000 soldiers with them. There were also 38,000 camp followers and 30,000 camels. “The interesting thing is that 360 camels carried the wine and 30 carried cigars and one camel carried just eau de cologne,” he said. There were also sheep herded for food and prisoners who were taken along, “But the only thing they didn’t have was a map!”
From the changing definition of language to using words as a painter would his palette, many literary trends were discussed at Granta’s Luminaries: Two rising international stars discuss exciting contemporary literary trends. The panel had authors Taiye Selasi and Xiaolu Guo in conversation with Parvathi Nayar. The event was presented by the British Council.
Both authors read excerpts from their book and explained how they got into writing. “I grew up in the south of China and went to Beijing to train in filmmaking. But, as a child, I wrote poetry and later, wrote more novels than I made films,” said Xialou, “It’s a closed society there and so I became anarchic to certain systems. Then I lived in Paris and Berlin for a while before settling in London. So these places have shaped my writing.” Taiye talked about growing up in a multicultural family. “My mother is Nigerian and Scottish, while my dad is from Ghana. I grew up in the U.S. and moved to Rome, where I now live. If I ask myself whether all these places shaped my writing I would say that they have in one way and haven’t in another,” she said. “Geography doesn’t affect my writing as much as culture does.”
Xialou’s first English book A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Loverstalked about the complexities of being Chinese and learning to speak English. “Chinese does not have verbs or tenses, so it was difficult for me to grasp the past or future tense,” she said. “In China, what I wrote was self-censored. So when I came to London, I wanted to write about political problems, sexual problems and so on. But before all that, I had to address a little problem I had — the problem of language. With that, I could incorporate my other problems organically into the narrative.”
Taiye’s first novel Ghana must Go is a character study revolving around a Nigerian-Ghanian family of six. “What moves me in a book is the language and its rhythm. If an author uses words as a painter uses his palette to create form, then that’s what endears it to me. The ability to hear the rhythm of a book is fundamental to me.”
The Karnatic Story
Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna’s book A Southern Music: The Karnatic Story is a contemplation on the genre, drawn from its rich history and a contested present. It was born of a journey Krishna began a decade ago questioning his art, its techniques, the source of its elusive beauty and the meaning of that beauty when found. “I wrote this book as a musician, not as a performer,” said the singer in a conversation with author Gopalkrishna Gandhi on the Lit for Life 2014 stage. “I had to take myself out of my own skin.”
A Southern Music dodges the label “classical music” throughout for Krishna says the term comes laden with sociological associations. “It brings in hierarchy, class differentiation, and subjective questions of sophistication. I’d prefer to look at Carnatic music as it stands without all this paraphernalia.” The result, observed Gandhi, is a work that consistently maintains a grip on the grammar of Carnatic music, yet leaves you with a sense that the grammar isn’t its most pivotal point. “That’s because the grammar exists only because the music does. I need the grammar of Carnatic music in my heart when I sing, but it’s not technique in its entirety; it’s only a part of the ultimate experience.” The idea is better explained in Krishna’s understanding of lyrics in their “syllabo-melodic” meaning rather than as plain words in themselves. After a quick demonstration from a Thyagaraja composition Krishna said, “When a word is sung, it’s impossible to separate its meaning from the tune, because the same word within the same piece could be performed differently depending on the tune. The aesthetic of a word changes with its music.”
Gandhi was quick to ask him then if he planned someday of a concert just of alapanas. “Why not?” answered Krishna. “Each thala or laya has a meaning in itself. And your time with each art reflects your honesty and integrity to that kind of art. The aesthetic movement of your music drives you to its next place. You may sing an alapana in kalyani and then just want to hear thodi after it.” Gandhi then reminded him of a controversial concert where Krishna closed midway through the time allotted him saying he could continue no longer. “There are moments in your music when your art opens itself to you in a way of absolute beauty, that you want to hold that moment forever,” clarified Krishna. “I respect those moments. Going on further would have been placing my ego in full display. I’d like to think that art happens, not that it’s made.” It was at a similar moment of beauty that Krishna chose a career in music. “I was at a two-hour D.K. Pattammal concert, at the close of which I was left in tears. I wasn’t happy, sad or depressed but I was crying uncontrollably. That’s when I knew I wanted to do this for life.”
Film director and writer Piyush Jha is best known for his films Chalo America, King of Bollywood and Sikander, while screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan has scripted hits such as Monsoon Wedding, Kaminey, Ishqiya, Cosmopolitan and 11.9.01. In a conversation on the art of scriptwriting, both revealed that they came to writing from varied fields: Sabrina had grown up in a “removed world” where her family rarely watched films, and Piyush stumbled into ad films after a management degree. Their common ground was that both their first films were written on the tightrope — Piyush had eight days to finish Chalo America for National Film Development Corporation of India’s approval and Sabrina had four days before Monsoon Wedding was presented before a revision class.
“Everyone has an idea for a film, and thinks it’s the easiest thing to write a script,” said Sabrina. But the skill comes only with much practise, she added, because unlike writing a book, one only has sound and images to convey ideas with. “I’ve been doing this for 12 years, but it still takes me 12-20 drafts before I get a full script right.” Piyush called screenwriting a “craft”. “It takes about four screenplays to get one right. Everything is about action. The writer can’t just say a character is angry; he needs to reveal that anger in actions. And that’s the challenge.” It’s about “showing”, not “telling”, clarified Sabrina.
In screenwriting, Piyush said that “economy is everything”. “Every line has to exist for a reason in your screenplay because each line is directly linked to screen time.” Their discussions emphasised that screenwriters must always remember their art is a collaborative one. “It’s a mini-miracle every time all the different elements of filmmaking come together to make a good film.” The art is easier when one writes from what one knows best. Of her own work, Sabrina said Monsoon Wedding was easier to write because it was about a middle-class family in Delhi, a world she was familiar with. While Piyush directs his own scripts, he said he only writes of what he is most passionate about.
The right moves
Most of us move as though we’re uncomfortable in our own bodies,” said contemporary dancer and choreographer Anita Ratnam. Movement workshops, such as the one she conducted at Lit For Life, are a baby step toward loosening our taut selves. Anita’s workshop opened with basic movement exercises such as swaying like a tree in the wind, and mimicking the large and heavy strides of an elephant, as opposed to the light and quick jumps of a monkey. “These body representations of different kinds of movement are a springboard for the participants to take off and start thinking,” said Anita.
The workshop also included 20-minute exercises that participants had to do blind-folded. “When you believe that no one else is watching you, you are automatically uninhibited,” explained Anita. These were supplemented with “trust exercises” that the participants did in groups where they had to learn to balance themselves, touch and hold each other in support.
“My workshops are a combination of the techniques I use in dance and theatre. I’ve done them with corporates, with special-needs children and with people across age groups, like this one.” The key is to find a common ground across the participants, and for them to apply these principles in their daily lives. For instance, a parent wondered if these could help her daughter’s attention deficit, while another participant hoped to use them for self-esteem building projects. The workshop closed with the participants creating an abstract painting, where their body shapes filled in the colours.
The Women’s Room
The noon session featured writers Easterine Kire and Kishwar Desai in conversation with author Anita Nair, who spoke about writing as women and remaining sensitive to women’s issues while also negotiating their space in the literary world as writers first. “When I first wrote about foeticide people weren’t very interested because they thought I was delving into something that had already been taken care of. But the census report of 2011 proved that our gender ratio was getting further skewered,” said Kishwar. However, she added, “When I write fiction the fun lies in the fact that I can play any part I wish. That is the best part about fiction!”
Anita Nair spoke about the questions she often has to answer. “When I tell a man that my next novel is a historical one his immediate response is ‘is it a romance?’” Easterine Kire, author of books like A Terrible Matriarchy spoke of people from Europe and all over the world relating to her stories. “I like to think of myself as not just a teller of women’s stories but that of peoples’. My books deal with the history and social conditions of the Nagas,” she added. The authors established that while being a woman is part of their identity it is not their entire identity as writers.
Voices from the Past
The session by Vidya Shah was as breezy as the evening in the open Courtyard at The Hindu Lit for Life. As the night grew darker Vidya’s lovely renditions and thoroughly enjoyable anecdotes about the women whose voices were recorded in early India with the introduction of gramophones kept all of us hooked! Vidya, who is trained in Carnatic as well as khayal, thumri, dadra and ghazal presented excerpts from her project Women on Record. She spoke not just of the great women singers of the North and the South who took to the gramophone very well but also of the social impact of these recordings and even showed the audience clippings of old advertisements for the devices from across the subcontinent. “The male singers shunned the recording sessions for long because they thought it was not an honourable thing to do — selling their music through recordings.”
One such anecdote was about Gauhar Jan’s signature at the end of her recordings. She would sign off differently each time and in the one recording that Vidya played for the audience the singer said, “My name is Gauhar Jan Champion!” Vidya narrated several delightful stories about the colourful personalities who dominated the music industry.
Between renditions in different styles of music she also spoke about the evolution of singers. “There was hierarchy among the singers too. There were Bais, then there were Jans and later there were also Miss, showing how they also enjoyed the patronage of the British!,” Vidya explained.
Keywords: The Hindu Lit for Life 2014, Day 2 events, The Hindu Lit Fest, authors at Lit Fest, Sabrina Dhawan, Ashwin Sanghi, Samantha Shannon, Shovon Chowdhury, William Dalrymple, Ranvir Shah, Taiye Selasi, Xiaolu Guo, TM Krishna, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Piyush Jha, Anita Ratnam, Easterine Kire, Kishwar Desai, Vidya Shah