As “Satyagraha” hits theatres, writer Anjum Rajabali takes questions on the genre of political films, the challenges of writing for Amitabh Bachchan and the dangers of repeating oneself

One of the foremost screenwriters in India, Anjum Rajabali is known for his volatile scripts capturing the contemporary issues that India is grappling with. Having worked with Govind Nihalani on “Drohkaal”, Anjum impressed with his writing in “The Legend of Bhagat Singh” and “Pukar”. Soon he forged a strong bond with Prakash Jha and the two have reinvented the genre of political films in Hindi cinema. His writing entertains and provokes at the same time. His screenwriting workshops are a hit with aspiring writers, and as a member of the Central Board of Film Certification he has played a role in the newfound liberal outlook of the government body. This week as he faces another litmus test at the box office with “Satyagraha”, here are excerpts from an interview.

It seems Anna’s movement was the catalyst for “Satyagraha”, but some reports suggest that you were working on it at the time of “Raajneeti”. Please clear the air.

No, neither Prakash nor I were working on it during “Raajneeti”. The idea of “Satyagraha” was triggered by our observations and our critique of the India Against Corruption campaign. I was very disconcerted by not just the narcissistic element that enveloped the leadership but also the knee-jerk way in which hordes of middle class people, especially the youth, blindly plunged in expecting their messiahs to magically eradicate corruption.

What are you trying to say beyond the father-son story? Apart from news channels, what were your sources?!

While there is a strong emotional drama of relationships at the core of the story, the narrative essentially deals with how these personal equations affect the protest movement in the film, and how that in turn throws those relationships into upheaval. One doesn’t need to rely on news channels or secondary sources to formulate one’s thoughts. Writers may be invisible, but they’re not blind, you know. They engage with social reality, and can observe, think, analyse and form their own opinion.

As a writer who touches a the raw nerve of the society through mainstream cinema, what do you make out of the emergence of the middle class on the street?

It shows how acutely distressed and frustrated everyone is, including the middle class. However, I’m afraid that that same middle class eagerly and rapidly agreed to depoliticize itself post-1991, defining themselves more as consumers than citizens. So, while the spontaneous protests have been genuine, what is required is a political response. And, unfortunately, this is where the demonstrators and candlelight marchers found themselves at sea. This might sound harsh, but it comes from a long-felt pain.

Is it because today’s urban youth seeks very little from the government in terms of education and jobs? Isn’t it both good and bad at the same time?

The relationship between the urban youth and the government has become one of utter cynicism, I believe. On either side. We’re seeing the worst kind of governance and the worst kind of politics today. The Congress is utterly corrupt, while the BJP is corrupt and fascist. The urban youth’s anger doesn’t translate into consistent and sustainable political action. Post the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, there was intense outrage followed by street marching and strident demands for accountability from politicians. And yet, within weeks the apathy was back. And, six months later, in the general elections, Mumbai recorded some 42 per cent voter turnout!

As a writer who constantly deals with political issues, how much can you say? While writing do you constantly keep a portion of your brain busy with taking out lines which might upset somebody, situations which might stop the release of the film…What’s your take?

No, I don’t do that. While I am concerned that the script should make the issue being tackled accessible to viewers, I don’t feel nervous about upsetting anybody or any force. The budget and such issues are the producer’s concern, frankly. I try to be true to what my view is.

Don’t you think the political films of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani (you worked with him in “Drohkaal” and “Chakravyuh” seemed like its watered down version) were much more scathing?

Yes. They were certainly sharper and more incisive in their expression. Vijay Tendulkar was an uncompromising writer, alright. His scripts, combined with Govind and Shyam’s direction, exploded bombs under the audience’s chairs! By the way, “Chakravyuh” wasn’t really a watered down version of “Drohkaal”. If anything, it was like a sequel to it, where the police agent turns rogue.

Is integrity of the film more important or the reach?

I’d say both. The challenge is to have a film with integrity that reaches far and wide.

When Amitabh Bachchan is in the film, it becomes difficult for the writer to balance the story. The second half of “Aarakshan” was an example, where, inadvertently, he became a one-man army. What’s your experience in “Satyagraha”?

I don’t agree with this observation. I don’t think Mr. Bachchan expects to overwhelm every script, and nor have I tried to facilitate that. Or seen Prakash do so. In “Aarakshan”, Prakash wanted the second half to open up to accommodate other ills plaguing the education system. We disagreed on that, but I gave in, as he was the director.

Raajneeti”, “Aarakshan”, “Chakryavyuh” and now “Satyagraha”, a kind of sameness has crept in the way you and Prakashji are writing and mounting your films. It seems as if a template is formed where you just have to change the issue and related point of views and the rest of the things fall in place… Are we reading too much or have you also noticed it?

Oh! I do hope that you’re reading too much into it! I’ve never consciously written to a template — neither in the politics nor the dramaturgy of the script. However, if that is creeping in inadvertently, then Prakash will have to be careful about that. And, I too.

Is it because of the pressure of the corporate production houses, who want the writers to deliver in quick time so that they can make hay before the issue loses it value in the public imagination?

Nope. Prakash is fortunately a strong figure, and no corporate house pushes him around. None of our four recent films was really timed like that. The reservation issue has been raging since April 2008. “Aarakshan” released in 2011. The Naxal movement is not about to disappear for the next 100 years. And, the IAC agitation vanished from the public imagination more than a year ago.

As a member of CBFC, can you give us some sort of idea about the kind of pressures you have to deal with when it comes to political films — as there are some members who actually represent political interests of one party or the other….

Certifying films is a tricky job. The examining panel consists of people with all kinds of views, including some who are there to protect some political interests. However, in spite of that, you will notice that this CBFC Board has noticeably raised the bar when it comes to political cinema.

It is being said writers are back in business. Do you agree? There was a time when literary people used to be part of cinema.

Screenwriters are certainly beginning to acquire prominence. Lots of interesting work is happening out there. Younger, more energetic writers are bringing a refreshing irreverence with them. It doesn’t matter if literary people don’t become screenwriters. The latter are becoming more literary in their screenwriting! Exciting times ahead for Indian cinema, I’d say!

Tell us how Prakash Jha and you came together.

In June 2002, Prakash requested me to be his script consultant for “Gangaajal”, as he was struggling to make a breakthrough. That experience worked very well for us. Then in “Apaharan” I was his script consultant from scratch. I enjoyed mentoring both. And then, we became co-writers in “Raajneeti” and onwards. We work together at the story stage, then I write the first draft, and we rewrite each other’s drafts, and try to work together on the final draft all the way up to the final edit.