Jaideep Sahni, one of the most respected film writers of our times, shares his craft and concerns.
Here is a screenwriter who quietly points out that people we don’t usually see on screen actually exist in real life. When somebody asks him whether fake baraatis exist, like in his screenplay of Shuddh Desi Romance (SDR), that questions our borrowed construct of romantic comedy, Jaideep Sahni doesn’t tell them that he has ridden pillion on the dusty roads of Jaipur to meet such people. When during a screening his female colleague suddenly looks at him, shocked at his portrayal of a female protagonist who openly flaunts her past affairs but is as confused about love as anybody else, Sahni doesn’t tell her it is time we not only talk about fairness but also dare to show it on screen.
He is quiet for he gives his film six months to breathe and after that he analyses it. Till then he is absorbing the conflicting points of view, which is too much for a romantic comedy. His answers end with ‘don’t they’, ‘isn’t it’ — because he doesn’t want his to be the last word on the subject. He starts with answers like, “I am hardly an expert on romantic films. All I have done before is to write songs for other films made by my friends. It’s the first time I have myself written a script around relationships, and it’s still running, so I would be the last person to have any wisdom on all this.” But push a little and this engineer by training gives a peek into his fertile mind. “It’s not just an effort to make a romantic comedy, but also a comedy about romance as we all sometimes imagine it to be, in our lives, especially at that age. That’s the actual thing which is puzzling many people about whether they liked it or they didn’t, because it is generating two conflicting reactions in their hearts. But that’s what makes it itself and is the seed of its personality, good or bad,” says Sahni, who has an eclectic mix of films in his resume. From Khosla Ka Ghosla to Company to Chak De, he has explored different terrains and dialects to mould his characters. He has explored the big bubbly canvas with Bunty Aur Babli and has been short and incisive with Rocket Singh. “We have grown up with a mindset that film characters do this and don’t indulge in this. Real people are not like that. For years we have been showing feudal mindsets and gender bias on screen in the name of tradition. Only their version and degree changes.” He finds ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ much abused terms in our society to avoid facing the change. Still he doesn’t mock at them. Instead his character Goyal questions the fleet-footed nature of the young generation in SDR.
“As a caterer he is unsure whether his profession will last if live-in relationships become the norm, but the questions he raises on love and fidelity are vital.” Fame rests easy on Jaideep’s shoulders who feels research is as important and as trivial in the life of a writer as it is for a doctor to know his patient’s history. Here, in the midst of shifting houses in Mumbai, he takes a few questions.
In Shuddh Desi Romance, there is a line ‘baap hi raho baap banne ki koshish na karo’ (remain my father don’t try to become one) in reference to your female protagonist. This was not expected from a middle class girl in a Hindi mainstream romance.
It’s a nosey neighbour’s own speculation about her view of her father’s concern about her love life. That apart, it’s a just a way of putting a thought across and both women and men speak like this all the time in real life. Characters don’t know how people should speak in Hindi films. They only know how they speak, don’t they?
This year some films have told us that holding hands in a smaller city is still taboo and the conflict doesn’t exist in big cities. You have found a way out of both the assertions.
There may be a broad sense of how people behave in various places, but ultimately people just behave like people. The country is changing faster than we realise and I don’t think there are any fixed watertight ways anymore of how people behave anywhere. That apart, it’s how you look at stereotypes. It helps to be aware of them because they are a troublesome part of reality too, but why get trapped in them? Isn’t it better to just treat people like people, with their own personalities? They ultimately do become themselves, no matter where they are from, once you get to know them anyway.
The male protagonist Raghu is neither a know-all type who can be smarter than girls through the film nor does he suffer from the usual confusions we find a metrosexual man suffering from in romantic comedies. like “Love Aaj Kal” or “Break Ke Baad”. Did you fear any time that the film is tilting towards female characters or was that the intention?
No, as writer, director, actors, etc, none of us saw the story in these terms. For us it was just about these three people at a stage of life where they are trying to form their own ideas of love, attraction and commitment. It wasn’t about who appears smarter or more heroic or more noble or more anything than the others, because that would kind of defeat the purpose of what we were trying to explore. It’s just about their own journeys towards finding out how they feel about these very pressing issues at that age, and we all know from experience that these journeys are hardly logical in the way films sometimes tend to be.
For a change a Hindi film, that too a Yash Raj film, was promoted through the writer-director.
It was the film’s producer Aditya Chopra’s belief in this, and maybe a bit about the work Maneesh (Sharma) and I have done before which the audiences may have liked and remembered. Our marketing colleagues too felt that doing this may do its two bits towards attracting people to the film. Who knows, maybe it did. But at a bigger level than us, it’s a good sign. There has been a gradual upturn in film writing, and steps like these help set a tone. More and more people are becoming aware that writing has something to do with whether they liked or didn’t like a film, and that’s a good thing. But we still have a long way to go, both as writers who are realising we need to up our game and as an industry which is realising that it needs writers to be both skilled and happy.
One has heard you don’t like to work on commissioned scripts.
It’s a not that I don’t like to work on commissioned scripts, I’m just better at my scripts, that’s all. Like many writers I know, I feel a greater sense of responsibility and ownership towards ideas which I have a personal and not just professional connection with, so the chances of work turning out good are a little better there. Sometimes other people’s ideas captivate you too, but it doesn't always happen when and where you’d like it to happen, it’s a bit of a Ludo game. But when it does, it’s equally wonderful.
How much do you travel and research for your characters?
Calling it research would be perhaps pushing it, it’s simply finding out more about a topic which fascinates you. You’re curious about something, so you go with it wherever it takes you. Sometimes you already know enough, so you need to go in instead, to find out what you feel about what you know. Sometimes it results in a script and sometimes it’s just time well spent. Some films like Chak De or Company needed quite a bit of it because of my own ignorance about the subjects when I started. But others like Khosla Ka Ghosla weren’t so tough because both Dibakar and I grew up in that environment. That kind of film has other challenges, like just getting it made, and then, released.
How do you use dialects to delineate characters?
The problem with being a Hindi film writer and knowing only a few languages is that you and your audience miss out on so much of the cultures, languages, dialects, ethnicities, religions and beliefs our part of the world has. It can leave you feeling pretty deprived sometimes, like you’re in a language and culture jail. So learning and writing in the various dialects of Hindustani used all over the country can be such a freeing experience. Company had the Bombay dialect for most characters and another dialect of Hindustani which Mohanlal’s character spoke. Khosla Ka Ghosla had people from a very specific section of the Delhi middle class and they spoke that way. Chak De had many, many dialects floating around from all over the country which we really enjoyed doing. In Rocket Singh, Giri played by D. Santosh spoke in Dakhni or Hyderabadi. In Shuddh Desi Romance, there is a strong Marwadi-Mevadi flavour to many characters and a lot more in the “Chanchal Mann Ati Random” song which I loved writing.