What makes a script click with audiences? Screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan’s workshop, a part of The Hindu Lit for Life, has the answers

Sabrina Dhawan opened her innings as a screenwriter 12 years ago, and has gone on to craft a fairly impressive career curve. But, any dialogue with her would seem incomplete without harking back to Monsoon Wedding, that acclaimed 2001 Mira Nair family drama set around an Indian wedding, which she wrote as a film studies student at Columbia University.

New York-based Sabrina, in a telephonic chat, takes a few seconds before coming up with the reason why her story clicked with the audience. She notes, “You know, though Monsoon Wedding was set in India, I wrote its screenplay in America which I now feel was an advantage for me. Had I written it in India, it would have been an angrier film. Being outside India, I could look at the story and its situations in a more balanced way.” Having grown up in Delhi, she says, gave her “the insider’s eye” to split open the fissures, illustrate the nuances, and being faraway “the outsider’s gaze” to provide the canvas a fair tenor.

These days, Sabrina revisits that story almost every day. Besides teaching at the Department of Dramatic Writing in New York University and screenwriting assignments, she is busy giving the finishing touches to the stage adaptation of Monsoon Wedding, which Nair will direct. “It is a Broadway musical with the characters breaking out into song. Though it is the same story, writing for the stage is different from writing for a film, which I feel is much easier because you can cut to one location from the other unlike theatre which doesn’t give you that freedom,” she says, adding, “Though it is a musical, the dialogue element in it is so much more than in the film.”

Sabrina, also credited for the award-winning short film Saanjh, has done something that a writer would not typically like to do — share credit space. She co-wrote Ishqiya and Kaminey with director Vishal Bharadwaj. The former Newstrack journalist is categorical about her decision. “With Vishal, it was easy. He already had the stories, I restructured them and, in the process, a lot of things changed, some characters also got dropped. We had our differences but we also had different strengths which helped us shape the stories better. I don’t think I would like to do it with other people.”

Both Ishqiya and Kaminey worked and accolades were heaped on Vishal. Sabrina here expresses the same grouse that you frequently hear other Bollywood scriptwriters air. “The director contributes to a film immensely but filmmaking is a collaborative work; a director doesn’t direct from a blank page, someone writes those pages. But when a film works, both the audience and the critics tend to forget it. Many a time, you hear people talk about a director taking up an issue in his/her film but forget that it is the writer who has introduced it in the story,” she underlines.

She, however, looks at this phenomenon from a wider angle. “There is some sort of historical reason for it. You can look at it as an influence of the Auteur Theory associated with the French New Wave that has globally influenced film criticism.” In Bollywood history, she can recall only one period where scriptwriters were accorded the same importance as directors. “I can only think of the Salim-Javed period.”

Not just the profile of Bollywood films, but that of filmgoers too has undergone a change today. Watching cinema is no more the first resort of entertainment only for the poor. Mushrooming multiplexes are fast becoming the preferred resort of the moneyed. It has ripples on how scriptwriters employ language or create characters. Sabrina says it is important to reconcile yourself to the fact that you are not writing a film story for everyone because there are so many demographics. “Filmmaking is incredibly expensive, so a film needs to make money. It has to target a certain segment, a certain sensitivity, to make it appealing. That is why different people write different stories.” As a screenwriter, she concentrates “more on the structure of the story than the language of the dialogues.”

Sabrina notes that being outside India is a disadvantage for her. “I read Indian newspapers, have Indian friends and family, am active on social media, visit India at least twice a year but it is not the same as living in India, particularly when my kind of film writing is about contemporary India.”

But, this is not much of an issue, at the moment, as she is writing the script of an adaptation of Bengali Detective, a documentary by Phil Cox, for Fox Searchlight. And yet again, Nair will direct the crime-comedy drama.

The Craft of the Screenplay

Aspiring to be a successful scriptwriter? Be a participant in screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan’s workshop on the nuances of writing a script.

Sabrina Dhawan made her debut as screenwriter with Monsoon Wedding, which won the ‘Leon D’Oro’ at the Venice Film Festival, and received a Golden Globe nomination. Her short film, Saanjh: As Night Falls, won numerous awards and was nominated for a Student Academy Award. Sabrina’s other produced screenplay credits include Kaminey, Ishqiya, 11.9.01., and Cosmopolitan.

Only 30 seats! So hurry! Book your spot now!

To register, log on to www.eventjini.com

Fee: Rs. 995

Date: January 12, 2014

Time: 10.00 a.m. to 12.00 noon

Venue: Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Auditorium, Lady Andal School, Harrington Road, Chetpet, Chennai.

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Sabrina DhawanDecember 2, 2013