Writer Manu Joseph on why he thinks morally upright characters are boring

On a sombre Sunday morning, writer Manu Joseph is finishing up his last minute meetings when I arrive. He was in the city to watch the stage adaptation of his work, Leila: Armed and Dangerous, by Madras Players.

According to me, the first question is a no brainer : “How did you like the show?” to which he curtly says, “I liked the pace of the whole thing. But a layer of humour could have helped the characters.” And there in, started our short yet enthusiastic conversation about fiction writing, adaptation and its various possibilities. Miss Leila... will also take to the screen as a TV series, very soon, he reminds.

For Joseph, a journalist and the former editor of Open magazine, the act of writing is a primal instinct — thanks to his childhood days, when he realized he was good at it. A proud child at that, he went forward. “At that time you think of a story just as a story and not as characters. I liked stories with twists in the end. And, writing was something that filled my days,” Joseph says, buttressing on the fact what led to it, initially, was the ‘corrupt knowledge’ that people liked his stories. Eventually, it became a profession.

But what takes form in the beginning, the characters or the story? I ask, “It depends,” says the writer. For instance, in the next novel, which he is currently working on, the characters have already formed. “An idea becomes a novel, when it forms a character. The story is a way of ‘winning the right’ to tell what you want to. It is what I give to you, so that you will listen to what I have to say.”

Over the course of these many years in the field of writing, as a journalist and an author, Joseph admits that, now, he knows the dos and don’ts of writing. “I don’t trust beautiful prose anymore. In my 20s, I wanted beautiful prose and wanted to achieve it. That’s not true anymore. I have realised that there is greater complexity in ideas.”

The author does not want language to get in the way of his ideas. He wants his ideas to breathe. Moreover, Joseph has always been interested only in grey characters — take for instance, Acharya from Serious Men. He says that he finds moral characters “very boring” and sometimes “even fake.” So it’s only natural that he strays away from the ‘ideal man’ trope.

Page to screen

For Joseph, the creation of a story is not all about visualisation. Visualisation is an aspect that can come later. A story is mostly borne out of “a feeling”. For example, Serious Men came from the comic anger of a poor man towards a rich guy. The Illicit Happiness of Other People came from the question of whether spirituality is a mental disorder. “You reach a moment in your thinking, when you realise that it can be a novel — it is quite similar to falling in love, I suppose,” the author says.

But visualisation has become a key factor in most of Joseph’s works. With Serious Men gearing up to be adapted to screen as a movie, and Miss Leila.. too being redefined as a TV series which will be released soon, Joseph is already familiar with the ways of the industry — in fact, he is a staunch believer of the fact that filmmakers need not entirely be faithful to the writing when it comes to visualisation. “Sometimes beautiful prose looks silly in a film or theatrical adaptation. And these are obvious traps of any kind of adaptation,” he says.

For future novels, Joseph feels that he should discuss with film writers and draw from them — “writing can be a lonely process, and film writing is a collaborative process and these insights do actually help”. In film writing, he feels that visual elements take the fore and “they are not afraid of melodrama.”

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2022 8:10:55 PM |

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