Notes from Anjum Rajabali’s Screenwriting Workshop – Part I

Posted: April 29, 2016 by moifightclub in cinema, Screenwriting, Workshop
Tags: , ,

When it comes to screenwriting, Anjum Rajabali is probably the best teacher/mentor in B-town. He organises a screenwriting workshop almost every year. We had posted about this workshop on our blog. Our friend Dipti Kharude attended the workshop this year. Here’s her extensive notes from the workshop.

Do read and thank her for putting it all together.

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In the early 2000s, I had a juvenile blog. I remember blogging about how, if there were one extravagant thing I’d want in my own house; it had to be a space for screening films. Another stray line from that same blog comes to mind. It was more like an affirmation – Wish I could make a film that would be an expression of the explosion in my heart. The bang I was referring to was a visceral reaction to incandescent instants on the silver screen. Filmmaking seemed nothing short of wizardry.

Movie clubs were magical places then. They made the idea of cinema palpable and more importantly accessible. The most spellbinding moments on screen could be traced back to a web of words on paper – the script or the screenplay – that sacrosanct document where imagination flourished.

Once I began ‘adulting’, this curiosity got sidetracked and the searing zeal waned into a tepid fascination. It was only after rupturing the shackles of a job that I submitted myself to the lure of cinema again. This time though, I decided to approach it scientifically and registered for the 5-day Screenwriting Workshop by Anjum Rajabali.

Despite the academic approach, it upheld the movie mojo. When you don’t miss your phone for 5 straight days, in a world where you are willingly tethered to your devices, you know the workshop instructor has done a stellar job.

In the interactive master classes, Jaideep Sahni, Sriram Raghavan, Juhi Chaturvedi, Himanshu Sharma, Shridhar Raghavan, Varun Grover, Neeraj Ghaywan, Sudip Sharma, Navdeep Singh, Saiwyn Quadros, Sanyuktha Chawla-Shaikh, shared their creative and professional struggles, explained their style and approach to writing, and offered a wealth of tips for new writers.

Though not without its faults, the workshop was enlightening and enthusing. Replete with Anjum’s personal stories of failure, it encouraged participants to write. ‘Till the age of 34, I didn’t know the meaning of screenplay. I had only written articles. It is possible to reinvent yourself. Get the junk out of the way, which is usually the first draft. Write what you enjoy seeing on screen and no joy equals to that of writing ‘FADE OUT’.

Without further ado, here’s a rundown of what happened at the workshop. It is a gist at best.

Day 1

Session 1: The Importance of Stories and Storytelling

After a quick introduction, we were handed writing pads with Stanley Kubrick’s quote – If it can be written or thought, it can be filmed. Anjum delved into how stories help us make sense of the chaos of life. We are constantly battling the senselessness of life and stories help us find meaning. They unravel the complexity of lived reality.

When it comes to story ideas, we were told that, just the way you don’t marry the first person you date, you don’t commit to the first idea that comes to mind. Spend time in building a trove and the one that stays is worth looking into, the prerequisite being that it should move you profoundly in a sad or joyous way. Once that idea is discerned, live, breathe and fornicate with it.

Meaningful stories are the ones that address human condition. They offer a lifelike experience and make viewers suspend their judgments. Reality takes a backseat. Lions may not speak in real life but Lion King makes the viewer suspend this disbelief.

After a bout of anecdotes, the interactive session snowballed into a volley of irrelevant questions that lasted much beyond the time allocated for the same. Future participants should be careful about asking pertinent questions to avoid this debacle. While a participant pointed out that Sholay didn’t take into account the ‘greys’ of characters and how she had a problem that Gabbar Singh was depicted as pure evil, Anjum quipped, “You can’t screw up a film like Sholay with greyness. It is not about understanding evil. It is about destroying it, as opposed to Satya.” This exchange turned into a debate about whether the workshop would be ‘democratic’. Though it was a delight to see Anjum field questions with his special brand of humour and irreverence, he was forced to downsize some other germane discussions.

Session 2 – Premise : The Dramatic Centre/ Expansion into Plot

If you can’t say it in one sentence, you don’t know what it’s about.

This one kickstarted the workshop in the real sense of the word. Premise is the interplay between the protagonist and the central situation (conflict). The energy of the story comes from these one or two sentences that form the premise. Everything else is a sub-plot.

We deciphered the premises of different films. Most of the participants were surprised when they discovered that though Dil Chahta Hai’s theme is friendship, the premise is about Aamir Khan’s failure to understand adult love.

Anjum went on to explain how the specificity of the premise is directly proportional to the effectiveness of the screenplay. In case of the film Neerja, participants deduced– It is the story of an airhostess grappling with a plane hijack and responding with courage. Anjum explained how Neerja is the story of an ordinary girl finding extraordinary courage. The particularity of the ordinariness of the character is of significance. If the airhostess were a woman trained in martial arts, the story wouldn’t have worked.

The plot is the dramatic progression of the character and the central situation. The premise generally kicks in during ACT II. While setting up the story in Act I, the character should reveal characteristics or peculiarities that lead to the premise. In Sholay, though Thakur has lost both his hands, the emotion the story evokes is only anger and not sympathy since the premise involves revenge. There is not a single scene in the film where Thakur is shown in a pitiful state.

We watched the short film, Le Poulet, inferred its premise, discussed the purpose of every scene and analysed the point where the premise was activated. Anjum helped us examine the way in which the protagonist’s struggle is visually depicted (your film should cover action, not activity). There was also a discussion on how ‘twists’ work in films. A good twist is the one that surprises you but in retrospect it’s inevitable.

Takeaway: Once an idea arrives, you need to hit upon it with a premise. The premise is like a lighthouse. If you’re ever stuck while writing a scene, look to the logline and it will push you in the right direction.

Stories fraught with failure were more revealing. Anjum candidly gave references of his own films Pukar and Arakshan and how they moved away from the premise and suffered. Pukar was to be a love story based on Samson and Delilah but the love story turned into a sub-plot when the screenplay advanced and Arakshan dealt with reservation in the first half and the second half became about commercialization of education.

Constant references to films like Sholay, Deewar and the likes were definitely helpful to those who have grown up on that fare but to a large extent the grammar of films has changed. If there were more references to contemporary films, the juxtaposition would have been more pertinent.

Session 3 – Character, Characterisation, Character Arc, Transformation.

Discovering the Character’s personality, qualities relevant to your plot.

The protagonist is defined by her/his struggle and her/his steadfast commitment.

When it comes to characterisation, imagine the vulnerabilities and unmet desires of the character. Being vulnerable is a sign of being alive. Explore the physiology (paunch, looks, etc.), sociology (caste,class,neighbourhood) and psychology of the main characters (fears, vices, early memories etc.)

Place the character in multiple ‘what if’ situations and reflect on her/his reactions. Anjum warned us about digressing and crafting character sketches that run into pages with immaterial details like the brand of toothpaste the character uses. (Precisely – Bhaad mein gayi uski chaddi/ Bhaad mein gayi uski toothpaste).The premise serves as a beacon at this stage too. The characteristics of the protagonist should propel the premise.

At the heart of any good story is character evolution. A character arc is the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story.

Ask two questions of your character with regard to the character arc:

What does s/he want?

What does s/he really want?

In case of Airlift, Ranjit Katiyal initially wants to ensure the safety of his family and then includes his employees in its ambit.

The most interesting stories are the ones where the characters have lost the battle but won the war.

Film Screening: Little Miss Sunshine

Takeaway: A character sketch is not a biography. Brevity is your best friend.

Despite Anjum repeating countless times about questioning the main characters in relation to the premise, a participant was hell-bent on deconstructing the character of Samba in Sholay.

Day 2

Session 4 – Script Analysis of Little Miss Sunshine (with emphasis on characters and their arcs)

After diving into the vulnerabilities of each character and discussing how each character was introduced on screen, we dissected the 14-minute dinner scene which exhausts all the possibilities of dissonance.

Dissonance lends the plot the essential dramatic vigour.

For a rewarding character arc, put your characters in the worst situations and dire places. Let them dig deep and find their way out.

We traced the journey of all the characters – how each of them started and how their arcs blended with the resolution of the film.

In Little Miss Sunshine, Richard tells his daughter, “If you win, we will go.” In the climax we see him joining her with jubilation as she loses. This flip makes for a good character arc.

While there have been films with a few exceptions, your scripts should have at least one major character who goes through a change in his belief or behavior.

Takeaway: Ironies and paradoxes make for good stories.

Session 5 – Structuring the Screenplay

A screening of the short film, The Lunch Date, shined a light on how prejudice operates through generalization. It is dissolved by treating the person as an individual. Hence a personal experience can help one overcome prejudice. This led to the premise of a rich lady encountering a poor, black, homeless man.

Anjum explained how it is important to exploit every single frame in a short film. The film just like Hitchcock’s Psycho sways your perspective. Irrespective of rationality or morality, viewers feel sympathy towards characters that are vulnerable and struggling.

Before plunging headlong into the three act structure, a disclaimer is in order. This popular structure is not a formula or a model to follow consciously. It is meant to be imbibed and forgotten.

Act I – Setup – Introduce characters. Establish their situations. Begin your sub-plots.

Act II – Confrontation – The plot goes into second gear and the premise blooms here.

Act III – Resolution

Takeaway: Treat the knowledge of the 3 act structure as scaffolding. Knowledge transforms to wisdom when it becomes second nature. Thought can be the enemy of creativity. Too much thinking leads to contrivances in the plot. Write and when you find yourself faltering, evaluate your screenplay with the help of the 3 act structure.

Session 6 – Scene Design

“The structural unity of the parts is such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference is not an organic part of the whole.” – Aristotle

The questions to explore before writing a scene:

What is the purpose of the scene? Is the scene related to the rest of the story? How does it advance the story? Does it reveal something important about the character? Are you introducing a character? Does the dialogue reflect character? Do your characters have something to do – any activity?

We scrutinized a scene from the film, Amadeus against the parameters mentioned above.

Screening of Incendies

Day 3

Session 6: Scene Design Continued

We studied the opening scene of The Godfather where the aim was to introduce the Godfather and his system. Anjum explained how the scene exploits the discord created by an emotional reaction. A monologue at the start of the film is generally considered as suicide but this one weaves in intrigue since it is structured like a story. This scene is a master class on how an organic quality of the character lends a dramatic touch. This drama is a rich device to bring to the fore, the hidden.

Takeaway: This was the most gratifying session since we analysed every frame of the scene and tracked its progression. While Anjum deconstructed the scene, it dawned upon me that this is the part I like most about the whole process of screenwriting – crafting the nuances of a scene. It also elevated my capacity to savour aspects of films that I had earlier mindlessly consumed.

Thanks to questions that only served to stoke the pseudo intelligence of some participants, the session on analysis of the film Incendies had to be deferred. Another purpose of questioning seemed to be name-dropping.

Dipti Kharude

Master class with Sudip Sharma and Navdeep Singh – To be continued.

  1. Rishabh Sriwastava says:

    The first scene of Omkara was equally beautiful. It establishes the mood of the movie. However in Bollywood, in most movies, first few minutes are leisurely wasted.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Very helpful.

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