We had put out the first post here – Notes From Anjum Rajabali’s Screenwriting Workshop – Part I. If you haven’t read it yet, do check out that first. This is the second one in the series.
Our friend Dipti Kharude attended the workshop. The second post is bit longer than the first one. But it’s quite great. So have patience and keep reading.
Day 3 (continue)
“Jitna accha jiyoge utna accha maal milega.” By ‘maal’ Anjum was referring to fodder for imagination. Beginning the day with Anjum’s witticism set the tone for days full of master classes. Their readiness to admit their struggles led to an illuminating discourse.
Session 7: Master class with Sudip Sharma and Navdeep Singh
A discussion on character motivation with reference to NH10
Arjun is slapped in front of his wife. His honour was also ruptured. With a gun and high-profile contacts on his phone, he is armed with a sense of personal entitlement. They realized that the character should have displayed these traits of a hot-blooded Delhi male. When Sudip tried to incorporate these traits, he received feedback that the character would be unlikeable with these attributes. Sudeep admitted, “This was a mistake. It’s not my job to make him likeable.”
If you change characters, the structure is bound to change. In NH10, revenge was a part of ACT III. If NH10 involved two characters from Pulp Fiction, revenge would have had to be juicier and a part of ACT II, itself.
In terms of structure, they had planned to start the film at the Dhaba itself but NH10 worked because the characters were relatable. It was not Korean violence. The purpose of the scene where Meera makes a presentation in a corporate set-up was to make the characters seem like ‘one of us’. This was also the case with the party scene.
There were suggestions from producers to include happy flashbacks. NH10 had all the makings of a B-movie but Sudip and Navdeep were steadfast about the themes being honour and gender. This uplifted the story. “People thought that our themes were too overt but it was a conscious choice.”
Moving on to some nifty tips, Sudeep is vehemently against putting a camera movement in the script. Directors hate that.
Instead of writing ‘long shot’, you could write – A bridge across the river.
Instead of writing ‘Mid-shot’, you could write – A man on it.
Instead of writing, ‘Close-up’, you could write – A tear rolls down his cheek.
A good script leaves room for interpretation by the director. You should only provide a visual landscape.
Sudip’s favourite NH10 moment was not scripted. The child laughed when Meera is slapped by Ammaji (Deepti Naval). Navdeep kept the moment. It is a harsh and disturbing moment where you can see patriarchy at work and the child is already on the path of violence.
The famed scene where Meera says ‘Fuck you’ was not a part of the initial drafts. She’s an established swimmer. In the earlier drafts, she swims across a canal and throws her wet shoes at them. This scene was to mark her first success. They didn’t find a canal and had to settle for a rock quarry and that is the genesis of the aforesaid scene.
Setting/Milieu is important in a film – Just like Varanasi is a character in Masaan, Gurgaon is a character in NH10.
On the process of writer-director collaboration, they advised not jump into writing the story immediately. Stay with it. Spend a few months talking about it. Watch other films in that zone.
You can’t sit with one script and say you’re a writer. Sudip wrote about 25 scripts before NH10 materialised.
They also highly recommend the process of index cards, where you write one-liners of scenes sequentially on cards and keep them with you. Put them up on a wall and colour code them, if you’d like. It helps you understand what kind of scenes each of the acts is made up of.
Takeaway – Your characters determine the structure/genre of your story.
Session 8: Mythology: Discovering the heights of drama from the depths of human nature (Notes of this session are sketchy. Nevertheless, this topic deserves a separate workshop of its own. Thanks to the participants fawning over the writers conducting master classes, Anjum was forced to not cover it as comprehensively as he would have liked to)
The content and dramatic forms of Mahabharata and Ramayana have had an overarching influence on Indian screenwriting. Anjum spoke about how mythology lends itself to reinterpretation and how mythological stories have evolved over time. We discussed how Valmiki’s Ramayana doesn’t entail Agnipariksha or the iconic Lakshaman Rekha.
Anjum spoke about the integration of Mahabharata in the film Rajneeti and how one of the most important scenes in the film modeled on Kunti revealing to Karan that she’s his mother, didn’t deliver the impact.
He also explained how Arjun (Ranbir in Rajneeti) evolves. The better he gets at dealing with war, the more he declines morally.
In Ramayana, Ram has to adhere to the ideal of Maryada Purshottam and hence he doesn’t reveal his emotions. The character of Lakshman serves this purpose, instead.
Anjum also explained how the phrase ‘Narova Kunjarova’ has over the centuries and millenia symbolized ambiguity in a message in our culture. It has been channelized into dialogues and storylines.
Anjum wrapped up this session by saying, “Believe in magic. We are getting too obsessed with Hollywood’s realism.”
Takeaway: Tap into mythology for some interesting conflicts and insights into human behaviour. Stories need not be real. They should be lifelike.
Mythology: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey
The three phases the hero has to go through for the hero’s spirit to be unleashed.
– The Call
– Refusal of the Call
– Supernatural Aid
– Crossing of the first threshold
– Belly of the whale
– Road of trials
– Meeting with the goddess
– Women as temptress
– Atonement with the Father
– Apotheosis (Harmony)
– The Ultimate Boon
– Refusal to return
– Magic Light
– Rescue from without
– Crossing of the Return Threshold
– Master of the two worlds
– Freedom to live
This is a part of Joseph Campbell’s book, A Hero with a Thousand Faces.
George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope is based largely on this journey.
Takeaway: Overcome the hurdles at each stage. Our lives are a series of heroic journeys. The hero’s struggle is rewarding. S/he is defined by her/his steadfast commitment. Our creative blocks come out of residues of parental repression. In life, like in films, we need to resolve our psychological blocks to emerge as heroes.
Session 9: Master class with Himanshu Sharma
Screenplays are not supposed to be read. They’re supposed to be seen. You might disagree with something but you should write it with conviction.
While discussing his method, Himanshu told us that he imagines scenes and snippets and starts building them up. For Tanu Weds Manu, the scene where Tanu has passed out and Manu kisses her came to him first. He discussed it with Anand Rai and they took it ahead. He writes a scene and finds a way to get there. Himanshu calls it the experience of discovery – if he’s taking trouble to figure it out, even the audience won’t find it predictable.
He believes that his films work because of nostalgia. Stay rooted. Write what you know. Even in that milieu, scandal is always better than banal.
Encash your current emotional situation – be it a heartbreak or a divorce.
While discussing the flaws of his films, he gave an instance of Raanjhanaa. The second half was problematic. The entire political chunk was not written well. Kundan’s character was not supposed to be as sweet as he appears in the film. Kundan’s character has stayed with him and demands a new film.
The scene where Manu proposes to Datto and calls her Tanu in TWMR was a genuine mistake. It was a typo and it played out as a good moment.
Pappi is essentially an extension of Mannu. They are the same.
Dattoo was portrayed as a strong character, so that she could handle the abandonment by Manu.
On the toughest part of writing, Himanshu says, “Main climax hi nahi kar pata”, which drew quite a few laughs.
Session 10: Master class Saiwyn Quadros and Sanyuktha Chawla (Writer and dialogue writer of Neerja)
Saiwyn wanted to make a woman centric film since female actors are more willing to work with first time writer/directors than male heroes. He admitted that if it was in his hands, he would have cast a girl from Manipur in the role of the athlete in Mary Kom.
While speaking of her journey, Sanyukhta said, “Have you ever seen a rich writer?”
During the narration of Neerja, it was the climatic point where Neerja’s parents receive her body on her 23rd birthday that made the biggest impact. Ram Madhvani wanted it to be a mother-daughter story. Not a story about hijack. The end would have been sappy but Shabana’s speech made it inspirational.
Writers have to mislead the viewers. During ‘Neerja’, when she opens the emergency exit, you feel like she is going to be safe. How can she die now?
On the terrorists not displaying more of their characteristics, Saiwayn said, delving into the Libya/Palestine issue would alienate the audience. Their character exploration would take away from Neerja’s journey. The language they spoke was an issue. Earlier they thought of going with Urdu and later, Arabic. “We thought when the passengers don’t understand what the terrorists are speaking, it leads to more dread. The terrorists couldn’t fit into the bracket of menace. They were uncertain.”
On Ram Madhvani being a tough taskmaster: The scenes in the plane were shot in 12 days with a four camera setup. Ram Madhvani wanted it to be more like theatre. It involved one hour takes without cuts.
The script involved an emotional objectives draft and the business objectives draft (who’s doing what in scenes, like Neerja winding the tape of a cassette on her way to the airport).
While converting conversation into dialogue, find a real person as a reference for that character.
Add something new to a true story. The audience will then be convinced that you are capable of surprising them. The real Neerja was a Dire Straits fan, not a Rajesh Khanna fan. Saiwyn’s father was a Rajesh Khanna fan. Since Rajesh Khanna’s character, Anand celebrates death, it was fitting.
Session 11: Scene Design and Dialogue
Anjum continued his discussion about the first scene introducing the character of Antonio Salieri in the film, Amadeus.
In that context, Anjum explained how to use dialogue as action rather than dialogue as information. Resist the need to answer a dialogue with a dialogue. What does the character want? What are his expectations? When the expectations of two characters don’t match, you have drama! In the Amadeus scene, the concern of the writer was eliciting Salieri’s grief? No one remembers him. He is in an asylum. He is envious of Mozart, who is more acclaimed. He works much harder than Mozart but still Mozart is better. This envy is a universal condition.
Two and a half minutes is ideal time for a scene to unfold.
Vijay’s character is overcompensating in Deewar. The knowledge of psychological defence mechanisms can be very helpful in writing dialogues.
While constructing a scene and writing dialogues, take two steps forward and one step backward. The uncertain helps maintain the intrigue.
Deconstructing a scene from Satya where Bhiku Mhatre returns home from prison, Anjum said, “Be faithful to the characters and where they come from.” Despite being a love scene, Bhiku slaps his wife. This is their world. She slaps him back. That is catharsis. It shows how intimately they know each other. Look for such possibilities.
Push your characters. Push your pen. Don’t tell the audience what they already know.
We went to study the scene from Sixth Sense where the kid reveals to the mother that he sees ghosts. He explained how the choice of place and time is perfect. They are both in a car and stuck in a traffic jam. The mother is forced to give him undivided attention. The dialogue uses natural anxieties of the characters. The wordplay is worth observing in this scene.
Takeaway: When a dialogue has a dramatic surprise, it is good writing.
Session 12: Master Class with Sriram Raghavan
Anjum asked us to watch Sriram’s short, The Eight Column Affair, and his film on Raman Raghav before introducing him.
Sriram spoke about what didn’t work with Agent Vinod. “You love it too much. You hug it too hard. You kill it.” He wishes to re-edit Agent Vinod and put it on Youtube.
In Badlapur, grief turns into uncontrollable anger. Anjum asked Sriram, if the protagonist waited for 20 years, he should have come up with a better revenge plan. Sriram clarified, “He was not brewing revenge. He just shut himself up for 20 years. He was confining himself. It is not his agenda. The agenda finds him when a lady knocks on his door. The misogyny in the character is intentional”. Sriram accepted that the film should have shed some light on the emotional state of the protagonist during his confinement.
On his method: “I take a book. Read half of it and then brainstorm with my friends about the possible turns the story can take. I also like to play a certain kind of music to be in the zone. Jaideep is my Dial-a-dialogue.” He confessed that he hated it when a writer once gave camera directions in the script – “Zack Snyder style slo mo.”
Session 13: Master Class with Jaideep Sahni
Since he was an engineer, Jaideep looked at a screenplay as an algorithm to make a film. It is a scientific process.
The writer confesses to having never watched Hindi films before writing Jungle; his only exposure to Bollywood being Hindi songs. He realized careers work only for people who want to do one thing forever. So he decided to let go of those careers once and for all to live simply but do everything he wanted. This freedom helped him be a writer. When he came across the screenplay of Gandhi at a bookshop one day, it changed his life. “I fell in love with screenwriting by then and kept trying to learn and make my own screenplays and songs and showing them to anybody who had the time.”
He says, Bunty aur Babli taught him to insert lip-sync songs in a script. He could do away with 15 pages of his script after Gulzar wrote the song, Chote Chote shehron se, Khali bor dopahron se.
His scripts get their dramatic energy from life. Though he didn’t know much about the sub-culture of organized crime, he used his knowledge of the group dynamics of student politics while writing Company. He grew up seeing the helplessness and self-righteousness of the middle-class and wrote Khosla ka Ghosla. Based on a real incident in his life, he had suggested the second half of the film as a solution when he was a kid.
He had heard of Kiraaye ke baraati (Shuddha Desi Romance) but it took him two months to find them and write about them.
Jaideep wanted to focus on small towns like Jaipur in Rajasthan and not depict deserts. Details like the way women wear a dupatta around their faces for privacy more than protection against the sun in Tier II cities intrigue him and trigger story ideas.
Session 14: Master class with Varun Grover and Neeraj Ghaywan
Objectivity is the biggest treasure of collaboration. The run-up to the first draft is the most beautiful process. Find your film before you go to the final draft.
Varun mentioned that he was an emotional wreck after his college stint drew to a close. Going back and feeling like a Banarasi was important to him. “A lot of stuff in the films exists just because of our love for the city.” He mentioned that the working title of the film was Raand-Saand-Seedhi-Sanyasi.
The montage sequences in the film are a tribute to Inarritu’s Babel and Amores Perros. They advised against inserting stylistic elements in the screenplay.
Neeraj spoke about how 7-8 mentors at Sundance helped them hone the screenplay.
They also admitted how they willingly went ahead with some contrivances in the film.
Session 15: Master class with Sridhar Raghavan
He began with an introduction of Trinity Writers’ Room and the process they followed. Only 2 out of 8 writers selected had formal experience. Passion was the only qualifying criterion apart. They were asked to write a film review and a scene that could be added/removed from a particular film. So, they picked ardent, funny and well-read writers who would love the process of collaboration while writing.
Their first focus is ideas. Come up with as many ideas as possible. We latch on to our pet ideas. At a buffet, why stuff your plate with salads? Make a circuit of the whole place first. Take an idea; try all the routes – comedy, thriller etc. The Writers’ Room is training the writers to covert ideas into stories and to explore genre. The ideas could come through various sources – a poem, a painting or an article.
Sridhar’s process – I am a voracious reader and traveller. I keep collecting data and putting it in different shoeboxes. I read somewhere that even after you burn a piece of paper, there is way to retrieve the text. This forensic device became a source of ideas.
The duality of Goa fascinated me. After hearing of a murder in Arpora, I spoke to a number people and collected information. I indulged in free association and wrote a piece. I showed it to Nishikant Kamath. It was not a screenplay but prose. It was not meant to be a movie but a book till Fox Studios picked it up.
I would advice you to focus more on characters. Take reference points for characters from real life instead of thinking of a character like ‘Daniel Craig’ from so and so film.
He went on to explain about digital writing – episodic writing which involves more character exploration. It is too early to discern the structure of digital writing. Narcos as a film didn’t do well but the series gave the characters room to breathe. Watch every pilot that comes out of different countries. He recommended Turkish television shows for the writing.
Session 16: Master Class with Juhi Chaturvedi
Juhi spoke about how she fought with her father to get into fine arts only to find out much later that writing was her true calling.
On the premise of Vicky donor, Juhu spoke about how the idea came to her after she had her first child. The vague idea that triggered the premise was – What if a guy goes about donating sperm but cannot have his own kids.
Anjum intervened and explained how films like Piku and Vicky Donor are not so much about constipation or sperm donation but more about the emotional consequences of those conditions.
On writing dialogue, Juhi said, “I don’t write character sketches. Forget you’re a writer when you write dialogues. Talk like the characters. Let the characters talk crap. See if you can turn your scenes into moments. Piku doesn’t say ‘Don’t go’, she says, ‘You’re going?’”
Juhi doesn’t like to reference films. She doesn’t watch anything when she’s writing. Day-to-day characters and the mundane fascinate her.
When she rehearses, she rehearses the silent moments as well.
Anjum mentioned how the end of Piku didn’t go down very well with him. “Sattar saal ki umar mein ek badi potty ki aur mar gaya.” Piku and Bhaskor feed off each other. Many of us agreed that a resolution while he was alive would have uplifted the film. After his death, if her psychological issues remain, she is still not liberated.
Session 17: Writing Protocols/Professional guidance
1) Write a working premise
2) 1 Page story – (Synopsis – paragraph format – like a short story)
3) 4 Page Story – (Synopsis – paragraph format – like a short story)
4) Revise the premise
5) 8 and half pages – Treatment Note – Has to have the possibility of showing on the screen
6) Step Outline – The determining document. (30-35 pages). Include one line scenes with scene numbers. Also known as beat sheet. (Ideal number of scenes – 75 to 100).
7) Script without dialogue (Casting, budgeting, location can be done on this basis)
8) Script with dialogue or screenplay – (Maximum – 100 pages)
When you introduce a character, use ALL CAPS. For example, NAVEEN (mid-30s, lanky with a nervous energy)
First scene after the interval is a buffer scene. People take time to settle. Factor a scene that offers a recap even while it’s taking the story ahead.
Beat is a significant change not expressed with a huge reaction. Whenever such a moment occurs, write BEAT. Use it sparingly.
A song is a scene. Mention the description of the song. What it is doing? What will the song encompass visually?
Quick Tips & Tools
1) Concept Note – Half a Page
2) Why does this script have the possibility of universal resonance?
3) 1 page story + 4 page story
4) Covering Letter about yourself and mention which stage the script is in
Do not send this mail without having written the script.
Softwares available for screenwriting:
2) Final Draft (Paid)
3) Movie Magic Screenwriter
3. Mahindra Mumbai Mantra New Voices Fellowship
– Read one script every day.
– Make a list of a dozen films, you really like. Watch the film completely. Write the step outline.
– Use your own fingers and experience the magic of transcribing scripts and writing them. You will feel like a contributor of the script.
– When your thinking becomes like that of a cinematic storyteller, every sentence will become a shot.
– He also covered copyright advice and the importance of FWA. While mentioning his busyness, he said that he doesn’t care for award ceremonies. One of the awards he has received is in the drawer where he keeps his ‘undies’.
Closing Talk by Subhash Ghai
The beginning of this session was like a time warp, thanks to an old AV about the showman. He was quite the candid raconteur.
He advised aspiring writers to make a case study file. Note down the box office collections, reviews and your own thoughts against every new movie watched. You will learn to see trends and make connections.
He also took a dig at a writer-director duo that conducted a master class during the event and couldn’t articulate the premise of their own film. Ghai blurted out the premise of their film and the loglines of many other new age films.
He believes that Ram Lakhan is similar in spirit to Kapoor and Sons. Cinema has to change with time. The new world wants to dissociate itself from the values of the 70s. “Fine by me. I believe in making movies for the audiences.”
Once a writer told Ghai, “Main story sunane se darta hun. Screenplay suniye. Treatment ki kahaani hai.” He told the participants to not make this pitching mistake. “Agar tumhari kahaani treatment ki hai, toh tumhari kahani beemar hai.”
He exhorted the participants to hone their narration skills or get the help of a good narrator while pitching stories.
The brilliance of the syllabus and the speaker can’t be overstated but I do hope that they come up with a way to handle the Q&A session. It is a colossal waste of time to sit through sessions with existential questions like, “Sir, When will we win an Oscar?” Gushing is not questioning. “Sir, every frame of every film of yours is a painting” – what is the query in this statement? There are no right answers to wrong questions. When Anjum recommended Ganguli’s Mahabharata, there was a question about whether he was referring to Rupa Ganguly. Some of these questions did provide comic relief but it was appalling to see a writer and an actor (participants) break into a brawl over who gets to ask questions to the master class speakers.