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Jaideep Sahni on screen writing

Courtesy: IndiaFM
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Another talented name in the world of Indian screenwriting. From Jungle to Bunty Aur Babli, Jaideep Sahni has always been synonymous with originality. His movie Company was highly acclaimed and now he has his film Khosla Ka Ghosla all set to release.

Have you had any professional training in terms of screen-writing?
Nothing besides reading books and screenplays and the newspaper. I got interested in screenwriting few years back on reading the screenplay of Gandhi by John Briley, but there was no screenwriting courses here then, so the only option was to teach yourself by watching films (which I don't do often enough), reading screenplays and narrating your stuff to others to see what gets them and what bores them. I've more or less learnt on the job from people I've worked with-directors, actors, producers, other writers and so on.

Do you think any professional training for screen-writing is necessary?
Not really, Salim-Javed never went to a screenwriting school but still ended up becoming a screenwriting school for all of us. Too much education can kill a perfectly smart brain forever. But it's desirable in terms of craft, in basic things like creative writing classes in every university which most people in the west take for granted. We spend our childhood dreading our Physics-Chemistry-Math scores and hundreds of entrance exams instead, which is a pity for those who are not so inclined. It's strange, I always say I never went to a film school, I went to Jungle instead-and recently Anurag told me the same thing-that he never went to a film school, he went to Satya instead.

How did you get your first break?
I came to the business as a tourist. After quitting my advertising job I was working as a communications consultant to ad agencies and corporates. At the same time RGV was looking for a new writer and somebody told him about me. We met, I told him that I hadn't written an actual screenplay before but I'd love to give it a shot if he didn't mind having a new guy. And him being him, he said that's exactly what he wanted. So the first film I did was Jungle. And then Company.

Do you thinking writing in team helps or writing alone is much better?
Its different strokes for different folks, I guess. I prefer working alone because I feel more ownership, motivation and responsibility that way. I like being responsible for what I put on paper. As it is while writing your head is crammed full of so many characters, you don't need any more in your life while writing! But that's just my way; it doesn't have to be everyone's way. Salim-Javed wrote the greatest stuff together for years. Vishal (Bharadwaj) writes great scripts with other writers, though he does his fantastic dialogues himself. So it's different for different people.

What is the difference between a story, screenplay and dialogues when it comes to screen-writing?
The way we work in Hindi films, the story is really the idea-hopefully a big idea-which can be hopefully put in a page. A screenplay in Hindi films is what is known as the Step Outline in Hollywood-a clear description of what happens in each scene, sometimes with indicative dialogue, sometimes without, with some clarity of where you want songs to play a role if at all. And dialogue stage is very often where it all comes together, what characters are saying to each other, whether they are sitting or standing or walking or swimming, what's the background score or editing pattern you imagine as the writer, the look, feel, pace, vibe of the film.

Do you agree with the fact that script-writers in India don't get their due credits as much as in Hollywood?
Yes and no. Very often writers put in a lot of work and don't get enough credit, but equally often they contribute too little and expect to be known as the living force behind the film. But I have also noticed that mostly the reason why they haven't contributed enough is that nobody let them or trusted them.

Also don't you agree that there is hardly any original writing going in India? Writers just adapt from foreign DVDs
Writers mostly are not responsible for that-it's the many directors and producers who operate that way. Every writer gets up in the morning wanting to create something original that he or she can proudly call his or her own. But writers are people too, it's unfair to expect every writer to be a great revolutionary when he's not getting paid enough to even survive and everybody else is partying at the Marriot. Also the people you work with play a big part in this-I have been lucky to always have worked with directors and producers who take great pride in doing their own thing-and I have mostly been paid fairly-though I know that's not the usual story with every writer.

How original is Khosla Ka Ghosla. Any inspirations?
It's original. It's inspired by our original experiences as people who grew up in middle class and something that happened with my own family when I was little.

Do you think the scene off lately is changing for writers in India and is getting a little better?
It definitely is, and more so because writers are coming forward and being accountable for their work, investing in learning the craft, refusing to do shit, the audience is paying to see new stuff, and the new directors and producers are listening to the audience intelligently and not with cynical fear or loathing. For example, studios like Yash Raj Films treat writers with great respect and pay them fairly. But it's not changing fast enough, and still a long way from being great.

Which Indian writers do you admire?
Salim-Javed and Gulzar saab. Among my contemporaries, I've always liked Anurag's, Abbas's, Shridhar's, Victor's and Habib's writing, though we all have different styles-it's a great set of guys to hang out and talk craft and general rubbish with. I love how Raju Hirani writes. I love Vishal's writing and Nagesh's too, I wish I remember to tell them this often enough. I liked the work of the RDB team too.

Which foreign writers do you admire?
Strangely I like Michael Crichton for his talent for simplifying, demystifying and energizing almost any subject on Earth-I guess that appeals to the science freak in me-though most people I know here don't seem to feel that way. I like John Briley (Gandhi) and John Bailey (Moulin Rouge, Chicago) and Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) and Nora Ephron (when Harrry Met Sally), Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones, Love Actually), Mark Norman (Shakespeare In Love, The Aviator), Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love), Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) and Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay) and Woody Allen a lot too. I have learnt a lot from the work the great TV guys Steven Bochco and David Kelley too-they were my first great writing heroes.

Can you earn a living out of writing or are writers grossly underpaid in India?
You're not about to get super rich anytime soon, but you can live reasonably well if you don't do ugly short term deals with bad films and bad directors and screw up your head and your reputation soon after.

What advise do you give a writer who has a script in hand? How should he approach a producer?
If you have a script in hand, get it registered at the writer's association, if possible get a copyright, and then just distribute the hell out of it. Even if it doesn't get made, if you write well you'll be noticed and offered work. And if it gets stolen, complain to the writer's association and begin writing the next one.

Do you write a particular script keeping an actor in mind or an actor is roped in depending on the script?
I think writers are better off thinking about of characters rather than actors; otherwise they end up doing disservice to the actors too. In my case, the scripts have mostly been written first, at least a decent draft with full dialogue, and then actors have come in at different stages from then onwards. But that's also because I've been working with producers and directors who take pride in working that way. Though sometimes if you know a particular actor is playing a part you have written and you have time before the shoot, you go back and give the character another pass to enhance their pluses, or sometimes protect it from their minuses-though in my case I've always been lucky to work with actors who have mostly added value to my effort. I hear all these horror stories and I know a lot of them are true, but for some reason they've never happened to me.

What are your forthcoming projects?
Script and lyrics of film based in the world of women's sports for Yash Raj Films directed by Shimit Amin, starring Shah Rukh Khan and an entire team of fresh actors, which is currently in production. And after that another two projects with Yash Raj Films.

Wouldn't you want to direct your own script?
Not unless I really very strongly feel that a Director wouldn't get what I'm trying to tell. I don't have the patience and the attention span of one and a half year that directing a film demands-I get bored and restless and want to do other things. So as of now it sounds like a bad idea to me.

Just recently, you were selected as a member of the 11-member committee formed under the guidance of Anjum Rajabali in the screenwriter's conference at FTII, Pune. Can you tell us what has been the progress on the committee and do we see better prospects for upcoming writers? Any new initiatives taken by the committee?
There are many things being planned, but it all has just started. But yes, I see better prospects for screenwriters, few in the short term, some in the medium term, and many in the long term.

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