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Lajan Joseph Oommen on screenwriting

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Courtesy: IndiaFM
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Lajan Joseph - the name might not instantly strike a chord. That's a regular problem with Indian screenwriters who are not Salim-Javed. But can you relate to the person and his talent if we tell you that he is the man behind one of the most heart-warming films of recent times -Munnabhai MBBS. He co-wrote Munnabhai MBBS with Rajkumar Hirani and won almost all the awards that year for the best screenplay. After a short gap, he is back with his second script.

Have you had any professional training in terms of screen-writing? Do you think any professional training for screen-writing is necessary?
No, I haven't had any professional training. But am sure it helps. Did a Diploma in Film/Video Production from the Xavier Institute of Communications (XIC), it did help me.

How did you get your first break?
I got my first break through Mayur Puri, who, at that point was working as a writer and chief assistant director to Director Sanjay Gadhvi. They collaborated on Tere Liye, Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai, Dhoom.

Sanjay Bhai and Rajkumar Hirani are very good friends. I remember Mayur coming and telling me that Raju Bhai was looking for a writer. Sanjay Bhai vouched for Raju Bhai's integrity and sensibility as a person, and literally pushed me into meeting him.

Did you think you got enough exposure after Munnabhai MBBS or was it that Rajkumar Hirani and Abbas Tyrewala walked away with the accolades?
Did I get enough exposure on Munnabhai MBBS? Yes, I did, and more, including my first Filmfare, Sansui, IIFA, and Apsara awards, couldn't have asked for anything more from my debut film.

More importantly - I made my parent's proud. We are middle class people, and I am the only son. It hasn't been easy for them, to see their only son waste - while away his time by 'conventional' standards, doing nothing, chasing some impossible, elusive dream.

People have been extremely receptive, encouraging, and respectful. There can't be a better calling or visiting card than Munnabhai MBBS. I am very grateful to Raju Bhai and Vinod Sir for the opportunity.

Yes, people do not know me by my face or name. But that's okay. I will be talked about when I want to be talked about. What's more important to me is that I keep growing, maturing, both as a person and a professional.

We recently spoke to Mayur Puri who is co-writing My Name is Anthony Gonsalves with you. Tell us about the film
My name is Anthony Gonsalves is an aspirational film, an everyman's story, about an ordinary guy and his dream to become somebody.

It is also a story about friendship between two diametrically opposite characters - Anthony Gonsalves (debutante Nikhil Dwivedi) and Sikander Bhai (Pawan Malhotra).

It is a special film for me and Mayur - not just because it is our first collaboration together, but also because it is Nikhil's debut film and E Niwas' maiden production.

The fact that Niwas is making a film with someone without an illustrious surname is all the more heartening.

Why the title My Name is Anthony Gonsalves? Has it got anything to do with the superhit Amitabh Bachchan track?
My Name is Anthony Gonsalves has nothing to do with Mr. Bachchan's character in Amar Akbar Anthony, except for the title, and the fact that the protagonist of our film happens to be a Goan Catholic.

You have written MNIAG with Mayur Puri. How is he as a co-writer?
Mayur and I have known each other since school, and share a love-hate relationship. I hate whatever he loves, and vice-versa. He, he! But seriously, we are very different from each other, and have seen some good times and bad times together, and independent of each other. Suffice is to say, it hasn't been an easy partnership, but over the years we have come to appreciate each others strengths, and respect our differences.

Do you thinking writing in team helps or writing alone is much better?
Each has its pros and cons. It's always good to work in a team, provided that the sensibilities match and complement each other. Writing per se is a lonely job. It is not an exact science. It helps to have another active mind. A film is made on a script. Everybody knows what is to be done once the script is ready; their job is cut out for them. But, a writer starts alone, into nebulous territory, not knowing what is in store. All he has is a thought, an idea, a scene perhaps or at best a moment. You start building from there. Not an easy job.

Writing alone gives you more control over the subject though. It adds to your confidence, and your work is more individualistic.

Technically speaking, what is the difference between a story, screenplay and dialogues when it comes to screen-writing?
In this industry most people think a one line idea, or thought is the story. Wrong. An idea is built into a story, so you end up developing the story and characters, while writing the screenplay!

Screenplay is basically a series of scenes, episodes, vignettes, by which you tell the story. Each scene is there for a purpose, to take the plot forward, build action, define character, etc.

Dialogues are the simplest to understand or explain, because it's basically what the characters say or do not say.

Screenplay is the lesser know and most neglected component out of the three. Dialogue writers walk away with all the credit, because dialogues are what people remember!

Do you agree with the fact that script-writers in India don't get their due credits as much as in Hollywood?
Forget script-writers getting their due credits in India, they don't even get their dues, and often have to live on credit!

Do you think the scene off lately is changing for writers in India and is getting a little better?
Yes, new writers are coming in. But today everybody is a writer. Including my auto driver and the CEO or is it COO?... of a newfound 'corporate' production house. It's not that simple. Writing is a specialized skill. It takes time, it takes patience, it takes nurturing, a certain philosophy, understanding of life, maturity, and of course talent. But who has the time for all this?

Same holds true for directors. Anybody can make a film today. People confuse technique for talent. People think Page 3 PR exercise is talent. People consider 'Having no voice of my own but will make whatever you want me to make' as talent. Crossover. Pan-India. Multiplex. Niche. Art. Cannes. Opening. Overseas. Weekend collection. Whatever happened to good old cinema?

Which Indian writers do you admire?
Grew up on Salim-Javed. There's Gulzaar Saab. Rajkumar Hirani. Amazing clarity, superb storyteller. Anurag Kashyap. Vishal Bhardwaj.

Which foreign writers do you admire?
The guy who wrote 'The Shawshank Redemption', and 'The Green Mile', Frank Darabont, I think. Quentin Tarantino. Lots more, don't know their names though!

Are screenwriters sufficiently paid in India?
I do not write more than one project at a time, period. Thanks to which, I'm broke most of the times. Everybody wants a script in a jiffy; of course they are going to complete the film in 6 months flat and release it. I say bullshit!

Between me and Mayur, we've written about 5-6 films in the last 3 years. My name is Anthony Gonsalves is the only one going on floors at the moment.

While the powers that be were busy debating - deliberating Abhishek Bachchan and Riteish Deshmukh's viability at the B.O., the property that I saw in Borivli IC Colony shot up by 50-60 %. Who's going to account for that? When a project gets stalled, our lives get stalled too.

I am a freelancer, and I do not do television, so, what hope is there for the likes of me? My parents are getting old. I do not have mediclaim or an LIC policy; banks refuse to give me loans. And I can't write crap. It's a vicious circle.

Can you earn a living out of writing?
So far no. But I will.


What advise do you give a writer who has a script in hand? How should he approach a producer?
First and foremost a newcomer should become a member of the Writers' Association, get his script registered. This industry works on contacts. There are makers and there are proposal makers. Write, work for producer/directors who make one film at a time.

You also write poetry. Tell us something about that.
Yes, I do write poetry, and hope to bring out a book someday - 'Remains of a smile'.

Do you write a particular script keeping an actor in mind or an actor is roped in depending on the script?
Works both the ways. You need to be flexible. It helps to have an actor in mind when you are writing. But for script, character is paramount. Everything else is secondary.

What are your forthcoming projects?
My name is Anthony Gonsalves, Mayur's film, a couple of others. I've stopped counting. My job is done. People have to go ahead and make those films.

Wouldn't you want to direct your own script?
Of course, yes. I am a writer by default. But it's a good thing because you know the subject better than anybody else.

Presently I am doubling up as an associate director to Director E Niwas on My name is Anthony Gonsalves. Have kept aside a few scripts; hope to start work on my film post Anthony release.

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