- Nikhil Patel
- 09 October 2020
"Every film makes me discover a new writing process."
SWA Exclusive interview with screenwriter Nikhil Mehrotra
A commerce graduate turned Hindi film screenwriter, Nikhil Mehrotra has moved to the big league in very quick time. With a career in the advertising industry, Nikhil got his first break as a screenwriter with the sequel to Bhootnath (2008), Bhootnath Returns, in 2014 for which he worked with director-writer Nitesh Tiwari. After a noteworthy debut, he moved on to write the screenplay as well as dialogues for Kill Dil (2014), and subsequently wrote Banjo (2016). He collaborated with Nitesh Tiwari again for Dangal, in 2016, which became a blockbuster film. His previous projects include a string of few of the most talked about recent films - Chhichhore (2019), Panga (2020) and Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020). Needless to say, Nikhil has proven to one and all that he's here to stay.
In his initial days, Nikhil got an opportunity to showcase his talent at an advertising giant Ogilvy where he worked for more than a year. He explored his craft, met the challenges of the ad world and eventually moved to another big name in advertising - Leo Burnett. The thing he loves about advertising – That it opens up a lot of avenues. His five years in advertising were full of bright moments. Working with writer-director Nitesh Tiwari on several Kaun Banega Crorepati campaigns and solely narrating a script to Amitabh Bachchan five minutes before he had to take the shot; were the highlights.
Mehrotra is a talkative guy who, loves to watch a lot of movies, read non-fiction and Hindi satire, play video games, listen to Hindi music, watch soccer and most importantly – loves to observe people and their mannerisms which also refelects in his writing as he weaves wonderful on-screen characters. Voice-over, acting and feature film writing are what he finds right up his alley. He's even done cameos for ad films.
Nikhil likes how advertising makes you a disciplined writer and you learn to not waste even a frame. He dislikes the fact that good ideas are sometimes sacrificed to maintain a rapport with a client, while hoping that one day the industry will have fewer stalwarts who judge ideas on the basis of the people they come from.
Right from Bhoothnath Returns, Dangal, Chhichore and till the recently released Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl; Nikhil has proved his mettle by exploring different topics and genres over a period of time. Here we have a passionate, dynamic and a young writer who created his own path in the Hindi film industry. The one who knows the pulse of the audience, and is also humble about it, and the one who has won over the critics with his lucid writing. Nikhil Mehrotra shared with us his inspirational journey as a writer, for an SWA Exclusive interview. Below, are the excerpts.
Tell us something about your journey as a Screenwriter.
My journey began as a copywriter in 2006. Initially, I worked in several mid-size agencies. Then I joined Ogilvy in 2008. However, the inclination to write for films kicked in after 2009 when I joined Leo Burnett (ad agency). There, Nitesh Tiwari was my super-boss. We (Nitesh and our team of copywriters) shared a common love for movies. We all used to have random long conversations over Chai, about directors, which movies to watch, performances, direction, nuances of dialogue writing… the topics were endless. Nitesh knew that I was inclined towards film writing. And, I think he believed that I could do it. So, an evening (I think it was during a client-party) he asked me if I would like to work with him to write the dialogues for Bhoothnath Returns. And, it started from there. Then Nitesh made me a part of Dangal. After Dangal, I said to myself - This is it. This is all I want to do. And I still pray every day that I am able to continue my journey.
Did working in the advertising industry help you in any way while writing for films? What lessons did you learn there?
Yes, it did. The greatest lesson advertising taught me was the art of optimizing screen-time. In advertising, we get maximum 30-60 secs to tell a story, so we have to be careful that we do not waste even a single second. Advertising also taught me to write with a logic. Write with a clarity of thought. Write with a human insight in the story. I try my best to apply it to film writing.
Do you follow any specific approach for storytelling? Any writing process you adhere to?
I don’t have a particular process. Every film makes me discover a new process because the old one doesn’t fit, mostly. I like to build the world in my head by thinking of character journeys, read and research about the story world as much as I can, watch a lot of references before I actually start writing. I think research is the common process across all movies.
Are biopics easy to explore compared to other segments?
There are definitely some advantages while writing a biopic, like there are some story beats readily available. But there are some big obstacles too. The incidents in the central character’s life are so scattered that all of them won’t be in sync with the story. So one has to pick and choose carefully which incidents can be weaved into the story. Fiction is an open ground. Sometimes, that becomes a problem.
How different was the process for you to write for Dangal and Gunjan Saxena- The Kargil Girl, considering they both are biopics?
I don’t think I can compare the writing process of one project with another. Writing is a long process that spans over months, sometimes even years. So, it’s difficult to recall. Still one major difference was that with Gunjan, I was writing outside my comfort zone for the first time.
Which genre excites you the most?
Actually, most do. I am open to exploring any genre as falling in love with the story is more important for me.
What has been your most challenging writing project and why?
Every project comes with its own challenges. Like in Chhichhore the screenplay was divided over two timelines so to keep it lucid was a challenge. The idea of the film is not very conventional. So, we tried to make it relatable and prayed that people will resonate with it.
On the other hand, Gunjan’s story and screenplay was like a tight rope walk and to keep it seamless without deviating, was a huge challenge.
In Dangal, the challenge was to write along with the advertising job. (Giggles).
For me the most challenging part of any project is the people associated with it. Different minds function very differently and have their own ways of working. To balance your own conviction in the story with that of the others is a tough job.
What’s the most difficult phase in writing according to you?
After the first 15 minutes in the film and before the last 15 minutes of the film. I think the middle section is the trickiest for me. And while writing that part I often start getting various negative thoughts whether I should be even writing this film or not.
Whose writing inspires you the most?
Nitesh Tiwari. Salim sahab. Javed sahab. Aaron Sorkins.
Your message for fellow budding writers.
What I tell myself every day is that in the end, it is all about writing with honesty. And that’s what I can suggest to the rest too.