•  Punam Mohandas
    •  16 February 2018
    •  201

    Black (comedy) is beautiful!

    Punam Mohandas engages writer-director Neeraj Pandey in a tête-à-tête

    Neeraj Pandey has earned a reputation for himself. After his debut in 2008, with A Wednesday, he has written 11 films so far, out of which he has directed 5. It’s evident that he enjoys writing much more than direction, or at least that is what he seems to be doing more often. 

    Neeraj, arguably, writes better thrillers than anybody else in Bollywood. Some will say that he has mastered the craft of churning out scripts that are fast-paced, well researched and boast of quick-witted cat & mouse chases and great twist endings. He uses all these classical elements of thrillers to his advantage, never failing to provide his fans with a rush of adrenaline. Just like the undercover agents and on-the-go protagonists in his movies, it is somewhat hard to pin the man down. I was still lucky to catch him for this exclusive SWA interview.

     

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    For a boy who literally devoured crime fiction from the Hardy Boys (Franklin W Dixon) to Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardner) to Alfred Hitchcock, it is perhaps not surprising that the man would become a master craftsman of the thriller genre. Neeraj Pandeys’s very first film was the edge-of-the-seat, suspense-filled, ‘A Wednesday.’ In spite of the main protagonists being senior stars like Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher, the movie kept the audience riveted to their seats solely on the basis of the strength of the script, which was inspired by the Mumbai train bombings of 2006 and which also fetched him the Indira Gandhi national award (Best First Film of a Director.) In fact, ’A Wednesday’ became the sleeper hit of the year (2008) and went on to in turn inspire Tamil and Telugu remakes and even, a Hollywood movie! Titled, ‘A Common Man’ and directed by Chandran Rutnam, Ben Kingsley played Shah’s role while Ben Cross portrayed Kher’s role.

    Neeraj’s subsequent movies too, such as as ‘Dhoni,’ ‘Rustom,’ ‘Special 26,’ and now,’Aiyyary’ are drawn from actual events or life stories.

    You seem to draw your inspiration mainly from real-life incidents? “Yes, somehow incidents and people from life and around me seem to trigger the stories that I end up chasing,” he agrees. “If I get excited by an idea, chances are I can make the reader/viewer interested and excited as well.”

    ‘Dhoni’ and ‘Rustom’ are modelled on real personas and the events that befell these men. How difficult is it to stay true to a real-life persona even as you take some cinematic license to make the story more appealing? “It’s not difficult at all,” he says readily. “Recreating any story is a process where the whole team comes together and chips in. As far as cinematic license is concerned, I follow the old saying - why let facts get in the way of a good story!”

     

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    ‘Aiyaary’ has your two male protagonists playing army officers. Can you tell us something more about the storyline? 

    “It’s about two very dynamic and complex army officers who end up getting pitted against each other. They belong to different generations and their take on patriotism and governance is completely different. The story travels through Cairo, New Delhi, London, Kashmir and Mumbai. And it’s got an amazing ensemble - besides Siddharth and Manoj we have Rakul, Adil, Kumud, Pooja, Naseer Bhai and Anupamji,” he says excitedly.

    How important is narration, when one is trying to sell his or her speculative script? 

    “I keep saying that I am the world’s lousiest narrator!” he says self-deprecatingly. “I prefer sending out the script and waiting for a response! However, as a filmmaker, one should definitely be good at it.”

     

    Unlike your other scripts which are of a serious or crime-based genre, ‘Total Siyaapa’ was light-hearted. Does writing comedy come easily to you, considering your vast body of work deals with more germane issues?

    “I just translated the dialogues on that one,” he says. “I prefer black comedies. It comes naturally to me.”

     

    ‘Special 26’ (also known as ‘Special Chhabees’) is another gripping thriller that was regarded as one of the best hits of 2013. A man posing as a CBI official hires 26 people who subsequently perform an ‘income tax raid’ on a jeweller and walk away with lakhs of rupees. Neeraj admits that it was the sheer audacity of the man that caught his attention and led him to believe this would make an entertaining retelling. Is there a sequel in the pipeline for ‘Special 26?’ “Not at this moment, no,” he says.


    Neeraj is an acclaimed scriptwriter as well as director, although, when asked if writers in Bollywood are finally getting their due, his answer is a firm and resounding: “NO.”

    Which role does he himself prefer essaying - which one gives him the most creative satisfaction?

    “Writing,” he says instantly. “Because it’s intimate, personal and cathartic. Direction is collaborative, so I share the credit with my HOD’S and the entire team. They are the ones who deserve the credit, actually.”

     

    Do you prefer writing alone or in a team with creative collaborators?

    “Always alone,” comes the reply. “I don’t partner well.”

    Not many know that, Neeraj’s first script was actually a love story! This never got made and the second script too of a romantic comedy befell a similar fate. ‘Ittefaq’ is a telefilm that he wrote for Zee TV and so ‘A Wednesday’ is his fourth script.

    Besides being an immensely successful screenwriter, Neeraj is also an author! Will his novel ‘Ghalib Danger’ be seen in cinematic form at any time soon?

    “Yes! It’s a mammoth project and we are biding our time on that one. We are going to do it as a two part film in order to do justice to all the material in the book. We will shoot both the parts in one go, so (sorting) the logistics will take time,” he replies.
     

    In spite of all his accomplishments, he is almost diffident and maintains that he is still learning; he says he does not think about the success of his projects. Recently, he branched off into the short film genre.

    Your first attempt at a short film, ‘OUCH,’ was extremely well received by audiences across India. Do you think you have a knack for crisply related short stories? Is this a genre you will be exploring more of?

    “The duration is not an issue. As a storyteller my job is to tell the story as effectively as possible,” he says earnestly. “OUCH is a black comedy and I wanted to write it as one single scene. Yes, I would love to work more on this; we are working on an OUCH series.”

     

    Thrillers as a genre is where Bollywood has been bringing forth fairly dismal offerings, by and large. Neeraj Pandey literally has black (pun intended!) ink dripping from his prolific pen, laced with edgy dialogues and a taut, racy pace. What are the elements you yourself look for in a good thriller? Do you have any tips for aspiring writers to write better thrillers? 

    “I like to keep them deep and racy. Wit should be at hand,” he signs off.

    Punam Mohandas is a film buff, a journalist, an author, an accomplished travel writer and an expert on South Asia. She also writes columns on film personalities. She has lived and worked in India, Dubai and Bangkok.