- Yash Thakur
- 11 July 2018
"In a film, you can explore maybe three or four themes. But in a series you need multiple shades, characters, and so many themes running parallel. You can say so much more!"
SWA Exclusive interview of screenwriter and lyricist Varun Grover
A National Film Award winner, a no-nonsense comedian and a prominent screenwriter of the New Indian Realism wave, Varun Grover is an artist of many talents. Varun’s portfolio includes writing the universally acclaimed 2015 film Masaan, lyrics for films such as Gangs of Wasseypur and Dum Laga Ke Haisha, creator of underground hit shows Jai Hind! and Aisi Taisi Democracy, along with being a frequent performer in the poetry and stand-up comedy circuit. His recent outing as a screenwriter, Netflix’s first Indian original series Sacred Games, is also receiving rave reviews, but critiques and viewers alike.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation with Varun Grover, on his views on screenwriting, upcoming projects, and what he loves and hates the most.
Have things changed post Masaan?
Varun Grover: Masaan released in 2015. It’s been three years since then. Workload is a lot, because the film got a lot of critical acclaim. So, a lot of people who were unapproachable earlier in a way became approachable after that. I got offered some exciting projects, out of which two of them are coming out this year itself. Success, I don’t know, because I feel very detached from my work. Success is there in the literal sense, when people recognize and talk about Masaan or people talk about the songs of Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Yet I don’t feel any emotional surge in my heart or mind about that. I just feel that the work is done and I should focus on the future. The future also in a way does not exist, so what exists is the present only and the current deadlines. Just concentrate on what’s happening right now, that’s the motto. At the end of the day, I’m getting a chance to work with people I like, and to write the kind of stories I like so that’s something to be happy about.
What’s your take on the current scenario of Indian screenwriting?
Varun Grover: I think our industry and our audience; though I don’t hold the audience responsible for anything, are just reacting to what they are being offered. And the onus falls on the filmmakers and writers to present new ideas, to present a new picture of the world that we are living in. We are not doing that because there is no incentive from within. There is no incentive in our culture to do something that will stun or surprise people. We have a lot of pre-existing formulas of filmmaking and we reinvent a little with them.
Look at the songs. Almost every big film has at least one song which is either a remake or a remix or an extension of some famous Qawwali, some famous old song, either of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or some Punjabi song. And that’s doing great, which simply means that no one will try anything new. When you are getting songs with a million hits then why will you work hard on a new song of which you aren’t even sure of what will happen. Hence there is no incentive or confidence to do something new. Nobody is being courageous or incentivizing new creative thought, and it’s a shame because we can make good stuff, we have the people for it.
As Suketu Mehta also wrote in his book Maximum City, almost everyone in the film industry of Mumbai is smarter than the films they make. They are watching everything; they are watching Netflix, they are watching films from across the world. When foreign or Hollywood films release here, we rush to the theatres. When those filmmakers come to India, we sit at their feet and click pictures. Yet, when it comes to making such content, we make the same old thing. There is no new story or experimentation with the craft, no ambition. Everything is the same. With us, it isn’t ‘content is the king’ but ‘comfort is the king’.
What do you think about ghost writing, writing credits and remuneration?
Varun Grover: I think it (ghost writing) is a very unethical practice. I too started off as a ghostwriter for someone, for the first year or so. He (the senior writer) would get around Rs. 15,000/- out of which he would give me around Rs. 1250/-. He would get the credits too. I find it unethical. Okay, there are new writers and you want to work with them, impart knowledge and so you pay them less. That I understand. At least with the money you can buy a book, or a beer. But what are you going to buy with the credit that is due for someone else?
You will not become a smaller person by giving credit to another. Giving credit is the most basic thing. You have used somebody else’s work, brain or time. If you cannot give co-writer’s credit then discuss it out, give credit as an assistant-writer, or staff-writer; there are all sorts of designations. Not giving credit basically shows a complete insecurity in your art. All you are doing is exploiting somebody else.
Tell us about the genesis of Sacred Games and the process of writing it.
Varun Grover: I came on board Sacred Games in 2016. I was also working on another script back then, which will come out this year - Dibakar’s (Banerjee) Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar. Around that time, Netflix bought the rights of the book and commissioned it to Phantom Films, and Phantom approached me. I read the book, it’s a thick book and I really enjoyed it. It’s a very difficult book to adapt to screen though; it’s very atmospheric. More than just a thriller plot, it’s a very meditative book on the psyche of gangsters and cops, people living in Mumbai and city’s relationship with the people. That was exciting, the challenge.
Another exciting thing was that it was for Netflix: by then we had started watching a lot of Netflix shows. To get a chance to be on that platform, with an original show from India, was really great.
What has been your with the practice of Writers’ Room?
Varun Grover: Initially it was difficult. It was like three different people trying to ride a unicycle! Fights happened till the end, because that’s what happens with three minds in a room. Also, the material itself was very open to interpretation. Yet ultimately, within three or four months we figured that this was the only way this could have been done. If a single person tried to adapt the book, it would be a very limiting approach. For a large format, you need more minds. For a series, you need multiple shades, characters, so many themes running parallel. In a film, you can explore maybe three or four themes. But in a series you can say so much more.
I wrote it with Smita Singh and Vasant Nath. All of us have different strengths, and weaknesses. Looking back at it all, it was an enriching experience, just as a writer. Because for a writer, the biggest fear is that of letting go of the control. As for life skills, I learnt how to deal with people and be patient!
Five films/TV Shows you watched recently that blew your mind?
Varun Grover: Ladybird, Wajib, Manifesto, Waking Life, The Handmaid’s Tale
What’s in the pipeline?
Varun Grover: I’m working on the lyrics for Sharat Katariya’s Sui Dhaaga and the content for my stand-up shows. I am also planning to put out an hour-long special of our YouTube show Aisi Taisi Democracy.