- Punam Mohandas
- 14 February 2019
"Don't write what you think will sell." - Shonali Bose
SWA Exclusive interview with the writer-director of 'Margarita with a Straw' and 'Amu'
Shonali Bose, the writer and director behind the thought-provoking ‘Margarita with a Straw’ is presently working on her next real-to-reel venture that’s gradually taking shape. ‘The Sky is Pink’ is based on motivational speaker Aisha Chaudhary, who passed away at a tragically young age. Between shots and scenes, as it were, she speaks to the SWA on her struggles in the industry as an outsider, on how she thinks it is so moving when a film can impact lives and much more.
Shonali’s debut directorial venture was ‘Amu,’ loosely based on the 1984 riot against the Sikhs, in the aftermath of prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Konkona Sen Sharma played the main lead and the story unfolded to tell us how she was adopted by a Bengali family, although in truth her Sikh parents were victims of the massacre. The movie ends on an ironic note, where a television in the background is broadcasting a newsflash about the (2002) Gujarat riots that have just broken out.
And now Shonali is wrapping up production on ‘The Sky is Pink’ based on a nineteen year old girl who had been suffering from an immune disease and who rose above her pain to become a motivational speaker and also pen a book, all at such a young age. Sadly, she passed away hours after the book was published, having shown immense fortitude in her short life.
What compelled you to make ‘The Sky is Pink’ on Aisha Chaudhary?
“I was interested in exploring this fictionally; the loss of a child and what happens to a marriage therein, as I had just lost my own child,” she says reflectively. “I also wanted to share my very positive, upbeat approach to death.”
Shonali has also tackled a bold and unusual subject in ‘Margarita with a Straw’ about a woman suffering from cerebral palsy and how she deals with societal acceptance as also her desire to have a normal sex life, in the process of which she examines her bisexuality. The story was inspired by Shonali’s cousin’s life and was ably tackled by Kalki Koechlin as the lead. With a budget of Rs 65 million, the film grossed a modest Rs 74 million, although it warranted a National Film Award - Special Jury Award for Kalki, while Shonali herself received the NETPAC Award at Toronto.
As a female writer and director, all your subjects have been extremely hard hitting ones. Is this a conscious effort – to awake society’s collective conscience, perhaps?
“Yes, it is,” she says without compunction.
Do you feel that being the writer (as well) distracts the director from doing her/his job?
“Writing - far from distracting - is the essential core of my own directing,” Shonali avers.
In spite of garnering international awards, ‘Margarita with a Straw’ did not receive a wide India viewing. Do such hindrances deter you from stories you want told; break your spirit as a writer?
“No. I was very happy with the fact that we opened in 300 theaters,” she replies.
As a writer, is it enough vindication for your script to win awards, even though the film may not reach audiences in India?
“My films have reached audiences!” says Shonali defensively. “Everything is not about 100 crores or mass audience! Even if one person sees your film and it moves him/her - that's an audience. But thousands have seen my films. ‘Amu’ ran for three months (albeit in only five theaters as there were only five prints) but I was thrilled. At the Berlin film festival, it had its world premiere for an audience of 1200, followed by over 50 festivals worldwide. It's still being watched on Netflix. Same experience with ‘Margarita…’ There were some gay people in India who took their families to watch the film and then (eventually) came out to them. That's like, WOW! It's so moving when a film can change lives like that.”
How much time did you have to spend on researching for a subject like ‘Chittagong?’ What was the motivation behind writing this script?
“I spent a few months reading some books. I did History Honors so I know this time period well. I also talked to the real Jhunku (our protagonist) on his deathbed. I shot him on my video camera and we ended the film on that."
“We are still under oppressive rule in India. We need young people to have a conscience and fighting spirit like the Bengal revolutionaries and rise up. So it's relevant to the present. I was also excited to tell this story as I met the last survivor of it and promised him to do so on his deathbed,” she says soberly.
As a director, it is important to get the “feel” and atmosphere of a locale. Does this necessarily apply to a writer as well?
Yes. At least I cannot write about a place that I have no knowledge of or experienced. Rather, I can, but it's never as good as when I write about a place whose mitti I have rolled in and smelt and tasted, if you know what I mean! It's the small details that matter rather than generic - and those only come when you have been there and lived there.”
How do you deal with the ‘writer’s block’ syndrome?
“You just have to have the discipline and set aside a certain amount of time; even if you spend one hour staring at the page/computer - do it! You'll get past eventually. The only way forward is to keep at it and not let weeks or months go by with the excuse of writer’s block. Write rubbish if necessary but don't stop writing,” she advises.
You’re also writing a television script based on the novel, ‘The Windfall’ (written by Diksha Basu and set in both Delhi as well as New York, the story is a humorous take on middleclass Delhi-ites.) As a writer yourself, how do you find the novelty of working on someone else’s idea and try to adapt it to your own way of thinking/writing?
“I only wrote the pilot episode of ‘Windfall’ and then parted ways with Paramount Pictures. I had a terrific time adapting it and was disappointed that I couldn't do it. But my feature film, ‘The Sky is Pink’ got greenlit at exactly the same time that Netflix wanted to get this written and made, so I had to pass on it,” she clarifies.
Have you found it challenging to make a breakthrough in the film industry? What advice would you give aspiring new writers?
“Yes!” Shonali says immediately. “I was an outsider and I chose extremely tough subjects and so struggled for money and also with the censor board. But I always got recognition and love from the industry. In fact Siddharth Roy Kapur loved ‘Margarita with a Straw’and, as soon as he started his own company, he approached me and asked if I had written any script and that is how ‘The Sky is Pink’ is getting made in a big way.
“So my advice is stick with your passion, be honest and authentic and have your own strong voice. Don't write what you think will sell! Write from your heart.”