- Punam Mohandas
- 08 September 2019
"Write what you believe in and believe in what you write!"
SWA Exclusive interview with screenwriter Bhavani Iyer
It is encouraging to note that the film industry is welcoming more and more new writers into its fold – and even more heartening to note that these writers, despite their young age, are able to hold their end up with taut scripts, firmly cementing their place in the industry. One such inspiring screentwriter is Bhavani Iyer, who debuted with ‘Black’ (2005) and went on to write films like 'Guzaarish' (2010) and 'Lootera' (2013) along with the television series '24:India' (Seasons 1, 2 - 2013, 2016). More recently, she sent the box office jingling with the power-packed script of ‘Raazi' (2018).
We caught her for an SWA Exclusive interview. Here're the excerpts:
It is intriguing that, having worked on ‘Black’ and ‘Guzaarish’ where both films dealt with disabled characters and the latent emotions therein, ‘Raazi’ had a spy/patriotism theme. How would you describe the experience of straddling such different genres?
“I am deeply drawn to failings and flaws; I love telling stories of people who are broken and fragmented. When writing fiction, I instinctively seem to pick worlds far removed from the physical and sociological landscape I inhabit, although I doubt a writer will ever be able to utterly distance him/ herself from the world s/he creates. I think I try to understand or deconstruct many of my complexes or flaws or shortcomings through my characters who seem to have similar failings,” she says contemplatively.
‘Raazi’ is based on the book, ‘Calling Sehmat.’ How different is adapting a book written by someone else into a screenplay, versus writing your own script?
“I love adaptations,” she bursts out spontaneously. “I had earlier adapted O. Henry’s short story, ‘The Last Leaf’ with ‘Lootera.’ When adapting someone else’s work, one is constantly mindful of respecting the original author’s vision. But after a point, you need to make the material your own and find your own personal truth within that world to weave your own story with that singular thread you identify with. I don’t engineer too much but equally, I don’t obsess over being intensely faithful to the original material. Books and movies are two entirely different worlds and I need to make the writing work for my world when I am working on an adaptation; a screenplay originates from a singular idea and all the tracks, characters and incidents in the movie need to fold themselves around that central idea and feed it or feed off it. As a craft, screenwriting is a lot more structured and thematic in its execution and presentation, whereas a book is like a hydra, a multi-headed being with layers tracks, characters and incidents – all of which could be utterly independent of one another and allow them to find their way to each other or not. I find writing both original stories and adaptations greatly fulfilling. The only difference is that it is a lot easier to write your own original story,” she says.
In retrospect, what would you have done differently in ‘Lootera?’
“I wouldn’t do a single thing differently!” Bhavani says immediately. “It was the second script I wrote and each and every character in that film is among some of my most favorite characters I’ve ever written. I gave it (as I did with all other scripts) my everything - heart and soul. So, nothing would change!”
You have taken on a mammoth responsibility with your next project – your first biopic, that of the celebrated army officer Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw. Does this project intimidate or excite you?
“Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw is one of the most fascinating and remarkable men I have ever read about!” she states animatedly. “He is a ‘hero’ in the truest, most Bollywood sense of the word, and yet there are so many facets to the man that go beyond his magnetic charm, charisma and military intellect. I am deeply excited about bringing this amazing man’s story to cinema! The wonderful thing about writing a biopic though is that you need to soon get over your awe and veneration for your character and to see and present him/ her as a human being, flaws and all. I am deeply aware of the responsibility of doing justice to his iconic stature and yet to preserve his vulnerability and dimension in the narrative.
'Sam’ might be the first biopic I have written that has been announced, but I had written a couple of others a few years ago and I’m hoping they will find the light of day soon,” Bhavani reveals. “I love the idea of entering the microcosm of the world of a person who existed and left an indelible mark in the world. Writing a biopic is also a great responsibility and you need to fall in love with the subject and yet remain dispassionate enough to not tell a skewed story; too much deconstruction of the person you’re writing about can get a little clinical within your own head.”
First Sanjay Leela Bhansali and now Meghna Gulzar – you appear to be more comfortable working with the same director repeatedly. Does being in a comfort zone or knowing a director’s mindset help in the flow and creativity of penning a script?
“I have a low threshold of boredom and need to constantly replenish my mind, so if anything, I do not like being in a comfort zone with anything or anyone,” she laughs. “From Abhinay Deo (‘24 India’), Ashutosh Gowariker (‘Everest’) and Vikramaditya Motwane (‘Lootera’) to upcoming projects with Nikkhil Advani (‘Mughals’), Shree Narayan (untitled feature film) and Onir (‘Kashmir’), it has been exhilarating to work with such different minds. In fact, I consciously eschew the familiar and like to strike out towards new boundaries with each new film or show that I write. A writer-director relationship is a deeply intimate one and writing a film is a long process of collaboration where one spends a great deal of creative time in one another’s headspace. There is so much give-and-take, so much to learn from the other person, and I wouldn’t want to limit that education. To me, being ‘comfortable’ equates to being complacent. Where is the challenge?! That said, my relationship with both Sanjay and Meghna is extremely special and laden with deep mutual respect. All three of us are temperamentally very similar. We all need a lot of creative space to work within, we like to work within our own vacuum, and we are identical in our NEED to dive into troubled new waters every single time and to flail against the current. ‘Black’ and ‘Guzaarish’ did not have much in common, whether in the worlds they were set in or their telling. Neither do ‘Raazi and ‘Sam’.
What was the experience like of working with Meghna, a writer herself, with of course, the legendary Gulzar sahab in the background? Were you nervous? Was there ever a clash of ideas or temperament with a director who is a writer too?
“There was never any nervousness at all. Meghna calls me her ‘creative soul mate’ and I think she has hit the nail on the head with that descriptor, because that is what she is to me, too! I believe that I willed Meghna into my life, because just a few days after watching ‘Talwar’ I was sitting across from her, having her ask if I would like to write for her. Meghna’s biggest strength as an artist is her absolute clarity of vision. Add to that her complete surrender to the writing and you have a formidable force of nature as a filmmaker. I absolutely love working with her because she ‘gets’ me. In fact, we worked so seamlessly that it was impossible even for us to know where one ended and the other began,” she avers. “And Gulzar Sahab’s presence around us was the most incredible blessing for me from ‘Raazi’.”
Sometimes, a writer envisions exactly which actor can bring the character to life on screen. Do you have a say in deciding who will play which part?
“I have worked with directors who have always ensured I have a say in everything creative but, oddly enough, I never have an actor in mind when I’m writing. I have a deeply vivid vision of the characters I am creating; I know them inside out, but their faces have always been imaginary. So, I actually work backwards after the casting is done,” she explains.
How do you define your process of writing; have you had any formal training?
“I have always been writing, from as far back as I can remember, but I have not had any formal training. My father would travel a lot for his work, and when I was about seven years old, he suggested that I should write stories when he is away so that he could read them when he would come back. All these exercises were just so organic and they taught me so much about writing, without being academic about the learning. It taught me the importance of research, of having different voices, of perspective,” she muses. “I do not have any specific process as a writer. I don’t write for a specific number of hours or have a schedule. I can write for twenty hours a day, or not write at all. I just write when I feel I cannot contain the words and thoughts within me anymore. And then, I dive in, completely into the deep end and don’t surface until I am done.”
What is more challenging for her – character, or plot development?
“I am unable to deconstruct writing into compartments,” she says reflectively. “No two stories are the same, and therefore no two approaches can be identical. At times, it is the character that I find immediate empathy and clarity with; in some other stories, it is the world that I hope to set the story in that I explore, and that world then throws up ideas about what can happen in it and who can inhabit it. I think it is safe to say that I have never had a similar approach to any two pieces of writing. They are all my snowflakes, each utterly individual and unique.”
You have achieved remarkable success at a very young age. What advice would you give to aspiring female writers?
“Write what you believe in and believe in what you write! If the truth of your writing does not resonate with your personal truth, if you cannot find a strong strand of unification between what you create and who you are, then find something else to write. But don’t compromise your art for anything in the world. Spend as much time as you can on research but ensure that the research is never visible in the writing. And most importantly, keep on keeping on. This industry is a magical place and if you want to be part of it, sooner or later, you will be,” she signs off.