As writers, we have to express the societies we live in – Niren Bhatt
From writing the most-loved TV shows to game-changing Gujarati movies, Niren Bhatt is an ace of every genre. A poet by heart and a man of remarkable musical collaborations, he has given several soulful melodies one after another, the latest being ‘Satrangi Re’ from Wrong Side Raju. Bhatt indulges in an in-depth chat with Pandolin about his TV and film journey, writing Bey Yaar and Wrong Side Raju, the art of screenwriting and the culture of filmmaking in Gujarat.
What is cinema for you?
When people say that cinema is storytelling, I believe that it’s not only storytelling. If you look at a print, a sculpture or a photo, it’s not storytelling. It’s an expression. Anything that cannot be expressed in words can be expressed through these art-forms. I put this dialogue in Bey Yaar “Art is not meant to be understood, it has to be felt”. Something that connects with you and makes you feel something, is an art. If you see the masters of world cinema like Federico Fellini or Abbas Kiarostami, they are just transforming the experience to connect with you. And that’s cinema for me! It came into existence after painting, music, dance, drama, acting, writing and poetry, so it’s the most evolved medium. It’s a medium through which you are giving an experience to viewers. It’s a medium which can do wonders. If you see Life is Beautiful, it invokes those feelings which are inside you but you can’t explain them only in words. It’s a different thing that people are using it (cinema) as a moneymaking tool, but I believe that you should use it to transfer your experiences across.
How did your journey start?
I was fascinated with reading since childhood, so I grew as a reader first and eventually as a writer. I started writing plays, musicals, and poems during school days. It continued in college as well and I won lots of awards. Since I did my Bachelors and Masters in Engineering, followed by an MBA, and corporate work experience, my friends still tease me that “I’m the most educated person in the film industry”. I used to build Artificial Intelligence models for the Sardar Sarovar Canal gate opening. Then I moved to MBA and Business Intelligence. I was a Business Consultant for many MNCs. So my background has been technical and corporate.
So when did you realize that you want to become a writer?
I had a cushy corporate job but I started realizing that this is not a life I meant to live. Because even then, I was only interested in cinema, theater and music. Even while working as a Business Consultant I was writing constantly and doing plays. I had a growing fear of turning into a criticizing person in my 50s, who watches films and TV and jibes that “What does this person know!”. What if my kids tell me in return, “What do you know?” I realized that I don’t want to tell my kids that “Your dad also knew this stuff well, just that he didn’t pursue it”. Then you have nothing to show for it because whatever talent you had, you wasted it. That was my instance of realization. I was living in Mumbai and I hardly knew anyone there, so the opportunity cost was also high. I already had a monthly salary of a few lakhs plus an increment per year. For a writer starting out in media, the money was not high. I was married and had a kid, so I needed to cut down on the standard of living.
It would have been tough, so in 2008, I started writing alongside my day job. I worked like that for four years. After work, I used to go to rehearsals or the houses of composers and make songs. Then I started writing TV serials. Even though I was working on some big serials, it was unfortunate that initially nothing released on-air. The streak continued and about 6-7 of my shows never saw the light of day. Then Rajiv Mehra [Eagle Films] told me that you write comedy very well, will you be able to write horror as well? I was so desperate to leave my job and come to this field that I said “Yes” with full confidence. That was it! Finally, that one show made it on-air. It’s called Yeh Kaali Kaali Raatein and it used to air on Sahara. I wrote about 75 episodes while I was working. So here I was this Business Intelligence consultant dealing with all MNC clients and in those meetings writing about “Kabrastan” and “Zameen Faad ke Murda Nikal Raha Hai” and so on. You know that the corporate world is cut-throat, so you have to constantly be at your best performance there or you get fired. Somehow I managed it. In retrospect, it looks like a fun time but I used to work for 16-18 hours in those days.
Even though I was working on some big serials, it was unfortunate that initially nothing released on-air
When did you become a full-time writer?
Vipul Amrutlal Shah and Deven Bhojani approached me for a show called Bhai Bhaiya Aur Brother. It was a big opportunity because I was going to be the lead writer handling the story/screenplay. I felt it was the right time to leave the corporate job and live my dream. But the show was called off in two months. My immediate thought was that I should go back and work again. I hadn’t left the job completely, I’d only taken a break. But then I thought of giving it some more time. I waited for 2-3 months. Meanwhile, I got to write Jeannie Aur Juju, R K Laxman Ki Duniya and Savdhaan India. I used to write all genres – crime, comedy, stand-up, whatever came my way. In the year that followed, I got Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah. Things stabilized after that. Once you get to write big ongoing shows, the financial insecurity goes away.
How did the entry into films happen?
The roots of my film journey go way back. Umesh Shukla ( of OMG: Oh My God! fame) had produced my first play, ‘Return Ticket’. After OMG: Oh My God! became a big hit, he was toying with an idea for the film All is Well and we collaborated on that project. At the same time, my friend Bhavesh Mandalia, who co-wrote OMG…, asked me if I’d like to write a Gujarati film. Bhavesh’s OMG… was already a 100-crore hit and Gujarati was almost a non-industry. Abhishek Jain’s Kevi Rite Jaish was very well received a year ago. Abhishek had come to Mumbai to discuss the ideas for his next film. After meeting with Abhishek, Bhavesh and I started brainstorming on various ideas. We needed a very rooted story set in Ahmedabad.
How were you able to bring in the art scene in Bey Yaar?
I knew about this painting by M F Hussain in Lucky Restaurant – It’s kind of a street stall opposite the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad. M F Hussain used to sit there and had given this painting to the restaurant owner as a token of appreciation. Today if you sell M F Hussain’s paintings in international markets, you’ll easily make tons of money. At that restaurant, people from all classes hang out and have tea, but are oblivious to the fact that there’s a painting worth a fortune hanging on the wall in front of them. Obviously, the owner of the restaurant has an emotional attachment to it and he would never think of its monetary value. But what if he had a son who thinks that my father spent his entire life running this small restaurant but I aspire to go higher. What if he thinks of selling this painting to make money? That’s how the initial idea emerged and we started developing a story from there.
We started taking incidents from around that time. Like ‘Labhu Ma Scandal’ (character in Bey Yaar) was inspired from conman Ashok Jadeja. My wife is a sculptor, so I have met lots of sculptors and painters. I used to go to the art galleries in Mumbai and was fascinated with all of these artists. I got so many bits from that world. Prabodh Gupta’s character was based on three real-life artists – Subodh Gupta, Julius Meckwan and Bose Krishnamachari. Uday’s character was based on my roommate Uday Mondal, who is now a prominent painter. Jitubhai’s (Played by Darshan Jarivala) alcohol scene was also from my personal experiences.
How do you experiment around the thematic core of the story?
When I create a story, I create characters which are closer to the audience, but I also create a world that they are not familiar with. Like in Munnabhai MBBS, it was a world of doctors and in Omkara it was about the heartlands of UP. We never once thought that the Gujarati audience won’t get this art setup. If the story is good, everyone will get it. We were confident enough to take names of Van Gogh and Picasso.
I create characters which are closer to the audience, but I also create a world that they are not familiar with
How do you bring that world alive?
There were many odds during the release of Bey Yaar. To start with there were only three shows in Mumbai. The following week Haider and Bang Bang were slated for release. But later Bey Yaar picked up through ‘word of mouth’ and picked up so well that in 10 weeks we had 100 shows. And in Gujarat, it was going through the roof. Such was the connect and I believe that the main credit goes to the language. It was the sheer joy of watching your language on the big screen. The language you see on the screen is neither the formal literary Gujarati nor the heavy on diction “Doordarshan” Gujarati. It’s the language that you and I speak; the colloquial dialect. So the emphasis was on the language. I was pretty convinced that the Gujarati spoken in media today like TV, theater, and films is wrong. So if you speak the right language, it’ll surely connect.
How do you make sure that happens apart from the script? Do you go on the sets?
Yes, I do. It was my clear instruction on the sets to use day-to-day diction. I made sure that no one says “Aavyo chhe”, everyone has to say “Aayo chhe”. I enforced so many re-takes only because of those reasons. I was also heavily involved in pre-production. We (Abhishek, Bhavesh and I) had a Facebook group. We went through active discussions on various production aspects. It always felt like a great collaboration. The excitement was that of a bunch of friends trying to make something unforgettable.
It was my clear instruction on the sets to use day-to-day diction
And were you involved in casting as well?
Yes. We used to recommend actor profiles. To give you an example, we had seen Pratik Gandhi in Saumya Joshi’s play and also in Shishir Ramavat’s play Hu Chandrakant Bakshi. We did many personal narrations to actors like Manoj Joshi and Darshan Jarivala. And everyone was on board after the narration. So narration is another key aspect.
Your writing style, is it more organic or planned?
Since I came from a corporate background, I was always skeptical about my writing style. I went through several interviews of all great screenwriters from Charlie Kaufman to Quentin Tarantino to Sriram Raghvan to Anurag Kashyap. So I went through pretty much every material to know about this art. And the process I follow is much like the universal process that everyone follows. There are exceptions, though. Like Anurag Kashyap who finishes an entire script in two days and then improvises on sets. You can afford that luxury if you are as talented as Anurag Kashyap or you’re the director of the film as well.
Otherwise, the process is that you develop a germ of a story and then write it in 2-3 pages. Just a story at this point. Then you write it as a novel without worrying about the screenplay grammar like INT/EXT or anything. Just let your thoughts flow and write 100-200-300 pages, whatever it takes. This also includes back-stories or what characters think in their heads. Then comes the first draft of the screenplay. You may not write dialogues here but you need to get your scene structure in place. Then in the next draft, you get down to dialogues where it starts looking like a film. Then you keep making it better till you lock down the script. You will get to know at this stage whether it’s working as a film or not.
Can you give an example?
I can tell from my recent experience of Wrong Side Raju. I came on board at a later stage. Mikhil (Musale, Director) and Karan (Vyas, co-writer) had already been working on it. They came to me with the draft, which I thought was not working. So I prepared my own draft. But when I did the narration, it still wasn’t working. The narrative structure is a very important thing in a screenplay. So we decided to work on a structure first. We started experimenting with linear-nonlinear-hyperlink structures. Once we felt that we had a hold on the narrative, we developed the screenplay again based on the groundwork that Mikhil and Karan had already done. The final draft felt so good that we narrated that to Chaitali (One of the screenwriters of Queen). She liked it so much that she decided to take it to Phantom. We narrated it to Vikas Bahl and he was convinced since the first narration. Then we narrated it to Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap and everyone agreed upon it because of the power of the script. After 5-6 narrations, Phantom collaboration happened.
We narrated it to Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap and everyone agreed upon it because of the power of the script
What was the thought process while developing the screenplay of Wrong Side Raju?
The general perception is that Gujaratis like only comedies. You might not have seen an Art Curator as a villain before, but we were confident about our story and we went full throttle in Bey Yaar. From Kevi Rite Jaish, we knew that if there’s a connect, then the film definitely works. And it’s proven now. Bey Yaar also proved to be path-breaking. So in Wrong Side Raju, when we cracked the idea, there was no looking back. The germ of an idea came from Vismay Shah’s hit-and-run case, but that wasn’t the only focus. We went through many other cases from Chandigarh, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Chennai and even the Salman Khan case. We went through lots of live court case hearings because we wanted to avoid stereotype portrayal of courts, which we typically see on screen.
Bey Yaar had characters that you etched out from your life experiences, but Wrong Side Raju has a very different world. How did you develop those characters?
The basic love story structure is inspired by Mikhil’s personal experiences. We also met lots of powerful lawyers to create the lawyer’s character. My grandfather was also a big lawyer, so I have seen lawyers very closely – how they talk to what they read. Amitabh Shah’s character in the film comes from those observations. Tanmay’s (Played by Kavi Shastry) character is also very familiar and that of a brat. You must have seen people like this in your college time. The beauty of the characters of Wrong Side Raju is that they all have gray shades. Like Raju is a driver but he’s also a bootlegger, so his morality is in the gray zone. The powerful lawyer is also a vulnerable father. This keeps you guessing until the end and adds lots of layers to the narrative.
In some of the recent films that I’ve seen, the characters of the protagonists look well-developed but the supporting characters still feel very stereotyped. But looks like Wrong Side Raju has all the answers to that?
Yes, and I believe that this was possible because we were doing a Gujarati movie. It wouldn’t have been possible in executive-run Bollywood studios where there’s a lot of intervention in the development process. This kind of creative freedom is only possible in Director-run studios like Phantom or CineMan. I’m so happy that we had the right players on board, which made this storytelling possible.
This kind of creative freedom is only possible in Director-run studios like Phantom or CineMan
You write TV, plays, films and lyrics as well. Where does that side come from?
Basically, I wanted to be a poet and that’s how I started writing. Poetry comes to me from Gulzar. I’m such a big fan of his, that I’ve read anything and everything that he has ever written at least 100 times. Even in ‘Satrangi Re’, I’ve paid my tribute to Gulzar’s ‘Pyaar ko pyaar hi rehne do, koi naam na do’ with the line ‘Aa jem chhe bas tem chhe, naam koi pan devu nathi’. I was fascinated with Mirza Ghalib at the age of 18. By the time I finished engineering I read everything that I could lay my hands on – from Urdu literature to Gujarati literature to all sorts of poetry. All my initial plays were musicals and I wrote songs for them.
You are a man of remarkable collaborations. Be it with CineMan as a writer or with music directors Sachin-Jigar as a lyricist. Tell us about your dynamics with Sachin-Jigar?
When Bey Yaar happened, I was an obvious choice as a lyricist because it was my film. With Sachin-Jigar, we instantly hit it off. For music, the composers and lyricist have to have a great tuning. We jam together frequently. If I write some lyrics, they come up with a wonderful tune. Or if they have a tune, they know what kind of words they are looking for or what kind of words I can come up with. If you follow Bollywood music, you know how excellent they are. Whatever they do is genuinely good. Wrong Side Raju is a Gujarati film, so the money that they are getting in regional films is nowhere close to what they’d get in even a mid-tier Bollywood film. But what we decided during Bey Yaar or Wrong Side Raju is to not think about the money. Because if this works, it will open an entire industry.
Your songs feel like an extension of the character’s poetic side. Do you keep the characters in mind while writing lyrics?
Ideally, it helps a lot when you are both the screenwriter and lyricist of a film. Because you know what’s going on in the character’s mind, what world he comes from and what language he speaks. When you then write a song, it always hits the right note. When I wrote ‘Satrangi Re’, everyone instantly liked it because this was the song that the character would sing at that point of the story. Even the songs of Bey Yaar were weaved around Amdavadi characters – ‘Ant vagrni raato, arth vagarni vaato, birthday vaali laato and kitly ni cha’. These are things that you have lived through and they emerge in front of your eyes through these lyrics.
Ideally, it helps a lot when you are both the screenwriter and lyricist of a film
You’re at the epicenter of the industry and are possibly changing the course of cinematic direction in regional cinema. What is your overall observation about Gujarati cinema?
We are not the only reason. I feel that there is always a trigger and things are always built up. I always give the example of economic liberation of 1991. You can’t say that it was only because of P V Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh. The global forces at that time were so powerful that “License Raj” couldn’t have survived any longer. Similarly, Gujarati films were only catering to the rural lands of Gujarat. The urban moviegoers and the diaspora in USA/UK/Australia had no Gujarati content to watch. There was a tremendous demand, but no supply. At that moment when someone did something, it got accepted immediately. People still crave so much for Gujarati movies that they go out of their way to watch them. But the makers in this industry have had to fight some technical problems.
The Bengali industry has a very long history with filmmaking. Tamil is a self-sufficient industry in itself, almost parallel to the Mumbai industry. Marathi industry has a proximity to Mumbai, so they have an access to the resource and expertise. But filmmaking has gone a little far away from Gujarat in the last few decades. So there’s a dearth of technical expertise. Also, anyone who has a little creative idea thinks that he can make a film. All they try to do is to get hold of some builder and get some money to finance the film. So what happened after the first few films was a total disaster since they didn’t know the kind of art form they were dealing with. There’s almost zero understanding of screenwriting and there are very few writers out there who are good. Everyone else is following the ‘Herd Mentality’ because of lack of expertise.
The urban moviegoers and the diaspora in USA/UK/Australia had no Gujarati content to watch
What’s your view on the culture of filmmaking in Gujarat?
We don’t have a recent encounter with the culture of filmmaking. We had that culture in the 70s and 80s, which faded by 90s. From the 90s to 2000 there was almost nothing. The films that were being made was not at all exploratory in nature and weren’t not appealing to the urban audience. Now recently after a few good films, some new screenwriters and filmmakers are emerging who have learned this craft by being with this community. The expertise is slowly being developed in the right direction. I also hope that we nurture and create more filmmakers like Nagraj Manjule or Karthik Subbaraj in our industry. Marathi and Malayalam have a very deeply rooted culture of writing, while Gujarati writing doesn’t have a film-adaptable contemporary literature. In my opinion, our adaptable content lies in Meghani and in Umashankar Joshi’s wrok. Once that starts getting adapted, many more directions will open. But the adaptations are very hard to pull off and it has to be correct.
Any particular examples you liked recently?
I saw the recent trailer of Srijit Mukherjee’s Bengali movie called Zulfikar. It was exceptional, on par with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider or Maqbool.
I should be here to tell my stories as honestly as possible
What’s the one change you’d want to see going forward?
Like I said, cinema is an expression. If you look at Sairaat or Fandry, they come from very personal instances of the director’s life. That’s the power of an original expression. When I was in college, I met Gulzar as a fanboy and I asked him how he came up with his ideas. And he said that the writer’s job is to record his times. We have to express the societies we live in. I want to see more of such original expressions. And this has to be ingrained in you, in whatever you do. I should be here to tell my stories as honestly as possible. There’s no other better and accurate measure of success than the honest connection. I can’t even think of the audience or the response when I write. I only see whether it touches me or not.