Juhi Chaturvedi Curated

Indian screenwriter

CURATED BY :  


  • How was it like making the transition from advertising to film?

    The good part was that I was already used to the rigor and getting my ideas thrown into the dustbin. (laughs) That bit did not come as a shock. It was a solid foundation because the 30 seconds [format] keeps you very sharp in your thinking. It’s a mass medium and that means your idea has to appeal to just about everyone in the country. It really trains you well on how to communicate. I came into writing movies, with some lessons learned already because I did not start to become a film writer, the way I meet students at Whistling Woods. They’re so focused [on] film, and they go through all these workshops. The only thing I had with me was the training in advertising, which actually made it quite smooth.

  • What are the kind of jobs one should look at before getting a start? Should one assist writers on TV shows?

    If you have a story or an idea, the only thing you need to do is begin writing it. I came from an Advertising background and that really helped because unlike TV shows, which are long format, ads are just 30 seconds and that really is like a drill for the brain to crack an idea and a story that fits in just that much time. Including the product window! It did sharpen my thinking. You don’t need to assist anyone or take up a job in advertising, but definitely find a solid bouncing board – someone who has the authority to bomb your ideas on a regular basis, someone who can make you feel frustrated by making you rewrite again and again, and in the process, chisel your thoughts and your craft. Letting go of ego could perhaps be one job you could try doing before giving it a start.

  • What should one do after writing a script?

    Register it, my friend! Then begin. Identify the director or the producer. Looking at the kind of films they have backed, helps. Does it match your sensibility? If it does, proceed to share your script with them. A mismatch of thinking and vision can be a disaster for you.

  • Before sending out your first script what are the basic points one should keep in mind. For example, learning how to format a script, etc

    Final Draft is fairly popular software that writers use across the globe. However, I am still using Word. It’s fine. A good story is more important than anything else. It helps to write a brief note on the characters. In case you are mailing your script or leaving it behind, it helps to know a little bit about the characters and their background before one begins to read. If you can attach any reference image, maybe the city it's set in, or the era, it’s a help too.

  • How do you set up a meeting with a studio to pitch a script? Is it wise to send a text/try cold calling, or do studios have an organized system for submissions?

    Writers Association (SWA) can help you with getting contact numbers of the studios you wish to connect with. A polite text is perhaps the best first step. Then wait for a response. If you can find more connections to reach the person designated to read the scripts or make arrangements to make you meet the producer/director, it’ll only be a big help. Thing is that all these people have busy schedules, so have patience at all times.

  • Should one send an entire script or just a brief to producers/studios?

    I would assume that one would want the producer/studios to read the entire script and then take a call if it's working for them or not. Synopsis can be attached along with the script but if they find it interesting enough, they can quickly read and take a call.

  • How is an idea for a story born in your head?

  • Since when did you start writing?

  • What are the changes you undergo in your life while writing a script?

  • What do you keep in mind while writing a script, audience or characters?

  • How long do you take to write the first draft? what is your writing pattern?

  • You've also largely worked with one filmmaker, Shoojit Sircar. How does your collaboration with him work? Do you bounce ideas off of each other or how does the scriptwriting work?

    I had been working with him even in my advertising days, since 2003 onwards, when I came to [Ogilvy & Mather], where they would allow me to write film scripts. There’s also this hierarchy. You cannot just enter advertising and start writing films, you have to write a leaflet. Shoojit [Sircar] came and started directing my ad films. He was one of the most celebrated ad filmmakers and continues to be so. The collaboration started back then and we do discuss a lot of ideas, a lot of films. We discuss a lot of craft.

  • How did you manage to develop diversity in character languages? Did personal experience influence that?

  • You started your career as an art director in the advertising industry and now you have bagged two National Awards for your writing. How did the switch happen?

    At Ogilvy, where I worked, there’s a saying: Ogilvy ka executive, na art ka na copy ka. The agency makes close to 250 TVCs a year and you may be in the art department but at some point, the two begin to merge. That’s when I started writing scripts although for ads. In that course, I ended up working with Shoojit (Sircar, director) quite a few times. So when he wanted to make Shoebite, he asked me if I would write for him. Growing up in the 90s and watching the cinema of that time, I had no inclination to work in the film industry but when the offer came by, I thought since he is taking the risk and trusts me, I have nothing to lose. It wasn’t until I was on the sets of Shoebite that I fell in love with the medium. But I didn’t tell anyone I had begun to nurse this dream because there are so many people in this city who wish to write a film.

  • What changed on the sets of Shoebite?

    I had of course been on a set before during my stint in the ad agency but this was different, it was more instinctive with a whole team of people battling weather and other problems to create something with a common vision. You can’t compare an ad with a feature film. It's too big a canvas and way more intense. I felt that on the sets. I understood the seriousness of the script, Shoojit’s vision, on the set. I was carrying my daughter full term when Shoebite was being shot. That was Simla in 2008 and I came down with pneumonia due to the bitter cold. But by then I was so taken in by it that I went back to be there for the last schedule with my two-month-old daughter in my arms. It would be easy to dismiss my change of sentiment as hormonal at the time but that wasn’t the case because I was alternating between the joy and anticipation of motherhood and the sadness of the stale relationship between the husband and wife in that script.

  • Did the actor contribute to your grief over Bhashkor’s death?

    The part when I finished writing the scene of Bhashkor’s passing, I howled for long. I couldn’t bring myself to accept that a character, not a person has died and wasn’t myself for about four days. The loss felt personal. I knew it was the right time for Bhashkor to die, he had come back to where he belonged, to Champakunj and had had the best motion possible. He was satisfied. His purpose was served. He died a happy man, just what he had wished for, all his life. Therefore his death, in some sense, is his achievement.

  • Where did Madras Cafe fit into your mindset?

    I admit I wouldn’t have ventured there on my own as the subject is too alien for me. But when Shoojit asked me to write the dialogues for the film, I came on board aware that it demanded a certain language. But I cannot do the desh prem dramatic dialogues so I chose to view them as real people. The characters were spies, soldiers and bureaucrats but also regular people.

  • If Madras Cafe was being made today, would the dialogues be more “nationalistic”, given the current mood in the country?

    I believe not everyone’s expression of nationalism is the same. And it is sad that any film with such a subject has to be made with utter caution. Tamil Nadu banned the film even before it released but when the DVD came out, the state witnessed the maximum sales. I don’t understand why a filmmaker is targetted for making what is an interpretation of a political event unless facts are being completely twisted. Films don’t go down in the archives of history, they go down in the archives of film history.

  • Would your writing have been different had you not been juggling it with home life?

    I’m not even sure if I’d have become a writer at all if it weren’t for the chaos that surrounds me. I love this life but there is a need to escape from it, which writing fulfils. I am a control freak who cannot take things falling apart around me. I do things right, but I am not so correct in my head. That’s where writing comes in, it channels my wild side.

  • Does the character of Piku anyhow resemble with you?

    Piku is any woman. I see most of my friends concerned about their ageing parents while still wanting to have a life of their own. And that is why Piku says, “Ek age ke baad parents apne aap zinda nahin rehte…unhien zinda rakhna padta hai aur ye zimmedaari bachchon ki hi hai.”

  • What inspiration did you borrow a lot from your own experiences while writing Piku?

    Most of the writers do draw inspiration from either their own lives or what they see around. I won't say Piku is me or the film is my story but yes, I have the first-hand experience of a father and daughter sharing the same home. Even though I am 40, I am answerable to my father as to where I am going and when I will come back home. Champakunj is the name of our house in Lucknow, where I grew up. We sold it off but in the film, I ensured Piku doesn’t let that happen. That was my way of letting my home belong to me forever. And the idea of constipation, while it has been borrowed from my grandad, who suffered the problem, Shoojit feels that only Bengalis suffer it. So maybe my grandfather borrowed the bowel problem from Bengalis and I borrowed it from him on paper. A lot of nuances came alive also because Shoojit brought in his own life experiences.

  • Part of why the audience connected with Piku is because she is so real. Do you feel Hindi cinema mostly has uni-dimensional women characters?

    Most urban women characters in Hindi films are stereotypical. If they are modern, they wear only a certain kind of clothes and if they are shown working, their ‘ambition’ is shown as a vice. The ‘good girls’ are expected to pay attention only to home and family. There is no milieu to these women characters’ lives. The only interactions they have been waiting for the hero’s call, waiting to meet his family or dressing up to meet him. Hero seems to be the only centre point of her purpose. Which is slightly putting off because that is not true in real life. Which why perhaps people connected with Piku. They could see many other dimensions of her life. We don’t need to see too many characters in the film but to be able to connect with your main character, we need to get a sense of their world. Of course, there have been exceptions too, like Alia Bhatt’s character in Highway is that of thinking, evolving girl.

  • What’s the one movie or book that has influenced you most? Is there a screenwriting book that you turn to?

    Before Vicky Donor (2012), when I committed to Shoojit about writing, I had only read Shoebite’s screenplay. That was only because I was supposed to write, but it was a very different film. It’s very heavy on emotion. [My] characters, Vicky and Ashima, are all very different. So I was not able to make head or tail out of it. I thought let me buy Sid Field because I have heard this name. I did read like some 20-odd pages. I just felt it’s a trap. Before I finish, I should just stop reading it. Then I just went back to my own instinct for writing. How you would talk to people and tell them stories? So every scene for me, if I want this happened after that, I would actually just write like that and I had the experience of writing ads, so I really approached like that. But [I had] no formal training.

  • Do you think it is important that a woman be on board in a film with women characters in crucial roles?

    It only takes sensitive people, men or women, to write strong women characters. If that weren’t the case, Satyajit Ray wouldn’t have written Mahanagar or Bimal Roy wouldn’t have penned Bandini.

  • Where did Vicky Donor come from?

    From the time I spent in Lajpat Nagar after I moved to Delhi from Lucknow. It made me understand the dynamics of refugees. The Punjabis are said to be show-offs but during those years I realised where that need comes from. They have suffered a lot during the Partition. So what they have now is what they have earned after moving here, which perhaps makes them want to show off and live it up. It’s a characteristic Vicky has and so do Biji and Dolly.

  • Why did you choose to draw a contrast with the Bengali culture?

    I grew up with a Bengali family for neighbours and I realise their mindset is very different. They are more academically and culturally inclined and literary, unlike Punjabis who have a fantastic business sense. Even though I come from a UP family but much like Bengalis, there is a certain openness in our conversations. We are allowed to voice our opinions, likes and dislikes. I would say I have been brought up with well-groomed openmindedness, like Bengalis. This is evident in both the Vicky Donor and Piku.

  • A lot of writers become directors so that they can make a film where their vision isn’t diluted. Do you have plans, too?

    To me, the direction is a specific craft. As a screenwriter, I may not necessarily be a good director and vice versa. For the vision to not be diluted, it is important to work with a good director who will be able to bring what isn’t on paper, the nuances. For instance, in Piku, the scene where Deepika Padukone is pumping the water out of the clogged sink isn’t there on paper but Shoojit had the understanding of Piku’s anger and frustration, so he wanted to shoot it and it came out nuanced. And there many such small little gems that directors do throw-in, other than being in charge of everything that goes into filming. As a writer, I must acknowledge that a good director is able to fine-tune what may already be on paper or may have missed out on paper. For now, I am enjoying my phase as a writer.

  • After watching October, I felt drained yet spiritually active. Was this a button you pushed through your writing to make us go through a similar journey that probably Dan and Shuili's mother felt as they waited for Shuili to recover from the coma?

    I'm glad that it felt spiritually active. The intention was not to make others feel such a thing. The writing journey itself was like this. It was in a spiritual space. We tried not to make it too intellectual or forcefully emotional. Because I feel like that simplicity is what we have almost lost these days. For example, while watching films like Bandini and Sujatha, I was a child. I could not even decipher the depth of those films at that age. But I encountered that heart-wrenching emotion. You do not know why you're crying.

  • How did you come up with such an unconventional narrative?

    While it may seem like deliberately written so, life is actually like that. It is pretty mundane, boring and static in that sense. There aren't really so many twists and turns, ups and downs. Even if there are turns, they lead to nowhere. Or there are times when you realise that the loop closed a long time ago. I don't see the film as two hours long. I see it as a year in the lives of my characters. Dan does nothing heroic. He is just a regular guy who follows his conviction. But how can I tell that to the audience? Even I do not know, because he does not know. Dan's unawareness is what his life really is.

  • The film's trailer encouraged us to feel 'October in April'. How difficult is it for you to hope, and make others hope, through your writing?

    Hope is that one leaf, one flower that God has given us to hang on to. I am eternally hopeful. I wanted to share the eternal optimism that Dan has towards Shuili. He is not aware of it. He just follows his conviction, without thinking, without doubting, without faltering. Because I think when karma takes over, you do not need to lament about anything. You just need to keep at it because your energy really rubs off. At the same time, there is an uncle in every family who has a practical concern of pulling the plug. There is no malice as he does make those trips from Trichi. Even the hopes but maybe not as unidimensionally as Dan does.

  • Visually, the film re-instils hope in those who have given up on Delhi. The polluted, untidy city is seen through a poetic and green lens in October. Why was the involvement of nature important?

    All those flowering trees and changing seasons do play a role in how your life is planned. In Mumbai, I can wear this shirt in both April and December. There is a sense of monotony. In the north, in places like Delhi, the general population's lives revolve around these seasons. Garmi aa gayi, woolens andar rakhne hain. Winter is coming, boots khareedne hain. These are short term achievements that seasons bring. In spring, the nature works hard year-round to show off Ek saal ki mehnat. To set this changing time span against Shuili's constant recuperation was to show that sab kuchh ho raha hai, just that she is not recovering. But those shuili flowers do help her. They give out hope. We have forgotten the therapeutic power that these flowers have. We are more attracted to the flowers that we can buy from florists. These shuili flowers just fall from the tree and people step on them. They fall on the car and are wiped away with a ganda ponchha. This October, if even a few people notice these flowers, I'll feel that the film has achieved something.

  • You have also drawn a parallel between the two worlds. Was this comparison intentional? Was it shows that Dan is a misfit there?

    The people employed at both hospitals and hotels work way beyond their work timings. We stayed at this Delhi hotel for a month during the shoot. We saw this guy do more than 12 hours of work every day. Even in hospitals, the nurses and the ward boys have a lot of handover work to do at the end of their shifts. As far as Dan is concerned, he can be seen as a misfit there. The field of hotel management does cater to lost souls. The lack of any bigger ambition in life could have made him opt for hotel management. But even when he was in the hospital, he could relate to the service staff because he plays the same role in the hotel. To put him into the hotel management sector was not intentional on my part, but I wanted to explore this space where the people have a dark side beyond all the chaka-chak lifestyle. But once Shuili falls off the terrace, then the comparison came to me. Both of these industries serve, one serves the ego while the other serves the person. One is so meaningless, whereas the other is lifesaving.

  • In Piku, Bhaskor Banerjee, a character created by you, tells his daughter to never put him on life support. But Dan's optimism is diametrically opposite to that viewpoint in October. Is this conflict a part of you? What is then, your personal stance on euthanasia?

    That is Bhaskor at 70. He has lived his life. There is a certain grace in death. That whole idea of depending on others in that age chokes you. Then to depend on a machine seems even more futile. Ventilator literally seems like a dhakka on the motorcycle. For Shuili, at 21, the immune system is stronger. She will respond more to the treatment. I'm in full awareness that Bhaskor said something else, and Dan said something else. And both their stances are a part of the conflict within me. But personally, if anyone asks me if I want to be put on a ventilator at 70, or even 90, I would say yes. I do want to hit that 100 marks. I love life that much.

  • Is there a film you return to, that you absolutely love to watch, just for its screenplay?

    A Separation (2011), every time you watch you understand that milieu and those people a lot more. Then in Indian films, Trikal (1985), then Saeed Mirza’s films because again I don’t understand Bombay the way he does. It’s a revelation when I watch what he has written. I just empathize with the city a lot more, because of his work. [There’s] Ray’s work, or Ritwick Ghatak’s work. Of course, they are of a very specific era, but somehow the crisis or the anger in the character or what they are trying to achieve that seems to be the case even now. It hasn’t changed much. You just feel like Mahanagar (1963) of Ray, this is where we are even right now. [A] working wife is still an issue with a husband. Male ego still gets hurt, no matter they accept it or not. [Ray] did that in the 1960s. In fact, even Sai Parajape’s Chashme Buddoor (1981), for some reason, I feel it’s one of my all-time favorites. These films are masterpieces and they cannot be replicated. They can only teach you every time. They are full chapters in film writing or filmmaking.

  • Do you ever feel apprehensive that the characters created by you will not be pulled off with actors who lack the chops to bring them to life?

    I don't think that is a concern. An actor would not agree to do such a role if they do not relate to it. There must be something within them that feels for that part. For example, we initially narrated Piku to another actress who could not relate with it. But when we narrated it to Deepika, she said yes within the first 10 minutes. She said, "I'm like this at home." Similarly, Varun has no experience of hospitals, accidents and loved ones in a coma. But he shared with us an incident that made him relate to the sense of loss in October. When he was shooting for Main Tera Hero, his dad collapsed and told him, "I'm gone." While he survived, that fleeting moment stayed with Varun. And that is where he drew from when he played Dan.

  • Do you like taking the risk and write beyond your comfort zone?

  • Constipation is a serious subject. How did you balance humour along with the seriousness of the subject?

  • How do you look back at Vicky Donor now?

  • How was experience of writing an ad for Aamir Khan when you were working in Advertising firm?

  • How did you manage to get under the skin of Piku and Bengali culture?

  • What are the five signs to know that you yourself are a Piku?

  • Do you feel that old parents should be accepted as responsibilities rather than a burden?

  • How was the experience of working with Amitabh Bachchan?

  • The men in your films are perfect. Are they the new age men real and do they accept women as they are?

  • Which film for you was the most difficult to write and why?

    October. It’s a hospital story, but you’re trying to find poetry in that too. That’s the story of hundreds of people. You go inside [a] hospital, it’s exactly their world. I have lived that world for almost 30 years, but what about it that you want to write? It’s not a medical film, it’s a very [character-driven] film.

  • Is it necessary to go to a film school?

    I went to an art school. While I did learn how to hold the brush correctly and how to color without getting cut shades and how to enjoy ‘bun makkhan’ every single day for 5 years, it still didn’t turn me into Picasso. Having said that, be it in a film school, or art school, or any other professional school, the thing is that you do go through a focused syllabus and live in an environment that brings a basic understanding of your desired field. Which you can also learn if you attach yourself to a good director as his 15th assistant.

  • Can you name some of the best books for screenwriting?

    I haven’t read any so I can’t really suggest one. What I do recommend is that the best screenplay is your own life. Read it. Go back in time and revisit all those memorable or mundane incidents, and the way they panned out. Watching sensible films is another way to learn the craft. See the scenes again and again.

  • Is coming to Mumbai is necessary to become a screenwriter?

    It helps to be in Mumbai because the industry is here. All the production houses, people who can help you take your story forward, all are here. There are multiple rounds of meetings, some fruitful, some not. So in the initial years, it’s best to be here.

  • Some discipline needs to be maintained while being a writer, thoughts?

    It is indeed an extremely testing art. To sit in front of your computer screen and not move beyond one line for hours, sometimes days, can be awfully frustrating. But even if that is the case, I reckon it only helps to sit everyday and make that attempt. And then one day, out of the blue, your thoughts just begin to flow.

  • What to do for becoming a writer? Observe?

    If you have a story or an idea, the only thing you need to do is begin writing it. I came from an Advertising background and that really helped because unlike TV shows, which are long format, ads are just 30 seconds and that really is like a drill for the brain to crack an idea and a story that fits in just that much time. Including the product window! It did sharpen my thinking.

  • Do we need to assist someone before becoming a writer?

    You don’t need to assist anyone or take up a job in advertising, but definitely find a solid bouncing board – someone who has the authority to bomb your ideas on a regular basis, someone who can make you feel frustrated by making you rewrite again and again, and in the process, chisel your thoughts and your craft. Letting go of ego could perhaps be one job you could try doing before giving it a start.

  • Suppose one has written a script, what are the next steps?

    Register it, my friend! Then begin. Identify the director or the producer. Looking at the kind of films they have backed, helps. Does it match your sensibility? If it does, proceed to share your script with them. A mismatch of thinking and vision can be a disaster for you.

  • Do we need to learn any software before getting started?

    Final Draft is fairly popular software that writers use across the globe. However, I am still using Word. It’s fine. A good story is more important than anything else. It helps to write a brief note on the characters. In case you are mailing your script or leaving it behind, it helps to know a little bit about the characters and their background before one begins to read. If you can attach any reference image, maybe the city its set in, or the era, it’s a help too.

  • If I have to send a script to a producer, should I send the entire script or just the synopsis?

    Final Draft is fairly popular software that writers use across the globe. However, I am still using Word. It’s fine. A good story is more important than anything else. It helps to write a brief note on the characters. In case you are mailing your script or leaving it behind, it helps to know a little bit about the characters and their background before one begins to read. If you can attach any reference image, maybe the city it's set in, or the era, it’s a help too.

  • How do we set up a meeting with any studio?

    Writers Association (SWA) can help you with getting contact numbers of the studios you wish to connect with. A polite text is perhaps the best first step. Then wait for a response. If you can find more connections to reach the person designated to read the scripts or make arrangements to make you meet the producer/director, it’ll only be a big help. Thing is that all these people have busy schedules, so have patience at all times.

  • When you write a script, how do you decide what to hold back? Is it intuitive or do you have a screen motto that you kind of follow by any chance?

    Most of the time it’s intuitive, at the same time, it’s also a game to keep yourself entertained. As a writer, at that point, you think, I’ll not tell you this, let’s see if you are intelligent enough to figure it out. And how do I know that he or she is intelligent to figure it out? It’s only when I keep writing and I ask my own self. It’s like a little conversation you have with yourself that why should I say everything right now? It’s like a challenge, that without saying this, can the purpose still come out? After say five scenes, I want the story to come to this point, does it still get there without saying this or that clarity is needed and does it have to be spelled out?

  • Are there any red flags to look into, once a script is read by a producer?

    You are not a lawyer, I am assuming. So immediately get one on board, who knows the fine print. Do run it pass the SWA officials if you can. They have been constantly working to come up with a contract that is writer-friendly.

  • Is the situation in the industry writer-friendly?

    To sum it up, the good news is that things are changing. Content is in demand. But first, we need to do our bit as writers. You can’t run around with the first draft in hand. Spend enough time in getting it right and wonderful that its tough to say a no. Take the responsibility for good thinking. No one is interested in a boring, lifeless, thoughtless film anymore.

  • Tell us something about your childhood?

    I was born and raised in Lucknow. Life there is very easy-going and pretty secure. Everyone knows everyone there. As a student, I was into drawing completely.. Art was my space. I wanted to be an artist. My father (Dhirendra) ensured that I participated in all the art competitions in the city. Luckily, I would win everywhere. That was a big confidence-building exercise. My mother (Mridula) was a housewife. Life at home was a little tough because of my mother’s bad health, but it made me emotionally strong. In spite of that, I had a beautiful childhood. We had lots of trees in the house. There was a huge kitchen garden. Lot of hours spent in my childhood were just spent with nature, with myself. It wasn’t like today, where you sit in front of the TV and switch it on. You had to entertain yourself, nobody is going to play blocks with you. I used to water plants, climb trees. I have an elder brother, so his friends, my friends...we had this big gang in our mohalla. We really didn’t need anyone or anything. Times were different, it wasn’t as unsafe.

  • Your mother left you in an early age?

    I was in Class 2 or 3 when mom had a haemorrhage, she survived that. Then there was kidney faliure and transplant, cancer.... I almost grew up in hospitals and around doctors. It was like hum hi aadhe doctor khud ban gaye the. I was checking blood pressure when I was in class six. I guess if I wasn’t in this profession, I would’ve ended up being a doctor. She passed away after 30 years of suffering, just before Vicky Donor released, but we managed to show it to her at home.

  • How was it in the Advertising field?

    I did a five-degree course in arts. I wanted to be a proper painter and all. But my professor told me to get into advertising. He said ‘You’ll get a salary and you can always paint’. I joined Ogilvy in Delhi in 1996. Ogilvy is the Mecca of advertising. You have to be there to know what creative energies can do to you. Everybody is passionate. The time, deadlines are very tight. You are smoking, you are drinking, you are cracking ads. There’s frenzy all around. The computers had just come in. We would do all our work by hand. As an art person, that was a part of your grooming. In the office, only the studio people could use the computers, so you would sit and beg them to do your work. It was lovely. There was a place called Some Place Else, which had an advertisers and bankers night every Friday, so after a week of work we would party.

  • How was your time in Delhi?

    In Lucknow, I hadn’t seen any women smoke or drink or abuse, I didn’t even see them wearing any make-up. I remember I was going to for a client meeting when my senior called me to her cabin and said, ‘I know you are good at your job, you work is perfect, but maybe a little bit of make-up wouldn’t hurt’. I couldn’t understand why I needed make-up. Back home, only a certain kind of girl put kaajal and you didn’t dress to catch attention at all... all those demarcations were in my mind. My first set of make-up was bought my boss. When I would see women abusing openly, I would wonder ‘Where have I landed!’ At that time, print advertising was big. Only your bosses and their bosses cracked TV ads. My print ad for Duracell was nominated and won the One Show Award, which judges ad campaigns from across the world.

  • When did you move to Mumbai?

    In 1999, I moved to Mumbai with my husband (Asheesh Malhotra). And around that time, advertising changed. It was no longer creatively driven, you had to show numbers. Earlier there were no hard feelings between two groups in an organisation, but that started happening. That was because everything was getting judged. By the time I left Delhi, I was in a decent place. But then I came to Mumbai, the head office. I could feel everyone thinking that she has come from Delhi, has won an award, now let’s see how good she is. I would keep telling them that I am not from Delhi, I am from Lucknow. People didn’t know much about Lucknow or even Delhi. I would be asked things like ‘It gets really cold in Delhi na, does it snow there?’ I would be stumped. When you come from up North, you learn things differently. We have studied all states in so much depth. But that’s not the case here. And I realise now after living here for 15 years, why it is so. There is nothing beyond Mumbai... I mean why would you care about anything when you are in Mumbai? What you would probably care is about a New York or London or Singapore. There is no rest of the country, but at that time I wouldn’t understand that. I would keep telling people around me you should visit Delhi, you should see the capital of your country. I would even volunteer to plan their trip, but no one listened to me.Initially, when I came here, I wanted to run away. I would fight with my husband every morning. My speed was just not matching with the speed of the city. The hours required, the commute...it was just not working out for me. The first year was terrible. Here spending time with friends meant go out and have a drink...maybe that was because of the profession I was in. In Delhi, you would go to each other’s house, your relationship was more personal. Here it would be finish your work, drink and then go home. And if you don’t drink, you just go home after work. It took me a year to adjust. We worked together briefly and then he decided to shift out.

  • What ads did you make when you were an ad person?

    Around 2002-2003, I was working with a writer on an ad, but for some reason we were not clicking. So my boss said, ‘Why don’t you give it a shot’ so I began writing 20-30 second ads. They were liked. Then I wrote a Sprite ad. That was the turning point. After that, I shifted to Bengaluru briefly with my husband in 2004. There were big businesses there like Titan and Bru, Red Label, Taj Mahal, Brooke Bond, but there was nobody to write ads. So I was asked to write. I was still doing art, but I also started doing this, too. I didn’t mind the change. But all this happened with huge support from Piyush Pandey. He would evaluate my writing. During this time, I worked on all the Aamir Khan Titan ads.

  • You work with Shoojit Sircar, When did you first meet Mr. Bachchan?

    In 2006, I came back to Mumbai. By that time, Shoojit Sircar had already made Yahaan. Around 2007, he was doing Shoebite. He asked me to write dialogues for it. My TVCs were detailed. Aamir was known to change everything. Even in the ad world, they were surprised that he hadn’t changed anything I had written. It was like a feather in my cap. Shoojit said, ‘Tu itne lambe lambe ads likhti hai, dialogues likhna start kar’. That was the first movie I wrote. I went to the shoot too because Mr Bachchan wanted the writer to be there. It was on the sets of Shoebite that I realised the scale and difference between ads and films. The liberty that film-writing can give you is amazing. You get to have someone say what you want them to say... in this case, it was Mr Bachchan. I thought to myself, ‘Shit, Yeh bhi ho sakta hai!’.

  • When did you enter the film industry?

    There’s a certain snobbery in the ad world when it comes to Bollywood. They looked down on Bollywood. I was a part of that brigade, too. Firstly, I had not seen many movies. And also, most of the movies that came out in the 90s were pathetic. There were some good movies like Bandit Queen, but such films were few. I didn’t tell anyone other than my family members and close friends about writing for films. I didn’t want to talk about it unless it actually happened. I knew I wanted to write films after working on Shoebite, but I also thought, ‘What if I am not able to do it?’ I just decided to keep quiet. I would have to take holidays and my boss would be a bit irked. In 2008, I left Ogilvy and joined McCann where Prasoon Joshi is the head. Somehow, the high wasn’t there. Around 2009-10, I quit and started writing Vicky Donor.

  • Is it necessary to go to film school for scriptwriting?

    went to an art school. While I did learn how to hold the brush correctly and how to color without getting cut shades and how to enjoy ‘bun makkhan’ every single day for 5 years, it still didn’t turn me into Picasso. Having said that, be it in a film school, or art school, or any other professional school, the thing is that you do go through a focused syllabus and live in an environment that brings a basic understanding of your desired field. Which you can also learn if you attach yourself to a good director as his 15th assistant.

  • How did you come with the idea of "Vicky Donor"?

    One night, I called Shoojit at 10.30 pm with the idea for Vicky Donor. I decided to write it just as a story first before developing a screenplay. The only screenplay that I had read before was Shoebite. And I am glad I didn’t know the way things are supposed to be done. I am happy that my content consumption is limited. While writing, I didn’t know where it was going. Advertising trained me to recognise whether the idea is clutter-breaking or not. I would think which of my advertising friends would come see it and how would they react. During Vicky, both Shoojit and I were clear that it will not be a gag-filled film, it will not have any cheap content. It was about a sperm donor, but the crux is the desire to have a child. It’s just about childless couples. If you write with that in mind, it couldn’t be cheap. I identified with Vicky. Like he was a guy who has got himself into something that he has no clue about, I had gotten myself into writing something that sounded quirky, but I had no clue how I was going to get it done. It took literally a year. We shot the seventh draft.

  • What happened when the script for "Vicky Donor" got finalized?

    I was present for the shoot of Vicky Donor as well as Piku. I think it’s a must for a writer to be present when the movie is being shot. I don’t think anybody understands a film the way the writer does. With Shoojit, he reads the draft so many times that he knows it thoroughly, but not every director does that. You know the mood of the scene, you know which scene is connected to which scene ahead. I don’t write A-for-Apple kind of stuff. I don’t make my screenplays audience proof ke sab kuch bata do because there are so many layers. Something is getting answered because of some doubt or some thought that’s in the previous scene. You have to be around to see what you have written, sometimes suffered for nights to write a particular scene, is done correctly. So the producers and directors must make sure that the writer is involved through the making of the film.

  • What is your formula?

    I have come at the time when everyone is willing to keep the formula on the side and give more space and respect to films with good stories. These are no more “niche” or small-budget films... They are commercial films. Piku is an absolute commercial film when it has Mr Bachchan and Deepika Padukone...it’s as commercial as it gets. The good thing is that there is space for stories now. It’s no more ke kiske baad ek gaana aa jayega, iske baad ek fight sequence aa jayega. People are looking for and welcoming stories with open arms. I don’t know how many of them are going to be doing justice to those stories. There are those who say that let us get the story, then we’ll make something out of it, as opposed to those who say that this is the story, this is what we will make. There are few directors who do that. I have run away from those meetings where I hear this scary line. Or filmmakers say ek baar sign karlo, then we’ll make them do what we want. That doesn’t work. You make what I write.

  • Tell us something about working with Shoojit?

    With Shoojit, there’s a trust that has only strengthened over time. I don’t have to worry about why he is not getting my point. Even if the solution is different from what I am suggesting, I have the patience and maturity to wait it out and believe in it. Because I know that he won’t do something just for the heck of it. He doesn’t owe me an explanation. Of course, he tells me why he is doing what he is doing because he treats me like his writing partner. But frankly, writers are not that valued in the industry. I got to know Shoojit only because we would make ads together. There’s this comfort of me writing, him directing and me intruding in every aspect of filmmaking and him letting me be a part of it.

  • Describe the process of writing according to you?

    The process of writing for me, the story comes first. Then I think about the backdrop. I think of things, like: Can my character be born in the city? Who did he interact with? Which part of the city did he grow up in? What were the limitations? Why didn’t he live in Defence Colony, why did he live in Lajpat Nagar? All of it has to fall into place. I think a lot of it comes from living in Lucknow, it’s society driven by a certain class having certain traits. I don’t need to explain all these things to the world, but I know that I have explained and reasoned it out in my head. In Vicky Donor, Vicky Arora’s ancestors were refugees, so their house has a certain energy. If you think about a generation in advance, then your main characters seem authentic. For me, coming to a name like Vicky Arora or Bhashkor Bannerjee is extremely critical. That is a process and I like to follow that. Because from where else can I draw these references? Fortunately, those hours of doing nothing in Lucknow translated into these observations.

  • Are writers paid enough?

    Writers are definitely not paid well. Some time ago, I was talking to a person from the industry who told me your market price is X amount and I was like ‘Oh really!’ because I had absolutely no clue. The process of writing is so lengthy that what you get in parts is really not sufficient. A film might not even take off. Most writers think that just write a draft so that they can get the signing amount because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Writers also have to run their houses, right? Even if you give three percent of the profit to the writer that would be great if you are asking me to commit to a film for an entire year. The makers may say that we don’t ask you to do that, but that’s not how it works. As a writer, the commitment is much more.

  • Did you ever feel pressured?

    There was no pressure with Vicky Donor as nobody knew who I was or what I was writing. Second time around, there was pressure initially. It took some time before Piku happened. It came to a point where people said, ‘God knows what she is doing!’ But I knew I wasn’t going to succumb to that pressure. The only thing on my mind was that whatever I write, it has to do justice to my thinking. I had to figure out if I have done the right thing by quitting advertising and letting go of so many things because I am writing... am I really writer material? For me, that was the pressure. It was never about whether people will like what I write, because after 17 years in advertising, you develop a thick skin. It’s a selfish agenda when I am writing. I am not writing to please anyone... I have done that for 17 years for a salary. I have been through that grind.

  • Do you attach any value to your scripts?

    My stories are not about giving a message, but they have a purpose. There has to be something that you take home. I am asking you to commit your two hours to watch something and not watch anything else. If you are going to spend `2000 if four people are coming together, then why should you be doing that? That needs to be answered for my own self. I know the story is leading to something. It doesn’t have to have a social message. I don’t know how moralistic Piku is, but it is the truth of today’s generation, who is struggling to keep pace with their social life and the responsibilities of the parents. They’re not burdened by these responsibilities, but are dealing with them. It’s not even fair to expect your spouse to take care of your parents for you because he/she has their own parents to look after.

  • What do you have to say about writer's block?

    Whenever I face writer’s block, I take a break. It’s not just about writer’s block, but it’s important to detach yourself from what you’ve written to get a fresh perspective. After writing the scene of Piku’s father Bhashkor’s death, I was in tears...it was extremely disturbing. I remember it was around 2.30 am when I finished writing that scene, then I went of to sleep. The next day, too, I was very disturbed. So, for one week, I did not touch anything. I didn’t even know that now that he has died, what happens next. Probably my reaction was exactly like the ones I saw on people’s faces when they were watching the movie. Now that Bhashkor has died, they don’t know what will happen next. Now what? That was my state exactly. It was like recovering from someone’s death.

  • What do you do when you get any ideas, who do you share them with?

    I discuss my ideas with my husband Asheesh, but we end up arguing more often (laughs). But I know whatever his inputs are, he is brutal about it. So only when I am in the mood to hear all the brutal stuff, I talk to him. I don’t make him read anything till a draft is ready. He didn’t read Vicky Donor. He saw the movie only on the day it was premiered. Piku also he read after the draft was read by Shoojit. I follow that rule. Apart from him, I discuss my ideas with Shoojit.

  • Which are the best books on screenwriting you recommend?

    I haven’t read any so I can’t really suggest one. What I do recommend is that the best screenplay is your own life. Read it. Go back in time and revisit all those memorable or mundane incidents, and the way they panned out. Watching sensible films is another way to learn the craft. See the scenes again and again.

  • What do you do when you get any ideas, who do you share them with?

    I discuss my ideas with my husband Asheesh, but we end up arguing more often (laughs). But I know whatever his inputs are, he is brutal about it. So only when I am in the mood to hear all the brutal stuff, I talk to him. I don’t make him read anything till a draft is ready. He didn’t read Vicky Donor. He saw the movie only on the day it was premiered. Piku also he read after the draft was read by Shoojit. I follow that rule. Apart from him, I discuss my ideas with Shoojit.

  • How do you describe the emotional love story of October?

    We all keep saying that today’s generation or youngsters, all these 20-year-olds or 22-year-olds, what do they know about love? In a generation that it is all about Facebook likes and dislikes and status updates and all that. But somewhere what we don’t realise is that unless and until we don’t face a certain situation in life, how will you even know that something of that intensity or something of that purity exists inside you. A lot of people till the age of 40 will not go through a situation in life which makes them react completely in a way that probably they didn’t know existed within them. So October for me, specially Dan’s character is that guy who probably was living his life and when the situation came, and a side of him came out which probably even he didn’t know existed inside him. It is just trying to bring out the inner most, deepest emotions inside us, and we have all have that purity, it’s just that we probably haven’t got a chance to explore and express it.

  • Your movie "October" has the old notion of love, or not?

    No, it is not that old-world notion of love, everything is today, the setup is today, the guy is from today, it is not the old world, it is just pure. That is why I am saying purity exists even now, maybe it has not come face to face? We ourselves have not dwelled inside our own hearts that much and upar upar surface mein kaam chal jata hai. But having said that, this film, the emotions, everything is today, this guy does go through that. I don’t know if purity, honesty and unconditional - do these words belong to a pastor, do they still make sense to people. For me, that is what love is, nothing else is love then.

  • Do you think with "October" you tried to explore a new layer of love?

    For me, which Shoojit and I keep discussing, the epitome of love is what a mother and child shares. There is certain purity which nothing can compete and it is just beyond barriers.Can a guy of today, have that kind of emotion for someone else who is not his mother, not his father and who is not blood-related. Now if you ask me how I hit upon something like that, you know it is like an onion, you just keep peeling and ultimately nothing comes out of it. But that nothing to me is the most wonderful thing. There is no notion, there is no definition, there are no preset ways that you are going to react. That nothingness for me was the most difficult part to achieve. There is nothing that I am giving to the character, nothing he is going to get in return but what it’s what he does with that nothing. Piku was done in a certain tone, and it was real, then October is probably is even more real. No line, no word, no scene is written to play to the gallery or to extract a certain kind of reaction from the audience. It is just Dan, his mind, his life.

  • Piku and Vicky Donor were entirely your ideas, but October was a brief given to you?

    It was a very interesting brief, you know to take on this challenge. What I had to do I had no idea, what I don’t have to do - uske examples toh bahut saare the. This is during Piku that we were discussing it, and Piku happened in 2015. I remember it was September 2016, when I sent him the first draft, it took me that much time because it was such a struggle to come to this level of simplicity. It is so easy to add gimmicks, it’s so easy to write lines, this film is not verbose at all like my previous films. In September when Pink released, I gave him the script, he took some time to read it, he had no idea what it will be because I had not shared what I will write and I am happy that he liked it.

  • Have you been to any writing school or read any books?

    I have not gone to any writing school, I’ve not read books (on screenwriting), I’ve not attended workshops, for me it is this process, that there are no structured ways of doing things, that has worked so far. Of course, I have a basic idea of what I am writing towards.

  • When you write a story, is it in a structured way or you start with the character and then let the story build around it?

    Always the character and his world. It is then that the process becomes more organic, automatically you know certain things will fit in here and certain things will not fit in. Then you are not force-fitting people into a situation that you have thought of. The people in the film automatically lend themselves into a certain kind of a story or a screenplay or a scene. Basic ek kahaani jo batate hain kisi ko, utna toh pata hai, but other than that, there is no map ki 20 minutes mein yeh hona chahiye, interval time par yeh... I don’t know where the interval point comes, so I don’t write towards that. It’s always the people in the script.

  • Are there any changes in the final draft of the script when the movie is being shot, say due to the improvisations of the actors?

    See, the final draft is what we shoot and their is absolutely no change. Basic improvisations, yes, some scenes naturally lend themselves for improvisations or some natural reactions which Varun has given in the film, because at some point he couldn’t stop, he had to react in a certain way because Banita behaved in a certain way.So, the natural improvisation - that of course happens, and some magic moments come out like that. That’s because Varun was completely in that character, he is in that mood, everybody is in that mood and in that environment, while when I am writing, I am still writing it on my laptop sitting alone in a kaalkothri, while I am trying my best to imagine myself on the set. But when you are actually there, that is the place where the magic is actually happening. So yes, the improvisation happens, I would say 95% of what is written is there. That much is very clear beforehand, there is a lot of insistence from Shoojit’s side, he doesn’t move without the bound script.

  • Which are the love stories that you have read or watched, affected you?

    Amour, then Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar for me was a beautiful love story. I think it is so mature and so sublime - that relationship of husband and wife, the wife being a working woman and husband going through his emotions. So, it is not an apparent love story or even Amour in that sense but ultimately it is love that is driving all of that, the carrier emotion is love, I guess. Even Masoom for that matter, while it is about family, but if you see Indu’s character, what she does for the family or to retain all four of them together, for me it is a husband-wife love story which has gone wrong. Then somehow it found it’s way back, but that’s what happens in your life. That is part of the “forever”, when we say “I am going to be with you forever”, it is part of that life.

  • Do you believe in "They lived happily ever after" Kind of love?

    No, it is not happily ever after, woh nahi hota hai, as long as there is a certain sanctity that is maintained between two people, as long as it has the elasticity in it that I can come back and say - yes, I have gone wrong here and then you are still together with that person. You know, it doesn’t break, the elasticity is there. We do stretch as human beings as we are growing, it is not like I found one person in my life and I got married to this person. I am still interacting with so many people in my life and I am growing, evolving as a person, whether it is due to my work or my child, it is changing me. What I was back in my 20s, I am not the same person. When I met my husband I was 22 and today I am 42, two decades have gone and we both have changed but within that space also, we have found each other. Within the diversions that have happened, sometimes it has been work, sometimes it has been family but we have somehow managed to stay together. For me, I guess that is a good space to be in.

  • Since writing is a solitary art, how does one maintain discipline? Is it necessary to write a little every day?

    It is indeed an extremely testing art. To sit in front of your computer screen and not move beyond one line for hours, sometimes days can be awfully frustrating. But even if that is the case, I reckon it only helps to sit every day and make that attempt. And then one day, out of the blue, your thoughts just begin to flow.