The screenplay and dialogue writer does a post-mortem of one of the most successful films of 2017, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, a family comedy on erectile dysfunction.
Didn’t want to underline any stereotype: Shubh Mangal Saavdhan writer Hitesh Kewalya
Mumbai - 11 Mar 2018 8:00 IST
Sex, family, comedy, love story and erectile dysfunction are words that don’t really go together when one is talking about a mainstream Hindi film. But the screenplay and dialogue writer of Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, which is a “family sex comedy” as he likes to put it, took up the challenge and delivered an entertaining film.
Hitesh Kewalya is one of the few who got the chance to hit the ball right out of the park with his very first film.
But the writer has been working in television for the past 10 years, and as a writer for TV show promos before that. And even while he was busy writing dialogues for shows like Miley Jab Hum Tum, Humse Hai Life, and Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon, Kewalya would put in extra hours to write his own scripts.
In fact, he co-wrote his first script with Newton (2017) director Amit Masurkar. It took them three years, including research. While everyone loved it, nobody was ready to produce it.
But Kewalya did not give up. He continued writing scripts on the side. He wrote seven complete feature-length scripts in 10 years before getting his big break with the RS Prasanna-directed and Aanand L Rai-produced Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (SMS).
Kewalya’s work in his first film is a fine example of some of today’s writers who are attempting to not underline stereotypes, and are trying to create entertaining films that do not follow a well-trodden path.
Even as he gets busy writing his next film for Rai’s Colour Yellow Productions (also the producers of SMS), Kewalya sat down with us to do a post-mortem of his debut film. From how he made sure his hero does not come across as a loser and arrived at some hilarious sequences to why Jimmy Shergill's presence in the climax did not work, Kewalya explains the writer's point of view. Excerpts:
You struggled for 10 years just to see your script on screen. How did this big break come about?
I was at MAMI [Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image] where I met Sandeep Nair, associate producer on SMS. He had worked in television for many years and with Aanand Rai since his TV days. I told him I had a script. He asked me to come and pitch it to Colour Yellow. But I didn’t take it seriously because mostly nothing comes of it.
After a month, I got a call saying ‘we have a script, would you write dialogues for it?’ I said 'haan' [yes]. They said we are writing the screenplay right now. Once it is done we will give you a call. I met the director also. I showed him my writing samples which were basically all the scripts I had written over the years. I kept asking what was happening to that film.
They then called me and said the screenplay isn't working, and asked if I would like to attempt it. I first wrote about 25 pages and asked them to see if it works for them. If it does, then I can go ahead.
You didn’t watch the original Tamil film, Kalyana Samayal Saadham (2013)?
I was given a rough narration. We decided at that point that I will not watch the film. They had tried three writers and it hadn’t worked out. And all of them had seen the film. So I didn’t want to see it and they also wanted me to try a different approach. I decided to approach it as a fresh film keeping just the one-liner of the [original] film intact. In any case I had to adapt it from South India to Delhi, North India.
The Tamil film is much more urban in nature. While our film is also urban, we wanted to highlight a different urban India — the middle and lower middle class, instead of the rich. I saw the Tamil film only after the film’s shooting was over. This helped SMS because everything I was writing was from a new perspective. Also, the original came out in 2013 and I was writing in 2016. Things change really fast these days.
In an interview, Seema Pahwa said that more often than not supporting roles aren't well-written. But SMS worked mainly because of the way the supporting characters were written and performed.
As a writer I always feel that if a film has a character then he or she is there for a reason. This film was about our society, not just about Mudit (Ayushmann Khurrana) and Sugandha (Bhumi Pednekar). Yes, the primary problem was faced by this guy. But it is equally important to get the woman’s point of view. We are talking about a couple here, we are talking about a sexual relationship and the non-happening of that. It would have been very easy to just make it a man’s problem and let him deal with it and make the rest of them bystanders.
I always approach a concept or an idea with the view that the basic storyline is a way to say something more than what meets the eye. While we are talking about erectile dysfunction, the actual film is about what it is to be a man in North Indian society. This was an opportunity to question manhood or being macho. The Tamil film also does it, but in a very urban way.
Patriarchy is deeply set in North Indian society. I have grown up with it. So this was a great opportunity to question it and get people to discuss it. Normally, when we sit in our drawing rooms we don’t debate patriarchy.
This film is not about performance anxiety in that sense. The film is what it means to be a man.
Was it challenging to make Mudit, the film’s hero, not come across as a loser?
That was the biggest problem in such kind of a character. What is our idea of macho even in our films? So we are fighting popular culture while being part of it. So you are showing a film where, normally as an audience I understand my hero in a certain way. He has to tick certain boxes. So one has to go around that to convince the audience that that is not your hero, this is your hero. And to make them feel like this is their hero.
That was a big challenge and a lot of credit goes to Ayushmann for playing it a certain way. Yes, it was difficult to write it also. It was a very thin line and I didn’t want it to go either here or there. My biggest fear while writing Shubh Mangal Saavdhan was not to underline any stereotype.
How did you conceive of the hilarious gufa [cave] scene and dialogue, with the Ali Baba analogy and all that?
It just happens. But the way I approach it is that I should not settle for the right answer. Every scene has a stereotypical way in which you can do it. With SMS we had set this rule right at the beginning that we won’t take the easy way out. We will put ourselves in the most difficult situation and then try to come out of it. As a writer when you are put in tough situations you will think of creative ways. When you get into that attitude then the path gets created and your script starts falling into place.
Himanshu [Sharma, writer of Raanjhanaa (2013) and Tanu Weds Manu (2015)] was a great mentor to have in this whole process. For example, the scene where Mudit is about to confess his love to Sugandha but gets attacked by a bear. Himanshu suggested that idea. I resisted it for a while, but finally I cracked it. That scene sets the tone for rest of the film. When I watched the film with the audience, that scene is where people have warmed up by now and begin to laugh.
By the time the gufa scene came we were in the flow. If I had used a normal way to explain, or with the word sex, it would have become crass. Most middle-class people actually don’t even talk about it. So I had to find a way of how the mother would explain in a funny but long-winded way.
The word erectile dysfunction hasn’t been used even once in the film. Why?
Yes, that was a conscious decision. Not everybody understands erectile dysfunction and people inhabiting my world were those kind of people. They would know it in Hindi perhaps, which is called sheeghra patan. That’s a word many Indians wouldn’t know. Explaining it wouldn’t have been good for the film. I had to work on how I will talk about it. It was a big decision that I wanted to convey it without using any obvious words.
That’s also how the biscuit scene came. As a child I would sometimes hearmy mother and other women talk about something and when I would ask what they were talking about they would say, 'Ladies problem hai. Tumhe samajh me nahi ayega'. So I thought that if there can be a lady's problem, then why not a gent's problem? What will a guy say to a girl whom he is about to get married to when she asks why he won’t have sex?
It took me days to get to the biscuit. I kept thinking about it, hoping something will come. And it came to me at home. My wife loves dipping Parle G in the tea. I was watching her and I saw the biscuit go soft and fall in the tea. When you are so obsessed with a particular thought, anything you see can trigger your thoughts. I could have seen a bottle and come up with some idea. As a writer I have to decide that I want to use a certain idea and not something else. Say, if I had used a banana it would have become crass.
Your job then basically was to make a family film on the subject of performance anxiety in bed.
Yes, we were out to make a family sex comedy. That was my job. I was sceptical about it, but at the same time it was challenging. I wanted to give it my best.
We always hear stories of dialogues being written on set as the shooting goes along. Did any such thing happen on SMS?
(Laughs) We didn't write anything on set... but yes, stuff does get added later. But my script was complete six months before we began shooting. There are lots of scenes which are not there in the final film. Around 20-25 minutes of footage was cut. It was probably the writer and the unit having fun. But it was not needed in the film. A script completely changes once everyone else joins it. The moment I finish it, it's not mine. It can turn into a beast or a lamb.
We did add some scenes at the last minute. During shooting, we realized we needed to pad up a certain scene, so we added. The scene in the second half when Mudit holds Sugandha's hand and takes her into the room, with family members speculating outside, was added later.
Also, every actor makes a different interpretation of the same character. If Seema Pahwa’s character had been played by another actress, she would have perhaps done it very differently. They also try to get inside our head and see how and what character we have written. And we try to get into their head and see how they are playing it and whether the way the are playing it is working for us.
There are two common justifications for why very few good films are made in our country. One is that there is a dearth of good writers. The other is that writers don’t get paid well enough. What do you think?
It took me about 13 years to make my debut with a film. It's not that I didn’t try. But I never got this kind of a script. When you write your first film, why will someone give you a huge amount? When you start out in any job, do you get a CEO's package?
There are too many people vying for the same jobs actually, because 70% of the films being made are projects. We are not making cinema there. Not saying that we made great cinema with SMS, but the attempt was there. But those are business propositions and spectacles made for a certain kind of audience. We ourselves buy tickets and watch the Dabanggs and the Baaghis. We like getting our three hours of fun.
I think we should be making double the films we are making. The kind of population we have and the kind of avenues we have to showcase talent and good work... we should be making a lot more films.
The writers also need to up their game. I couldn’t have written Shubh Mangal Saavdhan if I was writing two other films with it. I need to give any project a certain amount of time and concentration, and then deliver.
I am sure a lot of times a writer who has been hired believes that he or she wants to write in a certain way, but the producers or directors attached to the film have a completely different idea.
Yes, this does happen a lot, especially with first-time writers. If I have written a scene and I feel it will work, the other person may not believe it because they haven’t seen my work being projected on the screen yet. I have roamed around with my scripts for a very long time. It’s not that I was writing really badly and suddenly started writing well. It’s a journey for the writer. He or she also has to grow. If SMS had happened to me in 2007, I might not have delivered something like this. The writers also have to understand ki kya mai pak gaya hoon, kyunki paka hua aam bahut accha lagta hai [am I ripe enough, because a ripened mango is what tastes good].
Many times there is a mismatch between the writer, the producers and other people attached to the film. Whenever there is a perfect match, a good film happens... when the right person is in the right environment, with the right subject, at the right time.
This happened to you, right? You wrote SMS, which was appreciated by the audience and by critics... you also won the Filmfare Award for Best Dialogue for it. How do you go forward from here?
I feel vindicated as a creative person. We are all looking for that acceptance, that the way I think and the way I write works. So let us put that aside now. Let’s not take that pressure, which we have till the success comes. The 13 years of wait feels worth it now. Maybe a time would have come when I would have been like I can’t do this any more.
Today’s TV writers don’t get as much respect as their counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s since a lot of the content is dumbed down. Did you face that?
When I was writing TV I didn’t look at it like that. I took it seriously. That is why in 10 years I did only five shows. Lots of writers hire a lot of assistants and write a lot of shows. I never did that. I wrote alone.
I am not saying they are not writing well. Some of them are really successful. But the thing is I used to always feel that someone is hiring me, not the assistant that I am hiring. So I would take lots of time to deliver a scene or an episode. I like setting tones for characters. I was very clear that I would do only dialogues on TV. I enjoyed it.
The thing is I waited for TV to change for 10 years. At various points I felt like things would change, but they didn’t. The kind of shows I wanted to do reduced in number over the years. So I was getting really desperate to find an exit.
There is one beef that many members of the audience, including me, have. While the end was over-the-top, it was the Jimmy Shergill cameo that really spoiled the climax.
I was excited writing that Jimmy Shergill part. I was so excited that I cracked that scene, along with the climax. And I had narrated it and everyone had loved it. But I think I did make a mistake there in the heat of the moment. Jimmy Shergill, I think, was not required; that was a writer’s indulgence.
I still stand by the climax [where Ayushmann Khurrana leaps from one gondola to the other], which was metaphorical, barring the Jimmy Shergill part. It didn’t work out the way we had thought it would.
Now that SMS is out and has done well, how have things changed for you?
Apart from the attention, nothing... I hope. While I was writing SMS I was sitting alone in a room and writing. I am doing that now too. But now, people are waiting outside. Nobody used to ask me, ‘Ab kya aa raha hai [What’s coming next]?’ So now, everyone comes to me with a smile, and everyone’s expecting something from me. So that has changed, but my approach really hasn’t. I am still rejecting my writing at the drop of a hat. I am a slow writer in that sense. But I have two-three really productive days and I catch up. It is still a very lonely process.