Article Hindi

Hussain Zaidi's books are written almost like screenplays, says director Kabir Khan


At the launch of Zaidi's latest book, The Eleventh Hour, filmmaker Kabir Khan and the writer speak to Mumbai Mirror editor Meenal Baghel about the difference between working on fiction and non-fiction.

Kabir Khan, S Hussain Zaidi and Meenal Baghel

Mayur Lookhar

One is a crime reporter-turned-writer, the other a documentary filmmaker-turned-feature filmmaker who is not afraid of incorporating political narratives in his thrilling stories.

Former journalist S Hussain Zaidi was bound to collaborate with filmmaker Kabir Khan one day. Their first association came in 2015, when Khan was inspired by Zaidi’s fictional tale Mumbai Avengers to helm the Saif Ali Khan-starrer spy-thriller Phantom (2015).

Zaidi and Khan came together again last week when the filmmaker launched Zaidi’s new book, The Eleventh Hour. The idea to write this non-fiction book came about when Zaidi met a few of the accused from the 1993 Mumbai blasts who revealed that tonnes of RDX is still lying stashed somewhere in Mumbai.

Khan and Zaidi were in conversation with the editor of Mumbai Mirror, a tabloid, Meenal Baghel. Excerpts.

What are the challenges of making the shift to fiction?

Zaidi: As a journalist who was on the job for 20 years, I realized that not every topic or non-fiction can be written about. All those stories that walked all over me during the course of reporting, those stories go totally undiscovered, untold. So, the way to tell all those stories is to write in fiction format.

For example, this [The Eleventh Hour] idea was there in my mind for several years. When I was writing Black Friday [the book from which Anurag Kashyap's film of the same name was adapted], I used to go to the TADA [Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, a now-defunct anti-terror law] court and meet all the accused there. They had become very friendly with me. During the course of one conversation, they told me that eight tonnes of RDX was brought into Mumbai and only 200 kg was used during the 1993 serial blasts. 

So, that means more than 7.5 tonnes is still lying stashed somewhere in and around Mumbai. That was a startling revelation. I thought what if those people [the terrorists] come back and kind of discover the RDX and try causing the same havoc. I decree that one Pakistani gang known as the Arjun gang was still at large. The Mumbai police and the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency of the United States] never got hold of these people. This idea was brewing in my head, but how can I write this story? The only way was fiction. 

Khan: For me the transition from documentaries to mainstream cinema happened when I landed here with my script for Kabul Express (2006), which was based on my experiences in Afghanistan as a journalist/documentary filmmaker. Firstly, when I came here, my friends told me don’t use the D [documentary] word. That’s taboo. Today, though, that is my USP. 

My approach to films, to research, like in the case of my next film 83 [based on India’s triumph at the 1983 cricket World Cup] is like a journalist trying to discover stories and meet people, eyewitness to matches. In a sense that became my strength. In the beginning, it was not easy. It was very difficult to try and sell a script.

But what are the challenges of writing for people who have been used to writing non-fiction? Does fiction require anything extra?

Zaidi: I think writing non-fiction is much easier. Because you know the story, you know what has happened, and the whole investigation, documentation is in place. You just have to research for it. In fiction, it is different, you have to keep your readers hooked into every chapter, every page. You have to take the story to a finale that will be satisfying. To me, writing fiction is more challenging and draining. 

Kabir: What happens is that the non-fiction aspect of the story — research, details, facts — give you the strength then to try and create a narrative that can be compelling for an audience. Especially when it comes to films, the fact is that if I am using a real backdrop, if I am using historical facts being true to the subject that I’m showing, I cannot expect brownie points from the audience.

Hussain, you create very memorable characters in Mirza and Vikrant [principal characters from the book]. Tell me about fleshing out those characters. Are you going to continue with them in other books as well? 

About continuing with them, I’m not sure about that. I haven’t thought about it yet. Mirza and Vikrant are the sum of many characters that I have borrowed from so many real-life characters. For me, the idea was that youngsters who are full of enthusiasm need some kind of navigation, guidance which can come from a very competent experienced mentor.   

So, I just thought that I should try to use this mentor, protégée in the story where Vikrant would be the guy taking on the bad guy on the field, while Mirza would be handling the corridors of power, talking to people at the higher level. So, Mirza is inspired by many intelligence characters, and for Vikrant, I have looked into so many heroic cops and assembled them into one person. 

Kabir you were responsible for Hussain turning from non-fiction to fiction when you adapted Mumbai Avengers (2015) into Phantom (2015). So what was it about the book that you felt this particular story would lend itself to a film?  Why did you ask him to write this fiction? 

The great advantage that Hussain has is his journalistic background. When you embark, or write a story like this, with Hussain you know that the facts would be correct. Many of his books have been made into films. He is able to bring a lot of real facts, part of contemporary history that we have read in newspapers and bring them as a solid background to the characters that he has created. Even while making Phantom, he was able to give it a very engaging narrative. He was able to bring all those facts and yet keep it moving at fast pace. As somebody who looks at screenplays, that is what immediately attracted me.

Hussain [Zaidi] writes almost like a screenplay. There are so many books that are bought, but then for five-six years, nothing happens. It is not easy to convert a book into a screenplay. I think this is a different craft. We have not nurtured enough writers, screenplay-writers who have the ability to convert a book into a screenplay.

Why is it so difficult to adapt a book for a film? 

Kabir: One of the reasons is that a screenplay is roughly about 100-120 typed pages. That is probably a tenth of a book.  So, how do you take a book, the complete story, the essence of that book and compress into 10% of the space that you have. Now that is a great craft. You have to keep the energy going, do justice to the characters and yet say things in the 10% time that you have. Every book doesn’t find itself on to the screen, because we probably don’t have the people to convert it into a screenplay. 

Hussain now that your books are often adapted into film or web-series, do you keep the cinematic angle in mind when you write? 

No, I try to make it as vivid and graphical for the viewers [as possible]. I don’t focus on telling a story, I focus on showing a story. So, that is becoming an easier thing when you are writing. If you start thinking this script should be made into a movie or serial, then I’ll b cheating and compromising on my craft. 

Kabir, what is that that draws you to an idea? 

I can’t really explain, but it’s just something that you read and it excites you. It could be a headline in a newspaper, it could be a book or just a conversation with somebody and it just hooks you. My next film is on the 1983 Cricket World Cup. It was just a conversation. Everybody knows about the 1983 World Cup victory but it hasn’t been made [into a film] for 35 years. It was just a casual conversation that I was having and suddenly I realised what an incredible story [it could be]. Why is it not ever been done? That is what starts the whole journey. You start meeting the people, you meet the players.

Are you the sort of guys who have research and then abandoned the idea? 

Kabir: Yeah, several times. 

Zaidi: I write for a living so I have not. For me, an idea has to be comprised into a subject. 

How has the nature of crime changed today from the times that you first started covering it?

Zaidi: In those days, crime was more violent, organised, ruthless and lethal. Today, it is not as violent. The organised gangs have chosen few fields of exploiting it. These days you will see that they only focus on heists, scams, a place where they can make a maximum amount of money without shedding blood.

Kabir, you have made films on Afghanistan, islamic terror what is that draws you particularly to these ideas? 

I think it is my formative years after film school where I did a lot of work with a very senior journalist like Saeed Naqvi. I spent about five-six years travelling the world with him. Saeed bhai used to get frustrated by international news coming to us through only the prism of BBC, CNN. He was obsessed with going out and reporting international news through the South Asian prism. What is relevant to us from Northern Ireland, in Taiwan.

Those 5-6 years were my formative years. Looking at world affairs and understanding that there is a big difference between the story that is being told to us and the story that actually lies on the ground. That gap between the story that was told to us and the story that should have been told to us is where I started working. Whether it is Kabul Express (2006) or New York (2009) and lot of my other work. That area has always fascinated me.

Hussain what is next that you are working on?

It is again a non-fiction book that I have been working on. People only know about Dawood Ibrahim. They know about other organised gangsters. This book is about Dawood’s mentor, Khalid, an economics graduate from Bhopal who was actually a wrestler. Twist of fate got him to Delhi, where he happened to meet a Mumbai gangster, who then brought him to Mumbai.

So, while there was a street brawl, where he Khalid was breaking bones. A 14-year-old kid [Dawood, watching it] got impressed. Once the fight was over, this boy walked up to the gangster and said, “Khalid bhai, I want to fight like they do in films.” Khalid bhai took this 14-year-old under his care and thus began the relationship between Khalid Rehman and Dawood Ibrahim.

Dawood is a school drop out. He didn’t know English, doesn’t know commerce. But since Khalid was an economics graduate. He thought Dawood how to corporatise the business, he trained him in street fight. He made him into a street ruffian. Today, Dawood is the most wanted gangster, thanks to Khalid’s training and the way he brought him up. This story is about Khalid. I happened to meet him several times. 

Is Dawood alive? 

Of course, he is [laughter all around].