Interview Hindi

Good comedy only lies in tragedy, says Karwaan dialogue writer Hussain Dalal

The Mumbai-born writer and actor is influenced by Charlie Chaplin's work and firmly believes that most people just put on an act at funerals.

Mayur Lookhar

Life is a journey on which you come across many people. Some leave a lasting impression, most don’t.

But life is also a journey of self-discovery. Director Akarsh Khurana’s Karwaan, which was released last month, was a coming-of-age sort of road-trip film that brought together three very different characters. Avinash (Dulquer Salmaan), an emotionally detached man going through a mid-life crisis, Tanya (Mithila Palkar), a carefree collegian, and Shaukat (Irrfan Khan), a conservative yet humorous man.

A refreshing story, Khurana’s Karwaan rode on the back of fine performances by the cast and some neat, witty dialogues by Hussain Dalal.

Dalal has made his mark in mainstream Hindi cinema, and so it came as something of a surprise that he wrote the dialogues for this mature subject. Karwaan is packed with witty one-liners and thought-provoking conversations, all leading the three protagonists on a path of self-discovery.

Speaking exclusively with Cinestaan.com, Dalal shared his Karwaan journey, spoke about the lighter side of death, and explained why a character like Shaukat does not come naturally to him. Excerpts:

If the actors were the wheels and [director] Akarsh Khurana was the engine, can we say Hussain Dalal was the fuel for this Karwaan?

(Laughs) Yes, or the road. I’m glad you say that, but I would like to be the road. I am rooted to the ground. I am not being modest, this is just my observation.

Road trips are usually about getaways, having fun conversations, but given that two of the three protagonists — Avinash and Tanya — find themselves in a grim situation, as a dialogue writer, how do you engage the audience with these characters? 

I am a big believer of the adage that good comedy only lies in tragedy. I have been quite influenced by Chaplin’s world, where tragedy always resulted in comedy. Often when one passes away the funeral can be funny. My father often says a funeral is a funny place. More than at weddings, one may break into a smile at a funeral. 

What do you find funny about funerals?

Well, there are just a few who are genuinely mourning, while most are just putting on an act. That bad acting is fun to watch. People who did not even say hello in years are now bawling at the funeral. When the deceased was alive, they never bothered to check on him. Now that he is dead, suddenly they say he was my best friend!

Today when a big man passes away, social media is flooded with condolence messages. Some post quotes from the deceased. But when he was alive, no one posted those quotes.

But how much of a challenge was it to engage the audience with characters like Avinash and Tanya?

Death is like water. Everyone has seen it. So there is no time to introduce the audience to the concept of death. I have just shown the funny side of it. Looking at Avinash, Tanya and her mother, they seem like emotionally detached characters. Perhaps for the traditional, middle-class audience, they seemed too good to be true. More than being too good to be true, there is also a sentiment of people feeling that they are too insensitive to their own parents.

Avinash admits honestly that he was never close to his father, but Tanya and her mother were close to their deceased kin. What was your assessment of these characters once Akarsh Khurana narrated the story and the character brief to you?

I have worked with Akarsh and [screenplay writer] Adhir Bhat on more than 30 plays. We understand each other’s tone in life. When they wrote these characters, the brief was pretty clear, this is how these people are. I didn’t need to discover these characters through other sources.

Such characters exist in real life. If one doesn’t cry at a dear one’s funeral, the world labels them as bad people. But how many of us really know what kind of relationship one shared with the deceased? We wanted to pick characters that deviated slightly from the usual clichéd ones. In an ideal world, you would expect a son to bawl thinking about his father. But that wasn’t our film.

Writing Tanya, her mother Tahira and Avinash was always a challenge in an emotional country like India. We are not the West, we didn’t want the audience to think that these are insensitive characters. As per my experience, there are only two things that work in cinema — one is over-familiarity and the other is complete innovation. For us, it became exciting as it was complete familiarity, which is death, and complete innovation, which was this approach to death.

As a Muslim, did writing for a character like Shaukat come naturally or was the process more tedious than we assume? 

Mithila Palkar, Irrfan Khan and Dulquer Salmaan in a still from Karwaan

Shaukat is a funny extremist. I’m not that though. What does come naturally to me is Urdu. I have grown up listening to Urdu poetry. We have given a funny take on his slightly conservative thought process. You meet various kinds of people in your life and he is one kind.

Shaukat was a fantastically funny character to write. The disadvantage is that we live in times where any untoward act happens and we drag religion into it. So, to write an entertaining Muslim character who is slightly conservative but, at the same time, very likeable was a bit of a task. When poetry and comedy merge, it always entertains people.

When I look at Shaukat, he is like this earthy common man who perhaps brings the mass connect to Karwaan.

Absolutely.  Avinash and Tanya had an elitist approach to death. Shaukat has this desi, Hindustani approach. Shaukat is more moved hearing of Avinash’s father’s death than Avinash himself. Like myself, Shaukat is rooted to the ground. He is not on Twitter, Instagram. He calls a spade a spade and that is probably why 90% of Indians will relate to him. 

Be it any faith, one can be conservative, but it’s more important to be open to other ideologies. Shaukat is a character who views the world through a prism, but as the film progresses, he discovers more about himself, discovers other people and the world around him.

That was the idea. Usually you meet a person for 10 minutes and you are quick to judge that person. If you get to know that person, then you say “maybe he isn’t as bad as I thought”. Every man should be given a chance to change.

Most people are conservative for they are not aware of beliefs, ideologies. It is lack of information. Some people remain uninformed all their lives because they choose not to get out of their shell. Maybe it is due to their own frustration and anger that they don’t look at the larger picture. Our film says observe everyone, their beliefs, no one is wrong, they are just different from you.

My personal favourite Shaukat line is: "Agar mera bus karta toh uske ang daan karta." Did this come from the director or you? 

This film was written two years ago. The first draft was then polished. This term ang daan [body donation] was brought by Irrfanbhai. It was his creation.

The other hilarious dialogue was his interaction with the white tourists. I don’t recollect there being subtitles to this conversation, but if the foreigners watch it, they would come to know what Indians like Shaukat think of them.

Irrfanbhai was really excited when I narrated it to him. He found it funny. This is something I joked about while growing up in Mazgaon [in old Mumbai]. I wondered why these goras stop bathing when they come to India. They want to do yoga, be spiritual, but they don’t want to have a bath in India.

This angst is a very lower-middle-class approach of needling a foreigner. At some level, this humour is wrong and one has to ensure that it doesn’t have a racial tone to it. We have not attached any race or region to it. Shaukat believes he is a nationalist and all white people are English, who ruled India for over 200 years.

Shaukat’s character had many thin lines. Humour is the biggest device to tell a truth. The whole purpose of a road film is having different people meet each other on the journey.

The film is set in different parts of South India. Can you talk about Shaukat's dialect? 

Irrfan made use of the Kanpuria dialect, It is a mix of a very precise kind of controlled dialect. If the dialect gets too heavy, then the message is lost. I have always felt that for a mainstream Indian audience we can’t have a dialect that is specific to a region. The dialect was entirely Irrfanbhai bringing so much detail into it that you catch the dialect, but at the same time you are able to understand clearly what he is saying. That is the genius of Irrfanbhai.

A director has a story, he gives the dialogue writer a brief. The writing ought to express the director’s thoughts. As a dialogue writer, how do you go about expressing those thoughts? 

Akarsh Khurana

I have been fortunate to have worked with directors who tell me the larger thought and let me create, choose the smaller thoughts myself. Be it Ayan Mukerji or Akarsh Khurana or Abhishek Varman, these are directors who give me full freedom to express myself in a particular situation.

You had two films being released on 3 August. One was Karwaan, which most people liked. The other was Fanney Khan, that drew opposite reactions.  It seemed to have a nice story, but the criticism of the film was that there was too much melodrama. Does this melodrama come from the actors or the writing?

Anil Kapoor in Fanney Khan (2018)

I will never blame it on somebody else. Fanney Khan instinctively felt like an emotional story and we rewrote it. By the time we made it and it was released, it became a melodramatic film, if that is what people think it is. It is perfectly fair, though. Yes, you feel hurt, for they are both your babies.

Abbas [Dalal] and I wrote Fanney Khan and Baaghi 2 (2018) together. It is all about the genre. Commercial cinema had become my default setting. I wanted to attempt slightly more meaningful cinema. A Baaghi 2 made Rs25 crore nett on the first day, but these two other films — Karwaan, Fanney Khan — together didn’t even make that kind of money in the first week! Personally, I take it as a victory that we are attempting to write different genres. Fanney Khan was such a special idea. If this film were to happen to me again, I will do it again.

You had met Irfan Khan [who is undergoing treatment for a tumour] in London and held a special screening for him. How good was his health then?

He is well. We are all hoping for him to recover fast and do another film together. In fact, that was the first thing we discussed.

You started off as an actor with the television series Bring On The Night. Was the switch to writing normal? 

Honestly, I wouldn’t call it a switch for Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) happened when I was shooting for Bring On The Night. You are born the day you become successful. But I have worked a lot before as well. As a teenager, I only wanted to act. I enjoyed writing for Yeh Jawaani… and the film clicked. I have tried to balance, but writing took the upper hand. Because I take time to write, I can’t take up many acting offers. I may be slightly choosier about acting than writing. I hope to act in at least one film a year.

Can you tell us about your background?

I am from Mazgaon, Mumbai. After school, I did my junior college in the Arts stream from KC College [at Churchgate]. I entered degree college but then left. I found formal education boring.

I joined theatre at 16. My first play was Time To Tell A Tale by Digvijay Sawant. I met Akarsh Khurana in 2007-08. We have done over 30 plays together in the last decade.

I did one odd writing assignment with Khurana. By chance, I met Ayan Mukerji, who was looking for a writer. A common friend referred me to him. Ayan liked what I wrote and asked me to write his film. Thus began my journey. 

One final thing. Zakir Khan, Mallika Dua and you were the judges on the Great Indian Laughter Challenge (2017). After a few rounds, you guys were replaced by Sajid Khan and Shreyas Talpade. Akshay Kumar, who was the super judge, was rumoured to have backed this decision. What really happened?

Akshay sir is too secure to replace kids like us. He was very sweet. How can one judge replace another? He didn’t replace us. We had a mutual agreement with the TV channel where we were not feeling for the show nor enjoying the process. Maybe I wasn’t good at it. Our contract stated that if we didn’t find any act funny, we ought to reject those contestants. We didn’t want to fake any reaction. The channel also made that clear to us. The parting [decision] was mutual.