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Interview Hindi

Satirists like Harishankar Parsai, Sharad Joshi, Gyan Chaturvedi influenced me: Stree dialogue writer Sumit Arora

In an exclusive interview, Arora reveals what went into creating some of the most hilarious dialogues in Stree.

Suparna Thombare

If you rolled on the floor laughing while watching Stree (2018) starring Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi and Shraddha Kapoor, it would have had a lot to do with the creative dialogue writing by Sumeet Arora. And that is probably what separated Stree from other horror-comedies like Golmaal Again (2017) and Nanu Ki Jaanu (2018), not to forget the horror-sex-comedy Great Grand Masti (2016) — the perfect balance between scares and conversational humour.

When I caught up with the man who wrote lines like 'Naye Bharat ki chudail [Witch of new India]', 'Wo stree hai, purush nahi, jo aise hi utha le jaye. Wo pehle permission mangti hai [She is a woman, not a man to just kidnap someone. She will first seek permission]' and 'Yes means yes', his serious disposition did not betray his inclination to satire.

Stree review: When a brilliant cast takes on consistently good comic writing

A Hindi literature graduate from Uttar Pradesh, Arora began exploring his love for writing early. He has been writing articles for Hindi newspapers like Dainik Jagran, Jansatta and Navbharat Times since the age of 14. "I used to write satire. [That is] my forte, which I got to do after a long time in Stree," he said.

The film, helmed by Amar Kaushik, directing his first feature, has turned out to be a blockbuster, grossing Rs100 crore nett at the domestic box office and still going strong. "I was expecting a good response because we had a good team and we felt we had done a good job, but this kind of response is overwhelming," Arora said.

Our confidence grew at every stage, says director Amar Kaushik as Stree crosses Rs100 crore mark

Arora, who shuffled between his favourite desk at home and Potluck Cafe (which has now shut down) near his home at Andheri in Mumbai, whenever he got bored writing, credited his early years of reading Hindi satirists like Harishankar Parsai, Sharad Joshi, Ravindranath Tyagi and Gyan Chaturvedi for what he has achieved in Stree. 

Though a horror-comedy, Stree subverted gender roles and Arora's writing consistently brought that to the fore. "The subversion was intentional throughout," he said. "We had to keep that in mind [while writing dialogues] because our film is about that while being entertaining. It can never be preachy, but it has to be consistent." 

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Arora discussed his influences in satire writing and some interesting anecdotes about how the hilarious dialogues were crafted. Excerpts:

How did you come on board Stree?

I have known Amar, the director, for 10-15 years. I directed a film called Hind For Terribly Tiny Tales (2017). He was executive producer on the film. We had been talking since then that we should work together again. And we were talking for some other film. So, one day I met him and asked what was happening to that film because for some reason I couldn’t do it at the time. He went ahead with another writer.

I met him at a cafe and he said the work on that film had stopped. "I am working on something else now," he said. I was doing a Netflix show then. He told me "you must be busy and won’t be able to do this". I said I can try. We just bumped into each other, and Raj [Raj Nidimoru of Raj and DK] was there. So he introduced me to Raj and said he is my friend and we can try him out. So they gave me 2-3 days.

What part did you write first during the trial?

The first 15 minutes of the film. I wrote the whole part about the watchman where Rajkummar says, "Kabhi suna hai ki Ambani ke bete pe bhoot chipat gaya [Ever heard of a ghost bothering Ambani's son]?" and the scene with his dad where he says, "Hamara janm ladkiyon ke petticoat aur blouse silne ke liye nahi hua hai [I was not born to stitch petticoats and blouses for girls]." And the dad saying, "Mera beta bhagwan ka darzi roopi avatar hai [My son is god incarnated as a tailor]."

Then Shraddha comes to meet him. That scene and then the friends' scene where you establish the friendship between these three characters. I remember they really liked it when Chana said, ‘Aise bola Vicky [pronounced Bicky in the film]... tumhare andar prem bhav hi nahi hai [You are so unromantic]." 

You had been writing for television for the last several years. TV screenplay and dialogue writing in India isn't really at its best right now.

Every medium has its own place. TV, fortunately or unfortunately, has developed a grammar of its own and everyone has to follow that. Now they have their own specialists. People who are used to doing films can’t do TV. But TV has a lot of talent. Hitesh Kewalya, who wrote Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017), is also from TV. There are many writers like that who used to write for TV and now are writing films that are being appreciated.

So I think the stigma attached to TV is wrong. Your are serving a medium and you have to work in those limitations. Many do try to go beyond those limitations, but breaking them is difficult. The formulas are set. 

Would you go back to writing for television?

I always wanted to do films and I can’t be happier than this, so I will be focusing on it now. There are new opportunities coming my way. 

Do you think the focus is slowly shifting to the writers in mainstream cinema? 

The focus has shifted to the writing more rather than the writers. There is a fine difference. People want good writing and yet they feel shy about giving the writer his or her due. So, that is a dichotomy which is happening right now. 

After a success, after you give a critically acclaimed film or a hit film, you being given what you are asking for is not generosity. When a new writer comes in with some good stuff and you respect him and give him his due and don't exploit him there. Obviously, the rates will be different [based on experience and success]. But my problem is that a writer is respected usually only when he has given a hit film. 

It’s not just about being paid. It's also about the minimum dignity you give a writer. An actor when he is new and has not yet delivered a hit, you don’t know what his work is like. But a writer, you can read his stuff and judge for yourself. If it is good and you want to buy it, and are willing to put crores on it, it means it is good and you see the potential to make crores out of it as a producer. When that starts happening, you can say writers are being valued. And if you are then unwilling to give him [the writer] a minimum and a good dignified amount, that's where the problem lies.

There are some production houses today that treat their writers really well.

I am writing something for Dharma [Karan Johar's production house]. And I was signed on before Stree happened. The treatment that you get in Dharma as a writer is such a joy to see. So, there are some production houses that treat their writers well. 

You are working on an Amazon show at the moment, too, right?

Yes, [I am] writing a show directed by Raj and DK called Family Man, starring Manoj Bajpayee. It's a spy drama with some humour in their quirky style. The shoot is almost done. 

How involved were Raj and DK [story and screenplay writers and co-producers] in the dialogue-writing for Stree?

They read the drafts and heard narrations and they had inputs. The collaboration was fluid, it just flew. Their humour and mine just matched. It was actually a very smooth process. No hiccups in that sense. They were thoroughly involved. They liked most of it.

Shraddha Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao in Stree

Amar Kaushik said he hadn't watched any horror comedies except Zombieland, when he was assisting on Go Goa Gone (2013). What about you?

I haven’t watched any horror comedies. I was never interested in horror films, so I never watched any horror comedies. Not even Shaun Of The Dead (2004), which is one of the most popular. So, I had no reference while writing this. I didn’t write it as that. I never saw it as a horror comedy, really. It was like this is a small town and I know this kind of place. So I am writing about those characters. The fact that it was a horror comedy was incidental.

Zombieland is the only horror comedy I have watched: Stree director Amar Kaushik

For me, there were these three boys, three characters, and then there is Vicky’s father, and there is Rudra bhaiyya. This is an interesting world. Let’s create that in the dialogues. I stayed in a village for four years during my young years. I said let’s use that experience and write this. The screenplay already has all the elements of horror comedy written by Raj and DK. I had this great screenplay by Raj and DK, so while writing the dialogues, I didn’t have to think about all that. For me, I just had to create that world through the dialogues. My focus was on that. 

You may write great lines, but the actors have still got to do justice to them, right?

The actors were brilliant. Many times you write brilliant lines and they don't come through on screen when the actors are bad. You enjoy the lines also because good actors are delivering them. It's a collaborative thing.

The casting directors, Amar, Raj and DK, who were involved in the casting, have done a great job. We got such good actors. Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Aparshakti Khurana, Abhishek Banerjee, who is such a find, are all so good. Tripathi can make even an average line sound so good. 

The response to the dialogues reminded me of Andaz Apna Apna (1994).

Even if we come close to Andaz Apna Apna we would think ki jeevan dhanya ho gaya hai [I have succeeded in life]. Andaz Apna Apna is one of my favourites. We still remember those dialogues. Mentioning us in the same line as Andaz... jeevan sarthak ho gaya [life is fulfilled].

Where would you say your major influences as a writer come from?

My background is that I was first a reader and then became a writer. I used to read a lot in childhood. If we talk about the influences that helped me write this film, especially the language and the kind of humour that has been used, the conversational humour and the Hindi language — three or four writers who made me a writer are Harishankar Parsai, one of the greatest Hindi satirists; Sharad Joshi, Ravindranath Tyagi and Gyan Chaturvedi. The humour writing of these four led me to becoming a writer. I don’t know how specifically they have influenced me, but if I talk about who have been my influences it has to be them, especially with reference to Stree. 

Does Stree's success mean Rajkummar Rao is now a commercially viable star?

These are the only four writers I used to read again and again to the point that I used to read only them. Then I was like let's read more writers now. Gyan Chaturvedi Bhopal mei rehte hain [lives in Bhopal] and sometimes I talk to him. I don’t know if he has watched the film yet.