On Chaturvedi's birthday today (3 January), we revisit a conversation with the screenwriter last October when she spoke about the process of writing, moving from advertising to film, and why October (2018) was a difficult film to write.
Screenwriting is like a little conversation you have with yourself: Juhi Chaturvedi
Mumbai - 03 Jan 2019 12:00 IST
Updated : 14:36 IST
After a nearly five years, the writer-director duo of Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar returned to the big screen with a sensitive drama titled October (2018), which we named the best film of the last year. The story of a young man named Dan, and how his paths crossed with those of a young woman named Shiuli, was the year's most thoughtful feature, which asked audiences to examine themselves internally.
We spoke to Chaturvedi at length about her writing methods and who she looks up to, after an exclusive workshop on screenwriting held in Mumbai last October. The writer, who had no formal training, shared her advice on how to make it in the industry, who are the filmmakers and screenwriters she looks up to, and why October was so personal to her.
Sonal: Can you tell us how was it like making the transition from advertising to film?
The good part was that I was already used to the rigour 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 learnt already, because I did not start to be 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 training of advertising, which actually made it quite smooth.
Sonal: 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.
It’s not just about putting a camera and just capturing something. You have to see the finer details and nuances which only your eye can see, so we tried to talk about those things as well. Other than filmmaking, there’s lots to talk about, sometimes it’s various different places, experiences, family issues, everything put together.
Sonal: And that comes into your movies.
Yes, because it helps to know where each of us, whether it’s him or anybody else. Whenever there is a partnership, it’s good to know what influences or experiences he or she is coming from. Like, I know his father was in the Indian Air Force, so you know there is a certain discipline, or a Kendra Vidyalaya education, it just helps you understand the person better. When you have to put your thoughts out there to someone you understand, it just becomes comforting for me that I know that he’s receiving it just the way I have written it, because perhaps, he has an understanding of the city or those people. In most of my films, it’s Delhi, so he knows these nuances and not just what I’m writing, he then adds a lot more because he has had his Delhi experience too. Knowing the person you partner with, beyond just the work is also very important.
Shriram: You’re working with Shonali Bose for The Sky Is Pink (2019) and is it difficult then, having worked with Shoojit Sircar for this long a time to shift. Is there a transition?
With The Sky Is Pink, I’ve only done the Hindi dialogues. [It’s] not really in the same capacity with which I’ve worked with Shoojit because there, the story, the screenplay, the dialogues, everything is mine. Here it’s only the Hindi dialogues, [as Bose] had already done the English dialogues. So I have stayed true to whatever she had written, it was her vision and I have perhaps just added my two bits in it.
Definitely the method of working is different. It’s good to work with different people because it’s just a good exercise for your own brain that 'okay with this person it has to be this kind of routine or discipline'. When I’m working with Shoojit, he doesn’t even know what I’m writing till I give the draft to him. But with Shonali, because I’m writing only the Hindi dialogues so she anyway knows exactly what will come out.
Shriram: Is there any filmmaker, past or present, that you would absolutely love to work with in the future?
So many, [Satyajit] Ray, though he wrote everything himself and I don’t like that. (laughs) But I wish he was there. Neeraj Ghaywan, Vikramaditya Motwane, looking at their work, again I don’t know them personally, I’ve met them socially. But again, perhaps what triggers that thought that maybe at some point in time, [they] might react to my writing in a welcoming way. Varun Grover is not a director, but again his writing, at least you know that he’s not going to direct my film or I’m not going to be directing his film, but [he] can read your script and give you a valuable input.
Sonal: Which of your characters do you most identify with?
For me, I completely understand Dolly [Dolly Ahluwalia]. I completely understand Ashima [Yami Gautam from Vicky Donor]. Of course, Piku [Deepika Padukone], even Bhaskor [Amitabh Bachchan], again because it has all come from within so unless and until, I can relate to them, you can’t write. But I understand why people become like that when they become old, so I hope I don’t turn out to be like [Bhaskor]. (laughs) Even Dan [from Sircar’s October], a lot.
Sonal: October was a very difficult story to write as well. There’s a big gap between Piku (2015) and October (2018). Is that because you were struggling with the story?
Yes, because of how much to put in. 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.
The whole thing of ‘Where’s Dan?’, the film actually compels you to think, where are you? And do you really need to be in love with a person to go that far? Perhaps not. They didn’t know each other that well. Would they have ever ended up being together? Maybe not, if this incident had not happened. But something triggers in your life and maybe that was Shiuli’s purpose and to get Dan into the space that he came into. And once that purpose was done, there was no reason for her to be there.
I strongly believe that people come in your life for a reason or you’re born for a certain purpose. It was very consuming and the purpose for me was that will you reach to that purity of your soul? For months together to go through that — naukri bhi chali jayegi, dost bhi jhod dege [you will lose your job, your friends will desert you], to sacrifice everything and still it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice. So yes, it took some time to write that. And then my own personal recovery (laughs).
Shriram: At the workshop, at one point, you said you have to put everything you have into the script and story. And then you said that although you should make sense that you don’t say everything, it is after all a visual medium. 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 times 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?
Shriram: Most of your characters are very real. They have this immediate effect when you watch them onscreen. Do you ever think about writing something larger than life? Going beyond or is this a zone you are absolutely familiar with and recognize?
Larger than life is a treatment. The point that the film is trying to make will still be a simple story. Even a superhero film. Ultimately, he’s just trying to save a few people trapped on a skyscraper in New York City, or from a train collapsing into a building there. The treatment makes it even bigger. Will my films ever be of that scale? I don’t know. I don’t see the need for it. But what will be interesting, at some point in time, is animation. I feel that there is something that can be done. There’s a challenge. They’re not real people. It’s animation. Can you still communicate through them? Then the power of animation, that’s the great test.
Shriram: 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 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 of 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 experience of writing ads, so I really approached like that. But [I had] no formal training.
Shriram: 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 favourite. These films, they are masterpieces and they cannot be replicated. They can only teach you every time. They are full chapters in film writing or filmmaking.