Actor, writer, director, Vijay Maurya wears many hats. For Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy (2019), he wore the hat of dialogue writer. Vijay Maurya speaks about his journey, the 'award' from Javed Akhtar, and DIVINE and Naezy's 'old-school' nicknames.
In a way, I am Murad. Words liberated me: Vijay Maurya on crafting the magic of Gully Boy's dialogues
Mumbai - 17 Mar 2019 14:00 IST
Vijay Maurya is an animated storyteller. In his Santa Cruz office in suburban Mumbai, he is describing the pivotal moment that set him off on his journey in cinema.
"I worked in a bank. Diners card. Mastercard had just come to India. I used to wear a tie and market these to corporate management," he recalled.
"So one time I was trying to sell a client the cards. This was a banking guy. So I was basically selling the client his own cards," Maurya laughed.
But it was this expressive style of storytelling that caught the banker's attention. "Brother, I designed these brochures, so don’t sell me this,” he told Maurya, then added, “I think you are in the wrong profession. You should act."
It was a confirmation of the dream Maurya had carried within himself since his college days. It led him to drop everything and head to Prithvi theatre at Juhu, that holy ground for artistes in Mumbai.
"Those were times when we were basically beggars, roaming around Prithvi," he said. "We would constantly be in search of someone to get us tea or breakfast."
It was in these times that Maurya turned to writing to keep his income going. Writing 70 episodes for Vipul Shah's Ek Mahal Ho Sapnon Ka and for song countdown shows turned him towards advertising.
Life has come full circle for Vijay Maurya with Gully Boy (2019). The actor and dialogue writer earned praise for his work from none other than Javed Akhtar. Recalling the meeting, Maurya said, "I got my Filmfare the day Javed saheb sent me a text saying, ‘Vijay sir, my name is Javed Akhtar’ and praised me in the message. He wrote, ‘Call me. I want to praise you’."
Maurya is worthy of the praise coming his way. His simple, no-frills dialogues for Gully Boy enhanced the in-your-face attitude of Murad's world without alienating the rap and the poetry that fill it. There is skill in simplicity, as they say.
"Now I realize maybe I was Murad. It was the words that saved me," he shrugged, realizing the implicit connection between his work and his life.
Following are excerpts from an exclusive interview with Vijay Maurya:
Weaving a cohesive universe of dialogue and words with the rap and poetry, how did you go about it?
That was the challenge. The brief I got from [filmmaker] Zoya [Akhtar] was that I don’t want any cuss words, to avoid censorship beeping it out. A lot of youngsters and teenagers are going to watch the film. Though there are some scenes where Vijay Raaz slaps his wife and all, but [we didn't use cuss words].
That was a dangerous and challenging brief for me as a dialogue writer. Talking about that side of town, showing a bunch of youngsters in difficult circumstances, not using ‘chutiya’ or ‘bhendi’ or 'lucche’ or any mention of private parts was difficult.
What do I write? She said, "Use some construction of the sentence without the words that leaves the audience thinking, ‘Arre, gaali toh diya hoga’."
We had to use words in pockets. The story revolves around Murad and his dream. Zoya and [screenwriter] Reema [Kagti] when they write, they write in detail. They are fantastic writers. Their philosophy and thought is very polished and complex. Now, a writer like me has to place it in Dharavi. I have to write his conversations, the cadence, which we call dialogue.
Through Murad, and his network of friends, there was a different web of language running through them. When Safeena and Murad speak, it is different. Safeena has a bigger background. She lives in a flat which has a shower and an exhaust fan in the kitchen. Murad lives in a kholi. Their languages differ. Safeena can have a conversation with her dad in English. Murad and his family have a different language.
But when Safeena talks to Murad’s friends, she blends into their world. She can say, ‘Tu mereko todfod bola?’ or ‘Toh dhoptungi na usko?’ She can be a little tapori there.
But she can speak with her father in English. She is educated, and is doing medicine. Each strain of language is different and blends in with the others.
It is not a tapori language we were going for. It's not like Gully Boy is set in Dharavi so ‘Kya bhidu, chal na, aey shaane’ is the way they will speak.
There are words beyond that. Personally, for me, those words are something we [people on the outside] have made up to describe the people living there. No one talks like that all the time. Yes, ocassionally these phrases crop up. Nobody goes ‘Aye maa, chal chaai de na bhidu’.
How long did it take to fill in the nuances, the language, and to work on the right lingo for the film?
I would say a month and a half. She was in pre-production and meeting a lot of rappers during that period. She pulled me into that, and I was part of it. DIVINE, Naezy and others would be in conversation, and I would flow with that.
I was part of the process. I didn’t have a lot of time to think.
Zoya has this pair of diamond scissors, I would say. She knows exactly where to stop your train of thoughts so that it does not go beyond the need of the story. I never took a wrong turn.
She is very clear about that. Being the captain of the ship, she knows exactly what the film wants. How to shape the philosophy into words, how to avoid ‘dialoguebaazi’, and she plays it beautifully.
In an emotional film, there is always a point where the actors improvise. Particularly when the dialogues are in natural street language as in Gully Boy. You, Naezy, DIVINE were part of the team helping the artistes work through that lingo. How much did they veer off script? How much space was allowed?
We almost wrote everything down on paper. When reading sessions happened with Ranveer [Singh], Alia [Bhatt], Zoya and the rest, we called those four rappers — Emiway Bantai, Altaf MC, Kaambhaari and others. They contributed to the lingo.
‘Wat le’ is no longer ‘in’. So they [the rappers] would tell me, "Yeh thoda old school hai. ‘Kamti ho’ is the in thing."
They have an ear for eclectic phrases. So when I wrote ‘Abhi kya idhar selfie lega kya?’ for the carjacking scene in the opening, they went "Bahut hard! Kya likhela hai! Lekin ‘wat le ke jagah kamti hote hain."
They were fillers. They are walking-talking treasures of dialogue. They don’t even realize it when they speak. For instance, when it’s too cold in the office, they say, ‘Arre AC bandh kar na, baraf phek reyela hai’ or ‘Penguin banayega kya?' It is very normal for them.
But to use that, and in the right context, was important. To bring in that attitude and the slang. It was a collaborative effort. There was little improvised on the set because they had rehearsed everything on the paper.
One scene that certainly caught fire was the 'dhoptungi' line from Alia Bhatt. It went viral on the internet.
Dhoptungi is a Marathi-origin word. I was born and brought up in the suburbs, Goregaon. All my life I have lived in a chawl. I was surrounded by Gujaratis and Marwaris and Konkani and Punekari Maharashtrians.
That fascination with language and lingo was always present. A lot of my Maharashtrian friends speak in a mix of languages. For instance, they will say, ‘Woh angol [Marathi for bath] karne gaya tha toh usheer [Marathi for delay] ho gaya’ or when they say ‘Mhanje kaay zhaala maalum hai’, or ‘Gapp re [Shut up], kuchh bhi baat mat kar’.
Dhoptungi is a mix like that. There is no equal to it in Hindi as such. It has a unique flavour. So I used it as it was. ‘Mere boyfriend se gulu gulu karegi to dhoptungi hi na usko’.
When I saw it in the film, the way she [Bhatt] beats the girl up is a dhobi ghat wala dhopatna [the way washermen beat clothes]. Zoya loved the word. The way Alia delivered it was commendable.
It is also credit to the actors who internalized the lines, I suppose. They delivered them with effect…
Ranveer totally killed it. He is a Bombay boy. He didn’t require any research or training. He is all there. Those rappers, he spent a lot of time with them. He was so excited about it.
Even when we discussed the script, and during the reading sessions, he said, “I am not worried about the lingo. I have lived this. I have done this. I will do this. I just need some time with these guys."
But he was loaded with a lot of stuff. He had to sing, rap and remember lines, perform. So, I’ve seen the other side of Ranveer Singh. The one where he is simply sitting in a chair, with his earphones plugged in. He is going through his songs like preparing for an exam. He was not like ‘I am shooting for a film! Yay!’ He was disciplined.
He had to compete with the real rappers. It's not like he is lip-synching against junior artistes. The rap battle is with real rappers, and they are full of words. He was worried and a little nervous. He had to say his thing. He had to say his lines. And say it like those were HIS lines. He was not lip-synching to Kishore Kumar songs. That other side of Ranveer’s energy I saw on the set.
You have been an actor for a long time. Did the writing bug get you first, or was it acting?
I have always been writing articles for college magazines. I was all samaj ka nasoor [societal canker] and at that age, you have a lot of problems with society, politics and the world (laughs). Then I grew out of it.
My primary language has always been Hindi. I am from Uttar Pradesh. My grandfather migrated to Maharashtra in 1957. My sister is an MA, MEd. She is a school teacher. My father was a qawwal once. I grew up in an artistic environment that way.
But I wanted to be an actor. When I told my friends that, I got literally dhoptaoed. They were like ‘You?!’ Understandably. You need a certain personality, features to become an actor. They wondered why this bug is in me.
But once you have that khujli [itch], you had to. I thought I was a good actor (laughs). Nobody had seen me act, but I thought that. I had done some backstage work in college. But it remained on the backburner.
I went on to graduate in chemistry and post-graduated in polymer chemistry.
Wow! That is a whole other world...
Believe me, I was a very studious guy. I also worked in a bank. Diners card. Mastercard had just arrived in India. I used to wear a tie and market these to corporate management around Bora Bazaar and these areas.
So one time, I was trying to sell a client the cards. This was a banking guy. So I was basically selling the client his own cards (laughs).
He looked at me and said, “Brother, I designed these brochures, so don’t try to sell me this.” Then he said, “I think you are in the wrong profession. You should act.” I asked why and he said, “Well, the way you were selling it, and your expressions felt real.”
I remember, it was at Maker Chambers IV at Nariman Point [in South Mumbai]. I remember I had Gold Spot in his office. I forget his name... (pauses) but when I left his office, I thought to myself, “He didn’t say anything wrong, did he? I did want to be an actor.”
I dropped everything and headed to Prithvi. I met Anurag [Kashyap] there. I joined the platform theatre in Prithvi, with Makarand Deshpande. He has a key contribution in what I am today.
Writing began out of the need to survive. I had the words, but writing for screen is a craft. Even my paanwallah writes and tells me his poetry. But when people buy that poem, and sell it, that’s when it becomes craftworthy. I call it ‘squash’ writing. You toss something, and it returns in some form of appreciation.
These were times when we were basically beggars, roaming around Prithvi. We would constantly be in search of someone to get us tea or breakfast. The line MC Sher tells Murad, ‘Saare bhooke fakkad jinke andar ki aag’, that kind. Someone asked me, "Will you write something?" I said, "Yes." But I really didn’t know where to stop.
They took it, read it. People told me, "Your sentences are good." Vipul Shah was making [the television serial] Ek Mahal Ho Sapno Ka. I wrote 70 episodes of that. I also wrote those countdown song programmes like Timex Timepass and others.
I try to use what I observe and hear on the street in rhyme. Now I realize maybe I was Murad. It was words that saved me and helped me run my expenses.
This led to copywriting because I saw that you write less and earn more. At least four times more. 'Daaton ki kare hifaazat moti sa chamkaaye’ and you get serious money. I could write that on the bus!
Copywriting to ad film direction etc, I keep shuffling. It feels good, and certainly helps the writing.
Not to mention that you have had an interesting acting career as well. I did not realize you were Dawood Ibrahim in Black Friday (2007). With Tumhari Sulu (2017) and, now, Gully Boy (2019), is the acting bug taking over?
It has always been there. It is as we say, keeda [a bug]. My first was Paanch (2003) with Anurag Kashyap, which wasn't released. Black Friday (2007) had several problems with it. Then I did a film called Bombay To Bangkok (2008) with Nagesh Kukunoor. I actually played a rapper in that. Then Mumbai Meri Jaan (2008) with Nishikant Kamat. I also did Imtiaz Ali’s Socha Na Tha (2008), Sudhir Mishra’s Tera Kya Hoga Johnny (2010).
Most of the films were my launch, but nothing happened. Nothing was taking off.
Everyone has some materalisatic dreams, and your age reminds you ‘you are growing old’. I wouldn’t say that’s a problem. I wanted a big car, a house of my own. I did that because I was capable of doing that. I used advertising.
Some of my friends from Prithvi often tease me. ‘The soul is now gone. You are part of the corporate club. You sold the craft.' I am not one of those that will wear a kurta and launch into a protest and die in hunger.
Life does show you the way. I have slowly come from the periphery to the centre. It started with Tumhari Sulu (2017), and now with Gully Boy, it has come full circle.
Do you enjoy acting more or writing? I ask this because you said you turned to writing as a means of survival.
Both art forms have their own charm. Cinema acting has a certain laziness. You are around the AD [assistant director], cast, director, and others help you out to create the world. Writing is a very personal thing. They are both just as important.
When I write, I write. My actor helps me to write. So when I write dialogue, they become a part of the character’s speech.
The line about haqeeqat ko khwaabon me dhaalna, that is a moment when the dialogue writer in you went full pelt. How did that line come about?
When Zoya wrote it, she was very clear what she wanted to say. She said it the way she wanted to say it. It sounded very English but very simple. The father says, “Your dreams should match your reality” and Ranveer replies, “No. I will shape my reality to match my dreams.”
Her whole point was, "Don’t make it sound like dialogue.” But the philosophy was so strong, it had to be heavy. If I wrote it lightly, it would have lost its essence. My concern was how to say this softly.
The key was the whole point where the father’s tirade begins with "tu hai kaun?" and you realize he has been part of this system himself. What are his problems? He is a sad person. He is only being practical.
It just connected with the people. I wasn’t present at the scene's filming. On paper, I visualized it as an angry confrontation between father and son. It was a father-son scene like any other major film like Shakti (1982) or Trishul (1978).
The 1970s seem to be a big influence on you. I can see coasters of Kabhi Kabhie and Sholay, and your style of writing….
Don’t ask me (laughs). I have lived and breathed Hindi cinema. Salim-Javed the duo, the things they have given cinema. I got my Filmfare the day Javed [Akhtar] saheb sent me a text saying, ‘Vijay Sir, my name is Javed Akhtar’ and then praised me in the message. He wrote, ‘Call me. I want to praise you.’
My hands were trembling. I called him, and he said, "What you had to say, you have already said in the film. Now stay quiet, and listen to what I say." I listened to him. He was so appreciative of the language, and the simple and staccato style of writing.
Did you interact with him on set? When was the first time you spoke with him?
Not on the set. But when Zoya had called me to write the dialogues. Anurag [Kashyap] had recommended me for it.
That’s an interesting turn.
She [Zoya Akhtar] had asked him if he knew anyone who can do Mumbai lingo and is a dialogue writer. Anurag pointed her to me.
She called me in and gave me 10 pages. Javed saheb wanted to see it. Obviously, there’s poetry, Naezy, DIVINE’s rap, work was already going on. For another person to join the team, she had to make sure the flow is not affected.
For me, it was the litmus test. I read it and wrote it in a flow. The first 10 pages are there in the film, the first 10 pages on the film.
I later got a call from Zoya. "Boss, you are on. Don’t stop now." When the shoot was about to begin, we were on the second draft. I met Javed saheb during the muhurat [auspicious beginning]. I introduced myself, and he was ‘Bahut sahi likha hai’. That was enough for me.
You are also a director. Does juggling these many hats get overwhelming?
It is not easy, but I try and do what makes me happy. When I direct, the writer and actor in me help me. I like to enact and brief my actors, or change a line. It is fun.
In advertising, you get a lot less time and space for using these skills. You need to act in front of your team, ADs, people, to keep the atmosphere a little light as well.
I like doing that. It also helps me stay in tune. Direction teaches everything. I have made more than 300 ads, but you always keep learning. We keep learning what can go wrong, and prepare for it.
I am writing some stuff. There are two feature films I am working on. I am working on my scripts too, for which I have time to devote. I was always approaching production houses. Now they are calling me and asking if I have anything for them.
I never wrote anything about a hero, heroine or mainstream cinema. I am not that educated in world cinema. I am only now learning.
Last year, I had made a film, Photocopy (2018). It was a full-blown commercial film. It had five songs. I showed it to Imtiaz Ali who told me, "The soul of the film is in the right place." Obviously, there are flaws in it. But I still haven’t cursed myself for it.
I am also working on Sooni Taraporevala's next. She is the sweetest. The film is based on the real-life story of the only two Indian boys learning ballet at the Royal Ballet School in London. I have a role, and am also doing the Hindi dialogues of the film.