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Cinestaan script contest winner Sejal Pachisia: This experience pushed me in completely new ways

The 29-year-old screenwriter from San Francisco, USA, won the grand prize of Rs25 lakh at the second edition of the Cinestaan India’s Storytellers Contest.

Photo: Courtesy Sejal Pachisia

Sonal Pandya

Cinestaan script contest grand prize winner Sejal Pachisia is feeling “completely thrilled, so grateful” and is still in shock about her big win. Her script, On The Boundary, won the first prize of Rs25 lakh at the second edition of Cinestaan India’s Storytellers Contest. The jury, chaired by veteran screenwriter Anjum Rajabali and comprising actor-filmmaker Aamir Khan, filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani and screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi, unanimously chose Pachisia’s script as the winner of the second edition.

“I re-watched the video a few times to make sure that I didn’t hear the result incorrectly, and am still pinching myself!” Pachisia told Cinestaan.com on e-mail.  “It’s a real honour because I have so much respect for all the jury members. As a writer, you are so close to your project that it is difficult to know whether it will resonate with other people, especially when it’s such a personal story, so it’s incredible to receive validation from such an accomplished jury.”

The 29-year-old from San Francisco, USA, added, “On a personal note, the writing in Piku (2015) was really inspiring to me as a storyteller, so it means a lot to know that Juhi Chaturvedi enjoyed reading my script. And of course, having Aamir Khan read my work and say my name on television is very exciting.”

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Pachisia, who is originally from Bangalore, came across the contest while browsing online for screenwriting competitions and thought it was a great opportunity to share a story that had been on her mind for a while.

“Since I had been screenwriting for some time, I also thought a competition would be a good way for me to know where my writing stands and give me a structured way to complete a full draft,” she said.

Writing for the contest, she was challenged in many different ways. “I have written scripts before, but this experience pushed me in completely new ways,” she explained. “I have never reworked my writing to this extent before — I think only 20% of the first draft ended up in the final one!”

For help, Pachisia attended weekly meet-ups for months for feedback on her screenplay and watched her favourite films again for tips. “For some time, scene-by-scene outlines of everything from Udaan (2010) and Gully Boy (2019) to The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (2012) and Little Miss Sunshine (2006), among many other movies, covered the walls of my room," she said, speaking of her process. "I also put every scene from On The Boundary on Post-It notes and spent hours moving them around until it got so complicated that I had to move my outline to an Excel sheet!”

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Further, she asked two screenwriting professors for more detailed sessions, just because she knew she was submitting her script.

“But the best parts of the experience by far were the table reads with 10 of my friends,” she said. “I have never laughed so much, even during sections that I heard out loud, cringed, and then cut the entire scene. My favourite line of feedback was from a close friend: 'For an 18-year-old boy, Akhil cries way too much... I think you are projecting.' Even though I ultimately wrote the script alone, the competition pushed me to be more collaborative and open.”

Asked about her screenplay, a coming-of-age story set in a college,  Pachisia said, “People often say 'write the story only you can write' and that combined with Juhi Chaturvedi’s philosophy, 'life is the best screenplay', are two ideas I took to heart. That might sound odd because the official logline of my script is: A teenage boy's aspiration to become a professional cricket player is threatened when he unexpectedly meets the love of his life.

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"Though I have [thankfully] never had to be a teenage boy, nor have I had any cricketing aspirations, the main character’s passion for cricket mirrors my younger brother’s, and while I haven’t gone through the exact experiences of my main character, I have definitely experienced the emotions explored in the script," she continued. "Ultimately it’s a story about struggling to reconcile seemingly contradictory parts of one’s identity. It’s about realizing that the only path to acceptance is to let go of society’s pre-conceived notions of who you should be and come to peace with yourself.”

Pachisia’s next goal is to do everything she can to make On The Boundary into a film, so she will continue to take her story across in the hope that it will be. Meanwhile, she tries not to think about what will happen next as much.

“I like the Andy Warhol quote, 'Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.' It’s not easy to live up to that philosophy, but I’m currently focused on a rewrite of a different project,” she said.

Of the future, Pachisia said the win gives her more confidence, but she is still trying to take it one day at a time.

“I think I’m still in that space where I have developed enough as a writer to identify what isn’t working in a script, but am not yet good enough to always know how to fix it. Ira Glass talks about 'The Gap' with creative people who have developed 'killer taste' because they watch a ton of movies or read obsessively; they can identify when their work is missing that something special because they know what’s great and what isn’t, but using that knowledge to actually make great art takes a lot longer,” she elaborated.

The Princeton University alumna feels she still has a long way to go, with a lot to learn. “I hope this platform gives me exposure to experienced professionals so I can receive feedback and continue to grow as a writer,” Pachisia said.

Correction: Sejal Pachisia is 29 years old. An earlier version of the report stated her age to be 28.