Yes, it's been done a thousand times before, but I tried to approach this story differently. What if it wasn't a vignette, or a few short portraits of watchmen and drivers trying to make it? What if it was about one man? That way the struggle could be magnified. I'd like to think I nailed it thanks to Vishwas, who gave me one heck of a story. So much of meeting the right people for a story comes down to dumb luck.
Debobrata Vishwas, a tiny, nondescript man with a bounce in his step and a script in his satchel, came to the Film Writers Association one morning to hang around. Every writer with aspirations to film has to visit the dowdy, lightless office of the association. Here, writers meet others like them. Many are here to insure themselves against outright intellectual theft. Some are here to chat and catch up, hoping to pick up leads. The association is decorated with pictures of dead greats and the nearly there. It is administered by middle-age men in white kurtas and safari suits who begin sentences with “Kabhi Kabhi…” in their free time, and point out application form errors with the severity of government employees. Scripts and lyrics, once officially registered with a round stamp, are returned to the strugglers.
Vishwas was beyond all that. He became a card-carrying member seven years ago, and he knows the drill well: Don’t show your script until it’s been registered. And even then. He has no pull. No vasta. He’s just a driver. Like Vishwas, there are others, among them watchmen and building painters, with ambitions to film. There’s too much competition, he says, surveying the crowd in the corridor. The greatest threat to Vishwas is people like him.
Vishwas was 12 when he decided to run away from Bengal with two friends. No place looked more adventurous to them than Bombay. But the plan, like all schemes hatched by sincere twelve-year olds, had its share of logistical errors. The five-rupee budget for Bombay evaporated before he reached Howrah Station. His friends disembarked in Calcutta, forgetting him.
At Victoria Terminus, Vishwas was amazed by Bombay’s bustle. He wandered in his half-pants outside the station like a truant schoolboy until a concerned Bihari asked about him in rudimentary Bengali, the only language Vishwas understood. The Bihari threw Vishwas a lifeline and the boy began work in a tea stall. Everyday he rose before the birds and slept after midnight for 200 rupees a month. As he grew more comfortable with the local language, Vishwas started communicating with customers the best way he could: he told them stories. Of kings and queens, and ghosts and myths. Something told him they loved his stories.
He soon left for a hotel on Mohammad Ali road, where life began to look up. In the day he washed plates. At night, Vishwas slept under a street lamp beside one of the many unhappy goats that live there, often straddling one to read a newspaper. He was helped by men who ran neighborhood stalls in the day and shared the pavement after dark. He began writing stories, slowly at first, but kept at it. With a pen and notebook Vishwas would sit at Hanging Gardens, where regulars would later come to ask him, “So, Vishwas, aaj kya likha hai?” They heard his stories, and told him he would go far.
One day, as he washed plates and rattled off another story in a hotel at Girgaum, a buddy in the kitchen asked, “Oye, you tell us these stories, and they’re good, no doubt. Why don’t you make a script out of one? I’ll tell you what. Write one, and I’ll show it to my friends. Mera Film City mein connection hai.” Patriotism ran high at the time, and the story, about ordinary people and terrorists in Kashmir – with some masala thrown in – was titled ‘Awaaz’. “Khatarnaak tha. I read it today and cannot believe I wrote it. Even my friends cannot believe it. Bhayanak tha.”
Nothing came of it, but Vishwas anyway took off for Film City when he could, Awaaz neatly wrapped in a bag, where he found no producers or directors, only jaded production staff who told him: “Big deal. Thousands like you.” This he heard in practically every exchange, and it broke his heart. In this despondent and lifeless state, Vishwas met his first vulture.
The man told Vishwas that he was Mani Ratnam’s khaas man. That he was with Maniji everyday, and that, incidentally, Maniji needed a script. Vishwas wrote a love story with some violence thrown in, for he knew Ratnam made movies about love with violence thrown in. It is not clear whether Ratnam saw the script. Vishwas doesn’t think so because the khaas man disappeared.
“This is a dhokebaaz line,” Vishwas says. “But what else can you do? You have to trust people. You have to believe they will be good to you, because if there’s no faith, nothing will work for you here.” Vishwas learned two things: butter up the middle man and the people around your target, but only give the target your script.
When we meet in early December, Vishwas looks preoccupied, not to mention glum. The week before, he resigned his job to pursue his interest. A small tailoring enterprise at Bhindi Bazaar (cuffs, collars, buttons) saw to the costs of living, but there’s nothing like good solid work, he thinks.
Soon after, his luck turned. Deepika Padukone’s driver, who Vishwas happened to know, alerted him to an opening that could change his life. Vishwas clinched the job. When I called, he all but screamed, “I got my big break! I’m Kunal Kohli’s driver!” Kohli, who gave the world Hum Tum, Fanaa, and Thoda Pyaar, Thoda Magic, asked Vishwas to work for his father.
Kohli’s father – an experienced hand – heard Vishwas’ latest story. He worked out an informal deal with Vishwas about an idea that needed developing. If what results is of an acceptable standard, the senior Kohli will show it to his son. Vishwas was taken, and dove into the masala romance when he wasn’t driving. Then, one morning, Kohli’s father was hospitalised. Vishwas thought he was a goner. “It takes years for something to come up, and only one moment for everything to disappear.” Luckily for Vishwas, the father recovered.
There are experienced writers, like Vishwas, whose hopes are tinged with cynicism; men and women who have seen too much to blindly trust anybody. They hope and believe not because they want to, but because it is all they have. Then there are the naïve ones, fresh off the boat, the Vishwases of 16 years ago.
One morning outside the FWA, Vishwas and a writer from Bihar got talking. “Hum geet likhte hain,” the writer declared.
“Achcha,” Vishwas said, “Aap writer hain.”
“Ji nahi!” the man thundered. “Hum geetkaar hain! Anyone can be a writer,” he said, eyeing both of us. “I write Bhojpuri lyrics.”
“Whatever it is that you do, you need help in Bambai,” Vishwas said. “You need someone who knows people.”
“I need nobody. I have to forge my own path.”
“Good luck with that.”
For all the talk of modernity, the film business remains a feudal and interconnected place where one phone call does more than years of waiting outside offices. This has not deterred thousands of would-be writers outside the industry whose belief in their own ideas is unshakeable. They are convinced that doors will open if they’re given one hearing. That the unseen gears of fortune will turn when a producer – any producer – asks for their story or lyrics. There’s the excise inspector from Allahabad who can’t figure out why Prasoon Joshi hasn’t called back yet, and is pitching reality show concepts to Sony and Star Plus (with revenue stream ideas). There’s the realist with bit roles in Mixed Doubles and Raghu Romeo who continues his impossible and damaging fight for a stolen script. Otherwise sensible, otherwise real about their prospects in any other sphere of life, they put logic aside when it comes to film writing because, hey, it’s film. You never know.
Another afternoon around the FWA, I met a man who had watched too many Dev Anand films. His hand fluttered as he spoke, with his head tilted in style as he drank tea. He talked in monologues.
“My name is Avinash. Yes, I write scripts but I enjoy writing lyrics. Wahi mera maqsad hai. I write only at night, in the dark, because that is when this bottle cap in my head opens and the words pour out. Well, har roz toh nahi hota hai. Kabhi ek shabd, kabhi ek mukhda. But only at night, because this is my dream. My real job is as a painter of buildings, mazdoori karta hoon. Jo zindagi ne diya hai, usey kheech kar chalana padta hai.”
Avinash grew up in Kerala, but moved to Bihar to earn. Two years ago, he moved to Mumbai. “Two things brought me here. The construction, of which there is a lot, and Hindi films. I will work there someday.” Madhumati, by Bimal Roy, brought Avinash alive to the possibilities of language. “People spoke of actors and directors and all that, but I saw through it; in films, the writer wields greater power. Everybody else is a puppet who dances to the writer’s tune.” He began to write songs and plays, and in time gained a good reputation back home. Here he hoped to pen love songs.
If Vishwas was an example of the fortunate struggler, how could a rank newcomer make it? His smile was beatific. “That’s how you think, and it shows who you are. When I came here, I gained strength from the people around me. When I look around me at what you call competition, I see my brothers and sisters struggling for the same thing. Look at how many of us there are. Surely one of us will make it? Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to be off. I have an important meeting.” The man was a star.
Sandeep Shrivastava, who wrote the screenplay for Shimit Amin’s 2004 encounter classic Ab Tak Chappan, chimed in on the outsider’s dilemma. “Who will meet you?” he asks. Even if the script is gold, which producer or director will make time for a driver, or a waiter, or a painter of buildings? “That’s what they don’t understand. It’s sad, but they’re asking for trouble. Even today I find people taking credit for some of my work.” He doesn’t know what to tell the building watchman who stops him every so often, offering Shrivastava a story. He doesn’t know what to tell the chacha outside a friend’s home who has a new story for him every time. How many success stories have we heard of, Shrivastava asks. How many true-blue rags-to-riches have we heard of in Indian cinema? We think for a while. Not one.
Elsewhere, Kohli has a driver who writes at night, waiting for his moment. Elsewhere, Avinash is one of many laborers on a construction site. Elsewhere, storytellers work as waiters and beauticians and watchmen. It’s like LA, but without the hope. Just don’t tell them that.