Thursday, May 28, 2009

How to write about people

Dan Baum has some reporting advice:
I look for stories with interesting people in them, and one of the tricks that I’m always trying to impress upon young writers is that when you’re interviewing somebody, like if I was interviewing the chief solar engineer at Masdar, a big mistake people make is talking to that guy only about solar engineering. You have to throw in questions that have nothing to do with the subject. How many siblings do you have and what number are you? What do you read? What are your hobbies? Are you married? How many kids do you have? Have you ever been divorced? You’ve got to get them talking about themselves. I’m asking these questions that are just none of my business, really personal questions, and I’ll just keep getting in closer and closer and closer.

I’ll ask, What do you earn? And you’ll see this kind of shock of recognition on the person’s face. Sometimes people say “Well, that’s none of your business,” but rarely. I can barely think of a time that’s happened to me. Usually you see the shock of recognition when the person goes, “Oh, that’s the level we’re talking on.”

People like it, when you get them talking about themselves and unrelated stuff. You need time for this, and it’s a hard thing to do on the phone. But when you’re getting all of that then you know this person as a whole person, and then you can fit them into the story in a way that you’re still writing about Masdar and solar engineering, but you can just throw in a few licks to just make that person real.

It’s kind of a New Yorker trick. When you read about people in The New Yorker, they are somehow more three-dimensional than sources in other magazines. They’re not just a font of quotes, or a representative of a point of view — they’re people.

The rest of it is useful too.


Oriana Fallaci reminds me of Spider Jerusalem. I know I'm late on this.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Abusing election symbols

Nitish Kumar, resident prose writer:

''The lantern [RJD's election symbol] has broken and the oil that was spilt set on fire the bungalow [LJP] as the arrow [JD-U] was right on target.

Isn't it telling that they still use arrows?

The first time

Not too long ago, Rhea saw a swimming pool. Her eyes widened as gray, green, blue, and white clashed and dissolved in an endless sequence of silent violence. All manner of forces worked against each other to create movement. Seeing this, she presumed it was alive, and talked to the swimming pool for a while. Rhea is 66 days old.

Sometimes, when no one else is in sight, she giggles and talks to the fan like old friends. She sees the fan respond with another revolution.

The green silk embroidered curtains that bloat and flutter when it's windy transform into something suspicious. At first they stand somewhat still, disguised as a breathing block of color, moving only slightly. Then suddenly they puff up and advance from below, floating towards her on the bed, snapping and twisting and levitating a few feet away from her. She stares at them, eyes wide open, doing nothing else, because she has not been introduced to fear.

She stares at a wall the shade of ripe mangoes. There is nothing on it. To her, this must be masterful.

Birds. Skyscrapers. Motorcyclists. People at windows. A woman's long hair. The breeze.

Nothing compares to the drama life offers at the very beginning.

The party on television

Right now, on another screen, anchors and reporters are hosting panel discussions. Party mouthpieces are there too. And everyone's happy, like 'hey, what a great party this is', right? They're laughing and joking, and saying clever things, like how journalists think they could be better politicians, and politicians thinking they could make for more competent journalists. Everyone laughs.

I can't remember the last time I saw a smackdown on television. These guys are too safe.

Update: Actually, I do remember a very satisfying television argument. Udayan Mukherjee vs Kamal Nath. If only they did this more often.

On writing, on living

Neil Gaiman explains to an unreasonable fan what it is that writers do when they aren't writing:

And sometimes, and it's as true of authors as it is of readers, you have a life. People in your world get sick or die. You fall in love, or out of love. You move house. Your aunt comes to stay. You agreed to give a talk half-way around the world five years ago, and suddenly you realise that that talk is due now. Your last book comes out and the critics vociferously hated it and now you simply don't feel like writing another. Your cat learns to levitate and the matter must be properly documented and investigated. There are deer in the apple orchard. A thunderstorm fries your hard disk and fries the backup drive as well...

This is such a lovely bit of writing. Too bad his explanation doesn't apply to magazine writing, with its deadlines and what not. Which explains the absence.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Let Gayle be

Clive Lloyd is wrong.

Chris Gayle's declaration that there is more to life than Test cricket is refreshing. People wait for captaincy. People plot for captaincy. He did neither. He understood the responsibilities brought on by a captaincy thrust upon him and attempted to change his very nature to accommodate the burden. It is difficult for a man to change his natural inclinations. And he did so when no one else was available. If my reading of Gayle is right, his teammates would have known him well enough to understand his views on life, captaincy and everything. And so, no, "this is" not "bound to have an effect on the whole spirit of the team", as Lloyd put it. If anything, Gayle will be himself, and this can only be good for his team. Let him resign without fuss, and let a more willing man take over. It isn't the end of the world.

Busy day

Blogging comes later. An infuriating interview with an actor needs to be transformed into something coherent.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A lie

Later, as I replayed a recording of an interview, I seemed to catch a lie. A momentary slip that contradicted everything the confessor had said before. Taken in isolation, it was a miserable lie that I missed during the interview. But my wife heard the lie, and heard what came before, and she asked if he wasn't just a man hiding from himself. His life so far was spent in hiding from himself, after all. Perhaps it wasn't a lie meant for me, she suggested. Perhaps she's right.

Getting fired from the New Yorker, and Twitter

Dan Baum is twittering how he got fired from the New Yorker.

Susan Orlean, also on Twitter, takes exception to one of Baum's tweets:
Contrary to @danielsbaum, I don't think The New Yorker office is a creepy place, nor is the atmosphere "strained". He seems WAY off to me.
Much fun.

A photo as substitute

A link on The Times of India website promises to show readers their election coverage of the last fifty years. Hungry for ToI writing from when it was a readable paper, I visited the page, only to find a photo gallery of front pages from past elections.

Technically it is 'coverage', but still. I wonder what their website would look like if the good people at Cricinfo managed all that content.

An excerpt from a Resul Pookutty interview

When the opportunity to interview Resul Pookutty arose, I gave no thought to bartering a story with a colleague in order to do so. It's not his Oscar that excited me. I wanted to have a conversation about his craft and understand how sound works.

He explained the effects of sounds on the senses. Everyday sounds are what tell us where we are. The disjointed, short, cacophonic sounds of the city have no rhythm and so you feel restless. Sounds outside the city are quieter, stretched longer, and hence more peaceful. The job of a sound designer is to create an invisible environment, the one we can't see, but which adds to our understanding of where the protagonists are.

Once Open runs the story I will post it here. In the meantime, a brief explanation of what he does, in his own words, from the interview:

"Any sound in a film is not accidental. It is there for a particular feeling, to add texture. In a film if we use 400 tracks of sound, it means we've listened to more than a million files of sound. Not just once. It's far more tedious work than a composer's. When you write a characterization in film, I'm doing the same thing with sound. In sound, if its not real, the audience will reject it. Unless it's a larger-than-life movie. Ghajini was [that kind of movie], and the objective was that the audience shouldn't move from their seat. At the same time, Ghajini had a great emotional line. So I could be as violent as I could. But we decided to restrict ourselves. It's all about killing the girl, right, how brutally you can kill her to create sympathy. We could create brutal sounds. But the audience is a family audience, so if you're brutal, they'll be like "ew". So what we did is, one minute into the film, we brought in metal sounds. You hear soft metal sounds. Every sound we created was metallic. You hear a multitude of metallic sounds. Then we bring the sounds back in reel no.9, where the police inspector narrates the story of how she was killed. So on reel no.1, we started working on the audience's mind with metal sounds, and then we slapped it. The audience accepted it. For me it was a great artistic decision."

This was a brief excerpt; the actual interview is longer and more detailed. It was fun. There's nothing like interviewing a person who loves what he does, and shows you how he does it. Also, I couldn't take my eyes off his magnificent digital recoder. I wanted to go to there.

Monday, May 11, 2009

He told me that she told him that they told her...

In a sensational waste of kilobytes, a newspaper quotes a source who quotes another source about a sensational incident. If all this sensation is too much, read no further because the report's last line, the money line, is next:

There is also a tell-all blog on team's activities, adding to [sic] insult to its injuries, although the authenticity of the blog is still in doubt.

Good lord. Something's not right here.

Rushdie in The New Yorker

Salman Rushdie's in fine form with his short story for The New Yorker this week. It makes me long for my relative youth already.

Senior endured the multiple health problems of the very old, the daily penances of bowel and urethra, of back and knee, the milkiness climbing in his eyes, the breathing troubles, the nightmares, the slow failing of the soft machine. His days emptied out into tedious inaction. Once, he had given lessons in mathematics, singing, and the Vedas to pass the time. But his pupils had all gone away. There remained the wife with the wooden leg, the blurry television set, and Junior. It was not, by a long chalk, enough. Each morning he regretted that he had not died in the night.

Go on, read it.

Open Magazine: Why election symbols are weird

Among the 59 symbols released by the Election Commission for this year’s elections were a batsman, a frock, a shuttlecock, a fork, and a doli. The EC does not create symbols, it only approves and standardizes their appearance. For unregistered parties and independents late to file their nominations, it offers this list of free symbols. “These symbols were created a long time ago,” says KF Wilfred, the secretary. “They were done by someone who knew drawing.”

While the exact source of these symbols is unknown, Wilfred says the EC has a large number of images to choose from – the result of over a thousand candidates filing their papers during a 1989 Tamil Nadu election. Over a thousand symbols were created. “We’ve trimmed that list significantly to make it more relevant,” Wilfred says. “If one guy wanted one glass, another wanted two glasses. If one wanted a mango for his Mango Party, another wanted an apple because it confused voters. There was also a cycle and a motorcycle.” Also removed were symbols that made sense only in one state.

The EC now has a list of approximately 200 to choose from (The choices are also rather limited. Which could lead to interesting combinations, such as an alliance between the parties with the frying pan, the gas stove, and the gas cylinder).

The list is an example of political correctness taken to extremes; nobody could claim to be offended by any symbol without sounding silly. How to be annoyed by a diesel pump or a comb, or a road roller? And this, when the EC releases symbols, is the body’s mandate. “A symbol should not have religious connotations,” said Wilfred. “It should not depict violence, nor should it have animals and birds.” The body took a call on animals and birds in 1990 after petitioners complained that parties were using dead parrots and doves on a string during their campaigns. “Nearly everybody with an animal symbols agreed to use a new one, but you still see the elephant and the lion around.”

South Park. Here. Time to migrate.

South Park is now in India. I know this because my peaceful early morning ride was cut short when I noticed a giant hoarding of Kyle's behind. This has to be among the darkest days ever.

Open Magazine feature: Shahrukh's throne

Alright, so this story isn't exactly journalism. Khan didn't want any part of it. His acquaintances said they needed his permission. That left his rivals, industry neutrals, and professionals on the periphery. Rivals will say all sorts of things without evidence, so we didn't go there. Neutrals provide small but revealing insights, so we included some of their thoughts. But the professionals really shaped this story. Their criticism was even, they were fine with being quoted, and they made a distinction between the actor and the brand. One reader asked what was new about this story, and I found myself agreeing with him in part. The idea, however, was to take what was being said and create a solid narrative. I'd like to think that we managed that, although I'd remove lines such as "This isn't Raj's time anymore". That line sounds so whiny it's not funny.

By Rahul Bhatia and Madhavankutty Pillai, with inputs from Manju Sara Rajan and Rubina A Khan.

On December 12, 2008, a day when most visitors to the cinema had a Shahrukh Khan movie on their mind, an inspired marketing idea reminded them of a forthcoming Aamir Khan release. Behind the counters, passing out tickets for Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, were cinema staff with military haircuts and a shaved parting identical to Aamir’s appearance in Ghajini, out a fortnight later. Anywhere else this would be seen as shrewd marketing. But not in Bollywood, where the idea caused grave offense. Shahrukh used the incident to point out, "I think it is a good strategy. You take the biggest brand in the country that is SRK and then use that platform to publicise yourself. I think Aamir rocks. The problem is that I cannot use any another brand because there is no one bigger than me".

Lately, Shahrukh has found it necessary to repeatedly inform readers and watchers that he is the country’s top actor. Not by the time-tested method of performing in a series of hit films or pushing the boundaries of his art, but by saying it out loud, over and over. His declarations are reported faithfully, with all possible meaning extracted and magnified by the media. Taken in isolation, he sounds like a mouthy upstart boxer: say it, and it shall be. But he isn’t. His proclamations sound as strange as a doctor insisting he’s number one (“I am the biggest, meanest, pediatrician in the country”). And so, each new announcement makes the case curiouser and curiouser: why does a man who has achieved so much have to reiterate this? What started it? Is this insecurity? Why does he sound like he is No.2? Is he?

Shahrukh, friends and acquaintances will tell you, was a star the first time they saw him. He was sharp and ambitious and willing, and said he would be a star; and in that respect, not much has changed. He listens intently, he watches carefully, and he sums up people quickly. When he enters a room, people say, he energises it. A cluster of strangers will soon be friends. He can make a journalist feel special. He’s open, and he’s witty. He remembers faces, if not names. In short, there’s something oddly Clintonesque about him.

Whatever he does, his people believe in him. Who are his people? Anyone, absolutely anyone, whom Shahrukh has touched. His employees are paid well, his assistant directors are charmed by his spontaneity and attention, and his sponsors adore his commitment. These are grown men and women who know that life outside Shahrukh’s sphere of influence isn’t pretty, and they love him for it. Speak to them and they all say the man’s a game changer. On the sets he isn’t a star. He’s an evolved version of you and me; a father, a mother, a friend, and a councilor. He treasures loyalty and repays it. Juniors say he looks out for them. They eat out of his hand. They feel for him something that borders on genuine love. Not for his work, which can be cheesy, but for the man. If you know how love works, you’ll appreciate how stunning the achievement is.

Therefore, a conversation today with his assistants about him feels like a conversation about two people. The man they love, and the guy they don’t understand in print. The pattern is a familiar one of denial (that he uttered the words), followed by rationalising (he said he’s No.1 because he has every right to. Because he is). When it comes to it, they’re as beaten as anyone else. Why would Shahrukh keep insisting on it? Well, there’s a theory.

A journalist recalled a conversation where he once mentioned to Shahrukh how good Hritik Roshan looked in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai. “He only did it for a second, but he recoiled physically. It’s the only time I saw him react that way.” The theory goes like this: competition makes Shahrukh Khan behave unusually. “SRK has always been a very insecure person despite his phenomenal success in the business,” says a person who has interacted with him. “His desire to monopolise the number one spot is almost megalomaniacal. But as much as he is a shrewd player, he is also a very sensitive and thoughtful person to those he loves, having given them apartments and cars and many such expensive gifts in the past or done cameos without charging his superstar fees.”

His supporters say the allegation of insecurity is nonsense. Wouldn’t anyone behave this way? But what makes it strange is that in his highly image-conscious profession, Shahrukh seems to have forgotten a basic tenet: stay on message. The CEO of a sports and celebrity management company, who requested anonymity, says that there was a time when Shahrukh used to come across as someone very humble. His appeal was, in marketspeak, reliability, friendliness and accessibility, and it had reach. Aamir had trust, but not reach. This is image, the thing we react to internally, well before it is manifested in our conscious opinion. In our minds, Aamir was the better actor but the more reserved one – unlike Shahrukh, who acted out mad fantasies with abandon. This, the CEO believes, began to change two years ago when two things happened. “One, everything became about Shahrukh the celebrity. It began with Kaun Banega Crorepati. Meanwhile, Aamir’s steady run continued. He opened up to the media. He became more likeable, and because he chose his films selectively, he came across as being more credible. And his reach increased.” People began seeing more of Aamir because he let them. And with every passing snipe or defence of his territory, they saw more of Shahrukh than they wanted to. “He forgot that the guy they liked was not SRK the megacorporation, but SRK the individual, the Raj they all knew.”

The Eternal Raj

Raj. Every Raj and Rahul comes to understand this fact early in life: his name is not his alone because Shahrukh appropriated it a long time ago. In small towns the names are an implication of romantic love. In large cities they imply filmi love. Shah Rukh holds on to the two as a man holds on to his youth. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi he was Raj Kapoor, a smooth operator serenading his unsuspecting wife. It was the 14th instance in his 65-movie career where he played a character with either name. This is hardly a coincidence. Fourteen years ago he performed his most famous role, as the romantic Raj Malhotra who wouldn’t elope without parental consent. Critics say he hasn’t left Punjab since, even as Aamir has taken greater risks and exposed himself to new challenges.

While Shahrukh took on simple romances that allowed him to be Shahrukh, Aamir re-invented the tapori, and played a cop in a smart thriller (before two absolute turkeys). Then Lagaan happened. It was first offered to Shahrukh. He declined, Aamir took it, and then came the Oscar nomination. Ever since, Aamir was typecast as experimental, while Shahrukh was himself; safe on familiar ground. But in the invisible side of cinema, the business side, Shahrukh was a fascinating innovator. He foresaw the possibility of a man becoming an industry. On the screen, however, he was becoming a cliché, a ghost from the past. So unexpected were his turns as a scientist and a hockey coach in Swades and Chak De India that fans aren’t sure what to make of him. One said he didn’t know which Shahrukh was the real one, and that is a revealing comment. He isn’t seen as an actor. He’s a good guy, a friendly guy, who made it big. A film like Swades throws off people because they’re trained to see Shahrukh the personality, not judge his skills. That is why Chak De was remarkable; it became bigger than its main actor and told a story. It seemed the kind of role Aamir would take on.

“That there is competition between the Khans is no secret. Both Shahrukh and Aamir are great strategisers when it comes to making their movies succeed,” says a producer who went with a script to both actors. It was an unconventional role. Aamir didn’t bother to get back but Shahrukh called the man over for a meeting which stretched half a day. After a couple more interactions on the phone, Shahrukh backed out. “Possibly because the character was just too unconventional for him,” says the producer.

Many industry people don’t agree with the notion that he plays safe. They say Shahrukh’s daring lies not in his roles (although his choices here aren’t too shabby they say, pointing to Paheli and Rab Ne…), but in his decisions. He produces movies with his own money, they say, unlike Aamir, whose productions are in large part financed by PVR, the cinema chain. “He puts his money where his mouth is,” a producer and friend of Shahrukh says. “Now that’s risk-taking. Now he runs a sports franchise. Of course he’s No. 1.”

What is a Brand?

The curious incident of the dog on Aamir’s blog now feels like a strangely silly chapter, despite Aamir’s protestations of innocence. However, people close to the matter say he was taking the mickey. That he’d had enough with Shahrukh, and decided to give it back. Shahrukh responded, and Aamir escalated the jibes. They read like the kind of entertainingly inane argument siblings have (“Your elbow’s on my side”). These statements were made only in part jest. After one lob and parry, Aamir complained that Shahrukh had lost his sense of humor. The bone of contention was over who could claim the number one status. Aamir’s supporters had a line of four straight hits to back them, while Shahrukh, even with only three hits in 17 releases (including special appearances), mystifyingly insisted on being called number one.

But then he isn’t just a movie star. He does introduce himself as a film maker. So there’s some logic, however skewed, at work. Perhaps for Shahrukh, he’s No.1 in an empirical sense. King of everything. Which fits in nicely with the ‘megalomaniac’ tag that seems to go everywhere he does. A trade analyst says, “He was a very calculating man from the beginning. The diversification into IPL is a sign of that. He’s even started making television serials now. He’s got a Marwari brain. People say he takes Rs 30 - 40 crore, but no one really knows what he takes. He’s always been a very reasonable man. Only in the last 3 to 4 years has he hiked his price. Otherwise till then he was charging Rs 2 to 3 crore, when he could have taken much more. Nowadays, he takes some percentage of the profits. He’s the only actor who reads the financial newspapers daily. You can’t fool him.”

A producer says, “You’re looking at Ghajini. Tell me how much it made. 280 crore? 290 crore? (None of these numbers, readers have to note, have been confirmed.) Well, what was the film’s budget? Look at the return on investment. Rab Ne had a greater return on investment than Ghajini. Why do you think people want to work with him? He gives you everything. He wants to be completely involved. And your film is guaranteed to make money! Of course he’s No. 1.” No room for doubt, then?

Just when you think they’re about the acting, they tell you, no, it comes down to money. Of course. “Shahrukh first tasted blood with Main Hoon Na. He had produced movies before, but nothing had worked like this,” an acquaintance says. “Only then did he decide to go full tilt with Om Shanti Om.” Perhaps that’s what Shah Rukh means when he says he’s No.1. Everything he touches turns to gold. It explains the gold on his team uniform.

Advertisers say he’s the biggest brand by far. A creative head who worked with Shahrukh says, “I think SRK is still the biggest name for brands. The reason is that SRK’s stardom is a self-propagating machine. And it has an accumulated effect on his stardom and fame. He’s sheer eye candy. Aamir Khan makes you think, SRK makes you watch. He has what we in advertising call the ‘screensaver syndrome’, it doesn’t mean much, he’s there and you’ll keep looking at it.

“The great difference between Aamir Khan and SRK, and the reason why SRK is the bigger brand is that, SRK’s fame is not derived from his movies. He’s gone beyond that. AK is very strongly associated with his movies. Aamir’s standing with the audience and their desire to emulate him draws directly from the success of his films. I don’t think that holds true for SRK. He’s beyond the stardom machine. Like Sachin’s fame is no longer associated with how he played his last innings, the brand SRK is no longer associated with how his movies do.”

But is branding about money? When you take money out of the equation, and include the many intangibles of art, suddenly Aamir seems to have no equal. That is why a photojournalist who covers Bollywood says that Aamir is clearly up there. In his mind, Shahrukh has some distance to cover. “It has to do with success and the kind of movies which he makes successful. Take a role like Taare Zameen Pe, in which he enters the film just before the interval. Which actor in Bollywood would possibly agree to such a role? And yet, because of Aamir the movie went on to become a superhit. Whenever Shahrukh has tried to do any sort of offbeat roles, he has inevitably flopped.”

There is comfort in familiarity because managing your own image is easier when you are in familiar hands, hands that belong to friends and people you’ve known for a long time; they’re as good as family. They know what he can do, and know what he isn’t capable of. They know what makes Shahrukh unique. The actor, otherwise resistant to a change in his acting technique, relaxes. He’s in familiar territory. He can be himself with friends. This is where Aamir scores over his rival. The only image he needs to maintain is his own -- as India’s most experimental actor.
And that’s why there’s a gradual change in perception.

Some Stars Fade

Ask yourself a few questions. Why do you visit the movies? Would you watch a movie for its star? Would you watch a movie without a star? It isn’t much of a choice, but you know the answer. Now rewind to fifteen years ago and ask yourself the same questions. That’s why Shahrukh doesn’t make you feel the way you used to. This isn’t Raj’s time anymore. There’s more to life than love, which is why Swades and Chak De worked for so many people in cities (Audiences in NY and London don’t count; they’re still living in 1994). There’s autism, and hockey, and anterograde amnesia (not to be confused with retrograde amnesia, which a bump on the head in the 1970s gave you). That is why, as the public image guy put it, “This disconnect between who Shahrukh is and who he was hasn’t yet spread outside the cities. But if he keeps this up, it will.”

The small circle he works with keeps his image intact, but that image, a result of his obsession, hasn’t kept up with the times. The circle is claustrophobic. In fact, few movies could compare with the intense suffocation of Rab Ne, which revolved around chiefly three characters. It feels like a miscalculation. Audiences don’t expect you to declare yourself numero uno. Not with the run he’s been having. It feels misplaced, like he’s holding on to something slipping away. Audiences know. They just know.

If Aamir is No. 1 today, and there’s no dearth of support in that corner, it’s partly due to Shahrukh’s unwillingness to come to terms with a basic truth. There’s a point when spontaneity on tap is no longer spontaneity. There’s a point where every exuberant wave feels practised. There’s a point where you say so much more when you aren’t being witty. His subordinates love him because they know him, and they know he’s a great guy. That’s because he’s natural with them. But with educated audiences – people who live in a complex world - he gives them unnatural simplicity, a forced youthfulness, a tight t-shirt and orange pants, all in the name of the grand entertainer. There’s no formula. It’s common sense. You expect an adult to act his age, so what if he’s a star?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Open Magazine feature: Struggling scriptwriters

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.


Lokesh Karekar's work always blows me away.

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Back where we belong

Last year, confused with html, I moved this blog from here to a wordpress platform at But it never quite felt right. Shortening a name that served me well seemed to make less and less sense over time and, in an irrational way, it never truly felt mine. So here it is, back where it belongs, where the vibrations feel right.

Much has changed since last year. Writing has become less intimidating, if not easier. I've discovered armchair opinion like never before. A few things have helped. For one, the narrow focus of my life widened from writing to include other creative pursuits, such as creating music. Soon I'll put up a sample or two. There's a short screenplay I wrote, currently being revised. There's another on the way.

Working on many projects simultaneously has helped focus my attention, for the limited time I can give them each day is all I can manage before the mind wanders. More importantly, and surely I've jinxed myself now, the last half year has been tremendous fun. This blog will reflect the change. I hope you'll keep visiting.