- Punam Mohandas
- 25 May 2018
"Even writing a fictional story requires its own kind of research!"
Punam Mohandas in conversation with Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh and Saiwyn Quadras
Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh and Saiwyn Quadras are two of the most promising Hindi scriptwriters of today. The duo makes for a formidable team, having delivered real-to-reel hits like ‘Neerja’, and their latest offering to enthrall audiences around the country is the recently released John Abraham film ‘Parmanu’.
Is it easier to work as a team rather than fly solo, do they prefer picking real-life incidents to weave a tale around, who comes up with the germ of the story, who decides the casting?
Punam Mohandas asks this and more in a conversation with Saiwyn and Sanyuktha for an SWA exclusive interview.
Do you come with the ideas for your films? For instance, who came up with the idea of ‘Neerja’ and ‘Parmanu'?
Saiwyn: It works both ways. Initially, when you are beginning your career, you [maybe] go out with your ideas. Like I did with ‘Mary Kom’ and ‘Neerja’; the concept and script came from me. Hopefully you will rise to a level where directors and producers call you to work on their ideas like it happened with me in ‘Parmanu’ - the idea is director Abhishek Sharma's.
Sanyuktha: Yes, we do almost always come up with ideas of our films and then develop them into a detailed story draft before pitching. However, in the case of ‘Neerja’, Saiwyn had chanced upon a newspaper article and developed the story and I joined the team a little later as dialogue writer. ‘Parmanu’ was pitched to JA Ent by the director Abhishek Sharma; I am also the head of development at the company. We all loved the idea and Abhishek was very keen that Saiwyn and I come on board for writing the script.
If a filmmaker or producer approaches you with an idea, how do you take a call on whether you’d like to do it?
Saiwyn: First of all, the story has to “wow me” - there is no other consideration if the story doesn't excite me. If the story is exciting then there are considerations like the director, the actor, the money, the other collaborators involved in the writing process to help make a yay or a nay decision. I got quite excited on hearing the idea for ‘Parmanu.’ I liked Abhishek's 'Tere Bin Laden' so knew he was a capable director; I like John Abraham and knew he was perfect for this story and knowing the fact that Sanyuktha and I will be working together after ‘Neerja’ was an offer I couldn't refuse.
Sanyuktha: For me, it’s the director; his voice motivates me the most. Film is a director’s medium however, the writer has the most precious and important task of bringing the director’s expertise to the table to bring forth his vision; to chisel the story for screen and create a document that ensures that the vision is communicated to a large crew and so the finished product is an amalgamation of the writer’s craft and the director’s vision.
Both ‘Neerja’ as well as ‘Parmanu’ are based on real-life incidents. How much research went into writing their scripts? How does one approach a subject which requires dedicated research?
Saiwyn: Research is important for any story, be it real-life inspired or fiction; even writing a fictional story requires its own kind of research. With ‘Neerja’ I had to do almost six months of research and once Ram Madhvani came on board to direct it, his team did further research for six months or so. In 'Parmanu's case Abhishek Sharma is a thorough director so the research was more or less in place. Then of course you have the internet and books that, as a writer, you need to go through for due diligence. The approach should be like that of a journalist who is trying to unearth hidden stories with the given story.
Sanyuktha: These type of subjects indeed need a lot of research. Fortunately, these days production companies and studios also understand its importance and so we do get assistance from them in collecting information and then lies the tedious but compulsory task of mulling over the material to ensure that any departures are taken after one has complete information and understanding of the subject.
‘Neerja’ and ‘Parmanu.’ What were the most challenging points about both scripts?
Saiwyn: In both the scripts the common challenge was how to make the characters and the motive of the story relatable to the eventual audience. How, through the process of writing, we can make the audience feel for the main character and his/her endeavour in the story.
Sanyukta: The directors! Ram Madhvani is not a man who gets pleased easily, Ram’s first language is English, and while he is crystal clear about the thought he wants in the dialogue, he often needed to hear it in many versions to choose one, he likes a certain organic rawness in his conversations and runs far away from the meter and rhythm we dialogue writers so often persevere for. It was wonderfully different to work with Ram; it has developed a new skill in dialogue writing for me, one that has meter without meter!
Abhishek on the other hand is a writer himself and so in ‘Parmanu’ all three of us - him, Saiwyn and me - wrote the story, screenplay and dialogue together. We sat in a room for almost 12 hours every day and fleshed out the film scene by scene. This too was a novel experience for me as we all had to find a common wavelength and settle on one voice and move forward. Abhishek had the story of ‘Parmanu’ for three years and is very passionate about the subject; I am from Delhi and so that helped in giving all the characters voices as the film is largely based in Delhi and of course Pokhran and working with Saiwyn is always fun.
You both are working on a project for Subhash Ghai. Tell us something about it.
Saiwyn: For some reason, the project seems to have been put on hold. Sadly, I am not aware of the reasons.
Sanyukta: Subhashji had an initial idea and he had signed us to develop it. It’s a lovely story but I cannot say too much about it at the moment since it is still in development. Working with Subhashji has been insightful and a learning experience. Not only did I get to learn from his tremendous experience but he is also so open to understanding the changes and the new thoughts in cinema presently.
Did you pitch him the subject, or did he approach you?
Saiwyn: It was Subhashji's idea that he approached us for.
Time for me to throw a few individual questions at you, if you don't mind. First you, Saiywn!
Saiwyn Quadras -
Clearly, you both are very comfortable working together; this will be your third collaboration. Would you ever work individually on scripts, do you think, or are two heads better than one?
Sanyuktha is a great partner to have as a collaborator and whenever the opportunity arises I will not hesitate to work with her again and again. That said, we are also working on projects individually. Some stories require two heads working together from the very beginning, while some require solo work. Both of us know that we are there for each other whenever need be.
Do you get a say in deciding the cast? Do you write the character keeping the end player in mind?
Yes, we do get a say in the casting sometimes. A good director is one who will always engage with his writers on creative decisions and casting is important. I prefer to write not having an actor in mind even if I know who the actor is going to be. That way it becomes interesting for the actor to get into the character rather than write the character keeping the actor's image in mind.
You have written ‘Mary Kom’ earlier. In your opinion, is it harder to justice to a living person (biopic) than a real-life incident, or does the latter allow you more poetic license?
Both have their own challenges and pre-conditions. Either way, it is hard to do justice to a living person or a true event because we only have two hours to tell a story in. Real life incidents give the opportunity for more creative liberties but biopics are more challenging for sure.
Sanyukta Chawla -
Shabana Azmi's final speech in ‘Neerja’ was one of the high points in the film. How did you approach that scene? Does a writer try to slip in his/her own thoughts in such a situation, or is it purely the character and the story?
For me, that’s the only way; it takes long but you have to wait to completely slip into the skin of the character and let them speak to you. I didn’t write this speech till the end; I made Ram tell me each and everything that he wanted to get out of it, even Saiwyn had not put any indicative dialogue in English there. I think everyone wanted it that way. I waited to really feel one with the sense of loss and then one day I just wrote it; it came to me, we never did another version. That was the only one that we tweaked and then Shabanaji made it so, so real.
How much does a dialogue writer contribute to the screenplay or scenes? Does he or she re-work/modify the screenplay and if yes, how does the original screenwriter take it?
I think it’s essential for a dialogue writer to be adept with screenplay writing as well. Many a time a conversation in English or the choreography of the scene changes when Hindi is spoken and so one should be able to redesign a scene only if necessary without losing the essence and intent of the original scene, to make it more effective. And so the best case scenario is to have the dialogue writer on board when the screenplay writing starts.
You assisted on ‘Hum Tum’ as well as ‘Fanaa’. Will we see you directing your own film soon or do you prefer scriptwriting?
No. I am delighted to be a screenwriter. I love the solitary confinement of writing.
You have written the ‘Girl in the City’ series. Do you think the web format is something Indians will take to?
‘Girl in the City’ has proved to me that this question is now irrelevant - the second season of GITC had over 150 million views and still counting. The web is the new mass medium to tell stories and, as my director Samar Shaikh puts it so correctly, with web series you know instantly what the people are thinking we are bombarded with comments as soon as an episode is aired. I am really enjoying the web fiction space - I hope it’s here to stay.
You have stated in previous interviews that the protagonist has shades of you. Would you care to elaborate?
I don’t think I’ve ever said that. I have said in the case of ‘Bobby Jasoos’ that while I thought I was writing about a woman very different from me in culture and background, many of her struggles seemed to resonate with me and that certain dilemmas that women deal with cut across, class, culture and demographics.
What sort of genre is the project for Samar Shaikh to be? When does it roll?
I have written two film for Samar, one is a story drama and the other is dramedy, both are in the process of being cast. We are in now in the midst of the third season of the web series, ‘Girl in the City’ with Mithila Palkar, which is very special to us.