- Punam Mohandas
- 20 October 2018
"If one can tell a story with 15-20 minutes, one knows the craft."
SWA Exclusive interview with screenwriter director Jyoti Kapur Das
As a film writer and director, Jyoti Kapur Das rather unusually opted for the short film format and has it down to a fine art – literally! Both her offerings: ‘Chutney’ and ‘Plus Minus’ have garnered rave reviews from audiences. It is uncommon in the industry to find one person wearing the hats of writer, editor and now director too; not just this, but Jyoti has dabbled with the web series format as well and is now gearing up to direct her first, full-length feature film. In conversation with SWA, she talks about why she is so passionate about the short films genre, the many advantages a writer/director has and much more.
Jyoti feels that if one can tell a story with 15-20 minutes, one has displayed the fact that one knows the craft. Is this (short films) the genre she intends to promote and continue in? “It is a very blessed format because it is difficult to make your point, get all the emotions out; you don’t have the luxury of time. I’m grateful I could communicate what I did using the short format,” she says simply.
You have been the creative head on many several successful projects, such as ‘Gangs of Wasseypur,’ ‘Bhaag Milha Bhaag,’ ‘Madras Café,’ ‘Queen,’ ‘Margarita with a Straw,’ ‘Mary Kom’ and many more. What inspired you to become a writer yourself at this stage? “I’m from the Film Institute. I studied writing in an integrated course; we learnt all the streams no matter what our specialization was (my specialisation was editing.) I was a creative head many years after I graduated and I also worked independently in the industry as an AD on floor. I think that really made me more accepted by film makers who’d known my work, for example, Anurag Kashyap had seen my short film which I’d made in 2002 and was very generous in his praise. And so even if I botched a cut, he was more receptive. It’s important to have that kind of credibility.”
Speaking of ‘Plus Minus,’ the legend of Baba Harbhajan Singh is an old and established one now. What suddenly motivated you to pen a story around a somewhat headstrong woman with low tolerance in her personal relationships and weave him into this tale? “I wasn’t planning on making another short film after ‘Chutney’ because I thought I couldn’t surpass its success. Divya Dutta is a very old friend and she had a friend who wanted to do a film with her (Divya) in the lead, so she had me meet her. I halfheartedly told my assistants to look for something and then one morning my DA came to me with the concept of Baba Harbhajan Singh…and in two hours I had the story down with dialogue, emotions…it was very organic… basically the Universe just cracked my cranium!” she says in her inimitable style. “I deliberately didn’t want anyone’s opinion on it or suggestions; I instinctively felt the first draft which the universe just gifted to me is the one I should go make. Also, I had a very strong bond with my mother-in-law whom I had lost during that time and part of that grief got mixed up with the story, which is an unlikely combination of patriotism and emotion.”
What are the pros and cons of the short film medium – can it be a commercially rewarding format? “Short films are not commercially rewarding unless you get revenue on YouTube from Google ads and stuff, which I think a lot of people are aware of,” she says candidly. “I think it’s more that filmmakers today want to prove their storytelling ability and that is their reward. The motivations are different (to make a feature length film versus a short film) although they need not be; I am very thrilled when I see my audience laughing or reacting in the right places, which are my checkpoints regardless of who the audience is. There are checkpoints you want your audience to react at and that is very, very satisfying.”
And yet now you yourself are venturing into full-length feature films. “I’ve been signed for two feature films and am independently developing two others, so whichever works out first in terms of actor dates and logistics will go on the floors first,” she says slightly cagily, as she doesn’t want to disclose too much about projects still in the pipeline.
What is your take on movies that still run to 2.5 or even three hours, today, given the short attention span of the audience? “So there are just different stories. Some need that length of time to set up; there are way more layers possibly. The formats are all different. There are one-minuter’s that people are doing really well in. It depends on what treatment you’ve picked up to tell your story - and then just fly with it. I don’t think audiences have a short attention span at all. The audience is ready to be engaged – can you engage them?” she asks challengingly.
You have also contributed to the web series: ‘Bose Dead or Alive.’ “I did not write the Bose web series; I was just there when it was conceived and I handheld the research and development of it,” she clarifies immediately. “A very talented young writer called Reshu Nath wrote it; you need to watch out for all the other brilliant work she’s doing now!”
Are web series the way to go now, for writers as well as audiences; how viable is this medium financially for aspiring writers? “It has opened up a new avenue of displaying talent as well as of revenues,” she says ruminatively. “I think it is a financially happy situation for writers because there are so many more platforms now. After all, how may feature films get made? Feature films are way more difficult to get for a young writer so I think web series are a real boon. You can get paid a lot if you’re good. In the television industry writers do get a lot of respect and money as opposed to the feature film industry – I think. I may be corrected on this, I don’t know if it has changed. Because we still adhere to that whole thing about “bada purdah, badi screen,” “aapko mauka mil raha hai,” “you’re getting this opportunity so you need to take a hit on your pocket, on your fees” - and we all fall for it! We allow ourselves to get paid less, but for TV and web… there is so much volume of work so writers get paid well and also get more work. I’m assuming it is more satisfying for them too because they get to tell different stories that wouldn’t be allowed to be told in feature films,” she says forthrightly.
We have had a spate of films in Bollywood in recent times with off-beat themes. Who is the most promising writer according to you and which is the story/screenplay you’ve liked best? Jyoti is unstinting in her praise. “Everyone’s good, there are just different genres,” she states supportively. “I loved Sumit Arora’s work in ‘Stree,’ I think he was just brilliant. I love Himanshu’s work SO much – everything he does for Anant. I love the way Gauri Shinde writes. There are so many really, really good people writing stuff in the digital space. I’ve worked with one - Reshu Nath is so good. There’re just different writers and different genres and they’re doing some fabulous work and it’s such a good time for the audiences, I think.”
Having been part of the creative team on several projects, you have also had the opportunity to interact with some of the finest, most passionate directors of our times. Who has been a strong influence on you as you yourself wield the feature film directorial baton today? “For sure Anurag Kashyap!” she says immediately. “Some of his work I absolutely adore and I also think he is a very generous film maker; the number of directors, writers and actors that he’s mentored – it’s incredible. I think it is a very rare quality! I love Shoojitda’s work, Sujoy’s work, ‘Luck by Chance’ by Zoya. A lot of new young filmmakers like Hardik Mehta’s ‘Kamyab’ and Navjot Gulati’s film...I love Anand Rai’s work; I think he again is a very generous filmmaker. There’s something in every film you watch that teaches you something – and audiences can be collaborators there too. I love what Amar did with ‘Stree,’ Gauri with ‘English Vinglish,’ Anurag Basu with ‘Barfi’; it’s all bringing in new audiences into the theatre. Hrishikesh Mukherjee is my absolute, absolute favourite – I watched ‘Chupke Chupke every single day for many months, I’m not kidding!” she says enthusiastically.
Once started, it’s difficult to get Jyoti off this track – “I have many more favourites and a lot of films that give me joy,” she says exuberantly. "Mr. Raj Kapoor, Mr Guru Dutt, Goldie Anand; I have a lot of other favourites. And then you find your own voice through all these people. It’s a homage really, isn’t it?” she asks philosophically.
Do you think a director who is a writer as well, has a stronger understanding and therefore, a tighter hold of the project? “Definitely, definitely, definitely!” Jyoti shouts emphatically. “Even if you’re just sanitising a script! It takes a lot of craft to write; it’s a very fine craft. To be able to do it correctly…my professor at the film institute was a gentleman named Saghir Ahmed and he taught us very strictly – do not write anything that you cannot see or cannot hear on the screen. And that sits on my shoulder like an angel! Anyone who took him seriously is today a very good writer. Knowing how to write, knowing the basic craft, definitely helps a director because then you don’t waste much time while shooting; you know what is redundant, how to move from emotion to emotion, situation to situation – you are just a better, more engaging director! Even if you’re overshooting you know why you’re doing it, you’re doing it very consciously.”
From among your myriad experiences, what would you like to share with aspiring writer members of the SWA? “I don’t know what to share,” she says self-deprecatingly. “Just be sure that you like what you’re writing. This is very basic; a lot of people may laugh and say kitni obvious baat hai but you must like what you write, otherwise it is seen that you’re just doing it to make an impression or make money; that little dishonesty comes through and even the audience somehow smells it. It doesn’t do what an honest piece of work could do. Today there are so many more avenues of entertainments, so many formats, so much content and audiences are exposed to stuff at an international level. So, if your heart is not in it, just don’t do it,” she signs off.