- Punam Mohandas
- 19 November 2018
Behind this successful ‘Stree’, is a man!
SWA Exclusive interview with screenwriter Sumit Aroraa
‘Stree’ turned out to be a surprise hit of 2018, not least because of its improbable plot ably balanced by racy dialogues and Sumit Aroraa, the dialogue writer of the film, is being hailed as the next best thing after sliced bread! One reviewer went so far as to call him the “star” of the film.
“A friend sent me that review. I feel humbled and feel it wouldn't have been possible without the great team we had. Amar Kaushik made the film with so much love that everything landed beautifully,” says Sumit bashfully.
In fact, most of your body of work thus far – ‘Stree,’ ‘All is Well,’ ‘C.I.D.’ and so on, has been as dialogue writer. Do you prefer this to penning screenplays?
“Not sure if I prefer it but I do enjoy it a lot. I love to play with language; the interplay of words, how it can create a different rhythm and sound when placed differently,” he says.
What is the trick about good dialogue/good comedy?
“I really don't know,” he muses. “There are many kind of comedies. I believe in the comedy that’s driven by the situation and characters. And for dialogues, I just feel that the interplay of characters is the most important things. Characters and their interpersonal conflicts always result in good dialogue.”
What are some of your own favourite lines from ‘Stree’; something that leaves you chuckling aloud too?
“‘Naye Bharat ki chudail.’ When I wrote that line, I was wondering if it’s (actual) funny or it’s just stupid funny that only the writer in me finds funny! I was thinking whether I should keep it or remove it but then I thought yaar likh deta hoon, dekhte hain baaqi log kya bolte hain. But then Amar, (director of ‘Stree’) Raj and DK (co-producers/story and screenplay writers of ‘Stree’) nobody reacted badly so I was like: chalo nikal gayi ye line. So that’s one and the other is right at the end when Stree is in front of Vicky and Shraddha’s character asks him to look into her eyes, pyaar se and he says: ‘Arre yahan humari ‘g***nd fati hui hai. Kaha se laaye pyaar!’
Being a “dialogue” writer appears to be a specialised field in the Bollywood industry; Hollywood does not make this distinction. What is your opinion on this and what would you want your identity (as a writer) to be?
“India has many languages and dialects, unlike America. Bollywood attracts people from all across the country. They write screenplays but not necessarily everyone is equipped with the finer nuances of the local language. That’s where a dialogue writer comes in,” explains Sumit. “A joke in English won’t always work equally well in Hindi. A dialogue writer needs to think of a joke that creates a similar impact in Hindi. The way conversations play out in English are not always the way they play out in Hindi, otherwise people would just get it translated. A specialised job is there precisely because the film should not get lost in translation.”
How did your breakthrough into television come about?
“TV happened because films didn't happen,” he says quite simply. “And I am very grateful for that. Like many others, I had come to Mumbai to make films. I met a few people but nothing worked out. It was getting difficult to survive and then, by a stroke of luck, I got a call from Balaji. Before coming to Mumbai, I had given an interview for Balaji Telefilms in Delhi. I immediately joined and worked with Balaji for one and a half years. After leaving Balaji, I worked as a freelance writer and wrote dialogues for some other shows and learnt a great deal. Writing for TV didn’t just sort me out financially, but also taught me the discipline to write. You have to get up and show up.”
Does it take very much longer to find a foothold in the film or television industry as an outside writer, i.e. someone not from the fraternity?
“It's difficult for any outsider, be it a writer, actor, to break into this industry, primarily because there is no method to the madness here,” says Sumit candidly. “It takes a while to understand the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of the system. Even today when young writers come and ask ’How should we go about it?’ there is no single and definite answer. An actor has to find out where the auditions happen and she/he eventually finds the heaven of araam nagar but there is no (such) araam nagar for writers. But that doesn't mean there are no opportunities. In fact, in the last 2-3 years, the demand for writers has increased manifold because of the invent of the digital medium. So the trick for a new writer is to find these opportunities and prove yourself worthy of it. And find ways to make money and survive till then! So yes, it does take time but I don't think ‘being an outsider’ is any disadvantage for someone who wants to become a writer. Trust me, no star son is being launched as a writer!” he says, tongue-in-cheek.
You have stated in an interview that you drew inspiration for ‘Stree’ from childhood experiences and memories. Are you the type of writer who keenly notices characteristics of those around him and then incorporates that into his writing?
“Yes, I guess we all do that, draw from we see around and add thoda namak mirch,” he says matter-of-factly. “But I feel that can be very limiting too. While a film like ‘Stree’ allowed me to look into my own life and create interesting small town characters through their dialogues, not every script will give me that chance. Sometimes you write about a character and a world that you have never encountered. For that you use research and imagination. And its great fun because you get to dive into a completely new world that is nothing like yours. Though you still try to find that one emotion, that one theme that resonates with you. So I feel that in the world around you, the reality is only one of the reservoirs you use as a writer; your imagination and the books you read are the other important reservoirs.”
Do you think your efforts have vindicated all writers; have writers finally gained their own recognition with the industry as well as audience?
“The recognition writers are getting has definitely increased in the last few years because of content based films doing well at the box office. The industry is also realising that content will get them numbers and hence the new found respect for writers!” says Sumit philosophically. “But there are still issues about minimum pay, minimum dignity, credit etc. Recently a fellow writer, a man with many successful movies behind his name, was not even mentioned and tagged on social media when his latest movie was announced. And the logic usually given is a writer’s name doesn't sell a film! But if you don't project a writer, how will his name become big enough to sell a film? People used to go watch a Salim-Javed film. How did that happen?! Because they made sure that their name was on the posters. And how did that happen? They literally had to go around the town painting their names on the poster! So, I guess there is (still) a long way to go,” he says.
Do you prefer working on your own, or as part of a team? What are the pros and cons of working with a fellow writer?
“It depends. If you find likeminded people who share the same belief system as you, a team can work. Otherwise I prefer working alone. The good part about working with fellow writers is there is an influx of new ideas and also, for a change, the process becomes a little less lonely.”
Which scriptwriter/s work do you like?
Pat comes the answer: “Gulzar, Aaron Sorkin, Jaideep Sahni, Rajkumar Hirani-Abhijat Joshi.”
Could you tell us something about the project you’re working on for Dharma Productions?
“It’s too early to talk about it,” he says apologetically.
In 2017, you directed a short film: “White Shirt.” Are we going to see you wielding the director’s baton more?
“Yes. The idea is to keep directing alongside the writing work I do. I am directing a series next year somewhere in April-May.”
How smooth is the transition from writing to direction? Are there any particular strengths that a writer brings to direction?
“I don’t know about smooth, but it was definitely very exciting for me! I wanted to test waters for myself, wanted to see if I can truly direct or I am better off as a writer, also to see if I even enjoy it or not. And I really enjoyed it! I love being on the sets. The strength you bring to direction as a writer is the clarity about your script. You know the nuances, you know the genesis of every emotion that the character is dealing with and it helps a great deal. But I think that all good directors will anyway absorb that from the script. Direction I feel is a specialised job. It’s a whole different skillset that also includes a heavy amount of people management that a writer never has to deal with! So it’s not all easy for a writer to shift to direction,” he grins. “One thing you can do well as a writer-director is probably the fact that you would have a better command over all the on the spot changes that are needed to be made in the script.”
Which of your experiences would you care to share with aspiring writer members of SWA?
“I would say, read a lot. And have the discipline to write. Also, don't feel shy and apologetic about asking for what you deserve, be it the credit or money! And one of the most important things I have learnt is - if you can’t make money through writing immediately, don’t hesitate in doing other jobs in the film world that will give you financial stability, so that you can keep writing on the side,” he signs off.