- Punam Mohandas
- 07 October 2019
"I believe collaboration improves writing."
SWA Exclusive interview with screenwriter Piyush Gupta
Piyush can’t stop smiling since ‘Chhichhore’ set the box office registers jangling, making this three hits in a row for him, following on the success of ‘Bhootnath Returns’ and ‘Dangal’ earlier. It’s an incredible feeling for any writer and he’s basking in the afterglow. We caught up with him to ask whether he thinks he’s finally arrived in the film industry, only to have him reply tongue-in-cheek that there’s no place he wished to reach!
There is a mini nucleus within the Hindi film industry today that hails from popular advertising agency Leo Burnett. Piyush has worked with Nitesh Tiwari in the same firm and is often teased about being a 'gang member'. So I tackle this with him head-on! ‘Bhootnath Returns,’ ‘Dangal,’ ‘Chhichhore’ – you’re literally the ‘Nitesh Tiwari gang'! Your bonding with him has only grown over time. Right?
Piyush laughs. “I am part of Nitesh’s gang since I first met him for an interview for the junior copywriter position at Leo Burnett. I still remember he spent over an hour discussing my work with me and that was the most amount of time anyone had ever given me! I just knew I had to join him! Luckily, he felt the same.”
With the kind of bonding and comfort (with Tiwari) that has only grown stronger with time, I next ask if he has been approached by other directors too.
“Yes, a few other directors have approached me, but nothing concrete has materialised yet,” he says candidly. “I do believe that working with new people only broadens one’s perspectives.”
The ‘Tiwari Gang’ also includes Shreyas Jain and Nikhil Mehrotra, apart from Nitesh himself, of course. Thus, I’m curious to know if Piyush is more comfortable writing individually or as part of a team? What are his strengths?
“I can’t write alone,” he says almost immediately. “Each time I have tried to do so, I have doubted every word I wrote! I believe collaboration improves writing as it brings more perspectives into the story. I usually collaborate with people who feel the same way about a subject as I do.”
Does he think his advertising career proved to be an advantage with cinematic writing?
“We all owe a great deal to advertising as we believe that the few things that set our writing apart, has all come thanks to advertising,” says Piyush honestly. “One thing that advertising hammered in us is to be able to write for people and not just for ourselves.”
What is your process of writing? How do you get an idea and then develop it?
“It invariably starts with something that moves me. Most often the process is triggered by a news article, or an event, or me browsing the internet, or even a conversation with a friend. If something moves me, I start reading more and more about it. And when I have something to say I start developing the story,” he states.
While conceptualising a character, do you also keep a certain actor in mind while fleshing it out?
“Nopes!” His answer is quick and categorical. “Very early on, Nitesh taught us to avoid this temptation. He would always say that the best way to develop a character is to let it fly. Eventually, if you write something original, a star too would agree to play the character.”
After ‘Dangal,’ it’s taken you a while to come up with ‘Chhichhore.’ The movie is about a bunch of college friends and tracks their stories through later life as well… careers, marriages, children, tragedies. Was it a very challenging script to tackle? How did you conceive this idea?
“Honestly, Chhichhore wasn’t an easy script to develop. The film operates on two timelines and has multiple characters. We went bonkers keeping track of all of them! But it was fun. Nitesh, Nikhil and I conceived the film just the way we conceive most of the things we do - with a few cups of tea and some moments from our life!”
Did he expect the film to do as well as it did at the box office?
“I don’t remember any of us even discussing about box office at any point in time,” says Piyush contemplatively. “Since it was our very next after ‘Dangal,’ we were consumed with only one thought – we hope people like it.”
‘Dangal’ went on to become the fifth highest grossing non-English film and the highest grossing sports film internationally, as also the highest grossing non-English foreign film in China. So does Piyush finally feel that he’s 'arrived' as it were, in the Hindi film industry, with all three of his feature films having done well?
“I haven’t arrived ‘cause there’s no place I wished to reach!” he laughs. “I love writing stories and I am thankful that this profession allows me to do so. Anything more is a bonus!”
Much like his mentor Tiwari, Piyush too still dabbles with ad copy. Does he plan to give up ad copywriting now that he’s so busy with films?
“I am still pretty much involved with advertising as I run my branding agency called Drink Water Design and write ads for our clients. The main difference between the writing of the two is the length, with films obviously being longer,” he says.
Copywriting or scriptwriting - what’s closest to his heart today?
“Movies have always been my first love. I got into advertising wanting to get into movies, so not much has changed in that regard!” he states.
Piyush is inspired by work of the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherji and Raj Kumar Hirani, because he feels one doesn’t just watch their films, one lives them. Today, biopics seem to be the order of the day as far as the Indian film industry is concerned. What does he think the essential parameters would be to keep in mind while writing a biopic versus pure fiction?
Piyush absolutely nails it when he says: “A biopic is a film the story of which is already cracked. It is important to keep in mind that you need to capture the spirit of the person and not the events in his or her life. Eventually, a biopic can’t be boring at the cost of accuracy.”
Direction seems the next most logical step. Is he so inclined?
“Yes, I suppose it is a natural next step,” he muses. “Writing allows one to create a world on paper; direction allows one to present this world to the world. I would love to do so (direct) but only when I have a story that I (as a director) could do justice to - not before that.”