•  Punam Mohandas
    •  24 January 2020
    •  1919

    "In 2020, writers have more jam-packed calendars than most actors!”

    Screenwriter Shantanu Srivastava in an SWA Exclusive interview

    Shantanu Srivastava is best known for ‘Badhai Ho,’ one of 2018’s top grossing films, having made INR 221-crore against a budget of INR 29-crore. Rightly enough, he’s been enjoying his moment in the spotlight, even as he experiments with yet another genre professionally. Shantanu’s next is going to be a collaboration with Meghna Gulzar, slated to roll in 2021. In spite of all his commitments, this affable, extremely versatile writer adheres strictly to his word and actually delivered this interview well before the deadline – a joy for any interviewer!

    ‘Badhai Ho’ was such an unexpected box office bonanza; with two senior actors such as Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao playing the lead roles as it were, nobody thought the film would set such an unprecedented trend of love and acceptance and warm the hearts of audiences across the country. In fact, the movie also waltzed away with two National awards, for Best Popular Film and Best Supporting Actress (for Surekha Sikri.) Although I recall reading somewhere that Shantanu had mentioned in a previous interview he and co-writer Akshat Ghildial drew parallels from their own lives and people they knew, nonetheless, did he anticipate the film would be such a success both among the classes as well as the masses? “It was a surreal feeling, to see our film get so much love from the critics and the audience,” Shantanu declares fervently. “While I never thought it would become such a bit hit, Akshat never really had a doubt about how well it would be received.”

     

    The casting too was absolutely apt. Did you have a say in it? Did you flesh out some of the characters based on an actor you envisioned would fit the part?

    “The first character to be written was the daadi and both of us had Surekha Sikri in mind,” he ruminates. “We kept pushing for her and Amit (Amit Sharma, the director) relented finally. Also, Amit really did take our suggestions during the casting process. And no, we didn’t have any actor in mind while writing the characters. But we got lucky with the casting.”

     

    Shantanu is now working on penning his first biopic, on no less an iconic figure and a hero for the country than Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw! Vicky Kaushal has already been signed to play the lead. From a heartwarming, middle-class story with comic overtones to profiling the life of perhaps the greatest soldier India has ever known – how difficult is the transition in thought process? “It hasn’t been really difficult,” he muses. “Every story has a different vibe, style and narrative and, as we consume different stories seamlessly, so it is pretty much the same as we delve in to newer stories to tell.”

     

    Still, it’s never easy writing a true account on someone’s life, what to retain and what to omit, I persist. What are the essential parameters to observe when penning a biopic?

    “I personally believe in creating a character box for the personality based on research and popular myths/stories about him/her. If it is aligned with what we have researched and is cinematic, it goes into the box and becomes a part of the narrative,” Shantanu explains. Director Meghna Gulzar shares the same opinion as she stated that her film was not a chronological record but rather, picked out crucial incidents of the Field Marshal’s life and career.

     

    What is it like collaborating with Meghna Gulzar and, even more awe-inspiring, her father, the legendary Gulzar saahab? Did you ever feel intimidated?

    “Meghna is far from intimidating,” says Shantanu immediately. “A really endearing person, she is someone who is a perfectionist at the same time. The opportunity to work with her and learn from her was huge and I grabbed it with the enthusiasm of a child. I have learnt so much from her and Bhavani Iyer (writer of ‘Raazi.’) I also got an opportunity to meet Gulzar Saahab, albeit for a few minutes, and yes, that is intimidating! I mean, I don’t remember a single day of my life when I have not heard, hummed or thought about his work! He enters the room like the sun and warms everyone and everything. He is a part of our collective existence!”

     

    I touch gingerly on a somewhat sensitive topic now and ask Shantanu about his debut effort, ‘Tevar’ which did not fare well and he readily admits that he and Amit made some mistakes with their first film. Despite a rock-steady Manoj Bajpai in the cast and a fresh, on-her-way-up Sonakshi Sinha, the movie failed to create even a ripples at the box office. How does he handle criticism and failure? “While the film didn’t work, my dialogues were appreciated so there was some solace there,” he says honestly. “But the next six months were tough and I surrounded myself with people who believed in me, so it helped a lot.”

     

    Film writers have long – and sometimes unsuccessfully – campaigned for their rights and recognition but now, even some generous and mature actors, directors and a more aware audience, are giving credit where it is due. Do you believe writers too should be given their due when a film marks its success? In your opinion, is this mindset of the film industry’s changing now, with newer writers who are more versatile as well as vociferous? “Writers have always been treated well and have been given their credit,” Shantanu says roundly. “And right - as they say, it’s the age of the writers and technicians. In 2020, writers and technicians have more jam-packed calendars than most actors!” he prophesies with gusto.

     

    Shantanu has primarily worked on a television series like ‘Dharmakshetra’, set in the aftermath of the 18-day battle of the Mahabharata, with each episode having only one character take centre stage. Does he think it is easier to relate stories through the medium of television simply because of the time span it allows? “I have never thought about writing for different platforms as separate processes,” he ponders. “The only criteria is that the journey has to be exciting; both for me, as well as for everyone who watches it.”

     

    The digital media has captured everybody’s attention and literally brought the cinema experience into living rooms. Shantanu too has written a couple of web series before attempting film scriptwriting with ‘Tevar’. His web series, ‘Rasbhari’ set in mall-town Meerut and starring Swara Bhaskar, competed at the Series Mania International Festival in France last year in the ‘Short Forms Competition,’ alongside entries like ‘Hell is Other People’ from Denmark, ‘Fourchette’ from Canada and ‘Break Up’ from France. The other web series he wrote, ‘Kaushiki’ was a thriller, with Sayani Gupta in the lead. Quite logically, therefore, I ask him - what’s your take on digital platforms? “Digital platforms offer the audience a wide buffet of stories which are all customised for different palates. I have written three web series and am working on a couple of really exciting series ahead,” concludes Shantanu on this tantalizing bit of news.

    Punam Mohandas is a film buff, a journalist, an author, an accomplished travel writer and an expert on South Asia. She also writes columns on film personalities. She has lived and worked in India, Dubai and Bangkok.