SANJAY TALREJA – IS THERE A STORY TO TELL HERE?
Posted by Vivek on November 22, 2009 | No Comments
DO SCRIPTWRITING TECHNIQUES AS TAUGHT BY WESTERN TEACHERS, PRIMARILY WITH HOLLYWOOD AS A FOCUS, WORK IN INDIA?
Throwing light on this is writer and director and a former Senior Faculty – Screenwriting Department, Whistling Woods International, Sanjay Talreja.
Sanjay has taught filmmaking and scriptwriting in Canada, the US, and lately, in India. Sanjay has worked as a writer, editor and is an accomplished filmmaker himself. He has made numerous documentaries, one of which was funded partially by the Soros (later Sundance) fund.
In 2005, Sanjay wrote and directed a documentary for the National Film Board of Canada, Cricket and The Meaning of Life; in 2007, he produced the `Manufacturing Dreams’ episode for the India Reborn series made by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
He is also working on various scripts.
Over to Sanjay:
Are the skill sets one learns about scriptwriting in the West from folks like Syd Field applicable in the context of the Indian film industry? I’m wondering about the current scenario, not where we want to take our film industry but where it stands now?
They are useful but the question is how useful they are. One can’t blindly transpose, because finally a script and a story arises from a cultural context. It comes from experience, it comes from people’s lives, and it comes from what is happening around you. In other words, a story comes from the world you know and live in. It seems obvious to state that Hollywood or the US is not the world that Indians live in. We live in an Indian world and Indian stories and scripts have to respect all aspects of that. So a writer cannot merely take American ideas of the way stories have to be told and think these ideas, techniques, issues of characterisation, pace, rhythm, emotion be blindly applied.
Unfortunately, in the last twenty, twenty-five years, scripts coming from mainstream Hollywood have put the accent on speed, on uni-dimensional characters. Script writing has become somewhat simplistic elements by doing such things as hooking the audience in so many pages, by stating that by so and so page you should have the end of Act 1, etc…
I think all of that is useful, but one can’t use it just as a formula, because finally, mechanics cannot be applied to telling complex stories. That is sounding abstract but people experience lives differently in different parts of the world and scripts have to reflect that reality.
So the question is how and why things work across cultures and what can be carried over. Arguably, what people like Syd Field have done is talk about story in general and they have drawn upon an American cultural sensibility in doing so. Unfortunately, many people have assumed that these notions will be applicable all over.
But script works differently in distinct parts of the world. Hollywood has global pretensions for a long, long time. For a long time, a lot of folks in Hollywood thought that their film language was universal film language and therefore their techniques, stories, acting performances were the yardstick for everyone.
Indian producers did not suffer from this disease until very recently. They made films almost exclusively for Indian audiences – songs, multiple characters, a whole bagful of emotions and sentiments, masala elements with a bit of this and that, logic that does not conform to western logic – these were all elements that Indian films used, not pretending or even caring if the films were meant for a worldwide audience. But these worked for Indian audiences because these elements sprang from our lives and sensibilities.
In fact, it has been proved that even those within North America who tried to more or less blindly follow what they understood from Syd Field, those people have failed. I think Syd Field has argued himself that people have been silly in the way they interpret the book.
Let’s take the argument the other way. You have someone like a Shekhar Kapur who had his training in India and now makes films for the world. So can our scripts and the techniques that are Indian, appeal to the West, or at least appeal to the audience that is outside of Indians?
Absolutely, not only our scripts, but an Italian, a Japanese… any script is capable of doing that. Audiences all over the world are curious how other people live, what makes them tick… if a story is well told, even if it comes from a different place or sensibility, people will take the trouble to understand it. It is the story that has to take them along.
For example, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali was a small film about local issues and the lives of ordinary people, but the story had a universal resonance – it was about children, families, changing circumstances, poverty, how people were trying to cope with a rapidly altering world. Add to that, was the fact that it came from a director who was acutely conscious of a different sense of rhythm and a different sense of time… and the film resonated across the world.
And the same applies to many filmmakers – you look at the work of Kurosawa, many Iranian directors, look at a film like Central Station, in many respects a brilliantly written, directed and acted film, a very Brazilian story but which nevertheless works for audiences the world over. So, yes I think our stories can appeal to a very wide, maybe global audience. However, if one seeks to merely make a Hollywood style product and story by just putting an Indian setting, I’m pretty sure it is not going to entirely work.
Someone like a Ram Gopal Verma has said that people who get trained in educational institutions in scriptwriting and directing, have a hard time adapting to the real world, your thoughts on that?
There are a lot of great writers who have never been to film or writing school.
But we live in a totally media saturated world. Because of the plethora of films and the sheer volume of films, many of which seem like clones of each other and then disappear into a great void, it’s become increasingly evident that films need to be written by writers who have writing skills but are also grappling with the language, history of cinema. And the best place to get that knowledge is to go to a film or writing school.
Almost immediately, students learn that story telling is not about, `I have a brilliant idea and I can do it myself’; and they understand when they actually get down to doing it, writing a script is very hard work. They find out that translating a concept to a script is almost like sweating blood.
Students become acutely aware that their stories need to go through numerous stages in order to produce a final script. They discover that even as the writer needs to preserve his or her original idea, a script cannot be written in the first draft or it doesn’t just come out of your mouth. They realise that ti’s not the first thing that you write, but perhaps the hundredth thing that you write that will make the script come together. After all, most writing is actually re-writing.
So I think structured teaching is good because it forces the student to grapple with the process of how stories are made. Many students end up saying, “I did not realize that stories spring from a kind of mythological framework”, or end up realizing that there are some genre conventions which are very important to understand.
After a good writing program, a lot of students actually walk away thinking that, yes, it is possible to write a script. Without that knowledge, without the benefit of the experience of learning from the successes and mistakes of others, it can seem like a very hard mountain to climb.
Once students learn something about the craft, they can then focus their energies on telling the stories that are important to them. Otherwise, without that knowledge, they end up almost having to reinvent the wheel.
You cannot merely become a writer because you love cinema, you cannot become a director because you love cinema. Everybody loves cinema – it is the most important art form of the last one hundred years – but you have to have something to say. And then you have to work at getting the skill to say it…
So back to the question – the answer is, yes, one can learn from the gurus and from writing programs but one has to eventually remember that scriptwriting can be learned but it cannot be taught. Finally, people have to learn it on their own. And it can only be learned by doing it over and over again. But writing cannot be imitated, copied, transposed, no formulae can be applied to writing.
When you were in India teaching this time, who were the writers, from the Indian system who really impressed you, as in with their breadth of knowledge, their mastery of the craft, etc?
This is a hard question since there are so many brilliant people working in India and naming a few would mean ignoring so many others. I can only speak of Hindi cinema because I don’t know too much about other Indian cinemas although they are equally vibrant and dynamic. Names that quickly come to mind are K Abbas, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar. Of the more recent ones, there’s Vishal Bhardwaj not only through his conversations, but through his superb films; there’s Anjum Rajabali – not only do the films he has written have political and social urgency and his understanding of writing is phenomenal, but his ability to explain the craft of writing to make students understand is also incredible; there’s Jaideep Sahni who has his finger on the pulse of a rapidly changing country… there’s Rensil D’Silva… the list could be very long.
The unfortunate part is that many not so big name writers seem to have their arms twisted to write certain things in a predictable way. One big reason is that a lot of the producers seem to be so seduced by grand locations, big stars, choreography of the shots, of the cinematography, the lighting – making the film look very visually sophisticated … if the producer is caught in so many optics and so many big-budget decisions, he often does not want to take big risks in story telling and there is pressure on the writer to give the same old, same old. So you end up with all the glitz, glamour but no story. More and more so, audiences are responding by not coming in to watch these kinds of stories. How much icing can you eat if there’s no cake?
Until very recently in India, we never had a formal scriptwriting education, so how did people get by, how did so many films get made, stories told and what was the process till now?
People have been telling each other stories for thousands of years. India, like many other countries of the world, draws upon a diverse and ancient tradition of story telling. Our lives are full of myths, fables, of lived experiences. Writers instinctively draw upon this repertoire of stories. Cinema is relatively new, approximately hundred and ten years old so there are a whole lot of stories to draw from and people have always been able to do that.
Apart from myths, fables, people also led full and vigorous lives. For instance, in the nineteen forties and fifties, many Indians participated in the freedom struggle and were attempting to understand life in a newly independent country. In this respect, writers were like other people of that period - really engaged in life. Writers had something to say and there were audiences there to receive it. Audiences wanted and received a cinema that reflected their own lives, but they also wanted it in a form that was Indian. That is, they wanted drama, suspense, action, song. Even if they were making mass cinema for large audiences, film-makers and writers — from Raj Kapoor or Vijay Anand, from Bimal Roy to K. Asif – were telling stories and tales grounded in India.
But the most important point I keep returning to is writers have to have something to say. And that something has to come from living, reading, thinking, reflecting. If all your life has been spent watching movies or television or playing video games, and if you’ve really not experienced the world, if you’ve not lived a full life, then very likely you are forming your views from what you’ve seen on screen. Audiences all over the world now are rejecting that, or at least they want to watch a much more sophisticated retelling of that.
Let us talk about television writing in India, what’s your take on where it is now?
Whatever little I saw did not interest me much. It felt like a rehash, where you watch one and you’ve seen them all. The majority of the soaps are about the anxieties of a society that is being rapidly transformed. And they concentrate on the family dynamics in that situation. On the one hand, there’s space because TV soaps seem to explore something that has rarely been explored before – the institution of the Indian family – and asking questions of the very nature of the family.
On the other hand, one sees such an idealized and mythologized version of the family that it actually reeks of great dishonesty. While we are asking questions which we should be, we are not addressing them in an honest fashion.
So I’m confused as to whether any progress has been made. I would say that in fact the older stuff like Karamchand, Nukkad, Buniyad, those programs had much more diversity in content, in terms of representing different classes, different experiences.
Since you are also a director, this is a question I had asked your friend Rensil D’ Silva, why this obsession with directors to write, especially when their forte is directing as opposed to writing, more in Mumbai or India that we have this?
It puzzles me greatly – the writer doesn’t say I’m a director, then why would a director want to say I’m a writer? I think the issue is a lot of people are not willing to let go. Going back to what I said earlier, merely because you have an idea, doesn’t make you a writer. Having an idea is great, but the question is what do you do with the idea?
A concept that there are two gangsters and they are on the run from the law, does that make you a writer? Or, have you only come up with the concept?
If you’ve actually hammered the script out, gone through the stages, worked through different drafts, deeply contributed to it’s development, done very, very serious work on the dialogues, if you’ve done all those things, as opposed to merely giving feedback, then yes, you are writing and directing. If not, let go of that territory, it’s not your business and not your skill. You’re not showing you are a gigantic intellectual by saying I’m a writer.
You’ve done a fair share of documentaries, gotten funded by the Soros Fund, the Sundance Fund, National Film Board of Canada. Being a documentary filmmaker, is almost being like a journalist. Does documentary film-making help you in writing stories for features?
I think so. There are a lot of wonderful people working in features who have not done documentary and they have produced amazing stories. Also, there’s no denying that audiences are looking for fun, fantasy and escapist stuff, but I think they are also looking for some measure of realism.
I’m personally very interested in taking more or less real life events, and subtly adding many elements of drama to them. This realism doesn’t have to be mundane, grim or pessimistic, but my view is that cinema has to show peoples lives and be respectful of people – especially the contradictory, the paradoxical nature of the way we live; of our joys and sadness, of our ups and downs, how we take two steps forward and one step back, how we meander sideways, how we struggle through existence trying to make sense of the world. Also, in some sense, the real is stranger than fiction… Reality excites me way more, and I believe we should be able to reflect some of that in our cinema.
Any script ideas that are in development stage for a feature?
I do have some projects in development. One is a more or less finished script which is set partly in the US and partly in India and explores the life of an ordinary immigrant and all the drama that goes into the life of that ordinary person. I also have a fairly well developed treatment of a thriller set in India. Finally, I am writing something that looks at the world we live in today, the world of terrorism, victims, of migration, identity, loss, nostalgia…
Sanjay Talreja is NOT on facebook.
He is working on setting up his own website which should be up soon.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org