Films | Artist Interviews | Monsoon Wedding, Kaminey, Ishqiya – Three Distinct Gems, One Distinguished Writer

Monsoon Wedding, Kaminey, Ishqiya – Three Distinct Gems, One Distinguished Writer

Posted by Vivek on February 25, 2010 | No Comments

Sabrina Dhawan was a college student in Columbia University, when she presented the script of Monsoon Wedding to Mira Nair. From there on this film won the fancy of the entire nation and became one of the highest grossing movie of it’s times. Not one to repeat things, Sabrina, went on to write the critically acclaimed, Cosmopolitan and then late last year and early in 2010, two wonderful Bollywood gems, Kaminey and Ishqiya, both of which have revolutionized the concept of traditional Bollywood and yet both have gone on to become commercial success. If that is not all, Sabrina, is on the full time faculty of screenwriting at NYU. So how does this talented writer come out with such diverse and interesting writing? Read on:

You seem to get into the psyche of the cities really well. Delhi in Monsoon Wedding, Mumbai in Kaminey and Gorakhpur in Ishqiya, how does someone sitting in New York accomplish that?
Well I grew up in Delhi , before it became the Delhi of today. Culturally, Delhi now is very removed from where rural India is, but growing up in that city  it was very much a part of my life. My mother came from Lucknow, so that was part of me. In Ishqiya the details of Gorakhpur were really not mine, that was more Abhishek and Vishal, I probably would not be able to write a modern small town now, as I could in a way, perhaps ten to fifteen years ago. So I do write what I really know. Delhi I know very well, New York I somewhat know. I’m sure it’s a matter of upbringing.

Vishal Bhardwaj and Mira Nair, two ends of a creative spectrum, how was it collaborating with these two, as a writer?
Other than the fact that they were both wonderful experiences, in practical person every person is different and has a distinct style. Also the nature of what I was doing was different. With Monsoon Wedding I had already written the script, as a first draft, before I showed it to Mira. She then became involved as directors generally are, and the script is developed. But she got involved at that post first draft point. With Vishal he already had a script, which sort of needed working and I came in at a point where there already was a first draft. All directors think and approach material differently. Mira thinks much more in visual director sense, what the setting will be, will this look good, how would you see it. Vishal started off actually telling stories, so he looks at it much more like, does the story make sense. For both music is very important, both are incredibly astute about casting, so some differences and some similarities in working with both.

You teach screenwriting at NYU, how does that help and harm your real world screenwriting ?
The way it helps is, as a writer a lot of your lives are very solitary, you sort of work on your own, unlike directors or producers wherein you just have to be in the midst of other people. Screenwriting you pretty much do on your own and then later on people get involved. When I teach it breaks the solitariness. It is also a little bit of part of being Desi. The loneliness gets to me a little bit, so although I teach two days a week, when I happen to go out on those two days, being around young writers who are not cynical. I mean you go into film, initially for no other reason other than you feel passionate about it. Cause it’s not the most stable or steady of life. After a while the routine sets in and you become cynical about this entire process. On the other hand, being with young writers who are so energetic, who are so committed to telling their story, there is a lot of purity in that which is very energizing and very inspiring. That I love about teaching.  It sort of feeds into my own sense of energy. For the most part it is more helpful than not, the way it is not helpful is managing my time. I almost have no time for anything.  So between writing deadlines, teaching, plus the administration and deadlines tend to happen at the same time and week, then of course I go insane J

Is there a director in you?
You know what, YES ! When I first decided that I wanted to be in the movie business , given that I did not come from that world, I always thought that’s what I would do…direct. I came to film school in Columbia to do precisely that. It just sort of happened that it became quite apparent that I had the ability to write. I hadn’t seen a screenplay before I came to film school. But I did well in my writing classes and then I wrote Monsoon Wedding and Mira saw it and from then that, sort of naturally became my career  and the work I got was in writing. My next step in my fantasy world is to go back and direct. I’ve worked on a lot of scripts that haven’t become movies, cause as a writer you often get paid to write a movie, but it doesn’t necessarily become a movie, due to other factors that are out of your control. Directors have told me that I write like a director, in that I write things as I see them happening and what I see people doing. So yes, absolutely, that’s why I started doing this. I mean I like writing a lot, but yes, I would also like to direct. I did do a short film when I was in film school, called Sanjh, that was also how I met Mira, it was a 20 minute short  and it won a whole lot of awards, like film festivals and got nominated for the student Academy awards.  Then Monsoon Wedding happened and that launched me more on the writing career.

Till now you have done an Indian story, an Indian American (Cosmopolitan ) story, now any desire to do a full on mainstream American story, given that you have spent considerable part of your life in the USA?
A few years ago, that would have been easy for me to answer and I would have said, “of course,” “absolutely.” “I’ve lived in America for 12 years and I don’t want to get pigeonholed as just an Indian writer, I want to do other things .” But what I’ve found as I have gotten older and now that I have been writing for almost a decade, is that, the truth of it is that no matter how much I would want to resist it, the stories that I am really excited about writing, deal with Indians whether that be the Diaspora, whether in an Inter cultural way, come from India. Those are the stories I want to write about. They are the people I instinctively understand. The advantage of writing for the mainstream America is definitely the financial gain aspect. I mean Indian American films like Cosmopolitan and Bolllywood Hero, are very small films, with lower budget and have smaller audiences. So it would be good if I did that and I would be writing much more for a North American audience, but it just seems to interest me less.

Kaminey, Ishqiya, both these are “new Bollywood.” Does new Bollywood offer your more opportunities than the traditional setting ?
Of course, absolutely, because you know when there are different kinds of films being made, you can write stories, the Mumbai term for that is “hat ke.” But I ‘m also very interested in mainstream Bollywood films, cause that’s what I grew up with. Manmohan Desai and Yash Chopra, that whole culture of cinema and it’s not like it’s easy to tell those stories or write in that form. It’s a combination of factors, one is that, there are these new kind of films being made, that makes it possible, then the Censor board has evolved in India, so you can write material without worrying about that part of conflict. The rise of the multiplex and the metro makes it financially possible to make those kind of films. You couldn’t really do that earlier. The parallel cinema movement of the 70’s was small, it made no money which is why it went away. Also because of the multiplex more movies are being made, which correlates to more opportunities. And then you also meet people with a similar sensibility.

Any interest in writing for Television in India?

No, I cannot stand Indian Television. American Television I’d be very interested in, it has become so interesting and they do such amazingly good work in it, but I can’t even bear to watch most Indian TV. Interestingly in India, the movies have gone more interesting and Television has really deteriorated. One time we had some interesting stuff like Hum Log and Buniyaad and Khandaan, there was really good Television and now it’s just crap serials.  In the US it’s gone the other way around and Television has become really smart and interesting.

Upcoming projects that you can talk about?
The big one is an adaptation of Monsoon Wedding, for Broadway. These producers are big producers in Mumbai , bought the rights for the movie, so that is what I am currently writing. It is hard cause I’ve never written for the stage before. Broadway musicals are also a more specific form of writing plays.  So that’s the big thing I’m working on right now. It is scheduled to potentially play in Broadway in 2012. Of course keep in mind it is hard to say for sure, since there are a number of writes and rehearsals and then get the space to put it on, cause things are booked for years in advance so 2012 is tentative at best.

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