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Satyanshu Singh, director, scriptwriter: ‘If you stay in the race, you will win’

How much of your early life in Bihar comes into your work?

The first feature film that I wrote and directed, Chintu Ka Birthday, is set in Iraq with Bihari characters. A lot of quirks, dialect-related nuances, mannerisms, the family equation, and the warmth and idiosyncrasies that I observed while growing up in the small town of Munger in Bihar came into the film. Biharis loved the portrayal. This is great because, over the years, there have been many stereotypes associated with Bihar and Biharis. The film, in a way, challenges that. Many of my projects have a connection with Bihar. Initially, I thought that maybe I am limiting myself but because of the richness and the nuance that I am able to bring and the ease with which it allows me to write, I don’t mind this anymore.

Tell me about those wonderful poems from Udaan. Did you write them for the character?

I have written three poems for Udaan, and each has its own story. Joote kaha utare the is my favourite. I wrote it in three to four minutes when I was graduating from AFMC, Pune (Armed Forces Medical College). I was making a feature film for my batch mates and planned a poem for the climax. This was the one I wrote. When I shared it with Vikramaditya Motwane, he loved it. So that poem was not written for the film but I am so glad it was my first work for the screen. The second poem is when Rohan recites one to his father on his uncle’s insistence. The script had some themes mentioned here. But I decided to write something different. I was new in Mumbai. I was supposed to meet Vikram in Anurag Kashyap’s office in Araam Nagar one evening. I reached a little early and while waiting I discovered Versova beach, hidden behind the buildings, right next to the road. It was quite dark so I just sat on the rocks. There were people singing and playing guitar and drinking and it was a nice atmosphere. But I could not see beyond the waves crashing on the shore. The sea was dark and it merged in the darkness of the night sky. That’s when the first lines of this poem came to me: Jo leheron se aage nazar dekh paati, toh tum jaan lete main kya sochta hoon. I wrote this poem with my father in mind because I was going through my own struggles. I had given up my job as a doctor in the army to make films. This wasn’t received well by my family. That poem is a reaction to my people, my family members and my parents back home. It was perfect because it’s also Rohan’s reaction to his father. The third poem is Chandu ki cycle. It was already mentioned in the script that Rohan recites a poem for his brother Arjun, about a young boy and a cycle. I gave a name to the boy and created a story around him.

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What was the journey of your short film Tamaash; did you expect to win acclaim for it?

Tamaash is a very, very special film for Devanshu (his brother and creative collaborator) and me for many reasons. The film single handedly changed our lives. Of course, while we were making it, the idea was to only make a decent short film, to practise the craft, and to showcase our work as directors. On the last day of the shoot, our DOP Sahir Raza casually asked if we would be sending it to festivals. Until then, I hadn’t thought about it. After the shoot was done, I went back to my hotel room in Srinagar and was taking a shower, and in that moment I felt for the first time that I’m a director. It was a new feeling. I had never seen myself in that way before that. So, you see, we were not really expecting much from Tamaash. But, of course, we had worked very hard on it. And a lot of people from Mumbai and Kashmir helped us. We owe our success to all of these people. Eventually, the film brought us a lot of awards and cash prizes. Most importantly, it won us a National Award. Our parents came to Delhi to attend the ceremony. My father was finally proud of us and we resumed talking because of this film. I went back to my home town after seven years. It was like the first chapter of our life in Bombay ended well with this film. So, of course, it’s very special to us.

Chintu Ka Birthday took 12 years to be made. Did you start seeing the original script differently over the years and did you make changes during the process?

The first draft of Chintu ka Birthday was written when I was 23, in medical college, and my brother was 22. Although it was received very well by whoever read the script, I remember that after a couple of years, and a few drafts, we started feeling that it was not very good. Then, almost four years after it was written, the script was revived. It took another year for the script to reach a stage where we were very happy with it. But the film wasn’t made for another five years. We kept improving it. The final draft that was shot was, hence, written over 10 years. I must underline the fact that although the script was ready to be made in five years, the work that we put in over the next five years really elevated it. In fact, the shooting script that we made over the last three months before the shoot had some of the most beautiful moments in the film. However, there are many things in the final film that were present in the very first draft of Chintu ka Birthday, including the song situation where Chintu’s mom sings followed by the blast, the opening shot of the cake, the Garden of Eden animation that starts film, and the final scene when nani talks about Raktbeej. Many of the key moments never changed. The number of characters did not change. That’s because the setting is so limited – it’s just one house and a few hours over one day. The script kept evolving, but there were many, many things that were present since the first draft.

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Promotional material

Did it become easier to do the kind of work you want to do after Chintu Ka Birthday?

Actually, the kind of work that we want to do is a question we are still trying to answer because both Devanshu and I don’t really see ourselves doing just one kind of film. If you ask me, what my kind of film is, I am not very sure. But yeah, Chintu ka Birthday is a good representation of the kind of work we want to do. And the film, of course, has given us credibility and the industry takes us seriously. But as of now, we are just grappling with different story ideas, and doing different kinds of projects. We are still trying to figure out things.

How difficult is it for a young writer to find work in Hindi cinema? Any advice you’d like to give them?

I have a very clear answer to this question. If you want to be a classical musician, you will not expect to work for money until you have put in 10 to 15 years of solid practice. That’s the bare minimum. If you want to be a doctor who is hired by good hospitals or who has a reputation, you would put in 10 to 15 years of education and practice. If you want to be a sportsperson who makes a living through sports, you would spend many, many years trying to become a skilful sportsperson. And there are many careers like these. If you want to be a credible lawyer, you want to be a credible politician, you want to be a painter, you want to be a dancer, an architect, a scientist — you spend a minimum of one and a half decades to train yourself. The advice that I have for young writers is that you prepare yourself to go through this 15-year-long training. If you’re expecting anything to work out sooner than this, then sure, you may, but don’t feel entitled to a response from the industry. If you work hard for 15 years, you will definitely be noticed. I think the biggest mantra for success here is longevity. If you stay in the race, you will win. Most people quit. And if you quit, obviously, you will lose.

I also feel that you should write your first feature film as soon as possible. Don’t wait for any education. Don’t wait for anything. Just write your first feature film. Meanwhile, also keep educating yourself through screenwriting courses or school or workshops or YouTube videos or books, but don’t wait to write your first feature. And then write your second feature. And then the third. And keep writing for 15 years. I also think that you should not quit your job. You should always have a way to sustain yourself. If you’re a lawyer, if you have a corporate job, don’t quit it. Make time to write irrespective of your job. And try to write films across different genres. Because when you make someone read your script, while judging the script, they are mostly judging you too. They may not be interested in producing that script. But they will be interested in hiring you as a writer. So initially, the first few scripts that you write, try to write across different genres. This should not sound harsh. I started with examples of sports persons and artists and musicians and doctors, because I really, really disapprove of the entitlement that a lot of writers have. Having written a few short films, or having written a few sketches, or a few short stories or magazine articles, they expect to get work in the industry. That’s a wrong approach. Write long-form. Write features. Write web series and pilot episodes. And just keep doing this one after another. Keep improving your work for many, many years. This is the only way to reach anywhere.

Do you think screenwriting can be taught? What has been your experience of teaching it and why did you decide to teach?

I most definitely think that screenwriting can be taught. Whether you take a course or read the books and material available and teach it to yourself is a choice. But one-hundred percent screenwriting must be learnt. Unlike poetry or say music, screenwriting is not an instinctive art. It involves a lot of method and craft and there is so much to learn about how it interacts with various other aspects of a film.

I started teaching screenwriting because when I started learning screenwriting on my own, I was amazed by the craft of it, the science behind it, and the different tools and techniques that people have already discovered. I was amazed by it, and I just wanted to share it with people. It also helped me master the concepts. But then I realised that I was good at it. In any case, as you wait for your films to be made, you do things to sustain yourself. You either become an ad filmmaker or you write for others. I realised that this is something that I like to do and it has proved to be very profitable to me. I’m very thankful to the hundreds and thousands of students who have paid money to attend my lectures. And it has become a wonderful parallel earning option for me. Of course, as I kept teaching, teaching itself as a craft has revealed a lot of nuances and joys to me. Teaching has also helped me connect with hundreds of people from across the world. So I would like to keep doing this all my life.

Are script labs useful to writers? Tell me about heading First Draft.

The biggest advantage of being noticed at a script lab is just that – of being noticed, of getting a stamp of approval that out of hundreds of entries, you made it to the top few. Script Labs also bring you face to face with mentors, which is great because, as I said, when people read a script, they are also interested in the writer, irrespective of the script. At First Draft, we create different kinds of courses. We did six-month residency courses for screenwriters, we keep doing one-day workshops, and presently, I’m doing a two-year fellowship for directors. That is very different from a script lab. A script lab generally has limited commitment, but what we do at First Draft, apart from workshops, is long-term courses using which we train screenwriters and directors. The experience has been wonderful. First Draft has always been received very well and enthusiastically by aspiring screenwriters and directors and I have met some wonderful talent and made some amazing friends in the process. I intend to keep bringing different versions of First Draft so that more aspiring writers and directors can get opportunities to learn and to enter the film industry and then reach out to the right kind of people who can enable them to tell their stories.

“My love for Lagaan is now quite well known. So it looks like Lagaan is my favourite film of all time.” - Satyanshu Singh (Publicity material)
“My love for Lagaan is now quite well known. So it looks like Lagaan is my favourite film of all time.” – Satyanshu Singh (Publicity material)

Was cinema always your first choice a writer? Did you start writing films because you wanted to direct films?

I developed a love for cinema very early in my life and by the time I was 14, I was already interested in how the medium is used to tell stories. So, cinema as a storytelling medium has fascinated me all my life. Of course, the craft of screenwriting is something that I discovered late. I wanted to make films, but I couldn’t afford a camera or a laptop. So I started writing because writing doesn’t require anything except paper and pen. I eventually realised that screenwriting for me is a ritual, which I need to do. I have been doing it for about 15-16 years. I think, another 10 years and I’ll be good at it.

What are your favourite films and who are your favourite filmmakers?

My love for Lagaan is now quite well known. So it looks like Lagaan is my favourite film of all time. My favourite filmmaker of all time is Krzysztof Kieslowski, the great Polish master. I especially idolise him because of how late he bloomed. The last five years of his life were when he did his best work. So all his life, he kept improving, until he reached that stage. I don’t see myself as a filmmaker who starts great. I think I will eventually learn and grow and become a competent filmmaker. And that’s why Krzysztof Kieslowski is my favourite. Among the filmmakers who are currently working, Richard Linklater is my absolute favourite, mostly because of his tone, of how he deals with relationships, his use of perception of time, and also because of his independent spirit. It’s so inspiring to see him repeatedly make films that are small and contained.

How much creative control or say does a screenwriter have in a film?

I think creative control is not the right objective when it comes to films, even for a director. It’s good to have a certain creative freedom. But to have absolute authorship — cinema is not that medium. You can write a blog or you can tweet or you can write a novel. I think creative collaboration is what writers should look for. Writers should look at the value and the opportunities collaboration brings, the wonderful scope of creating something special with the help of other great artists around you. But that doesn’t mean you are not responsible for what you write. There is a lot of responsibility that a film writer has to fulfil. Screenwriters who understand this easily and sooner than others tend to thrive. But those screenwriters who are extremely possessive of their creative control, they may have a tough time in the industry.

If you had 100 crore, what kind of a film would you make?

If I had 100 crores I would not make one film. I would actually make 10 to 12 films using this money, and the budgets of these films would range from 25 crores to two crores. I don’t take money for granted. Chances of breaking even are high if you make more films. The idea should be to earn that money back, so that you can keep making films. Also, personally, I would not direct more than one or two. I would produce all the films, and I would invite wonderful writers and directors to come and share this money. So that different people get the opportunity to tell their stories. That would create a community and that would enable a lot of people to fulfil their dreams. It would also enable a lot of technicians and actors and generate so much employment. Cinema is a very expensive form of human expression and we cannot take money for granted. So perhaps this is not the most artistic or romantic way of answering this question. But when it comes to cinema, you have to have a pragmatic approach.

Apart from earning a livelihood, is there a reason why you write?

I’m very clear why I write. I write not because I’m great at it. I write because it’s a ritual. It’s like if I keep writing, then after 25 years of writing, I will perhaps become a good writer. So I write because this is the only way for me to learn writing and to solve the mysteries of story, and to learn this craft. And since it’s a ritual, I don’t really write to make money. I like writing on spec because making money through writing is a dangerous proposition. It may force you to be insecure; it may force you to unnecessarily compromise on your work. I would rather make money through other means and keep writing every day not to make money but as a ritual. I don’t think I write to prove a point. I don’t think I write to earn fame. I think I write only to master the craft. I’m very sure about that.

Do you think Hindi cinema is an industry averse to critical analysis?

I think whatever I say, however I answer this question, I will create trouble for myself. But I think in general, human beings are averse to criticism. We Indians are very averse to criticism. So yes, Hindi cinema is an industry averse to critical analysis. But the problem is bigger than that. There are very few critics who actually are equipped to have that kind of knowledge or understanding of the medium, just as there are a lot of people who call themselves screenwriters and directors without having any understanding of that. I feel that all of us filmmakers, directors, writers, as well as critics, have to take this collective responsibility of first trying to learn. I’m using the pronoun “we” very consciously. I need to work on my craft and all our fellow filmmakers need to work on their craft and all our critics need to work on their craft. And once that is there, then we’ll understand the importance of criticism. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. But that’s what should ideally be the case.

If you had only up to three words to describe yourself, what would they be?

A “film buff” is what I would like to call myself. Everything else is just a projection of that. Nothing is bigger than that. I want to celebrate films. I want to write, direct, watch, and support cinema and filmmakers.

Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.

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