Sanjeev Dutta: ‘A screenwriter may or may not help society but can destroy it’
The screenwriter of such popular films as Barfi and Life in a Metro talks about his professional journey, his collaborations, why he thinks writers can destroy society, and being influenced by Woody Allen
How did you become a screenwriter?
My childhood was good. I was born and brought up in Delhi. I was a science student and soon realized it’s not in me – you either have it or you don’t and I didn’t have it. My brothers had it but I didn’t. At the same time, I realized that although I was not good at science, I was very good at cooking up stories. That’s probably because, as a kid, I read a lot of literature. There was a public library near my house and right since the sixth or seventh standard, I used to go there a lot. There was a children’s section and then there was an adult section. The children’s section would always be crowded and I don’t like crowds so I used to go to the adult section. There, I read plenty of books without even knowing who the authors were. Later, I realized that some of those books were written by stalwarts of literature.
The good thing was that when I read those books, my judgment was not clouded by the “bigness” of the author. I didn’t like those books because I was supposed to like them; I genuinely liked them. This gave me a great faculty to differentiate between good and bad writing. Then, at college, the only place where I could smoke was the auditorium. So I went to the auditorium and became part of a group. Within three months, I became a star of the Delhi University performance circle. At that time, I was mostly known as an actor and I enjoyed it. I was also very fortunate. Very soon, I got accepted by one of Delhi’s top theatre groups. All the stalwarts of NSD and the Delhi theatre circle were in the group with me – people like Devendra Raj Ankur, Kirti Jain, Rajendra Gupta, Virendra Saxena, Manoj Pahwa, Seema Pahwa and many others. The very next year, around 1984-85, at the age of 18, after doing just one year of college, I dropped out and joined NSD.
What role did NSD play in your development as a writer?
My days at NSD were traumatic because I was not very disciplined. One reason is that I became very successful – in theatre as well as professionally - while I was still at NSD. In my summer vacation at NSD, the actor Raghubir Yadav took me to Prakash Jha. Prakash had made a pilot written by Manohar Shyam Joshi. When I saw the pilot, I told them that the idea came from The Adventures of Walter Mitty. They were shocked and asked me if I had read it and I said I had. Then they asked me to write down some ideas. In five hours, I wrote one episode and they liked it. This is how I happened to write a superhit serial called Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne while I was still a student at NSD. Suddenly I was famous and I earned a lot of money for that time. They credited me as “Associate Writer”. That fame became my curse at NSD because I took a lot of liberties. I took the notion that artists are born rebels and live a life of freedom literally. I was a rebel without a cause and broke the rules all the time. This was also the time when I realized that acting doesn’t earn you respect, but writing does. And writing was a medium where I could play all the characters in the film in five hours whereas, as an actor, I had to prepare for months to play one. So I thought why practice for so long as an actor? My mind worked faster than my body. Writing is a medium of the mind whereas acting is a medium of the body. That’s how I gave up on acting and decided to become a writer.
Now, at NSD, I didn’t agree much with people. There were two dormitories. One was full of people from a sort of upscale background. They could speak English, they were well read, they came from well-to-do families. These were people like Tigmanshu Dhulia, Kenneth Desai, Navneet Nishant and others. And the other dormitory was mine where all the poor and vernacular people stayed. People like Sitaram, Vikas Gaur, Nirmal Pande. These guys couldn’t speak English and they were all from humble backgrounds. But I was from Delhi and I could speak both Hindi and English with equal ease. So I became the leader of our dormitory. Also, as I told you, I was earning while everyone else was studying, which played a huge role. I had an inborn confidence and I became the champion of the group. I told them not to get fazed by anyone else and to back themselves. That created a rift inside the class and even among teachers. A lot of things happened and I got kicked out of NSD. Actually, I got myself kicked out because I stopped reporting to college. So, technically, I am still a student at NSD.
How did you find more work after NSD and Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne?
In 1989, I was still in Delhi and Doordarshan opened up. They invited proposals from all over the country and nine of my proposals got approved. All the shows were made and I got so much money that in 1988, I bought a car for myself. I used to take it to NSD deliberately because the director of NSD did not have a car then.
Then, in 1992, I bought a flat in Delhi from the money I was earning from writing. But I wasn’t very happy with the output. I was writing well and getting paid for it but I thought I wanted to do better. All my friends had already come to Bombay. My main circle was Tigmanshu Dhulia, Saurabh Shukla, Ashish Vidyarthi, Piyush Mishra, Shoojit Circar. We used to be part a group called Act One. Then, around 1995, Ram Gopal Verma called me. I wrote the script for what eventually would become the film Jungle. Then, through someone, I got introduced to Shekhar Suman and I wrote a serial for him called Vilayati Babu. All this happened within one year of my coming to Bombay.
Then, in the second year, I was one the writers on Movers and Shakers – India’s first standup comedy show. So I became a hit. After some time, Aanand Mahendroo “bought” me – it basically meant writing for him exclusively for a certain amount of time; it meant being paid so well that I didn’t need to work elsewhere. After that, I thought I should exclusively focus on films and I did that.
How does a screenwriter contribute to society?
First of all, a screenwriter is not bound to contribute a lot to society. Films are an indirect medium, not a direct medium. If you say, “Taking dowry is a sin”, people will understand it better if you put it directly. If I say the same thing in the form of a poem or a film, many people wouldn’t understand it. For thousands of years, we have been doing Ramleela, which has some beautiful messages. But has it changed society? Art is a beautiful way of looking at the world in the same way that a shawl is a beautiful way of protecting yourself from the cold; but it’s not the most effective way of doing that. Maybe a blanket would work better.
My personal philosophy is that a screenwriter may or may not contribute to society but they can definitely destroy it. If they keep throwing light on things that are wrong or negative, it would make for a pessimistic view of the world. I believe the light should always be on the positive aspects of life. However, to show the triumph of truth, you must show the triumph of lies before it. If a screenwriter keeps showing debauchery in Goa, you might feel Goa is all about debauchery and nothing else, which is far from the truth.
Could you walk me through the journey of writing two of your most successful films – Life in a Metro and Barfi – and your experience of collaborating with Anurag Basu?
Let me tell you about Life In a Metro first. I had written a film called Page 3. I did a lot of work on that film that I did not get credited for. But news spreads in the industry and people got to know that I played a huge role it. Now, Anurag Basu and I have known each other since our TV days. After Page 3, he asked me if I had a story. At that time, because of his health issues, he was on shaky ground in life and I was on cloud nine after the success of Page 3. I narrated a story to him. Then he told me that he had an idea. He wanted to make a film with three-four separate stories and that I could be part of Life In a Metro. That’s how we started working together.
Barfi was completely his idea. I helped it shape up and develop, and also gave it its title. A long, long time ago, there was a blind man who asked me if I could help him cross the road. I felt for him so I held his hand and we crossed the road. Then, I saw that the road ahead was a little shaky so I kept walking a bit further with him. Suddenly, this man says, “Now, will you leave my hand, you bas****!” At that moment, I got angry but the next moment, I loved him. Here was a man who is disadvantaged but has amazing confidence. The character of Barfi came from that – he goes for the best and believes that he is the best. While writing the film together, Anurag and I chatted a lot and the first title that came up was Jalebi. Then we arrived at Barfi. We share a great rapport while working together.
Which films and filmmakers have influenced you?
I think I am only influenced by one person and that is Woody Allen. One should not be influenced by people but by specific pieces of work. This is because, the same person who makes a great piece could also make something terrible. Why I think Woody Allen is special is because of his consistency. Look at his body work. Whatever he has made, and across so many years, has been excellent.
In Hindi, I respect Javed Akhtar a lot. Salim-Javed wrote consistently well and they created some great work. Among directors, I think Anurag Basu. I think he is near-perfect.
Do you have any regrets professionally?
Look, I am not an ambitious guy. I have not done too many films. I am known in the industry for saying no. I have said no to people more than I have said yes. I also know that screenwriting, poetry and writing itself is something that nobody is going to care about. At the most, your work will be remembered for 10-20 years and then it’s all gone. My only regret is the fact that I gave my life to writing. It was probably not a wise thing to do. I did substance abuse, smoked too much, took it all too seriously when I was younger. I used to think that writing is a special vocation and everything about my line of work is otherworldly. But at this age, I know that I am no different from an auto rickshaw driver. We both just do our jobs and that’s about it.
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’
The views expressed are personal