Interview: Sita Menon - “I figure things out on paper” - Hindustan Times
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Interview: Sita Menon - “My ideas don’t come when I talk; I figure things out on paper”

ByMihir Chitre
Aug 29, 2023 03:35 PM IST

Why did you become a writer?The story is that I am actually a journalist’s daughter

Why did you become a writer?

 

Screenwriter Sita Menon (Courtesy the subject) PREMIUM
Screenwriter Sita Menon (Courtesy the subject)

The story is that I am actually a journalist’s daughter. My dad was an editor with the The Economic Times. So, I grew up in a colony called Patrakar, which is exclusively a colony for journalists. It’s a very innovative concept that the Maharashtra government had come up with back then. Patrakar is located in Bandra East. It’s right next to Sahitya Sahwas, which is a colony exclusively for writers and literary figures. In fact, Sachin (Tendulkar) was like our neighbour back then as there is literally a fence separating Patrakar and Sahitya Sahawas. This entire neighbourhood is full of a certain kind of people that impacted my childhood. There is Kala Nagar, which is a colony for artists, then there is Sahitya Sahawas next to it and then Patrakar next to that. In the vicinity is also a colony for architects. It used to be a very peaceful, leafy neighbourhood.

I’ve grown up around writers. The only catch was that my dad did not want me to become a journalist. He thought, back in the day, that this was no field for a woman. But I always wanted to become one. I had no interest in science and mathematics. I felt more comfortable expressing myself with prose and poetry. At that point, I had huge clashes with my dad. In my 10th standard, I got exactly 75%, which wasn’t good enough for science or commerce but was good enough for literature.

After college, I became a journalist and I was one for about 16 years going through Times of India and some digital media. I did a lot of lifestyle and movies. I also worked with Femina for a long time. That was my line of work. When I was in Xavier’s, I happened to reach out to Raj & DK for an interview. In those days, Indian American filmmakers were just about booming. They had come out with a short feature called Shaadi.com (2002) and I interviewed them. We hit it off really well. The feature eventually was done and dusted but our conversation continued. Then they asked me if I wanted to take a look at a feature film script that they had just written. I said, “Sure, why not!” I had zero experience in cinema at that point. I wasn’t even thinking of getting into films. I just looked at the script as a friend. That film was called Flavors (2003). It was their first full-length feature film and was based on their diaspora experience of living in America. I was involved in the production and the post-production of that film and got hands-on into the process in a very involved way. After that, Raj & DK quit their software jobs in America and moved to India. Then we started jamming about this film, which eventually became 99 (2009). That kind of kick-started my career in films. I had a job then and I continued working a job for 10 years after I met them. In this course of time, after 99, Shor in the City (2010) happened and then Go Goa Gone (2013). My last job was at Star India and during the last two years at that job, I had not written a word to do with film. At that point, I started thinking about taking a leap of faith and following films full-time. I was very middle-class and job security mattered a lot to me so it was a tough choice. But I’m glad that I made it. I don’t want to call it a coincidence. I don’t believe in coincidences but it all just happened without any plan. That’s how my journey played out.

“The difference between film writing and show writing is essentially that in a feature film, you have to tell your story in about two hours so it’s about how concisely you can tell it. In a show, you have 2 plus, 3 or 4 hours so you can get into a character’s childhood, his beliefs and many other themes.”
“The difference between film writing and show writing is essentially that in a feature film, you have to tell your story in about two hours so it’s about how concisely you can tell it. In a show, you have 2 plus, 3 or 4 hours so you can get into a character’s childhood, his beliefs and many other themes.”

You have written films and now with Farzi, you have transitioned into OTT. How difficult has that transition been as a writer?

Actually, for me, it was extremely organic. I don’t find the longer format a challenge at all. I’ll tell you why. I love diving into characters and exploring several aspects of those characters. Feature film does not give me that space. I love exploring each character fully and getting into the details and nuances of everything.

The difference between film writing and show writing is essentially that in a feature film, you have to tell your story in about two hours so it’s about how concisely you can tell it. In a show, you have 2 plus, 3 or 4 hours so you can get into a character’s childhood, his beliefs and many other themes. It’s a mindset shift that you have to make.

Can screenwriting really be taught at a school or must it be learnt on the job?

A film school will make it easier in terms of understanding the fundamentals of a story and its structure. Self-taught is a much harder way, which I took. It can get extremely frustrating. I remember 99 and Shor in the City – I didn’t do the full story. It was a proper collaboration. I was new and raw to the world of writing a film. I had no clue about the story flow, the beats, the giant screenplay. I had no idea what to make of a screenplay for a very long time. I wasn’t very good at it when I started, which is why I relied heavily on Raj & DK when it came to the actual screenplay writing of it. But somewhere along the way, when I kept practising the craft, that switch happened and I think I figured it out. That is to not say that it becomes easy eventually. Writing is never easy. But somewhere along the way, it stops being daunting. You develop a feeling that you can handle it.

You have collaborated so often with Raj & DK. What is it like to work with them on a daily basis?

First of all, I have been extremely fortunate in this aspect. Not a day goes by when I am not grateful for the fact that I have collaborators and friends like Raj & DK and I started off with them. That journey made it easier for me. I did not have to struggle in the sense of figuring my way out with many producers and directors, making them take a look at my work. It was always the three of us who were kicked about a story, wrote it, collaborated with a producer and then made the film. It has always been like that. Similarly, with OTT, on Farzi, we followed pretty much the same pattern of work except that on Farzi, we had a Writers’ Room and had Suman Kumar, the writer of The Family Man, on board as well. But even with Suman, he is a friend. All of us go back a long way. We actually started off as friends and then became people who worked together. So, luckily, unlike what you might find in some other Writers’ Rooms, we never had to deal with the clashes and the interpersonal struggles while working together.

As for the process, I am not a talker or a discusser. I go into my hole and write and I send it to them. And then it is put to discussion. That’s how we work. On the other hand, Raj & DK are great talkers. Their ideas come when they talk. But my ideas don’t come when I talk. In fact, no idea comes to me when I talk. I always go and write and figure things out on paper.

Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (Manoj Verma / HT Archive)
Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (Manoj Verma / HT Archive)

The other part of collaboration is when you have to collaborate with directors on shows and the MBAs in the OTT teams. How does that turn out for a writer?

Collaboration is always going to be part of this profession. Let’s take the example of Citadel India. It’s a mammoth global franchise. You are answerable not only to Amazon India – the heads of which will be IITians and MBAs, who are very sharp and savvy business heads, and to the creative heads at Amazon India – but you are also answerable to Amazon US and to the Russo brothers, who actually created this entire universe. You are also answerable to the global showrunner, who is another entity. They all bring their different opinions on what works and what doesn’t work and their creativity to the table. All of them on Citadel India have been extremely cognizant of the fact that we are creators and writers and successful at that in our own right. There’s a whole lot of healthy respect going there. Of course, they may have points of view that are at odds with ours. No creativity process can exist without that. But at the same time, we all believe that conversations can solve anything. Now, let’s say from a budget point of view, the business head might come down and ask us to stick to a certain budget because there is so much at stake with shows like these. Then it’s up to us to tell the story in the most effective way without bankrupting anyone. These things are not always easy but that’s how they go and that’s probably one of the things that makes the process more interesting as well. There will be a push and pull at both ends but in the end, if logic and creativity prevail, I have nothing to complain about.

Varun Dhawan in Citadel India. “Collaboration is always going to be part of this profession. Let’s take the example of Citadel India. It’s a mammoth global franchise. You are answerable not only to Amazon India – the heads of which will be IITians and MBAs, who are very sharp and savvy business heads, and to the creative heads at Amazon India – but you are also answerable to Amazon US and to the Russo brothers, who actually created this entire universe.” (Publicity still)
Varun Dhawan in Citadel India. “Collaboration is always going to be part of this profession. Let’s take the example of Citadel India. It’s a mammoth global franchise. You are answerable not only to Amazon India – the heads of which will be IITians and MBAs, who are very sharp and savvy business heads, and to the creative heads at Amazon India – but you are also answerable to Amazon US and to the Russo brothers, who actually created this entire universe.” (Publicity still)

Do you think that gender plays a role in screenwriting?

Of course, it does. To give you a very basic example, Raj & DK are men. They bring in the male perspective beautifully. I am a woman. I bring in the female perspective. I balance it out. Farzi, for example, is a very male-dominated space. The only prominent female characters are Raashii, the Megha character; Regina Cassandra, who plays Rekha, Michael’s wife; and then there is Kubbra Sait, the Saira character. The only real estate that could be explored fully was the Megha character. Megha, in many ways, is my baby and I am extremely proud of how and what she turned out to be in the show. She’s a woman in her own right who is in a completely male-dominated world. But she knows very well how to be herself in a world like that and how to deal with the male ego. A lot of my personal experience went into that character. Similarly, with the Rekha character, which did not have much screen time, I would like to believe that whatever screentime she had, she was explored well. I believe that each character needs to be explored to its highest potential in whatever screentime it may have. So, yes, gender does play a role. Especially while working with Raj & DK because we have been a team like this for years and we divide our responsibilities accordingly. I have never worked with other teams so I can’t say how it works there.

Having said that, fundamentally, I believe that if you are a writer, you need to able to write male, female, and all other genders well. You need to be versatile as a writer. Not just in terms of gender but also in terms of genre. Tomorrow, if I am asked to write sci-fi, I would have no clue but I can at least start with research. So, yes, I also believe that if you are a woman it certainly doesn’t mean that you cannot write a male character. That has never made sense to me.

“99 was this huge homage to cricket. We were great fans of Guy Ritchie and his films like Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as well. So crime comedy was a huge thing for us and we were very excited about exploring this genre.” (Publicity poster)
“99 was this huge homage to cricket. We were great fans of Guy Ritchie and his films like Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as well. So crime comedy was a huge thing for us and we were very excited about exploring this genre.” (Publicity poster)

99 was a truly independent film at the time it came out and it was your first. Could you run me through the journey of writing it?

Every Indian has two great loves – films and cricket. All three of us were huge fans of cricket. Or at least of the cricket that was going on in those times. It’s not that our love for the game has waned now but we probably just don’t have the time to follow the influx of matches that are happening these days. My dad was a Ranji player as well. He played for Punjab. He wasn’t a very famous cricketer, but he instilled in all his children a great love for cricket. And, as I said, Raj & DK are huge fans of cricket as well. So, the story of 99 started when, I think, Raj, came up with this idea that the year 1999 was a watershed event in cricket. Sachin Tendulkar got out a few times on 99 and we thought what if we were all stuck on 99, without ever making a 100? So, we took that as a metaphor for life. Also, the match-fixing allegations against some of the players had surfaced and the whole world of betting and bookies was out in the public eye. The Boman Irani character is into betting. 99 was this huge homage to cricket. We were great fans of Guy Ritchie and his films like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as well. So crime comedy was a huge thing for us and we were very excited about exploring this genre. Also, both Raj & DK are genuinely funny people and they don’t like to explore a story without any humour. To me as well, handling serious subjects in a light-hearted manner comes naturally. So it’s easy for all of us to sync.

Go Goa Gone divided people and along the way, has assumed cult status. There are people who love the film and others who fully dislike it. What’s the story of writing it?

It originally started as a slacker comedy. I’d say, it still is a slacker comedy. Later, people started calling it a zombie comedy. But it is a story of three slackers who hate their jobs and whose only source of great happiness is going to Goa and attending this rave party and getting drunk. That’s how the idea began. Then there was this thought that what if they woke up the day after the rave party and realized that the whole world around them had turned into zombies? That turned the whole thing around. All of us are also huge fans of zombie comedies. Once this zombie angle got in, it made a whole lot of sense to explore it from that angle. Writing Go Goa Gone was a mad ride. Fun fact is when we wrote that film, we had never smoked up or indulged in any substances. That’s when research came into play. People told us that there are substances that give you a high and substances that give you a low – I didn’t even know of these things.

“Writing Go Goa Gone was a mad ride. Fun fact is when we wrote that film, we had never smoked up or indulged in any substances.” (Publicity still)
“Writing Go Goa Gone was a mad ride. Fun fact is when we wrote that film, we had never smoked up or indulged in any substances.” (Publicity still)

After 99 and before Go Goa Gone, you wrote Shor in the City. Do you sit down and decide consciously that you want to explore different genres?

I would say yes. It comes from wanting to explore yourself fully in the creative space. We have been curious to explore every possible genre there is to explore. The common thread across all our work has been humour. Shor in the City was an homage to Bombay and was, in many ways, my baby because it was actually a culmination of three-four news articles about Bombay. It was gritty, grounded and earthy overall. And yes, after that came Go Goa Gone so we definitely wanted to explore different genres and I think we are still trying to do that.

Now, coming to the piece that everyone is talking about – Farzi. You started your career with independent cinema made on shoestring budgets and have evolved into mammoth projects like Farzi. Does the transition from shoestring to huge budgets affect the storytelling?

Well, if I have to be really honest, there is a film called A Gentleman (2017), which we did and which had a good budget. It had many stakeholders and we probably took too many opinions and at the end of it, we thought we could have made a much better film with that material than what it turned out to be. This was a huge learning for us. And because of the way that film turned out, we had to go back to our very basic production budgets for our next work. I think we did get carried away with the demands of the commercial market at that time and realised that it wasn’t the best way to go about our work. That project did a lot to reorient us and make us go back to proper storytelling.

When it came to Farzi, which is much more recent, we had learnt our lessons and we knew how to handle big-budget shows. Farzi was originally Raj & DK’s idea. They wanted to make a film on counterfeiting. And this was many, many years ago. When we first came up with the story, it was supposed to be a film and the story was nothing like this. It was about a policeman who discovers fake currency notes in a mithai box and we had a whole story built around the policeman. But slowly, the story started evolving with time. We then put in the actual artist, who became Sunny (Shahid Kapur’s character) in Farzi. There is a line he says, “Ek din main itna paisa banaunga ki paison ki izzat hi na karun.” That’s his character arc, his core angst. And thank God, the feature film did not get made and thank God, we got to explore this world in long-format storytelling because today, I don’t see it working as well as a feature film. I am very glad that we got to explore this world at a storytelling pace that we like and that it deserves.

Have you ever thought of working on projects that Raj & DK aren’t involved in?

I have tried and it’s not that I am tied to Raj & DK. It’s just that we are friends and we have worked together on so many projects for so long that there is a connection. Even on projects that I was not involved in, like The Family Man or Stree, we had some discussions. They do consult me and I do offer my point of view. Similarly, I am working on a feature film just by myself and I do discuss it with them. I have had offers to work on projects from outside and I have tried and failed. Maybe the wavelengths don’t match or maybe it's something else. I have tried many, many times but it just hasn’t happened yet with the exception of this film that I am writing by myself.

At a systemic level, what would you like to change to improve the lives of writers in the industry?

It’s very simple. Just bring along pay parity in relation to the project. And although things have improved a lot now than before, there is still a way to go. You know, the other day, I was watching a Film Companion interview with all these filmmakers – Karan (Johar), Zoya (Akhtar) and others. And Karan said something very right. He said, “It’s just been the norm and nobody questioned it.” You know, the technicians and writers have been paid poorly for years and nobody really bothered about it. Now, they have started to up their prices and power to them because it’s only fair because a project begins with a writer. There is no story without a writer. No matter how popular the actor or the actress is, it begins here at the writer’s table. So why would you not have basic parity? Nobody is demanding something they don’t deserve. But 15 crores (for actors) vs. 5 lacs (for writers) is a huge gap. That’s disparity staring at our faces. Things are changing now. There are people who are cognizant of this and are beginning to affect this change. But there still are going to be studios who would ask, “Why would you pay so much to a writer?” That will and that has to change. There is no other way.

Which films and shows have influenced you?

I can’t even begin because there are lots of them. There is Quentin Tarantino, there is Krzysztof Kieslowski. I am influenced hugely by world cinema. There is Wong Kar-wai, there is Lars von Trier, there is Guy Ritchie. Then Greta Gerwig, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Noah Baumbach, David Lynch and it doesn’t stop. I could go on. And of course, Aaron Sorkin, where writing is concerned.

In the OTT space, I love Succession, The White Lotus, The Newsroom, The Wire and so many more.

Name a show in the world that you wish you had written.

Succession. Or Fleabag.

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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