Book Extract: Behind the Bollywood Scripts

Ria in 'Monsoon Wedding' is based on me. Writing about sexual abuse has been important to me, and that is the great thing about art, it allows you to have a voice that you may not have in real life

A still from 'Monsoon Wedding'
A still from 'Monsoon Wedding'

Sabrina Dhawan

The role stories play in my world is similar to the role they have played in society over time. Storytelling traditions go back to prehistoric times; they come from the human need to make sense of the world. As a bonus, things can also end in the way you want them to. Life does not always provide such options, so I think, stories evolved as a coping mechanism as well as a form of entertainment.

Globally and historically, the funniest people come from groups that have been persecuted. ...I think humour is a way for them to process the trauma; by laughing at it or at themselves, they create a distance as well as own their narrative that, in some way, makes it easier to bear.

In many ways, I am a typical 1980s Delhi child. Since we didn’t really have television growing up, except Doordarshan, I read books. One book that stayed with me for a long time was Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari. My family wasn’t particularly religious, so although I knew some parts of the epic, I didn’t know all of it, or all the subplots. It is so brilliantly woven and structured!

Book Extract: Behind the Bollywood Scripts

Enid Blyton opened a whole new world to me and was a big part of my childhood. Everything was so unfamiliar, and yet her stories were inhabited by people who I could relate to. One of the things I enjoy doing with my son is telling him family stories. Steve (Cohen), my husband, was very interested in family history and stories, and I picked it up from him. Now I seek out stories from my extended family; those who I previously just saw as dull uncles and aunties are transformed into real people with histories, victories, wounds and scars.

Every time I visit India (I am based in New York), I sit with older relatives and jot down things they can remember. My father’s family lived through the Partition and I want to know everything about it—not just about the tragedy, but also what everyday life was like in undivided India.

I ask him what he used to write with in school, what his mother did at home, the time a monkey kidnapped my grandfather when he was a baby... I am in love with these stories. Growing up in an extended family made me a screenwriter. My greatest influence, something that I draw on for my writing, is community and family. Being close to so many different people provided me with a world of characters and relationships, essentially a gold mine for a writer.

Almost every character I write is based, in some way, on someone I know or how I imagined them—an uncle who hoarded things or an aunt who would obsessively play cards and gossip. If I did not have this reservoir, I don’t think I would have been a writer. My early writing is personal.

For example, the character of Dubey (in Monsoon Wedding) is based on an uncle, who is an engineer not a tent contractor, but he embodies the same spirit of over-promising and under-delivering. Eventually, as your writing expands, you even become invested in a character, or a world, which is nothing like you or yours. If you are really lucky, there comes a time when the characters are basically writing themselves; it doesn’t happen all the time but when it does, it is a total high!

Ria in Monsoon Wedding is an autobiographical character. I knew the people of Monsoon Wedding intimately. The niece, Ria, played by Shefali Shah, is based on me, and the revelation about sexual abuse is autobiographical. However, I didn’t get the happy ending shown in the film (the abusive uncle is banished from the family). I guess it was my way of coping through fantasy. Ria might just be the most personal character I’ll ever write... Writing about sexual abuse has been important to me, and that is the great thing about art, it allows you to have a voice that you may not have in real life. I could say it out as loudly as possible in movie theatres around the world.

Writing about it helped me take back my power. I would say Monsoon Wedding is my best work so far because it is the closest to me. Every single female character I have written is, in some way, an extension of me, or how I want to be. They are independent, brave, brazen but, at the same time, sensitive and struggling.

Krishna (Vidya Balan) from Ishqiya and Alice (Tillotama Shome) from Monsoon Wedding are my two favourite characters. Alice is someone who feels like a blank slate. I deliberately gave her very few lines because she was meant to be voiceless. But she fights back in spirit and refuses to accept the person who does not treat her with respect.

To write Krishna, I again borrowed from my own experience; she is a total badass and can play a very male game. She feels desire, love, longing, and darker human emotions, which we as women are entitled to have like anybody else. It is easier for artists to flourish in a prosperous world.

I grew up in India when the country was, in many ways, still developing. Stability was so critical because it was the only way you could live a reasonable life. It was a risk-averse world, so the choices were very limited; everyone took up careers like the law, civil services, medicine or engineering because it ensured both respectability and stability.

When I decided to become a writer, there was a lot of doubt and unease. I quit medical school to pursue a degree in English and my family was not happy about it. By the time I decided to become a writer they had probably given up on me.

When I look back, I am a little less angry about it now than I was back then; I had to do everything on my own because I had no family support. My parents are doctors and we lived at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). The only college nearby was Gargi College and I begged the head of the English Department to take me in. She asked me to write a book report and I wrote on Sydney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight; I thought it was a really cool book. The department head said, ‘Well, it is a good essay, but you really need to read more!’ It was mortifying!

I have read more ever since, but back then, I didn’t have access. My parents were not big on reading or watching films. I spent a lot of time alone and found ways to occupy myself. My imagination was very powerful. But I didn’t particularly think of myself as a writer, I had no reason to believe that I could be one. What helped me make up my mind was the fact that becoming a writer somehow felt transgressive.

(Excerpted from 'Scripting Bollywood: Candid Conversations with Women Who Write Hindi Cinema' by Anubha Yadav, published by Women Unlimited)

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