Smriti Kiran: Writer, lyricist, director Anvita Dutt came to Mumbai in 1993. She was 21. Her first job was at an advertising agency called Everest. Her salary for the first year of being employed was Rs 2,000 a month – 1,300 out of that would go to her landlady, Mrs Munim, 200 in tax, and 500 is what she lived on. She spent 14 years in advertising. For a person who grew up as an awkward introvert blazing through libraries, and being in enchanted worlds that interested her far more than the one she lived in, her greatest take back from these years in advertising was the market research – her window into the inner worlds of people, their lives, and their decisions.
‘You can be deeply interested in people without wanting to hang out with them,’ she said to me in one of our chats. At a career crossroad between 2005 and 2007, she found herself writing for films. She has enjoyed respect, fame, and adulation as a commissioned writer, but something shifted the day the idea of Bulbbul planted itself in her heart in 2008, although she only got around to writing the first draft of Bulbbul four years later in Goa in 2012. It took her 14 days to write the first draft. 12 years and 12 drafts later, Bulbbul released on Netflix this year to a rousing response.
Nothing in her filmography prepared me for Bulbbul. Maybe I should’ve looked at Anvita’s bookshelf – her first friends, her greatest influence, her refuge, her keys to unlocking imagination. Books and how they shape creation is what we will talk about today.
Anvita, books were your first friends. Your dad was in the Air Force and you had access to the cantonment libraries of whichever city you moved to. They were your grand escape from this world into another. What happens to the mind of a child that surrenders to reading?
Anvita Dutt: I was in the first standard when we were posted in Guwahati. My maasi visited us during the summer holidays and she got me two books as a gift. Before this, I’d never engaged with a storybook, and these two belonged to me: Masha and the Bear (by Mikhail Bulatov, translated by Irina Zheleznova) and The Little Clay Hut (by Evgenii Rachev). I can’t even begin to tell you what it felt like to lose yourself in a story, in a world that is another from yours. It’s magical. As a child, you’re so naive. You know nothing. I was like, ‘I now have to wait for maasi to come again to bring books,’ because I had no idea that the cantonment had a library which had books. There were many more books that you could pick up and read.
Because of the kind of covers the books had – the illustrations and the magical quality of them – those are the ones that I went to, initially, as a child. Then the greed for stories increased. I was always a bit of an odd child; I was an introvert. Somehow, this world seemed so much more fascinating to me than the real world that I became indiscriminate in my choice of reading. In cantonment libraries, books are not kept according to the genre and things like that. They are kept alphabetically, from A – Z. I started reading from the first book in ‘A’. That’s what I did till I left my father’s house to come to Bombay for work.
“Your textbooks only go so far; stories make you more literate because you’re learning new words, new thoughts and new concepts.”
By the time I was about 12, I used to consume the library at least two times before we got posted elsewhere. Papa got transferred every two years. I read everything, whether it was age-appropriate or not. No one was telling me that this is what you’re supposed to read. I remember in school we were recommended to read Charles Dickens by a teacher. I had no idea that I’d read it when I was younger. When I picked it up and read it, I was like, ‘Oh, but I read this in Sarsawa in the sixth standard.’ So, I’d already read Dickens when I was in the sixth – mustn’t have understood half of it, but you know it’s a story when it’s engaging you. I wouldn’t know how to pronounce most of the words because no one was saying those words in conversation. I learned the meanings of words – I discovered dictionaries a little later – only through context.
Say, in the story, in a line, if the characters were feeling something, and I wouldn’t know what it meant, I would guess what it would mean because I would know what the story was doing at that point. I used to find it so joyful whenever I’d look it up in the dictionary and realise that that’s what it meant. I understood through the context of what was happening in the story at the given point. This, of course, is the part of it – your vocabulary. I think you become more literate. Your textbooks only go so far; stories make you more literate because you’re learning new words, new thoughts and new concepts.
Also, just as a human being, it teaches you empathy. It teaches you, as a child, that it’s okay to be odd like the odd people who are protagonists in books, the so-called underdogs. There’s hope for bravery, for being bigger and better than you are, for being kinder than you are. Those kinds of things you start learning just by association.
Most importantly, imagination is like a muscle. You start exercising that muscle, and therefore your ability to imagine and daydream a better future for yourself, a better life for yourself, a better idea of yourself starts happening; also, a better world for others. There’s always hope for something magical out there because you can imagine it.
Smriti Kiran: As you said, your engagement with good books was wild – you were reading alphabetically, there was no one guiding you, nobody was telling you that this is age-appropriate. As you grew older, you gravitated towards the fantastic. What is it that drew you to the world of fairies, demons, dragons, witches, and otherworldly creatures?
Anvita Dutt: At that point in time, I was so hungry for words and stories that I enjoyed everything that I read; I loved everything that I read. As a child, you were allowed to only issue one book at a time. So, I used to read one in the library and take one home. Then I became a faster reader. I think I became an insomniac because I wanted to finish my books; I would read during the night after lights out.
I have to blame Bram Stoker. I was 13 and in my eighth standard when I reached ‘S’ and hence Stoker. I read his Dracula and tasted blood. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is possible!’ You find the narrative so interesting when you read something like that for the first time. Till then, I’d read a lot of the classics, I’d read crime, and the kind of stuff that is usually there in library books, some of which would have been bought, but most would have been donated by officers getting transferred, leaving their books behind.
Dracula, the story, has been told from so many different points of views. There’s a manuscript and there are letters; all sorts of things are happening. It’s so interesting to read a different structure of storytelling. Also, the world of myth and vampires and Transylvania was magical. Then what started happening was that I would read everything but I would re-read fantasy. I started learning how to recognise fantasy. I would look at the back, read the first few pages and get a sense of it. ‘Okay, is there a demon in here somewhere?’ And that’s the book that I’d be like, ‘Okay, mine.’ Those I would keep issuing and reissuing, almost like second to owning it. I would do everything in my power to read those books again and again, and I started getting drawn to that.
“You have to trust the story and your characters to do the right thing to serve the story.”
Like I said, imagination is a muscle that you exercise. To truly enjoy fantasy you have to be a child because fairy tales and fantasy are the earliest stories that you consume. To accept not just that there are two people in a room, that someone kills someone, and you have to figure out what happened – you can imagine it — it’s not that hard to imagine especially if you’re slightly weird — but also to imagine other worlds, which requires a certain kind of strength in your imaginative capacity; so much so that it becomes easy for you to do it, and you don’t have to struggle with it. Because I had read so much by then, fantasy became easy for me.
Also, to set a story in a world that doesn’t exist or maybe exists in the future, the emotions and the characters had to be so real. You had to recognise them, even if they were green in colour. You would understand what they were feeling. That was another thing which I thought was incredible. Of course, at that point in time, you’re just eating up stories.
Smriti Kiran: Something else also happened: at the age of 11, not only were you reading books copiously, but you also started writing and putting thoughts on paper. What compelled you to write at such an early age, and what were you writing about?
Anvita Dutt: You know, Smriti, I actually thought that everybody must be doing it. I mean, I didn’t even think that I was doing something odd or different by sitting down to write. Stories and poems, thank God they don’t exist anywhere, and nobody can look at them now!
I used to do it to process what I felt. I was daydreaming so much and my mind was working, anything I heard could trigger off a situation in my head that didn’t exist. Also, I liked going to the mess; whereas other children would be playing or hanging out together, I would be in the library. If I were scolded and told to mix with other people and ‘be like other children’, I would sit in a corner, watch people, and make up stories about them.
I would see James the bearer in the bar of the mess; I would wonder what his life must be like once he went home, or before he came there what happened in his life and pick up situations that were completely ridiculous and fantastical in nature. Because you’re an odd child, you don’t fit in; you don’t know who to talk to and what about. People were reading Enid Blyton — not that there’s anything wrong with reading Enid Blyton — but I was reading Dickens. There’s nothing in common, so you start becoming a little judgmental about the conversations that other people are having — which is very wrong. This is before the age you get empathy from reading. At that time, you’re just like, ‘No one knows what I’m thinking. No one knows what’s going on.’
Because all of that was happening in my mind and a need for companionship, I started writing. So, if I was sad, I would write; if I was angry, I would write; if I was lonely, I would write. I thought that everybody did it until I realised that they didn’t. I even wrote a crime novel, but I stopped around chapter 20 because I got really frightened. I had the idea in my head; I knew who the killer was, obviously, because you’re the writer – you’re God. Halfway through that book, the characters started doing their own thing. They wouldn’t listen to me. I got so frightened. It felt like alchemy or magic when I saw that they were taking on a life of their own. I actually got scared of them. I would think, ‘I think you are the killer, then why are you behaving like this?’ As I grew older and became a writer, I realised that beyond a point you have to trust the story and your characters to do the right thing to serve the story. They don’t serve the writer, the writer serves the story. That’s an early lesson, but it registered only later. At that point in time, I got really scared.
I also wrote a lot of poetry, like notebooks and registers full of poetry.
Smriti Kiran: Anvita, I never looked at fairy tales as cautionary tales, with bigger ideas. There are, now, courses in universities that dissect fairy tales and their origins, what they intended to say, and how they were later sanitised, made more vanilla for kids.
As someone who has always engaged with that world deeply, when did you become aware of the idea of subversion, the mystery, the hidden meaning in fairy tales and the various versions that exist?
Anvita Dutt: Actually, I was exposed — I won’t say I became aware of it — to it before I knew what the word subversion meant or how to spell it. I was reading fairy tales, but what you were getting exposed to was Disney, and the so-called children’s books, in the ‘children’s section’ in school libraries. We would be taken to the children’s section, and I would find nothing that I wanted to read there. Initially, when I was too shy and didn’t know how to say that I didn’t want to read something, I would pick up stuff, start reading and be very taken aback by the vanilla version.
“The original versions were already dark and cautionary tales, with interesting takes, and mostly meant for girls. There were warnings for girls.”
It’s really interesting. The Grimms Brothers themselves actually vanilla-fied their own stories by the time their third edition came out. Let’s take Sleeping Beauty as an example. In the original version too there’s a curse, the girl puts her finger on a spindle, and falls asleep. This is where the vanilla version, or the safe version, differs: a prince comes riding in, kisses her, she wakes up, and they live happily ever after. But in the original version, she wakes up when she goes into labour; she gives birth to a baby – which means that while she was sleeping, the prince did come. Literally. So, here’s a cautionary tale: ‘Young girl, don’t spend your life with your eyes closed, sleeping through your life, because you’ll be left holding the baby.’ On a very basic level, this is what it is telling you.
What they didn’t realise or expect was — these were actually myths and urban legends of that time that they had collated — parents started telling the children these tales like bedtime stories. They would self-edit and then tell it to the children. Lots of letters were sent to them saying that the originals were too scary for children. They were like, ‘But they were never meant for children.’ They did realise, however, that this was a market opportunity: so many more people would buy those books if only they directed the material to suit this newfound target audience – parents and children. So, by the third edition, they started cleaning up the stories. Andrew Lang did the same with a lot of the European and British myths and legends. Then, of course, Disney came along, and only very pretty frocks and daisies were left of the stories.
Today, you realise that the original version was already subversive. Strangely, they were already dark and cautionary tales, with interesting takes, and mostly meant for girls. There were warnings for girls hidden in there, whether it was Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty. Then, writers came along and started subverting.
It’s interesting if you know the original and the vanilla version, and then see what another writer does with it. That’s where the joy is. When I was in the ninth standard, I read a story which I thought read suspiciously like Snow White. To briefly tell you the story: there’s a girl as pale as snow, and when she’s born, her mother dies in childbirth. The stepmother comes and looks for the girl in mirrors. She tries to kill her and says, ‘I want her heart.’ As I was reading that story, I started getting goose flesh because I was like, ‘It’s reading like what I know of Snow White’, but there was a grimness, a darkness to the way these little gems about the story were being revealed. By then, I’d read Bram Stoker, but I’d also read a lot of vampire mythology, and I knew that vampires are as pale as snow. If a vampire is born naturally and not made, it will kill the mother in the birthing. The only way you can kill a vampire is by taking out its heart or putting a stake through it. What that writer had done was that they had actually told the Snow White story revealing the vampire myth. So, Snow White is the evil character. The poor stepmother is looking in the mirror because vampires can’t be seen in the mirror. She’s trying to rid the kingdom of evil. She was so grossly misunderstood by all.
I started getting more and more drawn to the other and to the peculiar aspects of people who are branded as the bad guys, and why they are termed as such. I realised that when they talk about witches, who are, in fact, wise women who know more than the men in the village. They are actually frightened of them, and so they want to burn them at the stake and kill them. Poor things! You start feeling so bad for the witches.
Around then was when I read Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë). I remember being heartbroken for Bertha. I finished reading the book, and I was like, ‘This bastard (Edward Rochester) has locked up this woman – she’s dark-skinned, so she’s already othered; she comes from a traumatic past, which we would have called PTSD or nervous breakdown today, of course, she’s going to go bloody insane and try to burn your house down! You also bring a pretty young wife (Jane Eyre) into the house: the Victorian sensibility wali acchi ladki.’ I felt so bad for Bertha when I finished the book.
So, again, maybe because I was reading stories of the other, I started valuing the other, started digging and then imagining what it is that must have gone on for somebody to treat her like this.
Smriti Kiran: I want to break down the trajectory of your exploration as a reader further. You read, then you read some more; you discovered, then you discovered some more. What were your early influences, and how did they progress from one to the other?
Anvita Dutt: Initially, because of Dracula, I started getting drawn more and more towards this kind of literature, but because I was so dependent on a library that existed in an air force station, I would read whatever was available to me; I would read everything and re-read the ones that I thought were amazing.
I was 20 when I came to Bombay to work and I had gone to someone’s house in Nasik for the weekend. Since I was an insomniac, I had a book with me. It was actually supposed to be a one day trip, and then we decided to extend it. My first reaction was panic because I thought that my book would get over, which it did.
At night, I wandered around the house because in one of the rooms I had seen an almirah jisme do-teen books thi. I went outside in the dark, where I could barely see anything. I didn’t want to switch on the light because that might wake up someone. So, relying on my sense of touch, I approached the almirah and picked up the fattest book – the idea being ‘moti hai so I shall survive.’
Once I went back to my room, I saw that it was The Talisman, and that two authors had written it, which I was fascinated by. I wondered how two people could write together. That felt interesting. And these were people I did not know. I had not discovered them in my libraries. I started reading that book at 2:30 in the night and finished it at about 7:00 in the morning.
“I discovered Ray Bradbury, which led to Ursula K. Le Guin. That’s what bookstores do – they lead you to other authors.”
How do you discover new authors? It is through a bookstore, which is a luxury that we do not have, or rather an opportunity we don’t get – there are only so many new authors that we can find on Amazon; we order stuff that we know about. You find new authors by browsing books in a bookstore. You find something, read it, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible!’ The two names on that book were Stephen King and Peter Straub.
I couldn’t afford to buy books from the bookstores. I used to buy secondhand books from the roadside, near Churchgate station. These were those 500 rupee days. But even buying it from the streets was a little expensive as they were for 50-60 bucks. So, I used to calculate: ‘Okay, if I don’t have lunch for two days, I can buy a book.’ By then, I’d gotten used to hunger. I was like, ‘Do din lunch nahi khaungi toh I can buy books.’ The calculation made a whole lot of sense to me. I went hunting for books by Stephen King and Peter Straub.
I saw one by Stephen King first. It was called It. It only had his name on it. I was like, ‘Oh, so he doesn’t write every book of his with someone else.’ That’s how I discovered Stephen King. What an outstanding writer! Luckily, for me, so prolific. By the time I found him, which was around ‘93, he’d already been writing for some time. I had a gala time. I had lots of books to read. You’re also not Googling. You aren’t looking to ask somebody or for somebody to tell you other authors like him, who write like him. Then, of course, Peter Straub happened because he was the other name on the book.
I moved to bookstores when I could afford it. I moved jobs, started earning the grand sum of 8,000, and I was like, ‘I’m rich!’ So, I started going to bookstores — especially Strand Bookstore — to find books. Then I realised that the genres are called fantasy and science fiction. I discovered Ray Bradbury, which led to Ursula K. Le Guin. It was just so incredible. That’s what bookstores do. Bookstores lead you to other authors. Sometimes they might sound like something that you would want to read once you pick it up, but it turns out that they’re not that good. But, again, another thing that reading teaches you is to get a sense of it. You can tell how a writer writes by just reading the first chapter. You read the first chapter and you know that this person has this heft over here. I think those years when I started earning and I could choose the books that I was reading is when I truly discovered speculative fiction, fantasy and science fiction. Thankfully, there were bookstores in Bombay those days in every corner.
Later on, when I became rich, I wouldn’t think too much while buying books. Smriti, I really have to tell you this story. Because I love physical books so much, during a trip to London, I once went to a bookstore, and then straight to buy a suitcase from there, for which I had to pay an excess baggage fee at the airport. The fee was more than the total cost of the books. I bought the cheapest suitcase – a big, pink suitcase – that was available for a few pounds and I filled it with books because I’d found new authors. It is ridiculous to spend that kind of money. Of course, people did tell me that I could have ordered or noted them down. But I had done all of that as well. I had a list, which helped me decide what to buy and what not to buy from the big pile I had placed on the counter. Then I took some out, having decided that I would order them later. But that feeling of seeing a book on the shelf, knowing that it is written by someone incredible is amazing. Also, in those days, it used to be the case that if an author’s book was released in hardcover elsewhere, it would take some time before it came to India. I just couldn’t wait that long once I knew that this book was coming. So, yes, I went a little crazy, and I don’t regret it at all.
Smriti Kiran: If you’re going to give us Bulbbul at the end of it, please, I’ll pay for the excess baggage anytime you want to pick up books.
What is fascinating is that the 28 years that you’ve spent in advertising and, subsequently, in film, display a filmography, a body of work, which is solid, but it is of a certain kind, and nowhere does it inform one of your first step as a writer-director, not as a commissioned writer but for yourself. How did those 28 years contribute to your journey as a creator?
Anvita Dutt: By then I’d read more. So, that always helps. What it also does is, whether it’s advertising or writing for films, you get to meet and understand more people. You also learn the basic craft of writing. Writing a film is a very different kind of a skill set, and it takes time to learn that. I had a lot of fun working on all sorts of films. But just as actors get typecast, even writers get typecast. You do something and it works, you get called for more of that, which is great. You have fun doing it. You’re learning something. People are liking what you’re doing. And it’s paying the rent. You are quite happy doing it. But what it also tells you or teaches you is what you don’t want to write. I am reading Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman, and people are running through the daisies in films that I’m working on. In my stories, they would run through the daisies, except they’d be man-eating daisies. That wasn’t happening. So, in some way, I think that the impetus came from there.
I got a compliment from someone, who was talking about me, around 2000, in the early years of my writing career. They said, “What is so wonderful about Anvita is that jiske saath kaam karti hai uske jaise ban jaati hai.” I walked away from that meeting, and I was furious with myself. You know how you get so angry that there are tears in your eyes? That’s how angry I was. I was like, ‘What are you doing? You left advertising for the joy of wanting to write films because you didn’t want to write with a brief. The bandish is no longer there. You’re writing a story. But you’re just doing the same thing that you were doing in advertising.’
“Over the years, a jigsaw had been forming, and I wasn’t even aware of it. I sat down and wrote a two-pager, which I think is from everything that I’ve read.”
There are these little tipping points that happen. One day, out of the blue, I woke up in the middle of the night and Bulbbul came. You learn how stories work; you also learn what it is that you want to say as a human being. The person that I was in my twenties or early thirties, I’m not that person today. The things that bother me and move me have changed, or the degree to which they bother me has changed, and so have the things that matter to me. Maybe I have a little bit of wisdom and lots more empathy.
You understand what is wrong with the world and you want to talk about it, or what is wrong with your world – your inner world – and talk about some things that are a thorn in your side and are bothering you. The only way you make sense of it, like I did when I was 11, is to write about it. I think that’s what these years have done to get me to that point.
Smriti Kiran: Anvita, what was the first image that flashed in your head that night when you thought about it and you wrote a two-pager? How do you think you arrived at that image, and how did all of that reading that you did inform Bulbbul?
Anvita Dutt: The very first image that came to my mind was feet withdrawing under the saree, darr ke. I was sleeping and I just opened my eyes. I sat up, and I was like, ‘Whose feet?’, ‘What was that?’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, she’s going to be hurt so badly.’ I was half asleep and going towards my desk. Over the years, a jigsaw had been forming, and I wasn’t even aware of it. I sat down and wrote a two-pager, which I think is from everything that I’ve read, like we talked about the subversion of fairy tales – how women are viewed, how wise women are viewed, how being gentle is seen as a sign of weakness, and how that one will crush someone who’s quiet.
Now, maybe because it’s my first one, in terms of the personality – I’m not saying the story – it’s the closest to me. So, the younger me was like the younger Bulbbul. Even the child was like me – always on trees. You have a fascination for darawni kahani, you want to write down things, make up stories, but it is like a diamond: it only refracts. It is other people’s opinion of you that starts impacting who you are. If people treat you nice, you’re happy; people treat you bad, you’re sad. Your equilibrium is decided by other people. I was that girl; I was soft-spoken and gentle, very afraid of ruffling any feathers, hurting people. In fact, my father used to call me kuggi, which is Punjabi for dove, because I was gentle. You learn this very harsh lesson that when you are like that, it’s not taken at face value. People see it as a sign of weakness, as a sign of someone who can be crushed by a word, by a gesture, so you harden yourself and start building walls. And, of course, then time and wisdom teach you that your centre is just you – you are complete in yourself.
So, all those lessons had to be learned for me to be able to write those images that I’m talking about. I started pouring out, maybe, what I had felt – that she loves to read, she plays on trees, all she wants is a little bit of friendship, recognition, just wants to laugh, just wants to tell a story. I’d heard many years ago that bichua isiliye pehnte hai, payal isiliye pehnte hai. I love wearing anklets. It’s so that you know where the girls of the house are – you can hear them. It’s protection. Along the journey the protection becomes control. Even patriarchy.
While I was writing it, I wrote, ‘Bichua kyun pehnte hai?’ The next thing that came to my mind was a bloodied bichua, and the next image was lightning and a man lifting a poker. It was all there in the two-pager, which I sat on for very long because I was convinced that I did not know how to write a story, that I didn’t have the ability to write. I thought that I should just think, ‘Kitni acchi kahani hai!’ and keep it aside. That’s what first happened with Bulbbul. That’s how she arrived: quietly, in the middle of the night, shaking everything up inside me.
When I thought of subverting the notion of being called a chudail if a girl is caught running in the house or in school, I was like, ‘What if she does become a chudail?’ Because I’m interested in everything, because I’ve read the myths, I know how chudails are formed. They have a human origin. Chudails rise from the dead if they die because of a violent act or rape. And, even today, women who die in villages, are either cremated or buried with their face down and feet tied because they are so afraid that they’ll come back. It’s incredible how afraid you are. You will inflict cruelty, but there’s a part of you that is telling you that this is a risk you’re taking, that she will come back.
“Bulbbul arrived quietly, in the middle of the night, shaking everything up inside me.”
Setting it in another world was like Ursula K. Le Guin setting The Left Hand of Darkness on a planet called Winter. You can set it wherever you want, but what I wanted to say were these little things: everyday horrors, tiny cruelties of ignoring someone, thwarting someone, squashing someone – just chipping away every day someone’s sense of self – and, then, of course, the brutal acts of violence, which exist in a far more gruesome state than what I’ve shown or talked about in the film.
All those things came together, and all I knew was that the chudail was a wronged woman and that people were responsible for making her a chudail. That little girl on the trees is going to come back. She’s going to be on the tree still. She’s still going to be running wild. She’s going to be having fun, still going to be plucking mangoes, but she’ll also be biting off the heads of the bad guys, which I thought was pretty awesome.
Smriti Kiran: How does it help a narrative, and what happens to a narrative, when you situate it in a fantastical world? The emotions and the people have to be really authentic; they have to be real. The world around that doesn’t have to be, right?
Anvita Dutt: One is that the moment you show or talk about another world, it holds a promise. It is a hope, it is something other than what you have right now – the possibility of something, maybe, better, or sometimes even worse. It is to tell you that this is where it can go if you carry forward on the path that you’re on. If you read a lot of the science fiction stories that were written in the fifties or the sixties, everything that was in there already exists.
I’m going to segue into a very interesting thing here. There was a survey done with engineers who worked for Apple, Microsoft, Google – the brains who created new technologies, guys who came up with the iPhone or iPod. There were many things that were dissimilar, but they all had one thing in common: they all read science fiction growing up.
It gives you the ability to imagine something else. Everyone imagined something and that’s how it came to be. Even in terms of science, you imagine that itni garmi hoti hain yahan, khana kharab ho jaata hai, what if I had an almirah in which I could keep that food and it wouldn’t go bad? What if it could remain cool and not get spoiled? And a refrigerator is born. When you imagine other worlds, that happens. That is one: it could be better or worse than the possibility of it.
The other thing it does is that it frees the storyteller. Whatever it takes to tell you what I really want to do, I can do. The rules of the universe have to be very well defined. You have to define the rules of the universe even if it is an imagined universe. You define that universe and convince that person that this place exists through the people and through the rules of the universe. You don’t stray from the universe so that people remain situated in that new world. Then you can do what you want so that you can put across the point that you wanted to put across. You can do it in a realistic set up as well, but I think it’s just more fun doing it in a fantastical world.
Smriti Kiran: Anvita, is it more work?
Anvita Dutt: Yes…that would be unfair to say for stories set in the real world. Everything requires work. Stories require work. You need to read and write every day to put in the hard work, to have the patience to be, to surrender yourself to a world, and to create that world from scratch. You learn that from reading; it comes from reading. You have to put in that hard work. It’s great fun, but it’s a lot of hard work. So, it takes equal amounts of hard work to tell a realistic story and a fantastical story. But you need to work that little bit harder to make it convincing, and by that, I mean that your characters then need to be very situated and the emotions need to be very real. You can’t falter there. Everywhere else people are willing to forgive: pair aise nahi ulte ho sakte the, moonlight laal ki jagah orange ya purple hoti toh behtar hota – anything is possible. People can question that. But they will never question the emotion. You need to work a little bit harder on that, which is what I think I was afraid to do and the reason why I was not going beyond the two pages.
Smriti Kiran: You write descriptors in a certain way. When you gave your story to your contemporaries at the Sceptic Tank, Abhishek Chaubey told you that he could see the film by the way you wrote your descriptors because they were so beautiful. Do you feel your descriptors would be different if you weren’t a voracious reader? [In a script, descriptors are non-talky portions or the action portions that set up the atmospherics.]
Anvita Dutt: I think so. What I’m actually doing is I’m seeing something in my head, right? So, it’s the reverse of imagining. Like I said, your imagination is a muscle that you exercise when you’re reading the story as compared to watching, where something has already been imagined and is now being shown to you. You’re not engaging with it at the level that you are when you’re reading, because you are immersing yourself very patiently in a story and staying there. You’re imagining people and situations. When someone talks about a tree or the light or the way someone blinks, you’re seeing it in your mind. Writing for a film is the reverse of that. I’m seeing something in my head, and then I’m trying to put it down. That has to be film relevant. It’s not like she thought or she felt. It has to be whatever I can show you physically. I can say that the poker went up and hit her, and blood came out. But because I’m seeing it at a certain speed and I’m seeing it in a certain way, the only way I can make sense of it is by writing it like this, possibly because I read and imagined things by the way the words had been written; it also gives me joy to write like that. That’s how I visualise the closest possible thing to what’s in my mind, and I’m hoping that when I read it, it appears exactly as I saw it in my mind.
Even when I was reading the above scene, I was like, ‘Haan, this shot is there.’ You can see what I have shot with (Siddharth) Diwan and Meenal (Agarwal), and everybody else who came together. They have all read this, and this is a version of what they would have imagined also.
So, when I talk about how a scene is going to be, what my vision is, or what my breakdown is, everyone’s on the same page – they’re all imagining what I’ve written. That’s where reading plays a role: in communicating and being able to tell a story in the most vivid possible manner. You don’t have to do it like that, but I like to do it like that.
Smriti Kiran: A bunch of people in your life said ‘yes’ to you as a creator: Mrs Raghubir, Vikramaditya Motwane, Aditya Chopra, Althea Kaushal, Sudip Sharma, and Karnesh SSharma. The script had gone to Sceptic Tank, the Sunday script group. There was a circle of trust that had formed between a bunch of fabulous creators, with whom you shared your script. They really bolstered your will to become a director and to bring Bulbbul to life. How do you recognise the right yes-es in a sea of no-s?
Anvita Dutt: There are lots of no-s throughout your life. It’s quite sad. I think most of us – most children – are told that we can’t do something more often than we can. That becomes a narrative which we start to believe in and then question ourselves. Once we are adults, we tend to transpose that no to everything and allow self-doubt to sink in.
“They all said ‘yes’ to the story, not to me. That’s how you recognise it: for the work”
My first ever instance of a ‘yes’ was Mrs Raghubir, my English elective teacher in 11th standard —she’s on the thank you slate. At that point in time, I wanted to be a chef. She told me that you are a writer, a storyteller. This is what you should do when you grow up. She actually asked me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I think what was great about her was not that it was a teacher’s opinion – it’s not like I was a teacher’s pet; it’s not that – but that she saw something, she received something about me.
You could feel that this person had given it thought. There was nothing that this person had to gain from this at all. She was actually talking about a possible ability I might have had that I might not have seen at that age. I didn’t want to be a writer at that point in time. I did not know I already was until she pointed out that ‘not every child has notebooks full of poetry and stories – that’s you.’
You know, Smriti, over the years, even as late as coming into the film industry or when people say that you don’t know how to do this, you’re always actually waiting to be found out that you don’t really know how to do this. Whenever this doubt would arise in my mind, I would just tell myself that Mrs Raghubir thought that I could do it. That ‘yes’ had so much power. It can resonate across the years, even when you are down and you doubt yourself so much and so often because the nos are so much more. People are going to question your ability to write, people are going to question your ability to write for the film industry. People are going to question your ability to become a director because you’re a writer. You have not done the things that are supposedly required to become a director. So, hold on to that ‘yes’. What that ‘yes’ does is that it helps you recognise other yeses. You can very easily dismiss it as a person being nice to you or fond of you when they say something like this, and that they may just be saying it for the sake of it. But you can start recognising it.
The next was Althea Kaushal, who read the two-pager — she was the only person I showed the two-pager to. She’s somebody I’ll readily believe if she tells me that I’m fantastic or I’m terrible because I know that when she says it she means it. She is true; she’s authentic. She’s like something out of a fantasy story.
She read it, and the first thing that came out of her mouth was, ‘You’re going to direct this, babe.’ I just laughed because I was not thinking of directing. The next thing that she said to me was to write it. She’s the only person to whom I could say that I didn’t think I was good enough to write it. She said, ‘You wouldn’t know it till you did it. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll have written it and it will be lying in your laptop. You can write it, and we’ll just read it while we are hanging out, and we’d be like, ‘Arre! What a great story!’ But write it.’
But I didn’t. It took me a few years. I was part of the Sceptic Tank, the Sunday script club that we all used to meet for. I’m so thankful to Vikramaditya for making me a part of that because it was just unexpected and wonderful. It was a collective of very different kinds of storytellers. The first thing that I did was read other people’s scripts, which would come to the club. You read great scripts written by Sudip (Sharma), Devashish (Makhija), Akshat (Verma), (Abhishek) Chaubey. When you read something that’s well written, it gives you such joy. It gives you permission to be good. It doesn’t make you scared. It didn’t make me feel like, ‘Ye log itne talented hai, main toh bohot kharab hoon.’ No. It made me feel like I could also write like this. It’s not really supposed to be like that, you can do whatever you feel like doing because everybody’s doing whatever they feel like doing. That gave me a bit of strength. Then, of course, Vikramaditya started pushing me, and he would keep asking me, ‘Dutt, tumhari script kab aayegi?’ I’d be like, ‘Aayegi, aayegi, it’s going to come.’ Of course, magical things happened.
I’d gone to Calcutta for a saree shopping spree and a fish-eating binge, and to just absorb the beautiful Bengal. Upon returning to Bombay, Kalpana, who lives with me, told me to come outside and see something. A bird had made a nest on the Champa tree. I saw that a bulbul had made a nest. I got onto a flight to Goa, four hours later, and I was like, ‘You know what, just write it.’
I told Althea, of course, who called me 15 days later asking, ‘How’s it going?’ I was like, ‘Great, I’m getting into the zone.’ She said, ‘That means you’re not writing. Tomorrow morning I’m going to call you.’ I was like, ‘No, you know I write at night.’ She’s like, ‘I don’t care, I’m calling you first thing in the morning before dawn – you’re going to get up and write.’
She called me at 4:30 in the morning. She lives in Dubai, which means that she set an alarm for 3:00. She stayed on the phone till I made my coffee, sat down and chatted with her – till she knew that I was awake. She did it for three days in a row, and it became a habit. Until today, I wake up early and I write in the morning. I started writing it, and I realised that the story was just patiently waiting for me to write it. Then I wrote it in 14 days because it had been waiting for so many years.
I sent it to the script club, they read it and they loved it. These are people who are very critical, violently so. No kid gloves were involved. We used to say exactly what needed to be said. And they loved it. That was another round of ‘yes’ that happened. I started believing in it. Maybe because I got into the habit of hearing that true ‘yes’, when I finished writing it, I knew that I was going to direct it. I was clear on not giving this story to anyone else because it was mine.
Then came Karnesh (SSharma), my producer, Anushka (Sharma), Anshai (Lal), my creative producer, people who read it, and very matter of factly didn’t say those things that other people had said such as ‘Oh, but you’ve never AD’d, so how will you direct?’ Anshai, who has been an AD, said, ‘Kuch nahi hota AD banna, kuch nahi sikhte tum. It just requires common sense. Gadha mazdoori ki job hai. It has nothing to do with making a film. Kuch nahi hota usse.’ When you hear those things, you start believing in them.
Karnesh, with such delight and joy for stories, read it when he wasn’t even a producer, he was in the merchant navy! He loved it. He told me, ‘If ever I turn producer one day, then I would want to make this film.’ He did turn producer. It took him some time to consolidate, a period in which he made lovely films before we decided to make Bulbbul. By that time Netflix, too, came to India. In fact, their office had not physically opened yet, but they were coming to India, and we were in talks with them. They said yes to the project. Then my HOD said yes. Then (Siddharth) Diwan said yes, Meenal (Agarwal) said yes, Veera (Kapur Ee) said yes.
They all said ‘yes’ to the story, not to me. That’s how you recognise it: for the work – Mrs Raghubir, down to the last HOD, my producers and actors said yes to the work that I put in, the story that I told. It wasn’t either for me or for the sake of it. Althea and I have hung out over a drink and discussed what-ifs. Lots of our conversations are what-ifs. Then, you’re just talking. At no point in time did she say that I was going to direct this, or write this, or wake me up for it. She did it for Bulbbul, because she recognised something there, which spoke to her.
They say yes to the work.
The best thing it does is that it makes you say ‘yes’ to yourself. You start believing in yourself and recognising yourself. It’s so sad that you wait for someone else’s validation. But you get into the habit of hearing a ‘yes’.
Smriti Kiran: What also fascinates me about your work is that for someone who’s a wordsmith, you use silences beautifully. In Bulbbul, Binodini’s treachery is all words and Bulbbul becomes even more silent with wisdom. Can you speak a little more about the use of silence, mood, setting and spaces in storytelling, especially in Bulbbul?
Anvita Dutt: Books are not too dialogue-heavy. In real life, when you’re in a room, you’re not constantly chatting. If you’re constantly chatting, it means that there’s not much that you have to say. So, the unsaid is always more powerful in any case. In a visual medium, like a film, even if there’s dialogue, what is not being said is always more interesting.
“When you see yourself for who you are, and you’re fine with it, things go a little quiet in your mind.”
Specific to Bulbbul, the difference is between the bogeyman that you can see versus the bogeyman that you can’t. You imagine something under your bed or hear a noise in the drawing-room in the middle of the night when you know that no one is there. You’re frightened to go into that room. When you go to that room, you see that hawa ke wajah se the paper is fluttering, and then you’re not frightened anymore. It’s the same with silences: the quieter I keep it, the more you worry, the more you feel and imagine. That is what is interesting about silences. On paper, I use words to describe those silences because that scene is barely a few seconds long, but it’s a scene written in the way it’s imagined.
In terms of her character, the wiser you get the quieter your mind gets. It’s all that chatter in your mind, your own voices, other people’s voices. When you truly come face to face with yourself, you recognise and understand yourself, grow up, when you see yourself for who you are, and you’re fine with it, things go a little quiet in your mind. When they go a little quiet in your mind, you will not necessarily say everything that you’re thinking.
Terry Pratchett has a character called Esme Weatherwax (from the Discworld series), who is a witch. There’s a line that describes her, it goes: ‘She could make something sound stupid just by hearing it.’ When I was growing up, I wanted to be her. But I realised that’s who Bulbbul is. Other people would talk in circles and get a little frazzled. It always happens that when someone’s not saying something, you want to justify and fill that silence with words to explain yourself. She has power because she’s really quiet. She’s centred. She can possibly only hear her own breath. As far as the character is concerned, the silence is the quietude in her mind.
Smriti Kiran: What about the mood and the setting? The play with spaces that you particularly believe in? How does that work? How do you create that?
Anvita Dutt: Again, I go back to reading. When you read beautiful books, great stories set in wonderful worlds, you imagine those worlds and get a sense of understanding of aesthetics. Aesthetics become important. Beauty becomes important in everything. Therefore, you’re drawn to art. You’re drawn to fabric, to the way a piece of glass looks, the way light falls on the water – wherever there is a visual, aesthetic also starts. You start seeing it. Your mind is now attuned to noticing things. Those things are important to me. Not for the sake of beauty, but for telling the story. Everything that is there visually in Bulbbul is beautiful. The credit goes to everybody who made it possible because I can only imagine it, but there are people who have to do it and make it happen, which they did. The moonlight is not red for the sake of being red or because it would be interesting. It’s there because something happens and a blood moon is formed. Because it’s a fantasy, what we were talking about earlier, you can play with the magical aspect, the fantastical aspect of the story to tell something important.
The way it looks is inspired by Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, who was painting at the same time as the story is set in. The way the women are dressed, the kind of clothes that they wore – the thakuranis wore benarsis, weavers from Benaras would weave for them, so Bulbbul and Binodini are wearing benarsis – the fan that she uses is all from a Ravi Varma painting.
I wanted to use that. Meenal did a beautiful thing of incorporating elements from various paintings. I was like, ‘Bulbbul is the uttam nayika, and the rest of it is the painting, the backdrop.’ So, Diwan, the way he lit her, the way he painted that painting, and Meenal, the way she built that world around her made it feel like a Raja Ravi Varma painting.
There’s also an interesting anecdote about Caravaggio. I had this idea in my head that the grown-up Bulbbul would be lit in the way Caravaggio lit his characters. Her world would be lit like that. After I sent the script to Diwan, we had a meeting, and he said, ‘Do you have any brief?’ I was like, ‘No, we will find the world. We can just talk.’ He said, ‘What comes to your mind right off the bat? Do you have any film references?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t watch many films. But there’s this artist called Caravaggio.’ Diwan just looked at me and said, ‘One minute.’ He opened his laptop, and on his desktop, there was a folder that he clicked open, which had Bulbbul’s script that had been sent to him to read and a Caravaggio painting that he had downloaded. That was magical! He was totally the right man to shoot this film. That’s how all these things come, the aesthetics and other elements: not just as a part of the story, but because it gives me pleasure.
Smriti Kiran: You did storyboards, which were very different and not really traditional. You also went for the tech recce with your team, and you shot the entire thing on video with your ADs and other people from your team. You blocked the whole thing with them.
Anvita Dutt: Yes. Especially for the VFX portions, there were professional storyboarders. My shot breakdown is a mixture of what I’ve written and what I’ve drawn. Fortunately, for me, Diwan and I would not even need to talk to know what is that we were planning. We were so much in sync. It was the same with Meenal; actually, with all my HODs. It was incredible. But, yes, my visual shot breakdown and sketches were a source of great amusement for my AD team. I would be like, ‘Itne acche se draw kiya hai.’ They would be like, ‘No. Someone needs to wake her up.’ I’d be like, ‘Of course you can understand this! This is so clear. Imagine the red moon, imagine the chudail – you’ll have to imagine everything. I know my stick figures are doing everything.’
Smriti Kiran: Anvita, in a career spanning almost three decades, what were your greatest challenges as a creator?
Anvita Dutt: You know, Smriti, the challenges have nothing to do with work or career. The challenges are always internal. At least, for me. I think my greatest challenge has been to become more of me; to, first of all, become aware of the fact that you’re supposed to be you, and that it’s actually not what you imagine, what society tells you, what your family, seniors, bosses, colleagues, peers or friends tell you – you are none of that. You start feeling like a child. You’re like this when you’re a child because you’re not coloured by any glass other than your own. You feel wonder and joy in everything – everything is a story that you’re telling yourself. You want to build a tribe of people who might be very different from you, but who belong to that world of being okay with yourself and seeing the joy and wonder as you do, who can laugh, and just be good people. It’s amazing. The more you feel like this, the more such people come into your life, and the others seem to just fall away. That has been the challenge.
The challenge has also been to, then, stand up and say, ‘I can do this. I might not know what this lens means, but I know her eyes…. I know that.’ Just knowing that is enough: knowing that there will be a red moonlight, and blood will flow like that, knowing that there will be that Jatayu Vadham (by Raja Ravi Varma) painting because it says so much about that moment, and knowing that everybody who is a part of this journey is there because of those things that you believe in. It’s great to know that they are going to do their best, that they are going to be excited about telling your story. I think that has been the challenge: to feel like this every day, every moment. Therefore, I made a film with ease, with joy and happiness. I think that’s more important.
“My greatest challenge has been to become more of me; to become aware of the fact that you’re supposed to be you.”
When people are liking the film, or it’s becoming well-known, it’s because they are seeing something true being told. Something true can be told only when you’re true to yourself and you’re fine. If you’re angst-ridden and thinking about the world or your vision or the fact that you’re an artist, you’ll be busy proving that you’re an artist instead of being delighted at the possibility of having to tell this story and to tell it like this. Anshai used to sometimes say that it’d be slightly scary to see me with a smile on my face whenever there was an aandhi and lights had blown off. He used to say that it was slightly psychotic. I would say, ‘But look at the lightning! It’s so beautiful! Let’s shoot the lightning.’ So, you become that person when everything else is syncing. That is more important for me than possibly even having made Bulbbul.
Smriti Kiran: Anvita, what are the key things that you feel can change or alter in the film industry to make it a more humane space?
Anvita Dutt: Firstly, and I’m not just saying it because of what we have been talking about, I wish there were more readers in the industry because when you read, it teaches you to imagine things and their consequences. Therefore you think twice before saying an unkind word or not being generous or not accepting. You will think twice before passing on the vitriol or the poison that comes out because you will imagine the consequences, both for yourself, in your mind and body, and for the person who’s on the receiving end. You will not be cruel. You will not be dismissive. You will not treat the person like an other, or make them feel alienated, or as if they don’t belong. None of that will happen if you have a little bit of empathy. But how do you change people?
Where does that simmering anger come from? It comes from being thwarted and being made to feel small. Those are the people who, when they either come into power or even if they don’t come into power, poison everything. I don’t know. I know it sounds trite.
Smriti Kiran: No, it doesn’t sound trite at all.
Anvita Dutt: It’s pretty simple. Ek baar ek stranger ko dekh ke bolo ki tumhare haath mein jo thaili hai vo kitni pyaari hai. Kya jaata hai tumhara? Politics aside, I had once gone to Canada, to this beautiful university there. There were these lovely Roman pillars at the entrance of the university, and I just looked up expecting a Latin phrase carved into them. There was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi – an Indian person’s words were on the gates of that university. When everyone is shouting and no one can be heard, you can change the world very quietly. You don’t have to resort to verbal or physical violence. I know you can sometimes think ki sab chilla rahe hain toh tumhe bhi chillana padega to be heard. Sometimes, when you go quiet, people lean in to listen.
Just be kind to yourselves. We’re not kind enough to ourselves, therefore we hurt others. Learn to be a little kinder to yourself. Actually vahi kar lo toh bohot badi baat hai. Bohot mushkil ho jaata hai dusro ke saath unkind hona when you’re in a good place. This is just me. This is not gyaan. It’s also not that I’ve not been unkind or cruel. I have, whenever I’ve been angry, hurting, feeling suppressed or cornered. Of course, I’ve done that in the past. I hope it became better as I became kinder to myself.
If you read, you become very mindful because you have the patience to be in the moment. Books teach you that.
“Be kind to yourselves. We’re not kind enough to ourselves, therefore we hurt others.”
It’s also cyclical; it happens all the time. When you’re a reader, you see across history that terrible things happen, terrible people come to power, who do terrible things to everybody. Then, things change. Also, people grow old, and they die, and other sets of cruel people come. So, it keeps changing, and you keep wanting to change the world and bring about a revolution. But I truly believe in changing one person at a time and one day at a time. Look at yourself and at that one person whom you’re working with – I know it sounds trite – or someone who’s reporting to you, someone you’ve hired to do a job for you, whether it’s a writer or a lyricist, usko izzat utni de do. They might go home happy, and chances are that the person is going to try and hopefully do the same thing well again tomorrow.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Vishwapriya Iyer: When it comes to storytelling, the boundaries of timelines are often blurred. How would you say an age-old fable or folklore influences what you write – a song or a film – in the current time?
Anvita Dutt: There are so many writers, like Angela Carter, who subvert fairy tales set in the present context. You read anything, actually, or anything that you’re watching today, like vampire shows set in modern times, on the streets of New York. That’s age-old legends and myths being used today to tell stories of today. When The Fifth Element (by Luc Besson) came out (in 1997), nobody had seen anything like that before, but if you’d been reading, you would have read those books in the 1940s and 1950s.
The thing about fairy tales is that they’re always relevant. Myths are so relevant that they become a religion. They’re that powerful. In gardening, there is a kyari in a flower pot, myths and legends are things that grow in that. Other stories grow in that. So they will always be relevant in the present-day context, or whichever timeline you want to put it in, or if you want to set it in the future. It will still work.
Somebody once asked Einstein in an interview about how future generations can be made more intelligent. Because he was somebody who had the highest IQ ever, right? He said, ‘Read them fairy tales.’ They inquired further, ‘What if we want to make them more intelligent?’ ‘Read them more fairy tales,’ he said. They will always be relevant regardless of where you set it, whichever timeline. You just have to go to any bookstore and pick up the latest fantastical novel. You will recognise legends and myths of old because those are the ones that are being subverted, as we’re calling it today. But it’s actually just people retelling myths through and through. People who rise from the dead, twins who are separated at birth, an evil twin and a good twin – these are all stories from myth. We are still telling them.
Udit Joshi: Martin Scorsese famously said that the most personal is the most creative. As a writer, does it mean that we should only write about stuff that we’ve personally experienced? How do you personalise your writings when it’s something you haven’t experienced first-hand like the supernatural?
Anvita Dutt: When they say write what you know, it doesn’t mean what has happened to you in terms of incidents. Write what you know as a human being: what it feels to feel small, what it feels to succeed, what it feels to have your heartbroken, what it feels to inflict cruelty on someone and get away with it. Half the literature will just disappear from this planet if everybody starts writing incidents from their lives. They write what they know as people, as empathetic human beings. It doesn’t necessarily mean by that logic that I should only write stories about the Air Force or about advertising or Annapurna atta – that’s the brand I worked on for four years.
When you’re starting out and you want to write a story, sometimes the familiar helps to situate you. In my case, even if I set a story in Punjab, usme kahin na kahin se kuch pret type cheez aa jayegi because that’s how my mind works.
In advertising, there are creative people who are snobbish. First of all, you don’t want to work on certain brands kyunki uspe awards nahin milte. Secondly, bada research hota hai, campaign ki lag jaati hai, because somebody in a distant place has said, ‘Par hamare ghar mein toh aisa hota hai,’ and your campaign is screwed. Do you know what I loved the most about advertising? Research, because it told me about people. It tells you how a person in Bihar, Maharashtra or Kerala thinks; how a housewife or a school teacher or a school principal in Kerala thinks. Now, when I sit down to write a story because it’s a news story that I heard – a woman serial killer in Kerala; I met that woman – there is something that I can draw from her. I know what it means to be part of a family, and I’ve lived in Kerala. I know what that is like. So, I pick up things.
Everything is material. Even when you’re standing and having a breakup with your girlfriend, and she’s telling you that you’re shit, it’s material. It’ll come in handy, trust me. What you know means that. Be a sponge, absorb everything you read and go for research.
Sarthak Jain: How difficult is it for the lyricists or script writers to draw inspiration without it being labelled as plagiarism?
Anvita Dutt: Everything that happens to you, everything that you read and watch is inspiration. If it inspires you to be brave, if it inspires you to sit down and pick up that pen and do that hard work to write, you will not plagiarise. All that it needs to do is inspire you to be like, ‘Arre waah, let me also write. See, this writer has written so well. Let me also write,’ or ‘This filmmaker has made this film, I’m also going to write and make a film. I want to tell a story like this. I want to tell a moving, deep and realistic story. I want to tell a crime thriller. I want to tell a story like Mahanagar. I’ve read Terry Pratchett, and I want to tell a mad story set in an alternate universe.’ That is inspiration: when things give you permission to at least think of doing something new. Then you will not plagiarise because that’s what you want to do. You want to do something new and wonderful because that’s what they are doing. No one is copying other people and trying to take scenes from other people or write a book like somebody else. They’re just trying to be themselves, which is why they are great, which is why we are inspired by them. So be inspired to be like that. Be original as much as you can. Subconscious inspiration may creep into your work but that’s a risk that you run with.
Kushal Asnani: What would you suggest aspiring filmmakers not to do?
Anvita Dutt: Don’t be afraid to share your ideas with people. Initially, you are always a little nervous. Don’t be afraid of bad ideas and bad writing. There’s no such thing. The first reader is you, so don’t judge yourself like that. Just put down your story, set it down. If you don’t believe in yourself toh dusra kya tumpe believe karega. Believe in yourself first; be kind to yourself. Do those things because we waste a lot of time being harsh and judging ourselves, and that stops us from writing because you let thoughts like ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘Maybe I can’t do this,’ ‘I had this idea, but maybe someone else can write it,’ invade your mind.
You have to sit down and write it. Who cares? No one’s going to judge you. Just put it down on paper in longhand, like I do, or type it out on your phone, whichever works for you. Then after you’ve written it, share it with people who will give you true feedback. It can be a very frightening thing because you’re naked, and not in a good way. So you have to give it to people you trust to give you feedback that is true and works. May God grant you the patience and the wisdom because that takes a long time coming, to sit down and take that feedback. That’s what you need to do: be kind to yourself, don’t judge yourself and be open to sharing your ideas because you’ll only learn. Utna arrogance ho hi nahin sakta ki tumhe sab aata hai. Kisi ko nahi aata, toh isse tumhe bhi nahi darr lagna chahiye. Kisi ko nahi aata, pehle toh yahi samajh lo. Some people are projecting, you don’t need to project. Tumhe jo aata hai, uspe kaam karo. Just become better at that. Keep doing that more and more because there’ll be more than enough people who will know what they are. Always ride on the shoulders of giants – get the people who know what they are doing to work with you.
People will see. If you have faith in your story, the producer or the actor will see it. Half the time, they’re going by instinct. They’re judging the story and seeing whether this person has the capability, and it doesn’t mean that you will know everything. It means what you know, you know it really well. So work on that.
Abhinav Mishra: You said in an interview that all the stories that you write introduce some supernatural or fantasy elements. Do you create this supernatural world to satisfy your artistic persona or as a trapped human being who finds solace in that fantasy world? How do you keep that creation intact on the screen?
Anvita Dutt: Subconsciously and psychologically speaking, it’s the latter. You possibly do it because you find solace in the imagined world to deal with the existing world. I don’t consciously do it. I don’t say that I have an idea about two people who run away on a train, which catches fire and they have to escape in the desert. I can’t help it. When I’m writing, if two people are on the train and the train catches fire, one person will realise that the other person is not getting burned by the fire. Then we’ll wonder why, which might lead to a rift between them. But eventually, we will realise that that’s how this person will save the other person, basically because they have some kind of a power, or they are a dragon, or they are the son of Agni or Surya. Mera dimaag vahan chala jaata hai, automatically.
You give me a story about dhaniya, it will become supernatural. I don’t consciously say, ‘Let me tell a story about a supernatural dhaniya,’ aisa bas ho jaata hai. When I sat down to write Bulbbul, the first image was not of some supernatural thing. It was just feet withdrawing in fear, and that feeling of fear was so palpable. I was like, ‘Why would she be so scared, and what would happen to her?’ That’s how the story came about.
But yes, it is possibly a form of solace: my way of dealing with the world, or my way of being able to say what I really want to say, pushing the envelope, visually or conceptually.
Saneeya Agrawal: From the snippets shared, your screenplay reads like a novel. How did you get the courage to break the convention in your first screenplay itself?
Anvita Dutt: If you are writing to break convention, then the writing will suffer. You are writing like this because you can’t help it. By the way, when I write, sometimes there are words and sentences in Hindi, sometimes there’s an Urdu word over there because what I’m trying to say will only come across with that word. You write the way you write, even if it is in two-word sentences, even if it is in Hindi, Marathi or Bengali. Whatever you feel like, you do.
You’re not writing to break convention or to impress anybody. Your story should impress. Writing is not how well you string words together. Once those words are strung, what is it that a person sees or receives at that moment? That is important. Content – what you are saying – is more important than how you are saying it. How you’re saying it is a tool. In my case, that’s how I write. Mera dimaag vaise chalta hai. It’s not a question of trying to break convention.
Uske liye daant bhi padti hai. When directors look at a script, they can be like, ‘Oh, this will be full of purple prose,’ or ‘This baroque style is not what writing is about.’ It’s such a bad word for a screenplay writer to hear the word ‘flowery’. That’s gaali. Nahin hona chahiye flowery. Your screenplay has to tell you what is happening at that moment, and so do the dialogues. It has to visually convey what is happening. In my case, because that moment is so visual, to be able to communicate it, even to myself, I had to write it like that. Never write to impress. Write to tell the story in the best way that you can, even if it is in gibberish.
Sau log tumko bolenge kaise likhte hai, but they are essentially trying to tell you that these are the skill sets required for telling a story. They are enabling you. These are just skills and guidelines to follow. Tell your story. Don’t worry about how it’s to be written, what language to use and how to explain something. Always be aware that I’m going to write in the best possible way through which I can communicate this.
Karan Singh: Joseph Campbell says, ‘Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.’ How would you explain the power of myth?
Anvita Dutt: Before you read Campbell, I suggest that you read two books to gain a better perspective of what Campbell is talking about in his books: Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. When he’s talking about the power of myth, you need to know what he’s referring to. That’s the fun of reading. Otherwise, you’re reading kuch sikhne ke liye. Campbell was a Jungian, so even to understand the Jungian references he makes, you need to know what (Carl) Jung stood for.
Read, even if it is short stories. You have graphic novels on myths. It’ll be fun for you to read the myths and then read the book. That’s me giving gyaan because I’m older than you. But the role of myths is this: you first have to read them. You will enjoy them. When you read them, you’ll recognise stories. You’ll recognise stories in today’s world. You’ll get a sense of it, even if you haven’t read Shakespeare, even if you have read our stories, our literature. You will recognise those myths from our mythology. If you have read the Mahabharata, for example. Oh, it is a minefield of stories! There are stories about transgenders, about sex-change, about same-sex relationships – everything.
Myths become religion because they have so much power. That’s the power of myths, exactly what Campbell is saying. It’s a collective consciousness about how we make sense of the world, the first stories. What are myths? They are the first stories. What were the earlier pagan Gods in our culture, or in the Greek or Norse mythology? They were: Fire God, Sun God, Rain God, and River God. You’re living in a cave in a forest, and you’re trying to make sense of the world. These are Gods because you have no control over them. You can beg them to give you food or sunlight or rain, so that your crops can grow, for example. So they become gods. They’re just myths. You build stories to make sense of the world. It’s a collective consciousness. It’s amazing because if you look at Greek myths, Norse myths, and our myths, they’re almost the same because you have the Sun God, you have the Fire God – you have all the same Gods. You’re making sense of the same world. The sad part is people forget that.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Anvita Dutt in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
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