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Smriti Kiran: Writer and director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari always wanted to be a full-time artist, but practical parents convinced Ashwiny to combine her love for art with prospects that would help her pay her bills.

She studied commercial art from Sophia College in Mumbai; got her first job through campus placement, with Leo Burnett in 2001, and went on to work on over 300 commercials across 14 years. These prolific years in advertising taught Ashwiny objectivity and economy in storytelling; it also gave her a unique insight into small-town India, which is possibly one of the biggest reasons why her stories feel so real.

She made her first short film in 2013, What’s For Breakfast? The film won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. Her very popular KBC advertisement, Mubarak Ho Ladki Hui Hai, inspired her to make her first film, Nil Battey Sannata. Her women are strong, and she insists she writes them as people and not as women.

It’s very heartening to get to know the stories of creators. I think what we really want to do is catalogue the journey and document the kind of work across years that has been invested into getting to a certain position so that you can tell the kind of stories that you want to tell.

Ashwiny, small-town India is almost like a focus area for you. What is it that attracts you about this world?

“What attracts me more than anything else is that our country is full of colours and pictures.”

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: During my days in advertising, I used to predominantly work on brands such as Tide, Whisper, Stayfree and Rejoice. Basically, I worked across brands. I even worked on Dabur Shanti Amla. I have worked on Marico Mediker for lice. Who were we talking to here? We were talking to 80% of our population who are buying these products, whether it was hair care, or whether it was a detergent powder, or whether it was a sachet between bottles. Those were the people that we were talking to.

An important learning in advertising was that it took me to places which I would have not otherwise visited because I’m a Bombay girl. I have been born and brought up in Bombay. My culture, and what I’ve lived with all my life, is the Bombaiyya culture. Advertising helped me to discover the cities and towns of small-town India, which I had never seen before. What attracted me most was that we were going and researching households where we used to talk to them about almost everything they did from morning to evening: How do they live their life? What do they eat? What TV channels do they watch? What do they wear? How many sachets do they buy in a month? That’s the kind of research we used to do. In that process, I got to know that there is more beyond where we live and that those are the stories that I want to talk about.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari at Leo Burnett

Of course, what attracts me more than anything else is that our country is full of colours and pictures. There is a dialect difference in every, I would say, hundred kilometres; the clothes are very different – even the sari that we wear can be worn in 50 different ways. That’s what we are. For me, that was very beautiful.

Another important thing is that we have the ability to laugh at our own jokes. Anywhere you go, we have all these katthas or chai-tapris. Why are they present ubiquitously? You won’t see that anywhere in the world except India, and maybe in our neighbouring countries. But the thing is that in our country, we enjoy having the chai-tapri ki chai and talk over it. You will find everyone at that tapri, people across every stratum of society.

Chai doesn’t discriminate against you. That’s for everyone. You may be working in a multinational, but you still go down in the afternoon or evening to have your chai. That’s what I enjoy – the chai and the conversation during that time.

Also, knowing neighbours, knowing people, saying hello, knowing exactly what is happening in the other person’s house is what we strive for. We are also very helpful because if one person falls sick, there’ll be a community who will come together and make sure that they are all right. That’s why we are a country of open doors.

For me, the reason I wanted to make stories of small towns or stories that represent our culture and who we truly are was because if French cinema can purely talk about the French character, so to speak – and it’s so beautiful that we all like it – and if Chinese films are exactly what the Chinese would do, then I wanted to make our films exactly how we would be, unapologetically Indian, and talk about it in our own nice way.

Smriti Kiran: Some of the different aspects that go into creating the worlds that you create would be research, writing, dialogues, characters, casting, art, production design, costumes and cinematography. Across the films that you’ve made – Nil Battey Sannata, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Panga – can you take us through the process?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I’m a very meticulous person. We say that creative people are very fluid, and they move with the flow; but at the same time, I feel that if we are in the business of making films, we need to be as meticulous as possible as well.

For every film, I have two books. I am a stationery freak and a pen freak; I have highlighters of different colours and almost everything you can imagine.

We take a lot of time to write the screenplay. We also don’t write screenplays individually. We write screenplays in a group. In all of my films, you’ll at least have two writers working together. So, the process is slightly longer because we will argue, we will fight on that one very basic line which has to come out, which could have easily happened in half an hour. But it takes a whole day sometimes; I’m not exaggerating – a whole day. I remember on Bareilly Ki Barfi, Nitesh (Tiwari) and Sherry (Shreyas Jain) had a difference in their point of view on this one line that Rajkummar (Rao) was supposed to say. The discussion on that line went on and on. Finally, I was like, ‘Guys, this might just change when I’m making the film. So, it’s okay’.

But it is important for us that we work in a team. It may be because of our very aggressive training in advertising that we tend to work in teams and take the best out of people. I’ve learnt that filmmaking is not a job done in isolation. They say that you’re alone, but, no, you’re not alone. You’re working along with the whole crowd who are supporting you in it.

After it is written, we go for casting. We don’t think of the cast before writing. Once I feel that this is who it is going to be because I feel that this person will be able to do justice to this character, it’s from there that we enter into casting. For me, it has always been reversed. The character gets into the actor and not vice versa. Unknowingly, some traits, some personality of the actor will predominantly be present in the character in advance. It’s almost as if the match was just there. That happens most of the time. That’s why, when you see them on screen, you feel, ‘Oh, it’s so correct’. From there I open the first page of my book and I put some stickers and write the name of the film. Then I start writing character sketches according to what I feel.

“I’ve learnt that filmmaking is not a job done in isolation.”

If I take Nil Battey Sannata, the number of conversations I had with Swara (Bhasker) was unbelievable. Since this was the first time that she was going to play the role of a mother, she didn’t know how a mother would be to a 14-year-old. I still remember meeting her at a cafe in Versova, and she said, ‘You know what, I really like the role, but how am I going to play the role of a mother?’ So, I said, ‘Put on weight.’ She said, ‘Okay, that’s a very easy thing to do’.

She was fresh out of Tanu Weds Manu, so you can imagine her personality – a go-getter type. I said, ‘You need to do meditation. You need to do yoga.’ She said, ‘How does that help?’ I said, ‘That helps because you will meditate and calm down – a mother always has to be very patient, but they also tick off very fast’. Then I told her, ‘I want you to do a very honest thing: I want you to have a conversation with your mother about all the things you would have done when you were 13 or 14, and what bothered her the most. Let’s have this open conversation.’ She said, ‘I’ve never done that ever. I’ve always spoken to my mother, but I’ve never spoken to her about how wicked I was when I was 13 or 14.

Nil Battey Sannata (2015)

That changed her perspective because she knew exactly what she had to do by the time she came to the shoot. It is because there were times when she had spoken to her mother, and there were conversations about things which she never knew about herself. Even for her mother, it was like a confession. I know I have spoken to my mother, and she has also told me a lot of things that we might have ignored. Those are the things that came out in her performance, and she said that it was a really good experience. So, when she came on set, she was ready.

The funny part is that the most important sequence, where Swara’s character hits the girl because she goes against the values which her mother had taught her, which was to not steal, had to be done in one shot. Take after take, Swara was hitting her very faintly. I said, ‘You can’t hit her like that.’ She said, ‘Why can’t we just trick it somehow?’ I said, ‘No, you cannot. You have to be angry and you just have to give her a slap because otherwise she’s not going to emote and she’s not going to cry.’ She finally relented and agreed. Before shooting, she profusely kept apologising to Riya (Shukla).

Then when we shot the scene, she gave her a tight slap across her face. We just left it there because we had to shoot. Then she cried and that’s what we captured. But after I said cut, Swara started crying. She was sobbing. That’s what I think getting into character does for you. So, Riya was crying and wanted to meet her mother. Swara was crying and she wanted to meet her mother. I wanted to meet my children.

Riya Shukla, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, Swara Bhasker on the sets of Nil Battey Sannata

Smriti Kiran: Ashwiny, you got the inspiration for your first film, Nil Battey Sannata, from the advertisement that you did for KBC, which was Mubarak Ho Ladki Hui Hai. You saw the impact it had, and that was the foundation for writing a story like this. What kind of research went into constructing that world?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: We always wanted to take a small-town because for me the dialect was very important. I could have either taken somewhere in Maharashtra or somewhere more closed off. When I say closed, I mean that if there’s one doctor, a whole lot of people would know that one doctor in that locality; and if there is any problem, then they’d go to him or her, that if I have a problem, then I’ll go to him.

Smriti Kiran: Where there’s more intimacy; where people know each other; where the town is not so vast or spread out that people aren’t aware of anyone.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: As a filmmaker, I’m a very outdoor person. For me, shooting in enclosures doesn’t give me joy at all because I love going on a recce. I love doing these big outdoor shoots, which are very landscape-ish. All my DOPs have a hard time with that. But that’s what it is.

Anay Goswamy, who was supposed to shoot the film, came up with the idea that maybe we should go to Agra and see what it is like there because the Taj Mahal as the epitome of love could also symbolise the love between a mother and daughter.

Incidentally, we found a basti right behind the Taj Mahal. From the terrace of the houses there, you could see the monument. For me, it added to the whole idea of the film’s cinematography – the whole landscape and the different jobs that she had to do. It’s not just about the character, but it’s also about how you add value to all those scenes through the cinematography, through visuals that add more meaning to what we’re saying in the story.

Nil Battey Sannata location recce

Chanda (played by Swara Bhasker) had multiple jobs. This location gave me the idea of showing visuals which we had not seen on screen for a very long time, or we had never seen it before, like a shoe factory. She works in a shoe factory because Agra is famous for leather. Then she works as a washer of second-hand saris, which, again, Agra is a hub for – saris are washed and transported across India from there. We got a whole lot of saris for her from the second-hand shops. So, there was no full-time stylist designing her clothes. Her blouse, in fact, was designed by me.

“It’s not just about the character, but it’s also about how you add value through the cinematography, through visuals that add more meaning to what we’re saying.”

We got all those saris from the second-hand mart with a little bling in them because I researched and saw that women love to wear these colourful saris. They may be poor, or they may not have the ability to go to a mall, par jitne mein hain, utne mein khush hain vo. Unko accha lagta hai bright colours ke saree pehenna. You’ll always see them in blues, maroons and oranges.

The entire landscape of showing them washing the saris, putting them in hot water, vo saari cheezein maine kabhi dekhi nahin thi. Jab maine dekhi toh mujhe laga ki kitna sundar hai ye. Aur hum bhi kuch batane ki koshish kar rahein hain jo humari desh ki landscape hai. Then you go to the shoe factory, and then you go to the doctor’s house, which is a nice, beautiful bungalow.

Of course, one very important aspect was the IAS officer. In small towns, you see a lot of IAS colonies and a lot of government colonies and quarters. That was also very important for me. So, we got a beautiful quarter there too.

Nil Battey Sannata’s location was the most important thing to show the landscapes of two different worlds becoming one because the emotion of a dream is the same between both.

Smriti Kiran: When you say that the location was the most important for you and that while building the world, it was very important for you to decide where to set the film to get out the intimacy and the authenticity in the story, then what kind of research goes into it? Do you travel to that place, and live there for a certain amount of time? Do you get these pictures clicked so that you know exactly what the cultural landscape of that town is in order for you to replicate it and infuse it in every aspect of the film?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: The first decision we take is where we shoot. There is a little bit of recce that goes into it, which is called the pre-recce, and it has been the same for all four of my films – whether it is Bareilly Ki Barfi or Panga, Nil Battey Sannata or even Amma Kanakku. For Amma Kanakku less so because I knew that we were shooting in Chennai. As for the remaining three, there were a lot of options. I knew that I needed to shoot in a small town, but these are the specific locations that I need. I also need to be happy with them. Also, in terms of production, it has to be manageable. It’s not just me going alone; you have a crew of a hundred going there to shoot.

Keeping that in mind, we do the pre-recce, where there’s only the director, the DOP and the production person and your first AD, only four or five people, who go to see and check the different locations. Those are the hardest because in one day you’re seeing more than 20 houses. Not a single minute can be wasted because every minute is accounted for; you’re paying for it. So, if you’re staying for five nights, then you’re paying for five nights. You have to cover everything in those five nights. It’s not travelling; you’re not enjoying it; you’re just looking and absorbing. But when you are going for that as a director, I tend to also start looking at what the characters would look like. Who are these kids looking like? If you’re going to school, then I click pictures of school uniforms. I click pictures of kids who are in that zone. Then I go to the markets. I go to every location which is required for the film. In due course, because you are going to the location, I also click pictures of the people existing in that location for colours or textures or costumes or hairstyles.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari on the sets of Nil Battey Sannata

When I had gone for the recce for Bareilly Ki Barfi, we’d gone to this very complicated market area where I saw these two guys, friends, both looking different, one with a Mohawk, talking. My crew had gone far, and I was like, ‘Bhaiya ruko mujhe aapki photo nikalni hai.’ I took their photographs. Rajkummar’s shirts with the bold prints and those contrasting, complementary colours, red-blue or red-yellow, were purely because I had seen it there on those two men who were dressed in faded jeans with narrow bottoms, resting below their waist. This is exactly what it was. I came back running to my crew and said, ‘Mujhe mera Pritam aur Chirag mil gaya hai’.

Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017)

I went back and called up my costume designer, Kirti (Kolwankar), I called up the art department, and I sent these pictures to Raj and Ayushmann saying, ‘This is you and this is you, now. Acting toh aap kar hi loge, aap mahan kalakar ho. You guys are great actors, undoubtedly, but as a director, for me, this is what it is.

For Kriti (Sanon), I found that the girls there would wear these acid jeans. I saw them all wearing these nice blingy, tight t-shirts. They looked really nice with the hair all made up and the eyeliner. They looked cool, so I clicked photographs.

So, recce is not only looking at locations but also looking at all the other aspects of the story including food. In Panga, because the food was such an important factor, a lot of the food that was prepared was actually the local cuisine. For example, poha is a huge thing in M.P., and paratha is a huge thing there. It’s a Punjabi household, so those things are a given. The bhindi was not the kurkuri bhindi from Punjab, but the kurkuri bhindi which was made in the next-door house, which was transported to our shoot when we were supposed to shoot that scene.

These are the things we recce. I come back, and in my famous notebook, I write down all those things. Then I change the screenplay, which is the director’s screenplay.

Smriti Kiran: Does the work that you have done so far have an effect on the writing?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I write the locations according to what I have gone and selected. I write those locations, and I rewrite scenes, the visuals, according to what I have seen there. For example, in the screenplay of Bareilly Ki Barfi, it was written that Ayushmann’s character, Chirag, is thinking about how to make a fool of Vidrohi. Until I went to the location, I didn’t know that next to where they stay, in the huge market area, there is a video game parlour which is filled with people in the evening kyunki unhe bohot aadat hai vo khelne ki.

While I was walking through the location, I was still thinking about what we could do for that scene. We didn’t have the location yet, and I wanted something different. I didn’t want to go do the same thing – thinking in the room. That’s when I saw this, and I was like, ‘Does any know how to play this?’ Then we got Rohit Chaturvedi, who plays Chirag’s friend in the film, and called the local guy to teach us how to play. We saw the game and learnt it. So, in the scene, Chirag is standing next to him, looking at the game, and the reference is that he is literally pushing someone in Chirag’s mind. This came out of the pre-tech recce which we had done.

On the sets of Bareilly Ki Barfi

Smriti Kiran: How much time does it take for a director to imbibe a space? Do you need some quiet time there first?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: For Nil Battey Sannata, we went to Benaras. I went to the schools. I wanted to see the location around the schools. I didn’t find that connection with the place, although Benaras is a beautiful city to shoot in. From Benaras, I took a car in the evening to Lucknow. I did a small recce there. I auditioned school-going kids, who had never acted before, for the characters, whether it was Riya or Pintu. I just wanted to see them because I had never seen them before. So, I just went there. I didn’t like anything there because I felt that it was too big as a city for me. From there we went to Agra. When we go for the first time, we bunch it up thinking that you never know if you don’t get something here, then we might have to go elsewhere.

Once I come back and fix the setting, we do all the planning – the line producer, executive producer and the first AD sit together and figure out everything. If you’re shooting in Agra, then where is all the equipment going to come from? In 2015, Agra was not a shooting friendly city at all. That was the first time that someone was shooting there after ages. Balki purani filmein bohot bani hain vahan par, lekin uske baad bani nahin aur ab jaa kar ban rahi thi. They weren’t used to seeing a woman directing out there, which is another thing, and questioning people and asking directions to a location.

“Recce is not only looking at locations but also looking at all the other aspects of the story.”

There’s a whole lot of backend work, I would say, which goes into making a film. During the time that I am looking at costumes or a whole lot of other things, there is a team working on how to make a director’s vision happen. If you’re getting equipment, how is it supposed to travel? What are the places to stay? Are there even hotels which are good enough for everyone? What is the distance between the hotel and the location? Are there enough cars available every day? What’s the transport looking like? There is so much going on. Everything starts looking okay once we know that this is the location, this is where you’re going to be shooting.

Also, in Agra, we had to create that house. We wanted the house to be right at the edge of the basti so that when she’d be on the terrace, she’d be able to see the Taj Mahal in a very cinematic way. There were months where the house was rented off. Then the art director went ahead and worked on it. The field was growing, and we asked them not to clean up the field. The lanes were cleaned up. Vanity vans came in from Delhi or Bombay. So, those kinds of things happen. Swara even told me that she’d live there for some days, just live with the place.

Smriti Kiran: As a filmmaker, characters are very important to you; in fact, you’ve said that the characters are more important than the plot because you feel that the characters are what people connect with. How do they get affected in your film once you’ve decided where they will be set? What kind of work do you do with the characters? Do you also take your actors on location, or do workshops with them before the shooting actually begins?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: Yes, absolutely. Workshops are a must for me. My casting partner for all my films has been Mukesh (Chhabra). Mukesh has always helped me get the right actors because I always like to go in-depth with the characters. At times, traits of characters naturally come from the actors themselves – maybe they are from that city or know the language.

“We need to understand the language. The audience must understand that the characters belong to this place.”

Also, I truly feel that whichever city or town I’m shooting in, the actors will have to imbibe a little bit of the accent and the way of living in that place. For example, the Hindi spoken in Bombay or the Hindi spoken in Delhi or in East U.P. and West U.P. is different. In Nil Battey Sannata, Swara had to get the accent right. It wasn’t ye, it was always je, as in je baat hai. In Bareilly Ki Barfi, Rohit was also our dialect tutor. The Bareilly Hindi is slightly twanged.

Although we don’t want to get into such depths, from an overall perspective, we are still in the art of storytelling. We still need to understand the language. We cannot think that the audience won’t get it. It must be so much that they understand that the characters belong to this place. I very carefully designed it in such a way that, for me, Pritam (played by Rajkummar Rao) was totally staying in Bareilly, and belonged to that accent. As for Chirag (played by Ayushmann Khurrana), he still had a little Delhi-ness to him because eventually, according to me, and I may not have shown it in the film, it was always that Bareilly ki baad vo Delhi toh chala hi jayega. Toh uske accent mein bhi aapko utna Bareilly-ness nahi dikhayi dega. As for Bitti (played by Kriti Sanon), she was still someone for me who had a little edge to her. She’d be sweet but her accent would still be a mix of Delhi and Bareilly or any small-town. But if you see her parents, they are as desi as they can get because they are born and brought up there; they’ve stayed there. That’s their generation.

So, getting it right in these terms is very important across all my films.

Smriti Kiran: For Amma Kanakku, what are the changes that you had to make because the Hindi version was set in Agra, but when you were making the Tamil version, it was set in Chennai? It was a whole different film even though the ideology was the same.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: For me, emotions are the same across the world. You talk in any language – a cry is a cry, a laugh is a laugh. It does not have any emotional language, per se. But where you set it up, and the culture of the place is very important.

So, for example, I was setting it up in Chennai, and in one part of Chennai, specifically, in the same household category as the Hindi version. She worked in the fish factory instead of the leather factory because that’s what they do. I feel that the sense of respect in that society is much more. In Nil Battey Sannata, you could see that Ratna Pathak Shah and Swara Bhasker would sit and talk together, whereas, in Amma Kanakku, the idea of respect is that vahan aankh utha ke bhi wo nahin dekhegi – jisko pujti hai usko aankh utha kar nahin dekhegi. Vo ek cultural cheez hai. Those are the differences.

Amma Kanakku (2016)

And, of course, colours. Colours totally change there because the light source is very less. The houses that are there are more closed off than the houses which I saw in Agra. While I kept things in essence, the colours and certain nuances are what I changed in Amma Kanakku.

Also, the Tamil spoken is not the same. Everyone feels that Tamil is standard across the state. No, it’s not. Tamil also varies according to which part of Tamil Nadu you come from.

Smriti Kiran: The women that you create on-screen are very powerful and the men that you create on-screen are really empathetic. It’s beautiful to see stories around them pan out in this manner. You’ve insisted in interviews that the reason you can create such characters is because you’re not writing or looking at them through a gendered lens, that you’re actually looking at them as people. Would you like to elaborate on that?

“For me, the elements, the threads which make the tapestry are more important than the tapestry itself.”

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I think it’s high time we stop segregating movies into women-centric films and films which are made by women because when you make a story, you don’t think in that way – that I’m making a female-centric film or a male-centric film. We never call films male-centric films, where a man is leading the show in the film.

For me, it is always the point of view – from whose point of view are you telling the story? That is more important alongside the lens from which we’re viewing it. For example, talking from the point of view of a man who is talking about a woman, who is the main protagonist. But in essence, you’re talking from all the four sides of whoever is following a journey.

In my life, I have always seen a lot of men supporting women; I have seen so many women supporting women; I have seen so many women supporting themselves. But in real life, they never go and say, ‘I’m supporting myself,’ or ‘See, I’m supporting my daughter,’ it all happens very organically. It happens from the point of view of the mother, or daughter, or it happens from the point of view of the husband, or his wife, or the brother for his sister, or vice versa for that matter, or a brother for a brother. For me, the elements, the threads which make the tapestry are more important than the tapestry itself.

Smriti Kiran: Panga is one of your more personal stories. Rucha Pathak, who was the creative head of Fox Star Studios, asked you why there isn’t a story centred on the sport of kabaddi? And you said that the idea is exciting, but till it has an emotional rooting for you, it doesn’t make sense for you to make a film.

Then you saw Serena Williams in the Lean In Together campaign by Sheryl Sandberg, and Sania Mirza return to professional tennis after a two-year maternity leave and win the tennis doubles title. Of course, you identified with it as a mother of two, trying to manage your own guilt about going to work and balancing responsibilities both at home and work. How does one borrow from their own lives and still stay objective?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I feel like I borrow a lot from my own experiences. For example, Kriti Sanon’s mother, played by Seema Pahwa, was based on one of Nitesh’s (Tiwari) aunts, who I could totally relate to. For me, those kinds of things will always come into my work, and I think those are the experiences which I carry on – some traits or a peculiar cadence.

Panga is really close to me because I truly feel that it somewhere reflected my sense of being as soon as I became a mother. This is something which my mother had told me very clearly and strictly: have an education, work, earn money, stand on your own, fall in love, get married, have children, but continue working. She said that you cannot stop working because you had a child unless your circumstances don’t allow you to. I understand that totally. It’s not wrong to leave your job after you have become a mother because sometimes the circumstances might not allow you to do that or there are certain responsibilities that you need to focus on which are more important than your work. That will always be there – family first, always.

But the moment I had children, twin kids, I felt like haaye meri toh zindagi kharab ho gayi, do-do bacche ho gaye mere, ab mera kuch nahi ho sakta. That feeling comes to everyone. So, instead of staying in the hospital for three days, I stayed there for 10 days.

“In Panga, the villain is the mind. This little inspiration came to me from my own personal experience.”

Every woman feels that, especially women who are independent and are working. You question how you are going to manage the little ones. But you move on. I did a lot of research and saw that a lot of women drop out after they have children; they stop working, predominantly because of guilt issues or they didn’t have a support system at home, or they felt weak in terms of the whats, ifs and buts – the different emotional responsibilities we go through as a woman.

Smriti Kiran: Even if you have a support system, the fact of the matter is that women inherently, unfortunately, are constantly feeling guilty because of the way society is structured.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: Exactly. In this day and age, when we are talking about co-parenting, when we are talking about equal responsibility, I felt that if you’re talking about a story which is going to come out in 2019-20, then it may as well talk about co-parenting in the spirit of co-responsibilities, also because co-parenting means sharing responsibilities.

It comes down to the fact that for the longest time we always used to say that behind every man there is a woman. That’s because when the man went out to work, he was working happily, content, knowing that everything is okay back home, that the mother of the children is taking care of them, and she’s there.

But what if it is reversed? We are now celebrating them, but we should celebrate house husbands more. We should celebrate more men who are helping their wives to do better, who are encouraging their wives to go study or do whatever they feel like, and that is happening.

Panga (2020)

Someone once told me that there is no villain in your film. I said, ‘The villain is the mind. It is your thinking. The thinking is the villain in Panga’. This little inspiration came to me from my own personal experience. While Nitesh was shooting Dangal in the last schedule, I got the offer to work on Amma Kanakku. I knew that if he had to go to Patiala to shoot, and he was shooting all his important sequences, then that one month in January, starting from the 15th, until February, I was supposed to be in Chennai. Keeping that in mind, I said that I don’t think I’ll be doing this film. I didn’t want to do it.

Nitesh then told me, ‘Why won’t you do it? There’s nothing wrong in doing something like this because it’s just a matter of one month. In that one month, you will not even know how things went off, and everything will fall into place. In that one month, for 10 days, the kids will come to meet you.’ And, as it is, my mother was there, we had my brother-in-law, so there was a lot of support.

So dil pe haath rakh ke main gayi. Phir maine ek baat sochi aur mere dimaag mein ye baat aaya ki because I’m a woman, I started thinking this way. If a man has to go out and work or go on a tour, would they think this way? No, they would not. I’m not someone who needs the support of a man to move forward and do whatever I dream of because I know back home everything is taken care of, and I’m supported fully. It’s the same thing for a man to support a woman.

This whole thing gave rise to the notion in my head that if I want to do something, then I do it with equal responsibility. That doesn’t mean that I’m a bad mother. If I didn’t attend one PTA, if I didn’t go to one school function, I’m a bad mother. I’m not. By doing some homework over WhatsApp while shooting Panga does not make me a bad mother. These are the things which I got out of my system. I think today I’m a far happier person. I was always happy, but this guilt trip of should-I-or-should-I-not didn’t allow me to be happy. Today, the respect that my children have for me is greater because I went to work than it would have been otherwise.

A movie like Panga will pinch a little hearts here and there because they are not used to the idea that a woman can go out and follow her dreams while the man is at home cooking and doing everything else, but to see a woman reclaim her journey is what I wanted to show with the film.

Smriti Kiran: What would be your advice for first-time directors? What are the mistakes you feel that they can avoid that you possibly made?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I’ve not made any mistakes. That’s because I had prepped everything, and I didn’t take anything for granted. The chance that you’re getting to make a film is itself very big.

The only advice which I would give to first-time directors is that there are two types of first-time directors:

“Direction is about understanding your characters because for everything else you have amazing partners to help you.”

One, who are assistant directors, who have worked and assisted, and have then become directors because they’re used to the whole process of filmmaking. I always tell my first ADs who want to become directors that when you want to become a director stop thinking like a first AD. That’s the first rule: just become a director. Don’t worry about timing, location or scenes. Don’t worry about those things because for that you will have a first AD, right? Just be there. Two, people who are not assistant directors, who do not know the flow. They should either come from some form of advertising or something related to films or documentaries, something which will prove to them that they can handle a film.

Also, I feel it is very important to test yourself if you’re a first-time director by making a short film. In today’s day and age, you have a lot of equipment that you can use to make a short film and test the waters because direction is not just about making frames look good, or what camera angle you use, or what genre of movie you are making, or names of directors that you know. Today, I see a lot of these young aspiring filmmakers who know a lot of names, who know exactly what shot was taken in which film, shot breakdowns and how it happened. Direction is more than that. Direction is about understanding your characters because for everything else you have amazing partners to help you. You choose partners in art, copy, costume, everywhere, to help you out. Your job is to accumulate everything together and get amazing performances out of your actors and get the story together. That’s the most important thing a director does, I feel: telling the story in its full form for an audience to consume.

It’s very important for upcoming directors to understand more about human psychology. They need to understand the characters better. They need to travel more. They need to talk to people. They need to understand their backstory because you don’t know where your next story is coming from. For that, you need to keep your eyes and ears open.

That does not necessarily mean that you need to read a lot of books. It is also not a compulsion that you need to know every lens, every aspect of lensing. Half of the time, I don’t even remember the lens number. So, I tell my DOP what kind of shot I want because I’m more interested in my frame to be that way. My DOPs are so smart, I tell them exactly what I want but because I am bad at numbers, I forget the lens number with which I’d like to shoot my scenes. So, for me, that is more important. Knowing it all is great, but the soil has to be good before it nurtures into a plant.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari on the sets of Bareilly Ki Barfi

Smriti Kiran: Rigour is very important, and you also don’t need to know every technical term on the planet. But the life experience, going out, talking to people, getting to know more people, getting to know characters, their backstories, that is the kind of work that the director needs to do and a great team to take care of them.

“It’s very important that you know your story in and out to perceive and express your imagination.”

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: My basic aim has always been to create something which hasn’t been done already. If you are also going to be like that movie, or I will make a film like that, then how are you going to be different? In your difference lies your strength.

Also, I feel, for creators, it is important to do something that you’re most comfortable with. If that means a sobbing love story, fine. Let it be a sobbing love story. If that means a thriller—which a lot of youngsters are very skewed towards—then fine. Let it be that.

One thing which I have learned, and which I always tell my writers who are going to become directors now and my first assistant directors who want to become directors, is that your first film, whether it’s a short film or whether it’s a feature film or a series you’re going to be directing, just make sure that you are co-writing it. It’s very important that you co-write. Maybe you do not have the nuance of writing. Not all directors are writers. But be with your writer and go with the flow because it’s very important that you know your story in and out to perceive and express your imagination in order to create your storytelling world for the outside world. For me, it’s very, very important that writers write their own scripts if they want to direct, or directors, who want to direct but do not have the ability to write, find a writing partner and write along with them. But don’t do it all, also

Smriti Kiran: What are the few things that you feel can improve the systems in place within the industry? What could possibly make the journey of new people who join the industry a little better?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I feel that writers need to be given credit for whatever they do. It is important that when writers write, their names are present and they appear in the credits prominently, because a story forms on paper, and it’s very important that writers get credit for that.

I also feel that everyone is involved in the job of films – whether it’s your DOP, your art director, your executive producer – all of them should get that kind of credit. For me, team spirit and teamwork are very important.

One very good thing that Rucha did on Panga—which I was very touched by—was that she got all the assistant directors’ names on the opening credits list. It was so good that there were claps in the theatre when the assistant directors saw it. I feel that they are the backbone, and she made sure it was just not the first assistant director in the front, while all the other assistant directors were relegated to the end credits when half the people don’t even stay back.

They saw their names there – on three different plates in the opening credits. It was really heartening for me also because I didn’t think we could do this. So, these are the little changes which we as an industry can do: give importance to the people who really work so much, and celebrate every individual.

Team Panga

One important thing which I have learned, because I get a lot of scripts from upcoming writers, is that it is very important that we give a reason when we say no to a script or no to a story. If new people are coming and sharing their script with us, they are sharing it with us because they feel that we can guide them, or we can help put them onto someone else maybe, or maybe give some hope. We all strive for hope, right? One big learning is that in my growing years, when someone used to refuse or didn’t like my script, if my bosses didn’t like my advertising script, they always gave me a reason for why they didn’t like it and how I could better it.

I feel it is important for everyone who is at a decision-making level to inspire young creative minds by giving them a reason, spending 15-20 minutes reading it and telling them the reason why this doesn’t work for them, or why they aren’t the right people to approach with the script, and that they can be put in touch with some other people who’d probably better respond to it in terms of getting it made. That’s very important to do because when in doubt, you don’t know why someone has rejected your script. As creators, it’s very important to know why someone is not accepting my script.

Another very important thing which I feel writers need to do, and I’m telling you purely from a writer’s perspective, is registering their scripts. It is very important to register your script. It is also very important to channelise your script and send it to the person in the right way. Do not send your scripts on the phone. Numbers are very easily available now through friends and through people, there are directors’ groups, assistant directors’ groups. People who want numbers just go on there. It is very important that you respect your own creativity. Please do not send scripts on WhatsApp.

For assistant directors, I feel that it is important to show a little bit of humility and willingness to learn, that you’re here to learn and you want to do something should be humbly put across at all times. I frankly do not follow the first assistant director system. I love talking to even my third ADs. Otherwise, you’re not allowed to because the first assistant will talk to the director, there’ll be a director’s assistant, and everyone else is only talking to the first assistant director. I do not follow that. I love talking to all my assistant directors. I love talking to everyone. I love giving them jobs directly. I feel it is very important.

Since you’re asking me what can change, it is this: the perceived inability of directors to talk to their assistant directors and to mingle with them – to know who that fourth assistant director is, who’s standing there and doing something. It’s very important to know them and go say hi to that person, to make them feel important and not like one little kid who is running around on set doing all the work. That’s the most important thing: to feel like a part of a team and feel loved enough.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube

Abhinav Mishra: Your movies hold the essence, the simplicity of the stories of Chekhov or Premchand, where the characters are ordinary yet structured powerfully. How do you keep the literary essence or the ‘translation’ from paper to screen intact?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I’m very responsible with the pain that my writers take in writing the dialogues. I can tamper with and change things like location, but if I’m not a quintessential dialogue writer, then I need to have respect for the people who are crafting dialogues. I give a lot of importance to that. I always tell my actors that if you are adding something, then please let me know. But if you’re subtracting something, then I’m not going to allow you to do that. If you wish to differ in the way you want to say it, it’s fine, because you can’t just staidly read the dialogues. It is something that I’m very clear about.

The authenticity of the dialogues translating into the characters’ vocabulary comes purely through research, through making the actors imbibe their characters day in and day out through various references such as music. I’ve always gotten really good actors for my films, so they naturally understand and imbibe that by themselves.

I also have a lot of conversations with my actors. I speak a lot. By the time they’re on set, I know them in and out, and they also know exactly what I’m thinking. If you’re not talking to your actors or your crew on set, if all of you are not on one page, then there will be confusion.

So, it is important that right from your assistant director to your actor, everyone is on the same page on what you are trying to say, or what the pitch of the script is. I would say that’s the most important bit: knowing the pitch of the script.

Dhananjay Khanna: We’ve seen how characters in the Hindi film industry are mostly placed on extreme ends of the spectrum. Of course, it’s easier to show that kind of drama to our audience, but how do you find that balance between making your characters subtle and nuanced while, at the same time, keeping the story dramatic or commercial enough for the audience to relate with and have fun?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I’ll be very honest – for me, characters just come. They just happen. It’s just the feeling. I just want simple dal-chawal with a lot of tadka in it. When my audience goes into the theatre to watch my films, someone sitting in there needs to say ki yaar ye toh meri kahani bata rahi hai. Ye toh main hoon. I want a wife sitting in the audience to say to her husband that aaj tumne roti nahi banayi toh dekhna; or a husband to think that aaj maine roti nahi banaya toh ye dekh ke vo mujhe maaregi pakka. Everyone wanted Bitti’s father, played by Pankaj Tripathi, to be their father, or at least they aspired to be a father like that. Kaash agar mere papa aise hote aur mujhse aise baat karte – people echoed this sentiment.

Because I’m making cinema, and I’m making commercial cinema, I’m responsible for my producers’ money. They need to make money at the end of the day, but I need to get creative satisfaction. It is important that we balance out the commercial aspects plus the storytelling in a way that nothing dominates, and instead work along. That’s why I said dal-chawal with lots of tadka kyon ki vo tadke ke bina aap ko maza nahin aayega.

Also, it’s very important that in any form of storytelling, however many characters you have, every character journey needs to go from Point A to Point B. You cannot stop your characters midway. Even the smallest character needs to have a closure. It could be that the smallest character was only there for 10 minutes in the film, but your character flow has to be there. In Bareilly Ki Barfi, Vidrohi’s mother’s character had very little screen time, but she was such a profound character. She only had 10 or 15 minutes of screen time, but she had a Point A, where she came from, and a Point B, where she reached eventually.

It’s also very important for audiences to take sides of characters. There will be some people who won’t like Jaya (played by Kangana Ranaut) leaving her family to follow her passion. Some would claim that she’s leaving her child home and he’s eating oily food with the father. Some people would agree with it, and say, ‘Yeah, you are right because ye toh zindagi bhar ka kaam hai.’ But then there will be some who’d say, ‘Prashant, you’re doing right. You should also support your wife. I think I need to do the same for my wife.’ I still get an odd comment or two about how Nil Battey Sannata inspired people. I received a message, only a month back, from a person who had passed their final medical examinations along with their father at the same time. I even received a message from a woman, a homemaker, who at the age of 55 or 56 passed the bar examination the same year as her daughter.

These are the things which we can do as filmmakers, as storytellers. We can create characters who have a journey and who people take sides of. It’s okay for some people to hate your characters and some people to say that they do not agree with them, and even for some men to say that I’m not going to take my wife to show Panga. It’s not good for me!

Kajal Kapur: In Panga, you intended to show how a woman must step out of her guilt zone and decide what she wants to do with her own life, provided that her decision be based on her aspirations considering the finer nuances of her life and the fabric of her family.

Don’t you think that Ghar Ki Murgi stands in complete contrast to the message that you wished to deliver in Panga? Which one makes for your viewpoint as a filmmaker considering that the audience expects a sense of responsibility from filmmakers?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, my job is to show different personality types, households, psychogeographies and thought processes, which will change the course of how you look at the protagonist. In both films, the protagonist was a woman. In Ghar Ki Murgi, there’s this one woman who is a homemaker, and she comes from a society which is fairly patriarchal. She is in a society which is basically only about khaana banana hai, ghar ke kaam ko khatm karna hai. That happens to almost everyone. Meri khud ki mummy aur mausi – we all have seen mothers and women like that who have so many responsibilities towards the family. For her, she can’t really take a break from work, as such. Yes, she has a little beauty parlour where she goes in the afternoon and does something, that’s a joy, but predominantly her life revolves around the family. For her, the joy is to maybe sit for two hours and watch a TV show.

Ghar Ki Murgi (2020)

Every individual and personality type is different. We also dissect it differently. As filmmakers, we do it in terms of who or for what we are writing that character. All she needs, in Ghar ki Murgi, is two hours of rest. Main baith ti hoon, aur tum log mujhe bolte ho uthne ke liye. Her thing is very simple: I just want to not do anything for a few days, that’s all. I just want time for myself. That’s her basic motivation. When women have kitty parties, when women have these groups that go for little outings or perform bhajans together, it’s equivalent to enjoying the little time in the afternoon – to get away from their responsibilities and have that two hours to themselves.

People will always take their mothers, who they love so much, for granted. Hum hamesha humari mummy ko for granted lete hain. Mujhe chahiye ki main jab ghar aaun toh khaana vaise hi bane rahena chahiye jaisa mujhe chahiye. And if it isn’t so, then I start throwing a tantrum. I’m sure we all take our mothers for granted.

What was the ultimate motivation of the mother at the end of the film? She’s not the prototype of a person who can just leave her family and go on a vacation. She was merely threatening them. We need to understand the other layers, like peeling an onion and seeing the layers below. And so what does the husband say eventually? He says that he won’t forget his keys anymore and he’ll get the milk every morning. For her, that matters. That’s her source of joy.

In Panga, the prototype is different. Her background is different. She’s from a younger generation, ones who have gotten self-educated and who are working, who have been there, done that always by themselves. She has a mother who always inspires her and makes sure that she’s doing everything. Then she enters into the whole gamut of family responsibility. She’s gotten married to a guy who we feel has to be the prototype of a husband from today, who can support his wife to follow her dreams and take responsibility for it.

Her ambition is different. It is not that she wants to sit for two hours and do nothing. Her ambition is: I want to go out and become something.

Panga (2020)

There’ll also be a third or fourth prototype. There’ll be so many different possibilities according to various socioeconomic backgrounds, according to education, according to the family one comes from, even family values. It’s so rich in our country that it will always change accordingly.

Vishwapriya S. Iyer: What according to you is the difference between the gaze of a male and female director when it comes to subliminal messaging, breadcrumbs and emotions while executing a story for film?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I feel that the male or female gaze does have a lot of impact on the way you tell a story because there are a lot of things which come very uniquely to women, which is the more emotional side of ours, or simply understanding the person even without them not saying too much. I’m sorry to use this word, but the motherly feeling just comes in there on its own. You can’t help it. If there is something going on in my actors’ heads, I can sometimes understand that there is something bothering them by simply looking at them. There is so much going on as it is – you have to constantly be something at home, with your family, then you’re coming on set and becoming a different character. It can happen to your assistant directors, it can happen to a DOP, it can happen to anyone. So, we have that gaze for characters in real life which somehow also seeps into our films.

Also, the little added advantage I feel is that women understand women better. Women understand men better. I feel that women understand both men and women. So, it is very important to keep that little bit of empathy which comes in naturally. I know a lot of men who are also empathetic and come from a female narrative. It’s just that we have that extra edge there. I don’t know how to explain it. I think we can just be ourselves when we speak and communicate.

Banhi Sarkar: How was the journey of transitioning from advertising to filmmaking? Was it hard to quit your regular job which you had been doing for so long and start from scratch in a different field?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: It was hard, very hard. It was a shock for my mother. Vo hota hai na ki aap middle class family se ho, aap kisi agency mein head ho, aapko plane mein jaane ko milta hai, aap Cannes jaate ho, aap Singapore jaate ho client meetings ke liye. For parents, these are big things, right? You have a provident fund, gratuity, you’re a full-time employee, earning well, even a secretary who books your tickets for you, you have a chauffeur-driven car from the office, you have so many benefits. Who’d want to leave this job then?

But I think it is very important to follow your passion and to say it with humility that this is what I want to do. It cannot happen suddenly because we all have to feed ourselves, we have to feed our families. You need to earn enough to lead a fairly comfortable life. It is important that whatever we do, we do it with a lot of thinking and with a lot of honesty with yourself and responsibility towards your family who have given you that education to be where you are.

The second thing which is important is that you need to know if you are really good or do you just feel that you’re good? There’s a difference because if you’re really good and you really feel for it, then you give yourself one year of your time and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to give myself to this for a year, and if things don’t work out for me, I’m going to come back to where I belong,’ and ‘I’m glad I took that journey, but maybe it’s not working for me’.

Third, you cannot compare yourself with others’ journeys. Your journey is your journey, other people’s journeys are other people’s journeys because what they must have thought might not have happened with you. It’s nevertheless still important to understand the experience of that journey, which means that today, if I’ve shifted from a very proper job, from a middle-class family, and moved on to filmmaking, which is totally different, which no one in my family has done before, a totally different industry that I don’t know anything about it, there is a possibility, and you need to explore that possibility in the right way.

I feel that it is important to test the waters; test the waters and not feel dejected when things don’t work your way.

The most important thing, I think, is that it’s all about time. It is all about timing. Agar timing sahi hota hai toh ekdum se sab ho jaata hai, agar timing thoda galat hota hai toh cheezein thodi push ho jaati hai.

If you want to get into filmmaking or direction, then it is important that you start as an assistant director so that you get into the groove of at least working somewhere, where you know that your bills are getting paid and you’re still doing what you want to do, and no learning will go unlearned eventually anyway. Whatever little assistant direction you do, even if you’re the fourth assistant, you are doing something because you are dealing on an everyday basis with something related to filmmaking, and it’s paying you enough to pay your bills. That is important.

You need to save enough money before you plunge into anything. I always feel that I’m extremely orthodox in thinking that I need to save up enough. When I shifted to filmmaking, I was living on my gratuity and provident fund. Although I was married and Nitesh was working, I needed to survive on my own instincts.

But, of course, I didn’t have to pay bills or rent. It is very important that your backend is free so that what you aim to do. If you can’t focus on that because you’re only thinking about how I am going to survive, then that’s a problem.

Also, if you’re changing your course, please tell your loved ones that you’re doing something like that.

Jhanvi Ved: While making the transition from advertising to filmmaking, what are some of the best traits that you have taken along with you which have also helped you while making your films?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I learned a lot of things and I owe a lot of my discipline to advertising. One thing which I learned was teamwork, that no one is smaller than you or bigger than you. We are all working in a team and everyone is supposed to do something. Everyone is good at something.

One thing which we learned in advertising is that the idea can come from anywhere, but an art director will always art direct, a client servicing person will always go and sell the campaign to the client, and the creative director will always make sure that the packaging is correct. That’s the way it is. The oneness in work comes from giving equal respect to everyone in the team.

The second thing is understanding the objectivity of each scene. Why are you telling the story? Who are you telling the story to? The reason being that sometimes we write a lot in the screenplay, and after the production budget is decided according to your screenplay, we, later on, realise that we are not using the scene at all in the edit either because it is not going with the flow or we don’t need it at all. Why did we shoot it then? It also means that you put in so much time. Shooting each scene takes about one-two hours, and then you move to the next. So, that much time is going by. Hence, I write down the objective of each scene after we write the screenplay. Who is the scene talking to in terms of the main character? By talking to him, what is the objective of the scene? Even if it’s a one-liner, we do that.

The third thing is discipline – that’s why importance is given to books and writing.

The fourth thing is honesty and the idea of learning every day. It doesn’t matter who you are but you need to learn every day, and you can learn from anyone. I have learned so much from my 21-year-old DA. There’s much to learn.

The fifth thing is saying things simply. In advertising, you get only 15 seconds to say what you want to. Aaj-kal toh bohot hi kam ho gaya hai. Jab hum the toh at least 45 seconds ya 60 seconds bhi milte the. If it was 60 seconds, then we’d be like, ‘Wow! Something is really happening today.’ But 45- or 30- seconds is the norm. How do you tell so much within it? You do it by simplifying, which also helps you in churning out what is not necessary.

Havra Khambati: What are a few of these integral learnings that you’ve had over the years that have helped you, and how have you improved through them? Also, what advice would you give to someone who wants to live a life making movies?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I have a habit of writing, and I have a lot of notebooks. I feel it is important that with every journey you undertake, with everything you do, whether it’s films or in life, or your work or studies, it is important that you write down every learning after each project; even the learnings you receive after watching a film. If you are a film student, if you’re learning cinema, then what are the things that you learned from a film that you watched for your course? Compare your notes while watching making-of videos that you can find in abundance online. There are a lot of these sites which talk about how films are made, what the writer or DOP was thinking while crafting. Put in your points along with that and see what comes of it.

One more thing that I have realised, which I always tell my ADs, is to write. The first thing that I do with every team of mine is that I have always gotten them books, pens and highlighters because I want them to get out of using technology to make notes. I understand computers are very important and mobile phone notes are really cool. But no, I want you to write down inside the book and show it to me whenever I ask you for it. When you write down things, you process things. That’s my learning.

In the little mistakes that you make, it helps if you have the humility to accept and understand your mistakes. Be humble even if as an assistant director you’re bashed for having done something wrong. I know how directors or first ADs can do that. Have the humility to say, ‘You know what, I’m wrong and next time I’m going to do it right’. If you are a person who has to be on set at 6:45 in the morning, and you reach at seven, then you make sure that you sleep early in the night and don’t hang around elsewhere. Just make sure you do that, and have the humility to say sorry and work upon what you think lacks in you. But write down that I was late because of this reason, so maybe I need to change this.

Swarangi Songire: Filmmaking is a creative process – a long, dramatic and dynamic one. It’s often really hard to reconcile the difference between what we desire and what we achieve. Have you encountered this, and how do you move through it?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: Filmmaking is a long process. It’s a process that requires a lot of patience. I always tell myself that the process is more important than the end result because if you start thinking of the end result, then the whole process itself is going to be very shaky. Also, it’s very important to understand why you got into filmmaking. Why did you get into the art of storytelling? Why did you get into making movies or into any form of storytelling, whether it is stand-up comedy or writing?

This generation needs to have little more patience. Nothing happens instantly. Yes, you have instant coffee, instant machines, instant noodles, but you cannot get instant gratification and success overnight. It doesn’t happen that way. You need to push yourself, you need to learn the ropes, keep evolving and opening up your mind, and treat every day as a journey of learning.

That journey of equanimity, of learning, is more important than the end result because the end result is like rain, pata bhi nahi chala ki kabhi baarish hui aur nikal gayi. It is like a farmer planting a crop, which takes about four months to yield results, it rains one fateful day and the crop is gone. So, that’s what it is. But you need to keep moving and focusing on the good side of every experience versus thinking that your efforts have gone to waste. There are times when we have written a whole script, we have written it for a year or so, and after a year we realise that it is not working for us. That’s our life, and we have chosen to be a part of this creative process. So, we have to imbibe it also.

Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author, who is a prolific writer, in order to write the kind of words he needs to get out, has a system of doing it. When he starts writing, he gives up on a lot of things. He gets up every day in the morning at some six o’clock and then follows a certain ritual every day of his life till he doesn’t finish the book. Creativity doesn’t come because someone just said cut and action, and then whatever happens in between. Nil Battey Sannata took a long time to happen. The story idea for Panga came to Rucha in 2018 or so. It took three years to make. It came out this year. Bareilly took root in 2016 and released in 2018. It takes time, and you just have to go with the flow.

At the end of the day, because both Nitesh and I are filmmakers and movies are our lives, we think, breathe and speak movies and storytelling. Movies can be your life but movies cannot consume your life. The art of storytelling cannot consume your life. It has to go beyond that. You have to enjoy the process of storytelling.

Ram Venkat Srikar: Your films are about simple people from the heartland – from small-towns, second-tier or third-tier cities. Most of your films have found takers in multiplex urban audiences or on OTT. Is there a void in you that feels your films aren’t reaching someone like a Chanda or Apu from Agra?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: Nil Battey Sannata was a movie that was shown across a lot of NGOs. The beauty about stories is that if I like a film today, which is not talking about me, but talks about a very important conversation in society, then I would call the person who I know the film is for, and I will say, ‘You know what, you need to watch this film’.

Earlier, people would call and ask me for permission to screen the film in some NGO. It’s available now, but I did get a lot of requests to show it in schools and NGOs. These requests came from so many cities across the country. If you feel that there’s a need to show a good film everywhere, trust that there will be right people who will take it around.

You’re talking about the audience in a movie, but you’re showing it to everyone. And like I said before, emotions are universal. Just because I showed a mother-daughter relationship from a class of society that the multiplex audience wouldn’t belong to doesn’t mean that I do not understand that emotion, because if I didn’t understand that emotion, I would not cry in the theatre, if I wouldn’t understand that emotion, then I wouldn’t be in the Rome Film Festival or in London Film Festival, where there are so many other foreigners coming and watching the film. I’m not trying to say that Nil Battey Sannata was watched by everyone. I’m saying that a good film, which has the right communication, will spread its wings on its own without you telling too much. That’s the power of good storytelling.

Shivam S.: Where and how can aspiring writers and directors approach you with their work?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: I keep getting a lot of scripts, but I refuse to read scripts on WhatsApp. It’s unfair to you, and also unfair to me. I like the old school method, where you have a little respect for your own screenplay and your own storyline.

Unless and until you’re not a hundred percent sure of your story, please don’t send it. Don’t send stories by only saying that it’s a damn good script, and I think you would really like it. I have learned that through advertising because when I used to go and tell my boss that I have a very good script, he would look at me doubtfully, and say, ‘Kuch toh gadbad hai. What if I don’t like it?’ I always feel that it is correct to be that way. Let the person, whoever you’re sending it to, judge the script on the merit of it.

Please mail registered scripts only, and please don’t write a lengthy synopsis, restrict it to not more than one page, or two pages, at best. Don’t send it otherwise. Please have a little patience with us because we take a look at all the scripts ourselves. We don’t have anyone else doing the job for us.

Also, don’t make it so long that we start losing interest in trying to find out where you are coming from. It’s very important that you tell your storyline in so many words, where one can easily understand if it holds anything or not.

Please register your storylines as well. Don’t send it to anyone without registering it. Don’t do that ever.

When we’d reply back, we’d reply back with a reason for why we liked the script, or whether we could do it, or that it would be better if you sent it to someone who we know will do it. We’re always like that. We’ll always say it. If we don’t like it, we’ll say why we don’t like it. Please don’t feel bad about it. It’s important to take back suggestions on why the script or story is not working.

Maahi Shah: Who are some of the actors and filmmakers that have inspired and influenced you in your work, and why?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: For me, most of my influence comes from life and looking at people, and reading a lot of books. I do not watch a lot of movies, but I read a lot of books. The reason I do not watch a lot of movies is because when I watch a movie being a filmmaker, I don’t watch a movie like I should watch a movie. I watch a movie very analytically. I don’t emotionally respond to it often. Sometimes I watch a movie because I want to watch a movie. I do that too.

It’s important that you are abreast with the kind of work that is happening in the world, and you need to change with time. I love reading, and I do read a lot because writing always takes me to a visual land and makes me see things. Also, I see a lot of people.

Basically, I live life – happy, with gratitude. I don’t look out for ideas; they just come. I live life in the mundane with lots of love and gratitude every day. That’s what it should be for us.

Vivek Tejuja: What are you currently reading?

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari: Currently, I’m trying to read the Booker Prize shortlist. I’ve just started reading Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar. I’m also reading a lot of philosophical books.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

P.S: The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) conducts Dial M For Films, an online knowledge series, free of cost because we believe in fair and equal access to the insight and experience of talent from the world of cinema for all. If you find these sessions of value and would like to quote from them or distribute them further as study material, we request that you give MAMI and Dial M For Films credit while doing so.

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