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Smriti Kiran: Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi’s origin story goes something like this: born and brought up in Lucknow, Juhi did her Bachelors in Fine Arts at the Lucknow College of Arts and Crafts. During her course, she worked as an illustrator for the Times of India. The handsome stipend of 50 rupees per column helped her buy art supplies. She moved to Delhi in 1996 and started working with the prestigious ad agency O&M in their art department. She worked with them for over a decade. In this decade with O&M, Juhi moved to Mumbai in 1999. Her interest in writing, her journey into the world of words, began here under the tutelage of Piyush Pandey and Rensil D’Silva. She also met filmmaker and now constant collaborator Shoojit Sircar during this time in the year 2004.

Juhi Chaturvedi’s illustrations in the Times of India

Her first advertisement as a writer was for Sprite at the peak of the brand rivalry between Mountain Dew and Sprite. Her interest and curiosity in writing grew. In 2007, Rensil recommended her to Shoojit to write the dialogues of Shoebite. After Shoebite, she even wrote a screenplay draft of the Kishore Kumar biopic that Shoojit was working on. Both films did not see the light of day, but two creators through this process had formed a strong connection with each other — Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi. Together they have created and continue to create sensibility-altering work.

This is the chronology of her life. But how does one really introduce Juhi Chaturvedi the writer? I have never met Juhi. We have only been chatting for a month over the phone but she has already had a profound impact on the way I am processing and reacting to every conversation I have had about cinema. Her writing has the same effect. Her characters stay because they are extensions of us on screen. She helps us understand us better. More than connecting us with others, she connects us with something deeper within. Her work invokes a sense of nostalgia even about the present, a wistfulness that our crazy lives don’t allow. Her writing makes us long for that ponderous pause, that playful interlude, and time spent without purpose. She has managed to connect us with our everydayness, deftly bridging the gap between cinema and the people who consume it.

Juhi, you went from design to writing. What sparked your interest in writing? How did the opportunity present itself? What was the experience like when you wrote for the first time?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Fortunately, advertising is all about ideas, in a broader sense. Anybody is allowed to, or anybody is free to come up with an idea. But for the ease of running an organisation, there is an art director and there is a copywriter. There are clear divides there.

“If it’s so damaging then write it yourself instead of cribbing.”

The role of a writer usually extends from coming up with the larger picture, with the larger concept – the campaign idea – to presenting it to the client, etc. Whatever the art requirements are, the art director would perhaps do branding, ensuring the look of the campaign is maintained and all of that.

It’s still a very 2D experience. Art, advertising art I’m talking about, was lacking the kind of dimension that I was seeking. It was feeling quite limiting, and the ideas that I was perhaps coming up with were not getting exactly translated, in a sense, by my writer partners. That was quite stifling because you think something and what is being written is completely different from what you’ve thought. Then you are supposed to do art on the work, which you have thought of, which is now being taken over by someone else, all of that.

So, those years, or those few months, I was introspecting, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I here? This is not what I really wanted to do’. It is also true that when I joined art school, I did not join it to join an advertising agency. I wanted to do pure art. I wanted to do just fine arts. I wanted to do pottery. It just so happened that the trajectory of my career or life was going in a different direction, which I wasn’t so happy about.

Fortunately, Piyush Pandey was our super boss. He was aware of the fact that I like to think, and I have language on my side. He sort of pushed me into helping me think that if you’re so feeling this way, just write. Typically, it’s for a writer to write and an art director to art direct, but that little push from his side, that if it’s so damaging then write it yourself instead of cribbing, was a really good kickstart.

As far as the Sprite ad is concerned, the spoof, the brief had been lying around for quite a few weeks. All the writers had given their shot, and it was with other groups. In advertising, the groups are quite territorial. You don’t allow one group to hijack your brief. So, in absolute desperation, I went to the boss of another team and I said, ‘Give me something to write’. He said, ‘Okay, here it is. See what you can come up with.’ That’s the ad that happened eventually, which didn’t go down too well with a lot of people, that she needs to decide what she wants to do. And I was like, I want to do both. That’s how it started.

Smriti Kiran: When you did give this brief a shot, which people were unable to crack, the very act of writing, when you attempted something for the first time, what was it like? What did it feel like when you wrote it and when you actually saw it on screen?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Of course, because it was my first ad, I wasn’t so equipped with writing crisp dialogues, or an absolutely precise script for 30 seconds because that comes over a period of time; you start valuing every second, every frame. In the beginning, it was, perhaps, a two-pager and by no means that can fit into a 30 seconds ad. But the idea – the broader idea, the bigger idea – was in place. The fact that these guys jump down and say the lines. So, all that was there. Those little, little sparks were there. It just had to be written really sharply. At that time my immediate boss was Abhijit Awasthi. He also found the ad really quirky. He said, ‘Okay, there’s something there, but let’s just crack it together.’ Of course, he is an experienced writer, and he had been doing this day in and out.

“There’s no dearth of ideas, but to translate that into a full-length feature film is not a joke. It’s a lot of hard work.”

So, you know, you trust someone else’s judgment who is willing to give you that chance. You know that it’s not to hijack. It is just to make it better. When you spot those people around you, you must put your faith in them. That’s what I did. He made me write a few drafts, also because it had reached a point that maybe it will happen or maybe it will not happen. It had come to a point that maybe we would not do the spoof at all, that this was perhaps one best shot. And it worked out in our favour. Honestly speaking, those drafts where you cut it out, move this line, remove this word, help you fight for every single word in a 30-second ad. Why is it not? Why can’t I? Then you time it. You put the timer and you say the ad yourself.

All those things over a period of time chisel your craft. The idea may be there but to put it in a given timeline and to say exactly what is expected is a very sharp, precise requirement. And, also, are you saying the most important thing?

Smriti Kiran: Did you continue to write after this one particular ad? Did you just slowly keep writing?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Sneakily going around, asking for briefs. If anybody’s not able to crack anything, I’d say, ‘Can you just try me? I might have an idea’. You know, things like that. There was this brand called Huggies diapers, and I was handling the art part of it, for which I did a 10 rupees promo ad. Write a promo, 10 rupees off on a pack of diapers or on a pack of sanitary napkins, which nobody wanted to work on.

Things like that started coming my way. They were good enough to keep me going actually because then writing means you present it to the client; writing means that you’re doing the theatrics, the drama; writing means that you’re calling the director; writing means you go on the shoot. All of those things. Even if it was a lousy 10 rupees ad, it was still enough to give that little high and take me out of the office in a live environment rather than just being in front of a machine and playing with it.

Smriti Kiran: Did you feel like you tasted blood?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Yes! Yes, and when I can feel that way for a 30-second ad, imagine my quenching of thirst when it came to Shoebite, when the dialogues of Shoebite happened. It was like, what was this? Where did this come from? The thought of writing a film had never occurred in my life ever.

I would have never thought of Bollywood or anything to do with cinema if Rensil (D’Silva) and Shoojit (Sircar) had not. It’s not that I was their first choice. They were already in talks with other writers, and they were working on different drafts. So, again, when you’re in the middle of trying out so many people, you think, ‘Let me ask her. Maybe she might just be interested. At least it’ll keep her busy if nothing else’. We used to call him Father Ren, and Father Ren was very kind.

Rensil D’Silva, Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi on the sets of Shoebite

Smriti Kiran: What is your relationship with writing? How has it evolved over the last 15 years that you’ve been writing?

Juhi Chaturvedi: The initial years went in a lot of self-doubt, if I would say that, because I always had that little feeling that I’m not a writer. This is not what I started with. This is not what I was working towards. This is not what my card said. I didn’t do, say, English honours. I went to an art school. I did fine arts, pottery, photography, and all of that. So, you know, the life that is behind you, none of that you think supports you to become a writer because that’s the understanding: writers are the most well-read, writers know English perfectly well, they write so they are writers, and I have not written anything, so am I a writer? So, the initial years were spent in a lot of self-doubt.

I was sure of my ideating skills, that ideas will come. I know there’s no dearth of ideas, but to translate that into a full-length feature film is not a joke. It’s a lot of hard work, and more than hard work, you have to invest in it completely.

I did not know if I had anything that I could invest in. What are the prerequisites? I had never read a screenplay before Shoebite. That was the first screenplay that I ever read, or this is how the process is. I had no idea until Shoebite had happened. But somehow the months that I was spending while writing the dialogues for Shoebite, or being there on the set, developed an instinctive understanding that these are ultimately people, the characters, and what I’m saying is pretty much what a normal human being feels. Those are the things I started picking out for myself. These are the things that work in my favour. I understand feeling, I understand what minds think and don’t think.

The human quality of cinema or filmmaking somewhere started working for me. The craft or the technical aspect was somewhere that I was lacking big time. But you have to dive into it if you want to do it. So, even if it was self-doubt, I said, there’s no other way to find out whether I can do it or not. I just have to do it.

“I realised that writing a film is a much deeper experience. It’s a very technical term, it’s a quest to know everything about everything.”

Therefore, when I was writing Vicky Donor, I had not told this to anyone that I’m writing it because you don’t want to be the subject of a joke. Writing a 30-second ad is fine, but writing a feature film… I didn’t want anyone to know that. There was a lot of struggle internally about how to complete 120-125 pages. I’ve never written more than three pages for an ad at max. So, yes, it was a lot of self-doubt.

Piku was extremely important for me, Vicky Donor not so much. Vicky Donor happened as beginner’s luck. But Piku was extremely important for me to know if I have it in me to leave everything else and to make this my everything because by that time I realised that you have to put yourself out there completely, only then it will happen, and if cinema is my space, if that is the voice that I’m seeking, if that is what helps me be myself the most. Piku was very important for me to make me realise to let go of a lot of things and make that thing yours.

Smriti Kiran: In your exploration of characters and their inner worlds, you’ve always discovered something about yourself. The start of every film you have written also comes from a deeply personal space, out of personal experiences. Starting with Vicky Donor, what did you discover about yourself in the process of writing the film?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Vicky Donor, at a very surface level, was just a quirky idea which made me laugh. And that phone call to Shoojit… Obviously, he had a chuckle too on the other side. I again had a little vague idea of what I’m talking about. It was a fine line on that idea, on that subject, but I wasn’t sure how deep I’ll be able to go into the world of couples who want to have a child or the world of refugees who are settled there, people who would have come from the other side of the border in the late 1940s. That world, that understanding, I had no inclination that eventually it will lead me to have such a close relationship with people who we so easily brush off. These guys who just show up and have no depth in them. The more I spent time writing Vicky Donor, the closer I felt I was going towards this.

I had never known this, but after writing it I realised that writing a film is a much deeper experience than just saying, ‘Oh, it’s a script’. It’s a very technical term, it’s a quest to know everything about everything, to know about it so much that you can eliminate a lot and keep only that much. If you keep only that much, if that is all your knowledge is, then I don’t think it will ever go beyond that. Even for the audience. So, the process, the time that you spend in understanding the internal crisis, whether it’s Vicky or Dolly or Biji, what leads, what makes them do certain things is important. For example, the conversation between Biji (played by Kamlesh Gill) and Dolly (played by Dolly Ahluwalia) while they are drinking.

Biji (Kamlesh Gill) and Dolly (Dolly Ahluwalia) in Vicky Donor

Shoojit said that ek shot aisa daal do where these two women are drinking. I said, okay. But, believe me, just the visual, where they are drinking, was not satisfying. I felt that it needed a lot more. This is a moment where two women are drinking, are easy with themselves, they might just be easy with each other, given the relationship, they might not judge because they’re under the influence of alcohol. They’ve done the day. You know, it’s a moment in their life. So, what is it that they can talk about when they’re drinking? What is their truth? Because apparently when people are drunk they speak the truth. So, what is Biji’s truth, and what is Dolly’s truth, which is the truth of the relationship. That is how that conversation came about. Shoojit sometimes gets these scenes, these visuals, ‘how do we put this’, and then he leaves it on me to do something. ‘Can you put this over there?’ It needs to be, of course, justified as well.

“The characters of my films, the relationship that I’m forming with them, are not fictional. For me, these are very deep-rooted bonds, and the journey that I’m taking with them cannot be separated from my own personal journey.”

When someone throws these kinds of little open-ended challenges, it’s exciting. He’s not asking me to specifically write only this thing. I can do whatever I want with it. So, you try to understand that whole world: the world of a mother-in-law, which is not just Biji, any mother-in-law; what is the reason, or why is there so much pride when they gloat saying that this is what I’ve got from my daughter-in-law’s house? It’s just that I want to feel important as a mother-in-law, as a woman, I want to feel that my daughter-in-law, my daughter-in-law’s family has thought that I’m important enough. Forget the dowry part of it, I’m not talking about that. That little something comes out of her suitcase of truths. It’s very human, it’s a very harmless greed, I would say. It’s like a white lie. It’s like giving yourself that importance because, perhaps, the husband in that setup or the son in that setup is not giving you that. So, your only hope is this woman who is coming from outside, that she might understand. And when she gets me, I’ll be able to show off that look she listens to me.

There are a lot of things you think before writing those four-five lines only. Vicky Donor, for me, was that you can do so much. Cinema is not just writing a film, or not just writing a script. It is a process. It must be an internal process, and it has to eventually shape you or give you a kind of form which you didn’t have before; a learning that you were not aware of, a truth that perhaps would have gone if I had not thought of the world of sperm donation. A lot of things would have not happened for me as a person in my life. That realisation happened with Vicky Donor.

Therefore, Piku came from a little more, a slightly more aware space. In Vicky Donor, it happened by chance and I came out with that realisation. But in Piku I went in knowing that it is going to demand and I will have to give.

Smriti Kiran: In a process that is this involved, where you don’t work backwards, where you go out exploring the character and then the character forms out of your exploration and managing this with great collaborators, Shoojit and Ronnie (Lahiri), how much of this process are you allowed to employ working in a mainstream setup that has deadlines?

Juhi Chaturvedi: When I speak about intent, what I try to say is that there is one intent as a writer, as a professional, as somebody who’s a part of this creative field of filmmaking or cinema. But then there is a larger intent of everything, and if this is my chosen path, how do I connect this to the bigger existence of me as a person, as a human being, as a life that I’m living? I feel that if they both can collaborate, this path can be a lot more enriching for me. It is a slightly selfish intent that at a larger level it needs to satisfy me because these are my only years or chances or moments or experiences which I’m gathering for my eventualities. These are the only people – when I say ‘people’ I mean the characters of my films, the relationship that I’m forming with them – who are not fictional. I don’t see them as fictional. For me, these are very deep-rooted bonds, and the journey that I’m taking with them for a year or two cannot be separated from my own personal journey. These are happening simultaneously. I’m walking the spot with them fictionally and in a real space as well. For me, that needs to work together.

“It’s only during the writing time that you have the privilege of finding that stillness, that rhythm, that pace wherein you can go back to your memories.”

Now, having said that, will every film allow you to do that? Perhaps not. In the so-called ‘commercial space’, will everybody be allowed that? Yes, there are deadlines. There is a hectic quality to shooting a film, collaborating with people, being there on the set, all of that.

But it’s only during the writing time that you have the privilege of finding that stillness, that rhythm, that pace wherein you can go back to your memories, where you can go back to your childhood, where you can go back to all those people you’ve met, where you can relive your past, and maybe borrow some learnings from there, some triggers from there.

That is a slow process. That is a time-consuming process, but that is the only time in the entire filmmaking space when the deepest things will ever come out. The moment the script is ready, everything becomes technical: actors need to sign, then you have to get the shooting done, production details, all that begins, all the technical stuff begins from there. A shoot, per se, for a director, I’m sure, is the most nightmarish job because you’re managing so many things.

It’s meditative. The writing process is the only time where everything can, at a leisurely pace, speak its own truth. Every character is willing to offer a lot more than what you are seeking actually as a writer. If you form that relationship with them, it’s going to be golden for you. Eventually, the final work will come out from there.

It has to be like that for me. It must be like that for me because not everybody would be ready to go through it. I’m sure there are a few people who are willing to hold my hand and walk at my pace as well.

Actually, once that piece has been done, a lot of other things can get easier. I feel that you don’t need to go through multiple drafts. You don’t need to go through hours and hours of rewriting, arguments, deleting and editing. See, because it has come from a strong space of knowing, of awareness, you’ve thought everything that has to be thought, you have explored it from all possible angles whether it’s a social angle to your film, or whether it’s the human angle to your film, whether it’s a spiritual angle to it, whatever it is, you have done everything possible. And that time is the purest time of the entire process of writing in cinema.

Smriti Kiran: Is that also the reason why you’ve chosen to work less and you’ve chosen to work with a specific set of people? Is this engagement that you have with your writing a conscious choice?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Yes. I feel that I’m not in a hurry. I don’t have a sense of time. I don’t have any understanding of urgency. It doesn’t exist. The only urgency that I have is to think of ideas, to be with them, to get to know more about those ideas. In that space, how can I quickly get done with my day to day regular work so that I can be in my dream space? I have an urgency there. Yes, when I come up with an idea, I can’t control it. I need to call up either Shoojit or Ronnie, and it has to be vomited out immediately. So, if there is an urgency of that, but is there an urgency to sign up a lot of projects? No, that urgency is not there because I will take time and I know, not just as a writer but also as a person, that I’m going to invest a lot in it.

Also, the thing is that if it was just about getting money, or just the commercial aspect of it, which is also extremely important for writers, for anyone, and for that I was doing my job. It was happening. Your salary was taking care of everything. When you leave that, what is the intent? Why did I leave, right? If it was about doing multiple projects, there were multiple campaigns I was doing parallelly, but somewhere something was stifling there. I was not getting a long term relationship with people and with my ideas, my thoughts because the moment you put yourself out there, there is so much to know. So much of truth, so much of reality, so much of life, so much happens with every person. How can I just cut it out and say, ‘Bas teen mahina, this is all I’m going to give you and move on’. It may take six months. It may take nine months. It may take less than that. I’m conscious of that, but it’s really, like I said, a very conscious decision to not do just about anything and everything. I’m not going to succumb to that kind of pressure. That’s my intent, my life goal, that I will not succumb.

“The only urgency that I have is to think of ideas, to be with them, to get to know more about those ideas.”

Now you decide who are the people that will help you, or who gets that. I have found Ronnie and Shoojit as one of those lost souls who operate from a similar space. I can understand Ronnie’s pressure, I can understand Shoojit’s pressure. There’s a commercial aspect to things. I’m not the only person they’re collaborating with. In between, they have collaborated with other writers, and they’ve had great fun. So, I get my little lost space, the time that I need.

Do I want to work with other people? Yeah. Why not? It’s not like there’s a no to it. Not at all. It’s just that this is a space I come from, and I’m not here to churn out work, but if you have the same quest as I do, if you have the same requirement from the final product that we are going to see, the expression, the relationship that I’m willing to share with every character, with every moment of the film, then I’m sure there are people out there who will call me. Those people have not called me. Only these people have called me.

Smriti Kiran: Juhi, you said that it’s very important to go back before you go forward when you’re writing. The elements of nostalgia and memory really play a very strong role when you begin to write. You said that you want that spark that comes from an experience that is very pure. What is this nostalgia that you seek as a writer?

Juhi Chaturvedi: More than nostalgia actually, it’s your experiences, maybe your childhood experiences, when I say, ‘from a pure space’. Because you’re still not maligned, you are still not cynical about things, about people, about life in general. For me, it works when I go back to those purest moments, those things that really affected me a lot because they did that in its purest form, whatever made me cry, whatever made me laugh, whatever made me angry then.

So, they came from a space of purity, and I go back there only because now I’m able to understand those moments better. I’m understanding without putting my cynical judgment over that when I go back there. If I’m experiencing something now, I may not have the time to invest in it because it’s happening right now. I have to react to it at a speed which is off now. But going back into the past allows you to understand minutely; again, go back at your own sweet pace and linger in the moment, stretch the moment, stretch that experience – uski ek cheez samajh mein aa jaati hai.  You’re able to understand and decipher everything in that introspection that you do. There is so much more that you realise about your own self, about people, about relationships, about everything. All our worries, all our joys and all our doubts, everything, I feel, come from where you are coming from. That, for me, is a very pious, pure place. It’s not just nostalgia. It’s not just that I’m dwelling into my past. In fact, Shoojit only says that don’t dig your past unless it’s gold. Though I get what he says, I agree with him at a surface level. But, as a writer, as a human being, I do go and I do dig and I dig and dig only because that is where my mistakes stand with a placard. That’s where my moments of triumph stand with a placard. Your present is just slipping out, your past is so definite. This present, which is slipping out, is going to be a past soon. That’s when I’ll understand the definitiveness of this, I think. I don’t know if I’m making sense, but I feel that, for me, the most definitive understanding comes from my past or anybody’s past.

Smriti Kiran: Piku, Bhaskor, Biji, Dolly, Rana, Dan, Syed, Baankey, Mirza, Guddu, Christopher, Fatima Begum, Shiuli, Vidya…Everyone talks about those characters. It feels like you’re seeing extensions of yourself. How do you build your characters, that universe, their motivations, that place in the world they inhabit and everyone that they encounter within that universe?

Juhi Chaturvedi: I feel it’s accepting a big truth that while they may just be characters and elements of fiction, to me they are not. To me, they do exist in a sort of energy form, right? How is it that somebody like Piku Banerjee or Bhaskor Banerjee or Vidya Iyer – the moment you crack the name, actually. For me, it starts from there. The moment there is a name to a character, to a person, it somehow becomes real for me. Then there’s no running away from them. From then on the relationship begins.

Vidya Iyer is such a strong woman. She is going through that adversity. She is dealing with her daughter’s coma. She is going to college and still teaching there. She is dealing with her brother-in-law, who’s coming every second day and saying, ‘This is not going to work out. You’re just wasting your money.’ I know the kind of pressure that she’s coming from, but in that there is also the dignity and the strength that she’s willing to share with me. How can I not allow her? How can I say that you’re just a mother character in my film?

Vidya Iyer (Gitanjali Rao) in October

That you’re just a grieving mom. You have grey hair and lots of tears and that’s all you’re supposed to do. And we are giving you only a few lines. So, I don’t need to know so much about you, but nahi hota hai aisa.

I feel your energy and the energy of the character needs to have that togetherness, that seamlessness. Then it automatically starts flowing into words. Words are the last thing. Writing is, for me, the last part. Putting things on paper is the last bit.

“The moment there is a name to a character, to a person, it somehow becomes real for me. Then there’s no running away from them.”

What is there is the imaginary discussion, the conversations that I do tend to have. Now, this may seem like an idiotic process. Who are you talking to? But I do talk and that is my truth, that I sit in my own little space and I do talk, I do have these conversations. I agree with a lot of things which Bhaskor does, and I disagree with a lot of things that Bhaskor does, but that does not mean that I will omit those things because Bhaskor is this person, and he is going to behave like this with Piku. When you form that kind of relationship, then you don’t see yourself as a person who’s creating them, you would just see yourself as a person who’s partnering them or letting them speak through you. You just become a medium.

Smriti Kiran: There was this debate when you were writing October on whether Shiuli really should live or not. And that debate was resolved by the way you created Shiuli. Can you talk a little bit about the reason why you felt the way you did, and the movie ended the way it did?

Juhi Chaturvedi: It started with how that fateful night will turn out. Will it be an accident? Will it be a health issue that will take her into a coma? Or whether it will be falling down from the terrace? But the moment you decide that the name of this girl is Shiuli – Shiuli is a short-lived flower, and a flower that falls down every night from the shiuli trees – it solved my problem, that Shiuli will not have an accident, that Shiuli will not have a health issue or a health scare, she will fall down because that’s what the flower does.

Shiuli Iyer (Banita Sandhu) in October

Why should she die? Yes, I had a discussion with Shoojit about it also; I had written her death, but I also wanted to explore what if she lives. We had a very, very good debate on that. But you realise that some people have that short life, or they come into your life with a very specific role, you know? So you may wonder how come this person died just at the age of 20 or 21. She was so pretty. Everything was going fine with her, and she had found Dan also, who was a changed man. So, why kill the girl?

In the film, it may seem coming from a very shallow space. But if you see the question, why kill the girl, from life’s point of view, people do die an early death. In that time, they also come with a very specific agenda, a very specific KRA. Shiuli’s KRA or agenda or the role that she was sent with is that you will take Dan from this karmic level to this karmic level – from where he is in his life currently before he has met Shiuli to where he reaches after Shiuli has left him. So, that journey has to happen in Dan’s life. Shiuli has been placed in Dan’s life just to quickly elevate him.

Danish ‘Dan’ Walia (Varun Dhawan) in October

Now, these are not the things for a film to underline or the purpose of cinema. But these are the understandings that I have from life or from my quest to understand people. I do look at characters coming back to that point, from the point of view of their role, why is Bhaskor just not settling down with his issues? Why is Vicky behaving or Dollyji being the way she is? Why is Mirza eventually left with nothing? Because you’re given enough chances in life. Mirza has started only with a very wrong intention in his life. Even if he was 20 in his life when he married Begum, she was still 15-16 years older than him. He may have been 20 and Begum 35 at that time, and in those years it was a long gap.

His reason to marry a woman older than him was the haveli itself. It was never love. He spent an entire life with that wrong. So, that must be the end of his journey in that sense, and of his greed. Not life, but his greed. It must provide him with nothing.

He removes the bulb, he steals the bulb. He removes that source of light. He removes that chandelier, sells off the chandelier, another source of knowledge and light is removed from life. He switches off the fuse completely. Pura hi light source band kar diya apni zindagi ka. What is light? Light is the symbol of knowledge, and you’re removing that one by one, one by one, of course, you’re going to land up in that situation. I need to know that much about every person that comes in contact with me in my writing.

Chunnan ‘Mirza’ Nawab (Amitabh Bachchan) in Gulabo Sitabo

Smriti Kiran: You were a caregiver to your mother for about 30 years, October came out of that; Piku was your relationship with your father and the very idea of ageing and how one responds to that process; Lucknow, the city that you grew up in, taught you to write. Starting from Piku, when you said that you got awareness as a writer, that’s when you went in with your eyes open and you knew that this is what you needed to invest in, right? I know it’s fulfilling, but how draining is the process when you delve deeper and deeper and deeper?

Juhi Chaturvedi: It happens parallelly. You think you are getting drained out, but actually, that energy is only pushing you further. It is not either draining or fulfilling. It’s something that is providing you with one step at a time, one memory at a time, one awareness at a time, one learning at a time.

“Sometimes, memories are just triggers. Your experiences are triggers.”

It gets really addictive, and it’s really difficult to then leave that space and say, ‘Okay, this much is enough’. It is not draining. That energy is different. It’s difficult to explain what kind of energy works there. Believe me, sometimes it’s also like the process of childbirth. You may be screaming and shouting, but the moment the child is born, you forget the pain. You think, ‘Were you acting? What was that screaming about?’ It ends. You just forget. Right now I have no memory of those late nights that one puts in or the zone that I was living in while writing Piku or October.

While writing October, I did go back to Lilavati Hospital. I wanted to relive that smell of a hospital. And, of course, that means that you’re putting yourself out there to relive all those slightly troublesome memories. It’s worth it. You can’t run away. The point is that you can’t escape. Good, bad, ugly – you can’t escape, and you must not.

On the sets of October

Not everything is a memory that is out there in my writing. Sometimes, memories are just triggers. Your experiences are triggers, but the best way to explain a lot of things or write them or make them relatable for people at large is what you have experienced yourself. Personally, it comes from a very solid truth inside. That’s the most convincing process. It becomes most convincing if it has affected me in such a way. Let me try and share this with you in some form, not that exact form, but from here on what I can bring for you and share. Usually, it is convincing because it’s coming from a space of conviction.

Smriti Kiran: What is your source material apart from experience and your own understanding? One of the biggest things that makes a character relatable apart from life experiences is the spoken language. So, in the process of creating your world, what are your external processes in terms of building them?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Starting from Vicky Donor, for example, Delhi was where I had lived a few years. Experienced that first hand. Yes, language, the milieu, the house, the setup, the people, their quirks, all of that was a firsthand experience. That’s why perhaps I wrote that as my first film because at least that was in my favour. I knew that much. I did not know how to write a screenplay, but at least I knew how the people in my film are going to speak or what are the kinds of houses they are living in.

You’re right when you say that these things make the characters relatable. Therefore, what is my research material? For example, in Piku, I had never been to Calcutta actually before we shot Piku there, but when I was researching about Calcutta, there was a Calcutta in my mind, which is very similar to what Lucknow is given our historical similarity. Due to the British and our colonial history, a lot of our architecture is similar, say, the Hazrat Gunj of Lucknow and the Park Street of Calcutta are very similar, the windows with levers, things like that. Also, the food may be because the nawabs did run away from Awadh to Calcutta, to Bengal.

A lot of things are similar culturally. I was growing up with Bengali families. There was a Bengal that they had created in my mind. So, when I was writing, I wrote a lot from the Calcutta or the Bengal that I had in my own mind through my friends and all, but I did go through Google maps, those live maps to see those places, the areas that I have written in the script, that this would be happening there, then this church would be there, then this tram will be crossing from that area.

So, the physical part of the geography that a city provides, or the menu that the city provides – the monuments, the streets, the name of the streets – that goes in your regular search. But more important is the research of the people, the characters in it. If Bhaskor Banerjee has spent his early years in Calcutta, it’s only for his job that he moved to Delhi, he will have the craving, like any Bengali, to go back to his roots. Vahin jaana hai, vahin basna hai, vahin marna hai. And that’s fine; he is that man.

Juhi Chaturvedi and Amitabh Bachchan on the sets of Piku

He would have read a certain kind of literature in his growing up years because that is what is expected from good Bengali boys. There would be a certain kind of music playing, and he would have forced it upon Piku because Bengali hai hum, tumko aana hi chahiye. Piku also comes from that, and she reacts in the film at one point saying, ‘Satyajit Ray ki movie bhi nahi dekhi ek bhi, uska naam bhi nahi maalum, toh usse main baat bhi kya kar sakti hoon?’ This is a Delhi girl speaking, mind you. Piku is a Delhi girl for all practical purposes, but her environment, her upbringing must have those elements, which a pure, well-read Bengali girl goes through. Those are the things, for example, The Telegraph is the most important newspaper, the most important piece of paper in a Bengali person’s life. I must know that if I am writing a film which is based there. I do like to find out those details. Some come from my knowledge, some I do extend myself.

Juhi Chaturvedi and Deepika Padukone on the sets of Piku

Everything that must be known emotionally or as information I should know. Only then do I know what to keep and what to remove.

Smriti Kiran: Every film that you’ve written, you’ve done it start to finish – the story, the dialogues, the screenplay, you’ve also done publicity design. But in Piku you broke format and you wrote a 16-page scene, which is that scene where they’re celebrating the mother they’ve lost. Why did you do that?

Piku (2015)

Juhi Chaturvedi: There was no idea as such for Piku. It’s just a father-daughter relationship, right? And it can be many things. There can be many kinds of relationships. It seems that she’s a daughter who is willing and wants to have her own life, but there is a father who is extremely selfish and doesn’t want her to meet boys or get married. But, within that also, what is the soul of these people, what is the chaos of the Banerjee family?

This was one scene which would, I felt, have shown everything to Shoojit without me having to speak so much. He would have read everything that is there about Bhaskor, about Piku, about Mashi, about Mishu, about mother, about her, about the men in her life, about the crisis, everything that the film is going to say.

Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar on the sets of Piku

The entire politics of the Banerjee family is there for me to write and understand. There are people who will write a story first, that’s expected. First, you write the synopsis; then, you write the one-liners, the sketch outline, and then you start writing the screenplay and then comes the stage of, I think, the dialogues. It doesn’t ever work for me like that, never, because for me everything is happening parallelly. One thing is leading to another. I cannot commit to a story right in the beginning. I have a huge commitment phobia when it comes to writing a story and writing on that because I know that while writing it is going to change because my characters are going to take the lead. What if they don’t let me do that? It’s a slightly detached relationship because I still don’t know how my characters are speaking. I still don’t know where all they’re going. Like the conversation between Rana and Piku, when she’s asking him about his past and he speaks about Anuradha.

Now, I will not know at a story stage, that moment, the purity of that scene, when Rana stops while driving, and he’s splashing his face with water, and he’s tired when they’re about to reach Kolkata in a few hours. You can’t write that while writing the story. The characters offer it themselves to you. And that happens only in the process of writing the screenplay along with the dialogues, I feel, for me.

Rana Chaudhary (Irrfan Khan) and Piku Banerjee (Deepika Padukone) in Piku

Smriti Kiran: Do you have a basic idea in mind?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Of course, I have a basic idea in mind. Even the director will know what he’s getting into so that he also starts thinking about it. As soon as I share the idea, I create a world, and Shoojit is creating a world, it must at some level collaborate and should work in sync. It can’t be that he’s imagining another thing and I’m writing something else. So, of course, he’s aware in that sense of what I’m writing to words. He also knows the purpose of making a particular film. That’s very clear right in the beginning. But you can’t say that this is only the story, these thirty pages that you’ve written. This is what it is. It will never be for me. And if it is, it will be a lot of, I feel, restricted writing then. I should know the basics. Therefore, that scene, for me, is the story of the film.

Before that, in Vicky Donor, the one-liner and all worked, but Piku was my more serious attempt at writing. Now if I have to write the story of the father and the daughter, I don’t know what I’ll write. So, I wrote that scene, that if this works, this is the story of the film. This is the story of Bhaskor’s life, this is the story of Piku’s life. If this works, then the film works. So, therefore, I sent that to Shoojit as the story of the film ki hai kya ye. It worked because it seems the lines, the dialogues, everything it says, that is what, ideally, helps people decide if it is or it isn’t.

Smriti Kiran: When you were writing Piku, you knew that Irrfan (Khan) would play Rana and Mr. Bachchan would play Bhaskor. But you didn’t know who was going to play Piku. Does knowing who is going to be cast in the role of the character that you’re exploring, or at least have explored to a certain extent, help with the writing?

Juhi Chaturvedi: I did not know who would play Dan. With certain characters, you know that they have to be played by this person only. Even if you don’t know it’s fine because the character is not dying to become someone else. The character is dying to be who he or she is. I don’t want to become a Deepika, I don’t want to become an Amitabh Bachchan. I don’t want to become anyone else. I want to remain Rana, I want to remain Bhaskor, and I want to remain Piku.

Characters are not saying, ‘But who will play me?’ So, they don’t have that crisis going on. I don’t let that crisis affect the writing at all. Having said that, what helps certainly are nuances. Like with Irrfan playing Rana. I was a little greedy. I wanted to work with Irrfan, and Shoojit wasn’t sure at that point in time if he would do this because it’s not such a big role. He knew that if he agreed, it would be best for the film, but it was a slightly different mix of actors.

Irrfan Khan and Juhi Chaturvedi on the sets of Piku

What Irrfan could do, I don’t know if it was possible for anyone else to do. His demeanour, his understanding of life, people, you give him this much and he’ll take out that much.

“I have a huge commitment phobia when it comes to writing a story and writing on that because I know that while writing it is going to change because my characters are going to take the lead.”

It was slightly difficult to write Rana’s character, to always show him as a matured, samajhdar, suljha hua aadmi. He’s not creating any drama in the film. He’s not doing anything. He’s just there. So, how do you make it convincing for others? Not the actor. The actor knows what it means. The director knows what it means, that this man is like this. But for so many other people who are involved in the process of filmmaking, they wonder ki kuch toh do isko. But har kisi ke life mein ‘kuch toh’ hota nahi hai. There are people who are just that. That is what their core is, that they will not cross this line unnecessarily, that they will not unnecessarily pounce upon you, that they are not going to make use of the situation, that they are seeking themselves. The hope that they’re seeking, perhaps, lies in the journey that you guys are going to take.

He’s so miserable inside, Rana. He goes to Saudi and his passport has been kept away. He’s in a job that he can’t even come back from because it’s a three-year contract. That’s the reality of a lot of people. He’s also a bechara, who has a mother and a sister who are of a certain kind, and that’s not what he associates with because there’s inherent righteousness in that man.

Smriti Kiran: Despite all of this, he’s still an even-tempered man. He’s practical; little things that are unacceptable to him, he does not take umbrage.

Juhi Chaturvedi: Yes, he’s not heroic. When Piku is coming there all angry, Rana is looking at Syed, Syed is looking at Rana, ‘Why don’t you say?’, ‘No, I think, you only talk to her.’ That’s just Piku’s personality. Even before Deepika came on board, it was that. But the moment Shoojit said that it’s going to be played by Deepika, or let’s just meet her, the thought itself was so fresh. There are certain names or certain personalities that just spark that joy, borrowing from Marie Kondo.

Smriti Kiran: Deepika has spoken in many interviews, and also at the Jio MAMI Mela last year where we did a masterclass with her. She spoke about how Piku is an experience that she will carry with her all the time.

Juhi Chaturvedi: It’s exactly what you just said. Cinema must be an experience. The process of making, writing, creating, shooting, then viewing as an audience, it must have a lifelike quality to it. It cannot be that it becomes alive only after it is finished and done and released. It has life even before that, even before it becomes. Ideas must have that pulse in them, that heartbeat. Only then they will be able to breathe that oxygen out and into you. If on its own it doesn’t have it, you’ll feel like you’re watching plastic.

Smriti Kiran: You said that actually putting pen to paper is the last thing in your writing process. When you’re thinking, building, finding a character, and you’re gathering all your material, when do you feel that you can commit to this character? What is the starting point of their storytelling journeys?

Juhi Chaturvedi: You’ve known them enough. You’ve had enough one on ones with them. It’s a feeling.

A lot of my time goes in writing the names of the people. It’s really just names-surnames, most of the time, which part of the country, which region, which school, which college, India or abroad, which social strata of the society they belong to, friends, neighbours, brothers and sister – everything about them. It’s just information, right? It may seem like that. What school did he go to? It’s just information. For me, if someone has gone to La Martiniere For Boys, he would be of a certain kind, and the person who has gone to, say, Gyan Bharati School in Delhi will be of a certain kind. They have two completely different environments, and that environment is going to lead into his personality and is going to shape him up. So, it’s important for me to know whether it is Kendriya Vidyalaya, Sarkari School – whatever it is – a nuclear family or a joint family, purana ghar ki naya ghar, chhota shahar ki bada shahar.

There are so many things that seem like information, but, for me, they are the truth of the character. Just the way my upbringing is me, a character’s upbringing is extremely important for the character. Why Rana is the way he is, or why Syed is the way he is, or why Piku is the way she is, or Dan the way he is?

“I would like to believe that there are men like that who do seek, who are looking for some kind of sincerity, who are themselves sincere. And if they are not, they are wanting to be a work in progress.”

Why is he such a rebel, Dan? For what reason is he such a rebel? He has gone to a fairly decent school. He may have gone to a DPS kind of school if his parents were posted in Delhi. He seems like that boy – a lot of pressure, what are you going to do about your life, what subjects have you decided? Always questioned. He comes from an army background. His parents are in the army. There’s always a certain environment in the house that you’re expected to only go beyond that. But he comes from a mindset where he doesn’t even know if he wants to do engineering or medical or whatever else in his life. He doesn’t have those answers.

So, to go and do hotel management may just be okay, it’s a professional course. Itna toh it saves the face of the parents, that he’s doing a professional course. He comes from that environment where his career choice may have not been his own. Look at that scene, where the mother comes to see him. That kind of mother wouldn’t have allowed, ‘whatever you feel like doing in life, you do’. Yes, whatever you feel like doing in life, do it, but it must be this, this, this.

Tumko nahin samajh mein aa raha hai? Then these are the options. He must have gone through that crisis, and, therefore, there is anger within him because he does not know so many things. He does not have answers. So, he is rebelling against everything to find what he really can connect with. He’s not able to connect with anything in life; therefore, there’s that anger for the smallest things. There is frustration. There is a certain kind of irritation in him. There also he doesn’t know what to do. ‘I want to actually start my own businesses’. There also he is not settled yet. That also is not the truth, that he seriously wants to start his own business. This is a guy who just does not know, and that’s fine.

He must know something, and that is a much bigger truth of life. For that, Shiuli will help him. At 30, he will not be the same guy at all after going through that experience.

Smriti Kiran: There will be a Dan who is full of empathy.

Juhi Chaturvedi: Yes, which is also really asking yourself, where are you in this whole universe? Where do you stand? How do you exist?

Smriti Kiran: I find the women and men, both, fascinating in your films. Financial independence is a big motif in your films with regard to women. They are progressive, wilful and real. Not only women, who are with this inherent sense of freedom, but even the men in your films are men that you want to see. Is this by design? When you’re creating characters, do these considerations play in your mind?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Yes, to some extent, it’s pretty intentional. Even if the men have a limited world vision, like Vicky, for that matter, there is a certain dignity that he will live or play with. I feel that it’s extremely important to show that. I would like to believe that mothers from their side, at least some of them, through my characters, have aided a certain kind of upbringing and conversations at home.

In the case of Rana, it is lacking. But that man’s personal quest can identify, can differentiate for him what is not him and what is him. When he’s just about to leave for Kolkata, when he’s still deciding, and he sees his mother and sister sleeping in the middle of the night, and he looks at them, the way they’re sleeping, that itself is very putting off for him. Even in their sleep, they don’t seem innocent and nice. That may have been his last hope – when I see them sleeping, something about them might stop me; maybe in the waking hours I don’t find them pure souls, but maybe when they’re asleep there will be a motherly character there, a sisterly character there. But he lacks that in his life. So, he’d rather be with these Banerjees than be with his own.

I would like to believe that there are men like that who do seek, who are looking for some kind of sincerity, who are themselves sincere. And if they are not, they are wanting to be a work in progress. Nobody has arrived as yet. You arrive when you’re gone actually, that’s the truth of life. Till then you’re a work in progress.

It’s important to dwell into what kind of work this man is putting behind himself. The sincerity of Syed, for example, or even Chaddha, for that matter. There is a crooked, cunning businessman in him, but there is a human quality in him as well when he goes to, though he has gone there for his own purpose, Vicky’s home, there is something that pushes him. I’m saying that whether it’s Bhaskor, or in Gulabo, even Baankey, for example. He’s not a crooked guy. He is just a victim of his poverty, of his lack of education, of his tough struggle. He’s just a victim of that. He very sincerely tells Fauzia that I live in such a small room, and I have five people staying there. My three sisters and my mother take a shower in that kitchen. How am I going to get married? So, he’s sincere about his relationship with Fauzia.

Baankey Rastogi (Ayushmann Khurrana) in Gulabo Sitabo

Then it comes to a point that, okay, if not me, then not even you. With Mirza, it’s a different equation. It’s a different character, yes. Otherwise, he’s not a bad guy because in life, in the world, in God’s creation, there are good people around us, all of us, there are good men and there are good women. I wouldn’t want to just throw it out there that all men are bad. That’s like saying everybody who got created is bad. No, I don’t. I disagree with that. I do believe that it’s a beautiful creation, and we are all struggling to find ourselves, even the ones who we write off, the ones who have not been able to come to terms with the expectations of people around them, or they’ve not been able to understand right from wrong. That’s really a very sad situation to be in, that you go through an entire life, a wonderful life, without knowing how many wrongs you’ve gone on doing. That’s such a poor birth, that’s such a sad birth.

I do think that my men also have that constant quest to better themselves, to find that human in them. Men, women, old people, everyone.

Smriti Kiran: You had spoken about this very interesting analysis that you had done of Indu in Masoom (by Shekhar Kapur) and Aarti in Mahanagar (by Satyajit Ray). When you’re writing your women that is a motif that is always there.

Juhi Chaturvedi: Talking about Indu, or Aarti, for example, for whatever reasons, the circumstances, her husband loses his job, and there’s actually no money at home to run it, she takes up a job where she’s going door to door selling the sewing machine. It’s not an easy task in the years, the times that it was made in. But that scene, where the husband finds the lipstick in her purse – which she hasn’t even bought herself, it’s a friend that has given it to her – that little moment, that little joy that she finds when she goes in the washroom in the office and workplace, and she puts that lipstick, the moment her husband spots that and questions her without really questioning, he sees that she doesn’t respond to it through an explanation. She doesn’t build up excuses. She doesn’t give any reasons, that actually it’s not me, it’s my friend. There’s no blabbering. She looks straight into his eyes and she flicks it outside the window, and she just stares at him. Where does that come from? It comes from the fact that as a human being there’s nothing to be doubted in me. She’s aware of that.

Secondly, it’s not financial independence. She is the person who is running the house. If this is what is bothering you here, chuck it. It’s not even important enough for me to give you an answer for this. A woman who was not working, if she was questioned, she would’ve given hundreds of excuses, for something like that because she doesn’t want anything to go wrong against her. But a working woman would say it in a very subtle way. I’m not saying it as a working woman or a non-working woman. The truth is that there is a certain amount of license that you can take, you can push the envelope that much more in our country or anywhere in the world when you know that you’re not asking for money. It’s a big thing.

There is agency. But in the case of Indu in Masoom, I thought that if she was a working person, do you think she would have handled the situation in the way that Aarti did in Mahanagar? Or would she have walked out of the house given the fact that she didn’t need DK? Or would she have stayed back or allowed him to give all the excuses which he gave her?

The answer that I found was that it’s not really so much working or not working. In the case of Indu, it’s the mother in her who holds the family together. The wife in her is tormented, is angry, wants to go away and, maybe, can’t because of the financial restrictions, but the mother in her is so big that it takes over. A woman might be feeling cheated, but the mother has the power to overcome. The wife in her must be feeling cheated, but the strength of a mother can empower any kind of situation, and make it alright. She may treat it as a very big error, but still, move on.

Smriti Kiran: It’s about human choices.

Juhi Chaturvedi: Yes. But if she was a working woman maybe, just maybe, she would have said, ‘You know what? Balls to you.’

Smriti Kiran: The senior people in your films are very alive. They have personalities. They have agency. They have an opinion. They’re not placeholders. They are full-body characters. They have a space in your world the way they have a space in our world. How do you always find such a humane and real place for them in your narratives?

Juhi Chaturvedi: To begin with, as you said, they are people who exist around us, in our world. They are not placeholders. They are not there for the heck of it. They’re people who have given you birth, or they’re related to you in some way or the other. So, they form a very important part of the social structure, the so-called ‘family’. A family is not just a young man and a young woman and a small child. A family is a father, mother, grandparents, and/or uncles and aunts. That is what our understanding of a family is. Do we need a family structure? That’s a separate question. ‘What is it? It’s all man-made’. That’s a separate thing. But the fact is that just because a person is growing old does not mean that his existence can be nullified as if he doesn’t exist.

“I feel that it has to be inclusive. It’s not just about, are we having enough men in our films? Are we having enough women in our films? Are we having enough human beings in our films?”

It’d be the arrogance of youth, I feel, to not welcome an old man. I do believe that elderlies are like bargad ka ped. How can you neglect its presence? How can you? You cannot. You cannot ignore the presence of a tree that old. Wisdom lies there. Whether we like it or we don’t like it, we can question it. We can argue with it. We can change it. But that wisdom lies. It’s for us to question it, debate it, change it, you can’t say that it doesn’t exist. An 80-year-old man means an 80-year-old wisdom. A 40-year-old man means only 40-year-old wisdom. Your wisdom is half of it just by experience. Forget the number of books you read, forget the number of places you’ve been. Forget all of the intellectual stuff that you have created around yourself. The very fact that a person has lived 40 years more than you is a senior in his or her intellect, at a very basic level, I’m saying. You cannot ignore that. You may not agree with it.

That’s why Biji has that agency or that liberty to speak the way she speaks because she doesn’t want to get into justifying things to her daughter-in-law or to anyone else. She wants a television which is 42 inches or 52 inches. She’s not looking at it materialistically. We may decode it like that, but she’s reached a point where she doesn’t need to justify anything to anyone.

Smriti Kiran: She’s also slightly more easy-going.

Juhi Chaturvedi: Yes, because Dolly is still running the house. Dolly is struggling to make the ends meet till Vicky starts earning. So, Dolly is the man of the house, actually.

In fact, Biji was not there in the first draft. Sometimes, the characters, as we were discussing earlier, are so well-formed that at some point in time, you just have to start writing. Sometimes, you start writing, and you miss the presence of someone, you know that something is lacking. Something is not right in this draft. Something is not right because that one person is missing. In Vicky Donor, Biji was missing. She came with that energy and made the house complete because otherwise, widow mother and a son, that third angle is what Biji provides. To the debate, the arguments, the tu-tu-main-main of that house, the noise of that house, actually comes from Biji, or the noise of wisdom in that house comes from Biji. That also connects them more to the journey that they’ve had as people. That’s why I feel it’s important to have all people in our houses, or be with them, or have a relationship with them. It’s not for them. That is how it is. They do exist. We cannot ignore them. I repeat we cannot just ignore.

Smriti Kiran: Children and old people should not be templatized the way that they are sometimes done.

Juhi Chaturvedi: Cinema, writing or creativity is not only about a section of the society, and within that whatever happens. Whatever happens, is because of what happened in the past, and whatever is going to happen through the children. You have to be mindful of that. Sometimes, the animals, the cats, the dogs in the family will bring that thought to you.

I feel that it has to be inclusive. It’s not just about, are we having enough men in our films? Are we having enough women in our films? Are we having enough human beings in our films? Are we having enough human quality to our films?

It’s not a man-woman fight. It’s not a fight, actually, at all. To me, anybody who comes from that space of awareness and sensitivity will be inclusive and mindful of people and their problems.

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

Faieez Khan: Everybody is saying that people’s attention span is getting shorter. Yet you wrote a movie like October, which is so meditative. Were these things in your mind while writing the story?

Juhi Chaturvedi: See, what is happening to them and their attention span is their problem. It is not my problem. They have to work hard to stay focused.

Why is there a hurry to create a lot of content? Because when there’s a hurry to create a lot of content, there’s a hurry to consume a lot of content. So, I think that’s another pandemic going on, parallel. There’s a big rush to put out everything, to put everything out there. But, again, what is the hurry? What is the problem in something being slow?

Unless and until you live that experience in a film like October, there is a world outside the hospital, which is running at a different pace altogether. People are living their normal lives, going to the office, there’s chaos, your school, running a house, meeting deadlines and all of that. Inside the hospital, there is no sense of time. Day and night look the same when you’re inside the corridors of the hospital and all those white tube lights are on. You would know there’s no sun peeping through the windows of the hospital door, never, because there are rules there, and those rooms are shut, and there are people who are dying or living, or struggling or dealing with their issues. Time is not the same for a person who’s inside the hospital. It’s very slow.

When a person comes, change of duty happens, the day attendant comes and exchanges the card, and I observed these things whenever I would go in the morning. From seven o’clock to nine o’clock, when the doctors would start coming, it would feel as if I’ve already lived the day between those two hours. Just those two hours. There is no speed. There’s no hurry for me to speed up.

In your real life, you will see that a man is cycling, for example. He’s there now; he’s here now; he’s here. But in cinema, or the way we are consuming content now, man is rapidly jumping from one point to the other. Your eyes do not move with him. I’m saying allow those moments, and don’t go through those cuts in some cinema, in some form of viewing. Sometimes it needs to be slow because it wants you to experience the same pace of the hospital. It wants you to be in its world, that it’s created in.

It cannot be your pace. It’s still a one hour-ten minutes, one hour-twenty minutes film. And in terms of time, there’s nothing. That discomfort comes from, ‘why is something not happening?’ Something may not happen every time. It’s alright if we see a man just sitting and biting his nails. Try to understand why he is doing this. It’s okay.

I say, what is the ghai? Ab toh pata chal gaya hai. You cannot, we cannot… we must accept and surrender to the pace another power wants us to move in. There’s no urgency. Truth is that there shouldn’t be an urgency. Urgency should only be there to interact with you and allow you to experience. I must have that urgency to have a certain kind of relationship with myself, or the moments that I’m sharing with you, the conversations that I’m sharing with you, there is an urgency to feel that. To do that or to do certain kinds of things. Other than that, no matter what pace you decide for yourself, things do happen at the right time, at the right moment only. So, let’s not run and make everything dictated by an alarm clock. It is not living.

Vibha Singh: How closely do you work with the DOP as they might interpret the script differently?

Juhi Chaturvedi: That’s a lovely question, because you may be writing something, you may be seeing something, but there’s another eye, which is the eye of the cinematographer, that can interpret or see it in a completely different way. Avik Mukhopadhyay has been a wonderful camera person for Gulabo Sitabo and October. I have actually learned a lot while working with him because he could show the city and all the chaos of that city, of the old parts of the city, and yet find a very soothing rhythm in it.

You can show a hospital, you can show those extremely sanitized corridors there, but you can still find poetry there. That, I think, that beauty, which camera can do or not, that’s a very important part of filmmaking. Just by looking at the way he frames, makes his frames, there’s a huge learning there for me. You also start writing your scenes keeping that in mind, that if x person were to shoot the scene, what would he see that I’m missing? It gives you a much deeper knowledge of the environment that you’re trying to create.

Ayodhya Bharadwaj: There’s a particular scene in Piku, when they are about to start for Calcutta, the characters get in the car, and Irrfan sits in the driver’s seat and the servant sits beside him, whereas Piku and Bhaskor sit behind. That scene was conceived so wonderfully with no dialogues, and just through the exchange of looks. How do you come up with such subtlety in your writing, and how much of the scene was on paper?

Juhi Chaturvedi: If you understand the dynamics between the people who have hired the car, which is the Banerjees, hired from an external service provider, which is Rana’s company, there is a gap between the two. It’s a transactional relationship where I will pay you money, you will send your driver, and we will sit the way that people usually sit, which is on the backseat. Nobody prefers to sit next to the driver usually, in a lot of cases. And given the family that they are, there’s a lot of restraint there.

When Rana comes, even though he’s the owner of that taxi company, the relationship is still very impersonal. It’s very transactional there. It’s a journey that they’re going to make to Kolkata, so right in the beginning, Piku, the kind of person she is, doesn’t want that kind of familiarity. In fact, if at all, she’d rather not have him there at all. She would have been perhaps more comfortable if the driver was there because this guy is there who she thinks is responsible for the delay. So, there’s already a negative attached to Rana. That transactional quality of the relationship forces her to, makes her sit on the backseat.

Piku (2015)

That moment when Rana looks into the mirror and is not starting the car, Piku still gets it. ‘I get that you’re not the driver. Let me go and sit, but don’t think that there is anything more to it’. So, there’s a lot of conversation that has been had in that particular glimpse, in that little look.

Is it there on paper? Yes, it is there on paper, but more than that, the charm was in the way it was enacted. Even how Budhan first sits on the floor. He doesn’t sit on the seat because he’s so used to not sharing the same level. See, again, it’s discrimination, it’s a gap between the sahab and the person who’s helping you run the house. In a lot of families, that line is very clear, and they don’t want it to be crossed. It’s a very unsaid line. Budhan also follows that till he’s told that aye upar baith. Hesitantly, in one corner of the seat, he sits.

This is what our conditioning has done to us. While writing, if we can be mindful of that conditioning, it just makes it more real. This is not just this family. This is how all of us have grown up, ‘ki driver ke bagal mein nahi baithna hai’, or ‘tum yahan baithoge, vo niche baithega’, that is how we are all conditioned in society. That’s exactly what we need to be mindful of and, therefore, break that. Piku is able to do that.

Anjali Mohanan: Was introducing Ayushmann’s (Khurrana) character in Gulabo Sitabo a deliberate attempt to smash the patriarchy by the revelatory climax? Because I believe the battle of ownership would have been possible between Mr. Bachchan’s and Srishti Shrivastava’s character (Guddo) too. How different would the film have been if the conflict involved these two characters?

Juhi Chaturvedi: I’m sure it would have been different from this because that’s a different kind of relationship we’re talking about. Given this Rastogi family, if you see the dynamics of the Rastogi family, Baankey is the bread earner, while the sisters have gone to school, and they are more educated. But when it comes to money, the wallet is with the brother. Because of that financial superiority, supremacy, he is the one who’s calling the shots. He’s the one who will go out. Also, we are talking about the milieu, the place where it’s set in. In Lucknow, in the old part of the city, where the lines have still not blurred between a man and a woman, or your role in society versus my role in society.

That’s exactly what she still wants to break. If she was already doing that, then that means Guddo would have crossed that barrier. But she still hasn’t, and that’s why she is so agitated all the time. She says that I want to work. She wants the permission of her brother, that look I’m done with my studies, I want to work; I don’t want to get married; I want to have a life of my own. She goes to Gyanesh Shukla (played by Vijay Raaz), and she’s willing to kiss him also if that is what is needed to get her a job. She just wants to be independent. She’s not yet there, and that is because, as I said, the financial supremacy or the earning member of the house is still the brother, and therefore she has to take that within her bracketed life. But then her space, jitna bhi vo haath pair maar sakti hai, vo maar rahi hai, vo kar rahi hai. Kabhi chhup ke kar rahi hai, kabhi jhoot bolke kar rahi hai, kaise bhi kar rahi hai. She wants to cross over, she wants to go on the other side, and we’re showing her journey. Of course, she could’ve been the one doing that, but she’s not.

Amoli Birewar: You spoke beautifully about your character-building process. By the end, they are people that can stand in front of you and speak through you in the script. Does that ever come in the way of crisp and minimalistic writing? Are there moments that you want to say a lot more but the script doesn’t require it?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Yes, it happens. That’s where Shoojit comes in and just cuts it off. ‘Ye kya hai, itna kyun bol rahe hai ye log. Chhota karo, chhota karo’. There’s that part also to writing, where you write a lot, but there’s a voice of sensibility, a sensible voice out there, which is a lot more practical and pragmatic and matter of fact. When he’s reading it, he’s not being as involved. I mean, the first reading is obviously extremely involved, but then the technical man in him, in any director or any editor, will take over and starts bringing in his or her point of view into your script, which is what actually starts making the script better – nurturing it, oversaying it, not under saying it, saying only as much is required.

When two people are collaborating, it’s always good. It’s not always me who decides how much they should say or speak. Another voice brings in a newer perspective. Therefore, it’s important to collaborate with people who can bring that, and nurture it and take it to another level. Sometimes it is just by editing that things become more relevant and more focused.

Mudassir Mansuri: While writing, do you keep going back and forth in your screenplay to keep adding nuances to your characters, or do you keep developing them as the story keeps progressing? Have you ever faced this in any of your stories till date?

Juhi Chaturvedi: I have, actually. In the case of Dan, it has been slightly difficult… Not difficult, I’d say, but I had to always go back and read what has been written because he’s not willing to open his mind. He is a character who’s not living life at a deeper level. So, what is his shallow point, which is good enough for this character, for the writing, for this film because there is a certain challenge or uncertainty to Dan that he’s grappling with. He is not aware of it. I don’t want the audience to also judge him because of that. He just is that character.

Varun Dhawan and Juhi Chaturvedi on the sets of October

I had to keep going back to that, and see if at any point I am ridiculing him. Not everybody leads life with that kind of depth, and it’s absolutely fine because it’s only when that point comes in your life that you transform or you start taking risks or you start experiencing life more personally. But sometimes we quickly judge, people quickly judge them. So, I was going back to whatever I was writing about Dan, that, by any chance, am I judging him just because I live deeply? Am I ridiculing him? Am I making him seem like a lesser person? Is my arrogance, by any chance, coming there? That was one character I had to actually go back to and be very mindful of what I’m doing with him.

Vrushali Telang: As a novelist, I want to ask you that when Shoebite or the Kishore Kumar biopic did not happen, did you go through self-doubt as a writer?

Juhi Chaturvedi: In the case of Shoebite, actually it was shot. It’s almost ready, and it hasn’t seen the light of day for different reasons. But the process was complete, and the reason it’s not yet released is completely different. It’s got nothing to do with the creative process. There was no self-doubt there.

To be very honest, I didn’t even have that kind of relationship with writing, with the process of writing, or with cinema as such. In the case of Shoebite, because that was my first project, it was really somebody else’s trust in me that I was working with. It wasn’t my own journey into the world. Somebody said, ‘You know what, you should write this’. And I said, ‘Okay, let me write this’. I had still not deeply lived the experience of Shoebite.

What Shoojit goes through every time you talk about Shoebite with him is a different emotion. It’s deeper. You do feel as a creative person extremely hard and dejected. But it’s not the self-doubt, which I’m sure you also go through. It’s just that as a creator, as a creative person, as an artist, you have expressed all your thoughts, but there’s a tape on your mouth and you just can’t voice it. It’s a very stifling feeling for him, I’m sure.

As for Kishore Kumar, again, the project only changed its whole path. So, I don’t know. At some point of time, there were a lot of people writing, then nobody writing. We don’t know the status of the biopic. For me, as I said, my actual relationship started with Vicky Donor. Kishore Kumar’s biopic was also rushed, trying to write a screenplay. It did turn out decently. It didn’t happen for various other reasons, not because the screenplay didn’t cut through.

Mithila Desai: Being a copywriter, and having been trained to crack an idea for a 30 seconds or 60 seconds ad, the skill of keeping it short, I’m sure, has always been a positive. But has that habit ever been an obstacle while writing a screenplay?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Actually, no. On the contrary, that has been one of the strengths that I would say my advertising career has given me, which is being very mindful, like I said earlier in the session, of every word that was out there. Every moment in a 30-second ad is special. It has to be there only if it is making sense. It has to be there only if it is needed.

Now, when you come from that kind of training, you start seeing every scene of your film like a mini ad, like a 30-second ad, or like a one-minute ad. If it’s not saying something substantial, if it’s not evoking a certain kind of emotion or a thought, then it doesn’t make sense. Why are we taking time? Why are we occupying space? Can this be said in a different way through just the visuals? Will it still complete? Do I really need to write actually? A lot of times we get into the habit of writing and explaining everything, and sometimes it’s just a moment, just a visual, that says it all. So, that questioning has come thanks to advertising, that every written word must contribute or every visual must speak the story. Otherwise, there’s no point. It’s a waste of everybody’s time.

Siddhant Vyas: What is the key for great dialogues? How do you balance the mise-en-scene and dialogues?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Never write it separately. Actually, I never write dialogues after I write the screenplay. I’m writing my dialogues along with the screenplay, because what the character is saying in a conversation that is happening at that moment, the heat of that moment leads to another scene, leads to another energy in the room, leads to another incident in someone else’s life. It’s a cause and effect thing. I may be thinking something, but what I speak makes you react in a certain way. So, that talk for me is extremely important while writing the screenplay because it takes me to another scene, so on and so forth. That way there is a consistency which is always maintained. I know that he has already spoken this. He has already behaved like this. So he cannot act in this manner. I already have evidence that this person, in a situation like this, has already spoken his mind. When he’s already made it clear to me, my protagonists, or if my protagonist has made it clear, then why is he doing this? The scene itself doesn’t make sense.

The screenplay there might sometimes feel repetitive or useless or inconsequential because in the past I’ve already made my character speak. It’s extremely important to write, according to me, dialogues along with the screenplay because that’s actually what is taking you to the other scene in a more focused way. Of course, you may know what happens after a scene, but the moment the voice of the character comes, the energy only changes.

Harshil Shinde: How do you construct your story? How do you structure your story in a screenplay? Suppose, you’re writing a scene, how do you know that this scene needs to be intercut with a parallel scene taking place at the same time? Also, when do you know that you need to plant information in a scene, which might later payoff?

Juhi Chaturvedi: There is the basic awareness that my film is about these people, these characters, this is how their journey will be, this is where I want to get them: from point A to point B.

Sometimes, you may want to reveal everything right in the beginning and let the whole writing be about that crisis in their life. Sometimes it is, ‘Let me set it up. This is happening now. This is happening here.’ I still don’t know what the crisis really is here.

For example, in the case of October, till the time that fall doesn’t happen, till the time Shiuli doesn’t fall after 20 minutes into the film, you are still seeing the hotel world. You still don’t know where the film is going, or what is going to happen. But that is such an important part of the film; that set up is so important because you’re getting more and more familiar with the characters. At some point in time, you realise that through in-depth familiarity, the crisis starts coming out in whatever it is they are lacking or whatever they are seeking.

In the first 20 minutes of the film, Dan does not have any depth at all. We’ve seen, we’ve got to know that there is absolutely no hope for this character. We know that there is absolutely no relationship that he shares with Shiuli. There’s absolutely no victorious thing he’s going to ever do in his life. We also know that he is also just pulling along and hoping that something in his future should work out. He’s a lost soul. So, when you’ve established 20 minutes in setting that up, and then you give the shock of the fall, that shock is not just to Dan, it’s also to the audience, to me, to everyone. You think, ‘Shit, everything was going alright. Suddenly this fall. Now what will happen? They didn’t even talk. They didn’t kiss, they didn’t have an affair. They didn’t have a relationship.’ It seems like he and she were supposed to be together because that is how the setup is; she’s a little pissed off with him when he throws the flowers, and he is irritated with her when the tire gets punctured. You did not give them that time for the relationship to develop. You just made her fall down. But that’s where the film actually begins the journey. For the film to actually begin there, or for the character transformation to begin, the prior 20 minutes of the film are important.

How do I decide that this much is enough? I think while writing, you only start feeling that fatigue, that I think I’ve said it enough. I think I know it now. I think whatever needs to be told or understood or not written is already done. Now, if I do anything more, I will be doing it for A for apple, I’ll be telling everyone everything, which I don’t want to do at this point in the film. That comes through your instinct that you have to constantly be aware of. It’s not that you keep typing things; you type, try to back off, you think, you take two-three days break, come back to it, and ask yourself, ‘Is there anything else that I want to say at this point in time?

So, it’s a process. It’s a relationship that you are sharing with that world that you’re trying to create and you’ll get the response from there only. If you’re involved, if you are invested in your writing, I feel if you’re so invested, your response, your communication will be very strong with that. It’ll automatically start giving you hints to delete, write more, or tell you that it’s not yet convincing. It begins to happen. For that, yes, I do cut myself out from a lot of other things, then it’s just the writing and me.

At what point in time do I realise that I need to cut away to something else and cut back? See, when you’re following one person’s track, you’re following but you know that in life parallel things are happening. Parallel tracks are happening when I’m talking to Smriti or to you over here. There is another life going on in my house which, if this was a film, I would have cut to the life outside this room. What is going on there? It is not uni-dimensional. It’s not a single track. Life is not a single track. So, your film cannot be a single track. It will have multiple cameras trying to show that while this is happening, this is happening elsewhere. And all that would, of course, be related to this person’s life.

Again, that also comes from a realisation that they are not living a life in isolation. There is a world around us that is moving on, and we need to know how much of that world is important for the viewer to see at a given point in time, that I must cut away to show that world and bring him back.

Spandan Dhir: Do you ideate the story first or do your characters form and shape up your story?

Juhi Chaturvedi: Initially, of course, it is: what is the purpose of writing, and what is this idea about? What am I trying to say through this idea? The discussion on the idea itself. How is it connected or important for anyone to know? How is this idea big enough for me to invest myself? What is the point that it’s trying to make?

Any form of art, you will question its purpose. How is it satisfying? What question is it answering? At what point the need arises for me to go and see this film, and what part of you will come back with answers. So, first is that part: what is there in it for me to explore?

Once you find that, once you find that truth, then you start asking, where will it be placed? Who are these people? This seems to be the world of these characters. How will I arrive at that conflict? But first is, of course, the purpose, the intent of the idea.

Does it even have hands and legs to be a two-hour film, or an hour and a half long film? Or is it all right to just write small Facebook status and let it be there? First is always an in-depth understanding of the idea and then characters. But then characters take it all on their shoulders. They become your allies. They become your best friends to carry it for you.

Swaratmika Mishra: How do you know your characters become the topic of discussion? And once you know your character’s backstory, you’re able to take your story forward. When you’re writing your characters, is it the characters’ quirkiness or traits or what they’re going to do to the story that propels you to write the story?

Juhi Chaturvedi: How do the characters become a point of discussion? I don’t know. Maybe they feel like a part of you and me, our lives. They come from a world which we are aware of or have lived or experienced or heard of. Sometimes, it may be our own guilt that we see through them. Sometimes, it’s our own triumph that we are seeing in them. Something about them maybe feels relatable.

What happens when I’m writing is that I tend to… you know how an onion is – you just keep peeling one layer after the other until nothing comes out. I take away all this person’s pretence; I take away all the show off; I take away all his worries; I take away everything. So, I know what I can take away from him, and what I can’t take away from him. Sometimes, I do that exercise to get to the core of the person, but what is left of him or her? What is his truth that comes out when you take away all the crutches or all the worldly things that he is riding or piggybacking on to get to the truth of the person?

When you get to the truth of the person it usually relates or resonates with us. I try to find that about my characters, and maybe that’s how people are able to relate. They do find it similar or find a mirror, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to watch a person because he’s so close to you in that sense.

Do I use the quirks of the character to write the story or is it the story that propels? It happens simultaneously. It’s never the quirk of the character that will take the story forward. It’s always the truth of the character, the behaviour.

When we are at home, we don’t live our relationships in a scientific manner, in a logical manner, in a corrective manner or politically correct manner. We just live. We just say things. We just behave. A lot of times we say all the wrong things, a lot of times with regret, and a lot of times it’s just a foul expression that comes out. Sometimes, it’s the most hurtful truth that comes out. But that’s how we live. That’s how we are as human beings, and one thing leads to another, to another. That is what I prefer my characters do. They live or say things in that kind of way, the way you and I live our lives because that often leads to another scene, which is equally relevant.

Of course, we’ve already placed them in a certain environment; we’ve already placed them in a certain situation; we’ve already given them a certain crisis. Characters speak to make that crisis even more relevant; even more compelling; even more relatable. Stories sometimes do take a different shape because of that, but then, so be it.

What’s most important is that the experience or the sum total of that should resonate, should seem convincing. Sometimes, it’s the story first, but the story that I have to write towards this can be limiting. So, I do want my characters to just behave in the way you and I would behave: in a very uncalculated, in a more spontaneous manner.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Juhi Chaturvedi in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

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

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