Smriti Kiran: Vikramaditya Motwane, Sudip Sharma, Akshat Verma, Abhishek Chaubey, Anvita Dutt, Navdeep Singh, Devashish Makhija and Arpita Chatterjee talk about the Sunday script club called Sceptic Tank that Vikramaditya Motwane, Akshat Verma and Arpan Gaglani started nine years ago, in September 2012.
They met for a year after that on almost every Sunday to work on their own movie ideas, read the scripts of upcoming directors and learn while creating value for kindred spirits. They have kept in touch and collaborated with each other over the years but today for the first time they are reuniting on a public platform to chat about the year that they spent together and became a tribe – a tribe that in their own words saved them more than anyone else.
Vikram, Akshat, you started this; Navdeep and Sudip were there from the very first session. There were no reference points for something like this back then, at least here in India. How did you map out the workings of this club, and what were the first few sessions like?
Vikramaditya Motwane: Akshat and I had been chatting for a while about doing something with scripts, what’s new and out there, and what he and anybody else were up to lately. But the big dollar to form the club was to just hang together, where we said, ‘Why don’t we all just get together and read scripts? We could ask young filmmakers to send us their material, see what it sounds like, read it and give them feedback.’ Then, I got in touch with others, all of whom I knew individually in different ways.
While we loved the process of reading the script and giving feedback, I think we loved the process of hanging with each other a lot more. I have to say that that became the reason for all of us to come back and meet every Sunday.
At their base, the sessions were simply reading scripts and giving feedback. I enjoyed the process. I loved listening to these guys talk. While you may have your opinion about a script, hearing other people talk and realising that their opinions are right too was a massive learning for me.
Akshat Verma: Writing is such an isolating way to spend your days. Also, when you’re writing, you’re not really sure whether you’re on the right path. Sometimes, the only people who understand what you’re going through are other writers. To be able to get together, to push the quality of our work, to connect, can be really helpful.
The funniest thing is, writers are the foundation of anything that comes afterwards in our business, but they are also the most oppressed. This is not just when you get to Bombay, it’s anywhere else you go in the world. You don’t even know why that is. It’s a conundrum I don’t understand, but it also suits everybody else well that writers don’t understand the power that they have – it’s easier to continue to oppress them, in a way, and get them to write scripts for two lakhs.
So, it was for us to at least come together and know that we were not in it alone, because that’s what you feel all the time. As you’re writing, oftentimes you’re also unsure about whether you’re getting on the right path or not because so much of your material is in your head.
“It was our little safe haven, a secret club of all the oppressed coming together and planning a revolution.” – Akshat Verma
One of the biggest drivers for this was for us to find a safe space. I dare say that there are people who would say that this was not a safe space. The intent was always honest, and whatever pain was inflicted, the inflictors were also open to the same destruction wrought upon themselves. In that way, it was democratic.
The only reason it unravelled was that people began to get busy with their own projects, which is the best reason. Suddenly, people were working instead of meeting every week to talk about their projects. There’s always a time and a place for something to coalesce and then fall apart, equally and randomly.
It was really gratifying to see that there was so much support, so many writers who were fighting the good fight, which is thankless in many ways (and the industry that we are in makes it doubly so). The fact that there are people in there who were doing it for the love of writing was wonderful to see – so many talented people who are now working in the industry. That was quite brilliant.
Smriti Kiran: You were trying to create a safe space when you’re putting your guts on the table. Trust-building is very important and a sense of safety is key. So, how did you guys create that vibe and space where you allow people to share?
Akshat Verma: I have to say that’s a fine line. Here’s the thing with feedback: some people take it well and some people do not take it well at all; the same applies to giving feedback: some people know how to be gentle and some people don’t. The only thing we could hope for was that it was coming from the right place and it was coming for the right reason. Now, I can’t say communication was always a hundred percent. That’s just the way human interactions are. But we for sure were there to push writers, to push material – at least the ones that we saw. Again, the same thing with feedback: we might think it’s valuable and the person receiving it might not. So you take what you can and you reject everything else.
We certainly tried. It largely worked. I’m willing to listen to opposing points of view on that, but the fact that it went on for a bit is a good sign. It was also voluntary. Everyone was free to come and put their work in, and be present. It was something that had not been done before, and while we were doing it, it was really energising. It was our little safe haven, a secret club of all the oppressed coming together and planning a revolution. And as you know, the revolution has not happened and we are still oppressed.
Smriti Kiran: Abhishek, you came in after a few months of this starting. You knew Navdeep a little bit and Vikram was an acquaintance. Sudip, your sole connection to the group was Navdeep. You didn’t know anyone here. These were people you guys were meeting for the first time. How did you navigate these meetings?
Sudip Sharma: I walked into this meeting with the same trepidation that you would walk into any meeting in this town – you never know what jokers you’d be meeting.
What really got me into it was that suddenly there was, for the first time, this place where it was your work that was being judged and not you as a person. That’s a soft spot for all writers. You tend to equate yourself with your work, and when somebody is giving you critical feedback about your script, you think it is critical feedback for you – that’s where things get a little touchy. What I personally really enjoyed was the fact that there was a group that understood writing, as much or better than I did, and that when they’d come with their feedback, it was with the sole idea of making this thing better. ‘In order to make this into the best possible script, what would we need to do?’
Before one of Akshat’s sessions, where he’d given Kaalakaandi’s script, I remember he walked in with a jar of Vaseline and put it on the table saying, ‘Okay, guys, it’s my turn.’ The whole idea was to just make it better – even if it would get hard, which it would, we’d still be making the script better.
We would turn in the script over the week and meet over the weekend. So, it wasn’t even that we had a separation from the material. In a couple of months, you start hating your own script, but when you’ve just written it, you are really sensitive. Having that safe space was nice because there was this trust that ‘Haan, yaar, sab ko acchi film banani hai.’ That’s the whole objective of it.
Abhishek Chaubey: I second what Sudip said. Writing is a lonely process, which is one of the reasons for mistrust in the business – you really don’t trust the intention of the other person who’s reading your script and where that person’s coming from.
“There was, for the first time, this place where it was your work that was being judged and not you as a person.” – Sudip Sharma
Initially, when Vikram did call me, I didn’t know what this was going to be about. But when I did walk in – I remember NH10 was the first script – what I enjoyed about it was that people were just hanging out, faffing a lot, apart from doing some serious work in the middle. Everybody wants to be part of a club. For me, this was a great hangout place. We could just hang and chill and also do some work in the middle. Even when we were talking about the scripts, there were moments, there were times when things would get quite intense, but for the most part, it was done with a lot of humour.
Smriti Kiran: Let’s get down to the nitty and gritty. Who was the harshest when it came to feedback, and who would go easy?
Abhishek Chaubey: Akshat was the hardest, no?
Sudip Sharma: Akshat and Makhija.
Akshat Verma: No! What! I loved everything. I was kind and polite. This doesn’t jive with my recollection. I remember Vik being the hard-ass.
Vikramaditya Motwane: No!
Abhishek Chaubey: I was the gentlest, sweetest, good soul around.
Sudip Sharma: I think the gentlest was, surprisingly, Navdeep.
Akshat Verma: There’s a glitch in this memory bank. I don’t remember this at all!
Navdeep Singh: I’ll tell you what my big learning was: compassion.
Akshat Verma: Unbelievable! He just walks into that and he owns it. The lies! He just embraced them.
Smriti Kiran: Was it always decided that you’d discuss each others’ scripts, or was it only after you started getting scripts from other people did you feel that it was only fair to also have your work up for scrutiny?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I honestly can’t remember. Old age is making memory foggy. NH10 was one of the earliest scripts that came but I can’t remember who the first person to pitch their script was. I think it was a mixture of everything, where we said, ‘Okay, let’s get together. It’s a great place for us to hang and be able to share our material and read other people’s material.’
Akshat Verma: I think it began with us bringing our stuff in, and then as that happened a couple of times, you said that there were other people who wanted to bring material in. So, then it opened up.
Devashish Makhija: My memory says the complete opposite. I think we started with Varun’s (Grover) script, then we had Arpan come in with something, and it opened us up to the idea of bringing our material because I know how cagey and scared I was to bring my material. We did a session with NH10 much later – five or six weeks in. It was not one of the first sessions. But we had all read it at some point.
Smriti Kiran: Arpita, what was your experience like? You were there for two months. You were thinking of transitioning to writing.
Arpita Chatterjee: When I had met Akshat, I’d already done a soft transition because I had Avi and I realised I couldn’t make it as a journalist. I was thinking of it. I was just intimidated because I didn’t know what it meant, but I had studied the craft of it. I had written a fluke film, which became a hit.
I was interviewing Akshat for a story about Delhi Belly. We got talking, and he was like, ‘Why don’t you come? We do this. Maybe, you’ll learn something.’ When he told me who all were there, I was like, ‘No, this sounds very intimidating. I’m not really going to come.’ But he was really insistent. He was like, ‘Just come.’
What happened is, I learnt that a filmmaker and writer’s struggle never ends. I was like a sponge. I would observe and absorb everything. Everybody was going through a different part of their journey and everybody was struggling. So, what that really prepared me for was that what I’ve chosen would just be a struggle no matter where I’d be. Thanks to these guys, it’s just been easier these last nine years when I’ve had scripts not made and 17 features completed which have not been shot. Seeing these guys just spilling their guts about where they were was extremely helpful to me.
“You think you’ve made it, but you never do as a writer.” – Arpita Chatterjee
When you read a script and you take it apart and you think of how to make it better, you just learn so much before even entering it. Reading books and reading screenplays is a way to learn, but this was such a good way to learn the craft. Even now when I write something, in my head, I have these seven voices who are like, ‘Okay, this is shit.’ ‘What is the purpose of this film?’ ‘Why does it exist?’ ‘Does it really mean anything?’ That’s great because you need to keep questioning that.
Akshat Verma: I don’t think we are coming off well from this, because one thing she says she learnt was that suffering is eternal and endless.
Devashish Makhija: Lesson number two was: most of what we write is shit.
Arpita Chatterjee: Makhija’s frustrations would never end. It was just non-stop, no matter where you were.
Since these were really a talented bunch of people, I was like, ‘I am willing to be frustrated for the next 15 years,’ which helped me in good stead, honestly. I kept working at my stuff, and I’m still working at it and still breaking my head.
I really feel that more new writers should have become a part of the club. I feel that lots of other people would have gained from the same experience and exposure as I did by just knowing about what goes down. You think you’ve made it, but you never do as a writer. I completely agree with whatever Akshat said. It’s just a lonely process of bashing your head against the wall constantly. That was my experience of the whole thing.
Smriti Kiran: Anvita, Vik called you for one of the sessions, you felt that you were a blogger that was invited to a conference of authors. You’d already been in the industry for a while. You’d written the script for Bulbbul. What was it like navigating these sessions with the people that you admired or, at least, felt that they were there and you weren’t?
Anvita Dutt: I hadn’t yet written the script of Bulbbul. I’d just written the story, and had been sitting on it for a year. It was my party piece – I would take it out for friends, say ‘Wow!’, put it back and never touch it again, because I didn’t think I could write it.
In fact, the first time that I came to the Phantom office, Sudip and Navdeep asked me, ‘You’re the one who wrote Ishq Wala Love, right?’ That was asked to me first. I was like, ‘Yes,’ and secretly I was like, ‘Mujhe kyun bulaya!’
I read that email twice when Vikramaditya sent it to me. I then messaged him to ask him whether it was really him who’d sent me the email – just to confirm. I was so thrilled. He saved me. I’m not speaking for anyone else. I was not in a good place. I was very lonely. Yes, there were certain kinds of stories that I wanted to tell – I’m not taking away from all the work that I’ve done for other people, I have after all learned on the job, and it was fun, but it was their story, their vision, and I simply did not think like that. For me, skipping through the daisies kind of stuff was hard. I’m not that person.
“Bulbbul happened because of these people. It would never have been written if it wasn’t for them”. – Anvita Dutt
So, I was lonely, and for a loner, you don’t even know that you’re lonely; you don’t know that you need a tribe. I felt very self-sufficient till he called me and I met all of them. I realised that to some degree we were all the same. We were very different people, but we were all the same. We were equally lonely; it’s equally hard, sometimes more hard for some of us. And I found my tribe. Kurt Vonnegut has this term called ‘karass’. I found my karass. The same things move us. It’s the theory of quantum entanglement right here. We are connected in ways that are so beautiful and visceral. It’s partly to do with the craft, partly to do with what we do and the work that we do, but I think a lot of it has to do with the people we are. I needed them and they saved me.
When you are faced with talent like this, it gives you the permission to try to be a little brave, gives you permission to say, ‘You can think and you can be different, and it’s okay.’ Then, Vikramaditya pushed me. He would keep asking me, ‘Where’s your script, Dutt?’ I used to be so petrified. I would say, ‘Mujhe toh likhna hi nahi aata.’ Then eventually I did. I ran off to Goa, wrote it, and without doing a spell-check, without reading it – because I was so scared that it’ll be awful – I just mailed it to them. So, today the very fact that MAMI would think of possibly calling me or talking to me is because of Bulbbul, and Bulbbul happened because of these people. It would never have been written if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had the self-belief to say that I can do it if it wasn’t for them. I’m here today because of them.
Devashish Makhija: Anvita, why did you give us this name ‘Sceptic Tank’?
Anvita Dutt: There was one day when we couldn’t have a session because a septic tank was not working at the Phantom office. And I was like, ‘Skeptics toh yahan hai, hum toh kaam kar sakte hai. Hum gaadi dikki se chalayenge. Toh kya hua agar differential mein lafda hai!’
Abhishek Chaubey: There was another name in consideration around this time, right?
Sudip Sharma: Andheri Sahitya Academy – Versova Chapter.
Navdeep Singh: That’s the credit we gave on NH10, man!
Smriti Kiran: Each of you was at a different stage in your career at that time. Navdeep, you were trying to get your second film off the ground. Devashish, you’d come in post a very unsavoury experience with a producer and gave up on a three-film deal. How did the tank help your individual journeys as creators?
Navdeep Singh: My second film took a lot longer than my first film. I went through various second films. And as for the rest of them, it was a lonely time just in terms of dealing with all that stuff, having films stop-start. But more than that, I always wondered about the scene in Bombay. While it had enough interaction between creative people, people barely ever talked about or discussed craft. It was always about box-office, about actors. I still feel that there’s not enough discussion about the craft that happens in this town. It filled that gap, at least in my life. Here was finally a bunch of people who were meeting with the purpose of discussing craft. It was really gratifying to feel that there are other people out there like you struggling with the same sort of creative issues, social issues, struggling with the issue of getting films made. So, it saved me as well at that point in time because NH10 happened almost seven-eight years after my first film.
Devashish Makhija: It would be unfair to not mention a person who was not a part of Sceptic Tank, but has left a very big shadow that Vikram and I work in: Anurag (Kashyap). The kind of largesse, big-heartedness, openness and courage with which he would seek feedback from someone like me, who’d come from Calcutta, is really commendable.
I worked with him for the first time on Black Friday. Right through the process of Black Friday, he’d be so open to anything that we would suggest, that we would want to see differently. That spirit is something Vikram and I carried forward from our experiences with Anurag. Vikram had a much longer association, but the little bit that I’ve worked with Anurag has shaped my openness to things.
“It was really gratifying to feel that there are other people out there like you struggling with the same sort of issues.” – Navdeep Singh
Around that time, my films weren’t happening – I even wrote Doga for Anurag in 2009, but that got shelved as well. Vik had closely seen my experience on my first film, Oonga – the first film that got made but didn’t, according to me. It was that very year, 2012, that I left Bombay after Oonga. I didn’t know if I was coming back. When he messaged me, I was in Calcutta. I didn’t know what I was coming back for, but just the fact that there was somebody like Vikram who knew what I’d been through and wanted me to come be part of something that we didn’t know where it was going to go made me feel like I should come back and see what develops.
I don’t know what else to say, but it saved me too. This particular secret script society came into all our lives and all of us allowed it into our lives because we needed it at this point in time, and we saw it through for almost a year.
But somewhere it’s that spirit that Anurag imparted to me that made me open to other people coming into something that I’ve created. I don’t direct for hire. I don’t make things for other people. I only work from a personal space – from a very personal reservoir of rage or anger, or whatever it is; to let people into that very fragile, wounded place is very difficult, but when I walked into this room to let these people in, that was not very difficult.
Smriti Kiran: Did you ever have very serious disagreements over scripts that came in?
Sudip Sharma: All the time. Mostly we had disagreements with the person who had written it than among us.
Abhishek Chaubey: There was a general consensus about the quality of scripts. There could be varying degrees of dislike or love. But generally speaking, there was a consensus. I don’t think there ever was a script jo kisi ko bohot acchi lagi ya kisi ko bohot kharab lagi.
Anvita Dutt: What was interesting was that our solutions would be very different to the problems in the script because we are very different writers and filmmakers. But we would all agree on, ‘Yahan pe kuch karna hai.’
Vikramaditya Motwane: The fact that we got different solutions really opened up your mind – sitting there and saying, ‘Oh, I never thought of that,’ and they would all be correct solutions, none of them would be wrong because they were all so personal. That really helped us improve our understanding of writing, of the craft, of practical solutions that one could actually apply to a script and the things that one can do.
We are all lonely and very scared when we write our scripts – scared of people reading them and tearing them apart. At least for me, nothing that I look at is sacrosanct. This is one of the things that it taught me. You think it is sacrosanct, but it is not. It really isn’t until you actually get it on the floor. Until then, you can keep making things better incrementally. There’s always a solution.
It opened up my mind tremendously, and to look at my material or someone else’s material and be able to say, ‘Do this,’ or ‘Do that,’ or ‘Use voiceover.’ ‘Drop this out.’ ‘Put this there.’ There’s so much of that stuff I learned while sitting with these guys. It’s totally priceless for me.
Abhishek Chaubey: When you’re working as a writer all alone or working with an intimate group of people that you’ve been working with for a long period of time, you’re bound by your own style and approach. You almost become a prisoner of it. Then, you have 10-12 people with very different styles, different methods and approaches which really opens you up to other possibilities. It’s not a conscious process. Unconsciously, you imbibe a lot. You take in a lot. ‘Iss ko aise bhi kiya jaa sakta hai.’
For example, when I read Bulbbul, I’d not read anything like that before – the way it had been written. That was a great learning experience for me, this exposure to various styles.
Smriti Kiran: When you were forming a tribe and when you saw that there were certain people who clicked together and gravitated together, what made you stay and be together?
Anvita Dutt: What we have in common is not what is being said or how it is being said but what the intent behind it is. It is something that all of us get. Feedback of any sort is daunting. We were harsher with each other than we ever were with somebody who came from outside. But what we all have in common is that we see the intent, ki ye bol kyun raha hai. What is it? It’s about the script, right? It’s about the material. It’s not personal. He’s not saying you are a duffer and you’re not talented. They’re saying, ‘This is not working. Make your script better.’ That is such a generous thing to do for someone. That, and the fact that we trust each other because of that reason – ‘Mujhe nahi aata par ye bacha lenge,’ or they will say something that triggers it, or like Vikramaditya was saying how 10 different ways of thinking about it open up, ways that you’re not capable of thinking in when you give it to others. What is this arrogance of thinking that I alone can be amazing? You need many people to leap off the cliff, knowing that there’s somebody waiting there to catch you and give you wings, throw you a rope. All of us trusted each other with that. Maybe that’s why we stuck.
“We are all lonely and very scared when we write our scripts – scared of people reading them and tearing them apart.” – Vikramaditya Motwane
Akshat Verma: This was a collective of people who were willing to give writing the time it deserves. Oftentimes there’s a tendency to just stick by the first draft. Once it’s done, you want to make it. But this was a group of people that consistently would not let go of things until they had been pushed at least as far as they needed to be. There was no complaining. Walking into a room like that is really, really lifesaving because no one is getting irritated. The whole thing is just so you dig deeper to find what is the story that you’re telling. To give the writing the time and the importance that it deserves is a very rare thing, certainly, in our town.
Sudip Sharma: If you look at it, the biggest issue we have in this town is that we don’t even have access to scripts. It’s not like Hollywood, where you’re publishing a Black List of scripts or the best screenplays are getting out. None of that is happening.
I love reading scripts. Even back then I would read scripts every day. But they were all scripts from outside of India. You were not reading each others’ materials at all because there was just no access. Nobody published a script. Most of the time script hoti nahi thi, dus saal pehle tak toh.
Here, suddenly, you had access to each other’s work; you had access to a lot of new work that was coming in, and it actually helps you make your own work better. For me, especially, when I was in my formative writing years, there was so much that I absorbed by reading all the other scripts that came in.
Now when I read a script, I find that I’m quick to grasp it. I can easily see the nuts and the bolts. That has been achieved only by reading fifty scripts in a year, through which you also start figuring out the mechanisms of scripts faster. It has been a big help when it comes to that as well.
Devashish Makhija: There were a few people who left disgruntled. It’s something that I also grappled with in the years leading up to Sceptic Tank. It’s very difficult to come to terms with the fact that filmmaking and film writing, as opposed to writing a novel or a poem, I’ve worked in all of these mediums, can not be an isolated process. You are not a one-person auteur. You are ultimately going to get in 10 or 50 or 150 people to take that story to fruition. So, to start getting a collective view into that piece of writing is very important at a very early stage because when you write something and you feel that you can’t let anyone else give you a response or perspective because it’s auteur-led. You as it is land up on a set with 50 other people who have perspectives, and you can’t get 50 people to follow a fascist vision. They will come with their own artistic voice. Somewhere film writing is a little dichotomic. It needs an auteur’s voice, but it also has to be collective, because you are ultimately going to open it up to 150 people who will help you make it.
I think the people who left disgruntled were in that stage in their lives where they were grappling with that as well. ‘Is it just my voice?’ ‘Do I let these people in?’ If I’m not mistaken, those same people coming into a similar room, maybe not with the ten of us, with ten other people, may not respond in the same disgruntled way today. It depends on which point of your journey you’re on that will decide how open you are and aren’t.
“You are not a one-person auteur.” – Devashish Makhija
The eight-nine of us stuck it out because we were all at that point in our journeys where we wanted those collective energies to form us, to show us the way, to help us take our film to a level that we couldn’t take alone.
Sudip Sharma: It’s like what Paul Schrader once said: ‘A screenplay is not a work of art. It is an invitation for other people to collaborate on a work of art.’
Navdeep Singh: It’s something that I’ve always wondered about, this reluctance to share scripts because it’s not something I’ve ever been reluctant about. I’ve always been reasonably promiscuous about giving out my scripts. ‘Yaar, padh ke bata.’ If my neighbour were to ask me for my script randomly, I’d be out there handing it out and ask them for feedback, too. Maybe that comes from having a film school background. Either way, if you’re not sharing it with your crew, you’re sharing it with an audience. It’s not a lone art in that sense. Ultimately, people are going to watch it; people are going to say things. So, that reluctance is odd. Learning to take feedback itself is a bit of an art. It requires regular exposure to feedback to learn how to separate it and figure out how to use it.
Vikramaditya Motwane: I can imagine from the other side of the table how intimidating it could be for another person. You had nine people tearing apart something that you had created with so much love and affection, who don’t even know how long you’ve taken to write it. We would just go, ‘This is wrong; so is this, and so is this.’ Of course, our intention was, ‘This is wrong, but here are a few things you can do to make it right.’ We always did that. It’s not like we told them that it was a class and that this was going to happen. It would be very, very brutal sometimes.
Like Navdeep was saying, I’m not from a film school background. I worked with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who’s the most secretive director out there. So, I was not used to sharing material. Then I worked with Anurag, who’s the complete opposite, who was like, ‘You must share your material.’ I’ve come from both schools.
“It was so lovely to walk into a room where people were willing to engage with ideas.” – Akshat Verma
Akshat put it really well when he said, ‘When you’re getting feedback, just listen. Do not interject or counter what’s being said with what your intention was. If it’s not on the page, then your intention is not showing.’ A lot of writers need to know that before they give scripts to people to read. Coming into a session like ours, we never told them, ‘Hey, keep quiet and listen to us.’
Sudip Sharma: We were also doing it for free, right? They could have taken our feedback and thrown it all away.
Arpita Chatterjee: When you look back, there are always things that you can do better. To prepare the person and say, ‘Don’t take this personally.’ It helps them be in that mind space. There are people who would most certainly be scared to bring their first scripts. I was scared to bring my first script.
Akshat Verma: The world is not waiting for your film or my film or anybody’s film. The world doesn’t give a rat’s ass. Unless you grab them and shake them and say, ‘Here’s something that you can’t resist,’ they won’t care – they’ll move on to something else, cat videos or YouTube, whatever it is. It’s a really harsh lesson to learn for all of us as well. You make something, you put your life into it, you put years into it, you craft sentences, put in nuances, and people don’t care. It’s a very good lesson to learn very quickly.
Ultimately, when the planet explodes and there’s a spaceship taking off, they are not going to take screenwriters and filmmakers with them, they are going to take the architects, the doctors, the accountants and the lawyers. Nobody needs us unless we tell them a tale. It’s the Arabian Nights. You’re writing for your life. If you don’t grab them, they’ve got other things to do, better things to do.
Vikramaditya Motwane: One of the great things about the room was that since we’d meet every Sunday and because it was a year’s time, and because each of us was going through phases, where we each had happy days and sad days, really angry and pissed off days, days when we didn’t want to talk to anybody, the room allowed everybody to be the person they were without having to be somebody else all day. If I had to look back and say why we sat together was because we were allowed to be the people that we were on the day. Most of the days when we came in feeling angry or pissed, we left feeling quite good.
Arpita Chatterjee: That’s absolutely true. I was there for a short period of time. I didn’t really know anybody. People would play table tennis, there was a dog, there was an endless supply of chai. It was the best environment. You talked about your woes and off-loaded. It was really lovely.
Devashish Makhija: It was so therapeutic that I would miss yoga the next day.
Akshat Verma: It was so lovely to walk into a room where people were willing to engage with ideas, to actually push something rather than doing what we had to do or what the market demanded or what the star needed. You were like, ‘No, we are writers, and we’re going to really push,’ and it felt amazing. That’s what we feel we were there for.
But this is such a fine line. You’re trying to balance a career, your desire and your creative needs as an artist. Sometimes, there’s no happy communion, unfortunately. You hear panels of producers and studio heads talking about the importance of it when those very same studios are doing nothing to support writers or writing. If you go through the list of films they are making, you’ll be like, ‘Lies!’ Everyone does the dance but no one supports what really needs to be supported.
Smriti Kiran: What is the hardest thing about keeping a creative community going? You felt the magic in 2012; you felt the kinship, the safety of a space like this, and how therapeutic it can be. What is your advice to people interested in forming something like this?
Akshat Verma: One of the things is just collecting creative people together. Creative people by their very nature are unpredictable and driven by different things, they often tend to be loners; they seem to be self-sufficient. So, to be able to bring people together like this and that glue or that magic to hold them is unpredictable. That’s what makes it so special.
It’s exactly what applies in the film business. There is an element of magic involved. People these days sit down and use data science to predict what’s going to work, what’s going to be a hit, what should be written – now there are software that as you’re typing suggest the next line, in essence saying that you can remove the human being from what is a really human enterprise of storytelling, but no matter how long you do it, no matter how hard you do it, you will not use AI to create magic. It’s people. It’s human beings.
Anvita Dutt: You need a Motwane. You need someone who can curate a very random group of people, as different as they can be – different styles, different types of temperaments, different levels of rage, different ways of showing it. He curated it in such a way that is no less than magical – the fact that he thought of these particular people for this particular thing. At that point in time, somebody somewhere out there messaged him through the universe that these people needed help and saving.
Vikramaditya Motwane: We all had a lot of time as well. If you look at it right now, I’m in Mussoorie, Anvita’s in Goa, Akshat’s in LA, everybody else is working. Just to be able to have time, to consistently meet Sunday after Sunday, is hard right now.
Anvita Dutt: We were also jobless. No one had work.
Abhishek Chaubey: Managing schedules is tough. You have the time, you’re relatively unemployed, so you have a club, then that club helps, you start getting employment, and you can’t meet anymore.
Smriti Kiran: When you had to narrate Udta Punjab, you could hardly get people together, get the Sceptic Tank back together. It was at Anvita’s house where you did that.
Abhishek Chaubey: This was 2014. By that time, we had stopped meeting regularly. Sudip and I really wanted the gang to listen to the script, but we had to do it separately. I remember Sudip and I went to Vikram’s place in Bandra, and then we finally managed to get together at Anvita’s house, but there were only three or four of us. By that time, everybody had gotten really busy. Navdeep was in the thick of post-production, or he was about to shoot NH10.
It was like that. Somebody was shooting, somebody was doing something else. By that time, it had cooled down a little bit simply because everybody was busy. It was not that there was any other problem. It’s as simple as that. But we met at Anvita’s place, and I remember Sudip and Devashish had a really nice session.
Smriti Kiran: Getting an opportunity is one thing, but getting an opportunity that brings out your voice to your vision is another. These creative spaces also help people to take a punt on each other that your filmography doesn’t really reflect. What are the ways in which your experience at the script club has altered you?
Sudip Sharma: I was in a pretty difficult space when the script club started. I had quit my job, I’d been trying to write for four-five years, and had zero connections in the industry. I remember I wrote to Navdeep on Facebook saying, ‘I would like to meet you.’ That’s when I met him.
It was about writing that one script. It was NH10 that we worked on. We didn’t have any producer attached. Navdeep gave the script to Vikram, who said that he’d produce it. Then, Vikram wrote to me saying that he was starting a script club and whether I’d like to come in. I remember Abhishek was there for the NH10 session. He read it and he was like, ‘Let’s do something together.’ So, for me, I wasn’t too far away from telling my kind of stories. It was just around the corner. You have to keep at it.
When it all looks dark and bleak and you really don’t know which way your career’s going to go or where you want it to go, and when you write that one script which becomes your calling card and opens doors, it gives you immense hope. The NH10 session, personally, was so overwhelming and satisfying. We got very positive feedback on the script. That held me in good stead; I felt, ‘Oh, maybe, I’m not that bad a writer. Maybe I can churn out a half-decent script.’ Coming from people who understand writing and who understand filmmaking, it was a lot of validation.
Smriti Kiran: Did your process evolve over the one year that you did this? Were there changes that you made to make the club work better?
Vikramaditya Motwane: No, it was very fluid. There was no process. Even the structure was simple: we meet on Sundays, we read a script, either from somebody else or one of our own or if not that, then let’s just meet. The only thing was, post-lunch on a Sunday, thoda chai piyenge aur time-pass karenge. It evolved by itself. I was surprised by how long we even managed to hold it together. Life catches up. We’d actually look forward to Sunday afternoons. Family chhod ke we’d just hang out on a Sunday afternoon.
Abhishek Chaubey: We never subscribed to any methodology. We never met and tried to even reassess what we’d done. The way it happened was very natural and organic.
Navdeep Singh: We are all very different people and have very different approaches, but we also share an essential worldview. That’s important when you’re putting a group together, in terms of our respect for the craft, in terms of the respect for the media, having a similar sort of moral compass and a way of looking at the world. I can see that we could have had a few different faces and they wouldn’t have worked for the same amount of period, potentially, because the way they approach cinema is very different. I just feel that our feelings about cinema were very similar, even though our approaches might have been very different.
Smriti Kiran: If you guys were to do this now, what would you do differently and what would you keep the same?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I don’t think I’d do anything differently in terms of just hanging out and meeting. Maybe, the purpose would be different. We want to be able to create a space where you can get writers in, where they do their work and we’d all be there as mentors to help them better the script. It’d be a longer kind of a lab, in that sense.
I feel that the uncertainty of not knowing where it’s going even after this is what really kills you at the end. You can write all you want, you can do all the stuff that you want, but knowing that it’s not going to get made or you’re not certain that it’s going to get made that emotion cannot drive you beyond a certain point. The difference here would be to know if you have an output deal – a guarantee that this would be made. That would be a good way to restart this. I don’t think any of us are in that position where we have that sort of carte blanche to come and do something like this. I wish we had that. We had that for a little bit at Phantom, but even that was very fleeting.
We are too old right now to be able to have our hopes spring eternal. Arpita is the only one, I think. The rest of us want to have something that we can make tomorrow. We want to write something that we can get to now. That’s what we want to do.
Arpita Chatterjee: I am a totally different story. I don’t want to direct. I want to write. That’s also a whole different challenge because I want to write a certain kind of story.
Devashish Makhija: The reason why it worked in 2012 and 2013 was that we didn’t go in with expectations of going to another level with it or getting it made; all the people who got their scripts didn’t come with those expectations either. The minute that comes in, the expectation will harbour disappointment for sure. That’s when things would fall out of gear before you know it. We were hoping to be surprised, that’s why we are still friends and share that camaraderie. Everything we got was a bonus. Anyone who came with their scripts with expectations got disgruntled and those who didn’t walked away with something. They could have chosen not to do anything with it and still have walked away with something.
I don’t think we’d do that differently. If we’d do anything like that we’d do it the same way, with just seeking the joy of being together and sharing, and if that led to something, great; if it doesn’t we’d at least have each other for that little period of time – that’s all that matters.
Akshat Verma: The only thing that can sustain you is the writing itself. That’s the only thing in your control, right? Nothing else. So, if the writing doesn’t feed you emotionally, creatively, and if you’re just hoping for it to be a meal ticket or a lottery ticket then you’re already on a slippery slope. You can have success and all of that, but when you come back and sit down, you face the blank page again. It’s the same thing. Every time you run a marathon you don’t get to take a bus because you ran a marathon before. You have to run the exact same distance. It’s the exact same work. The more you know, the more difficult it gets. If you write a script, you’ve learned enough to say, ‘Oh, I got away with something last time. Now I’m doing something wrong.’
“The uncertainty of not knowing where it’s going even after this is what really kills you at the end.” – Vikramaditya Motwane
That is exactly what Dev said, too. Everyone was there for the writing. It all began and ended with the writing. It went elsewhere too, but that’s a different thing. At that moment, however, it was all about getting it on the page, getting it right and getting it to work. Everyone kept on about the art and the craft of it, and everyone was committed; they were coming from having read a lot in terms of literature and film. So, they were willing to do the work to get it to be what it needed to be by itself. We were not treating it like a blueprint for it to be something else. It was enough for us for it to read well, to work well for a story to grab us.
That’s what we writers have to aim for. Certainly, in this field, the writing has to sustain you and if you’re lucky, something else comes along and it gets made into a movie, but if not, that’s all you have control on and many days you don’t even have control on that.
Arpita Chatterjee: Absolutely. I completely agree with Akshat on this. I get immense joy out of writing. After a point, I don’t even care whether it’s getting made or not. It’s like working the craft and doing the best thing you can with what you have. That’s actually what I learned in the room. If you were excited by the craft and the process then you can sustain this. If you’re there for something else, just leave.
You could be writing for 20 years, and if you’re not at the right place at the right time, it could all go to nought. There are so many factors. So, I’m actually really glad that Akshat pushed me to go because it was a celebration of the craft and everybody loved the craft, wanted to make it better and push themselves harder. I really took that spirit away. You guys saved me, too, in that way.
Sudip Sharma: The only thing I’d do differently now is be a little more gentle. Not because of anything else but simply because I think I have changed as a person. It was a very angsty time. Now, I’d possibly approach it with, ‘I don’t give a fuck. It’s your script. You want to take my point, take it.’ Earlier we were coming from this place of, ‘No! No! No! You can make it better.’ ‘No, there’s a better way of doing this right!’ Now I don’t give a fuck. I’ll give you my points. You take them, you shove them wherever you go, but that’s it – I’m done with it. ‘Haan, mujhe aisa lagta hai. Tum dekh lo tumhe kya lag raha hai.’
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Siddharth Menon: Every writer and every screenwriter has a voice of their own. When you evaluate a particular script of that person, how do you ensure to maintain or not tamper with the politics? Or is that also an aspect that you touch upon while commenting on the script and how you develop it? Do you try to restrict the politics of that person and the voice of the person? Or is that also a factor that you’ve touched upon while evaluating the script or the idea?
Abhishek Chaubey: As long as you’re not giving us a script of Triumph of the Will, we are here to be alright with your politics. Unless it’s blatantly fascist or something, you can keep your politics. As filmmakers, I don’t begrudge your intention unless it’s evil or coming from a really wrong place. You can say whatever you want. My primary intention is to help you make it better if there’s no problem with what you’re saying. We would go right down to the intention of the filmmaker when we would read the script.
Devashish Makhija: Firstly, let’s talk in the past tense because we don’t do that anymore. We used to many years ago. And secondly, things have to leap off the page as Akshat said. So if you’re a screenwriter the first thing is that your intent, your politics, your worldview has to jump off the page. If it’s not on the page we will ask you to explain your intent so that we don’t take it into territories that won’t help you as a storyteller. But if it’s not leaping off the page we don’t owe that to you because you failed to manifest that at a script level. So, just the fact that we are not getting your intent off the page means the script needs work.
Akshat Verma: The simple thing is also that you’re not going to be standing there in the theatre explaining what you meant when people are watching the movie.
Anmol Ahuja: If Sceptic Tank was to reunite today, to write or direct an anthology of sorts, what would it be?
Sudip Sharma: We went one step further than this. We actually tried to write a script together. Everybody would write two pages – one person would write two pages, send it to the next person who would write two more pages and nobody has a clue where the story is going. It wasn’t such a happy outcome.
Vikramaditya Motwane: Dev Makhija sabotaged it.
Devashish Makhija: No, I did not! I can’t sabotage something that’s already a clusterfuck.
Akshat Verma: That’s a valid point. Our anthology was called Clusterfuck, so it didn’t go very far.
Arpita Chatterjee: It should be called Frustration Stories. Makhija opening as the lead act.
Akshay Kodala: When you were starting out, what was your perception of success? How has it evolved with time and how it affects your work?
Akshat Verma: My perception of success when I started was that I’d be able to pay my rent for the next month. My perception of success now is that I’d be able to pay rent for the next month. It’s been sort of straightforward for me.
Navdeep Singh: Mine actually has changed. When I started off I was really looking for the respect of my peers. These days I’m looking for retirement funding.
Anvita Dutt: What I got from it was the fact that everybody who works with you on a film wants to do it again. That is success for me.
Sudip Sharma: Whatever I’m writing next should be better than what I’ve written before. And a nice big cheque would help. But it finally boils down to this.
Akshat Verma: Everyone comes down to pay rent for next month.
Abhishek Chaubey: If what’s stopping you from making your next film is yourself, then that’s success.
Ishika Mohan Motwane: Have you guys ever turned your decision around for any film that was pitched back in 2012 or discussed at the Tank? And you now feel that maybe it wasn’t the right decision and did it ever get made? Was it successful and which one is it? Which director was it?
Vikramaditya Motwane: Neeraj Ghaywan had Masaan, Hardik Mehta came with Kaamyaab, Varun Grover came with a script, Raja Menon and Homi (Adajania) came with scripts, but I don’t think there’s any film that’s come and gotten made that we’ve found we were wrong about. I don’t remember whether I’ve changed my mind today about an opinion I had back then. It’s been pretty consistent for me.
Pooja Das Sarkar: How does one give feedback to a first-time screenwriter?
Navdeep Singh: Start off kind so that you build a little trust because this is somebody you’ve never really met before. However, at the same time, you’re not there to give validation. That’s not anyone’s job. You’re not someone’s parent or their best friend. But if you can mix a little bit of kindness with firmness. I think most people find it annoying when people get defensive or when they interject and say, ‘I don’t think you’re understanding what I’m trying to say’. If none of us is really understanding what’s on paper, either you’ve not written it well enough or you’re addressing the wrong audience. Be kind, but be firm, and tell the truth. You have to be honest ultimately. That’s what they’ve come to you for.
Anvita Dutt: Tell them what works first. Even if it’s the paper that it was written on. Tell them what works first because whatever it is, that person is baring his or her soul in front of you. They’ve put in a lot of hard work. Find that even if it’s that one thing that works, tell them always in feedback. Tell them what works, arrive at what doesn’t work or what you don’t like and come with a possible solution. The person might not use it and always articulate that you don’t have to use this. I find that Navdeep actually gives feedback like that, which I find makes you feel safe.
Akshat Verma: You have to point out to a first-time writer that by virtue of finishing their script they’re already ahead of 99.99% of everybody else trying to break it. Most people don’t complete. So you have to commend them for that. Everything heads from there. They’ve already separated themselves from the pack. People don’t understand how important it is to finish the first script and then move on from there. It’s a mental barrier. It’s like running a long race and if you don’t complete it you will keep sabotaging yourself. So you have to point that out to a first-timer that you’ve separated yourself from the pack. Then you carry on with whatever pertinent points you have to make.
Anu Singh Choudhary: For people like us who want to form a tribe, what is the one advice that you would give to them?
Akshat Verma: It’s almost like a relationship so chemistry is so important. You want to be able to spend time with the people you plan to do this with. If you look forward to being with them, the rest is a bonus. You’re discussing things you all love – you love film, you love writing. You look forward to it. But it’s so important that you would hang out with these people even otherwise. There’s this sort of foundation of friendship that leads to trust, which leads to the fact that you can really discuss your creative work because we are so insecure about what we write.
These are parts of your soul that you put out to the world. And you try and hide that you’re doing it but you do it anyway. So it’s very important that you should not have to watch your back all the time, you shouldn’t have to worry about being stabbed. You should be able to walk into that and be able to relax, exhale and be comfortable in that space. That’s really important. And of course, talent is what you look for. You want people in there who have the same drive and who are better than you. You want to be the dumbest person in the room.
Abhishek Chaubey: I think it’s very important that you are open. You’re open so that you’re not insecure. That is very important because there are going to be days where you’re going to get tortured and you have got to trust that it’s coming from a good place.
Devashish Makhija: And as important as it is to forge friendships with the people you form a tribe with, quite like people you form your filmmaking team with, it’s also important to let people go. There will be enough people you will not find that friendship, kinship, sharing that with and to hold on to any such energies is not going to help the tribe or you or that person. So we’re here today because we let a lot of other energies go. It wasn’t just the seven, eight of us, from beginning to the end. There were others that came and people that left. Letting people go is as important as holding on to them.
Genesia Alves: How does a group of people get together and write one story? How do they collaborate?
Vikramaditya Motwane: Within this group, I don’t think at any point there have been two or more people working together at the same time. I honestly feel that three people is already a large group to work together. Two people are great. And normally, that’s like a writer and a director. I think anything more than that is asking for trouble.
Navdeep Singh: Even if it’s just two people I think one of them needs to have veto power. Discussions can be had, and you can dig your heels in, but eventually, somebody or the other has to give and normally, that’s a power equation thing.
Vikramaditya Motwane: Short answer is: always be the director.
Sudip Sharma: As Akshat said, it’s like a relationship, and you have to choose the people you want to work with. I don’t think the number of people is a problem. If you have the right people in there, somebody needs to have veto power. But you have to spend some time figuring yourself and the other person out, and whether you can actually handle each other for the next six months to one year that it takes to write a film or show. If you have a basic agreement on your worldview, the craft you use and how you look at cinema, I think it’s okay.
Abhishek Chaubey: In a two-hour film, typically two to three is as far as you can do. You can take feedback from as many people but collaboration generally doesn’t work because it’s too many cooks. But in a series, for example, there are five people working. It works because it’s a seven-hour story. Different people write different episodes and it’s a different process altogether so the number of people can be more. Have a large group to share your ideas or your scripts and get feedback. But writing should be in an intimate setup.
Mark D’Cruz: A lot of you wear several hats: writer, director, producer. In your process, how much of one influences the other? Is there some balance where you kind of put this together to ensure success?
Vikramaditya Motwane: I think writers need to be practical – you have to know your audience. If you are writing then you should know your budget broadly. I can’t write a film like Trapped and expect to make it at 15 crores and recover 30 at the box office. I can’t do that. So that’s a practicality that I have to know. You have to know the kind of audience you’re writing a film for and making a film for.
Sometimes writers need to be guided down that path. It’s easy to write, ‘A ship sailing in the night at sea,’ but it needs x, x, x. And then once you explain that, sometimes people say, ‘Oh, that’s what it means.’ But I don’t think it should stop you from having the imagination. It comes down to a director being able to guide a writer.
For a director, knowing what you’re doing, knowing the skill of your crew, your audience, your budget is actually very important because then you can guide your writer accordingly. So you have to know that and you can’t be blind. You can’t say ‘Give me 50 crores to make this film.’ It’s just not possible.
Anvita Dutt: For a writer-director, the writing happens in isolation. You’re still writing because you can’t help it and because it hurts, so you want to tell that story. It bothers you and you can’t sleep. It’s like something stuck in your teeth and you want to get it out. So the writing still happens like that.
In my case, it’s like writing lyrics and writing a script: it’s a different skill set. It’s the same understanding of stories but you are now looking at it very differently. So it’s kind of schizophrenic. I don’t mean it in any way that is offensive. But you’re looking at it very differently. Suddenly, the writer takes a backseat and waits ready with a pencil and paper. ‘What does the director want with this film?’ and that’s the last draft of the film for a writer-director. There’s a part of you that sits back and waits for the director to say, ‘This is how I’m going to make this.’ And then the writer makes the changes.
Devashish Makhija: I’ll speak only as an independent filmmaker because I haven’t made studio films or I haven’t been given the kind of scale and the kind of budgets to think in a certain way. Our industry is not a recognised, organised industry as opposed to the industry in Hollywood. We don’t have guilds, we are not legally recognised. As an industry, we can’t go to court and fight for our rights. In that kind of paradigm, a director is forced to think like a producer from film number one, whether they are a producer or not. You’re working backwards from your logistical handicaps. You’re working backwards from 1/10th of the money that you thought you would need for the film that you wanted to make. So when you’re working backwards from so many things, by default, you’re forced to become a producer. This is why a lot of the directors turn producers by their second film, if not their first. Because you’re not allowed to just be a director. When you walk into the studio with a script, the first question you’re asked is, ‘Iska budget kya hai?’
It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. If I come to you with a budget, then why do I need you? I will have figured a lot of other things on my own. Therefore that trickles down to the writer because the writer has to envision the challenges of the director when they’re putting that down on paper. For example, in the short films that I made a few years back, I knew I had 50,000 rupees that a Terribly Tiny Talkies was giving me to make that film. So I can’t shoot it on a RED, I can’t shoot it on ALEXA. So I thought of the things that I could get for free. I wrote my scripts with phone cameras and web-cameras in mind. My scripts work backwards from what I have at my disposal for 50,000 rupees. So writer, director, producer ends up becoming the same beast because you’re not an organised setup. Come to Bombay and the film industry knowing that it is disorganised and it will prepare you for this overlap of roles.
Krishna Rangani: How long did it take for you to feel confident and comfortable about the craft and call yourself a writer? What is your process of choosing concepts other than instinct?
Akshat Verma: I don’t think you ever feel comfortable with your level of craft. But I do believe that you should call yourself a writer from day one. You have to own it. And you have to define it for yourself. Otherwise, you’re in this strange limbo where you’re not committing to what it is you want to do which kind of gives you a way out. ‘I’m not really a writer, I’m also these other things so I can abandon this.’ So you should own that, but also recognise that craft is something that you will work on for a lifetime.
Navdeep Singh: Any sort of art or craft is a constant learning process. I still click on clickbait articles that say ‘10 tips for great writing’ and then realise I already know them. But I’ll still click on it in case I learn something which I haven’t in all these years. It’s a process. The day you stop learning is the day you start dying.
Anvita Dutt: You feel like an imposter every time. It’s so frightening to sit down and write. It’s just very scary.
Vikramaditya Motwane: Writing also needs a lot of love for your subject and what you want to write. You keep hearing that people want young adult content, people like this, people like that, I’m sure you can think about that kind of stuff and say, ‘I can do that.’ But really, truly, when you want to write this you have to have a deep emotional connection to what it is that you are going to write. And that’s always a very, very personal thing. Those ideas will always come from the inside. Sometimes it clicks, you read a newspaper article and you’re like, ‘I love this story. There’s something really great about this conflict’, but even then give it your own twist. If you’re writing it has to keep you awake at night. You have to wake up in the morning and think of it, go to sleep thinking of it, you have to think about it at lunch or dinner. It’s not easy, but that’s what love is.
Devashish Makhija: And think of all the time that you’re going to spend with that story or the idea – from anywhere between six months to 16 years. It can take many years to get that story out there. So you really want to commit to something that you can have fidelity with. If you are going to be infidel with it in two months then don’t follow the thread.
Navdeep Singh: There are really only two reasons to do anything. Either you really love it or they’re paying you shitloads of money. So as long as one of the two is happening,
Devashish Makhija: Even the money won’t rock your boat beyond a point, man.
Akshat Verma: The simple thing to remember is that we’re all amusing ourselves until we die. So it’s good to pick something that we enjoy along the way.
Abhishek Chaubey: You should not fall in love with genres but the intent of the story. So you are able to express yourself in different ways.
Sudip Sharma: One trick that I generally use when I get an idea and think that the concept is really good is to leave and after two-three months check what I think. It’s like when you meet this chick and you think, ‘Okay, I can have something here.’ But if you really want to marry her then you have to dine, meet her a few times and see how you feel after six months.
Anvita Dutt: Moral of the story is: you’ve got to absolutely love that idea. You’ve got to love the act of writing more than the end result. We all love the words ‘fade to black’. But don’t write for that. Write because the ride is so much fun and it’s painful. Are you going to be bruised at the end of it? You are also going to be filled with self-doubt. You have to wake up every morning simply because you can’t sleep because you feel that rush. Of course, you’re going to still feel miserable but you’ve got to love the act of writing to do it otherwise you should not. Otherwise, it’s cruel to put yourself through that churn and disappointment, to be that naked. It’s very hard. Do it only if it matters the most to you – if it’s like breathing.
Devashish Makhija: To quote Ritwik Ghatak here: ‘Make cinema if you’re okay that it kills you. If you’re not ready to die at the hands of cinema, don’t come to make cinema.’ There’s a lot more you can do with your life.
Anvita Dutt: It’s painful but it’s joyous. Pehle kahani ke liye likho. Fir dusro ke liye. I’ve been writing for years and I realised sometimes you fail and you feel really disappointed and really frustrated. When you write to please somebody or write for key approvals. Or write because it’s going to impress someone, it’s always terrible. Or even if it goes through, it’ll get greenlit but you will feel miserable. So first write to just please the story. Then you take feedback and make it better so that it works, it gets made, all the practical things are taken care of. But first, when you sit down, don’t try to please others.
Akshat Verma: I spend my days trying to avoid writing, but sometimes I wake up and I’m just dying to write. So then I just wait until the feeling passes.
Arpita Chatterjee: If you’re scared of rejection, don’t write. Because it’s just a mountain of rejections.
Devashish Makhija: Can I quote something that Vik had said many years back in one of our earliest sessions? It was very beautiful and it opened up my perspective on why people do what they do. I always assumed and it felt very safe for me to assume that an Aditya Chopra or a Karan Johar make the films they make because they are working backwards from an audience’s expectations. So they work backwards from a market.
But Vik said that they feel passionately about what they make otherwise you can’t be at it for 10-40 years. I may not agree with what they make but it’s just that they have a fit there with what the market wants and what they are passionate about. You can’t discount passion. If you don’t feel passionate about what you’re making, you will run out of steam one or two films down and you will wonder what the fuck you did with 10 years of your life. So every consistent filmmaker you see or consistent writer you see, whatever they’re making, they’re damn passionate about it. Anees Bazmee is damn passionate about those comedies that he makes. We may not be but he is. Otherwise, he can’t sustain it.
Anvita Dutt: Also eat rice. There’s more to life. Be silly. Stay hydrated. Eat yummy food because you’re like this is too much. It’s not supposed to make you unhappy. So live your life.
Rachit Raj: How difficult does it get to hold on to your voice as you establish yourself in this industry?
Akshat Verma: It is really up to you. It can be really difficult or it can be really easy. It’s a matter of how willing you’re to give it up or not. You decide whether you’re going to climb Everest or Madh Island.
Abhishek Chaubey: The only reason to let go of your unique, individualistic voice is a lot of money and then that becomes what kind of person you are.
Devashish Makhija: That doesn’t make sense to me though. Even if you offer me 55 crores I will not want to give up my voice. There’s no coming back. It’s a one-way street and I’ve seen too many people go down that road and not come back. I won’t speak for the regional industries, because there are regional industries in Assam, in Kerala that still allow you to harbour a certain auteurist voice over a filmography of 8-12 films. But if you come to Bombay, you better pull your socks up and dig your heels in to have to fight a lifelong fight to hold on to some sort of auteur DNA. It’s not going to be easy because you’re coming to the financial capital of this country, you’re coming to the hub of the mainstream. Coming here and wanting to be artistic and expecting people to not make it difficult for you is being foolish. It’s nobody’s fault. You have to fight for every film, every day, every month, every year. Therefore the importance of a tribe. Every person you see here, at some level or the other has fought to continue to have their imprint on their films. There isn’t a single voice here that does not leave an imprint.
Swati Chugh: As a filmmaker, how do you pitch your first project? How do you get people to believe in your vision and trust you especially if you are not from the industry? Is there any secret ingredient from Sceptic Tank that you can share?
Anvita Dutt: The script is the only thing that will convince anybody. I don’t know what you can do to convince people, the paper will have to convince them.
Vikramaditya Motwane: I realised much later in my career that we, as writers, do not know how to go and pitch our scripts. We are great at writing it, we are great at talking about it in a closed room with a bunch of friends and that’s where our passion really comes out. We need to also learn how to be able to use our passion, be able to be shameless and be able to pitch our film to strangers. To be able to pitch it to them in a certain sort of way that they can understand your film and understand your passion. Other than writing, that’s a talent that is very different but it’s something we need to practice. My advice would be to practice that.
Navdeep Singh: One of the things I try and encourage young writers to do, it’s not just about the content of a script, it’s also the way you write it, it’s the form, Make it as engaging and entertaining as possible for the reader so it doesn’t feel like a chore. Sometimes you’re reading something that’s got interesting stuff in there but it’s so poorly sentenced and it’s not fun to read. You tend to give up after 5-10 pages if you’re not really intuitive. Your actual form of the script should be engaging and entertaining as well. At least that’s what I try and strive for.
Akshat Verma: When you’re putting together a project that is yours and it’s a project they want, you’ve already done half the work. You’ve won half the battle. You’re telling them you’ve written a story they’re interested in and you are the best person to shepherd that story because you know it inside out. Who would know this better? So try to position yourself as the best caretaker of a project that they want and are already interested in. Who else could do it better than the person who wrote it?
Devashish Makhija: To offer a counter perspective, I will repeat something that Akshat said earlier. He said that the world is not waiting for our films. So I’m sorry, I’m going to sound a little cynical. In fact, to go there, hoping that someone will see your vision and support your voice to get out there, those are arrogant delusions that we harbour. That the world should understand what we are feeling inside and what we want to put out there. If for a second, you take a step back and see that the world doesn’t want what I want to put out there, I’m putting it out there for myself, that makes it a little empowering that you’re doing it for yourself. You might then have to dig into your reservoirs of how you present yourself to a world that doesn’t want you, then you’re not hoping and expecting the world to understand you or give you a chance. Don’t put the onus on the world, or on the producer or on the industry, the entire onus stays on you. I don’t know what that means – it means different things to different people. But let’s just stop hoping that someone will see the merit in what we are doing. And let’s just believe that only we see the merit in what we do. Then the onus is on you, you will find a way forward eventually.
Avinash Madivada: When you make your debut film you receive a lot of suggestions. Some will benefit the film but some might not. How did you handle saying no?
Abhishek Chaubey: Be nice and say no. Or what I do sometimes is I say yes and then I don’t do it. Ultimately, you are responsible for your film. So do whatever it takes. Producers are also people, right? There has to be a unique way of dealing with that person. You find your mojo with that person. You find your wavelength and then lie. It’s absolutely fine.
Anvita Dutt: Maybe their solution might not make sense. But if more than one person is saying the same thing or about the same scene or the same beat that means there is something that you need to address. Their solution might not work for you. So you have to think and see whether there’s another way of doing it the way that works for you and your script. But if more than one person is saying something, you never know where a great idea comes from, something that makes your script better comes from, so you listen and then take a call.
Abhishek Chaubey: Neil Gaiman said, ‘When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’
Devashish Makhija: Be very open to the problems that people are telling you, even if it’s a paanwallah who has never read a script before and happened to read your script. But the solutions are up to you. If someone’s trying to tell you what to make, that is problematic. But if they’re pointing out problems, you need that. You won’t have a radar for that beyond a point.
Prachi Jog: Since this is such a competitive industry and everybody’s success has been very different from each other, how does that affect you individually, in terms of competition, because we tend to compare ourselves to people?
Sudip Sharma: We can’t sleep at night. Arre, iski bhi picture hit hogayi, yeh bhi aage nikal gaya. Main hi rahegaya piche. You want them to do well, but not too well.
Akshat Verma: I don’t know how okay it is to quote Woody Allen these days, but he said, ‘Nothing is more distressing than the success of your friends.’ I’m paraphrasing.
Devashish Makhija: The other interesting thing about this is that no two people have wanted the exact same thing. We have all got very different yardsticks of success. And we’ve all found different kinds of audiences and been welcomed. Our films have been welcomed in very different ways. So what you see here, there is no competition between us that way for the same piece of a pie. It’s probably also why this camaraderie has lasted. I don’t know how to explain it. These things don’t happen normally. So it’s probably something special, which is why we banded together again. If two people want the exact same thing that’s competition. I don’t think competition applies in this case.
Akshat Verma: I also imagine there’s room in the world for more than one good film or three good films or five good films. If 10 great films show up suddenly I think they’ll somehow find room. There’s not a limited number of slots available. You just have to get in there and just carry on. Just keep doing your work.
Subhankar Bhattacharya: What are the essential must-dos to bear in mind before one starts to put pen to paper and actually draft a screenplay? Are there screenwriters like yourselves who are looking to mentor-writing aspirants and brainstorm with them (or at least be privy to the process) and take them through the ropes?
Sudip Sharma: The most important thing is to just spend enough time with it. Don’t rush into writing it, don’t rush into finishing it, don’t rush into showing it to people. Just spend time with it and it will be fine.
Vikramaditya Motwane: As Sudip said, sometimes you have an idea, think about it, take two months off, and come back to it. If you haven’t been able to crack a certain part of it, a certain tone, wait. Don’t rush it. Don’t rush into writing it. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve jumped into writing a screenplay way too early, I hadn’t thought it through. What Sudip is saying is very sound advice. Just give it time, give it love and then get into it. Don’t go in headfirst.
Navdeep Singh: I think it’s a personality type thing. While you shouldn’t wait too long, there’s also the problem of procrastination. I go down rabbit holes of research and the next thing I know a year has gone by. Especially with the internet, research is endless. And a year later you realise you’ve not done anything productive with it. It’s finding that balance between jumping into it and taking your time.
Akshat Verma: There are as many approaches to writing as there are writers. But oftentimes you will also solve a writing problem by the act of writing it. There are writers who plan everything and then there are writers who fly by the seat of their pants. E. L. Doctorow is a writer who said, ‘ Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ As long as you know what the next sentence is, you can conceivably finish your story.
Anvita Dutt: George R.R. Martin said that there are two types of writers: the architects and the gardeners. Someone who plots, plans, puts the foundation and knows how it’s going to be there as a blueprint, and works on it till he gets it right. And then there’s the gardener who plants the seed, watches, waits, does other things, cooks a meal, just sees what happens with it. Somewhere everybody is different. Everybody finds a different way of doing things. There’s no right way. You can jump into it in the story or abandon it.
Devashish Makhija: If you’ve not written that first script or you’ve not grappled with that process, from a story idea to a story to a screenplay two or three times, don’t seek mentorship. Don’t ask people for their opinions or their process because you will never get a chance to discover your process. So we can go on about what it means to us and what trajectories we went through. But you might take seven people whose films you probably like, a bit too seriously. And you might never get a chance to find the process that rocks your boat. And it might be wildly different from all the rest of us. So mentorship is a very dangerous thing as well. You take it when you’re absolutely ready. Don’t take it when you’re feeling lost because you won’t know what to do with it. You’ll just follow it blindly. No one’s here to fix things for you, you have to fix it for yourself. Because you’ve chosen to be an artist. Come to people for mentorship when you’re ready and when you think you found your voice.
Akshat Verma: It all seems really complicated and difficult but sometimes it helps to remember that all stories start from the same thing. And they always start from desire. So if you grab onto a character and you know what their desires are, and you follow that desire, you might not go where you’re looking to go to but you will certainly dig and find something. So much of it is finding out about the human condition through the act of unravelling it. It’s been said that writing is how human beings understand the world. That work you have to put in. I would urge you to, rather than to look for a mentor or to look for breakdowns of structure and things like that, find that desire and follow that. Just get to the pages, get the writing started. In the beginning, you’re just assembling the raw material, you’re assembling the clay that you’re going to shape. Like I was saying if you complete a script you’re already ahead of 99.9% of anybody else in this business trying to do anything.
Arpita Chatterjee: What I have grappled with myself is that once you do it, you actually find the answers within your process, because the process is the answer. Until you go through it nobody can tell you what it is. This is what I discovered the hard way. Because, like you, I was hoping I would find it elsewhere. But it is in the process.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session of Creator’s Table – Sceptic Tank in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
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