Transforming reality into an entertaining cinematic experience is a delicate balancing act. How do writers make art imitate life?
After decades of churning out larger-than-life, masala movies, Bollywood is discovering that films that connect with audiences today are those that mirror life or those that have a strong dose of realism. Among these films are biopics, movies based on unsung heroes or dramatic incidents that have the power to hold the attention of a captive audience for a couple of hours.
This is evident from some of the releases in 2018, like Hichki, Raid, Raazi and last week’s release Parmanu: The Story Of Pohkran, which have not only been appreciated by the critics and the audience but also rang in some good numbers at the box office.
In fact, Raid and Raazi surprised everyone by attracting so much appreciation that they have entered the `100-crore club. And Parmanu, with strong word-of-mouth is showing no sign of slowing down at the ticket counter.
And this is just the beginning. In the next few months, we have films like Sanju, Soorma, GOLD, The Accidental Prime Minister and Manikarnika – Queen Of Jhansi all inspired by real life. Taking this theme forward are movies like Super 30, Gully Boy, Kesari and ’83 lined up for 2019.
As we continue to enjoy these movies on the big screen, we look at how writers and filmmakers research these real incidents and make them into exciting scripts. We spoke to noted writers from the Hindi film industry and asked them about their process, of taking something that happened, unknown real-life incidents, and making them into full-fledged films.
Rumi Jaffry, Writer
It is a good thing that these movies are doing well. Movies based on real-life incidents and people have done well, for example Airlift. Movies like these have been made in the past as well, but yes the business has not been as spectacular as we see now. The audience today is much more educated. Films based on real-life people and incidents, inspiring stories that are well made and well-presented are being appreciated and accepted now more, compared to earlier. When writing a script based on reality, you have to keep in mind that you are writing for cinema. You may have to include some fictional elements.
For example, when Airlift released, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was upset and officially released a statement that the film showed them in a bad light. But, the writers said that they had made changes to the story to make the movie and so that all the acts of bravery are done by the hero. At the end of the day, you want the audience to enjoy the film, so sometimes such changes have to be made.
Another example is Padmaavat. In the film, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has shown Rana being killed by Khilji, but it is not as written in the story. He was making a movie with two heroes and he needed to have that element. Similarly, in Devdas, we have Paro and Chandramukhi coming together which is not there in the original work. My favourite films include the ones made on Bhagat Singh, both the old and new one, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Neerja. These were very well-made films.
Ritesh Shah, Writer
The primary challenge is, at one level, to be respectful and true to the original event, and at the same time make it entertaining as a film without taking any unjustifiable liberties. To strive to get that balance between entertainment and truth is very tricky. Sometimes, things in real life may appear to the audience as filmy and dramatic and sometimes, what appears realistic to them are things that are crafted and fictional. To make a convincing and yet an entertaining film is the difficult part.
Films like Ek Doctor Ki Maut and Chak De! India that were inspired by real events, were crafted very well. I like writing both fiction and real-life incidents. Sometimes, it is a fictional idea that has a lot of dramatic possibilities and helps you say a lot. Somewhere down the line, fiction is always inspired by a real-life incident. A lot of literature and screen writing is inspired by life itself – people you have met or something you have read. Sometimes, an incident is so fascinating, especially if told from multiple points of view. So, it depends on the subject value. Sometimes, some facts and real-life stories do not deserve a documentary, leave alone a feature.
I have said it several times, but there might be religious permissions involved. People might not like it. But, I always had a desire to write or make a film about Banda Bahadur, the great Sikh warrior. I don’t think it will be possible to be able to make a live action film in this life. It will remain an unfulfilled dream.
Rajat Aroraa, Writer
There is a quote that ‘cinema is life without the dull parts’. So, it is challenging and at the same time interesting. It feels exciting because the story is already there and it needs to be told. That’s why people pick them up. There are many boxes that are ticked because they are inspiring stories. The challenge is to do justice to someone’s life or an incident or history.
I don’t know about dos and don’ts but one has to do full justice to the material. We should not cross a line where it gets to a point that the material, the personality, what really happened is misinterpreted in any way. At the same time, you have to make it dramatic but while keeping the drama intact, one should not misrepresent the truth.
Raazi, Raid, Parmanu and Hichki did full justice to it and they have done it successfully. That’s why the films are successful. In past, there was Talvar, and No One Killed Jessica, which were very well done.
Sanjay Masoom, Writer
As a writer, I feel that regardless of the subject, there will always be challenges when making it into a film. It always requires a lot of effort to write a good film and then make it. Even when it is based on real life incidents or a person, we have to take into consideration the characters and the facts that have occurred in real life, but it is also important to keep in mind that when it comes to real stories to be portrayed on screen, it should be entertaining.
Also, in movies like these, a writer knows about the incidents that have taken place and the people involved. It is really good to see that these stories are getting their due at the box office and also getting good reviews from critics. I think these films contribute a lot to Hindi cinema.
When we used to watch Hollywood films made on subjects like these, we used to feel that similar stories were not being explored in our country. Now that they are getting so much appreciation at the box office, everybody, including writers, producers, directors and actors are gaining confidence to make movies on these lines.
I believe more and more such films will be produced and we will get to see good films like Raazi and Parmanu. Also, the audience is evolving and there is an audience for every kind of film, which is a blessing because earlier makers did not have the courage to tell such stories.
Saiwyn Quadras, Writer
The first challenge is, of course, to keep the essence of the person or the incident primary. I think that is most important because we have to fictionalise a lot of elements, but that fictionalisation should not seem like it is unreal. People should not be confused or be unable to figure out whether or not something happened. The challenge is to maintain the right balance between what you are fictionalising and what is real. Detailed research is the second most important thing, I guess.
It is not a conscious decision to only write films based on real life. I came up with the idea of Mary Kom and Neerja to try and break into the industry. These stories resonated with me, and so what I was able to write came out from me. The stories were with me for a long time. But, there are two things that are happening. One, everyone in the business wants to adapt real life stories on screen because they seem to be working more than fiction stories. Also, the audience likes films inspired by true incidents or life stories. That is why everyone is getting on to the bandwagon.
Second, the industry brackets you immediately. I am working on a couple of fiction scripts along with a couple of real-life stories. So, it is not a conscious decision. As a writer, or as an artiste, I want to explore all genres. What happens to me is, when I listen to an incredible real-life story or a person’s life story, I automatically see that it is film worthy, not in every case but in a few cases, especially in the films I am working on.
As a writer, you have to figure out how you are going to present each story differently. For me, the exciting bit is the zone in which it is said. Not every real-life story is exciting because it also depends on how you treat it. Maybe, that is why people want me to work on it because I bring a kind of filmy presentation to a real story which seems real. That is why people like my work.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was one of the films that nicely played between reality and fiction, and depicted Milkha Singh’s life very well. After that, there have been a few films based on real life but those were in the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ kind of scenario. This year, Raid has done well. I quite liked Toilet: Ek Prem Katha because it is based on an incident where a man’s wife left because he didn’t have a toilet in the house. The writers Siddharth and Garima took the incident and made a wonderful film out of it. I researched the guy, the actual pad man. I think his life was way better and more film worthy than the film Pad Man portrayed.
The thing is that through my stories, I want to inspire. We are all living in a time of false stories and negative news and propaganda and so much disturbing stuff. People would be depressed going to the theatre. Films are about escapism, right? And through escapism, you are trying to tell a true story, and when you do it right, it inspires people, and it makes the audience believe that they too can be heroes like the ones in the movies.
They say films can change society but I believe that films are a reflection of society. Parmanu is a case in point, where we achieved what seemed like insurmountable odds. It reflected a moment of pride in India’s history. I like to find stories that inspire, motivate and inspire me. If I am not inspired, I will not be able to write it.
Rajkumar Gupta, Writer-Director
The first challenge is to stick to the incident. Another big challenge is to do justice to the character. When you are dealing with things in real life or with a real-life personality, the big challenge is to maintain one’s sensitivity. When I was doing Raid and No One Killed Jessica, the biggest challenge was to portray the incidents and represent the personalities and do justice to them.
Of course, No One Killed Jessica had a very different premise and Raid was a very different film. One was born out of a tragedy and was a very difficult subject. Raid came from an inspiring incident about a man doing the right thing in the line of duty. The challenges are different for different subjects. One has to be very true, faithful and sensitive to what one is dealing with.
As a writer, you have to remember that you are making a film and not a documentary. So, the challenge is also where to draw the line and strike a balance between the real incident and the fictional element that one wants to produce. I found it particularly challenging when I was writing No One Killed Jessica and directing Raid. It is a key element when you are making a film based on a real incident or a real person.
The story should touch your soul in some way. It needs to touch you with its emotionality, which inspires you to do something about that incident or that personality. For me, when something touches me in any way, that is when I instinctively realise that there is something about the story and it is worth giving it a shot. The other thing is that unless you write the script, you would never know whether it would transform into a good film or not.
Many filmmakers have made films based on real-life incidents but it would be unfair to rate them.
Juhi Chaturvedi, Writer
I would like to go a step further... beyond the parameters of critical acclaim or box office success. I feel that, as an audience, as a nation, we are seeking inspiration, and when a filmmaker, through his film, tells us the story of a real person who against all odds achieved his/her goal, even though all the forces were against them and he/she somehow managed to bring about some kind of a change, that is quite encouraging. It pushes us to believe in ourselves, to not give up soon, to have faith, to stay determined just like the central character of that story. These films are small doses of righteousness which need to be instilled in us from time to time. Therefore, it becomes extremely important for a writer or a filmmaker to choose the people you are going to tell the story about, cautiously.
To me, every person’s story has something inspirational. We have all been in situations that have tested us and through our willpower, we have survived and even if we have failed, it’s a lesson learnt. When I remember my rickshawwallah from Lucknow, who used to cycle us to and from school, no matter what the season, for me his discipline, his strength, his labour, remains heroic and inspiring.
Sanyukta Chawla Shaikh, Writer
The biggest challenge is to hold on to the truth and dramatise it with integrity and not with what works for the audience. The only ‘don’t’ is to not manipulate the truth to your convenience. The ‘do’ is to tell the truth but in a way that is most relatable. Raazi is made from a book that is based on a real-life person. The film is fantastic!
Siddharth P Malhotra, Writer-Director
The challenge one faces is to stay honest to the intent of the story, without deviating from the purpose or motivation of the character. In my case, Brad Cohen had that syndrome. He himself gave me the one line that ‘everybody has to respond positively to your disability.’ That became the core thought of Naina Mathur, that ‘I have Tourette syndrome but you need to figure out your Tourettes.’ I had to keep that in mind and understand who Brad is as a human being, because that journey was very different from my journey of Naina Mathur. What I had to keep in mind was… what does Brad as a character stand for? And those values and aspirations were needed to be present in Naina Mathur. The goal of the intent of the character and the motivation of the character is your question.
The dos and don’ts come with the various drafts that you write. Your first draft is never going to be your final draft. As a writer, you keep discovering new things in every draft, when you narrate, when you write, when you narrate it to someone else, whether something is working, something is not working… but the definite dos and don’ts would be to stay honest to the character and to the story because every story says something.
So, what you are planning to say in the end? What is the seekh that you are getting in the end? Are you constantly on that journey or are you deviating from that journey? If you are constantly on that journey, then you are on the right path. How you want to get to that path is the determination of the screenplay and the dialogue. As a writer, you need to know what you are going to say or not. Don’t make it into something that it is not meant to be. You need to understand what you are writing. Don’t try and commercialise it and make it something which it isn’t.
You could create a character in any world but also stay true to that world. The world I chose was a real school and a real teacher. It depends on the world. If I had chosen a Main Hoon Na world or a Student Of The Year world, then I would have had to be true to that world and tell the story of that world. So, whatever world the writer chooses, he has to stay true to that world. Don’t deviate and bring in some other element.
In English films, the Aviator is a true-life story, A Beautiful Mind is a true-life story. Then there is The Theory of Everything, a film based on Stephen Hawking. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. That journey really inspired me. The film Wonder, which is based on the book, is really beautiful. These are the stories which have inspired me a lot.
Bhavani Iyer, Writer
The challenge is to tell a story with the sincerity and integrity that the subject demands, without unnecessarily dramatising it or creating a false note. The challenge is to tell it as simply and as effectively as possible.
For adaptations, I would talk about my film Raazi, which did complete justice to the character. Unfortunately, I have not seen the other films, so I cannot comment on them but considering that they all have done really well, I am sure the audience must have found some truth and honesty in the films and the stories they tell.
I don’t think there is any specific set of dos and don’ts. You just need to approach the subject instinctively, which is what every writer does. You know what the subject needs in order to be communicated through the narrative of the visual medium we are adapting it to. I think you just need to find your own way of telling a story in your own voice.
Vipul Rawal, Writer
The biggest challenge in such cases is to be true and honest to the actual story and still maintain its cinematic appeal. Apart from thorough research, the writer should also ensure that he doesn’t fall for the so-called commercial trap and mess up the story by adding unwanted ‘masala’. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Paan Singh Tomar are excellent examples of real stories told well on reel.
Since I have a background in the Armed Forces, and I was in the Indian Navy before I became a writer, I have plenty of stories about the exploits of our defence forces and intelligence services which I intend to make into films someday. My latest project too is based on a real-life incident, where a mining engineer Mr Jaswant Singh Gill daringly rescues 65 coal miners who are trapped underground in a flooded coal mine.
Sanjay Chauhan, Writer
What happens sometimes is that you have only some data and information and you have to convert that into a story, and that is the biggest challenge. Conveying the data and information to the viewers is difficult because they are not interested in a documentary. They come to theatres to watch a film. Whether it is a Paan Singh Tomar, Neerja or Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran that are based on real-life incidents, it must be interesting to the audience and to the protagonists too. The biggest and basic challenge for a writer is to convert a real-life story into a two-hour entertaining story so that the audience is entertained.
The dos and don’ts depend on what you are writing. When you write a biopic, you have to think in terms of the family involved and make sure that his or her image is not damaged. He or she should not feel let down. That is the primary thing. I told the story of Paan Singh Tomar as if I am telling the story of my father. If my mother and my sister watch it, they must not feel ashamed.
Dhoop was a real-life incident. We made sure that we did not divert from the main focus. Right now, I am writing a film where the female protagonist is in the army. When I researched her and met her, I saw that there was no personal story involved. So, I took this real character and now I am converting it into a fiction character and putting her into a fiction space. I am taking liberty there. There is nothing to write about the real person. Every writer has his or her own way.
I am signed by a studio for which I am writing a biopic. It is a real incident and I am fictionalising it because there are so many players involved. I cannot take so many people’s permissions. Taking one person’s permission is easy. If the whole group is involved, then you have to take liberties. That is an altogether different challenge. If I take the legal permission from one person, then someone distantly related to him or her can also seek a legal claim. That becomes tricky in legal terms.
My Paan Singh Tomar was quite close and did justice to the real person. Even Neerja, for that matter, did justice to the real person. They focused on one incident; they didn’t talk about her childhood. Dangal is another film where the writing shines. Raid was well-researched and documented. It is very challenging for a writer to write a film that is based on one particular location. Raazi, based on a book about a real person, is also a beautiful film.
Tushar Hiranandani, Writer
I had written ABCD and ABCD 2. The basic challenge is to get the detailing and the emotion right. If you get them right, then 80 per cent of the battle is won. Getting the casting right is also very important. It is challenging to write real-life stories because you have certain parameters and you do not know how much you can work within them and outside them. It is challenging, but it is good fun writing such stories. I enjoyed writing ABCD 2. ABCD 3 is also based on a similar true-life story.
I loved Raid, Raazi and Pad Man. I have not watched Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran, but I have heard that Abhishek Sharma has made it really well. I am waiting for GOLD. In fact, I love biopics and true-life stories. Dangal is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I am starting my career as a director with a biopic.
Soumik Sen, Writer-Director
The challenge just requires more research. And I think it’s not a challenge at all; it’s just the job of the storytellers, no matter what story you try and tell. Plus, it’s about what is happening around you or what can happen around you and what has happened around you. When you refer to true-life incidents, are the true-life incidents the reason they have done well? Do they talk about issues and problems which have affected our lives? It can connect to them at a very organic level.
There are no dos and don’ts. You should just tell the story as organically as it comes and yes that’s about it. Movies that have any kind of artistic expression have more dos and don’ts. In movies based on real-life incidents, you just say what comes naturally to the audience. There is a movie Talvar which was inspired by a true-life incident, and Special 26 is also a very entertaining story based on a robbery that happened.
Gazal Dhaliwal, Writer
Real-life is a treasure-house of stories – tales that can be inspiring, dramatic as well as funny. It’s wonderful that we, as an industry, are tapping into this reservoir and that the audience is also welcoming these stories.
In my opinion, a big challenge while adapting a real character’s story is to be able to tell their life’s vast journey efficiently in a 120-minute film. It is key to sift through the numerous situations/incidents in the person’s life and identify a unique thread or series of events which would bind the story together.
At the end of the day, most people in India come to theatres to be entertained. So, often, filmmakers can get tempted to unreasonably play with reality for dramatic purposes. The challenge is to maintain the integrity of the reality (story/character) and yet create a memorable, effective film.
One of the best examples of adaptations in recent times is Talvar. The film presented realities from two different perspectives while making a subtle statement of its own. For me, Talvar is a benchmark.
- Bhakti Mehta, Suranjana Biswas, Bhavi Gathani, Titas Chowdhury