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“The writer is the first star of a film.†– Kamlesh Pandey
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With actors and directors end up taking most of the credit for a film’s success, many people often forget the ‘Script is King’ principle and ignore the importance and value of talented screenwriters without whom memorable films wouldn’t even exist. Today, I bring you an in-depth and enlightening interview with an extremely talented writer, Kamlesh Pandey who has over 30 years of experience in advertising, over 20 years of experience in films and over 14 years of experience in television. While some of his most recent projects include Delhi-6, Yuvvraaj, and Rang De Basanti, he has also worked on films including Zinda, Aks, Janasheen, Aaghaz, Thakshak, Laawaris, Wajood, Itihaas, Ajay, Jaan, Kartavya, Aatish, Bhagyawan, Santaan, Lootere, Khal Nayak, Shreemaan Aashique, Yalgaar, Saudagar, First Love Letter, Narasimha, Dil, Chaalbaaz, Tezaab and Jalwa. He has also won a Filmfare Award for Tezaab and a Screen Award for Saudagar. Enjoy this interview in which Kamlesh discusses Delhi-6, the issues associated with screenwriting, how he got into films, his relationship with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, his advice for aspiring screenplay writers, and much, much more. Read away!

First of all, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I’ve been looking forward to it!

Thank you!

I’m going to start off by asking you about Delhi-6. Each film is a journey in and of itself. Tell us about your journey while working on Delhi-6. I believe you actually spent a lot of time with Rakeysh in Delhi just to research the area.

The idea came from Rakeysh. He is from Delhi-6, specifically Ballimaran. When I was working on Rang De Basanti, he used to talk about his early days in Delhi-6 and the peculiar characteristics of its people—for example, they still call for ‘Campa Cola’ when they order a soft drink in spite of knowing that the brand has been obsolete for over two decades!...and their habit of exaggerating everything…a simple nose bleed is described as ‘the nose bled like water tap and the blood filled a few buckets’! I love such people. It reminded me so much of my own village in Ballia, UP, and my town Allahabad. He also had the idea of setting the story against the backdrop the attack of ‘Kaalabandar’ in Delhi which really happened in late 90’s, early 2000. So, I visited Delhi-6 and stayed with Rakeysh for some time, imbibing the aroma, the flavor, the character, the ambience, the attitude. The title came up when we saw a lone young man singlehandedly taking on a group of young men from another locality, declaring ‘Haath naa lagaaiyo, Delhi-6 kaa laundaa hoon! (Don’t touch me, I am a boy from Delhi-6!). I told Rakeysh that we should be doing it as a comedy but not just a comedy. I used Raj Kapoor’s ‘Jaagte Raho’ as a reference--The way in ‘Jaagte Raho’ Raj Kapoor uses the situation of a thirsty villager looking for a drink of water in big, bad Mumbai to expose the hypocrisy of the society, we would use Kaalabandar to expose the hypocrisy and the prejudices, the monster hidden behind our so-called civilized faces, the Kaalabandar in all of us which the politicians and the religious leaders use to exploit us against each other to their advantage.

The screenplay of Delhi-6 was written by three people, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Prasoon Joshi, and you. How exactly did the collaboration process work? In other words, how did you divide up the screen writing process? Were there any major disagreements between the three of you during the writing stage? If yes, how did you resolve those conflicts?

There was no division of work. I wrote the first few drafts. Then Rakeysh and Prasoon brought in their own insights. But, ultimately, the film stays faithful to my drafts except for one major change—Daadi’s impending death and her wish to return to India to die. In my draft, she did not have to die. Roshan comes to take her back to USA but ends up staying back himself after he falls in love with India, the country he was disgusted with, and Bittu. Some of the many characters were combined into one character to reduce the number of characters. There was no conflict. We all were on the same page. Earlier we toyed with the idea of killing Roshan and his ashes being taken by Daadi to Haridwar instead of Roshan taking her ashes to Haridwar, to give it the feel of a black comedy but it sounded all wrong and unnecessary. So, we brought Roshan back to life.

Don’t you think the more realistic ending was to show Roshan’s death? Did you choose the other, happier ending to make the film more commercial?

Yes, we did toy with the idea of killing Roshan to hammer the down the message. It was almost like a surgery to open the eyes of the audience. But, we thought it was too extreme. It was not necessary to depress the audience. We needed to leave some hope in their hearts. So, we brought Roshan back to life. It was not a decision to make the film commercial, but to keep the hope alive. We never indulge in double-guessing the audience. No one can. We do not pretend to know what works and what doesn’t with the audience. All we can do is just try to do our job with sincerely, honesty and innocence. Whether it works or not is for the audience to decide, not us.

There have been some rather unpleasant reviews about Delhi-6. Some people felt that having Amitabh Bachchan in the film was unnecessary and there have been some rather lame comments by people that the film stars the Kaalaa Bandar and justice wasn’t done to all of the characters. What are your thoughts about this? Do you think that the marketing of the film should have hinted at the film’s themes? Why do you think reviewers have been nasty?

The film’s first title was ‘Monkeyman’. But we rejected it because it was giving the story away and did not identify the protagonist—the people of Delhi-6. As far as Amitabh Bachchan is concerned, he has a definite role in the film. He is the one who rejected Roshan’s father’s marriage to a Muslim which prompted Roshan’s father to leave India forever. And, Amitabh Bachchan nursed a guilt posthumously. His eyes needed to be opened, even if posthumously, and his wound needed to be healed because he too had a ‘Kaalabandar’ of prejudice against Muslims inside him. He had to get rid of it. So, Roshan had to meet him to help his grandfather resolve his own guilt. Kaalabandar is the fear in all of us which is magnified by politicians and religious leaders and is used to make us hate each other and kill each other. Between neighbors, communities, countries, there is a Kaalabandar being kept alive by politicians and religious leaders. It is their conspiracy for their own vested interest to which we wanted to open the eyes of the audience. We are kept too busy and occupied, and almost asleep by the vested interests so that they can exploit us. We need to open our eyes to what is being done to us by these bastards. ‘Rang De Basanti’ tried to do the same, warning against politicians. ‘Delhi-6’ tries to do the same against politicians and religious leaders. And, down the history, anybody who has tried to open the eyes of the people has destined to suffer at the hands of the same people. So, we are in good company.

A lot of people are confused about why Roshan decides to stay in India despite the way he is mistreated. I thought the answer was in the ‘Rehna Tu’ song, “(Delhi) zakhm bhi de agar, marham bhi aake lagaaye.” What are your thoughts?

You are absolutely right. Besides, we respect the audience. We do not believe that the audience is a moron, she is my wife and mother and parents and so on. We respect their intelligence enough to pitch them something for which they are expected to make an effort to reach up and grab it the way you have been able to. Any idiot can make a candyfloss and forgettable inane movies and many are doing just that and good luck to them and their money but it takes guts to make a ‘Delhi-6’ and we will continue to do it because we cannot forget our responsibility to our people and our country and our obligation to use the most powerful medium invented by man to reach out to them and try to open their eyes if we can.

Indian Idol was many years after the Kaalaa Bandar incident and the Metro didn’t exist in Delhi during that time...

You caught us. I was waiting that somebody should catch us and ask at least one sensible question. ‘Delhi-6’ is not a period film. It does not try to recreate the period in the life of Delhi-6 when the Kaalabandar attacked it. It simply uses the incident in the present context as a metaphor. When Kaalabandar attacked, he was not seen as a metaphor for the fear psychosis and prejudices, it was a menace. Though, we have used the research authentically. All the video bytes and the bureaucratic blame game are taken straight from that period. But, it is not about that period. Because Kaalabandar will never be dated, he can happen anytime.

What amazes me the most about Delhi-6 is that there are so many layers to the film—so many metaphors, examples of symbolism…it must have taken a lot of time and effort to craft such a poetic film!

Not really, metaphors come easy to me. It was fun adding layers and hoping that maybe not everybody, but at least some discerning viewers will get them. You have.

You had started the shooting of Delhi-6 without even having a final draft ready. Don’t you think in many cases, having a complete script ready helps prevent having to shoot many extra scenes which will only end up being edited out anyway—it would reduce costs and the amount of time spent on film shooting…

A script is blueprint. It helps to stick to it once you have finalized it. But, unlike the blueprint of a building, a script is also a live phenomenon. It can grow. The only precaution one has to take is that it grows in the right direction and not in the wrong direction. I am all for improvisations as long they help in making the film better.

Are most of the characters you write based off people you’ve known? For example, DJ in Rang De Basanti is based off you, and Gobar, the Laalaji-Wife-Photographer trio, Jalebi, the quarreling brothers and Mamdu are also inspired by people you’ve known.

‘Delhi-6’ is probably the first Hindi film in which all the characters are based on real life people that Rakeysh and I have known personally in our lives. That’s why they are so different and real. Obviously, I cannot reveal their real names. Some of them are dead, anyway.

What about dialogues? Are a lot of the dialogues you pen down based off memorable lines you’ve heard people say around you?

Sure. And, also from my own insights which I get time to time. I too have lived a rich, eventful, painful, frustrating, rewarding life full of experiences and characters. That’s why my stories come from my life, not from Hollywood DVDs.

You’ve written dialogues for many films. Have you traveled around India extensively, or do you like to spend time researching dialects and phrases and slang particular to the region your film’s characters are from?

I keep myself updated, young and contemporary by keeping in touch with my village—Hansnagar, Ballia, U.P.—my town—Allahabad—and by reading current fiction and non-fiction written in Hindi by contemporary Hindi writers, no English writers for me. They are writing what they are living. In Mumbai, most scriptwriters are insulated from the reality that’s real India out there. There are no stories in Mumbai, hence you find dearth of ideas in our films. The stories are all out there, waiting for us. I travel to those stories regularly.

While Rang De Basanti and Delhi-6 are of amazing quality, for some reason Yuvvraaj seemed to be really dated and full of clichés. How did that end up happening? Did you write the screenplay in a rush? Or, did the director, Subhash Ghai, have a heavy and negative influence on the script?

I did not write ‘Yuvraaj’, I was just a bouncing board for Subhashji more as friend. Subhashji himself is a good writer and he writes his own stories and uses other writers as bouncing boards for screenplays and dialogues and I was glad to help. I wouldn’t agree that the story was dated. You still have real life examples of brother going against each other for money, money dividing families, destroying relationships, etc. And, the treatment was quite modern. Maybe the sensibility was too dated. This was the kind of sensibility which has been now consigned to the dustbin of soap opera television. Maybe that is why it did not appeal to the audience because they have been watching it all on for free on their television.

It’s quite sad that even though the foundation for a good film is a solid script, directors and actors end up taking most of the credit for a film’s success, with screenwriters not getting the recognition they deserve. Why do you think this is so? Do you think screenwriters need to work on marketing themselves more aggressively and/or hire PR practitioners to publicize them more? I mean, you have been in the film industry for quite some time, but it was only after Rang De Basanti that people really started to pay attention to you again.

You are so right. We writers have been treated like condoms by the film industry—they use us and then throw us, hide us in a place where no one should notice us, specially the media. How many directors or actors you can recall who have ever mentioned their writers? They may mention their choreographer, their dress designer, or even their dog, but never, never their writers. Because they are so insecure that they will be exposed who is the real author behind a film. They are afraid that the writer will steal the limelight from them because a writer can really reveal the soul of a film. He has written it. The writer is the first star of a film. Before him, the film is just a blank piece of paper. But, he is never given the due credit or the remuneration. The producer often steals the remuneration, the director steals the credit. The credits of the music director and the lyricist are displayed big and bold on a hoarding but not the writer’s credit. I dare these producers who give so much credit to the music directors and the lyricists, to make a film with only song and dance and no story and see how many people come to see their film! And yet, we are almost invisible. Unfortunately, even the media is more interested in eight-grade dropouts whose only qualifications is either six packs or wearing less clothes.

It’s really depressing that the majority of films which come out of the Hindi film industry are either pathetic or are lifts of foreign films or a combination of both of the above. Do you think that there really is a dearth of talented screenwriters in India, or do you think that the writers are very talented but producers compel them to stick to “safe” plots and to copy foreign films?

You are right. Writers too are at fault. We do not have enough professional writers who know their job. Many are just satellites of certain directors and actors to get regular jobs and their sole interest is to suck up to their masters. So, the master—the director or the actor—gives them a Hollywood DVD and asks them to get to work. Besides, most writers are Mumbai-centric. And, unfortunately, Mumbai has exhausted its stories. How many stories you can churn out from the mafia or movie background without risking repeating yourself. The stories are out there. But, writers are not where the stories are. You also need to have lived enough life to get stories out of you. There many so-called writers who struggled in their Mercs. They too have exhausted their bank balance because how many stories can you get struggling in your Merc? You know who I mean. So they too will have to either steal from Hollywood or old Bollywood.

Screenwriters aren’t even paid much compared to the rates actors charge. Isn’t that one of the reasons why many screenwriters also end up getting into direction?

Yes. Money is lousy. Graduating to director is the only way to get more money and more attention.

What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters? Of course, they should register with the FWA…

First, learn your craft from screenwriting books or workshops. Keep updating yourself. Keep reading fiction and non-fiction in regional languages—English is very poor when it comes to reflecting real India. Register whatever you write, even if it is just a line, before you share it with anyone, even your friends. Save your mails whenever you mail any material to anyone. Keep knocking on doors, they all need you because they all need good scripts. Keep reading good, contemporary screenplays on screenplay websites—I read one every day—to keep yourself updated and young about what other writers are writing. Stay home only to write, but otherwise, travel, go out, walk, go to shopping malls, hang out at paan shops, dhaabaas, theatres, travel to small towns not Switzerland. Always choose to walk instead of driving. See life, hear life, taste life. Read newspapers, especially in regional languages.

How easy or difficult is it for you to detach yourself from a screenplay you’ve written when you hand it over to a director? Don’t you ever feel like getting into direction yourself, so you can have full control over the way your stories are translated onto screen? Have you ever been really taken aback by a director’s treatment of a project you wrote?

First I write as a writer, and then I read it like an audience. I become an audience for my own work and look at it objectively before I hand it over to the director. I have resisted the temptation for becoming a director so far because I am not yet done with writing. As a writer I can work on six projects at the same time, shifting from one to the other to change my taste, but as a director, I would be stuck with only one film in two years. I still have so many stories to write that I often wonder if I have enough life left to write all of them? I have been lucky to have worked with directors who are also my friends so I trust their skill and craft. It is rare but it happens that a director takes a script beyond the writer’s expectation. Rang De Basanti is an example.

Tell us about the director-screenwriter relationship. Also, tell us a bit about how you met Mehra and your experience working with him on all three of his films.

Before becoming my director, Rakeysh was a friend. His wife Bharati used to be my film executive when I was Creative Head of Rediffusion Advertising. That’s how I met him. I was already in movies writing some of the most popular films like ‘Tezaab’, ‘Beta’, Saudagar’, ‘Chaalbaaz’, ‘Dil’, ‘Khalnayak’, etc. When he got the offer to make ‘Aks’, he asked me to write it. I was writing ‘Samjhauta Express’ at that time to launch Abhishekh Bachchan. But it got shelved. So, I took up ‘Aks’. When ’Samjhauta Express’ got shelved, I narrated ‘Rang De Basanti’ to Rakeysh. The rest you all know. We are in an enviable sync about what kind of films we want to make and that is what connects us.

Could you please tell us a bit about how you got into film writing. I remember reading in an interview that you mentioned you got into films by accident…

It was almost an accident. I knew Amol Palekar from my J.J. Applied Art—yes, I am a trained advertising art director—days. He was in J.J. Fine Art. And, used to do theatre with Satyadev Dubey and I had other friends who were in theatre. We became friends. He went on to become a movie star and I came to advertising. Then in 1986, I suddenly bumped into him on the road in Juhu where I had come to stay. He called me home for dinner and asked me to write his first Hindi film ‘Ankahee’ as he didn’t have enough money to pay a writer. So, I did for the heck of it. And, look where I am today. I thank Amol and all my favorite accidents.

In your opinion, what do you think constitutes good/proper treatment of a city as a protagonist?

In ‘Delhi-6’, the place is a character, a protagonist. Mumbai has been a protagonist in many films such as Raj Kapoor’s ‘Jaagte Raho’, Abbas’s ‘Sheher Aur Sapna’. The city must have a character of its own. Luckhnow has a character just like Delhi-6 has a character. So has Allahabad. I think all old towns have a character. Bhopal has a character. It must have a personality and an attitude, a peculiarity of language, cultural nuances, some idiosyncrasies, some insanities, just like people. A city too is a person. Cities too have a gender as do countries. For example, America is a brat, a cocky teenager, Germany appears a guilt-ridden male, India is a woman hence it knows how to survive against all odds.

What inspires you to write? For example, you’ve said in the past that you think stories are in the villages and you turn to Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt for inspiration. What else inspires you as a writer?

I grew up on 50’s cinema so Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, K. Asif have spoiled me beyond cure. They have infected me like a virus. I can’t get them out of my system. With the result that all my films have to have some substance. I am unable to write inane, dumb candyfloss. Everything around me inspires me. I was lucky to have a very hard life before I got a job. That is my bank balance and comes very handy when I am writing. I draw from this saving account of miseries often. Newspapers, people, books, movies, characters in a lift, on a bus, in a train inspire me. I keep myself available to life at all times though it is not easy and is often quite painful. I let life course through me and come out in the shape of a story or screenplay.

How does the scriptwriting process work for you? There are so many ideas which pop into a writer’s mind, how do you prioritize which ideas to develop into a screenplay? How do you deal with writer’s block? Do you ever have moments of frustration when working on a script and/or story?

I maintain an idea bank which could be anything from just a line to a few pages. And, then I pick and choose which one has a longer life and begin shaping into a story and then a screenplay. For me, the hard part is not knowing what to do but what not do because they are all so attractive and I am greedy like a child in a toy store. I do get writers block and then I take a break. I go for a walk, watch a movie or read a book and shift to some other script I am working on. I use my scripts as a break against each other. So, I do not really need a holiday. My work is my holiday.

What is your take on all the scriptwriting books about the three act structure and plot points, etc.?

They are useful as far as the basic grammar of screenwriting is concerned but it is ultimately up to the writer who to apply those principles.

Do you think critics and scholars over-analyze films and end up noticing things that even the writer and director didn’t really pay attention to?

Absolutely. Most of them may be frustrated screenwriters themselves.

You once said in an interview that “television is a medium driven by writer’s unlike films which is the director’s medium.” Please elaborate on this thought…

Theatre is the medium of an actor because once he or she is on stage, it is entire up to his performance whether the play lives or dies. Cinema is the medium of a director because he commands all the technical aspects to tell a story visually. Television is a medium for writers because in television, there are always two or three people talking to each other. And, how to make that talk interesting is the job of a writer. If the writing is good, you do not need great camera work or direction to make it work. That is why the best writing in Hollywood is not on films but on television.

A few years back, at a conference, you mentioned that actors are worried more about their scene and don’t care about the entire screenplay. Could you tell us a bit about the script-pitching process and film narration process?

Many actors are not really film-literate. They are only concerned about their own role and performance and what they are doing in the film, not the what the film is all about. Which leads to the bad quality of films done by some of our major stars. Aamir Khan is one of the very few actors who looks at the entire screenplay. The skill with which he calibrated his own performance in Rang De Basanti to the level of the rest of the group went completely unnoticed by all the so-called film awards and film critics. I was the only one who told him that it his best performance ever because he understood that it is an ensemble story and he needed to mingle in the group. Any other mediocre actor in Aamir’s place would certainly have tried to stand out like a hero and ruined the film.

Are there any current screenplay writers whom you really admire?

Sure. Anjum Rajabali, Anurag Kashyap, Jaideep Sahani, Abbas Tyrewala, to name a few. There maybe others but I do not know their work.

Could you tell us about your forthcoming projects? I believe some of the projects you are working on include Mr. India’s sequel, a science fiction film with Priyadarshan, Kohinoor, Consignment, Life After Death, Bhairavi…could you please tell us a bit about these projects? And, how do you decide to take on a project?

‘Kohinoor’ is going to be produced by Ravi Chopra and directed by his son Abhay Chopra, ‘Consignment’ is going to be produced by Ravi Chopra and directed by Sanjivan Lal. For the sequel to ‘Mr.India’, Shekhar and I are looking for a director because Shekhar himself is busy with his ‘Paani’. The sci-fi with Priyadarshan is looking for a producer because it is a Rs.100 Crore+ film. There is one for Anil Kapoor which Feroz Abbas Khan will be directing. Then there are three animation features under production by Big Animation, Anil Ambani’s animation outfit. Big Animation might also take up ‘Life After Death’. ‘Bhairavi’ is waiting for a producer/director. Whew! Enough for a lazy man like me?

Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?

The writer is the first star of a film. Please acknowledge us. Criticize us, appreciate us, love us, hate us, do whatever you want to do to us, but do not forget that we writers are the real keepers of the soul of a film. And, keep your eyes open to the exploitation by politician-religious leaders nexus. Do not let them get away with it. But they are 30% of our MPs and MLAs have criminal records. How did they get elected? Some of you must have helped them. Wake up, friends!

It’s been wonderful interviewing you, Kamlesh!

Same here, replying to you. I enjoy it more when the questions are intelligent. Yours were.

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