Dialogues and screenplay, separated at birth: Abbas Tyrewala
"India is the only country in the world where writing dialogue is a stand-alone craft. Nowhere else is the function of writing screenplay separated into (literally) ‘Screenplay’, ie the visual occurrence of events on screen, and ‘Dialogue’, the spoken word.
In this piece, I briefly explore the possible causes of how we landed up here, rather than commenting upon its merits, demerits, advantages, efficacy or limitations. Further, I speak not with any smug authority, but inviting involvement in the thought process.
Interestingly, one cannot imagine a similar segregation in a play or a book. It seems self-evident that if you choose a medium to narrate your story, you better be able to deliver that story in that medium in its entirety. So why does no one raise an eyebrow (screenplay) and say, "But why is this so?" (dialogue).
To some extent, it’s because the function of screenplay has never been fully understood by most Indian writers. A screenplay is ALL the events that occur on the screen and on the ‘speakers’.
When cinema first started captivating the world, the only Indians who had the combination of exposure to it, the education required to acquire the technical knowledge, and the money to invest in this new and relatively expensive medium were those whose families had recourse to a Western education. Speaking English well was the hallmark of a good upbringing.
When these people took to cinema, they had everything except an easy command over the language in which talkies would need to occur to be accessible to the Indian audience. Speaking a mother tongue well wasn’t enough either. You had to reach a country of a thousand tongues and dialects. So you had to communicate in a ‘universal’ language that didn’t leave anyone feeling alienated.
The only such available language was Hindustani, that wonderful combination of Hindi with Urdu and Farsi. Not everyone from such families spoke it well. So how could a Bengali filmmaker tell a story for his country that did not only reach a Bengali-speaking audience? How would a Maharashtrian director do so?
So perhaps early dialogue writers were simply technicians to compensate for this minor lacuna. Much like a filmmaker not knowing how to compose music, but knowing exactly what kind of song he wants and what it was doing in the story.
But what began as a necessity soon became a luxury and an imperative. Filmmakers started feeling more secure with someone skilled in bombast and rhetoric, the staples of Indian film cuisine. The Indian audience’s visceral reaction to dialogues didn’t hurt any; around the time the "Odessa Steps" sequence in The Untouchables (originally in Battleship Potemkin) was gaining cult status, we Indians were in a state of uproarious delight over Mogambo khush hua!
Further, because the country wasn’t exactly teeming with people who grasped the medium and its possibilities straightaway, Indian filmmakers took to the ‘auteur’ mode early on.
So only one person needed to have the vision for how various crafts would come together to tell one cohesive story. Everyone else could do what they did best without fully understanding its function in a broader context. So even if someone else had a story to narrate, they could in effect write it as a ‘play’ and leave the ‘screen’ to someone who got it.
This has also resulted in a culture where Indian filmmakers are virtually incapable of directing a story that has not come from within them. They actually need to ‘see’ a story (whether in their mind’s eye or with Korean subtitles) before they have it written. How many films of any scale have we seen where the director’s name features nowhere in the writing credits (especially ‘Story’)?
As a result, even today, many writers can (and typically do) write words without completely understanding their function in the broader act of telling a story on screen.
They leave the visualisation (what ‘screenplay’ has come to mean here at home) to the director (and her/his ‘screenplay writer’ – essentially someone who spares the director the trouble of actually writing anything), and simply tell the story through entries, exits, macro phenomena like ‘slap’, ‘fight’ and ‘song sequence’. And of course, dialogues."
Abbas Tyrewala has written films like Maqbool, Main Hoon Na and Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.
From HT Brunch, December 14
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