It is the perfect spot for writing. Serene, with the Arabian Sea lapping in the distance. Cheerful, with sunlight bursting through the windows. And informal, with a creamy sofa you can collapse into. A partition fashioned out of silk threads divides the living room from the dining nook, creating a sanctum where Vijay Lalwani writes his scripts.
While it isn’t unusual that Lalwani writes, what’s unusual is that Lalwani, 31, with no film direction or production background, actually managed to get funding to direct his first script, Karthik Calling Karthik. The film, starring Farhan Akthar and Deepika Padukone, was produced by Excel Entertainment, Akthar’s production house.
This is a first of sorts. You can get corporate houses to fund small budget films or documentaries. You can get big producers-directors to back your film if you’ve devoted 10 years to assisting them. But to walk into a production house with no family connections, armed with only a really strong script and get Farhan Akhtar to not only act in the film but agree to co-produce it, is a coup.
“In this industry, writers have no value but it’s the idea and scripts that dictates whether a film has potential or not,” says Lalwani. “Which is why I will only work with people who value my content as much as I do.”
Unusually Excel, which doesn’t even work with A R Rahman because he has similar stipulations about owning his content, agreed. “I found that his script was very out of the box. Vijay has a strong visual style and was clear about the story he wanted to make,” Akhtar said, adding that he agreed to let Lalwani and his partner Amit Chandrra, co-produce it because it “was a totally new type of storytelling style. It seemed to me like a film that everyone could enjoy.”
Rebel with a cause
Every day, hundreds of people come to Mumbai dreaming of directing a film. After realising how insurmountable the odds are, most end up doing something else. The few that stick it out could spend 15 years assisting directors and still find no financiers for their script. So Lalwani’s case could be put down to either luck or talent, or both, but either way he would be seen as a maverick.
Armed with a background in commercial art from Pune, Lalwani came to Mumbai and joined Ogilvy & Mather first as an art director, then switched to copywriting. A hundred odd ads, nominations and several awards later, he gradually grew discontented, decided to take the plunge and risk the steady money to pursue his dream of directing a film. “After trying to sell fairness creams all day, I would go home and write scripts. It was my form of escapism,” he said. “I knew there has to be that one script out there that I could write which would move someone enough to want to make it.”
Karthik Calling Karthik is the fifth script he’s written, (the first he ever pitched to direct) and he’s got another 30 ideas floating about and is producing a film in March. It is his ad background that he credits with teaching him how to write, deal with rejection and giving him the resilience to go back to the drawing board.
Stick it out
For most industrywallahs, Lalwani’s story comes as a surprise. “Cases like this are very rare,” says Yugander VV, 35, who came to Mumbai from Hyderabad when he was 21 and has assisted Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal (Hari Bhari) and Mahesh Mathai (Bhopal Express). “Most people would find it difficult to put their money on somebody new. I’ve written 10 scripts that have taken years of work. I’ve had to knock on various doors but haven’t found producers for most. You have to be thick-skinned and be prepared to take a lot of humiliation,” he says.
Yugander has managed to make one independent film, The Goodbye Trip and is in the process of directing his second, but dreams of the day he can make a big-budget Hindi film with stars.
According to him there is an industry average for when you get to make a film. “It takes about nine years of assisting directors, making contacts, single-mindedly writing scripts, not letting criticism deter you and being at the right place and at the right time,” he says.
Even that doesn’t guarantee success, according to Devashish Makhija, 31, chief assistant director on Bunty aur Babli. “Unlike newcomers who don’t even have access to directors, because I assisted them, they will at least read my script and offer suggestions. Whether they’ll be willing to produce it is a whole different hurdle to overcome.”
Like Yugander, Makhija came to Mumbai to make films. “I came here from Calcutta on a wing and a prayer. It was just foolhardy. I spent six-eight months with no income and was living in Goregaon with nine guys.” He would stand at PCO booths and make 100 calls a day before he met Anurag Kashyap.
Makhija has worked with Kashyap on Black Friday, No Smoking, Dev.D and the to-be-released Doga. He has written six films that he hasn’t been able to make, including one on which Yash Raj Films spent three years and three crores on pre-production and shelved. He is working on his seventh and says, “You just have to keep at it.” He hopes that he can find someone who thinks it’s a strong script and wants to produce it. “After all, no matter how many years you work for a director, he isn’t going to help you if he isn’t impressed with what you’ve written.”
Putting pen to paper and coming up with a winner is touted as the greatest challenge, according to Amber Lal, 33, who has worked as chief associate director on Devdas, Black, Saawariya and is doing Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Guzaarish. “Coming up with a good script is the toughest thing. Seventy per cent of your film is story and screenplay. You’ll get producers, backers and even stars if you get the script right.”
Living the dream
Which is why the fact that Abhishek Chaubey, 32, finished directing and editing Ishqiya, is such an achievement. Primarily because a director like Vishal Bharadwaj, who had never produced a film before, had enough faith in the script to put his money on it. Chaubey assisted Bharadwaj on Makdee, Maqbool, The Blue Umbrella and helped him write Omkara, The Blue Umbrella and Kaminey.
The writing bug bit Chaubey while working on Maqbool. “We had just finished and Vishal was travelling to show it at film festivals while I was here in Mumbai with nothing to do. So I wrote a short film.” When Bharadwaj came back, Chaubey showed it to him. “When he saw that script, he saw that there was a hunger within me to write and made me sit in on scriptwriting sessions. He would give me a lot of freedom and tell me to take the script to its logical conclusion. Eventually, my own writing got sharper and refined,” he says.
Chaubey is another one who came to Mumbai with stars in his eyes. Born in Faizabad, he spent most of his childhood in Uttar Pradesh. He has also roughed it out, written several scripts that haven’t seen the light of day but the difference is that after 10 years, he is fortunate enough to be living his dream.
“Filmmaking is a difficult profession. You’re like a football, whacked from here to there. Even though I had worked on many films, directing my own was a different, stressful experience. I went through several drafts. The fate of every film lies in the hands of the audience. So the only reason you can do this to yourself day-in and day-out is for the love of films,” he says.
Not everyone has Chaubey’s patience and fire. Many feel that banking on making a film is too risky. “I have to make one film, then I’ll know if I have it in me. If it bombs, maybe I won’t make any more films again,” says Makhija.
But for Lal and Chaubey, it’s filmmaking or nothing. Lal says, “No matter what happens, I’ll keep trying to make films.”