The new Shah-i kalam of Bollywood
Suddenly, everybody seems to have heard of Ritesh Shah only because of ‘Pink.’ Yet, the man has chalked up an impressive body of work to his credit with diverse subjects such as ‘D-Day’, ‘Airlift’, ‘Rocky Handsome’, ‘Te3n’ and so on, which also performed decently at the box office.
From the gangster menace of a ‘D-Day’ to a sensitive subject like ‘Pink’ – how difficult is it as a writer to switch mindsets/genres?
“It is much easier to change genres than mindsets,” replies Shah. “I can switch from a fugitive gangster's megalomania to a girl being forced to experience an unwanted touch but, as I express myself, I wonder if anybody watching this experiences any desire to stop either.”
Speaking specifically of ‘Pink,’ the public is raving over Shah’s dialogues which are so absurdly simple and true-to-life that anybody can empathise with them and thus, with the movie. Does he prefer dialogue writing or screenplays?
“In a healthier world both are inseparable and you wouldn't get a choice. Dialogue writing comes easier as I was a playwright. In a Hindi film world, if a gun was ever held to my head I would write screenplays but if a fat cheque and freedom was offered it would be - Story, Screenplay & Dialogue by Ritesh Shah. Don't wake me up please!” he says, tongue-in-cheek.
As a writer, who therefore is pretty much the “owner” of the story, does he feel possessive and think an actor should surrender to the character?
“Absolutely,’ he declares. “Regardless of the actor's image or beliefs. Except for Mr. Bachchan. He can't play a debauched character, let us say; for that we would need someone else. He is now beyond even a writer's deeply held convictions.”
Clearly a Bachchan fan, then! Shah is also deeply inspired by Saalim-Javed, however, strangely, his favourite is not ‘Zanjeer’ or ‘Sholay’ but ‘Trishul.’ What particular aspect of this tale caught your attention?
“The whole drama,” he says. “Underdog dismantles existing star is a writer's equivalent of the builder business. And that nobility wins, truth prevails; it is sick to ditch a girl you love for money. It is great to win at an auction but even greater to con someone into thinking that he is winning etc etc. Rage. Love. Nobility. And great dialogue. If you are not convinced - Amitabh Bachchan's reply when he is asked: ‘Vijay tumhey maut se dar nahi lagta?’
Ritesh Shah faithfully followed the ubiquitous Bollywood script of landing in Bombay with the quintessential dreams and just a few pennies in the pocket. How would he rate the journey a decade on?
“Reminds me of the ratings I usually get for my films,” he quips. “Two stars would be depressing. Three would be aah okay, four would sound like an exaggeration but as I calmly think about your question - let us forget the star rating and dig deep. Frustrating, exhilarating, invigorating, satisfying, dissatisfying... many highs, many lows…just like life.”
Shah started his career in Bombay by writing for television. What is the difference between television versus film scripts?
“In films, you can pretend you are writing for a very long, long time; in television you will be quickly found out,” he says cheekily. “That apart, in terms of variation and satisfaction TV has stagnated since liberalization; cinema, I feel, has improved. Plus, TV is difficult and bloody taxing. Cinema writing is much more human. As a medium, cinema is niche and TV is now mass. It is just sad that TV reflects the 'bad days' of cinema at its mass and not its 'good days'.”
Shah is deservedly basking in the after-glow of success today. A lot of the credit for 'Pink's success lies of course, with the writer…does he think that writers are finally coming into their own?
“Yes, there is more talk about writers currently, but there would be more ‘Pink’-like situations if they work with secure people like Shoojit Sircar. I wish I could be diplomatic about this, but a lot of what has happened with me in ‘Pink’ is only because people at Rising Sun films are secure. Nobody before Shoojit who has worked with me has enjoyed this kind of security, with three or four hit films in a row. Of course you need to do good work, but right from the poster to the trailer launch of ‘Pink’ - look how I was presented to the press or public, even post the success. Good writing or even just writing work has to be acknowledged more by stars and directors!” he affirms bluntly.
He says Sujoy Ghosh is the most difficult director he has worked with, because he doesn’t need a director – and yet, he needs one! The two have worked together for eleven years now. “It is very difficult to please that man,” he says wryly.
Shah has gone on record to say – unusually for a writer – that he welcomes collaborations;
“If they can act like Irrfan Khan or be well-read like him or at least be extremely emotional like him. Or even be human. Perhaps not talk about physique (to a writer of my shape!) or cars to me, who doesn’t know how to drive. Irrfan cries and abuses at the drop of a hat; that is reason enough for me to listen to him. He is human, not plastic, the ‘can-I-get-you-green-tea’ or ‘dude-you're-awesome’ kind. As they say in Hollywood, a writer will always get notes – but I have always had trouble with people who themselves don't believe that they got here in the first place, whether they are actors or directors or somebody else!” he cries passionately.
As a writer, Ritesh Shah always had a dream since he was a teenager, to tell the story of the great Sikh warrior, Banda Bahadur.
” But it will remain a dream as there is nothing that a writer can do in these times of having to seek permission of religious heads to attempt any such work… as if our saying anything odd will take the sheen off such great holy men,” he moans.
Shah says that stories inspired from real life are what lights the fire under him. According to him, the most challenging script he has worked on thus far has been the adaption of the John Fouvrreau film, ‘Chef’ in which he had Suresh Nair as co-writer, with the director Raja Menon adding his inputs as well.
Adaptations often fail because of the high expectations surrounding them. Wouldn’t it be nicer to take a basic premise, sink one’s teeth into it and let imagination take one where it will?
“But why would you buy a prime residential property and then demolish it and say, ‘I just liked the plot,’” he argues. “The person who has built it would also like you to use at least a brick or a lamp or perhaps you yourself would like to use, say, the chandelier. Writing is choices (and) choices are hard. Choose what you may - the basic premise or the whole - there are no formulas or set parameters to make sure that you have just made the right choice.”
Writing is a thankless job and sometimes one hits a writer’s block. How does he overcome obstacles such as this?
“I have never had a writer's block; I have always had a writer's slack!” Shah declares. “Why should one write when there are so many better things to do in the world? Is it appropriate to give an adult homework? Expressing your opinions and sending him home to write or rewrite? Is this even decency?! It is more like getting the writer to “block” other good things - music, cricket, kids, pets, spouses and go and write about make believe people, avoiding all the good in the world. The thankless part I resolved early; I asked myself in the mirror - Did anybody from Mumbai give you an application and beg you to become a writer or did you decide upon this yourself?”
Shah finds it annoying when random people come up to him and want him to read through their stories, claiming to be writers as well.
He says it is more annoying because nobody has yet blown his mind in spite of forcing material on him for years! “The pussies walk up to writers because they feel they are approachable; we never used to approach writers when we were young,” he fumes. “I have never introduced myself to a writer until I became one myself but, in 1999, a sort of depressed drunk me sought counsel in a party with Mr BM Vyas. I have lasted seventeen years on his advice and that is the only reason why I share my email id even with somebody whose own mother also believes that he is not really a writer! Wannabe writers must realise we are not agents or teachers. There is perhaps nothing new that some of us can offer over a cup of coffee and yes - the term ‘assistant writer’ or ‘associate writer’ does not exist! A writer can only be a co-writer and that takes writing. This is an issue I feel deeply about. Wrong or right - I could just go on about this.”
Writers draw inspiration from real-life incidents obviously, but there is always the danger that someone else may have thought of this first and therefore, yours is not an original thought. Does this insecurity ever plague him?
“Surprisingly, never,” he says firmly. “Maybe you will second me, but we writers think nobody ever could have thought about this before. Of course, the very next day you could see a hoarding on the road which proves you wrong, but - you live to fight another day.”
Amen to that!