Zen and the art of Sanjay Chhelby Vinta Nanda August 29 2020, 2:34 pm Estimated Reading Time: 25 mins, 7 secs
Vinta Nanda goes on a roller coaster ride with Writer, Director, Artist, Lyricist, Columnist and a compulsive dreamer, Sanjay Chhel.
His father was a production designer. He was inspired to write his first one-act play, Ubhi Chavi Adi Chavi, which was very successful. His experimental play Prakaran 1956 was well recognized. He wrote more than 30 TV serials including Rangaberangi, Amasna Tara, Nukkad and Philips Top Ten.
He directed and produced a TV series Hum Sab Baraati as well. He debuted in the film industry with his writing for the film Pehla Nasha (1993). He debuted in direction with Khoobsurat (1999). He wrote the story of Kachche Dhaage (1999), Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Maine Pyaar Kyun Kiya (2005), Partner (2007) and Kismat Konnection (2008). He wrote dialogues and lyrics for several films and directed many more.
He has also written short stories, which were published in the Gujarati magazines Navneet Samarpan, Janmabhoomi, Abhiyan, Parab, Sarvani.
He wrote a column in Samkalin in 1989-90. At present, he writes weekly columns in Gujarati dailies, Mumbai Samachar, Gujarat Mitra, Nav Gujarat Samay, Kutch Mitra, Phulchhab and his first book Muththi Unchera Kanti Madia, about Gujarati actor and director Kanti Madi was released in October 2017.
Come let’s meet this very interesting man here:
What was your childhood like as the son of an artist, one of the best-known production designers/art directors of the 1970s and onwards?
I was fortunate as a child. My dad used to be loaded with scripts as references for his set designing. They were scripts written by PL Deshpande, Vijay Tendulkar, Ibsen and even Arthur Miller's Gujarati adaptations - those days Gujarati theatre was much more than comedies. The 1970s and the ‘80s was the best time for Gujarati theatre - so as a child I used to read those scripts of plays and I would also go with my father for the rehearsals. I witnessed the process of a script metamorphosing into a play many times. I learnt a lot about dialogue, body language and the craft of direction. Also I could understand how silences and subtle movements lend power in the cold text of the script; for me it was like A Movable Feast or Alice In Wonderland?
I used to go for technical rehearsals to give photo frames to my dad; that smell of sets I loved and subconsciously I thought that I should become an artist, a writer or a director. It was a magical world where I used to watch Kanti Madia, Paresh Rawal, Shafi Inamdar, Sarita Joshi, Arvind Joshi, Amrut Patel, Dinesh Thakur, Nadira Babbar and such stalwarts on stage and that was my mental upbringing. I was soaking in an artistic world subconsciously and getting used to it.
My father's partner Paresh Daru was a professor at JJ School of Arts, so I used to get tips from him and that also helped me - plus his wife, the late Leena Daru (she expired last month), was costume designer of film stars like Hema Malini, Rekha, Smita Patil, Neetu Singh and Sridevi. I used to meet all of them at her home in Juhu and was fascinated by them; so films attracted me.
I must say I was lucky because my mom was a professor of languages. I learnt basic literature from her and from my father I got a tremendous amount of theatre experience. It was a very lower middle class childhood that I have led - I saw my father’s struggle as a theatre person at Vile Parle East, in Mumbai’s suburbs, but at the same time it was a very rich experience. What else can one ask for, I would say?
Tell us about the Chhel-Paresh duo? Their work and in which way were you as a budding creative person inspired by them and all the work that they did?
Chhel Paresh was a great team. They have designed the sets for 700 plays –Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Sanskrit and English theatre. My father passed away in 2014 at the age of 79 but Chhel-Paresh the duo's name is still very big; Paresh Daru, at the age of 84, still designs the sets for a few plays every year. They worked on 35 films together in 7 languages - from Gujarati, Hindi, and Marathi to even Haryanvi. My father was a craftsman; he was much wanted when there were multiple sets to be managed in a play – when there were quick changes of locations to be made, especially in Gujarati commercial theatre. Sometimes there were 8 to 10 sets to be executed in one play and even a revolving stage. His partner Paresh Daru, is an expert on color schemes and coordinates. Chhel and Paresh complemented each other because they came together as a very good combination of craft and aesthetics. My father was dominant and most of the producers and directors used to depend on him. Paresh uncle handled it very well and with grace. Theirs is like a 50-years long successful marriage in theatre.
When you wrote your first play Ubhi Chavi Adi Chavi (Crossword Puzzles), what were your dreams and motivations?
I was studying in an engineering college but the truth is that I never wanted to become an engineer. My mother had seen an unstable life because of my father whose job didn’t pay him consistently. She insisted and I had to break the cycle and be qualified to take on a secure job. However, during my college days, I used to write short stories and articles. Soon I started writing plays as well – one-act plays came naturally to me. Ubhi Chavi-Aadi Chavi (UCAC) - Crossword Puzzle, was written & directed by me at the age of 20 and it became successful. It was staged during a drama camp held by Kantie Madia at SNDT, Churchgate Mumbai.
Soon after that I became a freelance director for various inter college drama competitions. UCAC made me realize that I should not do any other job. I left Engineering and I started working in theatre and television. UCAC was a turning point. It was as though a drug of creativity had been pumped into my veins. I was too young and immature to think about the future, so I stepped into the most insecure and uncertain journey that all of us embark upon when we enter the entertainment world.
Tell us about your times in theatre and industry before you became an independent writer and filmmaker?
It was a different time. During the pre-globalization times, there were very few opportunities and it was a period in which even stepping into the gates of a studio was an achievement! I started assisting Director Ramesh Talwar (Doosara Aadmi, Basera) in his work for both television and films.
My work with him happened because my friend from theatre Sanjay Goradia, secretary to Shafi Inamadar, was very close to Rameshji. Although I carried some experience from Gujarati theatre at that time, no one took my writing seriously. Those were the days when following protocol was important and it was only the senior assistants who had control over the scripts.
I was already well recognized in Gujarati theatre but I was an outsider in the Hindi theatre, film and television universe. While I was assisting Rameshji, I was also writing Gujarati television shows for Doordarshan Ahmedabad. I would get very frustrated but Shafi Inamdar gave me some tips for survival and he would calm me down. Rameshji is also a gentleman. It took him a little time to understand me but soon I became his blue-eyed boy. I had a good command over English and also the gift of the gab so stars like Madhuri Dixit, Sanjay Dutt, Rishi Kapoor and others would be comfortable with me. My innocent charm and humor worked when I was a beginner.
I must say that I worked really hard with practically no money in my pockets from 1989 to 1993. I learnt a lot though. I never said no to any project, be it however small. I just kept on working and sniffing my way through the jungle. I assisted Ashutosh Gowarikar, for his first film and also almost co-directed Pamela Rooks English film Miss Beatty’s Children (NFDC). I helped Pamela who was an author but had never been on a film set – forget about directing a film. When the film won a National Award it felt like I had won it.
In those days, the industry was very different - in both a good way and a bad way. It is way easier to make it mainstream now than it was then. Satellite television hadn’t arrived and there was only one channel Doordarshan, which had very few slots for producers. I gave it a shot but ended up losing all my money on trips made to Delhi for pitching to the officials there. However, I will call it riyaaz (practice), because I wrote a lot and the numerous rejections toughened me.
I also realized in those days that a creative person’s struggle never ends. I kept on assisting directors, I acted in plays produced by Shafi Inamdar’s theatre group and it was like I was on a roller coaster. I was a young boy who had grown up studying in Gujarati medium, I was learning English while on the road and also while understanding my craft – I was buying books from the footpath at Churchgate Station and borrowing them from the NCPA library so that I could keep on reading and improving my language skills. Those were not the days of the internet and mobile phones so everything I did, read and worked upon is imprinted on my mind and not on the memory of some hard disc lying somewhere. When I look back at those times now, it seems romantic but then it was frightening. I shudder to remember how confident I must’ve been to think that I could fight the world and conquer it.
Everything changed in my life after I met Aziz Mirza, Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah. Amrut Patel introduced me to them after my play, a psychological drama Prakaran 1956, flopped. I was jobless and I was married by then. I was also lost. Aziz, Saeed and Kundan, also Sudhir Mishra, encouraged me to write my first Hindi series for a show called Naya Nukkad (sequel to the very popular show of that time Nukkad), which aired on the DD Metro channel around the year 1993.
It was while I was writing a Gujarati serial for Priya Tendulkar that her father, the famous playwright Vijay Tendulkar, advised me to write in Hindi as well. I worked upon my Hindi only because he assured me that I would be able to overcome my apprehensions with the language and encouraged me. I got noticed for the feel-good writing I did, and for the inherent humor that was subtext to all my work. Neeraj Vora, an actor and my good friend helped me get the film Pehla Nasha, to write. Ashutosh Gowarikar was making his debut as a director and he hired me to write the dialogue for the film. Later, Neeraj also helped me get Rangeela to write. This film by Ram Gopal Verma was a blockbuster and it brought me recognition as well as fame.
Around the same time is when the comedy series Filmy Chakkar happened to me. This was a real fun series to write. Ashoke Pandit was director of the series after many years of having been assistant director to Kundan Shah, Aziz Mirza and Saeed Mirza. Satish Shah was brilliant and I learnt a lot from him about humor and the significance of timing in a sitcom. Filmy Chakkar was a huge hit on the Zee TV channel and with that I became the highest paid sitcom writer. Since then I have written and directed more than twenty serials – around 3000 episodes.
Meanwhile, I wrote the film Yes Boss, which was being directed by Aziz Mirza. I knew Shah Rukh Khan from his days in television, when he had acted in the series Circus. We got along very well and I wrote many of his films and stage shows. My journey as a scriptwriter was unstoppable from there. I must add that I am indeed fortunate to have worked as a writer for Aziz, Kundan, Ramu, David Dhawan and Madhur Bhandarkar – on films starring Salman Khan and SRK.
I’ve always made it a point to be present at the shooting of all films, which I have written. I called myself a script attendant – like a camera attendant. I was possessive about my scripts so I wanted to be there during discussions when things written by me were being improvised – primarily so that they don’t get changed drastically. I have directed four films but my visiting card is that of a writer. I’m proud of it. I am this guy from the vernacular, lower middle class without any big connections in Bollywood and I have made it somehow. It feels good.
You debuted with direction of Khoobsurat - a hat-ke film of its time, which was led by mainstream Bollywood stars. What was the whole experience about?
By the year 1997, I had written ten films including Rangeela, Yes Boss, Daud (a crazy one by RGV, which failed at the box office but achieved cult status), Kacche Dhage and Halo (National Award winning children’s film), but I was bored – or I would rather say, I felt like I was stagnating. I was also itching to make my own films.
I approached many stars that I’d worked with; to act in my directorial debut but the only person who supported me was Sanjay Dutt. Sanju loved the script of Khoobsurat and was also excited to do a feel-good film because he was imaged as an action hero then. It was a struggle making the film because Sanju was also attending court hearings when I was shooting. Oftentimes, I had to use his body double to ensure that the film schedules didn’t change. The cast was big – Sanjay Dutt, Urmilla Matondkar, Om Puri, Ashok Saraf, Farida Jalal, Anjan Shrivastava, Himani Shivpuri, Supriya Pilgaonkar and Jatin Kanakia.
My producers for Khoobsurat were the Sughandhs. It was their first film as producers because prior to that, they had been financers. I had to convince them about every small thing before doing it. There was also too much politics going around and I was obviously not ready to deal with it. I guess I was too honest or maybe, just to stupid to handle things. What saved me was my team, a stellar cast, the lyrics of one of the songs by Gulzar (I had to write the remaining three because Gulzar saab got busy with his own film Hu-tu-tu) and the music of the film, which was composed by Jatin-Lalit.
While I was directing my first film, I was also doing other work to run my kitchen so it was a tough time. In the middle of the production, close to the completion of Khoobsurat, one star had to be replaced. Fortunately, Paresh Rawal came to my rescue and gave me four days from his very busy schedule. Things worked out and in that guest appearance, Paresh became the highlight of the film. But the most difficult task was releasing the film. I had written and directed my dream project and the producers took the controls away from me while editing the final cut. I was shattered. Sanju stood by me and ensured that I was able to lock the edit. Thank God for that.
Khoobsurat was a hit, its music was popular and it earned good money for my producers from urban India. The reviews were also good. The film was in the Top 10 Best Film List of 1999 and was recognized for having changed Sanjay Dutt’s image, which later led to him to do a film like Munna Bhai MBBS. Sanju spoke about it in all his interviews. I had fulfilled my dream at the age of thirty but I hadn’t made any money. I say to everyone that the money I should have earned from a big film like Khoobsurat was my entry fees to the business of Bollywood. I had fought, cried, struggled and become a man in the process. However, the boyish smile I was known for was lost and it never came back on my face because the struggle I faced to earn this name and fame had shaken me psychologically. The experience had brought me to the beginning of struggle Part 2 and I was grateful for that.
How did you relate with the times when so much change took place because television became huge and cinema had to reinvent itself for its survival? As an artist, what was your journey like?
As I said I just kept working. I am a flexible person and can be molded into any form. I didn’t feel the conflict because I was on a path to learning from my own mistakes and there was never a day when I didn’t have work to do. I kept working and survived the business only because I exposed myself to it instead of hiding from it. That according to me is the only way you can change. The discipline came to me from television and the attention to detail came to me from my experience in film. There are several academic theories but there is only one way – keep falling, keep getting up, keep walking, repeat. I am still learning – although I must add that it is more difficult to learn now than it was then. Maybe because there are bigger challenges today than they were twenty years ago?
You are a columnist, you're a painter and you continue to write and direct films. How do you balance things out?
I’ve been writing columns for the last ten years, twice a week and for five different Gujarati publications. There are three columns – Andaze Bayan, Raag Bindas and Mijaj Masti, which are syndicated pieces. My name as a film writer helped me initially but along the way I’ve ended up inventing a new form of humor and discovering a new style of satire in the Gujarati language. The nuggets of thought I collect turn into anecdotes and my own experience and romance with reading comes together in these columns quite interestingly. All that I write has a socio-political slant but then I can’t help commenting on the state of affairs so it has become the USP of my work.
Most Gujarati writers don’t flirt with politics or take a stand and if they ever do, it becomes serious. My columns are a humorous take on current affairs and therefore satirical. People love them or they hate them and I’m fine with both reactions. I released ten books last week on compilations of my articles and I’m thrilled about it. I like writing to publish because it makes my writing disciplined. I have to write twice a week and each time it is not less than 2000 words – it doesn’t matter how busy I am with my films and television work because I’m committed to doing it. To tell you honestly, it provides me a sustained income and is also therapeutic. It dissolves my loneliness and helps me deal with the mild depression I nurse as a habit.
I have around 1.5 million readers in Gujarat and Mumbai; some belong to small towns and villages. Most of my readers don’t know that I belong to the world of cinema. It does get difficult when I am shooting on location or busy with writing a daily soap opera but so far I have managed to keep it going. As you know, right-wing people have threatened me often and I receive a lot of hate mail but it is also what gives me the confidence that I am making ripples in stagnant waters.
Painting is and has always been my hobby. Today it has also become my passion. It puts me into Zen mode. Once I’m at my canvas I can go on for hours on end. Art is therapy too and I spend a few hours twice a week dabbling with it. Since my father was an artist and he graduated from the JJ School of Art, I grew up surrounded with reference books. As a child I copied Picasso and Paul Klee. Painting heals me and helps me calm down because I do have mood swings. I often tell myself that even if the entire world ditches me, my colors will remain my friends. I’ve been fortunate to exhibit my work thrice so far; at the Jehangir Art Gallery Mumbai and at Husain-Doshi’s Gufa Art Gallery in Ahmedabad, and the response was good. Well known artists saw my work and appreciated it. So basically I juggle between Films, TV, Writing Columns and Painting – maybe it is the best way to escape from the tough existential questions that life poses.
It is obvious from the trajectory of your growth that you have an enviable repertoire and yet I see you struggle all the time. Why?
I don’t know. I can’t find a clear answer to that question. If you know, tell me. You know me well. Do you think I need counseling?
Very funny! Go on…
I might have been too careless or as they say, Bindaas in selecting my projects. As a director I keep choosing to do different genres, so that is a struggle because I don’t have reference to anything I have done in the past. I try to balance things out as a writer but then that makes me accident-prone. For instance, anybody else would have chosen to write Rom-Coms after Rangeela and Yes Boss but I insisted with Aziz and SRK that I wanted to write Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, which was a political satire and way ahead of its time. Then Maan Gaye Mughale Azam was again an out-of-the-box comedy. Writing both Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji and Indu Sarkar for Madhur Bhandarkar, were very different experiences. Working on comedy with a director like David Dhawan in films like Partner, Rascals, Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya etc., was very unlike all my other experiences. I struggle while writing each film. But writing is easier for me than directing films is. I don’t understand how the star system works so I make mistakes there. I am bold and over-confident maybe? I don’t know what it is but my attitude is such that I make mistakes while working with stars. I guess I can’t be a Shana Gujju Baniya?
I don’t have any regrets. I have earned a good name as a writer, bought my houses, my office, my cars and I have a good life. What else does one want? Yet I feel that I haven’t achieved as much as I should have by now. I take that in good spirit because my struggle, my incompleteness and my quest for the success I deserve to get will keep me going.
Also, when a writer tries to become a director there is a lot of scrutiny. Critics are hard on writers because they feel competitive. Fellow directors judge you because they want to believe that the films they made and which succeeded too was because of them and not because of the writing or the script. Behind your back they tell everyone - wo writer achcha hai… director khaas nahin – he’s a good writer but not a very good director. Very big writers like Gulzar have also faced such criticism for years; don’t take me wrong, I’m not comparing myself to him… just using Gulzar Saab as an example.
I always feel like an outsider in films, in Gujarati literature and even in theatre. I also feel like I am an outsider in the abstract world of art – everywhere. That’s just how I am. I keep telling myself to focus even after having worked on forty films as a writer or a director in twenty-five years. Is something wrong with me? Maybe I need to hurry up!
Share some of your most exciting moments while writing and directing films; your experience with art, with journalism and with television?
After the success of Filmy Chakkar we planned Season 2. The producers didn’t get a good budget from the channel so we made another project carrying the same team along with us. It was called Mast Mast Hai Zindagi. Zee Network sued us. They didn’t have a technical ground to sue us because there was no copyright on an idea. The judge saw episodes from both the serials and in the final verdict he stated that the only common thing in the two comedy shows was the ‘distinct writing style of Sanjay Chhel’. Eventually Zee Network approved Season 2 and it felt good!
Also, during the same time I wrote a satire on TADA and Sanjay Dutt’s case so I got a warning from the Police Commissioner of Mumbai. He told me not to do it again. I was too young then to understand but when I look back I feel my work was getting noticed.
‘The’ Hrishikesh Mukherjee called me after he saw my films Rangeela and Yes Boss. He was also a fan of Filmy Chakkar. When I met him, he asked me to write a TV Show for him about an Almirah (Closet), travelling from one house to another. That was a huge compliment for me as a writer. When I asked him for the title Khoobsurat, which he owned, he gave it to me without hesitating.
I made a film Kya Dil Ne Kaha (2002), with Tusshar Kapoor and Esha Deol, which was an average hit but the music was blockbuster. Whichever party I went to that year, my song Nikamma Kiya Is Dil Ne would be playing. On News Years night, I had gone party hopping that year and the song was playing everywhere. There was an auto rickshaw stand next to my house and the drivers would play the song endlessly for months on end. A bargirl told me once that she had earned a lot of money dancing to the song. I still get royalty for my songs like Nikamma, Mohabbat Hai Mirchi, Do you wanna partner?
Aye Shivani, the song from the film Khoobsurat, is another story altogether. In Bangalore there was a hate club organized by girls – all of them were named Shivani.
After the success of Rangeela my director Ramu, gave an interview to the Times of India (Khalid Mohamad) and he said that the success of his film belongs to Sanjay Chhel’s dialogues. That was huge!
I edited and wrote a book on the Gujarati theatre doyen, actor-director-producer, late Kanti Madia. I worked for five years and it is a 600-page book with 400 photographs and articles by more than a hundred artists - actors like Paresh Rawal, Vikram Gokhale and director Govind Nihalani. It is the first book on a Gujarati theatre person and detailed. It is an offbeat book but it surprises me that a piece of literature costing 650 rupees has become so popular and was sold out within two years. When Paresh Rawal released the book, late Kanti Madia’s wife gifted me a gold ring, which belonged to him. It was a very emotional moment for me because there was a standing ovation when I was felicitated on stage.
I wrote a powerful article about Rohit Vemula, the Dalit student who committed suicide. In the same article I wrote about a Dalit Prof. Mahesh Makwana who was harassed by an upper caste principal and he was shunted from his hometown to a remote area just because he belonged to the lower caste. He also attempted suicide and told me about his suffering - he is one of my regular readers. So after the article Rohit Vemula to Prof. Mahesh Makwana – Jaat na puchho Sikhsha ki, was published in a Gujarati newspaper, a Minister and the Speaker of the Gujarat Government read it. He inquired into the matter and within the next 15 days, the Dalit professor was given back his job in his hometown, where he was posted earlier! The man was in tears and I also had tears in my eyes because I was able to impact the life of one person through my writing.
Later, I wrote an article about Kalburgi – Why is there no Kalburgi in Gujarat? There was a huge backlash and much debate surrounding my writing. I was threatened and told that I will be the first Gujarati writer to meet the same fate as Kalburgi. I took it as a compliment because there is hardly anybody who dares to write provocative stuff in Gujarat. But to tell you honestly, I do fear while writing now. I get trolled and attacked constantly. Trolls get personal, abusive and publications are wary today. I do get surprised though, how they still allow me to write in Gujarat.
Now that is the roller coaster ride, never-ending struggle with a few moments of scattered memories – some happiness too!