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Pubali Chaudhuri: Mystery of the blank page!

Pubali Chaudhuri: Mystery of the blank page!

by Aparajita Krishna March 7 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 24 mins, 41 secs

Aparajita Krishna tells the Genie to grant writer Pubali Chaudhuri her personal wish; also the wish that she ‘continues to learn from the mystery of the blank page’!

I have desisted from headlining this article as Pubali Chaudhuri: Rock On! Screenwriter and teacher Pubali Chaudhuri has worked on the screenplay of the film Rock On! (2008), on the screen adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life as Kai Po Che (2013), written the story and screenplay for the sequel Rock On 2 (2016). She is a teacher who has served as Mentor and Honorary H.O.D at the Screenplay Writing Dept of the FTII and also taught at Whistling Woods International. She has been a mentor at script labs, conducted screenwriting workshops across India. In the present she is a recognized film writer with a select amount of noteworthy films. And to quote her, ‘Continues to learn from the mystery of the blank page’!

We get talking on her work, her background, films and her world-view.

What are the film scripts/web-series at the developmental stage? Commissioned by who?

I’m currently working on a commissioned feature film project for Maddock Films and shopping around an original web series bible. Two of my other speculative film scripts are at different stages of uncertainties, depending on casting and such, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed and mouth shut till they are blessed by the magic spell of ‘greenlight.’

Do you reject more film offers than you accept?  

How did you know?! Hmm, yes I suppose I’ve been fairly selective in choosing my projects, especially these days there are multiple enquiries for leading a writers’ room based on a preexisting show bible. But that’s not something that typically appeals to me unless I can create the characters and the story universe myself. Writing is a long arduous process, every collaboration is much like an arranged marriage, you walk in without knowing whether it will work or not. So one tends to gauge whether one is the right fit or not. In many cases it’s not.

Did the COVID Times bring in depression? As in did your work suffer or you had more me-time to mull and ideate?

‘No good times, no bad times’, only pandemic times! It’s been incomparable to anything else we’ve ever lived through. Personally, I think it was a time for introspection and some degree of clarity as to what’s really important in life. Amid the overarching mood of gloom and doom, it was writing that helped me center myself, though it was not one bit easy to find the focus. But it also made me acutely aware of the blessings of life; that my family was safe, that I still had work, that my husband flew in to be with me and that I had friends who were keeping in touch.

Let me go back in time and get your familial antecedents clarified. It adds to a perspective one forms about a person and her/his work. You are from Calcutta/Kolkata. What were your parents work-wise involved in? Any siblings?

Yes my parental family has been one of my biggest anchorage and influence in my life. I come from an economically middle class family that’s always been exceptionally liberal and progressive culturally. My Baba was a small business owner of block printed sarees that he designed himself (but did not have the branding of a designer or boutique store). My mother has worked all her life as a high school Mathematics teacher. And I have an elder sister, Tomali, with a long standing track record in media - from advertising, children’s television programming and now running a dubbing production house in Kolkata.

Both my mother and sister have been theatre actors in what is known as ‘group theatre’ in Calcutta. In some ways I have grown up in an indie ‘production’ environ, not only play reading and rehearsals late into the night, but also learning from very close quarters of how to sustain your passion in an environment, which was pretty much noncommercial back in the 1990s.

You did Bachelor of Arts (Comparative Literature) from Jadavpur University, 1996 to 1998 and P.R. Diploma in mass communication, 1998 to 1999. Schooling from where? Trust you were academically inclined.

I went to a convent girls school, Carmel, till I was in Standard 7, which was great for developing fluency with English and extra-curricular activities. However, my mother was a bit worried about academic rigour in middle school and I was sure to fail sewing and stitching, which was the mandatory ‘work education’ subject in the girls’ school! So I switched to the co-ed school that my mother taught at, South Point High School, which , at one point, had the distinction of being the most populated school in Asia!

I was overall an average student who never came first and never failed. Unfortunately I had no aptitude for STEM subjects back then and was naturally inclined to reading and writing in English. Both of which I now regret, as in I should’ve read more Bangla books with its rich literary tradition, also I’ve found that I find popular science fascinating and I rue the fact that I didn’t develop more interest in it during my school days.

Were films (Bengali, Hindi, Regional, Foreign) part of your childhood and young year self-syllabus? Who were the filmmakers, writers, actors who appealed to you?

Hindi films were not regarded as high culture in a ‘cultured’ Bengali family. But of course, growing up in early 1990s I was not at all immune to the flooding of young romantic films that was the flavour of those times. Qayamat se Qyamat Tak, Maine Pyar Kiya (yes that too !)… Baazigar with its anti-hero and Aashiqui with its modern mother figure and dark skinned gorgeous heroine were path breaking for the teenage me.  

Shakti is probably my favourite Amitabh Bachchan film and that’s not just because of the superstar alone. The layered portrayal of a father-son conflict was very rich in its emotional complexity. And the portrayal of the romantic subplot between Smita Patil and Bachchan’s character still feels contemporary.

Satyajit Ray was most certainly one of the earliest influences in cinema. As cliche as that sounds, coming from a Bengal! I think Aranyer Din Ratri is like the baap of road/buddy films. And Hirak Rajar Deshe one of the best examples of an extremely strong anti-fascist statement couched in a children’s film. 

Growing up, international films were mostly Hollywood - we would rent a VCR for a weekend and do our home film festival! Sound of Music, Kramer versus Kramer, Roman Holiday, Guns of Navarone, Bridge over River Kwai, Wait Until Dark, Dial M for Murder… you get the cinema-scape.

I turned 18 and I think I turned ‘adult’ in my taste of cinema by taking up Film Studies as one of my subsidiary subjects at Jadavpur University! So Truffaut, Vittorio De Sica, Godard and Bunuel became part of official syllabus. That and the Calcutta International Film Festival lay the groundwork for my exposure to world cinema; for the longest time I would cite Kieślowski’s film as the kind of film that I would aspire to write.

Let’s be honest, I never paid attention to the screenwriter’s name to identify a film. It’s invariably a Hitchcock film or an Amitabh Bachchan film. And I say it now, not without irony as a professional screenwriter! But that’s why I’ve always known that screenwriting is a deep background work and not the one that gets the limelight typically.

Like I said, Satyajit Ray and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films were early formative influences on me. I had never seen anything as twisted as Bitter Moon by Polanski when I first watched it in one of the slightly shade movie theatres of Calcutta, known to screen ‘blue’ films. That also meant that they unwittingly screened some great European films, which featured nudity and sex. Thank god for older and more knowledgeable male ‘friend philosopher guides’ who initiated me into these cinematic adventures!

I was blown by Wong Kar Wai and Kim Ki-Duk when I discovered their work. ‘The Isle’ by Kim Ki-Duk was disturbingly visceral and left me sleepless.

How has your life experience shaped your views on gender issues, man-woman relationship? Any incident, recall that stays in your memory regarding gender imbalance or unfairness in your early career years?

My life experience has shaped a somewhat unconventional take on romance, sex and relationships. Suffices to say that, intellectually, I do not consider sexual fidelity as THE only foundational framework of a long term committed relationship such as marriage. (That’s what happens when you let Leonard Cohen, Milan Kundera and Roman Polanski eat your brains out at an impressionable age! lol)

As for gender related issues, sure, which woman hasn’t faced it? Starting from being groped by strangers in public buses as a teenager. And yes that was such a regular event at least in Calcutta back in my growing up years. It became very clear to me as a young girl that you need to fight off the unwanted encroachment in order to occupy public spaces. And of course there’s casual sexism all around us and a generous dose of othering, discrimination, sometimes bordering on hostility, when you enter the professional world. It would fill up too much space if I had to recount every instance of gendered problems that I’ve faced in my 45 years!

I’ve held production-cum-creative job profiles at both Ramoji Film City and at an advertising film production house in Calcutta. And have faced instances of harassment, not sexual, but harassment nonetheless at both work environs, stemming largely from the fact that I was/am an English speaking female executive who doesn’t deploy the coy feminine card to get things done in the professional space.

Was becoming a screenwriter an organic process? Prior to your FTII course you dabbled in content writing, worked in advertising, creative in-charge at Ramoji Film City, Hyderabad.

Writing and production (in theatre, live events and eventually film) have been the twin strands of my career. My most regular writing excursions were probably heartbroken outpourings in my personal diary, right from my teenage years. Writing for a newspaper became the logical career choice and I started contributing to one supplement of The Statesman right from my undergraduate years.

But I had no stomach for the corporate environment of Times of India (I used to work for their recently launched internet division) and shifted to event management and live production in my mid-20s. Then came the advt-film production, which is what initiated me to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking.

But once I lost that job, I was looking to find new opportunities. I stumbled upon the then newly introduced screenwriting course at FTII because one of my oldest and closest friends was already studying Direction there. I don’t think I actually thought of becoming a screenwriter even when I wrote the admission test for FTII. It was only after I was called for the interview a few months later, when I had already shifted to Bombay to continue freelancing in advt-films, that I fell in love with the space. But I still had doubts about taking a break from earning a livelihood (I was already 29 years old) and it was my sister who almost scolded me into taking what I considered back then a sabbatical from my career. So you could say that I meandered into screenwriting and found my calling in it.  

Biggest learning from my TOI days was to discover that I had very little aptitude for working in large corporate organisations. The tube-lit hall with our tiny cubicles really depressed me. I absolutely suffered Monday morning blues at that job. On the positive side, of course, I learnt structured cohesive written communication at that job.

At Ramoji Film City, I was lucky to work with a group of senior American professionals, who were flown down that year to revamp RFC as a movie themed park, in the lines of Universal Backlot tours. I did not enjoy Hyderabad that much, but I learnt a great deal from two of the consultants, Richard Crane and Adrea Gibbs, who taught me the value of detailed planning and methodology in stage production.

And like I said, if it weren’t for the job at the advertising production house, I would not have known the actual process of film making starting from pre- production to editing and sound. 

At the FTII, Pune you specialized in screenplay writing. Do summarise what you best learnt and unlearnt there? Was your exposure to world cinema, the film archives a revelation? Who were your classmates?

I can now have bragging rights about my batchmates at FTII. Jyoti Kapoor, writer of Good News is my closest friend from my batch. Saurabh Bhave (Taryanche Bait, Hawaizada, Pipsi), Radhika Anand (Kamyaab, Satya 2), Sameer Vidhwans, Rohit Banwalikar are all successful writers whose filmographies are growing by the day.

As I mentioned earlier, my exposure to World Cinema had happened almost a decade back in Calcutta. But yes certainly, FTII and the National Archives further broadened my viewing horizon.

Perhaps the main advantage of a writing course is that it allows you to find a method to the madness of creating from a blank page. A structured process as well as theoretical understanding are great scaffolding to have while one does the self-discovery of writing. So in that sense, the Screenplay Writing course and our excellent mentors, Anjum Rajabali and Ashwini Malik, played a big part in initiating me into screenwriting.

Did you start off as a writer in Mumbai with television or straightaway with films?

I did just one stint of television non-fiction writing for Discovery Channel. Apart from of course corporate films to foot my bills. But I did have the film writing assignment within 6 months of returning to Bombay after FTII. That was lucky.

As a screenwriter do you prefer to write the story, screenplay and dialogues yourself or a collaborative work works better?

I certainly prefer creating the story and characters for myself, even on a commissioned work. Hindi is not my native language, so my scripts necessarily need a Hindi dialogue writer. Though it’s impossible to deliver a screenplay without dialogues and these days I write copious amounts of grammatically incorrect conversational Hindi dialogues. Collaboration works best when its two people choosing to work with each other as friends and colleagues instead of being appointed by producers or studios.

I’ve mostly been a solo writer, but have in the recent past collaborated with a couple of friends on spec projects. Especially for web series, I do feel two heads (provided they are in sync) could be a more efficient way to go about it.

Was Rock On (2008) your first feature film? It was directed by Abhishek Kapoor. You worked on the screenplay. Was this conceived as a musical drama of 4 friends of a Rock-Band (Magik-1998) who re-unite (2008), relive their past? How did the idea germinate and how did you take it further? Credit for screenplay includes dialogues?

Like I said, you cannot deliver a screenplay draft without indicative dialogues. And because Rock On was set in an urbane and mostly English speaking world, I wrote scenes with largely English and I suppose some smattering of Hindi dialogues.

I was provided the premise of Rock On by Abhishek, yes.  Four friends who used to have a band, but had broken up and that they should reunite by the end of the film. Abhishek already had some ideas about the characters and their backgrounds, but I started the writing process exactly the way I’d been taught at FTII, with long character sketches!

I knew the world of musicians and rock bands intimately from my college days in Calcutta. The 1990s was also a time when there was a resurgence of Bangla songwriter-singers as well as Bangla rock bands. I was particularly close to a Bangla rock band called Cactus and had even organized music concerts with them back in the day. So when Abhishek sounded off his story idea, I immediately knew that this is a world I can write about.

On the Rock On copyright issue vis a vis Abhishek Kapoor you are quoted saying in Etimes, “I was barely six months old in Mumbai, a fresh graduate of the Screenplay Writing course at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, when Mr Abhishek Kapoor approached me in 2006 to write a full blown screenplay of what was to later become the film Rock On. As my first film writing project in Mumbai, I put in my best efforts to flesh out the characters, develop the story and write the screenplay of the said film. Mr Kapoor subsequently sold the script to Excel Entertainment in 2007 and cited himself as the sole story and screenplay writer and director of the film, without mentioning that, in actuality, it was I who had written the screenplay for the past six months. It was only after the producers were informed of my involvement in the script that I was credited as the second screenplay writer of the film. This, in fact, is the reality behind the credit stealing charges that I have been recently accused of." So, how did it conclude?

Pretty badly, I’m afraid. The sequel of Rock On was embroiled in a credit dispute. It was a classic case of two powerful entities settling their dispute with me stuck in the middle and taking the hit. It’s not one of my most pleasant memories of my career as a writer.

Excel finally decided to arrive at a settlement with Abhishek and accorded him a shared story credit along with me for the sequel of Rock On, but only after matters had dragged out till the High Court and I found myself in the middle of a full blown legal case! But it’s also water under the bridge and as they say, whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. Abhishek and I have been in touch subsequently and dabbled with ideas as well, so the past has been put firmly in its place. Done and dusted.

Kai Po Che (2013) was an adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life. It was again directed by Abhishek Kapoor. You are credited with the screenplay. How easy or difficult is it to adapt a script from a book? I have cut the kite, goes the phrase. How did you address it as a film subject?

A mistake that I made while adapting 3 Mistakes, was to assume that a popular novel already gives you the story for the film. I mean it does to a large extent. And yet, you have to rework the story for the film - it’s not enough to add and subtract from the book. You have to reinvent the story for the film. So Kai Po Che pushed my learning curve a lot more than Rock On. It was a difficult premise with 3 protagonists having divergent goals and structuring it was hell.

To be honest the title Kai Po Che was decided upon much later. Our working title was Ahmdavad for the longest time. Yes, we had the Sankranti kite flying festival in the film from the beginning. The Gujarati title came much later and I could see how it set up the cultural milieu of the film as well as foreshadow, in a tangential way, the rather tragic climax of the film, which is entirely different from how the climax plays out in the book.

Rock On 2 came in 2016.  It was produced by Excel, directed by Farhan Akhtar. The credit goes, Written by - Abhishek Kapoor, Pubali Chaudhuri. How do you look back creatively on the sequel?

Creatively, it was challenging to create a sequel of a film, which had a very neatly tied up ending and as such was not primed for a sequel. But of course, I’d lived with the characters of Rock On long enough and wanted to see if I could catch them after say 8 years from where we’d last left them at the end of Rock On.

I will admit that I was pleased by the way I had flipped the journeys of the two main lead characters - Aditya the corporate banker, played by Farhan, had gone through a major lifestyle change where he does organic farming somewhere up in the hills (it was Himachal and not Shillong in the script). At the same time Joe, the idealist, played by Arjun Rampal, had become business savvy. This change in trajectory helped me infuse fresh blood in the characters.  

I also wanted to open up the canvas of the story to feature various other musicians who all got together at the final music festival. I had detailed sub-plots for at least 4 such sets of musicians - the elderly jazz musician played by Usha Uthup (there was an estrangement with a partner in that subplot), Mohit Jhabua, the tribal boy from Bastar (that got changed to a Punjabi character, the classical sitarist Uday and of course Jiah, the young female musician and her tortured relationship with her father. The father’s character was partly inspired by Annapurna Devi, daughter of Allauddin Khan and the first wife of Ravi Shankar, who had stopped playing in public and led a reclusive life.

Nonetheless, Rock On 2 is a good example of how the best laid intentions in scripting can land quite differently by the time its filmed. 

How is the Hindi film scenario in the present and future, aesthetically speaking.

Strictly mediocre. Or is that too brutal?!

Of course, there are happy exceptions and every now and then we get a glimpse of powerful cinema. There are certainly some very bright and talented filmmakers, whose work one would look out for. But overall, the most striking films for me as an audience in the recent past has been either from regional or indie space. Maybe that’s just who I am. A trailer cut against a wedding or Punjabi song just doesn’t get me interested. Sports films tend to be predictable. Films with an overt nationalist theme usually suffer a lack of nuance and sometimes even factual accuracy. And ‘female protagonist’ films, usually of the victim sort who take on patriarchal systems, umm… has that become a formula of sorts? Much like the ubiquitous ‘small town North India’ as Hindi film industry’s favourite setting.  

Are web-series diminishing cinema?

I don’t know how to answer that really or whether I am even equipped to answer that. A safe assumption would be that there is room for both, though the presence and ready availability of OTT programming will probably make the fate of smaller/personal films more precarious at the box office. Even in Hollywood the trend has been to invest more and more into spectacle and franchise films to get the audience into the theatre.

One hopes that people will want that bigger screen immersive experience of theatre viewing even for drama films and not just superheroes. And perhaps the isolation of the pandemic will make people want to step out and hence prove that cinema is here to stay. We shall see. 

As a citizen how does political India impact your work, even if not directly?

There is politics even in a love story or a biopic. So the socio-political-cultural milieu certainly impacts storytellers and the kind of films that will get made. Especially since cinema is such a mass medium, it creates headlines, controversies and censorship much more than say a play or a book.  The trick seems to be to smuggle in a subversive theme couched in a popular entertaining genre.  Easier said than done of course. 

Does India 2022 augur well for our future?

That’s a very broad based question! Do you mean economically, socially, politically or culturally? All of them are intricately woven together. I am a romantic at heart who must wear the mask of cynicism to hide my hopeless naïve idealism. So the cynic in me would say we are going through a rather bleak phase. But that also means, that it will change - for better or worse, but change it will. As I age, I am much more aware that nothing is fixed or permanent and time is cyclical. Whether it will happen in my lifetime or not, is secondary. But surely the children and youngsters of today will live through a different era.

Why has contemporary mainstream Indian cinema, and specifically Hindi films, not dared to be rebellious enough, mostly status-quoist. Does that worry you? Where do we currently stand on the world cinema map? 

I believe I’ve already taken a fairly harsh position about the current state of films. So let me not repeat that rant! Hindi films have always acted as the propaganda machinery of the State. Right from ‘Mere desh ki dharti’, ‘Dil Hai Hindustani’ to whatever is current credo today. I had read somewhere long ago that you get the government and the cinema you deserve! So if our mainstream films adhere to conformism, it’s likely that rebelliousness does not hold much currency in our culture, broadly speaking. In fact, I would say that earlier mainstream films questioned the status quo much more than what we do currently. I think a Silsila or a Kala Patthar would be near impossible to make today. India has arrived at a deadly mix of feudal mindset mixed with consumerism; neither works well with dissent or questioning.

The last part of your question is best answered by looking at which, if any, of our films have been at the reputed film festivals of the world in the last decade or even longer. Besides, mainstream cinema does not require festival certification - our industry is very content in raking in the crores in domestic markets. Arthouse Cinema either requires State patronage like we had through NFDC or producers committed to the idea of patronage of good cinema. 

You are an Odissi dancer. Tell us more about it.

It’s my firm belief that I was a devadasi in my past life! Dance was something I was born with. I started training first in Bharatnatyam as a child and then moved to Odissi. I was also lucky to have exposure to Modern Dance but was not destined to find a regular mentor for that. I’m blessed that I am still in touch with my Modern Dance mentors, Jhuma Basak and Nana Gleason-Koschmider. My Odissi Guru, Guru Giridhari Nayak, passed away recently unfortunately. 

I quit training during my college years once I figured that I wouldn’t be making a career in dance. I’d had too many years of hobby training back then and was done with that level of engagement. Now in my mid-life and having been diagnosed with a prolapsed disc I have renewed my Odissi training with Mitali D’Souza who is a really kind and generous teacher.

Dance is meditation in movement for me - you live only in the moment and your mind stops wandering and your mind and body are fully aligned in space and time. It gives me pure joy to dance even to myself and sometimes to share with friends and family.

On your Facebook page, there is a picture of a bronze/gold antique lamp and you write,'Now that I’ve rubbed the lamp to a shine, waiting for the genie to arrive and grant me my wishes.’ What is the one personal and the one professional wish you desire? Maybe can request the genie to do so. 

Oh if has a direct line with the genie then do put in a word for me! The professional desire is easier to articulate - my deepest most ardent wish is to have one of my original speculative scripts to be made into a film/series and be well appreciated for it.

Personal desire - hmm. I guess I’m not that different from everyone else in desiring happy endings for myself and those I love. I’d like to die in relative peace without many regrets. And I wish the same for my loved ones.

I’ve found romantic love and acceptance quite late in my life and my still very young marriage is unlike most others. Praveen and I are not only from very different fields and backgrounds (he’s a Physicist at IIT Madras), we are quite different personalities as well. I hope I can honour the love he has shown me and make him happy.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

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