In conversation with Prasoon Joshi

First Cut

Award winning lyricist, screenplay writer and advertising copywriter Prasoon Joshi is a compulsive writer. He would write even if there were no takers for his work. At the Bangalore Film Festival, he exhibited his mastery with élan as he engaged in a poetic jugalbandi of sorts with Oscar winning lyricist Gulzar.

Prasoon spoke to me about cinematic liberties and why the star system is important. Excerpts from the interview:

Films like ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ and ‘Madras Café’ are inspired by true-life events but they are criticized for taking cinematic liberties. Is that kind of criticism justified?

No. First of all there has to be a difference between a documentary and a film. Film is celluloid and you want to mesmerize people. I can’t talk about ‘Madras Café’ though Shoojit (Sircar) is a very close friend of mine, but I can talk about ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ because I have written the story. For me, the whole thing was, am I able to hold on to people? I have to make sure that they sit there, they watch the film, it’s very important. So I have to write it in a way that it holds interest, so you have to take cinematic liberties. I had to create many scenes which might not be exact but for that I am drawing from some real raw material and my job is to make it successful.

I can’t do it alone, my director has to do his job, the actors and the other technicians have to do their job, but the writer is the first one who is beginning and venturing into the project and then it is like a relay race. Having said that, all of us have to remember that it is the audience who has to sit and watch the movie, otherwise you fail in your attempt. And it is perfectly fine to fail but you should know what kind of film you are making.

I was writing a film, which will connect with the masses… they will be able to sit and watch it, so I did not shy away from having songs. I did not shy away from having dramatic dialogues because it’s a projected cinematic interpretation.

Biopics historically haven’t been very popular in our films. Do we finally know how to connect with the audience and make these stories work?

I don’t know that. I don’t know how much I know. All I know is that when I finished writing the script I was so sure that I had worked on something interesting, which is entertaining and which is doing justice to the man’s life. I knew that for this film.

Every project is completely unique in its own way. The problem is and that is a caution and is a warning. Not only in films, in advertising too I keep telling people – youngsters who join the industry – not to try and crack a formula. A formula is a sign of laziness. You seem to think that if you use this, this, this, this in a film it will be successful.
Does Bollywood overtly rely on the star system? Which is why we need a Farhan Akhtar to make ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ saleable to the audience?

Well, Farhan Akhtar plays a very important role in connecting with the audience. I cannot deny that. Why do we grudge film stars connecting with people? I was watching ‘Taare Zameen Par’ with Aamir and I told him, the moment he enters the screen at interval during the song ‘Bam bam bole’ he lights it up. God has given him the look, the face that connects with people.

Not only now, even in theatre earlier, in a play called ‘Nati Binodini’, or say in a ‘Mahabharata’ or a ‘Ramayana’, there are some actors who connect with the audience.

I feel if people connect (to the actor) it makes my job easier. The connection is important, for whatever reason, for their acting, for their looks…

I’ll explain where my question is stemming from….Last year there was a lot of excitement about women-centric roles, films like ‘Kahaani’ and ‘English Vinglish’. But these films were hugely dependent on big stars like a Vidya Balan or a Sridevi to make them work. Which means just having a strong story is not enough?

Well, that is the way this medium is. You don’t need a face when you read a book, the book holds on its own. That is the nature of the craft. When you read a book, you develop a personal relationship but when you are talking through cinema, celluloid, there is a predisposal to certain faces. Those are also gradually made.

When a Aamir Khan does a ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’, his first film, no one knows him but people connect with him, they fall in love with him. That is the nature of this craft that faces, people, their presence matters. Some people have it and some people don’t have it. So, it doesn’t make one actor, lesser than the other…that’s the way celluloid works.

Some people are exceptional in theatre but not as accepted on celluloid, the projected reality, when it is shot in cinema…that’s why cinema has one degree or various degrees of separation from reality. It’s not reality, it’s projected reality. Theatres and live performances are a different ball game. Some of our cinema stars will not be able to hold the audience in theatre because you don’t have takes, retakes, lights, make-up. You are there bare in front of the audience and they can reject or select you. You can see the reaction of the person and you can become conscious.

Cinema is a very different art form…. as a result, certain amount of dependence and predisposal to people and faces will always be there. We should keep trying and keep getting more and more people…Someone like Nawazuddin (Siddiqui), he is such an exceptional actor…

I was involved with two projects, ‘Chittagong’ and ‘Dekh Indian Circus’. Nawazuddin was the lead in ‘Dekh Indian Circus’ and that time I fell in love with that guy, I thought, ‘What an actor!’ I was happy that we were at the National Awards together, where Shankar (Mahadevan) was getting an award for singing, me for writing and he was getting an award for acting in ‘Dekh Indian Circus’. He is a real actor but when it comes to celluloid, he will always have to struggle with acceptance. But the fact is, he is successful that’s why we are talking about him. He’s not here but even in his absence we are discussing him. He is successful. Well, what kind of success it is…ki log T-shirt phadh rahe hai ya nahi phadh rahe haiT-shirt phadhna hi agar ek matra maapdand reh jaata hai to chaliye bhai nahi phadh rahe hai….(People might not be tearing apart their T-shirts for him but is that the only yardstick for  success?)

You were mentioning a little while back that you are exhausted after ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. How exhausting is a creative process from conception to completion?

It is exhausting. I am a unique guy, my first responsibility is to run an organization, that is McCann. I am involved with the company full-time and there are 1,000 people who work there. I have very little time and I spend it very judiciously on films.

Films, which I feel I am motivated to write, I do it. Some people say where do I get the time? I feel even if I was not writing for films, I would write for myself, writing is part and parcel of my life. I am very lucky that I found cinema where they find use for my writing. Even if no one found use of my use for my writing I would write, woh mere hone ki shart hai (It’s the essence of my being). I have no option but to write.

This is the most exhausting film, a lot of hard work has gone into the film because on the one hand you have to be very sensitive and imaginative, on the other hand you have to have your research in place. You are talking about partition, you are talking about sports, you are talking about what happened in the Olympics.

The nature of this beast was very different, not every film is like this. Some films take less time, but here I had to spend a lot of time with Milkha Singh-ji, I had to frequently go to Chandigarh to meet him, to understand the character and at the same time, I had to write something that inspires people. I had to decide how much reality I would reflect and how much I would dramatize. Those calls were difficult and they required research and imagination both. So the whole balance of it takes time. ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ was a very different writing challenge.

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