Shibani Bathija: Our films are like our food

Screenwriter Shibani Bathija is feeling good and looking even better. Having won two awards in the Best Story category for My Name is Khan this year — at the IIFA Awards in Toronto and the Zee Cine Awards in Singapore — she’s in her best creative space, writing an English feature film. She’s shed 38 kgs off her person and the only weight she carries around now is that of a heavyweight writer in the mercurial film business — a well-earned title. Three out of the four films she has written so far — Fanaa, Kabhie Alvida Naa Kehna (KANK) and My Name is Khan (MNIK) -- hit bullseye, save for Kidnap. That is a good ratio.

The celebrated writer spoke to Firstpost about her switch from being a TV programme developer to a storyteller, and the recipe for writing a Bollywood script: Excerpts:

When and how did you decide upon screenwriting as a profession?

I was working in Sony television in developing programmes and a part of my job was dealing with a lot of writers. And there is a lot of pressure in television to produce and I was always on their case for getting a certain quality of work and I realised it was just not possible for them under such pressure. So I wondered if I was just a frustrated writer taking out my angst on them. I was being a complete bitch and I thought I should do something about it. So I started writing on weekends. It took me a few months to write the first film script, as I was more of a film person anyway. Karan Johar was very kind to read it and pass it on to Aditya Chopra and I started working for Yash Raj. Eventually, a couple of years later, Fanaa happened with Aamir Khan and Kajol in 2006.

"I like complicated characters." Raju Shelar/Firstpost

You seemed to have appeased the most critical and elusive forces in the business – Aamir Khan, Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra, with your very first film.

Well, that’s true in a way. Aamir was wonderful and I remember the day of going to the narration. I had never met Aamir before in my life. It was all very scary – he had a reputation of having points in scripts and taking forever to say yes. I really had no hopes of him saying yes at all, but once he heard the script, he just had minor things; easily correctible things, to say and we were pretty much on after that. I will never forget that evening – it was a life changing experience for any writer! My first film Fanaa was to star Aamir, who at that time, was doing one film in three years. It was a huge deal. Aamir and I have seen eye to eye since then and are now friends.

You have written four films to date. In all of them, the protagonist’s character is riddled with mental chaos and is a tormented soul of sorts or suffers an ailment. In Fanaa, Aamir as Rehan is a terrorist; SRK as Dev in KANK is a cheater and adulterer; Imran Khan plays a juvenile delinquent, Kabir, in Kidnap and SRK suffers from Aspergers syndrome as Rizwan in MNIK. Why is that?

I like complicated men, actually complicated characters. It’s just trying to find out what’s the opposite of you I guess. I wish I could be complicated for just a day since I am pretty simple. Most of the time writers say we are writing our own story or we write from experience, but I don’t find that exciting. I find writing about people I don’t know about or I’m interested in because they are not like me; and who don’t have the same experiences as me, very exciting.

In a business where scripts are written for stars as opposed to the West where the stars become the characters in a script, how do you envisage a character?

Honestly, I really look at the characters first and then, I think last of whom the actor might be. Unless somebody tells me, like if Karan knows in advance and tells me who the actors are in his film. In that case, the advantage is that you work to that actors strengths and you also try and push them into spaces that they haven’t explored before so that it is challenging for them as well as interesting for people watching to see them do something new. So it’s definitely an advantage to know who the actor is, but often you don’t. so you stick to whom the character is than trying to create a character to try and go to an actor to so they might do the film.

What’s next?

I am writing an English film right now and dare I say, it too has a complicated protagonist!

Shibani Speak on how to write films in Bollywood:

1. I would say for any sort of writing, whether films of fiction or anything, reading is really important. Watching films is not enough. Read a lot, the more you read, the more it expands your mind.

2. To be very open minded which could come from many ways – whether it’s meeting people from different walks of life, whether its travel, hobbies, varied interests…anything. The more you open yourself up to different experiences, the more stories you’ll find and the more stories you’ll have to tell, which is what this is about.

3. Practice. The more you practice at doing something, the better you get. Also, to identify people whose work you admire and understand what you admire about it and how to develop those things in yourself. Working towards that sort of improvement is very important.

4. Writing is a very lonely and solitary process. You put your self-esteem on the line all the time; you are creating something out of nothing, so it’s all very scary. The tendency to judge yourself and your work can be a deterrent, so let go of judgment.

5. Home-grown films that are essentially Indian at heart, have, which is my favourite way of looking at them, a thali component. Our films are like our food – films have a very strong cultural relation. Just like we have on our plate we can have a sweet thing, a puri, a spicy vegetable, a paratha, dal - all of those flavours, we are able to mingle together and take it in as one meal, because our palettes are used to that. It is the same thing with our indigenous cinema, which can incorporate romance, and dance, drama and action – we have a thali concept of food and cinema our films are like that – but there are good and bad thalis. So, getting the right balance is where the challenge lies for a writer.

Therefore comparing Indian films to Western films is wrong as well. Their meal consists of a meat dish, some vegetables and side of potato and the same for their films it has a main plot and maybe two subplots. So we cannot use Western standards of analysis and criticism for Indian films and vice versa. All in all, what is most important is the film that you are making, the story that you are telling and who you are writing it for.