Ritesh Shah on writing Batla House, Pink's Tamil remake, and reuniting with Shoojit Sircar for Sardar Udham Singh
Batla House writer Ritesh Shah collaborates with director Nikkhil Advani after D-Day, and actor John Abraham after Force 2 and Rocky Handsome.
In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.
Earlier this week, Nikkhil Advani's cop thriller Batla House, starring John Abraham in the lead, released on Independence Day. The film not only marks the director's reunion with the actor 12 years after the romantic drama Salaam-E-Ishq, but also reunited the writer Ritesh Shah with Advani after D-Day and Airlift, and with John after Force 2 and Rocky Handsome. Firstpost caught up with Shah, for an exclusive interview, on what made writing the script of Batla House different from his other films, the Tamil remake of his breakthrough film Pink, and reuniting with Shoojit Sircar for the patriotic biopic Sardar Udham Singh.
Do you believe in the classic adage, "Truth is stranger than fiction" since most of your film stories are borrowed from real-life events, like Batla House and Raid?
I think so. I don't know whether it's 'strange' or as interesting as fiction is. But the audience tends to feel stories that are real. Earlier, we would pretend to never claim a story is based on a true event, because that wasn't the norm. They must be stealing stories from life then also, I'm sure. But real-life is very interesting and it's great to translate stories from reality to fiction.
You have previously written John Abraham action flicks, like Force 2 and Rocky Handsome. Do you believe there is something that makes Batla House different?
It's a gradient shift both of us. Force 2 was still middle-of-the-road cinema. The first half was at least very real, and is based on research. Rocky Handsome was an adaptation (of the 2010 film The Man From Nowhere), and was a full-blown action thriller. John, as we know, is good at action. In Batla House, the action thus remained. But this time, I felt John worked exceptionally hard because he wanted to live up to the text material. I'd go on to an extent to say that film is perhaps better. The major difference is that he was trying to remain true to the text this time. If I or Nikkhil would suggest some changes, presuming he was unable to do it, he would tell us that he wants to be as true to the written text possible. And that is visible. For me, it was a very laborious writing process. It's a Rashomon of sorts. I didn't want to be unfair. I wanted to present all the view points. Also, besides your consciousness, you need to be answerable to the director, and eventually the audience. I'm not saying I've done political monkey-balancing, but I had to go through everything that has been written about the Batla House case. I hope John and I can collaborate more on films with better content. But I can safely say Batla House is at least the rare film of mine that's worth watching.
Do you agree with fellow scriptwriter Prasoon Joshi's idea that the Vir rasa should be incorporated into stories like Batla House and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi that release on patriotic events like Independence Day and Republic Day?
I think if you associate that day with that particular rasa, then yes. For example, on Republic Day, people watch the Delhi parade on TV, and want to exhibit the power of their nation. But something else can also work on such days. For example, the other release on Independence Day, Mission Mangal talks about excellence. It talks about ISRO (Indian Space and Research Organisation) being the premier technological institute that we have. The interpretation of that rasa could be different also. Vir is not something that's only associated with Uri (The Surgical Strike) and Batla House. So, it's interesting that these films, with a different reinterpretation of the Vir rasa, can release on such days. But if your film cannot touch that person, than the only reason of releasing them on such days is a waste. You can't force-fit patriotism in people's hearts. But Batla House has something substantial to say about the security of our nation.
You have previously written D-Day, that Nikkhil directed. How do you think Batla House will take your conversation forward?
D-Day was still early days for the films Nikkhil wanted to direct, and the films I wanted to write. We got a lot of critical acclaim for it but maybe not the commercial success it deserved. There are mistakes perhaps because of earlier days. There was reluctance to take risks. But since it was rewarded through excellent reviews, there was less reluctance in taking risks with Batla House. If it's rewarded with box office success also, then not just us, but many more directors and writers would be willing to make more such films. They would be willing to take braver decisions than the ones Nikkhil and I took with both D-Day and Batla House.
The Tamil film industry adapted your breakthrough film Pink as Nerkonda Paarvai. Do you think the film deals a universal subject that calls for multiple adaptations?
I'm not sure whether Pink reached that audience. If it didn't, the adaptation is fine. Surprisngly, in 2016, two of my films, Airlift and Pink, were shown at a film festival in Melbourne. After the screening, a white woman said to me that Airlift felt like a more homegrown film with Indian values whereas Pink can be the story of any city. I thought it was the other way round. I thought Airlfit was a generic rescue film, and Pink was so Delhi. But the woman argued that it could happen in Melbourne also. If it could be happening in Melbourne, then it can definitely happen in Chennai. Also, Ajith sir is a very experienced actor. He wouldn't do it unless there is a need for it. Pink came to us at the right time. Probably, the Tamil audience needs to watch it now.
You are co-writing Sardar Udham Singh for Shoojit Sircar. How was it collaborating with your Pink producer?
I get lucky breaks in my career after every five years when I get saturated, and when I need somebody who shows me a passage, a window. Shoojit opened me to looking at things in new light with Pink. He has a different eye. I'm supposed to look at Udham with a different eye also. Because Shoojit is directing, it is a challenge for me to look at it in a different light, and write a film that is patriotic but in a very different way, and is also a period drama.
Is it challenging also because Shoojit already shares a comfort zone with screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi? Did it feel like starting all over again?
I don't think so. I have an early exposure to Shoojit as a creative producer. So it's new. But it's not easy because you're trying to tell the same emotion in a different way. So it's hard not to because it's difficult. It's enjoyable for sure since I get to learn so much. Also, I'm incapable of doing what Shoojit does with Juhi. October is one of my favourite films. I couldn't sleep till 6 am after watching it. It continued to linger in my mind. It's enriching to work with him but at the same time, I want him and Juhi to do more work together. They've done only four films in so many years. Because rewards and success aren't the only motivators. You watch good cinema of other people, and you feed off that. It adds to the creative environment. So I won't like to collaborate with Shoojit very frequently. I would like to collaborate only when he feels I can bring something to the script.
Finally, what are your future projects?
Besides Udham, I'm writing the dialogues for Amit Sharma's biopic of football coach Syed Abdul Rahim, starring Ajay Devgn. And I'm also co-writing Dhaakad (action entertainer starring Kangana Ranaut, and releasing on Diwali 2020) with the director.
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