Planet Bollywood
In Focus: The ScriptWalla Workshop
- Amanda Sodhi           Let us know what you think about this feature article

Already half-way through 2009 and not even a handful of Hindi films worth talking about. Yup, although the producer’s strike is over, it seems like a joke SRK once cracked while hosting the Filmfare Awards about Bollywood writers being on strike since decades ago seems to have some validity. This is why trying to educate writers and aspiring writers about the craft of screenwriting becomes absolutely essential, and this is why the ScriptWalla workshop initiative taken by Kamlesh Pandey (Delhi-6, Rang De Basanti), who is scripting Mr. India 2, and Ben Rekhi (screenwriter for Hollywood studios and director) is worth applauding.

“We do not have any regular screenwriting workshop in this country. The industry badly needs it. Many of our professional directors and writers need it besides the students of cinema,“ informs Kamlesh Pandey.

Bringing together ten students ranging from early 20s to late 40s, the ten-week ScriptWalla workshop is determined to help the ten students walk out with a bound and finished script!

So what are some of the topics covered in the workshop lectures? Quite a lot, actually! 3-act structure, step outlines, formatting, pacing, tone, writer habits, the concept of character, plot, description, dialogue, exposition, scene pinnacles, sequences, and much more. In addition to the lectures, Pandey and Rekhi give each student personal attention to help them develop their stories individually. “This one-on-one attention with detailed feedback and suggestions for improvements makes all the difference as it makes the writing process collaborative instead of a solo journey. It's important to encourage each writer individually as once you get through the first script, you have the confidence to do it again an again on your own,” says Ben Rekhi.

The students seem to really enjoy the workshop. Vishal Gandhi, an associate producer with a leading production home reveals, “I had a story in my head which I was living for seven months, but didn’t know how to write it down!” So, the ScriptWalla workshop helped him learn the craft of writing a feature film screenplay. Like Gandhi, Whistling Woods film student and intern at Mukta Arts, Divyang Thakkar was also stuck with a story idea and just needed a little bit of guidance with turning the idea into a feature length screenplay.

“ScriptWalla came in at the right time,” says Thakkar. He further adds, “Through the course of the workshop I have realized that there is a base to screenwriting. One must know the rules. They are more like guidelines or rather a set of questions that you keep asking yourself while writing. It’s a kind of self-introspection. Also what I like about the workshop is that all of us are working on our respective scripts. So, whatever is taught can be instantly applied to practical work. Hence, it then stays with you.” Currently, Thakkar is working on the post-production of Zero Error, a short film he has written and directed and he has six more months to wrap up his course at Whistling Woods.

Interestingly enough, filmmakers Sameer Hanchate, who previously directed Gafla, and Hansal Mehta, who has directed films including Woodstock Villa, Dus Kahaaniyaan (“High on the Highway”), Raakh, Anjaan, Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai?, Chhal, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!, are also students enrolled in the ScriptWalla workshop. Why, one may ask, did they decide to don the student’s cap after already donning the director’s cap?

Well, Hanchate mentions, “Usually it takes a long and unpredictable amount of time for a film project to travel from script to screen. In addition a singular writing process could restrict you to one script at a time kind of approach. This makes it difficult to survive. It can create long gaps between making films and strategic limitations while working in the film industry. That’s why, besides writing my own script, I'm constantly interested in meeting other writers. To try and find something that I would be interested in directing. This would give me options to choose from. I wouldn't have to unfairly hurry through my own script. And that doesn’t have to stop me from directing my next film.”

“The workshop has been very stimulating and a wonderfully exciting opportunity for me,” says Hansal. He goes on to very candidly explaining “I went on a sabbatical after my last film to reflect and plan my life in films. In the past year I came to realize the amount of stories I had liked or partly developed or wasted on mediocre writing. All this happened because I always found myself dependent on other writers. I was dependent on them mainly to compensate for my inability to embrace the craft, discipline and pleasure of screenwriting. The end-loser was Hansal Mehta, the film-maker. Before I joined the workshop my assistants and some peers questioned the wisdom of attending it. My philosophy has always been that of continuous learning, constant innovation and complete re-invention. This workshop has widened my horizons, opened my mind and created new opportunities. I have also re-discovered the pleasure of being a student, of being a learner and of finding expression.” In fact, Mehta travels almost twelve hours each week to attend the workshop—baap re! “That’s testimony enough to the difference it is making to me. Hopefully, this year will see the birth of Hansal Mehta, writer and director!”

Did Pandey and Rekhi find it odd to have filmmakers enroll as students in their workshop? “Not at all” says Kamlesh Pandey. “In Hollywood, professional writers and directors regularly take workshops while working on their screenplays. It helps in remaining a student and not becoming over confident.” Adds Rekhi, “It's fantastic to see directors, producers, and other filmmakers wanting to embrace the writing process. In fact, we need more directors and producers who understand strong storytelling. Writing is empowering, once you can write, you can convince anyone to do just about anything.”

It’s not just the students, even Rekhi and Pandey find the workshop experience very positive. Rekhi exclaims, “It's been incredibly stimulating. To have a room full of people buzzing with ideas and determined to finish them, it's really inspiring. Even as the 'teacher' I feel I am still learning. One day I'm lecturing about the importance of an ending, the next day I'm struggling with the ending for one my scripts-for-hire!”

Pandey, who has already taught workshops at FTII and Whistling Woods says, “For me, it is not teaching really but sharing whatever I have learned from my hits and misses. While sharing, one refreshes and brushes up on the grammar of screenwriting all over again. While working on our screenplay, sometimes we forget the basics. But while teaching, there are things which become clearer to oneself because one is reacting to questions never asked before.”

And, indeed, the students are all praise for their instructors. Mehta finds Pandey and Rekhi to be “phenomenal as teachers and motivators.” Vishal Gandhi joins him in saying, ”They are fantastic. They take you step by step. And, they push you until you give your best.”

But, screenwriting workshops are only part of the remedy to Bollywood’s dilemmas. The situation is actually quite complex...As Ben Rekhi candidly puts it, ”In Bollywood, writers are treated like a light boy, a technician who just comes in at the last minute to do the director, producer, and actor's bidding. But in Hollywood, projects usually begin with the script and are built from the ground up. The writer- producer and writer-director relationship is highly coveted, with a mutual respect for the other's craft. In the US, a producer will have an idea, hire the writer, option the property, hire the director, and see the film through from beginning to end. Screenwriters often sell their material for millions of dollars. Here, it is an actor/director driven industry, a producer usually just green-lights the directors vision and an actor's tantrums—they are not developing their own content. So, most of the production companies don't even have a story development department, let alone a story development budget. Writing is hard work and should be compensated accordingly. The main obstacles are two-fold in India: the lack of writers with professional screenwriting abilities—at last count I hear there are 200 writers for films and only about five are steadily working!—and, the second challenge is to educate and involve producers and directors in the art of evaluating scripts and good stories. If they can't recognize a good script, or contribute to it's development, or purchase it, then what is the point of training writers to write them?”

Bummer!

Although, Pandey adds on a more optimistic note, “We do feel that there is a renaissance happening now in Hindi cinema similar to what happened in the US in the 60's and 70's. Auteur directors are breaking in and making bold new statements and finding new audiences in the process. It's very exciting, and as the multiplex movement opens up new audiences, we'll see a need for better, smarter writing in the years to come. We want ScriptWalla to not just be a part of this process, but be a motivating factor in it.”

And, of course, the best part about the workshop is, as Pandey points out, “all the students have come up with wonderful, original stories, none of which stink of Bollywood. All very moving, human stories and in different genres!”

Thank God! Looks like slow and steady Hindi movie-goers will be seeing the advent of more innovative stories in films.


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