Early August, I had shared a news snippet about Jyoti. And ever since, I have been bursting with a sense of hope and joy that there could be formidable companions like her, in an otherwise lonely journey of a writer.
Jyoti Kapoor: many would know her as the resilient woman who stood up to the discrimination she faced as a writer, many more would know her as the co-author of the story of ‘Dawat-E-Ishq’, and many yet, would know her as a friend, acquaintance and colleague. But to me, she is a paradigm shift. As a woman, I have always found a dearth of female idols to quote in conversations and to look up to for inspiration. Because they are so underrepresented, I am not surprised that their names are not as handy. Jyoti is a paradigm shift because, not only can I quote her during conversations, I have personally been inspired by her work, her resilience and the onset of our amazing friendship.
Q: About you: childhood, upbringing as a ‘girl’. Any time you wished you were a boy?
A: I come from the patriarchal hinterland of Haryana, from a family of zamindars (Landowner who leases his land for farming) and would always dread the mandatory introductions on the first day of school. While everyone else’s father had those fancy occupations, my father was…errr a zamindar?? The stereotypical image being that of a cruel, merciless landlord, someone like the villain Kanhaiyalal- the ruthless letch of ‘Mother India’ or the philandering drunkard of ‘Sahib, Biwi Ghulam’. So my father, who was a double M.A with distinction and an IAS aspirant, stuck in the wrong profession, told me to confidently say that my father is an IAS, if the teacher asked. “You want me to lie, Papa?” I would ask, totally loving the ring of IAS. “IAS matlab, Indian Agricultural Services, beta,” he would say with a straight face, followed by peals of laughter.
However, despite my parents being highly qualified, being a Zamindar came with the curse of having at least one male heir so he could eventually take over the profession which was largely male dominated. The labor would never take orders from women and the lands would end up being grabbed by some evil, scheming relative or the husbands of the daughters. Basically, the ancestral zamindari would change hands.
Those were different times and the pressure was huge. I, the eldest of the three daughters, remember seeing my mother (a post graduate in Music) being hounded by these village women, mourning over having birthed a daughter, yet again, whenever we would pay a visit to our farms in our ancestral village. I can never forget their loud wails and piercing, sympathetic looks. They looked like witches and I wanted to gouge their eyes out. In the other corner of the farm, their vulture faced, huqqa smoking husbands huddled around my father, making absurd suggestions like, taking another shot at marriage, so he could have a better chance at bearing a male heir. Thankfully, my parents were wiser than that and too much in love to have paid any heed to these ridiculous suggestions and stopped at the third daughter, but the pressure was enormous.
And when you have grown up in a highly patriarchal set up as that, despite having extremely supportive parents, you either succumb to it or revolt. So I became a rebel of sorts.
I wanted to prove myself desperately, do everything that a man can, physically, mentally. When we were still little girls, I remember us having pledged (with a very filmy- dharti maa ki kasam) to not marry/have boyfriends when we grow up, so we could focus on our careers. Until of course, hormones kicked in and we got out of that little well we were born in.
I figured that I need not dress-up/think/behave like a man, in order to achieve my goals or look after my parents for that matter. I finally graduated from being a tomboy to…err.. being a feminine tomboy J. And I have never looked back. It’s so much fun being a gal!
Q: Career as a writer, have you always wanted to be one?
A: When I was a kid, I wanted to become Nancy Drew. When I was a teenager, I became obsessed with the Armed Forces. The charm of donning the uniform always fascinated me. I joined NCC in college and pursued it very religiously; attended those mandatory camps, marched in oversized boots (they did not have the shoes my size and it was mandatory to stick to the NCC derby style safety shoes, which were collected from the NCC headquarters), experienced the adrenalin rush while shooting those .22 rifles, slogged my ass to acquire the ‘B’ and ‘C’ certificates that would give me an edge over my competitors.
And then one day, I figured, I didn’t want to spend my life taking orders and marching in a straight file. Plus, I was an inch shorter than what was required to be eligible for the army. So may be that was the case of sour grapes. The next thing I wanted to do was become a firebrand journalist, someone like Barkha Dutt, who was a huge influence on our generation.
So I got a degree in mass communication and plunged into journalism. Went through the highs and lows of it and a couple of years later, realized, I wanted to dig deeper, go beyond facts. The next stop was the Screenplay Department at the Film and Television Institute of India. It’s been ten years since and it feels like I have just begun. There’s so much to learn and explore and tap into that you never get bored. Yes, there is this constant struggle for survival when you choose to be a writer, but never a dull moment.
Q: Tell us about your work so far, scripts you have written, characters you have brought to life – memorable ones if any?
A: I have been writing non-stop for a decade now, mostly commissioned scripts and a majority of them still haven’t seen the light of day. Some projects weren’t viable enough, some fell through because of creative differences, some have perpetually been in the pipeline and some got stuck in the studio protocols and will take their own sweet time. But I guess that is how the system works and we just need to wait it out. That said, I will always be thankful for the commissioned work because whether we admit it or not, creativity does not blossom on an empty stomach. It only makes you bitter!
So, as long as you continue to write your own stuff (also called a speculative script) along with the commissioned, you are at peace. I only wish producers were more forthcoming towards the spec scripts though. Selling specs is the biggest challenge in the Hindi Film Industry. People will ask you to ‘collaborate’ on ‘similar’ scripts with them but for some strange reason they won’t buy yours. The specs just end up being calling cards. Anyhow, that’s a discussion for another day.
Among the stories that saw the light of day, I really enjoyed working on Dawat-E-Ishq, which was a love story weaved around the institution of dowry.
It also dealt with Section 498A (the anti dowry law) and the flip side of it. My personal opinion on 498, however, is that while there are instances where the law is misused, it’s still very relevant in a country like ours where dowry deaths have been on a steady increase. A woman dies every hour due to a dowry related incident in our country. And that’s alarming!
RSVP was another (spec) script, which was very close to my heart. It was a Romantic Comedy weaved around the stigma and baggage of Divorce and the pressure of getting into a ‘Second Marriage’. Unfortunately it got embroiled in a plagiarism suit that I had to file when our film was still in the pre-production stage. While I won the case, the (Original) script will probably never see the light of day. May be when the time is right. Who knows!
Then there is my pet project- a period piece tentatively called ‘Ramji Ki Nikli Ferrari’, the story of a happy go lucky man who plays the character of Lord Rama in a famous mythological show and gets trapped in his on screen avtaar. Several producers have shown interest in it over the last few years but are skeptical in touching a project that has anything to do with the interpretation of Rama. May be after next general elections :)!
The current script that I am working on is a larger than life story based on real life events. It’s still work in progress, so I can’t divulge much, but I can tell you that I’m having a ball writing it.
Q: What does feminism mean to you and how often do you find yourself in a moment of dilemma writing a not so feminist content for someone else? What are the struggles of a writer, writing for someone else? How does the vision get translated?
A) Thanks for asking me this question. I want to shout it out from the rooftops that I am a Feminist and that doesn’t mean I hate men or want to grow a dick. All it means is that I believe in treating men and women as equals without having to denounce my womanhood. For me it’s an extension of humanism.
Feminism is not a bad word, you know, like it’s usually perceived. You don’t have to be a fab India-big- bindi activist to be one. And you don’t particularly have to be a woman to be one. Anybody who believes in equality of sexes is a feminist!
Very often I find myself at crossroads when asked to ‘tweak’ female characters or dumb them down because someone wants the spotlight to be on the ‘hero’, all the time. It’s a different thing when you have a single protagonist that drives the film and the story needs to revolve around him organically; but in a love story, for example, or an ensemble piece where you are saying the story from the POV of both/many characters, how can you make one a prop and go out of your way to etch out the other? The story will fall flat on its face when you try to tamper with the natural flow of things to suit one character. It’s like telling a mother to give preference to one child and ignore the other and it hurts, a lot!
I try to fight for my stories as much as I can but when it’s a commissioned project you need to be flexible because it’s a dish someone else has ordered and you can only try and give your best and work within those limitations. Having said that, one needs to draw a line somewhere because unlike any other profession, stories are very personal and you cannot tell stories that you do not believe in.
Q: Could you tell us how you conjure up a protagonist – what decides its gender? What do you think the films are doing wrong in portraying these alleged “powerful” female characters?
A: It’s very difficult to describe how a character comes to life but I think it’s a very similar process to giving birth. You conceive an idea, live with it, nurture it and let it grow inside your head at it’s own pace. The gender is revealed somewhere along the way depending on what/who inspired you to write that story in the first place. I always try and draw my inspiration from people I have known, read about or observed. I rely a lot on research/observation. I guess that comes naturally to me because of my training in journalism.
About how the supposedly ‘powerful’ female characters are portrayed- while some of them ring true, I feel, we are trying too hard most of the time.
We operate in two extremes when portraying women in our cinema. Its either a smoking/drinking/foul mouthed bitch or an ugly duckling/abla naari who is transformed into a swan/ a male slayer. I find these characters very unreal. What about the real/mundane/everyday (layered) women?
Also, when we label a particular film as a ‘woman centric’ film we start off on a wrong foot. I don’t see these labels on ‘male centric’ stories. The point I’m trying to make here is, a story has to revolve around someone and it could be a man or a woman or both and we need to stop making a big deal about it. And take that pressure off so we can have fun with the story we are trying to tell. And the only thing we need to remember is, that it has to be engaging. Whether it revolves around a man, a woman or a dog, is immaterial.
Q: What is the beginner’s 1o1 to turn story into script according to you? What role does training (film school) play in making the process easier (if at all)?
A story told in visuals is called a screenplay. To begin with you need to train your mind to think cinematically, in visuals, which means that you need to show and not tell a story unlike a novel for example where you have the freedom to indulge and luxury to get inside your character’s head. Script writing is very precise, very mathematical in that sense. There’s a certain format, a time frame that you have to stick to and you can only write what can be shot. You have to be clear, you have to be precise.
I feel that Screenwriting is a craft and you need to train yourself before you take a plunge. Whether you do it on your own or go to a film school is totally your call. You need to be aware of the rules before you go on to break them.
Q: What is the benefit of being a female writer – what role does a feminine gaze / perspective play in the culmination of a script or the characters – or is it just a stereotype that calls women out as exclusive ’emotional’ beings?
A: I don’t think gender has anything to do with writing. You can be a man and be a sensitive writer and you can be a woman and totally lack that sensitivity. I don’t think these things can be generalized.
Q: Who are your favourites (writers and filmmakers) (Hollywood / world / India)? And how much of their work has inspired yours?
Oh there are so many. I’m always afraid that I will miss out on someone whenever I have to answer this question. But I’ll try, and in no particular order. Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray, Gulzar, Bhisham Sahni, Ismat Chugtai, Amrita Pritam, Munshi Premchand, Mulkh Raj Anand, Manto, Juhi Chaturvedi, Manohar Shyam Joshi, Ruskin Bond, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kirostami, Sidney Lumet, Eric Rohmer, David O Russel, Paul Thomas Anderson…and then some. Among contemporaries, Varun Grover, Sharat Kataria, Jaideep Sahni….okay I’ll stop!
While subconsciously we are always inspired by our favorite authors/filmmakers, I try to take cues from real life experiences/ people instead. But I’m sure at some point what we have seen/read spills over into our work. We just need to be aware of it.
Q: What is the way forward to address the distribution of female centric scripts that don’t get distributed? Does this put pressure on writers to not delve in that elusive path at all?
A: I think we need to get innovative with these films and find interesting ways of marketing them, also try alternate platforms to showcase them. Let the audiences decide whether or not they will watch them rather than a handful of distributors.
That said, it’s an arduous task to get female centric projects green lit and it does put a HUGE pressure on writers. You can continue to write these scripts on spec but it’s frustrating when you don’t find people to back you. Another way out is to just go and direct them yourself! I have absolutely no training in direction and I used to shy away from it earlier but lately I’ve been telling myself, if you can write, it shouldn’t be rocket science to execute it, right?!
This is the first of many inspiring tales under the WMF umbrella. And personally, I am way too excited to take up this pet project than I am ready to admit. Stay tuned and watch this space. Here’s hoping: one is never devoid of female idols anymore!