Ishita Moitra is what most screenwriters hope to be – busy. 2017 in many ways looks to be her year to shine as a dialogue writer with back to back releases of films from across the spectrum including the recent Noor and Half Girlfriend as well as the upcoming Y-Films comedy Bank Chor. Add to that her work on two much discussed web series for ALT Balaji with Romil And Jugal – a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s much loved story, here featuring a gay couple in modern India, and Nagesh Kukunoor’s The Test Case – the fictional story of India’s first female soldier starring the wonderful Nimrat Kaur.
With a background in TV writing, Moitra can boast of having worked across all three prominent mediums of film, TV and digital and is a living testament to the fact that there are more avenues of work open to screenwriters than ever before. Moitra is self-assured, outspoken and unafraid to openly discuss her films which haven’t worked. A self-confessed mainstream cinema fanatic, she talks to me about her diverse background and how a knack for languages she feels is key to being an effective dialogue writer.
Tell me a bit about your background and how you got into writing. I know you come from an army background and you’ve moved a lot around the country. Do you think that has influenced your approach to dialogue writing in any way?
Yeah, I’ve been to ten different schools and wherever I went people spoke differently and to fit in you sort of start talking like them because you’re a kid and don’t know any better. Only 20 years later did I realise that I was kind of preparing to be a dialogue writer the whole time because I can pick up on dialects very fast. When I was in Amritsar, I learnt how to read and write in Punjabi and when we were in Sikkim people used to talk Nepali all the time so I started to understand that. Wherever you go there’s a local language and apart from that there’s a certain way they speak Hindi and you just pick up on that.
Also, my husband is Sindhi so when his entire family is talking in Sindhi I somehow manage to get everything that they’re saying. It’s just easy for me to get to the basic root of a language. I think it is the single biggest factor that has contributed to me becoming a dialogue writer. Dialogue shouldn’t sound crafted, it should sound real, which happens when you aren’t just basing it off how you assume people speak. I have actually lived in all these places so I know that they speak in this way so that really helps me keep my dialogue authentic.
Many claim this is one of the best times to be writer in the industry because there’s more avenues open than ever before whether its film, web series, TV, digital platforms etc. Your someone who’s worked across all of them so would you say that’s true? Is it the best time to be a writer?
It is definitely a very good time, but I’m sure the best time is still ahead of us. It is a good time because there are all sorts of stories being told by all sorts of storytellers. On TV you might see there’s this whole fantasy thing that is happening right now with the Chandrakantas and Naagins of the world. They’re doing really well. So if that is the type of story you want to tell there is TV. The kind of stories that used to be told on Pakistani television for example, those 10 episode miniseries, that kind of stuff is now being told on the web and of course there are films and those like Dangal and Baahubali are finding a market outside of India, so overall I think it’s a pretty good time.
The film industry has traditionally been known to give very little respect and value to writers both monetarily and otherwise, but it’s increasingly become a major talking point in the last few years. Is it getting better?
When I joined the industry I came in with this prejudice thinking that films don’t even have a script and people just make it up as they go along! But it was totally not like that. Every single film that I’ve worked on has had a shooting draft and everything. Its far more organized than people think. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with really good production houses so there’s always been respect for writers as well as technicians. So I don’t think that’s true as of now but it might have been true at some point.
Also we have a very strong screenwriters association which is an organization that really supports writers that have been wronged. They have just started a legal team so writers can actually get their contracts read for free and get help with any issues. Otherwise I think all the big production houses treat their writers with a lot of respect . Moneys are paid according to deliverables, there are contracts, now there are even agents. So I think its pretty neat.
I read an interview where you said that when you joined the industry, there were almost no women writers and today, almost 50% are women. Is that true? You’d say it’s 50%?
Yeah when I joined there was Shibani Bathija who wrote Fanaa and My Name Is Khan and she was the only big female writer that I knew of at that time and everybody else was male. I think that even with female directors at that time there was only Farah Khan and Reema Kagti who had made one film each but there weren’t that many female directors either. So I don’t know how this has happened, but very gradually through this decade things have changed and now with any big film if there are two people doing the screenplay and dialogue, one of them is probably a woman. It’s really seems women were always writers. Like now you would just assume writers are women. But that really wasn’t the case before.
And I also think that’s the reason that so many stories about women are being made today because the first thing that comes to me as a woman is naturally a female protagonist as much as a man would instinctively think of a male protagonist. Unless it’s a biopic or something. That’s why stories like Piku (written by Juhi Chaturvedi) will be made, because a woman is writing them.
Do you feel that female writers have a more difficult time being taken seriously? Or is it just a case of success speaks loudest and if you have a successful project that’s all that matters?
I don’t think it has anything to do with gender. I think we’ve all come here at the right time, just when things are changing. If you’re successful then your work will speak for itself. I think female DOPs might face more of this kind of bias, because there are some jobs which are traditionally looked at from a gender perspective like DOP is seen as a man’s job. So I think they may have faced a lot of issues initially in terms of the glass ceiling but now there are a lot of female DOPs as well.
I think writing is somewhere seen as a women’s role. People always think that writing mein aap ko kone mein betke chup chaap kaam karna hai and women are always seen as ladkiya toh shant hoti hain so I think in this case the stereotypes are tilted in the favour of women. So it’s not as much a problem in our field, maybe other fields more so. In this case, if your successful, you’ll get work.
With dialogue writers what I find interesting is that you’re provided with the story and screenplay and have to work on the dialogues according to that set vision. Do you ever find that restrictive at all?
Actually all dialogue writers actually own a little bit of the screenplay. We do change a few things around so that does happen as part of the job. It can be very challenging but that’s my job, it’s what I do and its exciting. I find it exciting to go into a new world and be in a situation with these new characters and figure out what would be real for these people and how they’d speak. How do I make you believe that this conversation really happened? Then we have to do that across all genres, whether it’s a slice of life film like Noor or in a mainstream drama like Half Girlfriend. Those scenes between Arjun and his mother (in Half Girlfriend) are in some other zone and the conversations between Noor and her friends are in completely different zone. But I have to do justice to both films and that’s the challenge .
Has there ever been a time you have disagreed with the direction of the story you’re given?
I wouldn’t do it then. Because what happens is as a dialogue writer you get a full screenplay. I read it and then decide whether I want to go ahead with it or not. So if it doesn’t appeal to me I wouldn’t do it.
Like many people, I believe Noor had a lot to offer and did a great job in capturing millennial angst and striking a very natural tone, a lot of which is down to the dialogue. But I felt the film was really let down by its second half which got far too carried away in meandering social messaging. Do you find it disheartening when you’ve worked really hard on dialogue of a film which doesn’t end up working due to other aspects?
That happens, it’s just part of the job. But everybody who is associated with a film lose all objectivity. They all think they are working on a really good film. You eventually realize where you went wrong, but only maybe a week after release. First you go into denial (laughs) but later you see it for it is and some of it is harsh and some of it is right and you do your course correction. Eventually you just have to do your job well. Even today get a lot of messages on Twitter about the dialogue in Noor so I’m very glad that people found it relatable.
Would you now want to work towards being a full-fledged screenplay writer or have a mix of both dialogue and screenplay writing?
I would now actually want to do both screenplay and dialogue because it will give me the opportunity to own the film and do a bit more. That is definitely something I’m looking at. I actually have a screenplay credit in Bank Chor as well because when the director and I were working on the dialogue draft, we were making changes to the screenplay. But it wasn’t that I went in from day one forming the story . So that’s what I’d like to do, work on the story first and do screenplay and dialogue as well.
What would you say are the biggest misconceptions about dialogue writing? Are there any?
I think for a larger audience, not film literate people, they think dialogue is screenplay and screenplay is story. They get confused. Just yesterday somebody asked me ‘But Half Girlfriend is written by Chetan Bhagat , so what have you done on it?’. (laughs)
Looking back on your career so far, you’ve done a wide range of projects ranging from commercially driven vehicles to more interesting content driven films and web series. Is it fair to say your work to date has been a mix of things you wanted to do and those you felt you had to do to build a reputation as a writer?
In the beginning you don’t know what exactly you want to do but after Meri Dad Ki Maruti I have consciously chosen to do films I wanted to. But I am actually a mainstream film lover, that’s why I came here. I’m from Jamia and come from a journalism background and I could have easily worked in a news channel or made documentaries like the rest of my friends who are doing really well and winning national awards. But I like commercial Hindi cinema. I’ve actually gone to watch Om Shanti Om at 7:15am because it was the first show! So these are the films I like to watch, I like this entertainment for the sake of entertainment and not too much messaging. I read a lot and I am aware of news and current affairs but I don’t look at cinema to give me that. This is popcorn khao, coffee piyo, picture dekho.
Have you seen a change in the industry in terms of the kind of dialogue in demand from out and out larger than life to more restrained measured closer to real life?
You know dialogue writing is like putting on makeup. If you have to put makeup it shouldn’t seem like you have makeup on . It can’t be absolutely real or else it’ll be boring. There has to be a measure to it. You have to make the audience think that it is real, even though it’s constructed. But you still have to believe that this is as close to real as it gets Now every film has its own real, because that’s the tone of the film. In the example of Half Girlfriend and Noor, I couldn’t have had the kind of writing I had for one in the other. For Half Girlfriend I needed a slightly higher pitch, that’s the genre of the film. It can’t really have slice of life, conversational dialogues and then have a song like Phir Bhi Tumko Chaahunga. So that is the real for that film. And similarly the way Noor and her friends talk is the real for that film. So it really varies and it’s about being honest to each individual film and its tone.
Is there a specific goal or aim your working towards?
No there’s no specific goal as such, just the process of writing stuff that makes you happy and allows you to live a comfortable life and afford European holidays. The idea is to get better and to do different kinds of things otherwise you get bored.
The Hindi film industry is one of the few which gives a dedicated writing credit for dialogue, whereas other global industries just offer screenplay credits to all writers. Do you think our system is better?
So we have a very oral kind of narrative tradition where even the Ramayan and things were spoken before they were written. So there was a lot more premium to the spoken word. Also, we do song and dance. So song and dance and dialogubaazi are a part of Indian tradition so that’s why there was this other writer who would come in to just do the dialogue. Also, I feel like screenplay and dialogue are two very different jobs. One is left wing one is right wing. A screenplay is like a jigsaw puzzle of the whole picture where you decide what to put together with what. Whereas dialogue is so much more instinctive. If you deliberate too much over it you might spoil it and if you don’t deliberate enough over screenplay you might spoil that. So the jobs are totally different. That’s why there are often people who specialize in screenplay and people who specialize in dialogue.
Another thing is screenplay is written in English and dialogue is written in Hindi. That’s why there might be 4 people who have written the screenplay but only one person adding dialogue to make it Hindi. If you have too many people doing dialogue the characters would sound inconsistent. So to be consistent there needs to be one dialogue writer, but if you require more minds in screenplay its okay because everyone’s ideas can be put on the table.
Is there any kind of film or genre you haven’t done yet that you really want to?
I really wanted to do a romantic musical which I’ve now gotten to do with Half Girlfriend and I’d also like to try a thriller. Also a period film maybe because I’m a history buff and that would be a great opportunity to experiment with language which is something I love to do. But I have been lucky to work on a diverse bunch of projects. If you look at Test Case, my army background came into play and I’m able to write that kind of dialogue and if you see Bank Chor it’s a different kind of film so I’m able to adapt to write different kinds of stories.
What’s your opinion on film critics? Do you read reviews of your films at all?
I do, but I don’t pay much attention to them. Because its somebody’s opinion and even I have an opinion. Also, I could also review the review as well. So a lot of times some critics want to be writers and filmmakers and they have also have a specific way of looking at things. So its somebody’s opinion and I just look at it as that and it doesn’t affect me too much . But if people who have seen the film react to it in a certain way that ill listen to.
What’s the last film you saw where you thought ‘I wish I could’ve written the dialogue for that’?
Dangal. I loved Dangal, I think I’ve seen it like three times. I even cried when I saw the trailer. More films like that need to be made, it’s such a great film.