Writer Navjot Gulati is the mind behind the upcoming February release Runningshaadi.com, directed by Amit Roy and starring Amit Sadh and the actress of the hour Taapsee Pannu.
Gulati talked to us about his 8-year journey to becoming a ‘released writer’, how to navigate the Bollywood machinery and get a film made, why there’s never been a better time to be a writer and why it’s easier to be taken on as a first time director than writer.
Runningshaadi.com is your first feature film. Tell us about how it happened; I know director Amit Roy wrote the story for your short film Best Girlfriend.
I had this 10 pager which I was pitching around and one day I met Amit Roy at MAMI in 2011. Amit was on a panel discussion which also had Rohan Sippy, which was hosted by Anupama Chopra. So my first instinct was to go and talk to Rohan Sippy but after considering it, I thought why would he be interested in talking to me? I’m very small town-ish but Rohan Sippy is very SoBo type. So I wondered whether he’d really be interested in the kind of story I wanted to pitch. Then I made the calculation that Amit Roy is a DOP, he directs ads, so why not approach him, because I’m sure even he would want to be directing. So I approached him and said I wanted to pitch some stories to him, and he called me and we met 2-3 days later and the first story I pitched to him was Runningshaadi.com and he said ‘I want to make this film how much money do you want?’. So I was amazed, because normally here people take forever to decide. They typically will meet you 25 times and then they will decide, and even after deciding they can turn back. But Amit was sure the day he heard the story that he will make this film happen. So that’s when we started working on the script and that’s where it all started.
You’ve been pitching films for close to 8 years and pitched to hundreds of producers to get to this point. Does it feel like vindication and relief at long last?
Yeah, it is a relief because for the longest time, as Amit puts it, I was the most famous ‘unreleased writer’ so I’ll now at least I’ll be released.
Did you go on set much during the filming of Runningshaadi.com? How much creative control did you have if someone wanted to change something or if you wanted to change a line that you felt wasn’t working?
Yeah, I was there from the beginning almost till the end. I was involved with the whole process of the casting, getting the producers, getting the crew, and then I was also on set, so it was pretty hands on. I wasn’t there for the last 10 days of the shoot, and I wasn’t involved in the music. Other than that, I was there and involved throughout.
Though it’s getting better year on year, the quality of writing associated with the majority of mainstream cinema is pretty poor. Why do you think that is? Is it because of the lack of remuneration given to writers?
I don’t think it’s due to lack of remuneration because if you’re smart enough you will find a way to make money. But the problem is they don’t respect the writer. A lot of people will tell you otherwise but they are the ones who actually don’t. Those who do, they will never be asked this question.
Most people don’t want to nurture scripts. Everyone wants a final draft in a month as if it’s magic that you just pay the writer and he will come up with the best draft possible. Also with the advent of digital, it’s getting harder to make films. The majority of production houses have now shifted focus to digital. So to have a film out or make a film right now is next to a miracle.
Given the increasing number of avenues for content, and the current digital boom we are seeing, would you say this is the best time to be a writer?
Yeah definitely, right now it’s amazing the kind of opportunities you have, but the thing is there is no uniform process of how to go about it. I have writers talking to me all the time looking for advice and most of them seem clueless. It took me also around 4 years to figure out how it works. It is improving but it will take a lot more work I feel.
Writers often say that the biggest obstacle they face when pitching scripts is that it isn’t about the merit of the script itself but it’s about whom you know. How did you get around that?
My case was really simple. I figured out one thing very early on. At the end of the day, as a writer, you just need five people to say yes to your film. One is the director, second is the producer, then your two lead actors and fifth is your studio head. So essentially you just need to convince five people that this film should be made. The only way you can do that is if you keep trying and if you keep meeting people. Your belief in your script shouldn’t die. A lot of my friends, after getting one piece of bad feedback or getting rejected by one particular producer, they give up on the script. But the fact is that you shouldn’t, you should keep going. You never know who is going to want to make which film. You should keep wanting. That’s what matters.
Is it fair to say that in Bollywood, a lot of writers choose to become directors because that’s the only way they get that level of respect and acclaim which they wouldn’t get if they were just writers?
Yeah because to be honest, till 2014 I wasn’t into direction. I hadn’t even thought about doing it. But what I realised is that there aren’t many directors who want to hire a writer, especially if the writer is unknown. Everybody is chasing the writers who have hit film releases. And it turned out that it was easier to be taken on as a first time director rather than a first time writer. As in, if you are the director then there’s one less person to convince. So that was the reason that I switched to direction. But I would love to keep writing for people I like and of course it pays well so why not.
So you actually found it easier to pitch yourself as a first-time director rather than a first-time writer?
Funnily enough yeah, because with direction, if you believe you can do it everyone else will take your word for it. With writing, they want to test you by all means and I don’t think the same applies to direction.
But of course, I had to prove myself, it’s not like aise hi hogya. I made a short film and I made a web series and I directed and ad and I’m currently making another web series. So it’s not that I didn’t have to prove it and it was easy.
Many producers are saying Bollywood is in crisis time commercially speaking. As a writer, and someone who watches every release, what are your thoughts on where we are as an industry and the kinds of films we’re making?
Crisis toh koi nahin yaar, yeh toh bakwas hai. Har saaal log yeh bolte hai ki crisis chal raha hai. Jisko film banani hoti woh bana leta hain. Har saal paanch ache film banti hain. Now, as somebody who’s a writer or a director or a producer all you can do is that you can focus on making your film the best it can be, rather than focusing on other people and always cribbing and complaining. Crisis-wisis kuch nahi hain. Sab dimakh mein hai, jo log bol rahe hain crisis hain, woh khud saal mein paanch film bana rahe hain. Kiska crisis hai kahan crisis, mujhe toh samaj nahi aa raha hain.
What’s your view on film criticism today? Do you read reviews?
I read all reviews. I follow most of them and I’ve been reading film reviews since the age of 5, and now I’ve almost started to read between the lines. But I make it a point not to read a review till I’ve seen the film, because that colours my opinion and that I don’t like. The first thing I do after watching any movie is read the reviews of three people. One is Rajeev Masand, second is Anupama Chopra and third is Sukanya Verma. These three people I really like and I feel they’re almost in the same space as me in terms of their love for movies and how they watch movies. I think they have the pulse of the audience. Most of the others, without naming them, have their personal biases with everyone. And with the advent of social media, they know they will get a lot of traction if they say something sensational. And sometimes I feel that log jaan booch ke gandha review likhte hain taaki log uske baare mein baat kare. Or maybe their sensibility is just a little different. One person who I really think is really overrated is Raja Sen.
Also, one other thing that really surprises me about this whole thing is that I can’t understand why critics who turn filmmakers still review movies. I mean, I’m all for someone turning a writer or director, but it’s completely unethical for someone to review movies while they are a filmmaker themselves.
Why do you say that?
Because you can see the biases. You will say the right thing about the right people. It just becomes a way of making a point more than talking about the film. I read some of these people and their reviews come across as personal rants. I’m sorry, but if it’s a personal rant then please do it on your Facebook. Why are you telling the world? The idea of a review is to have a discussion with the viewers, not to have your own rant. At least that’s what I believe. I may be wrong.
For example, if I was a critic and my friend’s film released, obviously I won’t review it because my opinion will be clouded. We are human beings at the end the day. Anupama Chopra never reviews a film made by Vidhu Vinod Chopra which is for a reason. How can you be objective about something that you’ve seen from scratch?
What’s next for you? It’s been announced that you’ve written Abhishek Dogra’s next film?
Yeah, that is something that’s in the pipeline and should start soon. I’ve written about 25 scripts till now. This is the first that will get a release, and the others are all in the pipeline, one of them I’m due to direct. And then there is one film I’ve written for Ashwini Choudhary, director of Dhoop, that’s also in the pipeline.
Other than that, after this film comes out I’m hoping that I get to write some films which are ready-films – what I call being a ‘taxi writer’- where you’re called upon to fix or write films which are already happening. I wouldn’t mind that for a while. I’m tired of getting an idea, turning it into a script and then pitching it around. I’d love to work on other’s scripts, I feel I would do that job well, and it’s more fun. Although I am not somebody that runs after commissioned work, I’ve always worked on my own ideas. And that is also the reason I’ve shifted my goals to direction, so I can keep doing that.
What advice would you have for aspiring writers in general, and on how to get their scripts noticed?
I actually wrote an article on this topic and whatever advice I had is included in that.
But you know, sabse zyada important cheez kya hain. I meet a lot of writers and woh log na, cinema aware nahin hain. As in, unko yeh nahi pata ki hamare desh mein kya ban raha hain aur kya ban sakta hain. So it’s very important to pick the right idea.
Sab log ko lagta hain ki hume pehli baar idea aaya toh bahut badi idea hai, matlab log nahi sochte hain ki yeh bahut logo ko aake jaa chukka hain. For instance, if you tell me you’ve written a serial killer film, and then you go and pitch it to Dharma and come back to me and say they don’t want to make that film, then the problem is with you not them. You have to be aware of who will do what. No screenwriting course will teach you this industry awareness. The fact is this is the most disorganised industry in the country and you have to be organised in your head at the very least and you should know what’s happening.
Finally, what’s the last film you saw that had a profound impact on you and really blew you away?
I think it would be La La Land. That blew me away. The level of detail, the precision, the writing, the performances, the music. Also, the thought behind the film was so beautiful, and it’s so relatable to people like us. So internationally it would be that.
In Hindi movies last year it has to be Dangal, which was exactly what I meant when I said you have to pick the right story. If I told you that a film with Aamir Khan and no heroine as such, which had no item numbers etc, will be the highest grossing film, you wouldn’t believe me. But the reason it managed this was because of the story. The story had such a great connect with people.