Rejection letters. Genteel poverty. Baffling meetings with producers. The writer of the runaway hit tells us how Delhi Belly almost didn’t happen
The script had been a day late
Now I was in Richard Walter’s book-lined, script-stacked office in Melnitz Hall, for my end-of-quarter one-on-one feedback session. Richard, writing guru, co-chair of the screenwriting programme at the School of Theater, Film and Television, UCLA, went through it with me, page by page, analysing structure, dialogue, characterisation, his well-considered notes scribbled across my pages in his indecipherable scrawl.
It was a good meeting. He handed my script back, and then I saw the grade he had given me: A-.
I was crushed.
After years of running full-tilt into walls in Science, Math and Economics classes (I had scored a brilliant 17 percent in my 12th standard Math paper. I tell you, without the two years of tuitions it would’ve gotten really shameful) I believed I was finally doing what I was meant to, something I loved, understood, maybe even had an instinct for.
Reading, writing, storytelling — this was my turf. No longer would I be the one trudging up to the marksheet covered walls with a dark ball of terror knotting up my stomach.
And here I was. Forget the A+, still no A. Perhaps there was nothing really in the world I was good at. I secretly resolved to make sleeping my area of specialisation.
I needed that grade to validate me. That grade would tell me, the world, I could write.
Richard was puzzled. Obviously, he had no idea how much marks and grades meant in the world I came from. They were everything. Everything.
I’d missed my deadline, he told me.
Well, I knew that.
“Just a day, Richard.”
He looked at me.
He said: “You’re not getting paid yet, but you’re a professional now. The writing doesn’t matter if it doesn’t get read.”
He picked up a small, folded piece of paper off his desk, handed it to me.
I opened it — black roller ball ink, it said O.W.E in his handwriting.
Richard was up, packing to leave.
“Own. Worst. Enemy. Learn to get out of your own way.” I folded the slip, put it away in my wallet. And there it has stayed, to this day
Nine years. Give or take a few
The screenwriting programme at UCLA is nothing if not rigorous and if you’re ambitious enough — and everyone is — you write a script every quarter. That’s cranking out a feature film every 10 weeks.
Thanks to this pace, small mountains of paper are generated. Two-and-a-half years later I graduated, the proud owner of my own mini-Everest, Delhi Belly now stuck somewhere near base camp.
I had a stack of first drafts, but first drafts, we all know, are almost worthless. First drafts don’t sell, first drafts aren’t filmed and until multiple rewrites happen, first drafts get you nowhere. So I had an armful of possibilities, but nothing else.
Now the problem with being a screenwriter — actually, there are many, but let’s stay on point here for a moment — is that there is really no well-defined career path. Every writer has to beat out his or her own little road through the jungle. Unlike every other productive member of the workforce, there is no office you can join, clock in, clock out, write nine to five, pick up your paycheque at the end of the month. You can if you become a copywriter, a journalist — but screenwriting? Nope. You write, fuelled by hope, your favoured stimulant du jour and really, not much else.
Here’s some depressing UCLA lore — upon arrival, I found out that apparently the average time between graduating and ‘making it’ is nine years. Nine years. If indeed we ever did ‘make it.’
So this was the reality. No jobs. Iffy future. And despite being aware of the situation, writers, unfortunately enough, still got hungry at regular intervals — just like regular people.
Food, clearly, even every other day, is necessary as is a roof that doesn’t leak. Regular bouts of athletic sex are also highly recommended but who can guarantee those? Unless you work at the circus. And even then, only if you manage to get with a trapeze artist, not the lion tamer.
In any case, no matter how much I skipped eating on Tuesday or Friday or some other auspicious day, I was pretty certain I’d need to eat something, sometime before the nine years were up.
I had to get a job. A real job. While in school, I’d already done my share of flipping burgers, walking dogs and other character-building exercises, what I needed now was a little more than subsistence wages.
As I looked for this real job, I realised one thing — salvation, even if far into the future, lay in picking up a first draft and honing it was no longer dreck. If I still wanted to make films, this was the only way forward.
I needed a story I could rework, and then perhaps raise money for and shoot, indie-style, quick, down and dirty.
As I sifted through my scripts, Say Cheese somehow worked its way to the top of the pile. It fit the criteria I had set — a character-based film, possibly small enough to be made independently. Having made my choice, I began rewriting in earnest.
My job search, on the other hand, was not going swimmingly. Having worked as an advertising copywriter in India before, I had decided to continue in the same vein. I didn’t take long to realise though that American agencies were not willing to consider a portfolio that didn’t have American brands and American work.
To cut a long story short — and this is a very long story — I went back to portfolio school, put together a portfolio of new work over a year and a half and finally got a real job as a copywriter.
The rewrite was going well. I was finally eating well. Something had to give.
And something did. The American economy.
The sub-prime loan debacle in 2005 knocked the bottom out of the American housing market and almost overnight, the sector went into a tail-spin.
Now, my luck has always been impeccable. If ever someone was needed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, I had always been the man to do it.
The client I worked on at my agency job was a financial sector client. Obviously.
Within a week or so, this client disappeared, ravaged by the exploding mess of financial wrong-doing. And so did my job. Naturally.
The quickly widening crisis dragged the country, my new-found prosperity and short-lived mental balance into a deep, dark void.
The man under the staircase
Getting laid-off isn’t so bad. For about three days. After that, the self-loathing, the questioning and the sharp spikes of depression set in.
Regular bouts of athletic sex are recommended but who can guarantee those? Unless you work at the circus and get with the trapeze artist
I was past the three days. Endless free time doesn’t sit well with me. I was sleeping through days and nights, just so I wouldn’t think. My brain had slowly leached onto my pillow.
The phone rang. I couldn’t drag myself up to get it. It died, began ringing again. Dammit. I picked myself up at 48 fps.
It was Jim. Also known as The Furgele, and depending on the day, Chuckles, for his rampant misanthropy.
“I heard you’re trying to set up your movie. You should let me help you. I can make it happen.”
Jim and I had been at UCLA together. In fact, he had been in Richard Walter’s workshop with me, when I was writing the first draft of Say Cheese.
Really, what did I have to lose? It’s not like sacks of money were crashing through the ceiling, pulled in by my magnetic aura. “Okay.”
That evening, Jim came over. We’re flying to India, he informed me, to attend FICCI Frames, an industry event. The idea was to meet everyone in town and pitch them Delhi Belly.
I didn’t have a good reason for why we shouldn’t suddenly fly off to Mumbai. I didn’t have a job I had to get to every morning. I was free to do what I wanted.
We took off to Mumbai, met everyone, pitched the script, dropped it off, pushed it everywhere we could.
And in the process, found ourselves sitting under a staircase one day. Literally.
The rewrite was going well. I was finally eating well. Something had to give. And something did. The American economy
Sitting across from us was a successful old-school Bollywood producer. It seems he had set up his desk under a staircase in his cramped office, in time was inexplicably blessed by success, his premises expanded, but he had somehow neglected to move out from his spot under the stairs. He ended every sentence with ‘God has been kind’. I imagined the non sequitur was to encourage God to continue being kind, instead of one day randomly smiting him with a trident.
Jim and I sat hunched in front of him, and I pitched him Delhi Belly.
“Nice, nice. Good. Okay.”
We waited for the other shoe to drop. Nothing.
“Would you like produce this with us?” Jim ventured.
“Why do I need you?”
I tried to process the question, but I don’t have Einstein’s IQ. I gave up.
“Because it’s my script?” I resisted the urge to say ‘f***ing script’ and almost lost the battle.
He didn’t say it. But he could’ve said “So?” The genuine confusion on his face was priceless. In any case, the meeting was over. God was thanked for his kindness a few more times. Jim and I stood up and somehow stumbled out into the light with our permanently damaged spines.
I wish I could say there was a happy end to this leap of faith we had taken, but nothing much happened.
On our last weary day in Mumbai, unable to meet Aamir Khan, we delivered a copy of the script to the Aamir Khan Productions’ office and flew back to Los Angeles.
After much rejection in life, I’ve finally come to realise that rejection is a good thing. Many years ago, I was rejected by every institution of higher learning in India — FTII, NID, MCRC Jamia Millia. In case I didn’t get the message, some of them spared the time and energy to reject me twice.
But had this not happened, I never would’ve dragged myself up and applied to UCLA. And studying at UCLA was the best thing that ever happened to me.
If Delhi Belly had been picked up when we were doing the rounds in Mumbai, it never would’ve have gotten to Aamir Khan — and who knows what kind of film it would then have turned out to be.
In the moment, rejection can be soul-sapping, but if you fight through it, you realise what you’re made of — if you remain undeterred by what are, at the end of the day, only opinions of your worth, or lack thereof, picking up and moving on becomes easier and easier.
I can say this today, only after much time has passed. Instead of hiding them, I wear my scars with pride. A rejection is nothing but the universe choosing the right fork in the road for you.
And why Jim called me out of the blue that day, I will never know. And neither does he.
Only one person has to love your script. As long as it’s the right person.
So here we were, Jim and I, in Aamir’s study, sitting uncomfortably on the edge of a large and comfortable couch.
I took it all in — this was where it had happened, Aamir checking email on his computer while Kiran, waiting for him to be done, picked a script off a knee-high pile. My script.
Aamir sat across from us, in his favourite chair, his legs folded under him, staring off into space.
He hadn’t said a word for a couple minutes or so.
There was a discreet knock on the door, and Sachin, Aamir’s assistant, walked in with a small egg white omelette, a slice of brown bread, on a thali. This was the second time this had happened in the past 30 minutes.
We would find out later that Aamir was in training, preparing for Ghajini, and would constantly eat small meals throughout the day, to keep his metabolism cranking and his body replenished.
But we would find that out later. Right now, this silence, interrupted by an omelette was a little surreal.
Jim and I sneaked a glance at each other. We had just flown halfway across the world, driven to Colaba from the airport, put bags down and driven from Colaba to Pali Hill. The jet-lag was beginning to gnaw behind my eyeballs.
Aamir’s utter calm, his meticulous placing of the omelette so it didn’t hang over the edge of his slice of bread, before he took a bite, his deliberate chewing — it was soporific. A nap would be so good right now. I wanted to keel over on to this large, oh-so-comfortable couch, just sleep for a bit, and we could then have this meeting a little later…
“Guys, I was thinking. You should just sell me the script.”
“Just sell me the script. I’ll make it.”
I don’t know if Jim had been sleepy as well, but that sure woke me up in a hurry.
“You just want us to sell you the script? And that’s the end of our involvement in the project?”
“Yeah. I’ll make it.”
I’d flown halfway across the friggin’ planet for this?
Jim was the first to recover. I don’t think I was going to recover for a few weeks anyway.
“Aamir, can you give us a minute? By ourselves?”
“Sure, sure, sure. Take your time. Call me when you’re done.”
Aamir stepped out of the study.
“Dude — are you wearing your man-pants?”
No really, this is how Jim talks. I kid you not.
“What the hell, Furgele?”
“We’re going to find out what we’re made of. I say no.”
If I could only take a nap..
“I want to know what you’re going to say. I know it’s your script and if you want to just sell it, I’d understand…” “Furgele, are you high? Of course I’m not going to sell it and walk away.”
We called Aamir back. And before we said it, the one thought running through my head was this — I’m going to say ‘no’ to Aamir Khan. What the hell am I thinking —
“Aamir, we’re going to have to say no. We can’t sell you the script and just walk away…”
“Alright, so let’s make this happen.”
Just like that. He didn’t even bat an eyelid.
That was in 2006. Delhi Belly released five years later, 1 July 2011.
In a get-together for the cast and crew, I reminded Aamir of this story.
He said, “I know. I was just testing you. Wanted to see what you guys were made of.”
“Testing me? Testing me? What if I’d said yes? My whole life would’ve been ruined, I would never have forgiven myself”
Aamir smiled, put a hand on my shoulder, his eyes full of mischief, as always.
“Relax, relax. You passed.”