With movies like Paan Singh Tomar and I Am Kalam, Sanjay Chauhan is bringing the rigours of writing and storytelling back to Bollywood, says Nishita Jha
AT THE 2011 Filmfare Awards, Shah Rukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor ribbing each other on the commercial returns of being a Khan or a Kapoor, mentioned the filmZindagi Na Milegi Dobara, which stars neither. “I’ve heard there’s something called a script starring in that one,” quipped Ranbir.
At the same ceremony, as Sanjay Chauhan, 50, accepted the best script award for I Am Kalam, he joked, “My wife married me thinking that I was creative like her, but really scriptwriting is a technical job.” Those in the know smiled; there is truth to his self-effacing humour. Filmmakers are beginning to acknowledge that an audience dismissed as hero-obsessed might be able to appreciate a film for the quality of its writing. Chauhan’s successful repertoire —I Am Kalam, Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster and the latest breakaway hit, Paan Singh Tomar — stands testament to this largely untested premise.
Through his life, Chauhan has devoured films with an “intense devotion,” enthralled that Karan Arjun could convince him of its central theme of rebirth, or that Amitabh Bachchan’s monologue on family in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham could make a cinema hall weep. “There is no elitism in looking at the grandiose narratives that Hindi cinema employs. I feel as thrilled as the guy next to me when Sunny Deol rips off the arm of someone who touches his sister,” he says.
Born in Bhopal, with a father in the Indian Railways and a schoolteacher mother, Chauhan’s greatest influence was his unlettered grandmother. “We would lie on acharpai under the stars as she made up different stories about the same seven stars every night,” he recalls.
In the heart of academia at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Chauhan sheepishly admits that he began to fancy he was ‘highly intelligent’ until he read the literature and poetry of Vijaydan Detha, Ashok Vajpeyi and Krishna Kumar. While working as a journalist, Chauhan had an offer to write a script for the audiovisual of an oral rehydration solution for Doordarshan. He leveraged that into scripting a serial calledNewsline about two rival magazines. “I always believe you should write about what you know, and no one knew the politics of desk versus reporters, or editors and distributors better than me then,” he says. After he moved to writing Bhanwar, a crime-drama for Sony, Chauhan realised he had to quit journalism and made the prodigal move to Mumbai.
Paan Singh Tomar is Chauhan’s first attempt at co-writing with Tigmanshu Dhulia, whom he has known for several years. “When we met, all the material we had was a news clipping from nearly 27 years ago about Paan Singh. Google baba and Wikipedia devi could not answer our prayers. Dhulia knew of my training as a journalist and decided that I should come along with him and help him collate the data for the film,” says Chauhan.
AROUND THIS time, Chauhan also began tinkering with the old classic, Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. “I wanted to retain the premise of the story, its setting, but introduce the moral vicissitudes of this era,” he explains. While he notes that cinema has become sub – sumed with city narratives and Manhattan skylines, Chauhan believes a scriptwriter’s success lies not in creating alternative or commercial stories, but authentic ones. “It makes sense that kids who have grown up in metros want to write about metros, there’s nothing wrong with that. The great thing of late is that you will rarely see a narrative about Delhi suddenly reach the Alps,” he notes.
But what’s a good Bollywood story that doesn’t ask for the impossible or strain at the credible? Chauhan recently received a call from an unnamed producer proposing a film with Akshay Kumar. “Woh gaon jaisa likho na,” he asked, as Chauhan silently collapsed with laughter.
Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.