It is amazing how our worlds become smaller when the ideology we hold is spectacularly niche! We start meeting / bumping into people who have similar thought processes and we do this subconsciously and effortlessly. Mostly, we are just happy to have found one more of ‘our own’. One of the first interviews in the series was of Jyoti Kapoor, her responses are still as evergreen in my head, as they were when she got back to me with her answers. They were a pat in back for someone – anyone – aspiring to dream!
It was only going to get better from there because, if Jyoti hadn’t shared the trailer of ‘Waiting’, a film directed by Anu Menon (who we would shortly be featuring), I would not have been able to get in touch with the remarkable women behind the making of the film.
In today’s ‘Female Idol’ series, I am delighted to introduce you to Atika Chohan, the dialogue writer of ‘Waiting’ 2016 and ‘Margarita with a straw’ 2015, directed by Shonali Bose! (For MWAS, Atika wrote the Hindi dialogues)
Personally, I was so excited to interview Atika because I believe words are so important in effectively conveying an emotion. How important it is to make a decision to NOT have a dialogue in certain places to make it even more meaningful – and how it is more than just a mindless bandwagon of cliched words put together to appeal to the audiences. My conversation with Atika has been not just rewarding, it has helped me put my faith back on content, text and words – and their importance in the experience of watching a film.
About you: childhood, upbringing as a ‘girl’, was there any early indication of patriarchy?
The most distinct thing about me is that I am a woman from Delhi. My conditioning, my data of received knowledge, my deepest fears and desires stem from and possibly a drastic rejection OF Delhi. It was dramatic how I left. I didn’t leave really, I escaped. It wasn’t just patriarchy at home and in personal relationships. It’s never that simple, right! In my experience, the entire city scaffolds itself on a ramrod of brutal patriarchy. Sometimes I think that the rather forceful rejection of the whole Delhi experience is perhaps the core task assigned to me for this lifetime. And a calm analytical redressal will take another.
Career as a writer, have you always wanted to be one? Was FTII on the roadmap to your ‘career’?
Writing is my primary skill. I have always gotten around on its basis. I was a journalist in Delhi not a very famous one, rather a reluctant one, I would say. I worked for a couple of years, saved tidbits, got around to take the FTII exam. Got lucky with it, took it up. But there were no big strategies, no plans. I was taking a chance because why not. I didn’t have any plan B. Oblivion is my comfort space. If I couldn’t get a break I would have gone back to a newsroom desk rewriting other people’s stories. I would be miserable about it. But I would have paid my bills, lived my life etc. But I suppose I was fortunate that I moved to Mumbai just at the onset of exciting times. Initially, I fiercely begged good people for an opportunity. Then got on with whatever came my way. The first two years are always years of gestation I suppose. I started with a struggle but the struggle was both external and Internal. It wasn’t always a lack of the right opportunities, I would say, it was also a wavering faith in my own talent. The will was strong but the craft was ‘kachcha’.
So I stayed conflicted, angsty, angry but mostly I kept alive. I thank myself for surviving those years of severe anxiety. Not that I have arrived anywhere by any means, but I would say, I have survived. The better and the more sustained part of the struggle begins now actually.
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?
If you are a pure writer, film writing is not for you. Film writing is inherently designed to leave you short of a deep creative satisfaction. Even if you are on the top of your game, there is only that much you can go. Ultimately it will be your director who will take the baton to the finishing line. A film is a director’s medium. It is a collaboration of several crafts coming together through one mind. And that’s your director’s. I have had my share of frustrations on the way, seeing my favorite moments and lines butchered but I have stopped taking it personally. At least I pretend better that I don’t take it personally now. I have realised that I am here to help set up the blue print. Even if I am bloody good at it, that’s not the film. The film is the execution of the blue print which someone else will do. However good your script may be, a weak director can still fuck it up. Inversely, a good one will take your average work and spin it to meet the exact need of the story. I have stopped hoping that my vision will get translated word for word. Instead, I hope to fuse with the director’s vision and always co-create a new larger vision. As a film writer, that’s as lucky I will get. If I want more, I should resort to a novel.
I always flag a ‘not so feminist’ moment in other people’s work. And fortunately, I have only worked with filmmakers who have been receptive and open to the changes offered. I have a great nose for misogyny and I think I can sniff it from a mile. To keep things simple, I always politely decline what I know will later not work out. Which means I decline a LOT of work. And that is not to say that I am a very in-demand writer. That is just to comment on the majority of the work that happens here which is unintentionally misogynistic.
What is the beginner’s 1o1 to turn a story into script according to you? And how important are dialogues in the script?
A story is a story. A script is story telling. I suppose the first thing to keep in mind is the theme and the mood. At least that is what I do. I create a sub-conscious of the world I will create by replicating an emotional mood of what I am going to tell. Then as that gets clear, the story starts unfolding itself intuitively. The first attempts are always trashy. But then a few attempts and you hit the right frequency and you channel it. You definitely need technique and craft to sort it all out in the end. And craft only comes with practice. No matter how intuitive or gifted you are, you will always need a great stamina for the technique to really chip it all out in form.
I don’t see how dialogues can be separated from screenplay at all. Dialogue is the sharpest tool of a screenplay; it is the facilitator of subtext. To me, dialogues are not lines or words, but a character’s psychological reaction.
Dialogue is definitely not verbose dialoguebaazi. Silence is dialogue too.
How do you go about writing dialogues for the characters? In MWAS for example, did you have to vicariously live out all the characters – in this case, the fact that Laila has cerebral palsy, did you have to rethink the choice of words for her dialogues? They had to minimal but outrightly to the point!
MWAS is the toughest project of my life till date. Here I was dealing with a character whose motor skills are affected, so she slurs, stammers and doesn’t finish sentences. I struggled with it quietly. Failed at it the first few times.
Gradually I realised that the key to Laila’s dialogue was NOT in the approximation of her disability. It was in fact in her character. Laila was a fighter. And had a very unique and a very personal way of coping with her condition.
It is not necessary that every child afflicted with cerebral palsy will speak like Laila. But Laila was very self-aware. She was aware that not everyone could hear her well. So she spoke and behaved differently when with her family, but could be shy and conscious around friends. To hide her disability, she would use more nods, more monosyllabic replies. But with her mother she felt free to attempt full sentences. She was more expressive because she knew that her family could understand her very well. Also, Laila could be selfish and manipulative, unknowingly so, but she knew when to hide behind her disability to fob off from any real, adult articulation. Her childlike gurgling or pleas would play on that. So I had a rather limited and economic vocabulary to express her deep inner mess. It wasn’t easy.
How is it working with female directors in general?
I have worked with both male and female directors. Honestly, a director is not to be judged by their gender but by their depth and sensibility. I understand that the gender of a director will surely affect their worldview, their themes etc and it is possible that a female director’s themes may resonate with me more, but then the obverse side of things through the lens of a male director are creatively exciting too.
Essentially I look for a connection. Something honest. Something cold. Gender is incidental.
How was your experience with ‘Waiting’? The crew and the cast have very powerful female artists – did it feel like you belonged there?
The Women of ‘Waiting’ were a force to reckon with. I am so fortunate that I could collaborate on this film. Anu had written this great script and I spontaneously responded to it from which came some unintentionally funny moments. I think I was waiting for a film like ‘Waiting’. Think it helped me sublimate my personal and tedious emotional loss into something universal.
[‘Waiting’ is releasing on 27th May in theaters near you! Please go watch it!]
This is one of the 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!