Indepth - Juhi Chaturvedi On Building Characters That Last & More

By Jahnavi Patwardhan. Posted on July 08, 2015

Juhi Chaturvedi, the writer of the heart-warming and quirky Piku is a writer who has made everyone sit up and take notice of her! The light-hearted yet emotional film is one of the strongest stories to come out of Bollywood this year.

Juhi, originally an art director from Ogilvy & Mather, had no plans to get into the film industry. In 2008, Shoojit Sircar (director of Piku) asked her to write dialogues for his second film, Shoebite starring Amitabh Bachchan. After some contemplation, she agreed and thus began her journey with films. Only 4 films young, she has gathered a bunch of awards and a lot of appreciation. She has written dialogues for Shoebite, Madras Cafe and Khoobsurat. To add to her roaster, she has written Vicky Donor and Piku, which in addition to the performances and the direction, were highly appreciated for their screenplay & dialogues.

She is also on the advisory council of the New Voices Fellowship For Screenwriters this year. The NVFS programme is designed to identify, encourage, mentor and support seven talented independent screenwriters in India, helping them find their own creative voices, enabling them to incubate their ideas and refine their craft. The theme this year is 'Making Heroine The New Hero' which is aimed at promoting more stories from the female perspective in our cinema, something that Juhi has done remarkably well.

We spoke with Juhi on a multitude of topics. The interview covered her early years, how she ventured into films, why characters are the most important aspects of writing a film and the emergence of strong female oriented narratives in our films. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

On How It All Began

I was an art director in an advertising agency. And I come from an arts background. Then at some point there was a need in the organization for someone to look into the writing part or give more insights in that sense. Language was on my side since I come from Uttar Pradesh, plus I had been in the literary club in school and I used to also write a diary. I was already an amateur writer then, so I could do a good job in writing. Later on, even in the agency, art was getting restricted in a sense, even the clients would listen more to the writers, so one could see the different in the two. Also, writing was definitely more satisfying.

At that time, Shoojit had shot many of my ads and was going to start shooting for Shoebite. He needed someone to write dialogues for it so he approached me. The details with which I wrote those 30 seconds ads was what made him see my potential as a writer. So, this is where my relationship with film-writing started. But I was still very reluctant. I didn’t have an aspiration to become a film writer.

He was telling me to write, that's why I was writing. I had a very clinical approach to it that time. But the more I wrote, the more I was on the shoot and on location and experiencing the whole environment and what goes into it, was a revelation of sorts. The whole process was so magical and liberating; it sort of got to me.

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Juhi with Shoojit Sircar & Annu Kapoor

After the shoot, I came back to advertising, but somehow it didn’t feel the same. Coming back to writing ads after writing an entire film felt very different. While writing a film, there is so much to explore. You can write anything as long as you have an idea. Writing ads is very restricting. You have to fit everything into that 30 second window. So going from that to writing a film was very liberating!

On How Advertising Helped Her

Advertising helped me immensely while writing films as well. The harsh training of using every single second that you get in advertising is very important. It’s sort of army training for creative people. It’s a drill. So when you go from that to writing a film and apply the same rules, every second becomes extremely important. Every scene must mean something individually and it must also add up to the bigger picture. And if it doesn’t, it’s out of my screenplay.

This lesson came from Oglivy. I think Ogilvy has sort of championed the art of character writing. If you look at Piyush Pandey’s work, the Fevicol ads or any other ads, they are superb! So, when you train under people like him, you see characters everywhere! That’s what he’s taught me, your stories don’t come from anywhere else, they come from among us! So that’s what my training was for advertising, it happens to be an ad, but it’s a story. So the story-telling ‘keeda’ comes from Ogilvy and advertising.

On Her Early Experiences Of Screenwriting & Her First Film

Unfortunately, I never aspired to be a writer, so I never went through any training as such. Even when a film released, i would go & watch it and like it or rubbish it. That’s it. I never really thought about why or how the film was written or what went into it. But only after Shoebite happened, that I started seeing things a little more closely, I even started watching more films than I used to.

Today, if I have developed a writing style of my own, it was mainly through experiences and mainly through Shoebite which was a god sent experience.

For Shoebite, I wasn’t the script writer or the screenplay writer of the film. I was just the dialogue writer. So in the film, (unfortunately, it hasn’t released) what that couple on screen say to each other was entirely upto me. It was a challenge thrown at me. And I am glad I took it up!

A lot of learning happened for me by reading screenplays. My advertising instinct helped a lot in that sense. I always thought, if it’s not interesting on paper as a screenplay, how will the audiences find it interesting on the big screen?

With Shoebite, being on the sets also helped a lot. Being there was a huge training in itself. I came in when everything else was ready, so for me there was no time till the script got ready or anything. It was all done when I started. I had to be aware of every word I wrote, so it was a step by step, measured training process for me.

And then before I knew it we were already shooting in Manali, there were rehearsals with Mr. Bachchan and he was asking me questions about the characters. That made me nervous and gave me a lot of confidence as well.

On Her Writing Process

Again the process comes mostly from my advertising background. We are tutored and trained to always ask ‘idea kya hai?’(what’s the idea?). So the whole point was, never start writing till you have an idea. You don’t even touch your laptop without that idea.

So with films, writing a film is the last thing, you need to figure out if your idea is strong enough or not? Whether it’ll work or not, and if it is strong enough, it will naturally lend itself to your entire film. It will easily translate into your plot, subplot and even dialogues.

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Juhi At Work - pic via indianexpress.com

I don’t have the luxury to go off or disappear into the mountains to write. So my home is where I write. I am quite particular about timing though, so from morning to 2 pm is one slot, then my daughter comes back from school so I am busy with that and then I write at night. I don’t necessarily write all the time but I spend at least 15-20 mins everyday on my laptop.

I start writing the film properly only when I have the all the details of all my characters. When that is done, it means there is nothing else to do but start writing the film. And then it takes 2-3 months to write. The time before writing the film is the longest though. Knowing the characters very thoroughly helps in writing, the dialogues come very naturally and everything flows very fluidly.

On Vicky Donor

I never really sat down to think of an idea. It’s just that when you aren’t under pressure of any kind, that ideas start flowing. So one evening, when I was sitting and it came to me, that there's this guy who goes around donating sperms and can’t have a child of his own. And at that time it sounded very funny and quirky.

But later on, the more I thought about it, the clearer it became to me that the bigger picture was ‘the desire to have a child’. The whole film, at one level is Vicky’s film but on a bigger level, it’s about parenthood, the desire to have a child and inspite of having so many options today, there’s still an urge to bear a child of your own. So the sanctity of the subject for Vicky Donor had to be maintained even in writing.

I had to steer away from cheap dialogues or any sort of obscenity. I had discussed all the characters of Vicky, the mother, the doctor and others with Shoojit and then went back to writing. So he didn’t have an idea about the dialogues and intricacies of it. 

The first draft is the backbone and then from there all the ideas develop, everybody starts discussing whether we are on the same page and then everybody starts giving inputs and it gets fired up. There is an open conversation about new ideas and whether they would fit in or not. So the draft is quite necessary.

On Building Characters & Plots

When you start, you almost feel like God because you have to create everything! You have to create a family and determine what will work, whether in a family not having a mother will work better or the other way round. It also comes from my own personal experiences, my family, and the people around me. But you can’t restrict yourself to just that.  Then at a certain time you will exhaust that also. So, after a point you also need to let the story drive it.  

The character of the household help - Bhudan at Piku’s house also has a background. Piku’s mother must have brought him along when she got married and now he has adjusted to life in Delhi. He must have been very young when he was ‘sent’ to help with the house, so for him, he’s not a servant. And that’s why there is a certain kind of arrogance in his character which wouldn’t be there otherwise in a servant.

It always happens that your writing is inspired by what you see around you and your experiences with people always help with your characters. I think it’s good that this happens because it gives your character a lot of depth. In Vicky Donor, it helps to even know my character from 2 generations back. Even if his father and grandfather aren’t seen, you know that they are refugees since they are living in Lajpat Nagar and they have had a hard life and been through hell after partition and started from zero in Delhi. And that is why Dolly’s character is the way it is and her emotions are a certain way.

Juhi Chaturvedi on sets

On The Sets Of Vicky Donor: pic via rediff.com

So whether it’s Piku or Vicky or another character, it’s very important for me to know and consider where your character comes from. And one of the important things is the socio-economic background of the character, the caste and region they come from- whether your character is Bengali or Tamil or whether they have grown up in UP or Delhi or wherever. This is mostly because there are very specific traits that are peculiar to the people of certain region or caste. It influences the characters. Even Bhaskor from Piku is a learned Bengali Brahmin man who has been exposed to Tagore, Vivekananda and a lot of other literature that shows through his character.

My characters aren’t playing to any stereotypes. When you see the film, you may never realise that I have built an entire back story for that character. The caste is just one aspect of it, their schooling or childhood is important too. To make the character convincing, I need to have all this knowledge. These things would never even show in the film but this is what builds the characters.

On Writing Female Characters

When I write my characters, I am never really aware that I am a woman so I have a better understanding of this. I think it all comes down to how sensitive you are and whether you can handle those emotions and you also need to be interested enough in your characters to develop them to that extent.

Talking about the scene from Vicky Donor where Beeji and Dolly are drinking together, for me, Beeji complaining about not getting dowry from Dolly’s family is her being a typical ‘saas’ From a typical Punjabi mentality, their son is everything and the daughter-in-law is show-off material. For the mother-in-law, it’s about the pride that this is what my daughter-in-law has got for me! So here, Beeji is telling Dolly that you haven’t got anything and they share the relationship that they can tell each other these things freely.

So, I think it’s doesn’t matter whether a woman is writing these characters or a man is, you just need to be involved enough.

On 'Making Heroine The New Hero'

I think making and watching women centric films will also reach a fatigue point. I think films don’t do well because it’s a female centric film or male centric film. They should do well because of what they convey. Films like 'Children of Heaven' are neither female nor male centric, they are just beautiful stories. We very easily typecast ourselves and then get stuck in that. So, I think the conversation shouldn’t be whether it’s about a man or a woman. It should simply be about the beauty of the story and what it conveys and if it’s strong enough to be made into a film.


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