By Arijit Biswas. Posted on February 23, 2016
Arijit Biswas is the writer of films like Agent Vinod & Badlapur & was a participant at the NFDC Screenwriters' Lab 2015. In the article below he shares his experience with the NFDC Screenwriters' Labs. The Lab is currently calling for entries for this years' edition & you can read more about the terms and conditions here and follow this link to submit your project.
How I wish NFDC will allow me to apply for the lab again. We just met the other day, the 2015 screen-writing batch, over a great script and great dinner and all felt quite jealous of the new batch who are going to come in and fill our places this year. We wished this was last year, we had that much fun!
The lab has benefited me in more ways than one, even keeping aside the excellent gang of friends we all came to be and the monthly meets. Like many writers I was forever ideating and putting them aside in my head. Stories that were more alive in my grey-cells than anywhere else, waiting for some divine trigger to put them on paper.
The NFDC deadline at least made one come alive on paper. For me NFDC deserves a great "thank you" just for that. And soon after finishing that, I actually ended up writing down two and half more!
A month after the story was sent a mail said I would need to get a full script done, register and submit by a given date. That was serious work. But again, not everyday do I get time to write a full script of something I want to do. Mostly it is what other directors want or do not want. I count this as the second blessing of the lab. Forcing me to sit down and complete a screenplay which apparently 'somebody' liked somewhere.
Arijit Biswas at the Screenwriters' Lab
Writing a screenplay is exhilarating and I started knowing my characters and falling in love with them. The whiteboard started filling up, notes were being taken and dumped. As I was writing about a living person, friends were talking, recording and sending audio clips. And inexorably, the last week came. With only a few hours to spare, the screenplay was done, registered, and sent. Incidentally, I was not even a member of FWA till then. So the lab made me do one more necessary process in Mumbai.
I thanked NFDC for the second time. Even if I do not make the mark, I now had a screenplay that I believed in.
Selection, a Bosnian visa and travel to Sarajevo followed next. I came to meet a great gang of fellow travelers. Couple of them had assisted & directed with very famous directors, one had his plays up on London theatres and has written for a heavy-duty Bollywood blockbuster, another was a veteran of many film festivals with her work and yet another had gone to the Oscars with his short film. Quite a wow crowd.
But by now the "lab" had started to raise my doubts. Wasn't my screenplay perfect, did my friends not gush over it, what's the point in making this go through the lab's surgical knives, would the mentors understand the oh-so-Calcutta context, and what happened if the mentors and I fell out from the very beginning?
I have seen some mentoring from close quarters and occasionally tried my hand at that too. Frankly most boiled down to saying "hey the concept is good but you have made a holy mess of it, so why not start afresh and let me tell you how to". I was not sure me and my screenplay were game for it.
But it was Sarajevo already, a nice old city with lots of history and sadness. The Turkic bazaar near the lab through which we walked everyday was nice, and the food a delectable bridge between East and West. The weather was bracing and kebabs were good. So I was prepared to run the gauntlet.
The old-souk at Sarajevo
And so it began…
The script was supposed to go through three iterations.
After the first lab, a new draft was supposed to be written and discussed with the mentors after about two months over a Skype session.
The feedback from the session would go into the next draft with which one was supposed to meet the mentors for the second lab.
After discussion in the second lab, the final one was to be submitted at the end of the year.
The next day we had our first session of the lab. It was an informal gathering at an open-air cafe. Sitting down around a big circle we talked about ourselves for three hours. We talked about who we are, why are we here, what cinema means to us and what made us write this script, and what in our opinion is the main theme of the project. It was a great ice-breaker, we came to know about each others’ work and about their driving forces. It also gave us a little heads up on the projects and why we thought we were there.
Discussing our scripts at a session in Sarajevo
The mentors told us about their work too and what they were looking for in the lab. It was an open session where we asked each other questions though unfortunately it was rather early for the leg-pulling that was to come soon.
After lunch we went into the projects. In retrospect it is amazing to realize that from that day's lumbering narrations we could finally get our story down to 5 minutes pitch. The mentors had come with their copies of the script and had their own questions, some of them questioned the basic structure or principles of the script. Things were heating up, the lab had started.
Every evening we had networking sessions where we were to meet people involved with the industry.
Ironing Creases Or Re-stitching the cloth?
What followed were one-on-one meetings with the mentor. My mentor and I discussed the basic motives of the story and the role the characters played in it and why. We discussed each character, I had three main, and analyzed them. We discussed about the growth of these characters and what happened to each as the narrative completed.
Over the next few meetings after having re-looked at things, both my mentor and I agreed on many points. We explored the hidden objectives of the characters and the social milieu of Calcutta where my story was placed. We went through the events and chucked out a few, modified a few others and decided on a few new ones.
Screenwriters' Lab participants in a tete-a-tete with Kabir Khan
By now the characters had settled and we talked about the gaps, if any, that remained with their motivations. One particular action by one character kept bugging us and we spent considerable time thinking why he would do that. The character in question passed through an entire spectrum of emotions and drivers till we fixed on one most logical.
The first phase of the lab came to end with a couple more pitching sessions & a session on screenplay structure. We even tried pitching each others’ stories & to our surprise often somebody else pitched our stories better and got to the crux much more easily.
By end of October we were supposed to have written and mailed our 2nd draft. This was also to be based on a discussion on Skype. Unfortunately the 2nd draft had just not worked for me. The ideas worked, the change in characters still convinced me, all the discussions and changes still made sense. But somehow, what emerged was a hybrid with no soul.
But the first thing my mentor told me put my heart at ease. The screenplay hadn't worked for him too. We decided to get at it from the next day.
The Goa Connection
The Goa phase was happening at Agonda beach, the northernmost beach of Goa, almost untouched by the regular flood of tourists. The lab was to be of three days, each day there would be a mentor coaching us on pitches, followed up by screenplay discussion. In between there would be an industry session about co-production. The expected output was a finished script and a finished pitch, which one would need to pitch four days down the line.
In the pitch sessions we would practice our pitches on one another and get anybody who was passing by and note their reactions. The timing improved and with that everybody's pitch. We became more practiced, confident and took care to see that the characters made sense, the conflict came at the right time and the ending appealed to audience. A five minute pitch is supposed to give a sense of finality. And it was important to get there.
Acclaimed animation filmmaker, Gitanjali Rao was part of the NFDC Screenwriters' Lab
At the story sessions we delved deeper into the structure and the characters. For me the middle needed fixing. And some character conflicts needed resolution too. Often we would start from the beginning and go through the flow in detail till it struck a point where it sounded false. We would discuss on that and come out with solutions, freeze on one, and over the night I would revise and mail it. My mentor would read that and we would discuss that further the next day.
By the 3rd day we had solved the problem that plagued the 2nd draft and knew what needed to be done for the third and the final draft.
At the end of it, when we started out for the Film Bazaar, we were no longer nervous of pitching in front of a crowd. There were now around 18 writers raring to meet the world.
For me, the discussions had been very helpful and as I prepared for the pitch at Film Bazaar, I could clearly see where the second draft faltered and the third draft made good. The story had suddenly acquired a universal "take". I was quite thrilled by this journey to say the least.
The final pitching at Film Bazaar was the culmination of the lab & our journey with it.
Asad Hussain pitching at the Goa Film Bazaar 2015
All the pitches were crisp, to the point and evoked genuine warmth and interest. People asked questions and foreign delegates started booking interviews. Hardly any audience left the event mid-way. We were that gripping!
The lab has served its purpose.
Filmbazar was a riot. Especially the cocktail evenings & industry meetings with Bollywood top cats. We met Bollywood directors who spent time with us and listened to our stories and answered our questions. Some were kind enough even to ask us to send in the scripts. I do not think these meetings would have been possible otherwise. Some of us were lucky enough to have prospective buyer's meetings. Many of us had interviews scheduled in Mumbai. One of us is almost on floors now, the shoot scheduled to start really soon. I expect all of us would be there before the year is over.
Thanks to the team at Film Bazaar for working with us and helping us shape our stories, thanks for giving us a map through the jungle called the 'industry'.
If you have any story which you think needs to be told, please do not sleep on it. Write it down. And send. You may be one eating that fish, drinking that beer and swimming in the green seas this year. That is, if you can steal that hour from polishing your script!