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Intervals make Indian films lose their tightness: Sabrina Dhawan, writer of Monsoon Wedding

“India is such an exciting place to be, with the rise of multiplexes and a liberal censor board. I grew up in the 1980s where [mainstream] movies were very formulaic”

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Jan 26, 2014, 07.59 AM IST|Original: Jan 26, 2014, 06.03 AM IST
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“India is such an exciting place to be, with the rise of multiplexes and a liberal censor board. I grew up in the 1980s where [mainstream] movies were very formulaic”
“India is such an exciting place to be, with the rise of multiplexes and a liberal censor board. I grew up in the 1980s where [mainstream] movies were very formulaic”
How many screenwriters can claim to have written a script while a student that was produced into a critically lauded film the year they graduated? Sabrina Dhawan was working on a story about child sexual abuse when she was doing her master of fine arts (MFA) in film at Columbia University at the turn of the century when she met director Mira Nair. They discussed her story but Dhawan says Nair was keen to do a wedding movie. So Dhawan, who grew up in Delhi, dug into a culture she knew intimately and wrote a homage of sorts to the city’s upper-class Punjabis, and delivered the sexual abuse story as a sucker punch toward the end of an otherwise exuberant movie.

Monsoon Wedding, with an eminently memorable ensemble cast of Naseeruddin Shah, Lillete Dubey, Rajat Kapoor and Vijay Raaz, won the top award at the Venice Film Festival in 2001. One of the film’s strong suits is its characters speak as you expect them to, in a mix of English, Hindi and Punjabi. “It was going to be a subtitled film and Mira told me to write honestly. I had that creative freedom,” says Dhawan, on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Now, 14 years after she wrote the film, she is again revisiting it for a Broadway adaptation, which is almost entirely in English, given the difficulty of using subtitles on stage. “It’s awkward to my ears. I can’t imagine Dubey [Raaz’s character] speaking in English…but I’m getting used to it,” says the 43-year-old who now teaches screenwriting at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, the alma mater of Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Ang Lee.

After the Break

Dhawan, whose two best-known works since Monsoon Wedding have been Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey and Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya, on both of which she was a co-writer, does not bristle at criticism. When told that many thought the climax of Kaminey, which is a stylized shootout, was a cop-out and seemed like the writers were pandering to the audience, she says that was certainly not the intention. Asked if the movie could have avoided the fairy tale ending it had, which ran counter to the film’s theme, she says, “That would never have flown [with the producer].”

Talking of the commerce-driven idiosyncrasy called the interval in Indian cinemas, she says it changes a film structurally: “With the interval, a film loses its tightness in the second half. Maybe it also indicates laziness in writing, in tying up the loose ends. Set-ups in films are easy, but the middle onward is difficult.” She found that to be the problem with Lootera and Raanjhanaa, two recent Hindi films. That said, she is upbeat about the current state of Indian cinema. “India is such an exciting place to be [for films], with the rise of multiplexes and a liberal censor board. I grew up in the 1980s where [mainstream] movies were very formulaic and parallel movies were unwatchable,” adds Dhawan, who is teaming up with Nair again to adapt the documentary Bengali Detective for a feature to be produced by Fox Searchlight.

Comparing the worlds of screenwriting in the US and India, she says, “I know of million-dollar screenwriters there who have had one film produced in 15 years. It’s a strange industry. In India, the development ratio is not as bad.” Asked if she ever wonders she will be able to top Monsoon Wedding, she adds, “I have no way of knowing. I guess it will be easier to know in the future, looking back.”
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