Aparajita Krishna takes a tour with Jyoti Kapoor, the young film-writer (story, screenplay, dialogue) who carries in her petite frame, crowned with wisdom-grey strands of locks, a very assured and confident bearing and talent.
Daawat-e-Ishq (2014), Badhaai Ho (2018) and Good Newwz (2019), are films she has given words and vision to. An FTII alumni in screenwriting course, she has as they say in Bollywood parlance, ‘Arrived’. She quips, “It’s interesting that you call it ‘young’ journey. During the initial few years of my career, I would dread going to meetings where people wanted to meet a ‘young’ writer. I think that was and still is a code word for ‘no budget’ projects. I am happy to be the not so young version of myself 14 years later and would like to believe that my greys have something to do with getting me better deals now. It has been a fantastic ride so far, with its share of ups and downs, but never boring.”
Writer Jyoti defines her act aptly, “Darr ke aage (aur peeche) blank page ka bhoot hai!” She has a way with words and combines them to serve spicy, audacious and philosophical bites. Sample some of her social media posts:
Agar aap writer hain, aur aapko (bahut maatha phodne ke baad), ek thought aa raha ho, aur saath hi saath zor se susu aa raha ho, toh kripya break dance karte karte, pehle jot down your thought. Because susu will stay in (at least one hopes it does) but the thought will disappear in a jiffy!
and, “Have you heard of a writing orgasm? Yes, it exists! It happens once in a blue moon; but when it does, you know why the act of writing is the only time you’ll get to experience it. Not when the script gets picked, or when it gets made or when your name comes up on screen. It’s just that brief, sacred moment, while you’re in the act of chasing something from thin air! It will never get better than that. Which is the beauty of it. And the tragedy!”
Reading her in person and via her social media posts heartens my older heart for here is a young woman working in an industry that by and large does not give words and/or solidarity to uncomfortable truths, nor takes social stands. Jyoti does voice her social, political views.
Herein we journey through her familial terrain, her training and experience as a writer and also exchange notes on the social and political that we inhabit.
When I had first met you quite some year’s back you were a budding film writer. Now you are blooming one. How has the young journey been so far?
That’s correct, Appy! We met in 2008, I think. You had hired me to write dialogues for a script. I used to so look forward to our script sessions (with unlimited cups of chai and goodies) in your beautiful Yari Road apartment. I don’t know if I got a chance to tell you this, but your cook Ram Singh is one of the best chai makers I have come across in the industry. The chai had just the correct amount of milk and was brewed, not boiled, if I remember correctly, just the way I like it!
Let me first get your familial antecedents clarified. It adds to perspective one forms about a person and her/his work. You are from Karnal, Haryana. What were your parents work-wise involved in?
Yes, I was born and brought up in Karnal, Haryana. We are Khatri Punjabis who moved to Haryana after partition.
I come from a family of farmers. My grandfather (we used to call him Phaji affectionately) was one of the prominent farmers in Mindkumri (actually Montgomery, named after Sir Robert Montgomery and now called Sahiwal), about 100 kilometers from Lahore. My grandparents (and their five children at the time, out of which an aunt died on the way) came to India as refugees after the partition. For the initial few years, Phaji did odd jobs, until we were finally allocated lands near Karnal, about 34 kilometers from the city, in a village called Bal Pabana. When he started out, most of the land allotted in Pabana was uncultivable. It was all a huge jungle. So, he literally started from scratch. My father, who’s a double MA in political science and history and wanted to opt for civil services/academics back then, had to eventually settle for farming because of parental pressure. In retrospect, he doesn’t regret it at all and is one of the noted progressive farmers in Pabana.
My mom, who did her post-graduation in music, never got a chance to practice it after her marriage but once we were all grown up, she went back to studying, came into her own and eventually became one of the top advisors for an insurance firm, unka dimaag sach mein computer se bhi tez chalta hai. She can do the most complicated math on her fingertips.
I have two younger sisters, Parul and Nitika and they are my lifelines. We all live in different time zones but make sure we talk every day. My youngest sister, Nitika is always my first bouncing board for everything that I write and both of them are my life coaches in general.
From a writer point of view what are your earliest memories of wanting to become one? Was it in school?
I used to be a closeted poet and one of my earliest memories is of sharing some original urdu shaayari (it was gibberish) with Phaji, while I was still in school. I had in fact started studying Urdu under his tutelage - but had to leave it halfway when I left for Chandigarh for higher studies. Urdu and Gurmukhi are still on my bucket list. Hopefully, someday!
What kind of work on television and in films attracted you?
I have grown up on a staple Doordarshan diet (the golden days of DD) and would consume anything and everything that was available, including Krishi Darshan and news for speech/hearing impaired, or subtitled films for that matter. I was always drawn to the works of Gulzar Sa’ab (Ijaazat, Maachis), Satyajit Ray (Shatranj ke Khiladi, Apur Sansar being some of my favorites), Hrishikesh Mukharjee (Anand, Guddi) Sai Paranjpye (Katha, Chashme Baddoor), Bhisham Sahani (Tamas), Manohar Shyam Joshi (Hum Log, Buniyaad, Mungeri Lal ke Haseen Sapne).
You did your Masters in Mass Communication from Punjab University, Chandigarh. Do share a pertinent lesson you learnt.
To always keep your eyes and ears open. To use the five W’s and one H (Who, What, When, Where, Why and How) wisely when you gather information. I think the 5 W’s and 1 H are a writer’s best friends too. You just need to know what to reveal, what to hold back and when.
You have been a journalist? Where and at what stage?
I started out as a news reporter with The Indian Express, Chandigarh in the year 2000, and eventually joined Mid-Day, Mumbai, in 2004. After a brief stint in Mid-Day, I went to the FTII to study screenwriting. I was a journalist just for a few years, but it will always be my first love.
At the FTII Pune you specialized in screenwriting. Do summarize what you best learnt and unlearnt there? Was your exposure to world cinema, the film archives a revelation?
The best takeaway from my screenwriting course in FTII was that there’s no substitute for discipline. We came out equipped with one bound script, two story treatments and five pitches, all in a year’s time and that was our real wealth and calling card in the industry.
We had a one-year screenwriting course at that time so we did not get a chance to watch as many films as the other specializations perhaps, but whatever we were exposed to, opened up a world of possibilities for us. World cinema liberates you. You realize that there can be so many alternate realities that need not be same as yours but are equally relevant.
I graduated in 2006 and all my batch mates are my colleagues now. Most of them are working in the industry and are my big extended family.
Did you start off as a writer in Mumbai with television or films?
I started out with films, but there was a phase when I was working on both films and TV simultaneously. The money I earned from TV in particular gave me freedom to choose projects for the next couple of years and to work on my spec scripts. So, I will always have special respect for TV. It empowers writers. I did the dialogues for Left Right Left (TV series, 2006). It was an opportunity that landed in my lap when I happened to be in Mumbai around Diwali one year, with enough time and hunger on my hands. That’s the time senior writers (like most people in the industry) take a break and travel to their hometowns. I think I cancelled my trip home because I was getting this opportunity and it did pay off eventually. Sometimes, you just have to be at the right place at the right time.
For film Kaccha Limboo (2011) directed by Sagar Ballary, you were the dialogue writer. How was the experience of working on the subject? It was about the adolescence of a 13 year old boy and its pressures and adjustments.
It was one of the most profound experiences I got a chance to have, very early on in my career. To be on a film set is magical. I also got a chance to work with some legendary actors like Atul Kulkarni (who is also a very fine human being), Sarika and the adorable Taheer Sutarwala, who played the protagonist. It also featured singer Armaan Malik, still a teenager back then, who belted out some soulful melodies for the film.
In Daawat-E-Ishq (2014) you are credited as writer along with director Habib Faisal - the film stars Parineeti Chopra, Aditya Roy Kapur and Anupam Kher. It is branded as a romantic comedy. Tell us about the experience with the film?
I was the co-story writer for Daawat-E-Ishq. Habib (who himself is an accomplished writer) had shared a clipping (news) with me. It was a story about a 26-year-old woman, who married ten men over a decade only to leave them after decamping with their cash and valuables, before she landed in the police net. That was just the germ though, where we took off from. Eventually the story, which was initially called Jalebi, began to get a life of its own.
Film Badhaai Ho released in 2018 and did very well. Why was there a controversy regarding the writing credit and award category? Did the germ of the idea rest with you in another earlier script? How do you now look back on the experience of working on a box-office hit?
I had approached the producers with a story called Hum Do Hamaare Chaar (same premise), and they had hired me to develop it into a screenplay (in fact they had liked my work so much that they signed me for two films). I worked on it for almost a year before things soured between us and I had to leave the project. I had a clause in my termination letter, which clearly stated that if the producers use anything from my script, they would have to credit me, which they did. So, the credit bit wasn’t a problem at all.
The problem was that my name (I was nominated for the story along with other writers, for Filmfare Awards, which is interestingly owned by the same people who owned the production company as well (a big conglomerate) disappeared from the list a few hours after the nomination. By that time my friends had started to congratulate me and had shared screenshots of the nomination as well. So, it was the bizarre disappearance of my name that bothered me. Getting the award (or not) wasn’t the worry. The worry was the undignified way in which I was treated. I had the choice to keep quiet and let it slide, since my credit was already there. But something about it didn’t feel right to me and I raised my voice. That’s all there is to it.
The fact that Badhaai Ho was appreciated and became a huge hit gave me immense joy. You are always happy when something you worked on does well, irrespective of how the process was.
Good Newwz (2019) is a comedy that did well. It was also star driven with Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor, Kiara Advani, Diljit Dosanjh starring in it. How did the working experience play out?
Good Newwz is very close to my heart for various reasons. To begin with, it is a semi-autobiographical story and was a very cathartic writing experience for me. It also happens to be one of those lucky scripts that got green-lighted within a month of me submitting it at Dharma Productions. It’s very rare that a spec script (a script that you develop on your own as opposed to someone commissioning it) gets made so soon and with such a fabulous cast and crew on top of that. I am counting my blessings.
Any other film writing that I may have missed?
No, that’s all - just four films (that saw the light of day) in my fourteen-year career. The others are still waiting patiently for their turn.
As a Screenwriter do you prefer to write the story, screenplay and dialogues yourself or a collaborative works better?
Ideally, I like to write the entire script, at least one full-fledged dialogue draft before I move on to collaborating, especially when the story has originated from me, but it works differently for different projects.
Collaborations are like marriages. They can either make your life heaven or an absolute hell. So, it’s wise to go on a couple of dates before you get into them. There’s still no guarantee though. They can go either way.
The larger issue with our TV or film industry is that they are still either careless or purposely defiant of rules, copyright, regard for intellectual property. It is not so abroad. Are things changing here?
Things are changing but at a snail’s pace. Writers are still made to sign very unfair contracts, paid little and treated like the most unwanted entities after they have submitted their script and their job is over. Of course, there are exceptions, but largely that’s what most writers go through.
We still have a long way to go before writers get their due, whether it’s in terms of money or the respect they deserve. In an industry where the big guns continue to refer to the content as the king (it’s politically the right thing to say and makes them sound more evolved perhaps), writers continue to be at the bottom of the pecking order.
A copyright society (SRAI—The Screenwriters Rights Association of India) helmed by some senior screenwriters has been formed to enforce the law that requires producers and writers to share royalties equally. The application for the registration of the society is pending with the government and we are hoping that it will come through.
You are the Vice President, Screenwriters Association India (SWA). What kind of a thrust does a body like this need?
It requires a lot of commitment, both in terms of time and emotional bandwidth and because it’s an honorary job, only people who are passionate towards the cause can handle it. It takes years of dedicated efforts before you can bring about an actual change, but it does give you a different kind of satisfaction, when you manage to do that. Like any other organization, SWA functions smoothly because of team work that goes into it. I am immensely grateful that I got an opportunity to work with stalwarts like Anjum Rajabali (who was also my screenwriting teacher at FTII), Robin Bhatt and other seniors who had already streamlined a lot of things before we came in and continue to inspire us.
Is the Hindi film industry in the writing department gender-neutral or not?
I think the industry is pretty gender neutral, at least in the writing department. I have never faced any kind of discrimination on the basis of my gender so far. Yes, there are boys’ clubs and there’s some stereotyping that happens but that’s mostly based on the kind of work you’ve done before. If you can give the industry stories that can sell, you’re here to stay, irrespective of your gender.
What are the scripts, projects you are working on?
I am working on two films right now. One is a high concept love story and the other is a heist film. I am also developing a web series but it’s still in the preliminary stages.
From your talk, interviews you come across as someone with a political mind, as also very liberal, progressive and secular. Our industry-folk appear vary of voicing political opinions that are contrarian to the ruling regime. Do inform of your worldview.
I am reminded of my Miranda rights (anything you say can and will be used against you) as I type this. But jokes apart, I am really sick and tired of what’s happening around us. Yes, I am sometimes critical of the present regime and its ultra-right ideology, as I am of Congress because of their dynastic politics.
Although, you’ll be surprised to know that I come from a family of BJP loyalists and have grown up seeing and interacting (on rare occasions) with stalwarts like Sushma Swaraj, who contested from Karnal several times in the initial few years of her career and was one of the finest politicians BJP had. I think every party has good and bad people/politicians and BJP needs to decentralize its control, just like Congress needs to think beyond Gandhis. When a political party becomes the fiefdom of a few, it only gets worse from there.
Haryana like Punjab has been an agrarian economy hub for India. You have lived in Haryana and Punjab. What does the current Farmer agitation for their very legitimate demand mean to you? Read this on your Facebook—Jiss kisan ko aandhi aur toofan nahi daraa sakte, baarish aur oole nahi dhamka sakte, usko tum kya daraoge?
It can’t get more personal than this for me. I remember when we were still kids, visiting our village during April vacations, which is also the time of wheat harvesting. Papa and Phaji (my dad and grandpa) would be pacing up and down at any hint of untimely rains, because that would mean a washout of six months of efforts. Beeji (grandmom) and mom would be trying to comfort them, while equally scared deep down. The anxiety obviously percolated down to kids; and in order to distract us, the adults would ask us to do our bit by cutting the hailstones (ole in Panjabi) with a knife (an old superstition) so it stops raining havoc. So, while our friends in city were rejoicing due to welcome showers in summers, we would be shitting bricks.
A farmer is constantly battling so many uncertainties, be it untimely rain or an overnight infestation of crops with pests due to fluctuations in temperature. One bad crop can land you in huge debts. And when a farmer goes through all those uncertainties and finally harvests his crop, he doesn’t want to be thrown into another loop of uncertainty, with no government help, no guarantee of MSP. Government procurement of crops, however flawed it is, still gives a safety net to the farmers. Once we allow the private players in, without the right checks and balances, and rest the dispute settlement rights with local bureaucracy, there is no way for a farmer to get justice, if the corporate takes them for a ride.
What angers, is the autocratic manner in which these ordinances were issued and bills passed (in a rush, as if it was a matter of national emergency), without paying any heed to the opposing voices that had repeatedly urged the government to send them for parliamentary scrutiny? It angers me on how the protests were handled and how the protesting farmers were labeled as Khalistanis and antinational, just because they were raising their voice, which is their constitutional right. It was a total breakdown of communication and the worst strategy any regime could have employed. If you can’t listen to your farmers, in a heavily agrarian economy like ours, then you will lose the respect of your aam junta sooner or later.
Do inform us about the work profile of you husband - Harsh Warrdhan.
Harsh is a novelist, screenwriter and director and mostly my first audience as well. He has recently created a web series called ‘Dharma & Associates’ and is excitedly waiting for the release of his film ‘InCar’ that’s written and directed by him.
While we are two writers living under the same roof, we have entirely different processes/routines and personalities. He is the more disciplined one, who will write for at least 6 hours a day, rain or shine. I, on the other hand, am a lazy bum and rely on my whims. We try not to collaborate so we don’t end up killing each other :)
Did the COVID Times bring in depression? As in did your work suffer or you had more me-time to mull and ideate?
Yes, not just depression but it literally broke my back. I suffered from a slipped disc in May and had to spend many painful months before I could bounce back. It gave me the much-needed reality check. Health comes first. Deadlines can wait.
You are a foodie! So much of food, dishes visual, writing on your FB. Write a script on a culinary plot.
Yes, Appy! I love and live to eat and food always finds its way into my writing. Daawat-E-Ishq had a good measure of biryanis and kebabs and phirnis thrown in. Good Newwz had an ode to golgappas, which make me weak in my knees every time I spot them and is the best snack ever invented. Hopefully there will be more daawats in store.
The article is written by, She has significant experience across media platforms and creative-arts as writer, director, presenter, researcher, producer, collaborator and mentor. Erstwhile actor.