Akshat Verma had to wait 15 years for Delhi Belly to be made into a film. He wrote it in 1996, when he was 25, and doing a Masters in screen-writing at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). “When I think about the time it has taken, it really depresses me,” admits Verma.
It all began in Karol Bagh
The writer and associate director of Delhi Belly, who now divides his time between LA and Mumbai, is a Delhi boy. Both his parents were professors in Delhi colleges — his dad taught English literature at Hansraj college, while his mom taught Hindi literature at Miranda House. He grew up near Karol Bagh, and went to Springdales school. He went to college at Kirori Mal, where he studied English literature.
Verma was always interested in telling stories, and in writing. So post-college, there followed stints in the writing professions —eight months as a journalist, two years as an advertising copywriter. Going by the evidence of Delhi Belly, where, of the four main characters, one is a copywriter and three are journalists, these early years ended up supplying plenty of material to the budding film writer.
After an inexplicable diploma in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi, Verma took off to the US to hone his script-writing skills at the UCLA. “UCLA was the best thing that happened to me,” he says. Soon after he wrote Delhi Belly, he made a trip to Mumbai to try and sell his script, but there were no takers back then.
Going nowhere fast
So he went back to LA, where he flipped burgers, walked dogs, and did a series of writing jobs. He ghostwrote a screenplay, assisted established Hollywood names, and even took on a day job giving Hindi subtitles to Hollywood films. In case you’ve ever wondered, it was he who gave those terrible subtitles for Lawrence Of Arabia, Men In Black, and one of the Spiderman films.
But subtitling doesn’t pay well, and assisting someone wasn’t the same as working on your own script. And as the years passed, his screenwriting career was going nowhere fast. “You reach a point where you begin to question your own abilities, and you wonder if you are ever going to be able to get out of this,” says Verma, remembering those days. “Assisting someone else is also very depressing for me because I can barely run my own life, but to be responsible for somebody else…? You do a lot of work, but at the end of the day, what have you produced? Nothing.”
On Wiltshire Boulevard
Verma then tells me about the darkest point in his career as a writer, the day the absurdity of his life hit him on the head like a crashing ceiling fan.
“I was in LA, working as an assistant to this big-time Hollywood production designer. My work involved planning meetings, making hotel reservations, sorting out travel schedules, etc. In LA, there is this really busy street called Wiltshire Boulevard. One day I find myself transporting a large table across the street in the middle of traffic. It was a big table, and I had to carry it across because there was this birthday party and it had to be set up with cake and everything…..and right there in the middle of traffic, it suddenly struck me, wait, I have a f**king Masters in screenplay writing from a top American university, I am a qualified writer, I could teach other people to write badly…so what the f**k am I doing? At which point, I decided, you know, f**k it. I am going back to advertising.”
But to get back to advertising, you needed a portfolio, and Verma’s work was all Indian. American ad agencies would not consider his work on Indian brands. “So I had to go back to portfolio school — make up fake ads for known American brands so they can see the quality of my work.” Verma eventually did get a copywriting job in the US. But soon, “my luck being what it is,” disaster struck, in the form of the recession.
“I was working on a real estate client, and this was one of the biggest companies in the sub-prime lending sector. When that company went under, a large section of the creative department, myself included, was laid off.” This proved to be a blessing in disguise for Verma, as he could then turn his attention back to the Delhi Belly script. He teamed up with Jim Furgele, who was with him at the UCLA, and set up Ferocious Attack Cow Productions. They made another trip to India, and then slowly, with Aamir Khan on board, things started moving for Delhi Belly.
Slapstick versus physical humour
If there is one thing that upsets the affable Verma, it is when “lazy critics” dismiss Delhi Belly as slapstick or potty humour. “Delhi Belly is physical humour, not slapstick,” says Verma. “The two are different. Physical humour is played straight, unlike slapstick.
Let’s say someone slips on a banana peel. If he falls down and is hurt, or something else happens, it is physical humour. But if you have funny sounds and exaggerated expressions to go with it, it becomes slapstick. I mean, slapstick ends up caricaturing, whereas physical humour is completely straight. Laurel and Hardy is slapstick, but Buster Keaton is physical humour.”
Verma has a point. One reason why some critics didn’t get it could be because Delhi Belly is indeed a path-breaking film — it is difficult to think of another film after Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro that has multiple layers of humour working at the same time. Not only are there funny lines in almost every scene, the script is infused with situational humour as well as the humour of character. Plus it is an accomplished film by most cinematic parameters.
Most of all, what distinguishes Delhi Belly is a comic sensibility that you cannot pin down to any one aspect of the film but has to do with the quality of mind of the writer — say, the x-factor that makes a Woody Allen film a Woody Allen film. That is why Delhi Belly cannot be turned into a formula for other Bollywood copycats to replicate. And hopefully, that should mean less struggle, and more demand, for intelligent, funny screenwriters like Akshat Verma.
By G SAMPATH ( Courtesy: DNA)