There are always a bunch of life experiences and a story behind every storyteller, and the renowned screenplay writer, Advaita Kala is no exception. Today, she happens to be one of the most promising young female writers known for creating exceptional stories like Kahani and Anjana Anjani, which became all-time hits. ‘Filmi Files’ brings to you her journey into the world of writing in an exclusive conversation with Dr. Priyaankaa Mathur.
Advaita had a liberated childhood with a lot of freedom and fewer instructions from her parents, who gave her creativity the impetus to capture her imagination and express them through words. Over time writing became her true nature while she began to express herself by telling stories from her heart.
By the time she reached the age of six years, her urge to tell stories took a form, and she started writing plays and skits along with dialogues. She would gather all her friends from the neighborhood and stage the plays on her balcony. She would create a backdrop with white bedsheets and blow some powder to create a little mist and magical effect on the stage.
Eventually, the time passed, and came her first book as an author ‘Almost Single’ the quintessentially romantic comedy which dealt with the search for the perfect or at least the almost perfect mate. The book became an overnight bestseller that was published in the US and was translated into Hindi and Marathi. Subsequently, she got noticed and started getting offers to write for Bollywood. Being a Storyteller at heart, Advaita took the opportunity to try writing for films, as for her it was just another medium that she wanted to explore and the rest is history. She wrote the films Kahani and Anjana Anjani, which broke the box office records.
PM: How did the transition from writing a book to doing a film script happen and what role does a medium play for her as a writer?
AK: I always take myself as a storyteller and not as an author, a screenplay writer, or a political commentator. It’s the medium that defines itself, which could be a book, a film, a web series, or an article in a publication, which is fact-based with journalistic tone and a tenor. I also feel that many times the story defines the medium too. Sometimes when I do a true story the best way to take it to the readers is through an article in a newspaper or a publication.
Switching mediums is not difficult at all because when I like a subject, I’m already writing it in my mind, as to how will I tell this story, even before I start writing it with a pen and paper.
Being a Delhi girl Advaita lives a normal life away from the glitz of the tinsel town, its stereotypes, and the formula stories of the film industry in Mumbai. She observes and takes inspirations and references from true incidents, social and political scenarios. While her thought is fresh and innovative, it helps her bring new ideas and concepts to the table.
PM: What inspired you to create the character Vidya Bagchi in Kahani?
AK: I was in the US at the time of the 26/11 attack, and I felt it very closely. I knew people who were caught up in the attack, who suffered in those hours of agony and eventually died. That entire episode gave me an impetus to create a real-life visualization in my mind. At times you feel like taking revenge, but you can’t do it in real life. So it works well to create fictional characters in cinema and theatre to make it possible, and the character Vidya Bagchi became that manifestation then.
PM: So did you have Vidya Balan in your mind before you wrote the script?
AK: From the very beginning, Sujoy Ghosh and I knew that Vidya Balan would be the perfect character for this role. Incidentally, I got to meet Vidya at a wedding and tried to absorb her body language and nuances, even before I started writing the elaborate script. Kahani was a script that had many twists, and kind of cheated the audiences. Despite her being a great actor, there was so much of her true self that permeated through the character. She brought that reality to the subject to make the audience believe in the story till it opened up in the climax.
PM: You brought unconventional stories and genres to the Indian audiences, how did you do that?
AK: I feel lucky about making the right choices in my writing career and eventually becoming a silo breaker. Like for my book ‘Almost Single’ it was regarded as the Bridget Jones of India, as the genre romantic-comedy was first time attempted here. Similarly in Kahani, I was able to do something different from what was then in the norms.
Writers are first readers, and Advaita is no exception, who loves to explore both fiction and non-fiction novels, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christy being her favorite childhood heroes. She rather loves to grab a book in her free time, than choosing to write, as for her reading is a pleasure and writing is work.
PM: Indian cinema has seen a huge change in trends, genres, and the evolving nature of stories from being of romantic, happy, and jovial nature till the last decade, to now getting more dark, scary, and thrilling, why do we see this change?
AK: We are going through a dark phase already in the pandemic era, as we are living more of isolated lives. We don’t meet our families, don’t share our joys and sorrows, although digitally connected, it’s not in its true nature. This has led to loneliness, trauma, anxiety, stress, and mental health issues as a result of the fracturing of relationships.
There is an increased level of frustration in people resulting in increased crime and cases of murders, rapes, and suicides. The films are the portrayal of our society, which has given the darker mystery quotient to the cinema. But, I don’t complain about it, as it gives a whole new canvas to play with, to a writer.
PM: In Anjana Anjani, the story threw light on two youngsters trying to commit suicide but later drop the idea, which makes it a very inspiring story, what’s your take on this issue?
AK: Well, unfortunately, India has the highest suicide numbers in the world and certain alarming things are happening in our society like mental health suicides, which has a lot of stigma around it. If we start looking at it as an illness without any judgment and let the people come forward with their issues, a lot many people can be saved from committing suicide.
PM: How much flexibility is given to the actors to present a character and do you welcome their suggestions?
AK: Well, an actor is a medium to portray the character and through them, it comes to life. I feel blessed to have worked with the best talent in the industry at this time. Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, and Vidya Balan, all three of them are very good actors. Not only that, but they are also very intelligent individuals and are very sensitive to the nuances of the character and so you do want to hear their opinion and take on the character.
What I recall from my observation, I strongly feel that Ranbir Kapoor will one day become a superb director. I say this not just because of his genes, but his approach to a take, his observation, and the sensibility he possesses, says it all.
PM: Can dark stories inspire people towards going the wrong way?
AK: Well, it depends on how the audience takes it like we see a high level of sexualization being shown on YouTube which suddenly pops up in between the music videos, which is open for all and not just +18 bracket, which may influence kids. Yes, there is that element of influence, which one can’t deny, but it doesn’t mean you stop telling those stories, as long as you don’t glorify the villain.
PM: What is the difference between a script and a screenplay writing in a film?
AK: You write the story in a basic script about what all happens in the film which includes the dialogues. A screenplay showcases what all is happening on the screen and is much more detailed with many things in it from the background, environment, characters and their interaction, and dialogues delivery.
In film making the scriptwriter or the screenplay writer is not the only storyteller, but one of the storytellers. Sometimes the screenplay is written in such a way that a film can be made in an entirely different way, and the third layer to it is, how the actor portrays it. He may decide to carry a certain look for the character, which changes the entire screenplay, while a scene shot in daylight instead of the night can change the entire screenplay. So a screenplay can be written in a certain way, but a film can be made in an entirely different way. That is the reason certain directors work with the same teams including the same writers, cinematographers, and actors, since if they are speaking the same language creatively, which shows in the output.
PM: How important is a script and screenplay to make a film a hit or a flop?
AK: Well! Movie-making is a team effort, so only one person cannot take the credit for a successful film and only one person cannot take the blame for a flop. The screenplay is the most important element of a film on which a film is based and without it, you can’t make a film.
PM: What are your favorite genres as a writer, and what drives you?
AK: I am open to exploring any genre as a writer be it political space, suspense, thrillers, and comedy. What drives me are good characters and I love to create interesting diverse people. I strongly feel that women in the industry don’t get so many opportunities in terms of exploring characterization, so I always enjoy creating strong layered female characters.
PM: Would you like to work with the new crop of directors?
AK: I would love to work with new directors as I feel that they are far more adventurous and try new things. They are open to suggestions, and want to do things differently and draw their line. Since that hunger is there, it becomes very exciting for a writer because you work with someone who takes chances to tell different stories. Of course, it’s prestigious to work with great directors which gives a lot of opportunities to learn.
PM: How has the digital media helped the writers?
AK: I feel digital media platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar, Voot all have given more importance to writers, which the big screen could not do so much, in terms of creating an appreciation for the content. Now more quality work and attention is paid to content as compared to earlier. I’m sure they are here to stay, as they will redefine how cinema is going to be.
PM: Digital media format has short crisp interesting film content rather than long 3 hour films, how do you see this change as a writer?
AK: Well, on the digital media films are getting made faster and there is a lot of professionalism in execution, while the canvas of a film is of course much larger. Although to watch a 3-hour film on a big screen in theatres is a visual delight, but unless it’s a magnum opus I think a 3-hour film is now history. For quite some time we have already seen films which are one hour twenty minutes and are not even two hours now. It’s all because the attention span of the audience is reducing.
For Advaita writing is not a goal per se, but a passion and she only takes the projects to which she is passionately connected. She loves to dwell in activism and doing political commentaries, which create an impact. Being amongst the most sought-after new generation writers in the industry, Advaita has a strong line-up of future releases. She has just finished writing the Season-2 of Illegal with Neha Sharma, which is being shot, and a show with Ekta Kapoor, along with a project with Abundantia Entertainment to name a few.