Independent cinema with good scripts have future

MUMBAI: There is a strong future for independent cinema in India that can focus on telling stories without first worrying about stars, music.

This was the general view of screenwriters from India and overseas at a session at the Ficci Frames convention here.

The screenwriters included an array from all over the world: Jose Rivera who was nominated for an Oscar for ‘The Motorcycle Diaries‘, Guillermo Arriaga who has also been nominated and has written films like ‘Babel‘ and ‘Amorres Perros‘, Shekhar Kapur who made ‘Elizabeth‘ and ‘Bandit Queen‘, Kasi Lemmons who has made African American films like ‘Eve‘s Bayou‘, Asif Kapadia who won a BAFTA award for his documentary ‘Senna‘ which was earlier screened at Frames, Michael Goldenberg who wrote the screenplay for ‘Harry Potter and The Order Of The Phoenix‘, and Audrey Wells who wrote ‘Under the Tuscan Sun‘ among other films.

The discussion came in the backdrop of the Sundance Institute tying up with Mumbai Mantra for a Screenwriter‘s lab initiative. The first one was held recently over five days. Similar labs will be held over the next three years. The aim is to give aspiring screenwriters a chance to show their ideas and screenplays to established global screenwriters. A total of 500 applications were received and eight aspiring screenwriters were chosen. They had one-on-one sessions with the global screenwriters and ideas were exchanged.

Lemmons noted that there was a lot of variety in the scripts that were selected."There were personal stories about a personal vision whether funny or sad. In each country, the screenwriters‘ lab is a way to get in touch with the culture. The scripts I saw in India had both a gentleness and a passion of spirit."

Arriaga said the scripts of the aspiring Indian screenwriters were very human. Humanity was on the surface and the screenplays revealed contradictions. There were different screenplays including a fable about handicapped people. Goldenberg felt that while the cultural specifics are different, there is universality in stories. He was struck by the generosity in spirit of the Indian writers and feels that their stories deserve to be told.

Rivera said looking at the talent available, the future for independent cinema in India is wonderful."I did not know what to expect before coming to India. But I found that the quality was high and the range of obsessions was broad. Different themes were explored in the screenplays, such as migration, caste, religious intolerance. Unselfish themes emerged in the screenplays and I was impressed by the screenwriters‘ desire for a global voice."

Wells felt that some of the scripts she had seen would travel abroad if made into films. The theme of pain does not belong to any one country. She called the stories, beautiful, advanced and unrestricted. Kapadia noted that partnership between Sundance and India which loves movies will allow screenwriters to just focus on the story without worrying about stars, music etc."At the lab I heard intelligence and I heard from people who know how to tell stories. The lab will allow writers to feel confidence and be able to tell stories in any way."

Kapur noted that the problem in India, Hollywood and even in China does not lie in lack of screenwriters. But people are not willing to listen. What is needed are less suits and more people who are wiling to listen. That is what the global screenwriters did at the lab. The issue is that people only look at empirical data. They ask screenwriters if they can produce something similar to the last hit film."But when you listen then you understand the idea of storytelling and filmmaking."

The global screenwriters were also asked about that what the starting point was for their scripts. Lemmons said she was an actress and the casting director had wanted her to tell a story. So she had narrated the story of an aunt and then asked herself who was responsible if a child was angry at a parent and something bad happened. This shaped the idea for ‘Eves Bayou‘ which existed on two levels – metaphysical and realistic. "If two people in a family remember an event in two different ways, where does the truth lie?", she asked.

Ariagga‘s starting point was when he bought a dog at the age of nine. The dog was ugly but used to fight other dogs. His dog killed 100 dogs in fights. People loved to bet on his dog. He wanted to write a story about that dog and so ‘Amorres Perros‘ was born.

Goldenberg said Harry Potter was the most personal film he has worked on as he connected with the themes in the film like the struggle of adolescence, rage, fear etc. It was also the most independent experience he has had as there was no worry about whether the film would make money. He could just focus on the story."We could focus on finding the best way to tell the story. It was a situation where the producers trusted the director".

Rivera said an image and the question of ‘what if‘ is his starting point. Something arresting comes into his field of vision that he cannot let go of. He gave the example of a pregnant woman whom he saw on the side of the road when he was driving one day. It was raining but he did not stop his car. He wondered subsequently what could have happened if he had stopped.

Wells said when she first moved to Los Angeles, she did not have much money and did not know anybody. One day she went to a cliff on a beach and imagined that she was talking to an older version of herself. This notion became a film ‘The Kid‘ with Bruce Willis where Willis‘ character as an adult who converses with himself as a boy."I exploit my own strangeness which serves as a fertile ground for my movies."

Kapur said that he wants to own every character in a film. He wants to understand every character. ‘Bandit Queen‘ was about a situation that happened 200 miles from his village and he felt angry that he did not do anything. He examined his manhood and directed anger at himself. His aim is to bring characters to an emotional idea that he has experienced. According to him, if a film is good then the audience will be able to see their own story in the film. If a film is really good, then viewers will see a different story ten years down the line.

Kapadia said he had initially begun writing ‘Warrior‘ as a Japanese film but then changed the setting to Rajasthan. Earlier, he had tried to write a screenplay set in London about his own experiencs but nobody was interested. With ‘Senna‘ he did not want to do the normal interviews. He wanted it to be more visual."You have to trust your gut and instinct".

Wells touched on the issue of unspoken dialogue. Her fear is that directors will not shoot what is unsaid but which must be communicated. Lemmons agreed, saying that often what is happening around the dialogue is more important."Screenplay goes beyond dialogue."

The panel of screenwriters were also asked about their fears. Kapur said that fear is about doubts that come in one‘s mind. That is why writers do their best work when they are in a state of panic as the deadline draws nearer."The screenwriters then propel themselves into a no doubt zone." Rivera fears running out of time to do things he should be doing."Writing is a relationship and it has never disappointed. I should fear that one day it will let me down but I don‘t."

Lemmons said that fear exists in terms of starting to write a screenplay. Characters talk in her ear for a long time and she worries about how to get on the page. But once the process starts then things get better. Kapadia said that he has not written anything for a long time and has just been directing films. The lab made him think about going back to writing something. His fear is how he goes about doing things when he sits in front of a blank piece of paper. Wells noted that writing is not easy. If it was easy then more people would be doing it. It is about shutting off the phone and going to a lonely place.

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