'I like subjects woven around relationships' : Gajra Kottary

Gajra Kottary started out as a journalist with The Statesman. She first shot into prominence in 1996, when her book - Fragile Victories - a collection of 13 women-centred short stories, was released. Five years later, she is in the news again for her serials - Hamare Tumhare on Zee and Panaah on DD1, both of which are doing well. Gajra has also written most episodes of Kya Aap Khush Hai on DD1.

This apart, Gajra is co-scripting the screenplay, along with Mahesh Bhatt, of two commercial movies to be directed by Tanuja Chandra and produced by Bhatt's Vishesh Films.

Gajra's work is a refreshing relief from the inanity of staid and oft-repeated subjects omnipresent on TV. Her stories, women-oriented and based on relationships, stand out due to the subjects they deal with and the treatment, which can best be described as path-breaking. This explains the popularity of her new serial - Hamare Tumhare - which is barely 15 episodes old.

For someone whose hands are so full with work, Gajra is unbelievably down to earth and unassuming. Her work must surely be keeping her busy, but she doesn't show it. She manages all her roles - as wife (husband Sailesh is a journalist who has been off the circuit so to speak after being commissioned to write a book on the Tata group), mother to her two children - Advait and Aastha - and of course, a competent professional.

Indiantelevision.com's correspondent, Amar, met Gajra at her residence in Mumbai's western suburb of Bandra and came away struck by the inherent grace she possessed, which for him is the mark of a very beautiful person.

How did the idea of being a writer of TV serials and films first come to your mind?

Well, to be frank, it was not a planned move. It so happened that I had written a story. Anupam Kher, who I met at a party liked this story and decided to produce a movie based on it. But unfortunately the project ran into problems and never really took off. But I guess everything in life happens for the best. Once my first attempt at writing a movie failed, I got all the more determined to make it as a writer in this medium.

But writing a book and writing a serial or movie isn't the same. How did you get to know the technalities associated with the work?

I realised that if I had to do well in this medium, I would have to learn the nuances from someone who has already excelled in the medium. So I took the initiative and personally approached Aruna Raje, who has always been an inspiration for me. We scripted episodes of Saturday Suspense and Rishtey together (both series appeared on Zee TV).

What are the natural instincts required to be an effective writer?

An effective writer needs to have a psychological insight into characters very different from his/her own along with a good sense of drama. Besides, he/she needs to be a keen observer and a sensitive human being.

What kind of subject normally appeals to you?

I like to dwell on subjects where the protagonist is a woman and the story is woven around relationships. By that I don't mean the normal saas-bahu (mother-in-law and daughter-in-law) conflicts. The protagonist in my serials is a modern working woman and the issues explored and the treatment are more pragmatic and contemporary

While sketching your characters, do you go by an idealistic perspective or a practical perspective?

A practical perspective, absolutely. See, one thing that always needs to be borne in mind while writing a serial is that all characters need to have some shades of grey. This is very important for developing the various plots and sub-plots as the serial progresses.

How important is it for you to have a ready storyboard before you start working on the script?

Very important. Having the story ready gives me a definite direction to move in. For instance, in the case of Hamare Tumhare (about two sisters), at the very start, I had worked out the story for the first 20 episodes. Subsequently, I started focussing on the story and screenplay of four episodes at a time.

Do real-life incidents play a role in your writing?

Oh yes, they do. See, the idea of exploring the relationship between two sisters who have a huge age-gap between them had been there on my mind for some time. Often, I've observed that the elder sister out of guardian-like concern starts controlling the life of the younger sibling. While the younger sibling appreciates her love and care, too much of control also makes her resentful after a point. The elder sister is unable to comprehend this unprovoked revulsion and this creates a lot of misunderstanding between the two. To an extent, I feel something similar had happened between my sister and me and this forms the backdrop of the story of Hamare Tumhare.

Do you identify with any of the characters you've created?

With quite a few of them in fact. I identify with the character of Pallavi Joshi in Hamare Tumhare. In her youth, she had been impulsive and committed a few mistakes but over the years, she has matured into a very sensible and fine human being.

I also identify with the character Reena Wadhwa plays in Panaah (a story of two friends), whose strong sense of values stands out.

Have you been inspired by western movies/soaps in your writing?

No, not at all. I hardly watch English movies and have not had the time to follow a soap regularly either. If at all, I refer to my own collection of stories.

Do you write in English or Hindi?

In English and that's mainly because I've been habituated to writing in this language. Once the screenplay is ready, the dialogue writers take over and write the dialogues in Hindi. But there are places where I feel a particular dialogue would produce the right impact and make a short note of it for the dialogue writers.

But I am fairly comfortable with Hindi also. I've written the lyrics of the title songs of Panaah and Kya Aap Khush Hai.

Does writing require isolation from people for long hours in order to concentrate?

Not really. Only when I am developing the story I need about two hours of unhindered concentration. Otherwise while writing the screenplay, I can manage with a few disturbances. I don't mind helping out my kids with their homework or receiving phone calls even when I'm writing. In fact I like the feel of people around me. I would find it awkward to write the whole night, like I've heard some writers do.

What kind of a writing schedule do you follow?

See, I have a few in-days and a few out-days (laughs). Out days are when I like all my meetings for the week scheduled. On these days I am out of home the whole day and on returning home in the evening, I don't think about work. 'In Days' are when I am at home the whole day and I write. I might write for a couple of hours in the morning, a couple in the afternoon and depending on my mood, a couple in the evening. In between, I try to give as much attention to my kids as possible.

Many writers feel that the authenticity of what they have visualised gets eroded at times if the director has different ideas? Have you ever felt the same?

Yes I have. But it works the other way also. Sometimes I have seen that a particular scene has come out much better than I've expected, thanks to the director's improvisation. I guess a little bit of shift for better or worse is inevitable unless the same person is writing and directing.

But doesn't that tempt you to don the mantle of a director yourself?

Oh, I would love to direct. But again I need to learn the nuances of the job. With the amount of writing I am doing nowadays, that is not possible at the moment.

How is writing for a serial different from writing for a movie?

There is a lot of differences. On TV, due to budgetary constraints, the visual aspect has to be limited. As a writer, I need to keep this in mind when I develop situations. This is not the case with movies. Again, like I've said before, on TV all characters need to have some shades of grey whereas in movies the protagonists generally symbolise moral correctness. TV requires you to carve out umpteen plots and subplots whereas movies require you to compress all your ideas in a few scenes.

What do you feel of the present dominance of daily soaps from the writer's perspective?

Well, I haven't written one but I believe it is very tough and demanding.

Do you personally watch daily soaps?

Personally, as a viewer, these soaps don't attract me though I do watch them occasionally just to find out what makes them click. But then, we're often told that upper middle class career women are not quite the target audience for these soaps. In fact, I could be writing a daily soap soon just to experience the challenge.

Akash Khurana was recently quoted as saying that there is a) no sincerity and passion in TV writing, b) no absorbing screenplays nowadays. Do you agree?

To a large extent, he is right. But that is also because TV by itself is a very limiting medium. The problem gets compounded when a serial keeps getting extended unnecessarily. For instance, Saans, which started off so well, began to sag when the screenplay of the later episodes had nothing new to offer. If I were writing Saans, I would rather have introduced some fresh characters to maintain the freshness.

Who are your favourite writers?

Krishna Sobti, Ismat Chughtai and Gulzaarsaab.

Which has been the happiest moment of your career?

The telecast of the first episode of Panaah which is my first totally independent work of fiction.

Where do you see yourself ten years down the line?

Having created a niche for myself as a writer of movies, though I wouldn't be quitting television.

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