"The 20-odd minutes of the latest episode are more important these days than the story per se" : Sandhya Divecha

Sandhya Divecha does not qualify as a conventional writer. She comes with a rich experience from the world of advertising and has been producing ad films and documentaries for close to two decades now. But then creativity finds its own outlets, as happened in her case.

After writing jingles for several ad films, scripting documentaries, a Gujarati sitcom and co-scripting a Hindi feature film, Divecha took to full time writing in 1998. Some popular serials written by her include a sitcom,Chamatkar, directed by Anant Mahadevan; Papa, a daily soap produced by Tracinema and a docu-drama - Agnichakra

Agnichakra stood out because of its hard-hitting depiction of oft-concealed crimes against women and children. To have extensive research done, to authenticate facts, to create stories out of disparate facts, to select stories that made sense to viewers and to finally script these stories into episodes that attracted decent viewership was a challenging task which Divecha met with aplomb and conviction.

Indiantelevision.com's correspondent, Amar met Divecha at her residence in suburban Mumbai for a tete-a- tete.

How and when did you decide to take to writing?

Actually writing was not a planned career move. I was into ad film production in the early 1980s, when someone suggested that I also write the jingles myself. After that, I scripted a few ad films and found it an enjoyable experience. But I have taken to full time writing only in the last three years.

What are the qualities required of an effective writer?

A writer needs to be a person driven by conviction. He/she needs to be well read, a keen observer with high curiosity levels. A writer needs to be able to relate with the motivations and psyches of people very different from oneself. He/ she needs to have the power of imagination, ways of looking at things from perspectives totally alien from one's own. Above all, he/she needs to be adjustable and a good team man.

Could you describe the process of writing a docu-drama - the way it was done for Agnichakra?

We had a research team that carried out extensive research and brought to us the outline of all relevant cases. Thereafter, we would brainstorm and select the cases that really stood out and weave stories around these cases. These stories would then be forwarded to the channel and once approved, we would carry out further research. See, simple facts don't give you an insight into the character sketches or the emotions. These things have to be developed by us by virtue of our imagination and this is the most important job of a writer of documentaries and docu-dramas. Once the story and characters are in place, the screenplay and dialogues follow.

Some of the most successful soaps today epitomise mediocrity and regressiveness and are nothing more than rehashed stories of family dramas seen in films in the 1960s.


How different is scripting a docu-drama vis-?-vis fiction?

The basic and most significant difference between a documentary/ docu-drama and fiction is that the approach varies from story to story in documentaries. The thrust may be on detection in some stories, while it may be on the causative factors or on the nature of the crime in others. Each story needs to be structured accordingly. As against this, fiction more or less follows a linear format.

Which subjects appeal the most to you?

None in particular. As a writer, I would like to work on as many genres as possible. I have written for series as diverse as Rishtey and X-Zone. I also read books on a wide range on subjects. So I really can't say that a particular subject appeals more to me than others.

Could you tell us about the process of scripting a documentary?

A documentary can be scripted in two ways. Either a director, along with his team of cameramen simply goes out and shoots extensive footage on a given subject. In this case, the designing of the programme structure and the scripting is done on the basis of the footage shot. The other option involves extensive research on the subject beforehand, on the basis of which the scripting is done. At the time of shooting, the director goes in accordance with the script.

Which of these ways is a more feasible option from the writer's point of view?

This is a matter of personal opinion. Both methods have their pros and cons. While it is always beneficial to have research done beforehand, most of the times the budget just doesn't permit it. At the same time, there is a possibility that despite research, the director may feel very strongly about shooting something that is not contained in the script

You've been a part of Indian television right from its early days. How has writing on TV evolved over the years?

It's deteriorated all the way, with things getting worse in the last two years. It is unfortunate that some of the most successful soaps today epitomize mediocrity and regressiveness and are nothing more than rehashed stories of family dramas seen in films in the 1960s.

Why has this happened? Is there a dearth of good quality writers?

I would blame it on several factors. Firstly, in the last eight years (after satellite channels started beaming in India), business has grown at a very fast pace but talented manpower has not been able to keep pace with it. Secondly, in the cluttered scenario that exists today, channels are always looking at the lowest common denominator and are exploring ways to reduce costs in whichever way they can. Besides, this is an instant age. The 20 odd minutes of the latest episode is more important than the story per se. If these 20 minutes can keep the audience captivated, I think your work is done.

A successful TV writer has to be a channel's/ producer's/director's man.

What is your writing schedule like?

I don't have a definite schedule. It depends on my frame of my mind and the pressure of work.

Does TV writing pay well?

Yes and no. You get paid well when your serial is on air. Otherwise, if you are just waiting for your concepts or stories to get approved, you might have to go through a bad phase financially.

Is the process of scripting a promo or an advertisement any different?

The whole idea of scripting a promo is to create a hook in the story that would make people want to see it, just to find out more. A channel promo can be a very different exercise though. It could be more of an editing exercise, wherein the editor picks out several scenes from different programmes and creates a kind of collage. In this case, scripting has a minimal role. As far as scripting an ad film goes, it has to be scripted in tandem with the overall marketing plan of the product. For instance, if a particular brand of coffee just entering the market is aiming at creating consumption among the youth, the catch line will have to be thought of with that objective in mind. Scripting for an ad film has to be done in conjunction with the client servicing team and is more of an exercise in copywriting.

TV writing is often said to be a thankless job with the director calling the shots. Your comments?

It's not just the director. On TV, the producer is as involved, and above all, it's the channel' verdict that matters most. So a successful TV writer has to be a channel's/ producer's/director's man. A writer needs to be flexible in his thoughts and should be able to mould them according to the demands of the situation. It's one thing to write something with all your conviction but if that does not go well with the channel or if the director feels that it would not come out so well, there is no point sticking to it.

Are you satisfied with your innings as writer?

No, I am not. There's a lot I still need to do.

What does the future hold for you?

I don't know. I've never planned out my career and I have no idea what I'm going to do next. As writer, I will take up whatever I find challenging and whatever appeals to my sensibilities at a given point of time.

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