Television

"Reject the cliches. Whatever comes to your mind first is the easy way out" : Ishan Trivedi scriptwriter

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For someone who was pursuing geology at Kumaon University in the beautiful and quiet town of Nainital; National School of Drama (NSD) sure was a different leaf to turn. And the turn has led him on a different road - one he loves and lives on.

The creative brain behind more than two-dozen screenplays of the episodes of Rishtey, Star Bestsellers, Saturday Suspense, and X-Zone, Trivedi has also been penning shows like Ketan Mehta's Mr. Yogi, Amol Palekar's Mrignayani, Manju Singh's Ek Kahani and Darshan, Ajai Sinha's Samay and the award winning Justujoo.

Apart from that, he has worked on the BBC sitcom adaptation for Indian television One Foot In The Grave, Doordarshan's popular cultural magazine Surabhi and a magazine on environmental issues Bhoomi. He has also produced a daily soap called Ye Dil Kya Kare for Zee.

Bolstering his career graph, are his stints as commissioning editor with Star Plus in 1995-96 and Zee TV in 1996-97.

His ambit includes not only television but also extends to films. Dialogues of blockbuster Bollywood movies like Ghulam, Aisa To Na Tha (a film still in the making), among others come from this man's creative juices.

Ishan Trivedi spoke to indiantelevision.com's Richa Singh about his work and the issues that surround his work. Excerpts:

What brought you to scriptwriting?

I'm from Nainital and we had a theatre group over there. Since I was interested in pursuing it as a career, I applied at the National School of Drama (NSD) and got selected. That's how it all started.

At NSD, I had adapted a Scottish play. Somebody chanced upon it and asked me to write a series called Bargad for Pradeep Krishan. Arundhati Roy was doing the screenplay. Then in the late eighties, I came down to Bombay and worked with Ketan Mehta for about three years.

But what happened in Bombay is interesting. There were a lot of writers in the industry, but not many respected deadlines. So if somebody comes around with respect for deadlines, then work starts rolling. That is exactly what happened with me. I don't know whether I was good or bad, but I always wanted to make television serials and films. I had specialised in direction at NSD. There was no course in writing in those days.

And now that you are on the faculty of a scriptwriting course - Qalam 2003, what is the most important lesson that these new scriptwriters can imbibe from your experience?

Reject the clichés. Whatever comes to your mind first is the easy way out. It is something that you've seen and heard over a period of time. It is déj? vu.

I think one should always be willing to break the 'set' mould. Only then will you grow as a writer. Unfortunately, most of the times the producers, channels, directors demand that 'this is what works currently and this is what you have to write'. For me personally, whether I'm successful or not, I've never been into trends. Agreed that one has to write as per the market, but you need not cater to the market all the time.

Second thing is that it is a discipline like any other job. Deadlines are deadlines.

You are very particular about timing.

I strictly adhere to the deadline, don't miss it even by a minute. That is what makes me very popular among producers. And I realise that most of us are cheating on that aspect because we take up too many projects and don't really focus on what we should be doing.

Also, I sometimes feel that most writers tend to compartmentalise themselves. Instead of interacting with the real world outside, they are on their computer or notebook writing 10-12 hours a day. That is when they stop growing and follow clichés.

Read as much as you can, see a lot of movies, theatre, and go to a lot of painting exhibitions...

So, basically you derive your learning curve from experience and interaction.

A scene can be done in 50 different ways. So unless you start exploring those paths you will dish out the same fare. It will earn you your bread, but the growth stops. Television, as a medium, wouldn't grow; films don't grow either.

"For a successful channel, even a slight drop in TRPs is like a sword hanging on their heads"

Since you've brought up this correlation between clichés and growth, what's your take on the fact that scripts often change with TRPs because of channel interference?

Channels' logic is that they know what they are doing - their jobs are at stake. So most of the times, channels dictate what they think is right. But their point of view may or may not be shared by writers or producers.

Of course, for a successful channel, even a slight drop in TRPs is like a sword hanging on their heads. But at the same time, I feel that there should be that space for conversation between producers and channels.

Do you view it as a compromise - as an encroachment of your space?

Obviously yes. But since the channels help you earn your bread, you can't afford to antagonise them. Nobody's going to say no to what the channel demands. It's a sad scenario.

But how significant are TRP ratings for you - do they influence what you write or how you write?

To be honest, yes. If I'm writing a show like Justujoo, which is appreciated by all and wins all the awards but doesn't get high TRPs, it bugs me. In such a scenario, you are not very sure whether what you are making is going down well with the audience or is it just being watched by a niche audience. I think it is human that you want to be popular and you want your programme to be popular as well.

Wasn't Justujoo meant for a niche audience?

No. A television programme is not meant for a niche audience unless it's a commissioned programme for select audiences on channels like BBC or Discovery or to some extent even Doordarshan.

Currently, you are writing and directing a licensed BBC sitcom for Star Plus - Kaua Chala Hans Kee Chaal. What is it about and when can we see it?

It is an adaptation of Keeping Up Appearances. It was a hugely popular programme way back in 1992 in the UK. It's about a woman who wants to be what she's not. Her aspirations are page three aspirations. In India, 'page three' is not such a known phenomenon. Even in Bombay, not a lot of people would be reading Bombay Times, page 3. We have made it keeping in mind the audience who don't.

We have wrapped up 13 episodes. In fact, deliveries will start some time next month. Once they have a battery of four episodes, they will slot it somewhere.

What has been your contribution in the adaptation - have you taken a lot of liberties with the script?

Apart from direction, I am in the writers' team. I have written six of the 13 episodes.

We also knew that the British sense of humour is not what would work here. But then, because it is a licensed programme, we couldn't deviate too much. At the same time, we presume that we know what our audiences' tastes are. Accordingly, we converted situations and adapted characters. The structure remains the same, but the tone and the humour changes. The dialogues are 'Indianised'.

What are the other projects you are working on?

As far as TV is concerned, none. I am writing two films for Ajai Sinha. One is Uphaar, which is about Indo-Pak relations and the other is Stop, which is about friendship - you could call it a crossover film.

Also I'm writing and directing a feature film called Sapna Hai, Sach Hai, Kahaani Hai. I am in process of signing Irfaan Khan, while talks are on with Govind Namdeo, Anand Desai, Vijay Kashyap and Lalit Tiwari.

It's a small budget film scheduled to go on floor from 1 December. It's about television channels and how they start dictating what is to be followed by real people - how they get involved with reality or the real world. It's an idea we'd been working on for the past four-five months.

Which genre do you enjoy writing for most? If you have to make a choice, which one would you rather not do without?

A genre that is not happening currently, at least on TV - which is - thrillers.

But you do have thrillers Balaji's 'Kya Haadsa…' on weekends on TV these days.

Not exactly those kinds of thrillers. But the real-real thrillers... maybe a mystery. A thriller may not necessarily be about crime - it can be about relationships also, probably like... Star Bestsellers.

How has been the reaction to your telefilms - audience as well as channel reactions?

Star Bestsellers were of 45 minutes duration. The slot was meant for telefilms so the channel was calling them telefilms. They were calling them telefilms because they were giving huge budgets and were treating them as films. For a 90 minute telefilm, there was no slot anywhere, ever.

So why do you think we don't have a market for telefilms?

The moment you call them telefilms people withdraw. In America, they have channels showing alternative cinema where they produce films exclusively for television. Big stars are called and huge budgets are allotted.

In India, we have a very restricted market and the same people are busy with television… so there is no time for alternative cinema. Then again, the budgets are meagre. For instance Josh. They had the budget, they shot it on film and they treated it like a film. Whether it was good or bad, I won't be able to comment but that is the treatment you need for a film. Even for series like Kashmeer, the budget was not very high which means you make a lot of compromises in terms of logistics, so neither became a big game.

In America, even a Tom Hanks would appear in a television film. That is the difference. People don't want to see the same television actors repeating in a 90 minute film. So there's no difference between television programmes and telefilms.

Is writing satisfying in terms of remuneration? What is the payment structure like?

It is a highly paying job right now. Writers are demanding their pound of flesh and they are very well paid, at least on TV. They are at par with any other profession. At times, a writer gets more than a director does.

It usually goes from Rs 5,000 to Rs 40,000 per episode.

How about the new writers - are they getting a raw deal or are they paid as well?

In the beginning, people are exploited. But slowly as you prove your worth, you can start demanding from five - seven to 10 - 15.

Way back in 1989, I used to get Rs 2,000 per episode.

"Writers are demanding their pound of flesh and they are very well paid, at least on TV"

How much time does it take for you to pen an episode?

I am one of the slowest writers. For one episode, I take two to three days. There are people who are writing two episodes in a day.

What about the quality of output?

If they are talented, why not?

What are the other problems you faced as a writer in this industry? How do you deal with them?

I think the biggest problem is of perception. If you are the person who's paying me, it is you who is calling the shots, dictating the structure of the episode, the emotional spine and the spectrum. Sometimes a writer feels like breaking out but is not allowed.

But TV has been good to writers as far as getting payments is concerned. In films, it's a big problem, say, if you sign a contract for Rs 100, most of the times you wouldn't get more than Rs 50-60. That is the most frustrating aspect of film writing. Films have their own clichés but there are times when you can really achieve something that has never been done before. In television, it is very restricted.

So how do you switch on and off between television and films?

Because of television, I can survive. If I were only exclusively writing for films, I would not have.

Survival - as in steady income?

Film producers are cheaters! Most writers in films are getting four-five lakhs and even that is not being paid to them.

You prepare a draft, fulfill your commitment but there is no cheque. Then dishonesty creeps in the whole deal. They always say 'the story is the star' but then what about the writers who create that story. Of course there are pretensions in television too, but then television pays the writer.

So quite evidently, you enjoy television more than films.

Yes, I've written very few films. I do get offers for films but they are fraught with danger.

Once I was promised five lakhs after a lot of bargain. But I got only one lakh.

Seems like you have burnt your fingers, and you still want to work for films. Why?

I have burnt my fingers all the time and it does put me off. But right now I'm directing my own film and for producers who are very honest in their dealings.

Does the credit given to a television writer justify the effort put in?

In the credit scroll, my credit comes just before the actors. In television, writers are respected. Of course, no one will come for autographs because they don't know the writers. Even the media doesn't talk much about scriptwriters. But if you go to the sets, everyone gives you that respect because they know that you are the one who is creating the story and their characters.

"I don't think we are a nation that is interested in literature at all"

Our scripts don't draw on our rich Hindi and regional literature. Why?

But how many amongst us know who are the prominent names in literature? I could tell you instances when people have asked me who Premchand is! 'Is he a producer?' I don't think we are a nation that is interested in literature at all.

There is no market for literature. It is only in the second stage where you turn literature into a visual medium.

How many people buy literature? How many buy books? In India, very few.

If you were to make a literature based script, who's literature will it be?

I would prefer Jaiprakash who is a new wave writer. But I don't think it will happen. (Smirks) Nobody would allow me to base my script on some literature piece.

Do you think 'different' story ideas like Sony's 'Jassi...', which is an adaptation of Yo Soy Betty La Fea, will play a role in freeing the script from the saas-bahu shackle?

I was supposed to be one of the writers for Jassi..., but I didn't have time for that. It is a good sign that people are liking something that is different from the saas-bahu sagas. If more such stories work, the programmer's point of view will change. But in the meanwhile, a whole lot of generations get sacrificed. If a change comes after 15 years, scores of writers will be finished and done with by then.

Do you think this is parallel to the similar phenomenon of crossover films - is it a passing fad or will it stay?

It should stay and it would stay because of the market's own logistics. You can make a film in Rs 20 million. But because of the viability such kind of films are produced. If out of 20, one film clicks, it is better than one out of 100 similar plots. I hope it stays because it gives a person like me scope to write different stories.

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