With Vicky Donor, Piku, and now October, Juhi Chaturvedi has shown that not only is she capable of writing warm, fuzzy characters with big-ass hearts, but also films with great depth and meaning.
The city of Lucknow gave Juhi Chaturvedi two careers. The Lucknow College of Arts and Crafts taught her how to design; the people taught her how to write. The city in which “when Hindi becomes Urdu and Urdu becomes Hindi” is unclear is also the city in which “mazak udana ek kala hai [making fun of people is an art].” While growing up in this biracial city, Chaturvedi learnt to listen and learnt to respond. So, when the time came to put pen to paper, she knew what her characters would say to each other. Chaturvedi has written two chatty films (Vicky Donor and Piku) and one quiet film (the recently released October). She is aware that along with “swollen eyes,” October has also touched viewers subliminally. “This was a film that had to be experienced just the way Dan (played by Varun Dhawan) was experiencing,” she says. “I wanted the audience to experience those silences. If everything was just said, they would have heard that and gone back. But, because there were long silences, it allowed them to speak to themselves.” In October, Dan visits a colleague, Shiuli, who has slipped into coma, almost every day for a year. They have no prior relationship; they’re not even friends. But, for some reason, Dan waits, and loses his heart.
Chaturvedi was able to take a few creative risks while writing October, because of the love her other films had received. “Piku after Vicky Donor allowed me to experiment more with this. October is so different from Vicky Donor, but there’s a Piku in between. It is the bridge. I feel my job as a writer is not to think of the commercials or the risks. My job is to be true to the story, to the characters, to the purpose. The purpose here was to make Dan realise, ‘Where are you?’ I just wrote towards that. Without Varun’s buy in, no matter what vision Shoojit (Sircar, director) and I had, [it wouldn’t have worked]. He knew right from the beginning. In our conversations also he would say, ‘Sometimes you need to do a film that you need to do. Just for your own personal growth.’ That is how he also approached it. There was a lot of sanctity right from the beginning. Maybe it would have made a few less crores, but so be it.” Chaturvedi’s goal, while writing the film, was to find answers to a few burning questions: “When there is no defined relationship, whether of blood or of life, would you still do something for someone? Would you still be by that person’s side when there is nothing that you’ll get in return? I know that selfless love is not just an imaginary thing; it still exists. The making of a person happens on an everyday basis; it’s not one heroic act. Dan is no hero. When a taxi driver tells you, ‘You don’t have five rupees? Jaane do.’ As a person who is earning so much more, you will not sometimes let go of that two rupees. I think there are wonderful people like that around us.”
“Once I wrote the script of Piku, I knew that Vicky Donor hasn’t happened by fluke. I can write. After Piku and after October also, I know that none of this will help me in front of the page. It is starting from zero, that scary screen staring at your face”
Chaturvedi, 43, embarked on her writing career after receiving gentle encouragement from a series of mentors. She was working as an art director in ad agencies, among them Ogilvy & Mather and McCann Erickson, when her bosses picked up on her talents. “Piyush [Pandey] would encourage in a very interesting, diplomatic way. ‘Ki, tum batao line. Tum toh Lucknow ki ho, tumhein pata hoga.’ I don’t even know if he was knowingly doing it. But, I took it as that. So, when I wrote something, he would say, ‘Good, you should write. You know the language. You have ideas. Why don’t you write?’ Then Prasoon Joshi was my boss. He would say, ‘Yeh kya likh ke aaye ho? Isse accha toh peon likh dega [What have you written? The peon can write better than this].’ His language was like that: extremely sarcastic. But, it helped, it worked. He knew that I wasn’t pushing myself. Because I didn’t start to become a writer, my training — when your immediate boss keeps chucking all your things — didn’t happen. After six years of being an art director, suddenly to be a writer, you need to get your work bombed. That fire in your belly comes out stronger.” Sircar, who was a prolific ad film-maker then, had worked with Chaturvedi on a bunch of commercials and approached her to write the dialogues of Shoebite, a film that still hasn’t seen the light of the day. “[I started writing] because Piyush believed in me and Shoojit believed in me. You need recognition of your capabilities.”
Three films later, all with Sircar at the helm, Chaturvedi is clearly one of the most talented writers we have in Hindi films. “Once I wrote the script of Piku, I knew that Vicky Donor hasn’t happened by fluke. I can write. [But], after Piku and after October also, I know that none of this will help me [in front of the page]. It is starting from zero, that scary screen staring at your face. Somehow you just have to commit: first page, first few lines.” In crises like these, Chaturvedi can count on her rich experiences in Lucknow to bail her out: a taste of which I get during our interview. I always assumed that the phrase ‘bhaand mein jaon’ was an iteration of ‘go to hell.’ But, Chaturvedi schools me, “Bhaand is a place where chana-mumphali bhoona jaata hai [It’s a place where you roast peanuts]. It is a dark, dingy cave where you roast chana on medium flame. So, when you say, ‘Bhaand mein jaon,’ it means you deserve to be on that coal.” I genuinely wonder how many Mumbai-born writers would have known that.