Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi believes in living her characters, before putting them down on paper, and the stories she weaves are proof that it’s a formula that works wonders. Here’s getting into the mind of a storyteller, and everything she dreams of.

Before Juhi Chaturvedi started writing Vicky Donor, she went and lived in Lajpat Nagar, to experience what Delhi boy Vicky would be like. In a heartfelt interview, she explained how October’s Shiuli was written from a personal space, her mother had a hemorrhage when she was in class 2 or 3, and till her mother’s passing, she was always in and out of hospitals. For a writer, a blank screen is always a point to freeze. But that never means you write something to fill up space. It’s understood, but seldom is it practiced. However, Chaturvedi shall not, will not write, unless she’s sure every word, every vice, and every virtue makes sense. Does that take time? Sure. But for her characters, Chaturvedi has all the time in the world.

 “My storytelling style may not have changed intentionally, and I also don’t see the point of doing it, unless it is making an exceptional point, or unless it is rooted in some kind of human insight,” she pauses, and then goes on, “My dialogues absolutely have to come from a place of awareness and authenticity. Whether it’s a negative or a positive thought, whatever it is, it has to add to the vision of the film,” she says.

Before I can even think about asking her what she does on days that she can’t see her characters coming alive, she answers herself. “I ask myself, why am I writing? There are days when you are not able to write, and I embrace that, or even delete what I’ve written, because there’s a lot at stake. The filmmakers are trusting you, there’s a lot of money involved, that kind of effort and energy that everybody puts in towards the written word is what has to make the script worth it. It’s alright if it takes time, but it has to be worth everyone’s time. And that, of course, puts a lot more pressure on me, which I willingly go through,” she explains.

Chaturvedi has had a close working relationship with director Shoojit Sircar, and her latest film as a screenwriter, Gulabo Sitabo, is a Sircar directorial. The duo have had elaborate discussions, shared ideas, even agreed to disagree when they had to, and that’s helped them develop each other’s thinking process. “It’s not like we have known each other since we were in school. We’ve developed that understanding, and it’s a good working relationship. Sometimes, I’ve written something, and he understands why I’ve written it, and that it’s not just a random sentence. Likewise, if he removes things from the edit, or jumbles it up, I know that he’s coming from a place of knowing what I’m trying to do, and therefore, he’s making it better. So, there is no ego involved. We both know it’s cinema first, everything else is secondary,” she says.

When she emphasizes on developing the characters she writes, she really means it when she says time is the most essential part of character development. There’s no compromise there. “The most essential part is to take a lot of time. I wish I could go and find out the time of the birth of a character. But even if it’s a one-scene character, I will give it a lot of time and undivided attention before I start writing. I live their life mentally for some time before I write as though I am them. I can’t write in the third person, my first draft has to be in the first person. It’s the second draft onwards that you find that kind of objectivity, working off the reactions of the director, and how he is reading it,” she explains.

It’s quite a smart way, if you think about it, because as Chaturvedi says, it gives you reasons to keep certain elements or dialogues, or not to keep them. Because you instinctively know that this character will not speak like this. “Like in Gulabo Sitabo, Baankey and Mirza are two very different people who will not behave like each other. To bring that out, I need to know exactly who they are,” she says.

We both pause, because it’s quite a conversation we’re having, and she laughs, “I know it seems intense, but it’s really fun. The best part of it is when I’m living so many lives before writing them.”

Lucknow is home for Chaturvedi, it’s where she was born and raised. It’s more than just a city to her. It’s also where Gulabo Sitabo is based, and as we know of Sircar’s films and Chaturvedi’s writing, cities have a character of their own. How has she weaved a city so close to her heart, into the film?

 “Lucknow is an interesting character on its own. When I land in the city, I know that I set into that easy pace. I know the pulse of the city. Sircar wanted to make it a character, not just a location.

Lucknow contributes so much to the way people behave there. It is really like an old, great great great grandfather, who still has a daunting presence in the lives of the family,” she narrates.

Chaturvedi let the idea of Gulabo Sitabo stir in her head for a while, before sharing it with Sircar. “I knew that city will provide you so much material. I know the nooks and corners, the names, people and mindsets. But it cannot be Lucknow, for Lucknow people, it needs to have a universal appeal,” she explains.

 With three months of being homebound, new films being released on OTT platforms makes all of us happy, even if we miss the experience of going to the theatres. When Angrezi Medium came on Hotstar the week the lockdown began, everyone was ecstatic (and eventually glad to have not missed Irrfan Khan’s last film). Does Chaturvedi feel like OTT platforms have opened up more avenues for aspiring writers, as well as established ones? “Absolutely,” she says, and continues, “The number of writers who are now writing is great, because whether you write short films or documentaries, or series, whatever appeals to your understanding of sensitivity about a subject, you have a platform. It needn’t be a feature film only. It could be anything. It could be a stand-up show, it could be a lifestyle show. I would like to believe, we have this very innate desire to express our thoughts. Now I have made a film available for everyone to scrutinise, so now it’s on your screens, to rip apart my writing,” she laughs.

The writing space for mainstream cinema has witnessed a slow-ish crawl of woman writers, like Chaturvedi, or Kanika Dhillon, or the co-writer of Meghna Gulzar’s Chhapaak, Atika Chohan. But it’s still an evolving space, in that sense. In fact, A TOI report quotes a study on gender bias in popular films by the by the Geena Davis Media Foundation that states only 12.1 percent of writers in Bollywood were women. Chaturvedi feels it’s gotten better. ”See also, not all women aspire to write for the screen. Some might just want to write blogs, articles, or books. So as long as the voice is there, it doesn’t matter whether it’s in form of film writing, or a book, whatever it is, I think the voice being there in the society is important. The more women write films, the more voices we’ll have. Everything is contributing to the social set up we’re living in, and cinema happens to be an influential world. It gives you the chance to say pertinent things.

“Gender,” she continues, “is incidental for me. I didn’t write Gulabo Sitabo as a woman writer. But that being said, if it’s being purposely stopped, then that’s not fair,” she firmly states.

When I ask her about how we can have more women writers and create more opportunities, Chaturvedi smartly redirects the question and says she thinks it should start from journalists. ”All the journalists should start speaking about women writers and start featuring them in their articles so that in public, I feel there are only women writers everywhere. I mean you’re in Man’s World, and you’re a woman talking to me. So that’s a brilliant space already,” she laughs.

A”women”, to that.

(Image credits: Amazon Prime Video)