Untouched by clichés, unaffected by convention, undeterred by censors, Sudip Sharma, the writer of NH10 and Udta Punjab, is laying a fearless path for screenwriting in Hindi cinema.
Photography by Rohit Gupta
In September 2013, director Abhishek Chaubey and writer Sudip Sharma had wanted to do a “cool sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll movie, Trainspotting-type”, research for which would have meant walking into any party in Versova. “But, I’d read a longform article in Tehelka by Sai Manish called ‘What hit this land of plenty?’” says Sharma. “It was a very well-researched article on the drug problem in Punjab. It felt like the right place to set it in.” To other interviewers, Chaubey has said, “I thought Punjab was a great setting because of cross-border drugs supply. Plus, we wanted a rock star and the Punjabi music scene was great for that. But, even for people like us who don’t shock easily, what we saw in Punjab was pretty shocking. In the streets, there were more de-addiction centres than akharas.”
Udta Punjab stalked four characters — Tommy Singh, a coked-out rock star; Preet Sahani, a peachy and preachy doctor; Sartaj Singh, a corrupt cop, touched by love; and Mary Jane, a failed drug dealer, pinned under men. In some of Mary Jane’s scenes, played with rare beauty by Alia Bhatt, I’d turned into a rudaali. I’d walked out of the movie with a heavy heart. “Rape was so casual in the movies of the 1980s and 1990s,” says Sharma. “The character of the hero’s sister would be placed just for that. We were desensitised to it. With Udta Punjab, we wanted to deal with rape in a way that would make people turn their faces away.” Sharma, also the writer of last year’s NH10, recalls a 1994 movie that evoked a similar reaction. “Bandit Queen opens with the line, ‘Main hoon Phoolan Devi, bhenchod.’ And, I remember the theatre bursting into giggles. By the end of the movie, everyone had shut up. I could see the impact the film had had. The idea of violence in NH10 or Udta Punjab is meant to turn you off.”
In person, Sharma brings to mind the adarsh balak of 1990s moral science textbooks. He’s blessed with a sweet face, exceedingly kind manners and a depressingly sunny disposition. He’s so square that even interviewer Komal Nahta had remarked, “Looking at you, it doesn’t seem like you use abusive language. That you’re very seedha-saadha.” Without touching his green tea, which I suspect he boiled just so I would indulge his hospitality, Sharma admits to being a sincere hard worker since he was a kid. “The problem was that I was a very good student,” he says. “The path is already marked out for a good student in a middle-class household.” After spending his childhood in Guwahati (where he fanned his passion for movies by frequenting Apsara Cinema in Paltan Bazaar, watching arthouse films on Doordarshan, and getting his hands on VHS tapes of Bruce Lee), he moved to Hindu College in Delhi, and then to Gujarat for his MBA in 2000.
Sharma doesn’t name-drop his alma mater, so I ask him about it. “IIM-A is like going to a maximum security prison where everyone’s a hardened criminal. Everyone there has been a topper throughout his life, and that’s why he’s landed there. So the competition is phenomenal. Throughout my life, academics had been an anchor for me. The good boy who has to study after waking up. I lost faith in my anchor there. It started boring me.” After four years under corporate masters such as Coke and Asian Paints, Sharma wrote one short film and decided to get out. The decision was made easy because his wife Neha held a steady job. “I wrote to a few of these online film-making communities. Whoever would post ‘I need a writer, but there’s no budget’, I would write back saying, ‘Will work for food.’” Sharma treads lightly over these years of rejection and unemployment. “I had zero craft. It took a good six years before I could churn out a script I didn’t mind having my name on,” he says. Unlike everyone else in the profession of words, a scriptwriter needs a crutch, a film-maker, to take his work forward. “Writing a script means nothing till it sees the light of day; it’s an internal document till then.”
In this creative loneliness, Sharma wrote a fan mail to Navdeep Singh, director of Manorama Six Feet Under, on Facebook of all places, and found a tea-drinking partner. “I don’t find it easy to make friends and connect with people. It’s a chore. My networking is writing to someone whose work I admire.” For Sharma knows you do your best work when you work with people you want to impress. NH10 was the fourth script they worked on (in which city dwellers Meera and Arjun become unwitting witnesses to an honour killing). “We just poured all our darkness into NH10,” he says. “Navdeep is from Delhi and I’ve lived there for five years, so we knew the lay of the land. Although, I don’t think anyone can understand Delhi or north India for that matter.”
Sharma writes his scripts as if he’s writing for a broadsheet — every page is filled with hairy stories. “As a country, we just have something against adults. We like our movies and our culture to be dumbed down enough to be consumed with children.” He’s obviously referring to the bout with the censor board, which wanted to maul Udta Punjab 89 times. “In the first few meetings with the censor board, we were told in no uncertain terms, ‘You have messed up big time. How dare you show something like this? How dare you use these words? You’re bringing a bad name to a state.’ It was the other way round, in fact. Our movie came out of a love of Punjab.” Of the experience, Chaubey, who also co-wrote Udta Punjab, had told the website Film Companion, “It’s ridiculous what goes on in a censor board meeting. It’s like some sort of bargaining that happens — Yeh bhenchod nikal do aur wahaan pe gandu daal do.” If the censor board had had its way, ‘Coke Cock’ would have become ‘Coke Rock’, and so on.
Anushka Sharma in NH10
Sharma says, “I’d lost all hope of the movie releasing. It was very depressing — just the whole clamouring of it in the media. As a value, I don’t think we, as a country, care much for freedom of expression. We look at it as a western ideal that’s been imposed on us. That’s why we can live with censorship — of being told what to do and what not to do, what you can say and cannot say, and not look at ourselves as responsible people.” A caped Anurag Kashyap, one of the producers, had to cry himself hoarse to get the movie released. Sharma says, “That’s why I love Anurag. He’s not doing it because he’s producing the film. I’d never met Anurag before he read the script of NH10. Later, I met several people who said that Anurag had very good things to say about my writing. You really have to give it to him for his generosity of spirit. He’s a true champion in that sense.” The experience has left its bite marks on Sharma. “Self-censorship is the worst kind of censorship. I’m worried now if I’ll be able to write my next script with the same degree of freedom.” In fact, Kashyap, who had gone through a similar rite of passage with Black Friday, had told him, “You’ll never be able to write anything like this again.”
Before Udta Punjab released, Sharma had been working on a script set in the time of Emergency. He’s set it aside because Chaubey and he want to work on something “more pulpy, more fun”. I read that to mean something that gives them less heartache, a one-night-stand after a tough break-up. While looking for story ideas, Sharma can find a critical darling even in footnotes. “Just the other day I was reading an article on Scroll on the Partition. There was a mention of a group of Hindu and Sikh prisoners in Pakistan and a group of Muslim prisoners in India who were exchanged in a prison in Lahore. That just triggered off so many thoughts in my head. A bunch of prisoners trying to escape in the middle of riots — I saw a thriller there.” It’s reassuring to know that whichever Sharma’s next might be, there will be fearsome women, stupid men, and enough blood and bone to unsettle us into silence.