Manoj Muntashir had never written a single line of dialogue in his life. But when SS Rajamouli heard him narrating a story in Hindi to music director MM Kreem, he immediately tasked Munstahir with writing the dialogue for the Hindi versions of his Baahubali films. Muntashir warned Rajamouli about his lack of experience but the filmmaker had complete trust in his writer.
The rest was box office history.
“I was sitting in a room with Kreem sir and narrating something in Hindi,” Muntashir recalled. “I had done a few films with him like Baby and was working with him on a project. SS Rajamouli happened to walk in. I did not recognise him as I had never seen Mr Rajamouli. He went back and decided that I should write the Hindi dialogues. He didn’t care about my background or work. These people just go by conviction.”
Before the Baahubali films opened new doors to him, Muntashir had primarily been a lyrics writer for Hindi films. Since 2005, he has written a fair number of hit songs, including Galliyan (Ek Villain, 2014), Saathi Rey (Kapoor & Sons, 2016) and Besabriyaan (MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, 2016).
Following the success of the Hindi versions of Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali: The Conclusion, Muntashir received many offers from the Southern film industries to write Hindi dialogue for dubbed productions. But his next project was an English film from Hollywood – the Marvel superhero film Black Panther. Starring Chadwick Boseman as the titular character, the Ryan Coogler-directed film will be released on February 16.
Transporting himself from the ancient Hindu kingdom Mahishmati to the fictional African nation of Wakanda was not difficult for Muntashir. For him, the spirit of Black Panther is just as “Indian” as the Baahubali franchise.
“There was something about Baahubali that was very Indian,” Muntashir said. “Not just the dialogues but the entire set-up worked. Similarly, Black Panther is a very Indian story. King T’Challa [Black Panther] is like any other king from Amar Chitra Katha. There is a fight for righteousness in the story, a fight for the throne, just like in Baahubali. Then, the father-son story, brother-sister story, cousin-rivalry story, all this Indian-ness can be found in Black Panther.”
The Black Panther character, played by Boseman, was first introduced in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Black Panther, also known as T’Challa, is the king of Wakanda. After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther returns to his homeland, only to find that his claim to the throne is challenged by forces within his kingdom. He also has to protect Wakanda from malevolent powers that seek to destroy it.
Created in 1966 by writer Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character has appeared in numerous comic books, video games and animated series. But Muntashir never had to read the source material to get acquainted with the character.
“I know that the Black Panther comic books sell in the US like hot cakes,” Muntashir said. “But I never read them. The creative team provided me with all the research and data. I had to consult them a lot, mostly in the first few weeks. It is not like I watched the film and immediately sat down to write. Only when I knew the character like I know the back of my hand did I sit down to write.”
Muntashir says that literal translation is the biggest obstacle for a dialogue writer who has to represent a film in a language other than its own.
“Literal translation is a mistake that we have been making for years,” Muntashir said. “That is the reason a lot of great cinema from the South never worked in Hindi, because what was being offered was fake and unreal. News can be translated. Not literature, poetry or dialogues.”
In case of the Baahubali films, Muntashir didn’t merely translate the lines. Instead, he began from scratch and reproduced the essence of the screenplay and the lines as he saw fit. The task is not one bit easy. “When a film has not just been shot but also thought of in a different language, it is quite the task to find common ground between two cultures and blur the lines as a writer, especially, in the case of recreating humour from one language to another,” he explained. “If one doesn’t just copy the punchline but understands the context of a joke, that is, why a thing said could remotely be funny, then the job gets easier.”
Muntashir’s lack of experience in screenwriting was made up for by his devotion to the efforts of ace duo Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar. Muntashir grew up with films written by Salim-Javed, and understood the nuances of dialogue writing through their work.
“The way Salim-Javed understood the pulse of the audience who spends three hundred rupees in a dark theatre to watch a film is amazing,” Muntashir said. “At first, we were a country that understood dialogues to be only big, bombastic lines such as the ones from, say, Mughal-e-Azam. Now, who spoke like that? But look at Salim-Javed’s dialogues. ‘Mere paas maa hai’ or ‘Kitne aadmi they?’ Salim-Javed had the conviction to turn small everyday lines into dialogues. And they did it by creating great situations but balancing it with minimalist lines. I want to bring that kind of simplicity in my writing.”
For now, Muntashir says that he is not itching to write his own screenplay. He will instead wait for the right project that is “epic, huge and has some kind of immortality”.
Muntashir explained, “With Baahubali, I have tasted blood. So, the next time I work on a film, it has to be that big. It cannot be, for example, a Golmaal film but something like, say, Padmavati.”