Ritesh Shah has come a long way since his acclaimed stage adaptation of Slawomir Mrozek’s political comedy The Police in Delhi in the 1990s. After moving to Mumbai and working in television for over six years, Shah got his break in Hindi films when Sujoy Ghosh hired him to write dialogue for Home Delivery (2005). On Anurag Kashyap’s recommendation, Vipul Shah got Shah to write the dialogue of 2007 Namastey London.
Since then, Shah has written dialogue, story, screenplay or a combination of all three for over 21 films. Shah’s resume includes Bollywood adaptations, such as City Lights (2014), Teen (2016), Rocky Handsome (2016) and Chef (2017), original screenplays, including Kahaani (2012), D-Day (2013), Airlift (2016), Madaari (2016) and Pink (2016), two action franchises – Force and Commando – and one literary adaptation, BA Pass (2013).
Regardless of genre, the films written by Shah tend to be grounded in a semblance of research-backed realism. His latest movie, Raj Kumar Gupta’s Raid, is a box office hit. Supposedly based on a true event that occurred in the ’80s, Raid stars Ajay Devgn as Amey, an incorruptible income tax officer who conducts a lengthy raid on Rameshwar Singh aka Tauji (Saurabh Shukla), a corrupt Uttar Pradesh politician.
While Amey is a flawless do-gooder, Tauji is a conniving man who does not crack until the third act. Shah discussed with Scroll.in the merits and flaws Raid’s screenplay in addition to speaking about his earlier work and sharing his thoughts on screenplay writing in Bollywood.
Whose idea was ‘Raid’ – yours or Raj Kumar Gupta’s?
The idea came from producer Kumar Mangat, who knew the real-life income tax officer. Raj and I wanted to work together for a really long time. The preliminary concept meeting happened between me, Raj and Kumar Mangat. Then, we were introduced to the officer. Based on our research, I wrote a 20 to 25-page treatment in consultation with Raj, Kumar Mangat and Ajay Devgn. That was turned into the screenplay.
How do you add shades to an all-white character such as Amey? Didn’t you feel the need to explain his motivation or provide a back story?
I don’t always feel the need to add a back story. Sometimes, when you ask people about their motivation to do the greatest of things, they are not able to coherently answer. There’s often no distinct crazy reason for becoming the way you become.
One thing we were tempted to add to Ajay’s character was to give him some tragic flaw. So we gave him righteous anger. He is arrogant about his honesty. Ajay’s boss asks him to watch his temper because he says that Tauji will try to provoke him, and we expose Ajay to that. That’s the only flaw we could think of.
But you don’t see anything beyond the survey and the raid, so there is no time to explore layers. It is sort of a binary opposition story.
Once I asked a top cop about his motivation to be honest, and he said, maybe films. Sometimes, they don’t have great reasons. And we didn’t feel the need to give Ajay a reason. Maybe he was influenced by literature. He is an Internal Revenue Service officer, so he obviously reads. In fact, in one scene, Ajay’s wife asks him why he is the way he is and he mentions Premchand’s short story Namak Ka Daroga. Everyone had the story in their class ten board exam syllabus. Perhaps, it influenced him. It definitely influenced me.
The film establishes Amey’s noble nature within the opening sequence: he does not enter a party wearing sandals as the dress code requires shoes. He insists on paying his host for the shoes that have been given to him. He brings his own liquor since he does not consume what he cannot afford. Is this overselling a character trait to the point of absurdity?
When you are exploring the character, you tend to overdo the shading. Maybe, out of the three scenes you mentioned, we could have gone with two. But what happens is that sometimes, while writing, one person will fall in love with one moment, another with another, and so on. But maybe, in hindsight, two were enough. Maybe, we didn’t need the quarter bottle part at all.
Amey’s wife, played by Ileana D’Cruz, has no substantial role beyond supporting her husband. How did you keep the character relevant to the story?
You try to simulate a real-life situation. One would assume that an IRS officer of Ajay’s age would be married. Now, what kind of a person would he be married to? Maybe, a school teacher. But then he has a transferable job, so she has to adjust. And what is her role in his life? To be a supportive wife, what with Ajay’s character being away on raids all the time.
In some films, the parents are just there. They are redundant. As we spoke to police officers or honest government servants for various projects, we discovered that all of them needed a bouncing board in life, to ground them morally. They would say, the wife was very supportive or this wouldn’t have been possible. Maybe they don’t make for great literature, but these are factual things. I remember we got asked about [Amitabh] Bachchan sir’s wife in Pink. What is she doing there on the bed, all the time? It is simple. Old people have old wives. And she is dying. There is no bigger role.
What do you make of the tradition of Indian cinema in which a hero steps in from the outside to remedy the problem?
Barring certain kinds of cinema, heroes are part of all folk culture and tradition and are celebrated everywhere. Americans have a great democratic system, but they also make four-five Die Hard films, Rambo films. Such heroes are present everywhere. Not just in Indian but also Korean, Japanese or American cinema.
In our country, as Bertolt Brecht said, unhappy is the land that needs a hero – our social tendency is that we yearn for a saviour. Hence, [Arvind] Kejriwal or [Narendra] Modi. We want other people to solve our problems. It is a wish-fulfillment fantasy. In Maharashtra, there’s a saying that we want Shivaji to be born but in the neighbour’s house. Politically, we want others to do what we should do in the first place. We are not a collective-oriented society but a hero-oriented society.
After the interval in ‘Raid’, once it has been established that Amey knows where Tauji has hidden his wealth in his mansion, the story becomes predictable. How do you keep the audience on the edge of their seats in such a situation?
We try to sandpaper the existing cliches. We expect Tauji to put political pressure. But it doesn’t seem to be working. The finance minister or the prime minister do not sound and talk in the usual way they do in Hindi films. It is settled in an official manner, as it should be.
The income tax officers we interviewed told us that the condition of the economy in the ’80s was not good. Tax collection would only add to the treasury. So when Tauji ran away and went to Delhi, he couldn’t do anything by trying to build pressure. The only thing available at the time in the absence of news and social media was to lynch people, which is what would often happen back then in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. There are known cases as well, because the Income Tax department filed FIRs against those people.
Plus, there are interesting ways to keep the story engaging. Like the grandmother [Tauji’s mother] speaks out. Often, during raids, family members fumble and give out secrets. I tried to create a simulation of a real raid and serve unpredictable moments within a predictable set-up.
The film is billed to be based on the longest raid in the history of the Income Tax department. This fact is spelt out by the screenplay.
It being the longest raid is quite technical in the sense that though the raid spanned only 72 hours, all the sealing and accounting took up to six months. It is difficult to put across this technicality on screen visually, so we have characters say it out loud. I don’t know how else we could have done it.
Tauji says, ‘The crowd can never be blamed’, referring to a mob of his followers ganging up on Amey and his colleagues. Is that a loaded statement?
The story takes place in 1981. Only in 1984 [anti-Sikh riots] was a crowd identified as the culprit for the first time. The next was 2002 [the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat]. Never had a crowd been brought to justice till 1981. Violent mobs go unpunished or unacknowledged. So, it’s contextual.
What are the challenges you have faced while adapting your subjects to Bollywood sensibilities?
It is a thankless job. The material already exists, so what is great about adapting it? If you do it badly, you are ruining an existing film. The original idea was conceived in keeping with certain cultural, social and linguistic roots. How do you transport that idea to the context of Hindi cinema?
Also, the challenge is to put yourself in the shoes of a character from an alien milieu. For example, Chef [based on the 2014 Hollywood film of the same name]. How do you relate to the protagonist when you are not in your late forties, not separated from your wife and boy, and in a much happier space? The way to crack the screenplay did not come instinctively. It came five or six weeks later. I based Saif’s character on a divorced person I knew who lived abroad. He came back for his aging parents, and so on. Then, I could find some experience to tap into.
An action piece like Rocky Handsome [based on the 2010 Korean film The Man From Nowhere] is much easier.
In the case of Force, [a remake of the 2003 Tamil film Kaakha Kaakha], encounter cops were new to Tamil cinema back then, but had become dated in Hindi cinema. So what do you do? The thing that was striking in one language wouldn’t be effective in another.
Another problem is if the film is too good. The Filipino film Metro Manila (2013), barring its first 15 minutes which was an odd Raj Kapoor-type drama, was brilliant. But then nobody wants to take what is good. [Citylights was based on Metro Manila]. Then you are confused – why did you get the rights in the first place?
But in the times of Netflix and Amazon [Prime Video], there is no point in adapting because the originals are available alongside the Hindi versions running in theatres. And both versions are meant for the same target audience. The justification that we are making it for a different audience is wrong. We shouldn’t be adapting any film from any language.
Also, people don’t want to come to the theatre anyway. I remember that the original Chef immediately started trending on Netflix right after the release of the Hindi film. When the producers [of the Hindi version] had got the rights, Netflix was not there in India.
Tauji in ‘Raid’ speaks in Bhojpuri-laced Hindi. ‘Daddy’ featured Hindi rooted in Mumbai slang. Are you good with dialects?
With Daddy, I sought help from my Maharashtrian writer friends. With Raid, Saurabh Shukla was from Uttar Pradesh, so he helped. When you are doing Hindi films, know that there are many Hindis. Like there are many Englishes in English films. You need to know where the film is set, so that the Hindi sounds authentic. In Kahaani, we let the characters speak wrong Hindi because why were they speaking in Hindi anyway in Kolkata?
How do you react to the criticism surrounding ‘Pink’, in which a man speaks in support of women’s rights?
We instinctively thought of Pink as the story of a broken old man from the very beginning. And the problem of the three women is where he finds a nest.
I still don’t get the criticism. If there is a communal issue, should only a Muslim fight for a Muslim? Or only a woman fight for a woman? Or a caste-oppressed person for another caste-oppressed person?
We saw Deepak Sehgal [the lawyer, played by Amitabh Bachchan] as a senile old man. We never saw him as a hero. He is fragile and his wife is dying. It could have been a 30-year-old gay lawyer too, but instinctively, the picture of an old man came to us. We are instinctive people. Sometimes, in retrospect, the criticism is sensible. Sometimes, it isn’t.
How did you approach ‘BA Pass’, based on Mohan Sikka’s short story ‘The Railway Aunty’, your only film based on literature?
Initially, we were going to turn three stories from the short story collection Delhi Noir into films. I wrote a 45-page screenplay based on The Railway Aunty. Ajay Bahl [director, BA Pass] liked it and he went ahead.
I looked at how Charlie Kaufman wrote Adaptation (2002), based on the book The Orchid Thief. I also checked William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade. I had lived in Delhi previously for nine years. I used that experience. Mohan Sikka’s text was descriptive not just in visuals, but also mindsets. Describing visuals in a film is easy, but how do you do the same to mindsets?
Luckily, Ajay was also the cinematographer, which was an advantage as we wrote only that which could be shot. It was one of the first Indian films shot on the Arri Alexa camera. We shot it like a guerrilla film and got beautiful results. The visuals were great. It was a good example of a cinematographer-director working with a writer on board.
In ‘BA Pass’, the protagonist gets no redemption. Was there any attempt to go for a happy resolution?
The original story ended with some ambiguity. The character finds himself in the graveyard and we don’t know if he survives or not. But Ajay wanted some finality. The way the protagonist’s life was going, Ajay saw no hope. I wanted to put some ambiguity, but Ajay did not see any redemption or hope for the character.
What is your perspective on Hindi film screenwriting: is it really as bad as people make it out to be, or is there hope?
Firstly, people who are intelligent and can write better screenplays feel that their intellectual capacity and hard work will fetch a reward somewhere else, like advertising or IT [Information technology]. If you look at an arts batch where people are interested in, say, theatre or are a part of film clubs, very few make the choice to go to Bombay and become a screenwriter. They instead go to IIMs [Indian Institute of Management], or do some media course, and, maybe, try and enter the industry through a different route. They do not think that writing is a lucrative career option.
Secondly, the busy schedule of producers. I wonder about how many writers they meet or the number of scripts they read. Another problem is that of access between good writers and successful filmmakers. And often, good writers have no one who will read their work and guide or correct them.
Lastly, I go to a lot of film festivals and get messages on Facebook and I am told, I got a wonderful script. But nine times out of 10, they are so laborious. I think we are probably writing so badly that anyone thinks that they can write scripts. Our screenplay writing is abysmal in most cases. They are not even spell-checked. We ourselves have set low standards. It must be our fault.
So many screenwriters claim to be inspired by the writing of Salim-Javed. Yet, much of the writing cannot hold a candle to the work done in the ’70s.
Sholay is a masala film, a great entertaining film. Nothing comes close to it. Personally, I think Salim-Javed were just too good. Even Baahubali was so good. I started watching the films with some contempt, thinking how uniquely could the story unfold anyway, but I couldn’t stop watching.
Our good writers stick to genres. Some write only good political films. Some write thrillers. No one attempts mixed genre films. If our good writers are tempted to volunteer for writing masala movie scripts, maybe they can do a great job. Perhaps, I could, but I haven’t been able to yet.
Would you ever write genre films, such as horror or science fiction?
I am not equipped to write horror or science fiction. And I don’t relate to horror. Ghosts don’t scare me, people do. Futuristic developments don’t worry me, current issues do.
What are some recent films you watched whose screenplays you admired?
Aruvi was interesting. So was Maanagaram. I mostly watch old films – films I have already seen rather than new films. I often re-watch LA Confidential or No Country For Old Men. At the end of the writing process, I am so frustrated that I want to seek sustenance from something I have fed on in the past.
It’s ironic that when you write films, you see few films. By and large, I have re-watched more films than I have seen new ones. Most of my attention goes to my own work. I cannot enjoy films and books as much as I used to. I like reading reading non-fiction and online articles, though.
What are you working on?
I am rewriting a lot of old stuff. As for releases, there is Love Sonia, a Hollywood film, based on human trafficking. Then, I wrote the story for Chuck Russell’s Junglee, starring Vidyut Jammwal. It is essentially a plea for environmentalism. There’s an absurd magic-realist comedy Arjun Patiala, starring Diljit Dosanjh and Varun Sharma. It is a crazy attempt at humour to see if I can do comedy. Then, I am back to my conventional stuff like Namastey England, which is more of a romantic film than it is a romantic comedy.