NEERAJ PANDEY - “The biggest challenge for a writer is to tell a story which isn’t already told”

A self confessed media unsavvy guy, who is making Rustom and M.S. Dhoni The Untold Story right now hates talking about his films before they are released, but goes down memory lane when we catch up with him at the recently held FICCI FRAMES 2016
By Jyothi Venkatesh

How would you describe your journey as a writer-director from A Wednesday to Baby?
I call myself a boy from Bihar, Kolkata and Delhi. It isn’t that my family isn’t creative but I was not at all interested in studies as a child but was extremely fond of writing and reading a lot of books and watching movies while in college. Frankly at that point of time, I did not realize at all that I will land in Mumbai and movies. I was a literature Honors student and remember watching TNT as well as The Cartoon Network a lot, when I was rejected by the FTII as I was very bad in Mathematics. In hindsight, now I realize that it was good that I was rejected by the FTII because I started watching the classic black and white films of the 50’s as well as 60’s with a vengeance. It was then that I figured that there was hope for me and left Delhi and boarded the train to Surat, thinking it would take me to Mumbai as a tout who I had bribed for the ticket told me. I landed in Surat and then took the first available train to Mumbai.

Is it true that it was by fluke that Naseeruddin Shah read the script of A Wednesday?
The first person who I submitted my script for A Wednesday was none other than Naseeruddin Shah. Though his manager had told me that Naseer would not be keen on doing my film as his son had been hurt in an accident and he was not in the right frame of mind, 20 days after I had submitted my script to him, Naseer called me up and frankly told me that he had picked up my script from the end of the pile as it was the thinnest among the lot and liked it.
You had written two more films which could not be made, before A Wednesday!
A Wednesday wasn’t really a conventional film by any stretch of imagination. I am not a very disciplined writer in the sense I do not write every day. A Wednesday was my third script. Earlier I had written a love story and found that it could be expensive for anyone to put money on it and hence decided to write a smaller film, a comic piece on showbiz. It also turned out to be an expensive film for someone to back it. It was around that time that the blast happened and we all felt the catharsis then. I first wrote the climax and then the story was written actually backwards. In one week, the script was ready with the story, screenplay and the dialogues. I wrote the screenplay in English and the dialogues in Hindi.
When you launch a film, do you mull on its prospects at the box office too?
When I set out to make a film, I am not smart enough to predict its box office fate, because I am of the opinion that in this business, one knows nothing. I only look at whether my plot will stand the test of time. Do you know that though my film A Wednesday was ready, UTV sat on it for over a year and luckily for me the film was as relevant when it was released.
Is it true that Akshay was also not part of Special 26 initially?
Special 26 was bigger in terms of the cost and the canvass. Like in the case of A Wednesday and Naseer, when I sent the script to Akshay‘s office, his manager said Akshay wouldn’t be interested unless and until I changed the title to Special 27 because Akshay’s lucky number was 9. I refused. Later the project was to be made by Balaji but Ekta Kapoor also backed out. Vikram who was with Ekta later joined Viacom and asked Akshay to read my script and he was game, though the title was still Special 26.
You are keen on narrating your script to an actor instead of asking him to read it!
You have to be prepared to ask an actor to read your script or narrate it in two hours. 60% of my film is made on paper itself. Till date, neither have I been tempted to direct someone else’s script or ask someone else to direct a film, which I am writing. I feel that scripts are only meant to be read because I am a lousy narrator. It is only when an actor reads the script that I can make out whether he and I are on the same page. The biggest challenge for a writer is to tell a story which isn’t already told. I like my stories to be rooted to reality. Casting has always been very important for me. People wondered whether I was committing professional harakiri when I cast Akshay Kumar in Special 26 in a cerebral role at a time when he was doing all sorts of films and a cerebral actor like Manoj Bajpai in an action packed role but my gamble worked.
Which three films have inspired you a lot ?
The three films that have shaped my thinking as a filmmaker are Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi, which I admire for its writing and the risks involved in making it, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life and Ijazat for its brilliant writing, music and drama
What is your approach to a film as a writer?
You have to look at your script from the lens of the audience. Once I am convinced that my project will work at that level, I make it a point to go ahead with it. Take it from me; I do not want to be different for the sake of being different. I am not customizing to just one section of the audiences. I just set out to tell a story. The audience is getting more generous and patient now and looks at different films with cutting edge irrespective of who the maker is and what its budget is
Why did you choose to make a biopic like Dhoni?
The Dhoni project came to me. It has a great story. When I felt that it was a great idea, I decided to be a part of a film like M.S. Dhoni The Untold Story. I do not consider it a sports genre biopic. I love cricket. I do not lead my life but my life is leading me. Each film has its own set of challenges. Even before I started shooting for Baby, I had started my work on Dhoni. The challenge is to tell what the world does not know about Dhoni.
What next?
Right now, besides the fact that Rustom is being readied for early release, I am very glad that my film Baby is slated for release in China in the next three months, I am actually toying with the idea of making a sequel of one of my hit films. As it also involves a lot of hassles in getting the right actors and the producers to back it, I am also planning to make my novel Ghalib Danger into a feature film. I had written the novel long back. I like to stay true to my content with my titles. Ghalib Danger is about an underworld gangster who does not understand Ghalib’s poetry.

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