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Sujoy Ghosh On How To Write A Thriller

The writer-director of mysteries like Kahaani and Ahalya tells us about the art of creating mystery and intrigue on paper

Mohini ChaudhuriMohini Chaudhuri

December 7, 2016 | 01:12 PM

Sujoy Ghosh On How To Write A Thriller

If there’s any Hindi film director who’s remained consistently faithful to the thriller genre, it’s Sujoy Ghosh. After the release of Kahaani in 2012, he admitted that it was hard pitching a thriller to investors because they have no repeat value. Once you know how it ends, nobody goes back again, they told him. 

But Ghosh went on to writing and directing two more thrillers – the successful short film Ahalya and last week he released Kahaani 2. His next project is Ahalya 2. “It’s a relatively harder genre to write because here the story is crucial. Unlike my films like Jhankaar Beats where I had other elements like the music to fall back on, in a thriller the story has to work,” he says. 

Here, Ghosh tells us about the art of creating mystery and intrigue on paper. 

Keep Them Guessing 

You need to make movies which have a lot of pace. I’m competing with Whatsapp, Twitter, etc for your attention. I want you to look at me. For that you need to keep the audience on their toes. In a thriller, each scene is written like a mini film – it has a beginning and middle, but not necessarily an end. I’ve been watching a lot of television shows and I notice how each scene has a cliffhanger. 

The trick is in how you dish out information. How much to give away? How much to hold? So there are points where I’m going to get the audience thinking about a person. But then suddenly I stop, and take them elsewhere and then bring them back to this point later. The script needs to be a page-turner. If you keep putting it down while reading, then I haven’t got you by the family jewels, for the lack of a better word! 

 

Experiment With Narrative

Thrillers allow me to go for non-linear style of storytelling. I get the option to break up my narrative and tell it in a manner which is very exciting. In a normal film, you and I are talking and your cameraman there is taking photos. We could look through his lens and it’s a simple ambience. But if it’s a thriller, I could change his lens to a crosshair and the moment I see my film through that crosshair, it gives a totally different image. So I don’t know now if your cameraman is there to take a photo or to kill me. Is that a camera or a gun? I can’t do this in a romantic film. 

Use Symbolism

I remember when we were looking for a guest house in the first Kahaani, we came up with a place called Mona Lisa in Kolkata. It had the look and feel that we wanted but I got more attracted to the name. For me, Mona Lisa is associated with an enigma. I kept thinking about the painting where you don’t know whether she’s smiling or looking at you.

Even in Kahaani 2, when Inder (Arjun Rampal) is running behind Goopi, how do we establish he’s a forger? Yes, we know he makes false passports. But it’s when you see two Mona Lisa paintings lying there, you know this guy is a counterfeit. These are little associations that I’m not sure people get but it helps evoke emotion.

Another example from Kahaani 2, is that I start the movie with a song from the film Julie. There are so many meanings to that song – yeh raatein nayi poorani, aate jaate kehte hai koi kahaani. The reference is clear, but Julie is also about a single mother.

Pick A Setting You're Familiar With

 

The setting of a thriller is extremely important. When I’m writing the screenplay, I know where all I could set it. If I have the luxury, I’ll go and check it out. The good thing about Kolkata and West Bengal is that I know the city very well. But today if I set a film in Lucknow, I’ll have to check it out. Also, just by setting a film in Lucknow, doesn’t make it a character in the film. You have to know the people who make the city. If you don’t have that, then you just end up showing some artefacts. Like for Kolkata, I can show you the Howrah Bridge. Big deal! But only when you know a Benu kaka or the mad beggar on the street does it become a character. In Kahaani 2, Chandan Nagar helped me show the struggles of a single working mother.

Use Sound Effectively

I’ve learnt a lot by observing the sound design of films. When I see the sound design of say a romantic film, I remember that and how it made me feel. Even in thrillers, the music is crucial because it makes you go into the person’s head. In Kahaani 2, when Vidya meets the characters of Jugal Hansraj and Amba Sanyal – I used a throbbing sound that makes you feel uneasy, as if there’s pressure building inside your ears. It creates a sense of fear, that something bad is going to happen. I also wanted to create a feeling of claustrophobia because in that scene with Jugal, Vidya’s backed into a corner and doesn’t know how to leave. The film had two songs but if I had my way I wouldn’t use any.

Casting Against Type Adds Novelty

 

Why were people so scared of Bob Biswas in Kahaani? It’s because he doesn’t have the typical appearance of an assassin or a sniper which you were used to all this time. He’s not in leather jackets and boots, walking around with a rifle. So today if he came to kill you, you wouldn’t know who he is because he looks like you and me. Anything that you don’t know makes you scared. That’s why I feel it’s good to caste against type because it gives you novelty.