Sudip Sharma, creator of Amazon Prime Video’s hit show Paatal Lok, and co-writer on films like Udta Punjab and NH10, has learnt some of his biggest lessons on screenwriting by reading other great screenplays. Here he lists the 10 scripts that shaped him as a writer.
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1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by William Goldman
The very first screenplay I ever read, and amongst the very best. I still remember reading the opening slate line – “Not that it matters, but what follows is true” (which was slightly altered for the film). And this is how it introduced Butch on the page – “He speaks well and quickly, and has been all his life a leader of men; but if you asked him, he would be damned if he could tell you why”. One line that says so much about the character without actually saying anything.
Side read: William Goldman’s fantastic book on his screenwriting experiences in Hollywood, “Adventures in the Screen Trade”.
2. Blood Simple by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
They are the most visual screenwriters I’ve come across with the most precise stage directions without making it seem technical or pedantic. When you read their screenplays, you SEE the film. Sample this brilliant opening voice over which just sets up the place and the mood for you straight away:
“The world is full of complainers. But the fact is, nothing comes with a guarantee. I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome, President of the United States, or even Man of the Year–something can always go wrong. And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help–watch him fly. Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else — that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas… And down here, you’re on your own.”
3. American Beauty by Alan Ball
This screenplay has poetry, not in the way the sentences are constructed, but the imagery it evokes of American suburbia and the mood it generates within you. Remember the plastic bag floating in the air and a handycam recording it?
4. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Shane Black
Black’s screenwriting always has a lot of attitude. He’s the kind of writer who has the confidence to describe a posh house as “the kind of house I’ll buy if this damned movie is a hit”. The edit patterns that he conjures up in this screenplay are a joy to read and to learn from.
5. Chinatown by Robert Towne
This is the quintessential neo-noir screenplay where nothing is what it seems like. Who can forget the iconic last line – “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”. We paid a little tribute to Chinatown in Sonchiriya in the final reveal of Indumati’s past.
6. Raging Bull by Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader has always been a mad, angry guy. And there’s so much of that anger and masculinity and sadness that drives all of Schrader’s work. It’s almost like he’s trying to purge himself of his demons.
7. The Wire (Pilot) by David Simon
The opening scene of the pilot is one of my all time favorite scenes. It ends with the line “Got to… this America, man”, meaning it might seem unfair to someone else but that’s just the way things work around here. That one scene beautifully sets up the show, its world and its politics. The pilot and the show was a big inspiration for Paatal Lok and we tried to capture a similar vibe in the opening monologue of Hathi Ram in the police jeep.
8. Mad Men (Pilot) by Matthew Weiner
I don’t know how I missed this show when it first came out and having recently seen it, I can say that despite having first aired almost 15 years back, it still holds and how! There’s so much surety and subtle confidence in its lack of exposition and slow character build up.
9. Ardh Satya by Vijay Tendulkar
A screenplay and a film that carries the minimalist arthouse sensibilities of the 70s / early 80s. And then all of a sudden it explodes into an angry, almost theatrical monologue, or breaks into a heartfelt poem about a man’s struggles in the Chakravyuh of life. The master playwright Vijay Tendulkar meshes these aesthetics so beautifully in this screenplay. This should be essential reading in all Indian film schools, and it’s a shame it isn’t available anywhere. Watch the film. It has the master’s stamp all over it.
10. Satya by Anurag Kashyap and Saurabh Shukla
From what I know, they wrote the screenplay while they were making the film. It’s just the absolute worst thing you can do, and still the product is a masterpiece. This film and this screenplay are the primary reasons why I decided to become a screenwriter.