How far will a writer go to get it right? Dan Brown's cure for writer's block is hanging himself upside down. Gertrude Stein liked to write in a moving car. Lewis Carrol, apparently, wrote diary in purple pink. Writing rituals are amusing — and, if anything, they make the artist seem a little more human, and a little less of a genius. We asked some of the writers working in Hindi cinema – filmmakers, screenwriters, lyricists – about theirs. Here's a list.
In my early days as a screenwriter, I would begin my day like any other regular job. I would finish the domestic chores, get dressed, put perfume, wear my shoes and pack my bag. Only, instead of leaving for office, I would walk to the other room of the house to write. I had to this because otherwise you get tired of the monotony of sitting at home, which is the only place I can write in peace.
Camphor smell puts me in a little space. It has an association with my childhood. While the pressure of writing is there, somehow you know you are in your comfort zone: home, which is always associated with fragrance. The curtains are always drawn in my room because when I am writing I prefer not knowing the time of the day. Otherwise, there is so much information that it's distracting. It will play on my mind that 'Oh My God, it's evening.' I need a complete disconnect.
I write with a yoga mat next to me. Because I need to lie down in order to think. When I am sitting, I am just banging out, executing. Because the muscles are taut. The thinking happens when I am lateral. When I lie down the body is immobile, but somewhere the subconscious takes over. If I am alone, I go back and forth between lying down and sitting. When I am working with a co-writer, he sits and writes, and I am just lying down. I have to assure the co-writer that I am not going to fall asleep, that I will be awake and alive to what we are discussing. I live in one room, and that's where I mostly write. But I can write anywhere, as long as I get to lie down. I have done writing sessions in parks.
I buy a new pen and a note book. Write the date. Scribble notes. Then as usual leave it midway. Then revisit the notes. Look at the date and the number of days I haven't worked on it. Feel guilty and try and work harder. Usually I write the date again, scribble more then forget, then again get back. It's like Memento and Inception in reverse and forward. Basically guilt myself into extreme self loathing to write.
I am a collector of 'ittar' – I get them from some shops in old Lucknow, Kannaur and Chandni Chowk in Delhi. I use them to create certain moods. I used one when I was writing lyrics for the Tumbbad title song. It was a very difficult song – the syncopation was very different. It has a kind of a mechanical sound…and I was getting sick of it. Now the feeling you get from Tumbbad is of rains. I have an 'ittar' called Gil, it has the smell of petrichor. It's not that I knew that it will work, but it I felt like it'll take me closer to the thing.
I also use public transport when I get stuck. I take an empty bus without a destination, tell the conductor to give me ticket till last stop, and sometimes get down midway. I take autos, avoid cars, Ola. Since houses in Bombay are so small, this gives me a sense of freedom and an openness. I feel closer to the city.
If I am going to be writing all day then it has to be a cafe. I can't write at home all day. And I need to drink coffee while I am writing. I have actually written in cafes all around the world and, of course, in Bombay. But I can't write in just any cafe. The cafe has to be carefully selected… I don't like big chains. I cannot write at a Starbucks. Or Cafe Coffee Day. I like cafes with character. With some charm and some mood. Or maybe just quaint and homely. In Bombay I write, and have written a lot, at The Bagel Shop in Bandra. And I write a lot at Leaping Windows in Versova. In Delhi I like Latitude at Khan Market. The cafe has to give me some vibe. I love to feel like I am by myself in a crowd. I love people watching and listening to the quiet drone of conversations. When I am starting a script I need to start writing in a cafe for a few days for sure. I like feeling chained to the table and my computer in a cafe because I can't sprawl and be lazy. So I get a lot of focus. I can spend even 10 to 12 hours writing in a cafe. I will reach as soon as it opens and leave when it shuts.
I have a few rituals, though all quite normal I guess. 1. Reading the screenplay of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind during the breaks. 2. Cooking a meal to get over any block. 3. Going for a walk. 4. Treating myself with any of my favourite sweet dishes (mostly Bong sweets or fresh thick cream with Nolen gur) on writing a scene I love.
Normally one finishes a script and narrate the whole script to the producer or director But every time I write a scene, I have a set of people who I narrate to, who I think are normal audiences. They are my childhood friends Ijaz, Shaad (who is also an actor), my brother Meet, and my sister Minnati. Wherever they are, I ask for five minutes from their time. It mostly works. For example, there is a line in Shootout in Wadala where Anil Kapoor tells Sonu Sood, 'Police ki goli mein itna loha hai ki agar tujhe thok di toh zindagi bhar tere khoon mein iron ki kami nahi hongi.' It's a testosterone-filled line, but my male friends, surprisingly, didn't like it so much. But, shockingly, my sister loved it. I went with her gut, and it was one of the lines used in the promo and became very popular.
I write first, pen and paper. Then I type.
I can only write in two places, my living room and my office room. One thing is constant. All my favourite films need to keep playing, one after the other. Shawshank Redemption, Casablanca, Forrest Gump, Trishul, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Wake up Sid, Rang de Basanti, Band Baaja Baarat, and one of my own, Humpy Sharma ki Dulhania. (I keep adding to the list). At home, I am playing a Bluray, or a DVD, or if it is online. In office it's playing on my second laptop, or my phone. I switch them on, and even if I am not watching them, I need to keep hearing the audio. More than the visual it is the sound. I am not even writing the same genre, but these films comfort me. They remind me that I was a fan when I was watching these movies.
I use music. Sometimes I have to write a scene or a passage that needs to evoke a feeling that can be difficult to immediately access. I find a piece of music which evokes that same feeling and keep playing it back to help me get in the zone. Most recently I used a Bach suite by Yo Yo Ma to write a tender father son scene, and AC/DCs 'You shook me all night long' to write a funky chase. On Takht, I remember using Carmina Burana to write the climactic battle.
In January this year I decided to get into the habit of writing every day. So I started a Twitter thread. Every day, depending on other engagements of the day, I set a target – number of pages, hours of typing (and not brainstorming or research), and once I complete the target of the day, I tweet on the thread. I have written uninterruptedly, despite illnesses, celebrations, travel, weddings in family, or other commitments. So yes, tweeting with the hope the streak does not break anytime soon is my ritual.
As told to Sankhayan Ghosh