My younger brother Devanshu and I are from Munger in Bihar. The first time I visited Mumbai was in 2004 for Devanshu's admission into a college. I got into Armed Forces Medical College, Pune and since I was going to be a doctor, my brother got the freedom to pursue what he wanted and he chose to study Mass Media in Mumbai.
For me, medical school soon became my film school. My friends and I explored David Lynch, Kubrick, Kurosawa, Tarantino, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Shyam Benegal. During college, I made a short film and adapted two novels into screenplays to learn screenwriting. This is a tip I still give my screenwriting students today – take any novel you love and try to write a film out of it because a lot of the groundwork has already been done. This can teach you a lot about screenwriting.
I always knew I was going to work in the movies. The plan was that I'd finish medical school, join the army and support Devanshu for as long as it took him to become a filmmaker. Then I'd quit the army and come to Mumbai to become a filmmaker myself.
But I never felt attached to medicine and during my final year in 2008 I wanted to quit college and come to Mumbai. But I needed to raise 15 lakhs so I could buy my freedom from the army, or else I'd be locked in for 7 years.
It was around then that we wrote Chintu Ka Birthday. While my teachers were teaching medicine, I was on the last bench writing the script. The script was received well by whoever read it in Mumbai and that's why I needed to take the leap. We raised the 15 lakhs through contributions from friends and with the script of Chintu Ka Birthday in hand, I started my life in Mumbai as a struggling filmmaker. When I told my family, they disowned me. My mom eventually understood but my dad didn't speak to us for 2 years.
People look at the film industry as a place where dreams get crushed. This is where people take impulsive decisions. They fight their families, quit their jobs, come to Mumbai, and when they don't make it, they have to go back. But I believe that if you have a good script, people will take notice of you. I have a checklist of things you need to make it in Mumbai that I always give my filmmaking students. It starts with getting hold of a great script. Either write it yourself or find someone to write it for you. That's the toughest part. Even finding funding for a film is easier than finding a good script.
The biggest misconception people from small towns have is that they believe networking is everything. Yes, networking is important, but it all comes down to what you have to offer. You have to have something that makes people go 'why didn't I think of this?'. Next, you need to learn to write a great 1-page synopsis and have a 2-minute pitch ready so when you meet people you can sell it to them. And then you have film festivals like MAMI and workshops where you meet people and you soon find that you know people who know people. For Devanshu and me, our biggest supporter was Vikramaditya Motwane. He read Chintu Ka Birthday 10 years ago and gave us a chance to write the poems for Udaan.
The other lesson is, you can't rely only on one script. When you work on 2-3 different scripts, lessons from one help you with the other. Even if people like your script, they'll ask you what else you've written because they like to check if it's a fluke. In the beginning write scripts for all genres and different budgets. Don't worry about how good or bad they are, just write them. People aren't expecting all your scripts to be a masterpiece. What they're looking for is a broad understanding of you as a screenwriter. Since getting a good script takes a while, use that time to prepare yourself as a director and train yourself by making short films and working on a set.
If you want to be a director, I don't recommend taking up just any job as an assistant director. Ideally, try becoming a script supervisor because then you work closely with the director and that's a huge learning. You can also try getting a director's assistant (or a DA, different from an AD) job because then you get to work with him or her right till postproduction.
The biggest challenge for those from small towns is accepting that their culture, sensibility and taste is good enough. When you come to the city, you look at English-speaking people from well-off backgrounds and develop an inferiority complex. That constantly bothers you and you try to write something that impresses people. But the last 10 years have shown us that even mainstream cinema now wants to explore small-town stories.
A lot of writers from Mumbai have never lived outside the city so when a youngster from Rajasthan comes here, he doesn't realise that he has seen more life than them. Stay with your roots and understand your sensibilities. Be proud of what you bring to the table.
One of the lessons I quickly learnt was that here people love to talk a lot but don't follow up. You need to find a comfortable way of exiting those conversations without straining any relationships. There were multiple times where producers would tell us 'I'm making your film' and then kept us waiting for years. There were others who said 'why don't you cast Govinda or Abhishek Bachchan? Then maybe we can do something with it'.
In our early days, Devanshu and I did a lot of weird jobs in the industry. In my first week in the city, we met the daughter of actor Rajendra Kumar to talk to her about producing Chintu Ka Birthday. That meeting ended with her asking us to make a documentary on her father's life. The documentary didn't materialise, but it was an unforgettable experience. We interviewed a lot of people like Yash Chopra and Salim Khan for it. We also got a job to direct educational videos for a learning platform. I was also an assistant on a Bhojpuri TV show where the writer needed someone to format the screenplay so he would record himself narrating the scene and I would type out the entire episode in a screenplay format in English and send it back.
One of the lessons I quickly learnt was that here people love to talk a lot but don't follow up. You need to find a comfortable way of exiting those conversations without straining any relationships. There were multiple times where producers would tell us 'I'm making your film' and then kept us waiting for years. There were others who said 'why don't you cast Govinda or Abhishek Bachchan? Then maybe we can do something with it'. These are competent actors, but Chintu Ka Birthday needed someone like Vinay Pathak.
When we were pitching Chintu Ka Birthday, along with the script we also made a 200-page bible which detailed everything from the aspect ratio to colour palette to camera movements. One producer told us he'd never seen anything like it in the industry. It was one of the biggest compliments we received in the journey.
Finally, our friends at AIB decided to produce the film just the way we wanted to make it. I'm so grateful none of those earlier producers greenlit us because this film deserved someone like Tanmay Bhat to back it.
And once you find your producer, the most crucial part is finding the right cast and crew. Your film can't be as good as you, it has to be way better, and for that you need great people. When you find them, you need to make your cast and crew your family. That way if your second film's script isn't as good as your first, you still have those relationships and people will want to work with you again. Nothing is more important than that. I would choose a bad film over a bad relationship any day.