We Are The Gods Of Our Characters: Writer Sanjay

Before the release of Uyare, starring Parvathy, Sanjay, of the Bobby-Sanjay duo, talks about the inherent patriarchy that leads to acid attacks, his writing process with his brother, what their characters mean to him and why the heroines in Malayalam films are no longer referred to as ‘edi’ or ‘podi’
We Are The Gods Of Our Characters: Writer Sanjay

In 2006, they scripted Notebook, a film that addressed teen pregnancy. Four years later they scripted Traffic, a multi-narrative thriller that wove multiple stories around one incident. The Rajesh Pillai film was considered a forerunner of Malayalam's new wave. In 2012, despite a disastrous Casanova, they bounced back with Lal Jose's Ayalum Njanum Thammil.  The next year, they wrote an unconventional crime thriller, Mumbai Police around a hero who turned out to be a closeted gay man. Then there was How Old Are You? which, apart from being Manju Warrier's comeback, was an empowering story of a middle-aged woman finding herself. Uyare, after last year's period drama Kayamkulam Kochunni, is about an acid attack survivor. More from writer Sanjay of the Bobby-Sanjay team.

The film is based on the collective stories of acid attack survivors. What did you understand from their stories?

That it's a result of patriarchy and chauvinism. A belief that their identity begins and ends with their beauty is what makes them disfigure their faces instead of killing them. We met the Sheroes from Agra (a café run by acid attack survivors), discussed the psychological and physical implications of it. It was after we got the personal details that we started scripting. Having said that, Pallavi Raveendran (Parvathy) is an imaginary character, a sum of various stories. And also, the factual details, like how they can only feel the pain 4-5 seconds after the acid is thrown. If we had shot otherwise, it would have been a factual error. Then we got to understand the aftermath in various phases—day the attack happened, a week, a month, a year later, all these progressions have been done in detail.

When was the last time a husband slapped a wife in a Malayalam film? Or when the heroine was called Edi, Podi by the hero? Such correctness is progressive. That includes steering clear off mocking those with physical disabilities and even body shaming.  

Parvathy spoke about how you would even brief her about the character's brand of toothpaste…

As writers we need that. In the film, Pallavi is shown to be in her mid-20s, but we need to know her in her teens to properly create her character. If we need to understand their reactions and dialogues, we need to know their full history. Since we are the ones who create that character, I should know what brand of perfume the character should like. To put it arrogantly, we are the gods of our characters.

What's you writing process with Bobby?

We are like those two painters, one can draw great portraits, other is good with nature. We are not very alike, but that contrast helps. In fact our political views are different. This calls for a lot of healthy arguments and discussions that help in making the screenplay multi-layered. We discuss each scene and one of us writes.

What do you disagree over most?

It can be anything. Mostly whether that scene will affect the narrative and rhythm. We debate for days and reach a conclusion. By the end of it all, we wouldn't really know who said what and where. It's the final product that matters, not the journey. Attachment towards the movie is similar. Once we enter, from making backstories to climax, we are in this together.  

What's the most exciting part of writing a script?

It's those psychological trips we like to create for each character. Why a character reacts a certain way. An orphan, a child with both parents and a child with a single parent, all behave in three different ways. There should be a psychology/backstory to someone who throws acid. We create character biographies from there.

The new school of filmmaking talks about writing dialogues on the sets, often allowing the actors to participate in it…

That's not our school of thought. Our actors will say only what we write. Actors come only a month before the film starts. We have been travelling through the actor's psyche for two years. So we are clear about the detailing. We are not disrespecting the other school. But this is only how it works with us.

And the actors concede?

So far we have worked with Mohanlal, Prithviraj, Nivin, Manju Warrier and Parvathy and they have never complained. We have an explanation for every dialogue, and we are there to clear all their doubts. 

Does that also mean you are emotionally invested in the film?

While writing, yes, but once the movie is over, we ditch the characters. We are equally invested in the post production, including editing. So, If we have to look at it objectively we have to be out of this. We have a rapport with all the directors and technicians we work with. It's a collaboration, not interference. The final call is always with the director. We are even present at the censoring. The only place we don't go to is the sets.

But isn't that also where a lot of things can be altered?

The screenplay writers' job is to tell the directors what to shoot, not how to shoot. We usually present our third draft to the director. Any change on location will be done in consultation with us. Till date, they haven't changed a single dialogue or scene without our knowledge. That's why we work with a select few directors. We are very reluctant writers.

Usually when do these stories come up? Or do they approach you?

Mainly it's there in my mind. We have around 8-10 subjects, which we bounce off to the directors and based on what they like, we write. After the first draft, we sit with the director who brings corrections and the final third draft is ready to film.

How would you say a character gets messed up at the writing table?  

The deal is to keep it real. Kayamkulam Kochunni is a fictional character, so though you can't keep it real, you know the character. While writing and creating a character you should know and understand the character. The only instance when we didn't understand was the character Casanova. We had no answer to who he was. That's an alarm signal. And it showed in the film's failure.

Political correctness, gender sensitivity are carefully analysed in films today. Does that put you under pressure?

It's good that these aspects are being taken into consideration. When was the last time a husband slapped a wife in a Malayalam film? Or when the heroine was called Edi, Podi by the hero? Such correctness is progressive. That includes steering clear off mocking those with physical disabilities and even body shaming. Having said that, since we are born into patriarchy, this is all an acquired taste. Our conditioning is consciously changing. And it's important because cinema, whether we agree or not, affects the audience in some way or the other. If it can define our ideals of beauty and fashion, it can surely influence other things.

Is there a favourite character?

No! The characters we create are not us. What we are portraying is an interpretation of what we want to tell. Nirupama Rajeev in How Old Are You? is not us but that spirit is something we desire. So are some of the characters in Uyare or Traffic.

Now that you have brought up How Old Are You, one of the criticisms about the film was that Nirupama forgave her insensitive rude husband rather easily…

When we talk about progress, we believe in the system called family. More than forgiveness, what we were trying to show was that she becomes his equal. She is the person who is invited, and he accompanies her and stands outside till she calls him inside. That evens the family equation for us. If she had told him to get lost, that wouldn't have looked very progressive in our eyes. It's about gender equality in that moment, when she admits it's her happiest moment.

Was Kayamkulam Kochunni difficult to write?

Yes. Including giving it a name. It had to be something that suits that era. Even the profanities— "Son of a pig" was the highest form of abuse back then.  

I can't seem to find a common thread in your screenplays, except maybe social issues?

Maybe, but it's not what we have consciously tried to add. Our politics is cinema, while writing a script we are consciously trying to get out of the patriarchal conditioning we have grown up seeing. While writing Traffic, we were worried about small issues and realised there were so many bigger issues to tackle.

And there is no stereotypical hero in your film, except maybe in Casanova

True, we focussed more on his heroism than the story and hopefully we wouldn't recreate that kind of heroism anymore.

It's widely argued that Ithikkara Pakki overshadowed Kayamkulam Kochunni. Have you felt it?

Yes, but it has nothing to do with the writing as we haven't written a word after Mohanlal came on board. When Lal says it there is a larger-than-life impact, an aura about him. It's only because of the actor and star he is. And Rosshan also designed the scenes in that way. We wrote him through the eyes of 10-year old's imagination of a superman. After all, it's a Robin Hood movie.

Do you remember the first story you wrote?

Of course. We have kept it  for every time cockiness gets the better of us. It was that awful. We used to feel betrayed that our father (Prem Prakash), who was also a producer, would reject them all. Of course the production house would have sunk if that had not happened. We used to write short stories as our mom had inculcated a reading habit in us. Besides, we were born into a film set, right from the time our father produced a film. We used to eavesdrop into those discussions. It was during the summer of 1983 that Koodevide was filmed and that's when we saw a film shoot and screenplay for the first time. Later on, my brother opted for MBBS and I became an assistant to Kamal sir as I wanted to know everything about cinema before writing a screenplay. Screenplay writing is more technical writing today, he should be an editor, director and actor in his mind.

A perfect screenplay according to you?

Yavanika would be the perfect screenplay. I remember watching this film in theatres and being blown away and there was IV Sasi's Ee Nadu. That's why we are not interested in web series. We want to write only for the big screen. There is something magical about sitting in a dark theatre and knowing that the audience are being dictated by us. 

Who are the writers that influenced you?

Padmarajan, MT Vasudevan Nair, KG George, Lohithadas, T Damodaran, Sreenivasan. I am also a huge fan of Lijo Jose Pellissery. We eagerly wait for his films.

Director Ranjith said he can write in the middle of total chaos. What about you?

I need a space of my own inside a room with not a soul around. It's the only way to focus and understand the characters. I can never write on location. I need to feel each emotion in every cell of my body. We emote and say those dialogues and write. But that's not to say we take the stress of the characters on our own. It is a detached attachment. Maybe in novels it isn't.

How has your experience with actors been? How would you want them to approach their characters?

There are no hard-and-fast rules. Mohanlal doesn't do any homework, it's instinctive. There is a Mohanlal between action and cut. Salim Kumar is satisfied with what is there in the screenplay and prefers to read between the lines. Same goes for Manju Warrier. Prithviraj likes to know the route of the story. While Parvathy likes to undergo the pain and joy of characters, live a lot of lives.

And is there a genre you would never want to try?

Pure fantasy. Sci-fi may be. But then again, never say never.

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