Screenwriter Kanika Dhillon On Getting Top Billing And Not Taking No For An Answer

The writer on creating Haseen Dillruba, her aversion to 'bubbly' female characters, and leading the fight for credits
Screenwriter Kanika Dhillon On Getting Top Billing And Not Taking No For An Answer

Haseen Dillruba, quite literally, begins with Kanika Dhillon. The first frame of the film credits her for the story, screenplay and dialogue. Dhillon's credit is followed by the name of the producers and then the director and cast. When I speak to Dhillon, a day before the release of the film, she points out that the Haseen Dillruba hoardings across Mumbai also have her name on them. This, sadly, is an anomaly and therefore a great win for Dhillon. For years, film producers have not only failed to give writers the top billing they deserve, but also conveniently left them out of promotional material. Netflix, the streaming platform on which Haseen Dillruba is streaming, has continued this tradition of disrespect. Their acknowledgement of Dhillon is a first, at least with their Hindi releases.

We spoke to the screenwriter about what it takes to be uncompromising, both on the issue of credits and her female characters.

Haseen Dillruba is your fifth film in four years. You have already announced two others (Rajkumar Hirani and Aanand L Rai's next). How are you so prolific?

I'm just grateful that I'm getting a chance to tell all the stories that I've always wanted to. Like every other writer, while growing up I've been banking things unknowingly. And now that I'm part of Hindi cinema I'm digging into deep and dark places to bring them out. I have so many more to tell and I'm just so fortunate I'm getting to do that.

Do you write more than one film at a time? 

Yes, I do. I do alternate but lately what I have realized is that I finish doing one film and then I go to the other one. So at one given point in time I'm doing one movie but I may cheat on that and go back to the first one. I think I need to have some space before I come back for the second draft because otherwise I'm coming back with the same eyes. I need that kind of time to go to another emotional landscape, another set of characters, and then when I come back to the first script I'm like, 'oh my god, what crap is this'.

Do you get surprised by the attention your female characters get or are you consciously trying to make a point through them?

Listen, I'm just tired of bubbly girls. When I started writing stories, I thought if I see another bubbly girl on screen I'll just throw up. No woman can be only bubbly. If that happens, the person needs medical attention. So it's not a conscious thing, it is just the kind of women I've seen. I have not seen a uni-dimensional bubbly woman in my life so you will not see a uni-dimensional bubbly woman in my stories. And the fact is that they are getting so much attention because we as a society are not celebrating them. We want them in either the bubbly, goddess or mother category. The sexism is so deep-rooted that we don't know that we are suffering from it. This idea that women need to be graceful, sacrificing and makes the world for a man beautiful is bullshit and we are showing the same thing in cinema. And women who have ambition and things to say, are labeled as bitches and witches. So let's celebrate them as women who have an equal amount of good and bad.

But to answer your question, I would say as a person I am non-conformist. I like to question the status quo. I'm not happy being the lesser gender and I will express it in every which way. I will express it at a party, I will express it in my work, or in a situation where I'm supposed to take sides.

Taapsee's character in the film has a degree in Hindi literature. She's a reader. How important are these details for you?

Yes, it is very important to me that my character Rani is an educated woman who chooses not to have a career. It's important to me that I give that agency of choice to my character. She's not an uneducated woman who's been forced to get married. She's had a series of failed relationships, she wants to settle down and not work, and that is her choice. No one can judge her for that. For me, the agency of choice for the women around me and my characters is sacrosanct. I will fight tooth and nail for them.

What has it been like to cast the female parts in all your films? Are actresses willing to play women who aren't necessarily likeable?

So far I've had a very good response. The women in the industry are all very intelligent and ambitious. They all see the merit in these roles and they're not shying away. I'm sure if I was to offer a good meaty role to any one of our actresses they will take it because times are changing. When I was out hunting for a female lead for Manmarziyan I did go to a few female actors and there were reservations about a married girl sleeping with her lover but Taapsee went ahead and did it. We did have a conversation where she asked how she's going to do this and I said that is for her to convince people that a girl in that position could behave like this. Taapsee took the bait and had the guts to do it. Today she jokes that I give her all these messy characters but I think she's a boss lady. If you want to do something non-conformist, you have to take that risk.

Let's move to the men. Are there certain male characters that you think Bollywood needs more of? Or that you'd like to create?

Yes. I want to focus on my men now. These men are not alpha males who are dancing with this hyper manic energy at shaadis. These are men who are unpredictable, they are real, they can be sexist. Let's take Rishu in Haseen Dillruba. He's the guy you'd tell 'Arre, you're an engineer. Please pankha theek kar do na'. He's a good guy. The guy next door. But did see how he behaves and how he stands up for the love of his life. That's a hero for me. I want to see more of that, not just the typical extrovert, alpha, objectifying male.

The character of Neel has been objectified to a large extent. And when I offered Harshvardhan (Rane) the role, I told him that I'm telling you openly that women have been objectified for so long, that we're going to objectify you left, right and centre.

The film begins with you, literally. The first credit is yours. What has it taken for you to say that you deserve this and won't settle for less?

Oh my god. A lot. And that is a separate one- hour interview. I want to do a separate video on this and all young writers need to watch it. But to cut a long story short, I've always been very vocal about credits. I've always said that there's no superhero coming to save you. Get up and fight your battles. I have always believed that the relationship with writers is almost exploitative. It's like having an extramarital affair with someone and not giving them due respect. That's how you're making us feel and I'm not going to accept it. And If I'm told that this is the norm, then I'm not going to accept that either. Just because it's the norm doesn't mean it's right. I would really like to commend Netflix who has supported me. I know that this issue has been raised before so this goes to show the platform is not tone deaf and that they are listening. They do respect creators and this is an affirmative action by a leading player in the industry. Our producers should have done this a long time back. I would request all writers across the industry to say no. This is not a gift you're giving us. This is what we deserve.

Have you ever refused work because the makers have said no to giving you top billing?

I have been very vocal about this. Now people know that if I'm coming on board this is what I'm expecting. That's true from day one. I think it's the responsibility of every senior writer who has some body of work and a voice to keep at it. We have to make sure when the next batch of youngsters come in, they don't have to fight the battles we did. I've been there and it is heartbreaking. After doing so much work, not being credited is one of the most painful experiences that one can have. I don't want anyone to go through it even if it makes people uncomfortable or makes them label me as difficult.

Is there a larger plan? You're already writing and creative producing. Do you want to direct or do other things within storytelling?

I want to make a lot of movies. I want to tell a lot of stories. I also want to do it in a way that I'm not a mere peg in the machine. I want to do it as a proper collaborator. I also want to produce and collaborate with all the talent that I admire.

Is your ambition ever intimidating to those around you?

Yes, of course. I feel it everyday. Sexism is so deep rooted that people around don't even know they're being sexist. An ambitious woman is still something to be weary of. And you'll be shocked at how close to home this thinking is. It exists even with people you've collaborated with, and people in your social circle. The only way to fight it is to fight it together. Sisterhood is the only way out of this.

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