In this Deep Focus interview with Baradwaj Rangan, director Franklin Jacob discusses the screenwriting, characterization and filmmaking process in acclaimed film Writer.
Edited excerpts below. Spoilers Ahead:
There are two threads in Writer—Thangaraj and Devakumar. The story is about how these threads intervene and mix. Which thread came up with first?
Franklin: I think in 2016, I had a two-line outline. I wrote two scripts and showed one to Ranjith sir. He read the script and told me there are good parts but I have to work on my writing. So I decided to learn and work more.
For eight months, I read and researched. The other script line was about the confessions of a police man. I decided to work on it and started researching. I got that spark from Ramachandran Iyer’s biography. So I started to research the police department and I learnt a lot of facts. When you do ground research, it tells you many truths that are seldom spoken about.
I began writing Writer as a police man’s story. Then I wanted to talk about police brutality that has been going on for ages. So I came up with the second thread. If you take a look at the past ten years, the hatred and gap between people and police is increasing by the day. So that’s when I decided that instead of being a confession of a policeman, Writer should talk about the current situation of the Tamil Nadu police.
In screenwriting terms, a conflict is about how a person gets trapped in a knot and how he manages to untie it. That is conflict in a broad screenwriting term. But in Writer, you have kept different small conflicts. For instance, the Samuthirakani’s character has two wives. While there are no big fights between them, the fact that he has two wives is a conflict. Why did you think the character should have two wives?
Many people have asked me this question. Earlier, whenever I used to get caught by the police, I used to think I was smart and I would go and tell them ‘Sir, please think of me as your own son and let me go’. But when I started working on this film, I observed that the policemen are not really in that mindset. They do not have the thought that this person is of my son’s age and is similar to him.
According to them, the police law teaches them to treat Indian citizens as outsiders. So if my character has to view someone as his own son, then he should not have a child. Even when he has a son from his second wife, it is in a way that someone tells the child he is his grandfather.
So that is the main thing. For the policeman to really feel that a common man is their son, he should be of a certain age and he should be similar to the officer. Only then that factor will work. That is why I made that call.
When you talk about cops, you do not use any caste identity. But you call them hitmen. When we typically talk about hitmen, they are always villains. But Thangaraj says that police who don’t have power are like hitmen.
One day during my research, I went to the police training camp and I sat down. At one side, there were many vehicles that were parked there to be used in case a riot or protest takes place. On the other side, there are continuous parades and endurance classes taking place one after the other.
So when I went and asked them about the vehicles. He told me that if there are sudden riots in the city, what can they do? So they keep it ready and if there are any such issues, they go there and come back once it is done.
If you see it as an outsider, it is like there is a need and then you take 100 people in a van. They go, hit and clear the place and come back. So when you think about who these people are on campus and what they are used for, that’s when I came up with the word hitmen.
It’s not about their humanity. If a riot takes place, they have to clear the crowd and place. They have to “hit” the people. So if we think about what the government has trained them to do, they are trained as hitmen. So that’s where I took the concept from.
When you tell a film, you can tell it anyway. You can either say it is very melodramatic or with realism. You took a realistic angle and even your shots were very realistic. Why did you think the angle of realism will work?
We can say that I would have watched at least 75% of police films that got released all over India. When I saw all those, one thing I clearly understood is that the films were somehow written from a room. The ground reality was missing.
So my major thing was not to make Writer another a film written from a room. I wanted to depict the film in a realistic way. What I think is if you have to depict close-to-real happenings, then the shot and making process has to be realistic.
Why I use mid and mid-close shots, why I don’t want block shots, why I specifically focus on the geographical narration—everything is to present a close-to-real effect.
Because when we talk about police films, we have glorified them like Kaaki Sattai, they are the ones who protect us. But you take the same police world, and tell people it is just like our world—there are good and bad people. So when you are showing such layers, were there any doubts or concerns if you will face criticism?
We have been facing these issues for a long time. When I say we, I am talking about myself and Ranjith. I follow Ranjith sir in one thing. He always says that ‘you are the writer, you are the director, so you will take the final call’. He says that I should be clear about that and it is important. So I follow that always. Even when he asked me a few things about the film, I stubbornly said this is the way I want it and he has accepted.
So that has helped me get a lot of clarity. In addition, we have a general political knowledge of our society. When the writing stems from these, I make sure that when I accuse someone, I have a valid point and I do justice to it. If not, I don’t accuse someone. This is my measuring tool. When around 70% of the dialogues were done, Neelam Productions planned to produce the film. So that’s when my fear factor was gone.
If it is politically wrong, Ranjith sir will correct it. I was free. But he never corrected it, so I got that confidence. When Neelam Production produced, I got the freedom to explore my dialogues. Ranjith sir knows what kind of political statement my dialogues convey, so it was an advantage. Once Ranjith sir even told me that dialogues are very good. So that’s when I was convinced. I wrote freely with more conscious effort.