He is in the news for his unusual, catchy lyrics for the much talked-about Gangs of Wasseypur series. His irreverent writings in songs like Womaniya, Electric Piya and Moora has stirred up a storm, but it’s not just writing film lyrics that he is good at. Varun Grover is also a humorist and script writer with many popular shows like The Great Indian Comedy Show and Jay Hind! under his belt.
Having dabbled in the script writing process for both films and television, Varun shares his experiences — of making the switch from a software job, of constantly upgrading himself and learning and unlearning in the process. Read on.
Based on your experiences, how does one learn to be a script writer?
My simple home-made recipe is: observe a lot, read a lot, and write a lot. I didn’t take any professional course, never did read a single ‘screen-writing tips’ genre of book, nor listened to any advice from any ‘senior’. (Which effectively means, you can stop reading further and do your own thing).
I strongly believe that writing, of any kind, is a completely personal voice, on issues/themes/stories one deeply cares about and hence, simply, it can’t be taught. Of course, this is only the ideal scenario and all script-writers often do write for commercial reasons — say for our TV shows. But to share the unsaid truth, commercial writing is more about discipline than about genuine talent. If you know the format, lingo, and can work with crazy deadlines, there are chances you will do fine as a TV writer in India.
But yes, ‘the craft of writing’ part can still be learned through some sources. What I did focus on to learn the craft was to read the complete scripts of some Hollywood films I loved (Pulp Fiction, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Godfather, and Dog Day Afternoon). After that, it was just writing and more writing, for various genres, that kept me going.
Writing is a creative exercise. What are the challenges to being creative?
The biggest challenge is to avoid clichés. Finding fresh metaphors, structures, characters, and situations is the whole game. And the solution is, again, sharp observation. Imagination can get you to the sea, but crossing it will take a new idea. Again, in TV fiction writing, you can take the same ship daily, and you’ll be home. And nobody will mind too.
Another challenge, as for humor writing which I do, is to realize the full potential of a joke. Over-using a set-up line is a crime but under-using it is blasphemy. For example – a big set-up line like ‘Osama killed by US Navy Seals in Pakistan’ needs punches equally weighty and exploring all angles (Osama’s five-year stay, the time and method of his killing, Pakistan connection and world leaders’ reactions etc.). But a smaller news-item like Aishwarya Rai’s latest appearance at Cannes for L’Oreal can be qualified with just a couple of punchlines. (Her vanity, ignorance and overall insignificance of this ‘achievement’, are all the angles one could write about here.)
One more challenge which wakes-up every few weeks is the need to keep the windows open. There are new idioms, new lingo, and new narratives being made every day (on Twitter, every few minutes probably) – and if you sit back and believe you’ve learned all you had to, the edge is gone.
And the last on the list is a challenge specific to India – more so in recent times: the self-censorship. More and more people are taking offense on random things and it all comes down to how the damn line was worded. It’s an unfortunate and totally unwanted challenge for writers in a free country, but not offending any particular group/religion/caste/subcaste/gotra/sub-gotra has become a kind of unsaid rule. Nobody wants their offices ransacked just for being funny.
Unorthodox career options are often frowned upon in our society. What led you to think you could become a script writer?
I studied Civil Engineering from IT-BHU, Varanasi (now IIT-BHU) but somehow landed up with a high-paying software job in Pune. After working there for 11 months, I decided to take the ‘not advisable’ route and quit to become a writer.
Thankfully, my parents supported the move completely as just a few months before I decided to quit, India Today had run a cover story on the health problems being faced by Software Engineers due to sitting in front of computer for long hours. So, that helped. In deciding to move, at least.
But what led me to believe I could become a script writer? A few things, in this order.
- Nothing else to do: I have no other talent, no other burning desire, no high-goals except to sit and talk to myself and put that conversation in new-words on a document. A software job, for me, was like the end of the world. I used to look at my colleagues, trying hard to learn that new coding protocol, project documentation software and felt an existential crisis blowing in my face. And I was only 23 then – a full 12 years younger than the official existential crisis age. I didn’t want to be there, and I didn’t know where else I could be other than with a pen and paper, alone.
- Ignorance: I had no idea Mumbai is so bad for strugglers. Hindi films have romanticized struggle to a great extent – with successful stars talking about ‘the days spent sleeping on railway platform’ as if it’s a red lounge. But in reality, it sucks when you plan your day with just 20 rupees in hand. Or work for a full month, day and night, with the full force of your passion, and in the end do not even get writing credit or money. If I had known the hardships, I probably would have planned better. Which also means, I probably would have never moved because there is nothing like ‘better planning’.
- A bit of reconnaissance: In filmy lingo, we call it recce – surveying the field you are going to jump into for a shoot. Before I shifted bag-and-baggage, I took a month off from my job to stay at a friend’s place in Mumbai. During this period, I met a few people through online business networking (via a website called ryze.com, which was the grandfather of the Orkut-Facebook phenomenon, and probably the first genuine social networking website in our world) and showed them some of the short films I had already written. I realized that the TV and Film industry always welcomes new writers (that they won’t pay them for the first full year is another story) – and also that my writing is above average. The confidence boost resulted in the full-fledged shift a couple of months later.Disclaimer: It still took me one full year after moving to Mumbai to find a job that I loved, was getting paid for, and was getting credited for.
Jay Hind!, the show you write, started off as a web-format. It also moved on to TV as The Late Night Show on Colors. How has the journey been like?
The journey has been full of surprises, new learnings and some disappointments. We all were really thrilled to be the first Internet show (probably anywhere in the world) to get a TV syndication, with all intellectual property rights intact with us. But the TRP-obsession of Indian TV didn’t let us survive for long. Also, TV has many restrictions, lots of censorship issues because it’s supposed to be for family audience. (The family audience which is okay with cheap jokes by cross-dressing comics on Comedy Circus but not a smart one on the PM or Vijay Mallya, as we learnt).
TV is a tough field today, especially for people wanting to do something niche. Everybody wants to make that-dumbed-down-show which will get heavy TRPs. Also, the kind of shows getting TRPs (like something called ‘Sasural Simar Ka‘ on Colors) totally stumps me. Probably I am evolutionarily incapable of understanding ‘mass psyche’. So that was one new learning too, while working for TV.
With that view point in mind, what are the career prospects these days for script writers?
Career prospects are good, getting better, as more and more writing avenues are opening up. Writing for online medium (people are getting paid to write interesting tweets even!), writing for one of the hundreds of daily TV shows, and independent short/full-length features are options that didn’t exist 10 years back.
What sort of compensation can they expect?
Compensations, again, are varied. This is the most disorganized industry on the planet and too many variables get together in a pool to define the fees for project. Writer’s experience, how big the project is, amount of work, quality expected, and the producer’s mood on that day all combine to reach a final figure. But still, to give you a broad idea – a new writer for a full-length feature film gets around 1-1.5 lakhs if the film gets made and 20-30 thousands if it doesn’t get beyond the scripting stage. A seasoned writer working for established productions may charge anything above 7-8 lakhs and go up to 25 lakhs.
For TV, a new writer for a daily soap gets around 10,000 for an episode (meaning Rs. 1.6 lakhs for a month) while a seasoned writer can make over Rs. 5 lakhs a month for the same work.
All one has to do is be disciplined, and show-up for the work when called. And yes, a bit of initial-phase exploitation is always on the cards. (Okay – I know that didn’t sound too exciting. But the fact is genuine writing takes time, and one has to do something in between to keep the Maggi boiling.)
Gangs of Wasseypur 2 — whose chartbuster songs Chheechha Ledar, Kaala Rey, Moora have been penned by Varun Grover — releases today.