The Small Big World of Juhi Chaturvedi

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Divya Unny catches up with one of Hindi cinema’s most original screenwriters

India was reeling under the after-effects of the Emergency. The youth was disillusioned, there were no jobs and people were searching for answers. People yearned for a hero who was one of their own. In came the Angry Young Man. He might have been on the big screen, but he became the face of the common man and a ray of hope for hundreds. His rags-to-riches tale encouraged Indians at large to fight for their dreams again.

Screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi was barely five at the time. Living in Lucknow, often finding solace under the shade of a shiuli tree (the night-flowering jasmine or parijat), she grew up listening to stories that her grandfather recounted of the past. Little did she know that the time she spent collecting those white and orange flowers under that tree would inspire a story so evocative so many years later. “We create the stories we want to hear,” she says when we meet in Mumbai.

Chaturvedi believes that every story is born of a need for it, a demand of the times. Her latest film October is nothing but a homage to that thought. This is a film about a young girl who is in love with shiuli flowers, and a young boy desperately trying to find himself. They barely know each other, but develop a deep connection through the course of a tragedy. Those who have watched it would agree that the film is so cathartic that you stay under its influence long after you’ve seen it.

Demure and soft-spoken, like many of the characters she has created, Chaturvedi is still trying to grasp the responses coming her way since the release of October. This love story, heartbreaking to say the least, has evoked such empathy and passion among viewers that she has often had to console choked voices on the other end of her phone. “There is a sense of such disconnect between people in today’s times that when they see unconditional love, they realise what they are missing. We are running all the time, and are too scared to pause and let something affect us. We want to move on, we want to come out of it; we are too busy to be sad, or even happy for that matter. October was born out of the need to take a minute and look at yourself and the people around you. It was born out of the sheer need to tell a story where a boy loves a girl and wants nothing in return,” she says.

Today it is rare to find a Hindi movie in which you can identify with the character on screen. Masaan, Udaan, English Vinglish, Piku, Lunchbox come to mind; and in the past, films like Anand, Chupke Chupke, Masoom, Ijaazat, which took a leaf from life itself. These are films that are not just personal, but have the most recall value thanks to their characters, dialogue and relatable situations. Over the last few years, Chaturvedi has joined the league of writers in Hindi cinema who have written some of the most moving and relevant stories.

Chaturvedi’s work, be it Vicky Donor (2012), Piku (2015) or now October, all in collaboration with director Shoojit Sircar, re-emphasises the need for films that are driven primarily by their subjects. The actors, the dialogues, the songs, the locations, the costumes, art work, the visuals and all other aspects of these films emerge stronger because of a compelling plot. What’s even better is that these are not stories that are larger than life, or stories that pretend to change the world. These are stories that belong to anyone, from your neighbour to your child’s class teacher, to even that nameless face you see on the road everyday to work.

It’s important for me to know what the person next door feels and wants from life

Who would have thought that a protagonist who is a sperm donor and keen to start a family will resonate with countless Indians who otherwise shy away from any sexual topic? Or for that matter, a senior gentleman who is so obsessed with his bowel functions that he becomes endearingly insufferable? “These are not individuals who you hero-worship. These are people who are an extension of your life,” she says.

She is never trying to airbrush the people who make her stories. Her characters are confused, sometimes angry, irritable, extreme, flawed, just like most of us. That’s the strength of her writing. We not just fall in love with them, but we really believe that we could be one of them. “My driver who has two daughters comes to me and says, ‘Meri beti Piku jaisi banegi, madam.’ He isn’t educated, and for that matter he doesn’t belong to the kind of family that Piku is part of. But he still connected with her. That’s a huge thing for me because it reinstates my faith in the kind of stories I want to tell and who I want to tell them to. We often start making films thinking, ‘Koi ajooba banaane jaa rahein hain (We are making something extraordinary)’, when all I need to do is replicate life, or at least replicate my understanding of the life I have seen,” Chaturvedi says.

HER LIFE EXPERIENCES obviously play a role in what she puts down on paper. She grew up in a strong and close- knit family environment in Lucknow, where meals were had together and every crisis was averted as a collective. She and her brother would often join hands to run the home, helping their mother who was often unwell. “My biggest conflict was my mother’s ailing health, and my brother and I would often try to find normalcy in the most extreme situations. How she felt dictated everything else that would occur through the day. As a kid, I would always wonder why she couldn’t dress up and step out like other mums. We would wait for days that she was doing well, so we could head out as a family that evening and spend time together. But it never brought us down or made us sad, in fact it only made us more responsible. The days when she’d actually be able to do things for us were filled with so much joy,” she says.

Chaturvedi spent many years of her life within hospitals and around doctors, a strong setting in almost all of her films. The dining table conversations in Piku or the chats with the night nurse in the ICU in October are parts of her past. The smell of the hospital, the food of the canteen—she was familiar with it all. “After a while, you stop thinking of yourself as a caregiver, because it becomes so routine. My mum would be on the ventilator, but I would always feel, ‘So what if she’s taking some support?’ It was never as dramatic as it’s often made out to be. We were positive on most days. Yes, there was a day when we had to unplug her from the machines, but I still value the medical world a lot because I was so hugely dependent on it,” she says.

She grew up too soon because of these early responsibilities, but the child in her stayed alive. As a girl, she poured herself into her art work, a place that she would escape into often. “Now I feel like my drawings may have been my biggest expression. It was a beautiful catharsis as a kid. It was a take away from something more pensive and it shaped me in ways I can’t explain. When I moved to Delhi, it was what I relied upon completely. I never felt alone, or felt the lack of family around me because I was so independent by then,” she adds.

There is such disconnect between people in today’s times that when they see unconditional love, they realise what they are missing. October was born out of the need to take a minute, and look at yourself and the people around you

After many years as an art director at leading ad agencies in Delhi, Chaturvedi struggled to find words that would translate the true meaning of her images. During one of their commercial shoots, Sircar told her, “Write a song for me.” Chaturvedi did, though she isn’t sure where that song is now. She believes that was her breakthrough into the world of writing. “He was testing my expression in its purest form without any agenda. He then asked me to write dialogues for Shoe Bite, and that was it. Being on the sets of that film was life-transforming. I would often come back from set and feel empty. I would sense that my words were just a reflection of something inside of me that I was trying to let out. I could speak out my most hidden feelings through the lines of a character and that was just surreal. You know it’s a very addictive environment, the relationship which you share with your characters and the time that you spend with your laptop,” she says.

Of course, her relationship with Sircar, who turned her stories into such beautiful films, is something she will always treasure. “Shoojit isn’t a filmmaker with ambition. He’s one with a vision. He reads my scripts more times than I read them myself,” she says.

This love she has for writing translates so beautifully into her films’ scenes that you wonder if it was all just improvised. Her understanding of relationships and oneself is evident in the incidents that occur in her films. Like the one where Piku randomly decides to take a break from work and walks around a mall biting into a candy bar, or just lazes around in bed separating strands of her hair. “What happens with us in between the big incidents of life is what I am really interested in. The times in your day where nothing is happening. How would you react and respond to times like that? It sounds boring, but that really is life,” she says. The boring times, the mundane mornings, the blank spaces between conversations, are where she finds her stories. “When Satyajit Ray made Mahanagar, it was a simple story of a woman who steps out of home and earns for a family that is in a financial crisis. People called it progressive, but isn’t that the reality of so many families? Ray was just showing how the male ego responds to something like this and how the woman manages it. It happens every day,” she says.

Her biggest challenge as a writer, though, is bridging gaps between her words and her viewers, she says. “There can’t be a gap between the screen and what we are feeling, between my mind and the movie goers’. It has to come close and I always am looking for answers to fill that gap. I recently showed my eight- year-old daughter Bicycle Thieves and she cried. She borrowed from that cinema and she will remember that as a lesson. I really think as writers we need to feed our children with certain emotional triggers that will [make] them into better people.”

Despite all the talk of stories becoming spiritual experiences through films, Chaturvedi insists that her biggest inspirations remain the people around her. The group of women from her building who she takes a walk with after dinner every day are the ones she considers her actual audience—and the ones who bring her back to reality. “I live a very simple life. My daughter and her squash lessons, my dad, my husband, the group of ladies from my building who I spend time with, they are all most important to me. No matter how ‘mahila mandal’ that sounds, that’s what I feed off. One of my friends the other day asked me why I take so long to write films. I said, ‘It’s because I spend all my time with you all.’”

A few days ago, Chaturvedi watched her latest film with 24 people from her building. “They are the ones I face every morning, my group of non-filmi people. It’s important for me to know what the person next door feels and wants from life. Is it the same as me or what is that motivates him or her? Am I on the same page as them?” These are the questions she will continue to answer film after film.