Far away from the bustling lanes of Andheri and Bandra, where most Bollywood actors and technicians reside, writer Juhi Chaturvedi has made her home in South Mumbai’s upmarket business district, Worli. Her choice of space is in sharp juxta- position with the industry pattern, but one look at her writing and you know why. While part of the mainstream and heart-warming as it ought to be, her writing displays jagged streaks of quirkiness, unpredictability and rebelliousness. It is what makes her, though only two films-old, one of Hindi cinema’s most original voices.
When we meet in her well-lit pad on a Sunday morning, Chaturvedi seems unaffected by the extraordinary response Piku has received in its first week of release. “I am no extraordinary person,” she says, “I live a mundane life as well. Sometimes when a certain incident or occurrence happens in our life, we tend to feel we are special. But we are not. Talk to more people and you will know many people go through the same thing.” Her unassuming presence is not a garb. She has a constant smile on her face as she talks. Through the interview, her phone keeps buzzing, as people call to congratulate her, but she chooses to focus on the conversation. The film Piku was released with almost no fanfare and publicity. Its appeal grew and grew in an organic manner, with people who had watched asking others they knew to watch it too. The duo behind it, director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi, suddenly found themselves swamped with attention. Sircar has returned home to Kolkata just after the release, while Chaturvedi is soon headed to London for a sabbatical.
Three years after she wrote the wacky comedy Vicky Donor, Chaturvedi’s take on old age and constipation has found a new round of takers at the box-office. Simple yet heart-wrenching, out-of-the- box yet borrowed from everyday life, full of ordinary instances yet something we do not come across often on the big screen, Piku defies easy classification. For this one’s theme, the thought wasn’t as much constipation as ageing parents. Chaturvedi had noticed of most people around her that when they have to look after ageing parents, a word they often use is ‘stuck’. “And it is this word that played on my mind and I started writing the script.” She borrowed liberally from her own life, including her daily experience of squabbles with her father. “He has been living here ever since my mother passed away. I watched my grandfather, who was suffering from constipation, give him a lot of grief while growing up, and now he behaves in the exact same manner.” It is no wonder that the film seems recognisably familiar and realistic, in exploring old age and the often volatile relationship between fathers and daughters.
Taking on such out-of-the-way subjects of everyday life, usually ignored by Bollywood, wouldn’t have been possible if not for the encouragement and support she got from Shoojit Sircar, her ex-colleague and friend. “Shoojit and I have shared a wonderful relationship over the years, where he makes sure he never praises me for what I have written. He has never told me, ‘Wah, kya likhaa hai tumne!’ But at the same time, if he reads something and just nods his head in approval, I know he has liked what I have written,” she says with her easy smile. While her first film Vicky Donor was on sperm donation, this one is on constipation. How does she ever manage to sell such ideas? “When both these ideas struck me, I immediately called Shoojit. He laughed at them first, but then pondered if there was a two-hour film in them at all. Once he was okay with the idea, he warned me, saying, ‘It could go any way.’ Hence I needed to be careful with it.”
The triumph of Piku is the character of Piku herself, essayed exquisitely by Deepika Padukone, and for that, much of the credit must rest with Chaturvedi for writing a uniquely multidimensional and feminist heroine, a rarity in Bollywood. Chaturvedi says that the characters played by Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan were written with these two actors kept in mind for the roles, but Piku had no reference point. “Once the script was ready, we took it to Deepika. She heard the first two or three scenes and was geared up to do it.” She adds that Deepika took to it because of the kind of person she is. “Even in real life, Deepika is extremely close to her parents, and she is very expressive too. This just translated on screen quite wonderfully.”
Deepika’s character was borrowed from many young women who Chaturvedi knows and also from her own life. By her own admission, she has led a ‘positive’ life that has been free of inhibitions, and this formed the crux of Piku’s character. The nonchalance with which Bhaskar talks about his daughter’s sex life is something that came naturally to Chaturvedi. “If my parents produced me, they obviously know that I would grow up to have the same basic needs. The father openly declares Piku to be a non-virgin and accepts her relationship as ‘only a physical need’, which is the way it should be. I find it extremely strange how the world knows everything about who’s doing whom and parents don’t. I feel it’s the most natural and right thing for your parents to know and accept this. Since I have grown up without any inhibitions, that is how I look at it,” she says.
Unlike most cinema writers, who work on several drafts for a story, Chaturvedi has a unique way of going about it. She takes time pondering each of her characters, building them in her mind. But once she takes to paper, she writes the story, screenplay and dialogue all at one go. “If my first scene on paper is not setting the tone, I don’t know how I will go forward. For me, the characters have to be fleshed out so well that they take the film forward. After a point, it is not necessarily the story that drives the film, but the characters and how they react to situations.” Sircar, on the other hand, works only with a bound script, one that allows no major changes, and this works for both of them.
Chaturvedi grew up in Lucknow, and during those years it was art that fascinated her. “I studied art and I wanted to become an artist. I never liked words. Even while reading books, I would often get the feeling that I will forget the words I have read previously as I go along,” she laughs. It was an interesting turn of events that led her to pursue something that was never part of her career plan. When she joined an advertising agency to work as an art director, she realised that she couldn’t make her own advertisements. “If you had an idea, you could narrate it to the copywriter, who would then write it down and eventually make it.” It was not very creatively rewarding and it pushed her to start writing for advertisements. “It is here that I worked under Piyush Pandey and Prasoon Joshi—from whom I learnt a lot.”
It was in advertising that she met Shoojit Sircar, with whom she has now had a long-standing association. “When I first started writing ads, I used to write really long ones, and Shoojit used to often pull my leg and say, ‘We are not making a three-hour film, we are making a 30-seconder.’ Perhaps this is what prompted Shoojit to try me out at writing feature films.”
After writing several scripts for TV commercials, most of which were directed by Sircar, Chaturvedi got into cinema when he asked her to write dialogues for his yet-unreleased first film Shoebite. “I took it up to see if the faith Shoojit had shown in me was something I could live up to.”
It was post-Shoebite, when she was with her one-year-old daughter, that the idea of Vicky Donor struck her. But even as she sat down to write its script, she did not think there was a movie in her. This film, of course, was a runaway success. It catapulted her to immediate stardom. She next wrote the dialogues for Sircar’s Madras Cafe, and then, while still doing a full-time job, she thought of writing Piku. “Finally I feel like I have realised my calling. Now I feel I have more stories inside of me which I need to tell the world.”
The collaboration with Sircar has yielded enormous success already. “It is not like we have ever discussed this,” says Chaturvedi, “It’s just happened that I have written all his films and he has directed them. Also, since I have known him for so long, I am just comfortable working with him. The best part is, we do not talk work all the time. Sometimes, we share recipes, we talk world affairs or just about any other random thing under the sun.”
Chaturvedi sees two personalities in herself. One that is involved with her family, juggling everyday life, teaching her daughter multiplication tables, pacifying her father when he sulks about his wife no longer being there, and being the supportive wife. There is another side to her, the one who quietly observes things. “It is from the latter that the humour comes,” says Chaturvedi. Besides her own life and lives of others, which are a constant source of reference material, she describes the place where she grew up—Lucknow—as a huge influence on her writing. Eight years ago when her family home in Lucknow was being sold, she could not voice her objections with all the family elders around, but it stayed with her and continued to haunt her till it found its way into the story she was writing. Piku, in the film, ensures that their family home would not be sold.
“Stories happen where there is time. In Mumbai, we are always in such a hurry that we never have any time to introspect. The spirit of Mumbai is always pushing us to move on.” But in Lucknow, there are stories to be found in every nook and corner. She narrates an illustrative incident. A few years ago, she was trying her parents’ landline number. As there was some unrest then in the city, Chaturvedi was really worried when they did not answer. When they finally called back, they told her there was a snake on top of the phone and that’s why they couldn’t pick up the receiver. “Just imagine… where else could you find bizarre stories like this?” It seems she’s already found a scene for her next film.