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OSMIUM IN CLOWN’S CAP
A freedom fighter rendered unconscious by the baton blow from a British soldier during the freedom movement, wakes up fifty years later in a Mumbai hospital and asks: “How is Bapu? Has he ended his fast?” But to a person in today’s time, this seems like a baffling idea. Abhijat Joshi, the co-screenwriter for Lage Raho Munnabhai with Rajkumar Hirani, shares with us, his experience of rediscovering Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for the masses of India
Sep 25, 2018 at 00:00

A man wakes up from five decades of deep coma in a Mumbai hospital.

A man is dragged through the streets of occupied Paris and shot by the Nazis.

A cricket fan asks for the autograph of someone who never played cricket.

What earthly connection can these disparate stories have with the film Lage Raho Munnabhai? Simple. Without these stories, the film could not have been written. Rajkumar Hirani had carried the germ of a film in his head for years: A freedom fighter rendered unconscious by the baton blow from a British soldier during the  freedom movement, wakes up fifty years later in a Mumbai hospital and asks, “How is Bapu? Has he ended his fast?” The film was to be a withering satire of the present day society, through the earnest and idealistic eyes of a genuine Gandhian. After many failed attempts at a structure for this film, Raju was about to give it up, when…

...on a morning stroll he suddenly had this idea: What if this man from the past, meets Munna and Circuit, the much loved duo that he created for the film Munnabhai MBBS.

A little later, he took the next audacious step: What if Munna and Circuit don’t meet a Gandhian, but the ultimate Gandhian; Gandhiji himself.

This is how Lage Raho Munnabhai began.

From its inception to completion, the script took two years of almost round-the-clock writing, and was written in two continents, by two writers, through thousands of e-mails, phone calls, and extensive travel, for collaborative meetings, which were usually scheduled for a week, but generally lasted a month. On one such occasion, two straight months. During this journey, thousands of pages of Gandhi Ji’s writings were devoured and digested. Since my mother-tongue is Gujarati - the Mahatma’s language - I had access to the sound, the slant and the spirit of his words. At one point, I ended up reading 23 volumes of his secretary, Pyarelal’s diary –a masterpiece spreading over ten thousand pages. The greatest challenge was to convey the essence of all this learning without diluting the comic flavour and the essential irreverence of the Munnabhai series. How to do it? How to put the icon whose statue is found in every town, whose face smiles from every rupee, whose portrait hangs in every government office, into the folds of a light-hearted romantic comedy and somehow not let it crumble beneath the weight? It was like trying to carry a ton of Osmium, the densest and the heaviest known metal on the planet, in the fragile fabric of a clown’s cap. A daunting task.

For the answer, we turned to the only man who could help us. Gandhi Ji himself.

Quick story: An admirer once asked Gandhi Ji for his autograph. Bapu browsed through the autograph book, and paused at a page. It contained 11 autographs of the players of the English cricket team, then touring India. Bapu smiled, and then signed at the bottom of the page: 12th man, M. K. Gandhi.

This charming but trivial story provided the most profoundly powerful answer to our dilemma: Bapu had a sense of humour. With one witty gesture, he was conveying many complex ideas. It was his style of saying: “I am fiercely opposed to the British rule, but I am no enemy of the British people. I am willing to play cricket with them any time. However, at this juncture, my status is strictly subordinate— the 12th man, the outsider, who can cross the boundary and approach the players only when he carries their drinks.”

The wit, the sarcasm, and the gentle protest of this story, provided us with the tone and the texture for the film. The Bapu of our film would not preach, provoke or push Munna. He would gently prod him into action, with grace and wit.

Curiously, while we had discovered the spirit of the screen Gandhi, we were yet to find his shape and form. Pray, in what form does Gandhi meet Munnabhai? Raju’s earliest instinct was, that Munnabhai would meet the Mahatma’s ghost, an apparition. There was one major problem with this vision: it suggested that we needed a superhero of Gandhi Ji’s stature, to come back and guide us. It reinforced our national sport of putting our heroes on lofty pedestals, while absolving ourselves of any responsibility. V S Naipaul has found a powerful analogy for India’s tendency of deifying Gandhi Ji, while refusing to act upon his ideas: “It’s as if there were statues of Florence Nightingale in every corner of England, while the hospitals were allowed to be in much the same condition as she had described them.” It was while trying to counter this deification, this idol worship of the Mahatma, that the “chemical locha” of the film was born: Gandhi in the film was only inside Munnabhai’s head. A hallucination through chemical imbalance. Not an apparition, but an inspiration.

A very senior English professor, a fine Gujarati poet himself, had recounted the story of his friend from France. During the occupation of Paris, the Nazis had shot this gentleman’s brother for being a communist. As he was being led through the streets of the Latin Quarters to be executed, he was shouting a slogan defiantly: “Bullets cannot kill ideas.” The hush that had descended on the class at the visceral power and beauty of this line had never left me. Years later it went on to constitute the backbone of the screen Gandhi: “Mere vichaar teen goliyon se nahi mar sakte. Zamane badalte rahenge, par mere vichaar kisi na kisi ke bheje me chemical locha karte rahenge.”

This transition to Gandhi’s thought and not Gandhi’s ghost, guiding Munnabhai, had its genesis in a thrilling anecdote I had heard in a distant English literature class in Ahmedabad years ago. A very senior English professor, a fine Gujarati poet himself, had recounted the story of his friend from France. During the occupation of Paris, the Nazis had shot this gentleman’s brother for being a communist. As he was being led through the streets of the Latin Quarters to be executed, he was shouting a slogan defiantly: “Bullets cannot kill ideas.” The hush that had descended on the class at the visceral power and beauty of this line had never left me. Years later, it went on to constitute the backbone of the screen Gandhi: “Mere vichaar teen goliyon se nahi mar sakte. Zamane badalte rahenge, par mere vichaar kisi na kisi ke bheje me chemical locha karte rahenge.”

The most gratifying fact about the process of writing the film was, that not once were complex concepts scorned as pedantic, not once was there any pressure to dumb down ideas at the altar of commerce. Vidhu Vinod Chopra had once memorably said to us, “Write a film for Bertrand Russell if you wish. But for God’s sake, don’t bore him.” That was his only condition as a producer. However complex the film, it must be entertaining. However worthy, it must not be dull.

The task was mammoth. To achieve it, Raju created a rule that was followed ruthlessly for two years: every single scene that we wrote, had to be either funny or deeply poignant. If any scene failed to do that, it had to go. No matter how important a thematic point it made, no matter how crucial it was to advance the plot, if it was lacking in either humour or emotion, it would not survive. We would set out to find new strategies to convey the same thematic point or plot point through laughter and tears. Sometimes, like fanatics, we set out literally, leaving our homes, determined, that we would not return till we had cracked the scene. This involved walking for hours, discussing various options. Sometimes just walking in long friendly silences, waiting for an idea. On one memorable occasion, we walked in the pouring Mumbai rain, unable to break our vow of not returning till the scene was finished, although reason told us it was not wise for our health, and consequently the health of the film. Once, after hours of walking we went into a restaurant at almost midnight, hungry and exhausted. When told that the last order was already taken and the kitchen  had been closed, Raju requested some bread and olive oil, joking that we couldn’t leave till we had cracked the scene. The management obliged, and let us spend an hour nibbling at our bread. This was the hour when the famous pension office scene got written, where an old man seeking his pension sheds his clothes, to shame the corrupt clerk.

Stirred by the film, a little guy sent flowers to the RTO for not releasing his licence without a bribe, an old woman sent a “get well soon” card to the municipality, because her tap was running dry, an elderly gentleman went to the cinema after 17 years because his grandson from the US called and insisted that he had to see this film.

Raju’s dedication to the written word was fueled in part by a cynical question he was asked when the film was announced: “Reputation will fill theatres for the first show. But what will happen to the second show, my friend?” The questioner assumed that Raju’s second film was being made only to exploit the success of his first, with no regard to quality. Raju courteously smiled at the offender, ignoring the jibe. But he did not ignore the challenge: his new film must not let down those who loved Munnabhai MBBS. Simple folks from all walks of life. People who stopped him on the pavement to say how their kid dressed up as Munnabhai for the school fancy dress contest. Sometimes, most touchingly, approaching him diffidently, and saying nothing, except a very heartfelt “Thank you”, for creating Munna and Circuit. The pressure created by their simple and warm expectations was intense, even terrifying. The pressure multiplied as our writing stretched on, and the dates of shooting began to hover closer and closer over Raju, the Director. My most abiding memory of the film is that of Raju handling the endless vicissitudes of production on the phone - of some location suddenly getting cancelled, or some actor having a date conflict—and then stoically picking up the thread of the story again. He would somehow shut out the problems, and summon up all his empathy and innocence to dream up the next delicate link of the story. Believing all the time, that we would live or die by our pen. Though he is an agnostic, I suspect Raju believes in one holy utterance: In the Beginning was the Word…

When Raju visited me in the US to write some more scenes for the film, particularly the climax, instead of walks we took to sitting on the spacious chairs exhibited outside a charming Amish furniture shop, near my university. We would carry voice-recorders in our hand, and just sit, gazing at the lovely downtown street, watching people go by and waiting for ideas to come. Two years later, when the film was screened at my university, the department of English gave me a very special and unexpected gift. I called Raju in India to share the news with him, challenging him to deduce what the gift could be, granting him only one guess.“Is it the Amish chair?” Raju promptly asked. He had guessed correctly.

Once ideas for scenes were collected in this manner, we would hold several long meetings with Vinod. Since I learnt almost all my craft from Vinod, and Raju quite a lot of his, Vinod’s objective eye was vital for both of us to determine if the material we had found had any worth. Vinod would bring a classical rigour in the examination of the material. He would tamper the excesses of farce or sentimentality, sift out the notes that were jarring stylistically, and above everything else - to paraphrase Hemingway - Kill our darlings. In other words, no matter how much we loved a scene, if it seemed to hinder the flow of the story or mar the arch of the characters, Vinod would kill it as ruthlessly as nature kills its weaker species. This was crucial to make the film taut and give it its spine. He would have similar meetings with Swanand Kirkire, who wrote the lyrics for the film. The powerful and propulsive line ‘Bande mein thaa dum, Vande maatram’ ,was born from one of many such meetings. The most remarkable thing about these meetings was, that not once did Vinod show up for them in his producer’s hat. He remained a writer to the core, interested only in the dramatic and never the marketing value of the scenes. When Raju and I, committed rationalists, attacked the superstitions of Vaastu and Astrology through the story, Vinod was well aware that it could be a highly unpopular stand to adopt. But he never flinched, and even came up with the idea of the gun and the countdown, through which Munna and Circuit subdue the crooked astrologer in the climax.

The gun and the countdown is one example of how the story continued to evolve throughout the process of shooting. Sometimes, seemingly well written scenes fall apart at the time of a shot division with the cinematographer, or at the rehearsal, with the artists. It is a writer’s nightmare to try and resuscitate such scenes back to life. Sometimes, however, the solution to a scene that does not work at the time of the shooting, can open up a world of new possibilities. Quick story: Munna’s conflict with Lucky started on a simple note, in the early drafts of the script. Lucky opens his window in the morning, sees Munna standing on the street in protest, and finds a note saying he would continue the protest till Lucky returned the house he had illegally guzzled. This simple scene began to bother us at the beginning of that shooting schedule. It seemed too flat. We decided to spice it up by making Munna’s note to Lucky, funny and full of stinging insults. I even scavenged the second-hand bookshops near Church Gate for books of quotable insults. But the scene still did not work. Finally, in sheer desperation, we tried the exact opposite of what we had in mind: what if Munna’s note is not insulting, but a humble and civil one? In fact, what if it is accompanied by flowers and a Get Well Soon card, wishing that Lucky would soon be cured from the disease of dishonesty?! This is how inconspicuous the flowers and the Get Well Soon card motif entered the script. We had no idea at that time that we had achieved a breakthrough. In the months after the film opened, there were thousands of episodes reported from across India, of people sending flowers and cards to corrupt officials.

We got a hint of how people would embrace Lage Raho Munnabhai on the very night the film opened worldwide. Past midnight that Friday, my doorbell rang. A friend of mine and his wife were at the door. They were house-hunting at the time, and their trusted astrologer had rejected a house they had loved that very evening on the grounds of Vaastu. From there, they had gone to catch the last show of Lage Raho Munnabhai. And now… they had landed up at my place… utterly moved… to convey that they were rejecting the astrologer and vaastu. They were buying the house.

I immediately called Raju and woke him up. Conveyed the story. There was a long pause at the other end. Raju had choked over. For two full years, we had believed in the concept behind the film, but worried about our artistic wherewithal when it came to foraging a full-fledged story to do it justice. For two years, we had worried if the baby that we were shaping would ever walk. And now, we suddenly saw that it did not merely walk, it soared. Our modest ambition was that people would enjoy the film, and leave the theatre a tad thoughtful. That it would ever make a difference to anyone’s life, even for a little while, was beyond our wildest imaginings.  All the accolades that followed-- the awards and rewards, the glowing reviews and the standing ovations —could not match this simple joy. The delight that people cared about our work. That stirred by the film, a little guy sent flowers to the RTO for not releasing his licence without a bribe, that an old woman sent a “get well soon” card to the municipality, because her tap was running dry, that an elderly gentleman went to the cinema after 17 years because his grandson from the US called and insisted that he had to see this film. And above all, that a young student from Gujarat, haltingly confessed that after the 2002 riots, she had felt deeply ashamed. But after the film, she proudly remembered, that Gujarat was ultimately Gandhi Ji’s, not of any fear mongers, who were pretenders to that standing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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