Over the past couple of years, we have seen some solid roles being written for our female actors. Since we get to see their work on the big screen, we are more aware of them. But what we also need to know is that there are some very talented women working on these films behind the screen too. One such powerhouse is Kanika Dhillon. Belonging to a small town in Punjab, Kanika always had an inclination towards movies. Stories fascinated her and here she is today, making people fall in love with her way to storytelling. Kanika has had an interesting journey in Bollywood. She has been an intern with Red Chillies Entertainment, been an assistant director to Farah Khan on Om Shanti Om. Today, she is a well-known name, one of the most prominent female writers in the industry. When I met her at her home in Andheri, she was a very warm and welcoming host. It has been almost a year since the writer moved to her spacious abode. It had the perfect blend of old school and modern. Not to forget, there was a balcony too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kanika spent most of her time in her house, creating some amazing content. Right from the beginning, she made sure I was comfortable around. We sat down for a chat and I’ve to say, the writer didn’t mince her words and had opinions that she wants people to hear too. From her dream of becoming a part of the industry one day to finally living her dream of writing for Bollywood movies, Kanika shares her journey.
Let’s begin with getting to know you better. Tell us about you and your family.
I have grown up in Amristar. Then I did my graduation from St. Stephens College. For a year I was in St. Xavier’s College here (Mumbai) and did marketing from there. I did my Masters from London School of Economics. And after having all these degrees from all these good colleges and just before I could sign up for my first job in London, I decided to come to Bombay for a month. I always wanted to get into writing professionally. I was anyway writing from when I was a teenager but I wanted to make it a profession. And I wanted to explore this whole film, cinema, I’ve always had the bug. In Amritsar, our main outing used to be the films. There were 2 single screens and we used to go as a family and watch them. That had a deep impact while growing up. Our generation has grown up on Bollywood so it’s a very intrinsic part of growing up. I was always curious about what goes on behind the screens and who these storytellers are, so it was a very natural thing for me to come to Bombay. I met Bobby, Juhi Chawla’s brother, who was working with Shah Rukh (Khan) that time. I didn’t know him from before but I just went and I said ‘I wanted to meet you and I have these degrees, I write short stories and I want to know about films’. Bobby was like you’re so overqualified I don’t know what to tell you. I said I know that’s fine but don’t get scared with my qualifications. Then I started out as an intern, basically, I wanted to know of films as a medium before I started writing. Simultaneously, I also wanted to pen down books and stories, etc. So I started interning then I started assisting, so my growth was quite rapid from there as an intern, to assistant director to a script supervisor. I did 4-5 films with Red Chillies, worked with directors like Farah Khan, learned everything there was to learn. So it was a very beautiful time of learning and you know getting to know a different kind of medium. That’s when I released my first book, Bombay Duck Is A Fish. Shah Rukh only launched it for me, it was a quite big time for me. The first time my stories were out there. Post that, I took a break from the whole film thing, I wrote 2 books in the interim, the last one being The Dance Of Durga in 2016 which was published by Harper Collins. After that, I went back to screenwriting. Then Manmarziyaan happened and Kedarnath, there’s Mental Hai Kya next year. And now I have a couple of films that are under production. So that’s the long and short of it.
At which moment did you realise that you wanted to write for movies?
It was not a particular moment, it was always there. It was just a matter of me finding a way to be there and be in that place. When I was young, my maximum engagement, as a person, was with stories more than people around me which was a very strange thing. So that is where my mental and emotional faculties will be most primed. I still remember the time when my mother had to come and switch off the lights, threaten my sister and me to go out and get some fresh air. My sister was also a very avid reader. I was reading all kinds of fiction and it was just an adrenaline rush. Fiction has been something that is a staple thing for me, I feel it in my blood, it’s almost like that. I think I was a socially awkward person. I found my place in my stories. I could sleep the whole day and read the whole night. So stories have always had a very central role in my life. Both films and books are a very natural progression for me. I knew that I somehow had to make it a profession. I was always writing but I had to figure out how to get paid for it otherwise nobody is going to let me do it. Thankfully, I feel today is the best time to be a writer. The scenario has changed and I think we all are very lucky. All the storytellers who are in this time of transition where suddenly content is being looked at with a lot of respect and the market forces are attuned to a certain way where content is something that is given a lot of importance. So, all in all, it’s a good time right now.
Since the past couple of years, we have actually seen content becoming the king. Like you also said this is the best time to be in this industry.
As I said, stories are catching the imagination right now. I would not just say stories, I would say a different telling, different characters. Ultimately a love story can only have that much in terms of a basic plot. It’s not the story, it’s the characters, it’s the emotional engagement with the characters and how you connect with them. I would want to put this out there that when people say it’s all about the story, it’s also about the telling, it’s also about the characters. Ultimately there are only 7-8 stories you can tell- be it revenge, family drama, a thriller. The telling of it is what will define times we are in and the kind of audience we are catering to. If you pick up a love story in the 80s and you pick up a love story of today, the basic plot is going to be the same thing– girl meets boy, they cannot be together and there is a conflict and finally, they resolve that conflict and come together. Decades have past and that story remains. Now, what changes is the characters, the telling, and the conflict. Now the conflicts that my characters have today are going to be very different from what Laila-Manju had in their times. You cannot write the socio-economic conditions of a Heer-Ranjha in today’s times. Is the emotion the same? Yes. Is the longing the same? Yes. Is that feeling of betrayal? Yes. Is there a feeling of unrequited love? Yes. Those emotions are not going to change but the storytelling is going to be different.
We have also seen films from different genres being made and the audience has loved the variety too.
Yes, we have a huge variety right now because the platforms are different right now. There’s one viewing which is TV viewing, there’s theatre. We go to theatres as an event because we don’t have parks or museums. We don’t have other recreational activities in this country, cinema is the only recreational thing that we have. Hence cinema is so intrinsic to who we are and what we talk and who we want to become. Then we have a new medium that has come up that is the digital medium, which is a little individualistic. It is something that does not require a community viewing. When this kind of cinema comes, the variety increases. You can choose the kind of stories, genres, characters and experiences you want. For us storytellers, it means we now have the ability and freedom to write what we want because no matter what we write, we are going to find an audience. I found an audience which didn’t exist for me as a storyteller a few years ago. That’s Christmas for us. That’s the key difference now from a story teller’s perspective that’s given us freedom and resources. Resources are a very key thing because sometimes you have these fantastic stories but there’s nobody who is willing to put their money on it. A lot of things have to come together for a story to come alive for any medium. Thankfully, because there is so much demand now and so many different platforms, the resources are flowing in. All you have to do is flow with your imagination and have that patience to tell the story you want to tell.
The main leads also have shades of grey now. They are not someone who we can’t imagine ourselves to be. Is that a conscious shift the writers have made?
Cinema and stories are primarily a reflection of the times we are in. We as writers live in this society, we interact here, draw heavily from the people around us and the kind of environment around us because we cannot be out of it. We cannot be writing about stories in current times and be out of those times. I think it is a very natural influence that art influences real life and real life influences art. Having said that, my latest movie that came out, Kedarnath, a lot of people got up and said this is the same old Hindu-Muslim cliché story. My thing is I wish and pray for that day where Hindu-Muslim identity will be a cliché in real life. When people will get up and say arey yeh toh purani kahani hai, in real life. Unfortunately, the majority of our country, being a Hindi or a Muslim, is not a cliché, it’s the centre of their being. We are still identifying ourselves with cast and religion. Is this identity point lesser in urban cities? Perhaps in some pin codes, maybe not. But when you step out, even outside your pin code, or in the outskirts of Bombay, this is not a cliché. We as intelligentsia, I include myself, I am an educated person today, I do not want to identify myself with a religious identity. I would want to say a person first who has an opinion. That’s the identity I would want to have. Now I belong to that class of society but can I not acknowledge that there’s an entire alternate reality that my country lives in. I cannot turn away and say this doesn’t exist. Of course, I will acknowledge it. Will I not write these stories which sound cliché because a certain intelligentsia feels it does not hold true? Of course, I am going to write about these stories. And Kedarnath has found its audience and surprised everyone. A film will not have legs if an audience has not had an emotional experience. The fact that they have identified with Mukku and Manso, and their problems, the fact that they have gone and watched it because they have had an emotional experience, is the testimony to the fact that these are very real problems and conflicts, that we as intelligentsia may dismiss but they do exist. So I want to acknowledge that in my stories so Kedarnath was that for me. It was a very basic story written with very broad strokes, very simplistic emotions and it has its reach and audience. It’s a story of coming together and I think it is a very important story in today’s time. We say 2018 is an era of change. So if I am writing a Manmarziyaan where I am telling you that this woman is making sexual choices, unapologetic, unafraid, yes, that is one India that we live in and that’s one of the characters, that’s Rumi (Taapsee Pannu’s character) for you. I feel that when a class of people tell me it’s a cliché story and it’s not relevant I’d say pick up the newspaper and see what you’re reading. For me, Kedarnath is, in fact, even more relevant than a Manmarziyaan in today’s time. Manmarziyaan may capture one part of the fearlessness or a part of this generation which is young and bold, but Kedarnath captures a larger part of it. Both the stories that I have written, there’s a telling, pace, a way the characters talk and the way the narrative goes. As a writer, I feel I choose a story and I choose to attack that story differently. Kedarnath did not need a treatment or telling of a Manmarziyaan and Manmarziyaan will not take a treatment of Kedarnath. But ultimately the stories are of 2 characters, conflict and love. I would continue to put work out there which acknowledges the times that we live in. Sometimes I could get into trouble for it. I have got into trouble with Manmarziyaan and Kedarnath. I will always call these extreme voices, fringe voices because they don’t stand for the majority of our country at all. The most important thing today is to talk because ultimately if these people are setting the narrative of oppression or censorship, it is your responsibility to come out and negate it. Because I feel like if you are quiet you are actually adding to the problem. In 2018, I have had my stories and I have made a conscious effort that I am not going to keep quiet. Because there is also a trend if you have seen, there are very few writers who are out there who really speak their mind. And it’s an irony because writers are supposed to have the maximum opinions and ideas. So why don’t we hear their voices? Yes, we hear the actors and sometimes we hear the producers. Where are the writers? These are the guys who are the think tanks. These are the guys who have ideas. Why do they not have their faces and opinions out there? So I will not let anything go. I will come out and talk. The characters of Mental Hai Kya? will also have a lot to say, there will be a lot to discuss. Insane is the new sane. Viewing things differently is something we need to see as a society. I am excited to see how Mental Hai Kya will be received. Again I feel like that’s an important film of our times because of the issues it talks about, the point of views it will have, the characters. So as a writer I feel this is the path that I have chosen, ultimately saying things in an entertaining way. My narratives have to be engaging because in my muscle memory a boring film is a letdown for me. My quest is to tell stories that are always engaging and entertaining and have something to say. So that’s the journey I am on right now.
As a creative person do you have to hold back at times because of the censorship that we have?
I don’t hold back, to each their own. If you tell me not to do something I will go out there and do it. I have a thing of emotional claustrophobia. There was a period of time I could not travel because the thought that I could not get out of this plane would bother me. Even in my stories if you tell me you cannot do this, it will bother me, why can I not do it? I think I write the stories I want to write. As an artist or as a writer you are only going to see things you can. Do I think that my stories will get debated and discussed vis-a-vis the other stories? Yes, they would, perhaps. Am I shying away from it? No. Because I think that’s the person I am in personal life also and in work also. Our work is very personal, it is not a corporate job. A large part of it is a reflection of who you are, what you’re going through, how you are viewing life at that particular moment. If it’s going to bother some people, I am fine with it. But the idea is never to disrespect or to make a statement just for the heck of it. The idea is to be able to say what you want to say. Perhaps, it could be a different kind of lens but is it wrong to do it? No. Will I defend it? Yes, I will. But am I attacking something? No.
What are your fears as a writer?
Not connecting with my audience. I think my biggest fear is when I am trying to say something but I am unable to reach them. There are times where I feel like something has not translated the way I wanted it to. When I don’t get a desired emotional reaction from my audience it hurts me. It’s very hurtful. It’s a very strange kind of a feeling. I went to see Kedarnath’s reaction with Sara Ali Khan and Amrita ji (Singh), we wanted to see it with the audience. In the key moments, when I turned around and looked and when people were just viewing the scene and I could see an emotional response, that’s the biggest high as a writer one can get. The flip side of it is when they are unmoved. If they hate it also I am fine. If they love it also I am fine. If I am being ignored by my audience, that is a very worry something for me.
Do you think writers are getting the credit they deserve?
When was the last time you did a full interview for a writer? I made a conscious decision to be available because I feel writers are people who have opinions and ideas and there is no reason, in this particular time, if they have a platform, it’s also a responsibility to come out and speak. Having said that, are writers getting their due? Absolutely, yes, they are. I would, in fact, want more writers to come out there and speak about their ideas, have a face to that name because ultimately these are very important parts of creating content and creating stories. If there is a direct connection with these audiences, it is a very beautiful thing. The more I reach out to the audience, the more I understand, because I need to ultimately know who I am telling these stories to. I need to know them to a certain extent. I can’t be entirely removed and be in my own world of what I want to say. I have a huge amount of respect for the audience. So they are my biggest fear. As an author, artist, the audience appreciation is the ultimate thing we crave. You’re not an artist until you have an audience, in that sense. Of course, you have the critics and you have all of that, but ultimately it’s the audience.
While writing a story do you keep a particular actor in mind and then develop the character?
It’s a very organic process for me. I don’t think that first I should think of the actor. Sometimes a face comes while you’re writing, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s no hard and fast rule. But I have been lucky that. If you have seen Manmarziyaan, you’ll feel that nobody else could have played Rumi, Vicky (Vicky Kaushal) and Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan). Same with Mukku (Sara), Mansu (Sushant Singh Rajput). Even in Mental Hai Kya, I feel like only Rajkummar Rao and Kangana Ranaut could have done it. I have been very lucky I have found these actors and these directors who have worked with these actors. I have been very lucky with the team I have found. I feel like the stories and characters will find the actors. So far it has worked out for me, so fingers crossed.
Have you ever had to make changes in the script or with the characters?
Screenwriting unlike authoring a book, is a very organic process. What happens is I will write a script and it will have to be interpreted by a director. Then when the actors are performing it, sometimes, instead of saying one paragraph of a dialogue, even if he says one line, the emotion is conveyed, and so those 5 lines become redundant. So in Manmarziyaan I was on the set throughout. The way Anurag (Kashyap) works with his actors is very organic. Sometimes we’ve written a scene and everyone’s going through it, and suddenly Anurag will say ‘we don’t need all this because Abhishek has given a look and it’s done’. There was no sitting or changing the story, nothing like that. With Kedarnath, I was not on the set but I had given the entire script and the director edited certain things, in terms of tracks. Even Mental Hai Kya, I have been on the sets. It also depends on the actors, sometimes the actor says ‘I need motivation for this and I’m not feeling correct’ so you have to figure it out. In Mental Hai Kya there was a certain kind of a discussion. But it’s a part of screenwriting. I wouldn’t say I had to change so much or rewrite the story, nothing like that. But maximum kind of revisiting, in terms of what I have to approach a character little differently is Mental because there are so many characters, it’s a thriller. So if you do one little change, you have to change so many little things.
What all have you learned from Shah Rukh while working with him?
There’s so much. Anyone who will have a conversation with Shah Rukh will have so much to learn about anything. He has knowledge of everything. He reads and he knows everything. Even if you have chai with Shah Rukh, you will come out a wiser person. Those times when I was interning, he was always very forthcoming with information and knowledge, that’s a very endearing thing. He shares his knowledge even with his co-actors, the director, which is so important. You know it is a good thing I was there. I think all the ADs around Shah Rukh should be happy because that’s 25 years of experience talking, there’s a lot to soak in. You should never underestimate the power of conversations. I believe that the people I choose to hang out with have a lot of influence in what I think, how I think. My formative times went in Red Chillies with minds like Farah, Shah Rukh and the conversations that were happening on set, I learned a lot of things. I didn’t know the medium then. Those 5 years in Red Chillies was so much to learn about film-making itself, as an intern, assistant director, so on and so forth. It was a good phase.
With a warm hug, she bid me goodbye.
It was a pleasure meeting you, Kanika and I’m glad that writers like you are taking a stand. More power to you!