Film Education

Interview with Farrukh Dhondy

Interview: Farrukh Dhondy, Author, Screenwriter

By Oorvazi Irani • Apr 18th, 2009

Oorvazi Irani speaks with noted author and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy as part of Understanding Cinema series first published for the web portal Dear Cinema.

Oorvazi Irani: As you are a short story writer, novelist, journalist, playwright and a screenplay writer when you embark on your work and more particularly on a screenplay do you frame and keep one central premise?

Farrukh Dhondy: I don’t think I ever start with an abstract premise — like ‘love conquers all’. I usually start with a story that someone wants to commission — remember that film is an industry and not merely an art form so a lot of the work doesn’t come from the mind of writers but from producers and commercial investors with dreams and plans — OR with a story I feel has to be written. A novel is completely different. Very often a film stats with a character whose journey through a phase one wants to explore — Bandit Queen, Billy Eliot, Schindler’s List….Gladiator…

How do you go about creating and building a character?

Characters are always based on observation. This doesn’t restrict you to mimicking one person in your prose, but using your observation of the inner life of people, sometimes several people, to arrive at a character who will act and speak in a particular way. Particularity is all. Some writers lapse into ‘invention’ rather than observation and then you get fable rather than a novel — think of Salman Rushdie’s ‘people’. Contrast the inventions of Dickens or Rudyard Kipling!

When contrasted and compared the novel and play with the screenplay – movies are stories told in pictures, and while the action and dialogues are integral parts of the screenplay, the storyline unfolds through the visual images ..

A film is never a novel. It’s a short story which takes one character through a series of events which results in a revelation that all of us need. the character learns something about life, sometimes the hard way. Slumdog is an example of a child growing up and learning right from wrong and keeping alive with the idea of a single love. Schindler’s list is a cynic turned into a human through his contact with human suffering. The idea that cinema tells a story through images is wrong! The silent movies used exaggerated stage expressions to tell the story and even then had captions for speech. The captions couldn’t contain the complexity of human thought and nuance and therefore the plots had to be simple. Cinema came of age when sound became integral — speech is the avatar of thought, the child of the mind and the leading component of film. A good film maker will see that the visuals are both what we expect and startling. only ‘art’ film-makers’ will use visuals as symbols, sometimes ones that a public will not grasp and that’s why some art film directors end up as a joke or are seen as pretentious!

The plot is the first consideration, and as it were, the soul of the tragedy.

Character holds the second place. – Aristotle wrote in his Poetics. What is the significance of plot and character to you and which of the two according to you takes the narrative forward in a screenplay.

I don’t think one can separate the two in modern film. Greek theatre was a form through which the actions and the will of Gods and people were made manifest. They followed the old stories, already formulated. Aeschylus and Euripides took stories of Oedipus and Electra which were already known so the plot became supreme. Our films descend not from legend but from the tradition of observation and novel-writing and from our contemporary myth-making. An example of the latter is the cowboy myth. Nowhere except in the early settlement of America could an agricultural operative who cleaned up bullshit and watered the cattle become the hero who brings righteousness to the land. These myth were invented and then stories and characters fitted in to make different ‘Westerns’. we then have the myth of machine-men Superman, Batman, people capable of doing things which only machines can– like flying and having the strength to smash buildings etc.

But other films (not Bollywood, which is based on debased myths) are based on character suggesting plot.

Do you believe in a Post Modern structure for a screenplay which is being said to have started with the films of Pulp Fiction, English Patient…. Syd Field says   “there might be something larger going on, a new consciousness and awareness   in approaching the craft of screenwriting” . What is your personal take.

I don’t think Syd Field knows what he is talking about. The Post-Modernists are confidence tricksters who make money out of the ignorance of their readers and subscribers. Pulp fiction was Tarantino’s continuing fascination with violence which he knew a modern audience would share. English Patient is a classical story of an illegitimate love defeated by history — is it all that different from Dr. Zhivago?

According to Akira Kurosawa “A good structure for a screenplay is that of a symphony, with its 3 or 4 movements and differing tempos. Or one can use the noh play with its three-part structure: jo (introduction), ha (destruction) and kyu (haste)”. Do you agree with this statement and how would you incorporate it in your screenplay.

I wouldn’t follow these fanciful formulae. Kurosawa is thinking of Tchaikovsky or Beethoven or the classic and romantic symphonies. It sounds good but it doesn’t work because very often the movements of these symphonies are self-sufficient in their themes and melodies.

I would rather follow the play structure set out by Shakespeare or Chekhov or Bernard Shaw. A story should tell itself. The film should make you want to watch it from the first minute — so it should introduce a dilemma in which we want to participate. The first act then gives us the characters and ramifications of the dilemma — we are setting he character on the journey in search of love or revenge or redemption or whatever. The second act usually incorporates an event which precipitates a choice. Then in the third we see the consequences of that choice and undergo an epiphany which tells us something we knew, but didn’t quite know we knew!.