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With a sip of tea, we began the conversation with Sudip Sharma, scriptwriter of NH10 and Udta Punjab.….
Let’s start with your story before we come to the stories you have written. Tell us about your life, your journey, everything about it.
I was born in Guwahati and studied there till the 10th standard. It was the period when terrorism was making its ground in Assam. That was the reason my father sent me packing to Delhi to do the rest of my studies.
Coming from a very different world of Guwahati to Delhi must not have been very easy?
It was not, you are right. Delhi was very different. I got a cultural shock when I came here. I found Delhi very aggressive in nature, which I still believe it is. The good thing was that everything was new to me, so, there was an excitement to understand the place. I explored Delhi to the fullest and enjoyed every bit of it.
Sudip spent some good 5 years of his life near Sarai Rohilla in Delhi. The cultural exploration was not the only thing he did in Delhi. He studied B.Com and prepared hard to become what his father wanted him to become – a Chartered accountant
Coming from a Marwadi family where being a CA is a ritual, I was expected to excel in it. But I sucked at it. I am a fake Marwadi because I hate Mathematics and Accountancy. But I decided to quit just one night before the exam and called my father at midnight to inform this. He was obviously shocked. He told me to give the entrance or foundation exam at least. I gave that exam and surprisingly cleared it. Actually, I was a very hard-working person, I still am and that is my game. This is the reason I cleared the exam. This is also the reason why I have become a passable writer. I would say I don’t have that much talent but I know how to work hard. It’s a bit like the Rahul Dravid approach.
How did IIM happen to you?
I thought MBA was better than CA, although I was not really excited about that either. It was a fraud played by me. I thought I would prepare for it and fail. Sadly, I got through.
You got through IIM-A!
Yes, I did. And it became a big thing. Now I could not tell my family that I didn’t want to do this because I had already taken this route to escape away from Chartered Accountancy. I thought I would fail and then I would go for literature or may be history but everything was now put to rest.
And how was the IIM experience?
I had a terrible time over there. I did not like it a bit. It was such a competitive place with all the type ‘A’ personalities around. You are failing even if you have scored 90 out of 100 in tests (not that I ever got that much). It was bizarre. I felt I did not belong to that place. Adding to my woes, I had accountancy back in my life. Over there, I decided that this field is not mine and I will have to search for an alternative field.
Did you know that you wanted to enter the world of cinema at that time? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Only after this depressive period at the IIM. All my life I was a good student, good in studies and it was the first time in my life that I was going away from books. For a boy, growing up in a middle-class family, education is a major rudder and when that rudder is removed from your life then you need another one. That is when cinema entered my life. I began watching films over there. I got exposed to international cinema and I knew I wanted to do something in this field.
If not for cinema, I would not have committed suicide but for sure I would have run away from there.
Cinema had entered your world but how did you enter the world of cinema?
I think it happened when I was in Asian Paints and came to Mumbai.After four years under corporate masters such as Coke and Asian Paints, Sharma wrote one short film and decided to get out. The decision was made easy because his wife Neha held a steady job. “I wrote to a few of these online film-making communities. Whoever would post ‘I need a writer, but there’s no budget’, I would write back saying, ‘Will work for food.’” Sharma treads lightly over these years of rejection and unemployment. “I had zero craft. It took a good six years before I could churn out a script I didn’t mind having my name on,” he says. Unlike everyone else in the profession of words, a scriptwriter needs a crutch, a film-maker, to take his work forward. “Writing a script means nothing till it sees the light of day; it’s an internal document till then.”By then, I and my friend Puneet Krishna (who wrote Bangistan) started making short films and there I realized that I wanted to write for films. I enjoyed the whole process. So, one day I spoke to my wife and told her I want to quit my job. She gave her support and I quit my job and jumped into writing.
How did you deal with that struggle period as a writer because a lot of those films did not do well?
There are two things. There are people who come to become a writer and there are ones who come to the industry as a writer. I was not a writer when I entered the industry. I wasn’t quite there, I knew I had to work hard to become a half-decent writer. In the initial years, I had to struggle. The kind of talent and writing level you have at a particular point of time, you get the same kind of work as well. Also, I did not know anyone, so it was ought to be a tough period.
When you took the decision to become a writer, was your father happy with it?
No, he was not. I thought he was rather ashamed of me. He never told me this but that was what I felt. Whenever he would introduce me to someone, I found him a bit hesitant in calling me a writer or rather someone who writes films.
There was a period in Sudip’s life where he made just short films with some of his friends. He wrote ‘Players’ along with four other writers but he immediately knew he did not belong to this league. It was then that Semshook happened, which actually opened his way into the films.
How did the big break happen?
It obviously happened with NH 10 but Semshook played a big role. It was a nice, emotional film we made. The producer of the movie got us together but he had only a limited budget, so many of us worked practically for free. Now, when I watch it, I find it a bit patchy but I am still proud of the film.
One fine day, I dropped a message to Navdeep (Director NH 10) on Facebook and requested him to watch my film. Navdeep is the sort of person who replies to everyone. He agreed to watch the film. He saw it and liked it. We decided to work together. We wrote Rock The Shaadi. The film went on floors as well but after 15 days of shoot, the curtains came down. That was a bad phase for me as well as Navdeep but there was nothing else to do but to be at it. We wrote four to five scripts after that as well. I was too deep into it by then to quit.
And one of those scripts was NH 10!
Yes! Phantom liked it as well. Problems did not end here because NH 10 was a women-centric story, plus it had violence also, so funding was a problem. So, this was the period when people liked my work but were still unsure whether they should go ahead with it or not. This made me more confused. I did not know what to do. My first film stopped midway, the other wasn’t getting made despite it being a good story. It was frustrating.
Anushka came on board then. Phantom stuck to making the film and it happened finally.
Who thought of Udta Punjab?
Chaubey (Abhishek Chaubey) had read NH 10’s script even when it was not made. There is a writer’s club we have made where we read each other’s stories. That’s where he read it and he offered me to work with him. He wanted to make a film around drugs. This was the germ of the idea. I had read about the drugs problem in Punjab in Tehelka Magazine. The story was done by Sai Manish. It influenced me a lot. When Chaubey shared this idea, I told him about the drug scene in Punjab. He also got excited because it was a real, important issue. After that, we went to Punjab to research about the drug problem. In the process, we met with policemen, smugglers, doctors, journalists. What we found was startling. The issue was far more serious than what we had initially presumed it to be.
Does research help in shaping the characters too because you were meeting a lot of people in that process?
Yes. It helps a lot in writing the story, shaping the characters because, in your sub-conscious mind, those people have made a place. I remember going to a police station in Punjab and they lined-up some junkies in front of us. It helped us to imagine a scene of a police station filled with junkies, for instance. That scene has made its way into the film. See, you can write about what you know. Whatever you don’t know, you need to research about it.
When I was back, I shared my research with Chaubey and we got started.
Our primary objective was never to impress people with a revelation of drug abuse in Punjab, we just wanted to tell a story about it. There are four characters which are connected in one way or the other with the drug problem and it is their story.
Your attachment with dark tales is not going it seems. First NH 10 and now Udta Punjab looks like on the same line.
It is too early for me to limit myself and say that I am someone who can only write dark tales. We are quick to create perceptions here. Everyone around me has also started saying that I will be branded such a writer (laughs). But to be honest, it is nothing like that. There are some stories which excite you and then you write them. NH 10 and Udta Punjab happened to be dark stories. I do love those stories which are raw and gritty. I find it difficult to write in fairyland. I don’t understand such characters.
I see that most of our films are set in the world of the rich but their concerns are middle class. That is not the right way as those stories tend to seem fake. I have no problem in saying stories of the upper class but then their concerns should be upper class too. This dichotomy is easily caught by the audience. The characters should be deep-rooted in their reality, whatever that might be.