Please tell us about yourself

Continuing its spectacular streak at the box office, Walt Disney’s fantasy adventure film The Jungle Book collected Rs.2.60 crore in its sixth weekend in India. The film has netted a total of Rs.179.57 crore, according to movie website Bollywood Hungama, building on its newly acquired status as the highest grossing Hollywood film in the country where it was released a week earlier than much of the world and where Hollywood films crossing the Rs.100 crore mark is still a rarity.

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To be sure, the success story of both the animation film and Disney’s other recent hit—Marvel’s superhero flick Captain America: Civil War that has made Rs.51.57 crore till now—isn’t just about the numbers. It’s like the dubbed versions of these films, especially Hindi, are different movies altogether, accounting for the staggering contribution they have made to the box office revenue. Having penned the dialogues, writer Mayur Puri is the man of the hour.

“I was a little skeptical because I hadn’t done this kind of work before. When I write something, I put too much of myself into it. And here, I felt there would be very little scope for creativity, that my hands would be tied and I wouldn’t enjoy the process,” said the 42-year old writer.

Mayur Puri has been working as an ‘all-rounder’ writer in the industry for the past few years. He has worked as story, screenplay and dialogue writer on films. He has also penned lyrics but only for his close friend and music director Pritam. He has worked as the associate director of Dhoom. He has half a dozen scripts in the market and soon he will be directing his own script.

What was your career path? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I came to Bombay (yes yes I know it’s Mumbai) in late 1999 from Ahmedabad with 8 years of experience in writing and directing for local theatre and television there. And I had come here to become a filmmaker, not a writer. But while doing my first film (Tere Liye) as an assistant, my director Sanjay Gadhvi stumbled upon the fact that I was a writer. He forced me to write for him. I wrote a film for him and we took it to Aditya Chopra in Yashraj Films. Adi liked my writing style and said ‘I can see that you are having fun when you are writing and that’s most important’. Unfortunately that film could not be made at that time as it required a huge cast and maybe Adi wasn’t confident that we could handle such big responsibility. Instead, he gave us an idea for a ‘smaller’ film and asked us to work immediately upon that. After 43 days I had the script of ‘Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai’ ready. And before you say that ‘Oh! That copy of ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’?… Puhleeze! See both films frame by frame.

The big screenwriting break came in 2007 with Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om and Puri followed it up with films like ABCD (Anybody Can Dance) and Happy New Year, besides scores of Hindi film lyrics in movies like R…Rajkumar and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

In January 2016, discussions with Disney for The Jungle Book resulted in Puri writing a five-page statement note on what he would like to do and what the history of the fantasy epic had been in India.

How did you approach the disney film?

“Like very early on, I was clear that I would not call a red flower a ‘laal phool’, that would really not make sense. It was a literal translation but it would not evoke the same emotion of mystery, or fear as intended in the original version,” Puri emphasized. “So I said I would use ‘rakhtphool’ or something like that and they gave me the freedom to change some of the core things.”

Puri then famously came up with distinct racial attributes for each character. For example, Baloo the bear was given a Punjabi twang and King Louie the ape, a Goan accent.

“No matter how much we speak about this, it’s less,” Amrita Pandey, vice-president, studios at Disney India, had said in an earlier interview on the role of Puri’s well-crafted dialogues in the success of the film. “Usually what happens with an English film is they get an agency to write it. For us, getting a senior writer (like Puri) to write the dialogues was an important element. He’s done such a fantastic job.”

And it wasn’t about cashing in on stereotypes.

“The question is how you bring out the core quality of a character. Baloo, for me, is a foodie, he enjoys honey. Besides, he’s a friend in need and he believed in a good life. These characteristics are very close to me because I’m a Punjabi. So I made him one too,” Puri said.

In the computer-animated action comedy The Angry Birds Movie due for release end of this month, Puri has created a Sindhi judge “who is a great negotiator and a law-abiding person at the same time”. In another film that he is writing for Disney, a pair of sea lions have been turned into Lucknowi nawabs, “who are very funny and territorial but tehzeeb waale sea lions (sea lions with etiquette).”

“I’m not creating racial stereotypes, I’m inverting them. It’s a small step, one film, one character, one dialogue at a time,” said the writer.

Have you had any professional training in terms of screen-writing?

Not really. But I’m a post graduate in English literature. In my second year, ‘Tragedy’ was one of the papers… Gave me a reason to go back to Aristotle and Shakespeare in detail. Plus we needed to study a lot of classics. Loads of Theories. Coleridge’s ‘ensemplastic imagination’ and Longinus’ sublimity… I also had Sanskrit as 1st sub and had to study Mammat’s ‘Kavyashastra’ in detail. Plus your regular Bhasas and Bhavbhutis were thrown in for a good measure. Coming from a Hindi speaking family Premchand, Dinkar, Tagore were no strangers either. With my graduation, I also did Diploma in Dramatics and was exposed to great playwrights like Badal Sircar and Mohan Rakesh. I have always been a voracious reader. I was writing even when I was in school but strangely it never occurred to me that I can make it as my profession till I was in college!

Do you think any professional training for screen-writing is necessary?

More than the training it’s the preparation. People write about things that they know nothing about. With all due regards to all three of them, none of the writers of KANK are married and that shows in the script. The attitude towards your subject cannot be condescending from the day one of approaching a script. But that’s what happens when you aren’t prepared. Actually to hell with regards, Shibani is a trained writer – but I don’t think she’s prepared enough.

What did you study? How challenging is your work?

I have a master’s degree from the University School Of Languages in Ahmedabad and a one-year diploma in dramatics from the Drama Department of Gujarat College in Ahmedabad. Before that i did my BA in English Literature from Gujarat College.

The core argument that Puri makes is for the need to invest in good writing that will inevitably translate into good business, as the phenomenal success of The Jungle Book has already proven. That especially holds true for Hollywood films that are consumed differently across India and often tend to make limited collections.

“The whole idea is that there’s a huge audience for Hollywood because of the style, spectacle and technique of the movies. But there is a reason why they stop at a point; there is no single audience, audience chhitraya hua hai (the audience is scattered),” Puri explained. The guy in Bihar and the one in Mumbai, he added, are consuming the same product but their movie-going experiences are very different. They’re laughing at different places. Now the idea is to take these Hollywood films and recreate the same emotions for Indian audiences in such a generic way that everyone reacts the same way.

“I took it upon myself to break it down in a way that it becomes the same movie-going experience for everybody. Isn’t that how movies are supposed to be?” Puri asked. “In Sholay, everyone laughs and cries at the same points. Because it’s our film, we own it. If you have control over your material like that then you have found a big, new audience.”fifthMAds

Having finished his fourth dubbed film, Puri is currently writing a script that he wants to direct himself. But before that, he wants to take a short break.

“For a writer, the biggest incentive is a challenge to the brain. I don’t want to write another item or party song. I’ve done all that. I have enough security in life to not have to work throughout. But I find this very intriguing,” he said, referring to the new avenue of dubbed Hollywood films. “I have translated four films so far, but even the fourth film is as much fun and as challenging as The Jungle Book.”