Films and documentaries are not mere forms of entertainment and information. They achieve much more than that through the power of words, visuals and storytelling !
Vrishali Karambelkar, our next pathbreaker, Independent Screenwriter, writes feature length scripts including story, screenplay and dialogues for OTT as well as the big screen.
Vrishali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about dabbling in a wide range of roles in storytelling, from production coordinator, creative director to corporate communication, as well as working with one of the greatest stalwarts of the Hindi film industry, the director of Sholay, Mr Ramesh Sippy.
For students, an unconventional career is filled with more misses than hits. But those few hits are enough to make your journey worth the efforts !
Vrishali, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born and brought up in Bhopal (M.P.), the heart of India. I did my schooling and graduation in Bhopal and later moved to Indore for higher education.
I was raised by a single mother. My mother was a school teacher, a gold medalist in Marathi Literature and a law graduate. She is a strong, confident and independent woman and she naturally imbibed those values in me.
I was an average student in school but did well in my college. Apart from academics, I was encouraged and at times pushed to participate in a lot of extracurricular activities. I ended up trying and engaging in a lot of activities like NCC, rifle shooting, debate competitions, theatre, karate, kayaking & canoeing and kathak. I competed in nationals in Karate, won a few medals and have a senior brown belt.
They say ‘jack of all and master of none’ is not to be followed, but I beg to differ on this. I say, ‘to be master of one, you need to be Jack of some’. All these activities exposed me to a lot of challenges, pushed me out of my comfort zone, enabled me to take risks, meet new people and shaped my personality in many ways. When you try various things, you are more likely to realize where your passion lies. It’s like the world out there is offering a buffet, so why sample or stick to just one dish. My philosophy is that one should explore and experience variety before making a choice and then pursue that with complete focus and dedication. Trying new things builds character even if you fail. Failures are as important as successes. They give you confidence, courage, and help you in becoming unstoppable. I am grateful that I was pushed and it helped me tremendously to keep going and following my dreams irrespective of my fears and doubts.
I too did a few corporate jobs before finding my true calling. There was no single event or catalyst or influencer, but a combination of my love for films, books and the power of storytelling that invoked my interest in writing. I would like to quote Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” For me too, when peers around me were attempting Engineering, Medical and MBA entrance exams, I am glad I chose what I chose.
As far as mentors are concerned, I would say Aaron Sorkin, Anurag Kashyap, Juhi Chaturvedi are a few screenwriters whom I admire and try to learn from their writing.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
After passing my higher secondary from the science stream, I switched to commerce while doing graduation. Subsequently, it became clear to me that I wanted to study Journalism & Media. I did my second graduation in Journalism and Mass Communications from Devi Ahilya University (DAVV).
What were some of the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I always loved reading. My love for books started with reading comics, Reader’s Digest ( a magazine), Teen Magazine Suman Saurabh and later on, fiction in Hindi, Marathi, English. My cousin had this huge collection of comics and books which she passed on to me and that was my biggest treasure trove. I remember waiting eagerly even for the newspaper every morning. I loved reading about the happenings around me and in the world. The only books I couldn’t read or find difficult to finish even today are self-help books and non-fiction books. I have become a lazy reader now due to the availability of stories to watch, which I would very much like to change. Books allow you to dream and imagine the worlds, faces of the characters etc. Books make you work hard unlike TV and that hard work has its charm.
TV wasn’t a big part of my life when I was young, though my mom was a movie buff. I recall in the early 80s, Doordarshan was the only channel available and Sunday evening used to be movie night. We used to order food almost every Sunday as my mom didn’t want to cook dinner and miss the movie. I couldn’t understand her craze for movies then.
In the 90s, the cable TV trend started. It just opened up a whole new world and changed the landscape. TV had music, American shows, cool Indian shows, movies and news. The TV had become a never-ending stream of information and entertainment. My mom being a movie buff, even with her limited income, was one of the early ones to get a cable connection in our neighborhood. When the Iraq- Kuwait war happened in 1990, our neighbors used to gather at our place to watch BBC for updates. My love for movies started very early, but only as a consumer. Later when I was in college, I got addicted to documentaries. I was consuming everything from movies to TV shows to news to books. The power of words, TV and media mesmerized me and I decided that this is the world I would want to be part of, but in what capacity, that I still wasn’t sure of.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I call myself a dreamer. My career path has been very unconventional and full of hits and misses. I tried a variety of things before finding my true home. It’s not a path I would recommend but it was my path and led me to what I love doing.
While studying Journalism and Mass Communications, as part of our curriculum, I interned with Bridgestone ACC India with their Corporate Communications department. The two-month internship proved to be quite dull and dreary.
While still in the final leg of my journalism course, I applied for my first job. Web portals were just starting to rise on the media scene and I joined as a feature writer with Webdunia – an online news venture by Madhya Pradesh’s leading daily.
Once I was done with my degree, I moved back to Bhopal and joined Dainik Bhaskar as a feature writer. It involved a lot of research, interviews, writing, re-writing, keeping abreast with issues, trends and meeting strict deadlines. In those two years, I wrote more than 50+ articles on a variety of subjects like travel, lifestyle, women-centric issues, current issues, and covered human interest stories. I not only learned to write on-demand, but also got familiarised with the workings of the newspaper business. The layout, editing, printing, the whole nine yards. Around the same time E TV, south’s media conglomerate were launching their news and entertainment channels in M.P. I came across a recruitment advert and applied for the job of a TV reporter, but as luck would have it, my profile found its way to a Kolkata based production house who were commissioned to produce a non-scripted daily game show for the channel. It was a remake of their hit Bangla show. I was auditioned and was selected to host the show in Hindi. I had no experience in anchoring let alone TV show anchoring, but it sounded very exciting and I ended up doing 60 plus episodes. However, being a TV show anchor was never my goal and so I decided to shift base to Mumbai to try out TV reporting.
However, I landed my first job at a PR firm and later joined a fortune 500 chemical company’s corporate communications department. Throughout my career, I was weaving stories and that part never got compromised. I was creating stories either for readers, stakeholders, employees or employers. Writing for films was not on my radar then. It slowly found its way to me.
I was trying to secure any kind of work in films but had no idea how to land one. There were no online postings of the openings or no HR departments in the production houses to get in touch with. I just wanted to be on a movie set and witness the process. I had only watched movies but had no idea how they were made. I wanted to know how the set looks, what planning goes into it, how the scripts are written, how the shoot happens. A friend of mine was an Executive Producer of a Hindi film produced by Ramesh Sippy Entertainment (RSE). She knew I wanted to switch careers. Mr Ramesh Sippy (Sholay, Shakti, Shaan, Sagar) was looking for a personal assistant. They were also shooting a film called Dum Maaro Dum and needed a production coordinator. She asked me if I could handle both and I agreed. That’s how I stepped on a film’s set for the very first time.
The film industry used to be a very unorganised and closed industry which is changing now. Landing a job in production/ writing/ direction is never easy. You have to have a solid network to be at the right place at the right time. When a film is greenlit or a show is commissioned, the team building starts and almost all the crew members are freelancers. So if you don’t have the information about a project going on the floor, you would miss your chance. Now there are many platforms to network and know the right people. Linkedin is one of them. There are many pages on Facebook where openings related to films and television are posted, so you can apply through that. Joining a film institute helps because alumni of that institute would already be working in the industry and you can reach out to them for references. One can also drop the profiles or do the blind calling and visit various production houses but that route seldom works. Also, be ready to work for peanuts. Consider a few initial years of your work as a paid internship. You would not get paid, you will have to slog but you would learn so much on the job. I too got my first job through a friend. I said yes to a profile for which the pay was way below my previous earnings and previous roles I had handled, but I knew I would get to observe and learn. You have to be a fast learner as people don’t have time to train you or hold your hands.
At RSE, I was handling dual roles. I was a personal assistant to Mr Sippy and a production coordinator on the film. Mr Sippy was the president of the Producer’s Guild and also served as a jury member on various film festivals. He was also reading scripts for his comeback project then. Being an eminent director, he got invitations to many film festivals, mentorship requests and as his assistant, I was handling all his communication on his behalf. I would reply to letters, emails, invitations, as well as sit with him for script readings. A production house is always on the lookout for good scripts. Script coverages help with that. Script coverage is a filmmaking term for the analysis and grading of screenplays, a written report about the genre, budget, scope and possibility of the script. It tells if the project has the potential or not to be a film. I also read a few screenplays and did a few script coverages. It helped me in understanding the nuances of screenplay writing.
A production coordinator handles many responsibilities such as preparing, updating and distributing crew lists, daily progress reports and script changes. I also dealt with call sheets, transport requirements, food arrangements, coordination with actors’ staff, their payments, coordination with various departments such as lights, camera, editing, publicity etc. The direction team informs the production department what all they would need for the shoot and its production department’s job to arrange for resources, permissions, supplies, camera stock, accommodation, work permits etc. For example, we were shooting a scene on an island where the lead actor had to put his face in the ice water. The actor demanded mineral water ice and though we were on an island we arranged it. So at times, a few unreasonable, last moment demands happen and you need to be swift and resourceful enough to fulfil those demands or the shoot won’t progress. I also handled the film’s plug-in shoots with TV shows, publicity shoots, liaison with the Censor Board for film certification. One needs to handle all of this while ensuring that the budget never shoots up. A production coordinator is usually one of the first people to join and the last to leave the team. Since I had dual responsibilities, my learnings doubled up. I could explore production as well as the creative side of filmmaking.
My next stint at Red Chillies, another big production house, happened through a contact. I got the information that the production house is planning a celebrity chat show with Preity Zinta. I met the producer and my previous experience helped. I joined the team as an associate creative director. A creative director helps with conceptualizing, finalizing the format, segments, and the tone of the show. The role also involved brainstorming with writers, writing, research and a bit of production. I was involved with the set building, hiring team members for the various roles, star coordination, channel liaison and finally editing and packaging of the show. It introduced me to the workings of a TV industry that is hundred times fast-paced than filmmaking. The deadlines are super tight and the margin for re-shooting or re-writing is next to none.
While working in production and direction, I realised screenwriting is what I would want to do in future. I took a conscious break to learn the craft and develop a few screenplays. During this time, I read a lot of books, attended some master classes on screenwriting, did the research for my subjects, and wrote a couple of screenplays. To write a screenplay, you first need to have a solid story in place. If your story is an autobiography or inspired by true events, then it would involve extensive research. You then need to develop characters, write their backstories, their backgrounds etc. You also need to write and imagine what you won’t be showing on the screen. Though this content would surely not be part of your screenplay, it is still very crucial as this will lend the tone and flavour to your story and your characters. Writing a screenplay takes time. One minute on paper in a particular font and size equals one minute on the screen, that’s the formula. Usually, screenplays are about 120-140 pages long. It’s a technical document that has scene-setting, scene transition, dialogues, action. The first draft is always substandard. Even seasoned screenwriters never like their first draft. It requires a number of revisions, re-writing, editing and then you get a draft that is ready enough to be pitched or presented to a producer. During this time I also shot a couple of music videos for an indie band called ‘Teen Shade’. These are very basic music videos but I love their music and I have no qualms admitting that the videos do not do justice to their lyrical and musical quality. I also worked as a freelancer on corporate websites, customer testimonials etc during this time.
When I was pitching and sending out my stories to producers, I got an offer to join a startup and handle their internal communications. I had time on hand and this looked like a good project to take on then. I had never worked with a start-up before. The energy, opportunity to work with a young team and building a culture excited me. Storytelling is a huge part of communications and organizational culture building. So I would say it wasn’t a detour from what I was doing as a screenwriter, it was just doing it differently for a different audience.
How did you get your first break?
I would consider getting into the world of movies my first break. A friend of mine was an Executive Producer of a Hindi film produced by Ramesh Sippy Productions. She knew I wanted to switch careers. The rest, as they say, is history, as I have mentioned above.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
On the first day of shooting, I found myself feeling anxious and overwhelmed. I was in my late 20s, coming from a corporate background and everyone around me was in their early 20s. I found myself thinking if I had made the right decision of switching careers so late in my life. Everyone knew what their job entailed but I was absolutely clueless. I was given a walkie-talkie and asked to set the channel to one. I didn’t even know what it meant.
Learning on the job and picking up traits of the trade quickly was one of the biggest challenges. On a film set, nobody has the time to train you or explain things to you. I had to grasp things quickly and efficiently. I observed, read and spent time learning call sheets, budgets, production details. I googled the formats of documents and picked up things fast. Soon I was handling liaison with casting agencies, censor board, stars and their staff, managing promo shoots etc. If I took up a job, I ensured I gave everything to it. I believe in perfection and try to do it without cutting any corners.
Mr Sippy was serving as a jury member at a film festival and was also heading the short film section. He was to watch numerous short films to find a winner. He asked me to join him and make a brief technical note about each film with a view on the storyline, shot taking, narrative, editing etc. I had never done that. I had never critiqued a film and here I was asked by a great director to present him with notes to help him decide a winner. I was nervous. I watched films with him and watched the same movies numerous times, carefully jotting down points on each aspect of the film and filmmaking. I also read blogs, papers about story structure, character arcs, dialogue writing to understand what makes a good narrative, a good film. Though I knew a lot of things by hunch, reading made me aware of that hunch and gave me the language to decipher it. It gave me words to break it and enabled me to present it in the form of a well-crafted paper. We all can say if we liked a movie or not but what differentiates a critique from a layman are the words through which the former explains what makes a movie fun or a dud to watch. The words differentiate a consumer from a connoisseur. 10 films were competing in the section and I ended up writing a 50 page paper on them with a recommendation of my winner. I was happy that Mr Sippy agreed and my recommendation finally was declared the winner of the section.
My biggest challenge has always been to break away from my writing and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes. When I approached a production house with my story concept, they came back with feedback that they loved the idea but not the whole premise. They gave me a couple of vague pointers and asked me to rewrite and come back with a new version and then they would think about it. Now I had stayed with the original story, premise, characters for a long time and in my mind, everything was set and fixed as far as the story was concerned. It was like they were asking me to create a completely new dish out of an already ready-to-eat dish. I struggled with it for a couple of months. I thought and re-wrote multiple scenarios for every twist and turn. Slowly the story started taking a different shape, and along with it a few characters got dropped, a few new ones got added and a few evolved. After three months of hard work, I sent them the new story and signed my first feature film contract as a story, screenplay and dialogue writer with an international film studio.
Where do you work now? Can you tell us about your role as screenwriter?
I am not choosy about the screen size, nobody is nowadays. With the emergence of OTT, the canvas only got bigger for writers. I just want to write and create good content, be it for cable or OTT or the big screen. Although, my first sold work as a screenwriter is for a film.
Screenwriting and scriptwriting are two words often used interchangeably, though there is a difference. Dr Alex Ross explains it very effectively. The term ‘scriptwriting’ is used to describe the process of putting together all of the content that will be used in live and recorded presentations. This could mean dialogue for a talk show, the text being read out by a presenter on a news channel, or anything similar. This content, as opposed to a script for a movie or show, is written mostly for one person while a movie is describing interactions between multiple characters. A scriptwriter doesn’t bother herself with the visuals of the presentation like a movie or TV show might. It’s all about what is being said on a film or set, it doesn’t determine what the set will look like. Screenwriting is also a written representation of what will eventually be a piece of visual media, such as a scene in a feature film. However, included in this writing, called a screenplay, are also the external factors of the scene (how the set looks), and everything that the actors are saying or doing. It describes the emotions and environments involved in bringing the scene to life. In screenwriting, a brief description of where the characters are, the tone in which they are saying the dialogues, what they were doing leading up to that scene is also included. Screenwriting is more detailed and thorough.
I love writing long formats. Screenplay writing is a tedious job. I worked on my first film script which is in development for almost two years. There are two ways to go about it. Either you finish the screenplay and then start pitching, or you write a story and then the studio or a production house picks it up and you develop the screenplay based on their feedback. In my case, the studio liked the story and signed a contract with me to develop the story, screenplay and dialogues. These are three different roles and at times a film’s story is written by a different person, the screenplay is written by a different one and the dialogues are written by someone else. A producer or director can pull in a co-writer if they think it would elevate the dialogues or make the screenplay taut. It depends on how the writer wants to sell the work and the contract. There is no fixed rule.
Once your film script is commissioned, the studios start sending it out to directors and actors. Once they are on board, a few more changes could happen to your screenplay based on their feedback. A writer has to be ready and open with the feedback. Never get attached to what you have written but don’t be a pushover too. Never compromise with your vision. It’s a fine and difficult balance to attain, so I would say. The producer then starts building a team for the project – cinematographer, editor, production designer, gaffer, sound editor, assistant director, line producers, the list is long.
For OTT or TV shows, a writer needs to create a show bible. A show bible is a 6-8 page technical document that consists of logline, story idea, premise, characters, show breakdown. Once your show bible is ready, you can either pitch your idea to creative heads of the channels or to producers. If a channel head likes your idea then the channel team will get involved and hire a production house to create the show. If a producer likes your idea then you will get in contact with the producer and together you will start pitching the idea to channels or OTT.
My day involves a lot of thinking, writing, reading and watching TV and films. I am usually working on a couple of subjects at the same time and all are in different stages of development. Some are at the story level, some are at screenplay level and some are in the form of one-liners. Writing is like gardening. I have to be patient and give it a lot of care and time. Writing too needs nurturing, watering, pruning, tilling. I need to stay with the story, characters and their world. At times my writing flows like water and suddenly it hits a blockade. I often find myself with writer’s block. The writing just comes to a standstill. That’s when I dig deep, get into the character’s world, their motivation and ambitions, their fears and insecurities. The process of thinking never stops. I just keep playing various scenarios in my head while doing chores or travelling until I crease it out. At times, I just stare at the laptop screen and re-read the entire scene again and again. It helps in moving a few debris and blocks. The water once again starts trickling and flowing. The trick is to keep thinking and writing even if it’s bad pages. Don’t judge, just write. Just fill the pages in the beginning.
What are the skills needed for your role as a screenwriter?
Every writer has a unique style, a few tricks, as well as a few techniques. Once the story acquires shape and form, I break it into pointers before starting the screenplay. The pointers help in highlighting the holes of the story, and believe me there are always holes that need fixing. It’s better to weed out unwanted gaps and fill them before jumping onto the screenplay. Reading books or blogs on screenplay writing, and watching interviews of writers helps a lot. There are masterclasses available on the internet which you can take up to learn. I read a lot of film screenplays which again are easily available on the internet. Then I watch those movies and compare the screenplay with the actual movie on the screen, scene by scene.
Watch shows and films not only for entertainment but focus and dissect them. Observe how the story moves, which part of the movie was slow, at what stages were you completely with the film and at which point did your attention waver. How long did it take for the story to get to the point, how long into the movie did you realize what the movie is going to be about. When did you become part of the story? All these would help you subconsciously when you start writing.
What is it you love about your role?
The best part of my job is to see something I have created or was part of making, come alive on the screen. I love creating new worlds, weaving stories, developing characters and their language, their journeys. It’s like having a magic wand using which everything is possible. You can slay the dragon, travel to faraway worlds, befriend an alien, fall in love with an angel, the possibilities are endless.
How does your work benefit society?
I am yet to write something which would cause an impact or make a dent in the universe as Steve Jobs said. However, I strongly believe that books, blogs, films, shows, documentaries are not mere forms of entertainment and information. They achieve much more than that. They are life lessons hidden in them. When you watch 83 or Bhaag Milkha Bhaag or Dangal, you feel charged up to chase your dreams irrespective of adversities in your path. In Star Wars, you can learn much from Yoda as he says, ‘do or do not…there is no try’. You feel that push to act. When you watch Nimsdai Purja in 14 Peaks, you witness the grit and sheer courage of human will. Words are powerful and they become mighty and potent when you see them in action on screen. Films are such a big part of our lives. We dance to film songs, we quote dialogues in our everyday lives, we try to imitate fashion, we laugh, we cry, we even build temples of stars and all that euphoria comes from what actors are doing on the screen. It all starts in that moment when a thought springs up in the writer’s head and she gathers the courage to put it on paper.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Every creation is special. It entails a lot of time, dedication and discipline. Picking a favourite would be difficult for me because my journey as a screenplay writer has just begun. I might be in a better position to answer this question 5 years down the line, but until then, I just want to keep putting words into the world of films and stay loyal to stories in my head.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I know, at times having clarity early in life about one’s passion and career is not possible. If your path is unconventional, your journey to that path would be full of internal and external struggles. Although, I would suggest diving deep and not succumbing to peer pressure. Soon you will be true to yourself about what you want to pursue. You would also be in a position to convince your parents and start your journey.
In my observation, it’s easier to get training for Engineering, Medical, MBA entrance exams but for art, the common notion is either you have it or you don’t. However, it’s not true. One can train methodically to write, edit, direct or perform. With art, the journey is very different. The fight is more internal. You will doubt yourself, you will feel you are not good enough, you will get impatient, you will struggle with discipline while doing things or working on the same project, scene again and again. The process to mastery is a dull one but not giving up is the key.
The second hindrance is the availability of institutes and courses in art. Medical, engineering, MBA institutes are plenty if one wants to get into them and information on how to get in is also readily available. Unfortunately, good institutes, courses available for arts are only a handful in our country, though they are growing in numbers. FTII Pune, Whistling Woods Mumbai and there are also online courses, masterclasses available to learn and hone your craft. Proper theoretical and practical training would help you get an early start and it would be easier to get into the system. There is no substitute for school and pedagogy. Institutes are also a good place to build and grow your network. Formal training and learning are what I would definitely advise to young minds. Find a good institute, a course and learn with focus.
The plans are simple. Keep writing with discipline. I want to write a lot, write all the time, write anything and everything even if it’s crap. Somebody said to me, spend time on desk and the desk always gives back. It just stuck to me as it’s so true. Artists spend a lot of time on their desks, ‘desk’ being a metaphor. Be it for writing, painting or if you are a dancer or a photographer, your desk would be your studio. I believe, the more hours you spend glued to your desk working, sharpening your craft, the more hours you give to your desk, the desk returns it in double. It’s like meditation. It never goes in vain. You always get up from the desk better at your craft, learning more, producing more. That’s the plan. I want to produce good scripts and sell them. I want to see at least 10 projects written by me on screen in the next 5-8 years.