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Engineering Dropout, Scriptwriter, Film-maker.

JAM Interviews Amit V Masurkar, film and television scriptwriter, who debuts as a director with his brave new film “Sulemani Keeda”.

I remember many years ago, in 2001, you walked into the JAM office and said “I am an engineering student but I have dropped out because I want to be a scriptwriter’. And that is exactly what you did. When did you *know* and why couldn’t you wait to at least get your degree?
Actually, I came to JAM to be a cartoonist. But then I met better artists and designers there and had to switch over to writing to make myself more useful.

I don’t remember the exact moment when the idea of making films entered my head. The internet was getting popular and I used to frequent one of the first film blogs- that of Roger Avary, who was Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ co-writer. When I was in my second semester studying Engineering, I wrote to him telling him how much I loved his film and I was surprised when he wrote back. That was a big deal for me. Then one day I told him that I wanted to make films and asked him for his advice. He said if I was really serious I should just follow my heart, quit college and start working. I’m not sure if he was serious but I was crazy and I followed his advice almost immediately!

Ever regret the decision?
Not at all. I love what I do and that’s important for me.

You worked in TV as a scriptwriter for many years. Tell us how you got your first job and how easy/ difficult was it to churn out material.
My first real writing job was as a staff writer on ‘The Great Indian Comedy Show’. My ex-boss Sankalp Meshram under whom I interned on ‘MTV Filmi Funda’ connected me to Sailesh Dave, the creative producer of that show. I wrote sketch comedy for two years for an ensemble of very good actors such as Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey, Suresh Menon and Shekhar Suman. Churning out material is always tough but the right environment helps. We had a great team of writers and we brainstormed a lot. That helped.

How/ when did you get a break in films?
I signed to write screenplays of four films between 2007 to 2011- all of them with very good and acclaimed directors- but none of them materialized.

I was introduced to Mahesh Bhatt by a friend, Neerav Ghosh, the director of ‘Soundtrack’. Co-writing Vishesh Bhatt’s ‘Murder 3’ was my first feature film release that I’m proud of.

The best film project you’ve worked on till date and the worst.
Sulemani Keeda is the best project I have worked on till date. It’s my directorial debut and also close to my heart as it’s a slacker comedy about two struggling film writers. It was also my best learning experience, filmmaking wise.

Another good experience was shooting and directing the Making of Dibakar Banerjee’s ‘Love Sex aur Dhokha’. I did that so that I could hang out on Dibakar’s set and watch him direct.

There have been a few bad experiences but let’s not get there!

Do new scriptwriters find it easier to get a break in Bollywood than before? What kind of money can a first time scriptwriter hope to get for a film?
I don’t know how it was earlier. But unfortunately, getting a break doesn’t depend on your writing skills. When I see the kind of stories that get made into films, I realize I haven’t understood the science behind this ‘break’ business.

Writers don’t get paid as well as they should be. Only the ones who have written a few hits can command a fair price, or so I’ve been led to believe.

When did you get the idea for Sulemani Keeda and how did you get the money to finance it?
Sulemani Keeda is about writers struggling in the film industry. I see that life every day! So I wrote the script just for kicks while I worked on other commissioned work.

We shot three scenes with the lead actors, Naveen Kasturia and Mayank Tewari without any producer on board. The idea was to shoot two or three days a month for six months and finish the feature. But my friends, Datta Dave and Chaitanya Hegde of Tulsea Pictures saw the rushes and came on board as producers. Their primary business is managing and representing writers and so the subject might have interested them. Once they came on board, we planned a proper schedule and stuck to it.

Mayank Tewari, Naveen Kasturia

Mayank Tewari, Naveen Kasturia, eat your scripts for dinner

And by the way who is Suleman and what is the keeda in the film?
The keeda to do something different is there in every young person. This is about that keeda. Sulemani Keeda is a Mumbai slang and may be derisive depending on how it’s used. You’ll have to watch the film to know…

How many days did you shoot and where did you find the actors?
We shot for 24 days. All the actors in this film are my friends! The script was written with these guys in mind.

The two writers, Mainak and Dulal are played by Mayank Tewari and Naveen Kasturia respectively. I met Mayank, who has written ‘Ragini MMS’, at a poetry slam. Naveen, who has recently acted in the new Vodafone commercial was my roommate. We saw a youtube video of Aditi Vasudev bring interviewed by critic Komal Nahata. I immediately decided to write the female lead role with her in mind. Karan Mirchandani, a trained actor from Lee Strasberg School who plays a wannabe filmmaker, Gonzo in the film was a co-writer on ‘The Great Indian Comedy Show’. Krishna Bisht, a fantastic actor from Delhi who played Ayushman Khurana’s physically challenged friend in ‘Vicky Donor’ attended an acting workshop with me. So I didn’t go around casting for actors, they were already there in my circle.

 Naveen Kasturia, Aditi Vasudev in Sulemani Keeda

Everyone worked on the film as if it was their “behen ki shaadi”

Any memorable incidents during the making of the film.
It’s very important to have the right team. That makes the entire process memorable. Our producer Chaitanya and my First Assistant Director, Omar are meticulous planners. We shot all over the city without ever attracting any attention or causing nuisance- guerrilla style. Much of this credit goes to Surjodeep Ghosh, our cinematographer.

The editor, Khushboo Agarwal Raj and sound designer, Niraj Gera are responsible for bringing ‘gravitas’ on the table. I got to learn a lot by working with these two. The repercussions of a small cut or the placement of a music piece can completely change the meaning of a scene and eventually the film. I felt safe that the film was in their experienced hands. Our music composers, Arfaaz and Anurag, one half of the Alt Rock band called ‘Slow Down Clown’ scored some fantastic music including a piece in Hindi inspired by a Mozart opera! In the words of Mayank Tewari, everyone was working on this film as if it was their “behen ki shaadi” and that makes the last one year quite memorable as I made some very good and talented friends in the process.

When is it being screened at MAMI and when can we look fwd to wider release?
It’ll be screened at the Mumbai Film Festival on Sunday, 20th October at Metro Cinema and on Monday, 21st October at Cinemax, Versova. The exact timings and delegate passes will be available on the MAMI website.

We hope to release this film early next year.

Any advice for budding scriptwriters/ filmmakers
I wonder why I waited this long to make my first film. I realize I was ready to direct at least three years ago and was just waiting for the right opportunity. I realize now that opportunity has to be created. I would tell budding screenwriters and filmmakers to stop waiting for others to give you a break and just go ahead and write or make a film. This advise is not unique but there’s a lot of truth in it.

Sulemani keeda

Sulemani Keeda debuts at the Mumbai Film Festival, 20th Oct

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