April 27, 2016

The First Month at 'First Draft' - Students Share their Experience

AIB First Draft is a six-month writers' residency programme where a select group of aspiring writers from all over India are being trained in the craft of screenwriting. I feel thrilled to head this project and design and conduct the course. This post is a part of the series that chronicles all that happens at the course. Click here and read from bottom upwards for all posts related to this.

At the end of five weeks, the students were asked to write about their experience so far. This post is a compilation of excerpts from what they wrote:

“Has it been 5 weeks already? In these days, I’ve felt everything from excitement and anticipation to exhaustion and absolute nothingness. But the most prominent feeling has been of gratitude. The gratitude for the opportunity – it’s only when a million things go right, does this happen. The gratitude for my family – I could achieve nothing without their unshakeable support. And the gratitude to be simply living this moment – it’s rare and unmatched.”

“Unlike the day I began, today I am not intimidated by the task at hand. Not because I think I’ve gotten better at writing, but because I have finally been able to wrap my head around the concept that writing does not require talent, it requires discipline.”

“We devoted our first five weeks to ‘ideation’ – a deceptively simple word for a process that is incredibly tough and frustrating. Coming up with ideas that have emotional appeal and would also work as a piece of art—a living, breathing entity—is a task so humongous, there is no possible metaphor that can do justice to its enormity.”

“I slept fewer and fewer hours as the month went on, but I felt more fulfilled as a human being. I could fight my doubt with the fire of my determination that grew brighter each sleepless night. Doubt was no match for any of us. It may creep up on us on a lonely night as the cursor blinks expectantly, but it will be banished as quickly as it arrived. I believe that now.

“I have a tendency to reject ideas when they don’t seem to be working out. But because of the feedback, I was forced to keep thinking, even if I didn’t love what I was thinking of. And I realized that if you keep going, it’s possible that an idea will evolve into something you would never have imagined when you began.”

“There was a ticking clock every day and you had to achieve certain goals before going to bed. It left me a bit drained. I felt like I have been living in Mumbai for months. But I scraped through.”

“I was pretty sure about the Plot Points of my first movie idea but hazy about the second. And that’s where the whole breakdown of the Three Act structure saved me. It’s science. It does sound less artistic but it’s an amazing experience to “solve” a plot using this tool. At the very least, it removes all the excuses of muses from my writing. It ensures that I’ll get something done even if what I write is ordinary. That takes a lot of burden off my shoulders.”

“It’s amazing how lost I am now. There’s a constant struggle to not let the cynic in me overpower the child. All the usual worries of life have been thwarted with such ease yet, the ultimate struggle remains. I often question myself, wondering whether I’ve been able to absorb all that’s been thrown my way. Whether my biases and pre-conceived notions are melting or whether some of them are being reinforced.”

The second awesome part of this journey has been having my love for cinema incredibly deepened. The understanding of scripts, how the written word in a screenplay translates to a cinematic movement, crafts of cinematography and direction, have incredibly richened the movie experience. For me movie-watching is slowly developing from a highly enjoyable thing to something very spiritual – I would love to remain on that track, and complete this journey.”

“Between us, I saw the world – from Korba to Chennai via Delhi, Nagpur and Bombay. What a fascinating universe! Brainstorming on others’ ideas, picking their brains on mine, writing log lines on WhatsApp and whatnot. The journey has been invigorating and has made us bond, solidly, as a team. This is here to stay. And I am so glad we’ve all found each other.”

“We learnt the wonderful lesson of staying grounded, always. We cannot feel proud of the fact that we are a chosen few out of 3000 applications. When I look at my course-mates, I find how all of them are rooted. They do not get too high-headed when they write something good, they do not mock at even the most absurd idea someone else comes up with and that enables us to share even our bad writing without caring about our “image”. Bonding like this so soon is perhaps our biggest achievement.”

“These are weird friends that I have got. Instead of stealing ideas, they help make them better. Before they start eating, they ask if I have had my food. If I ask for any help, they do, and then, a while later, they make sure to check if their help has been of any help!”

“Pitch day in itself was a whole different experience. Being good at presentation helped a little but I was still scared.”

“The day waiting for which so many people perish, the appointment of a few minutes, in which you have to pitch your story ideas, hoping that through this your ideas will grow into an actual work. It was an important day and I was nervous, of course.”

“However the pitch went smoothly. Sitting in a room with people and discussing both film and show-ideas was a dream come true. It wasn’t a place for judgment but helpful criticism. How can you make it better? What does this idea lack? It was a big stepping-stone for me to stand in front of people from the industry and present my idea and see how they reacted to it.”

“The moment I began pitching, I felt my hard-work and my batch-mates’ contribution is working. All doubts melted away. And the bottom-line was the learning that writing is “creative manual labor”. So, to turn into a laborer, I am determined.”

“As I prepare to face the second month of this course with a brave face, I’m already dreading the day it will end. I’m sure the months to follow will be fun in the most grueling way possible. I’m really looking forward to them.”

“Will I ever come to terms with the loneliness of writing? Maybe. Will I ever see something I wrote along with thousands of people? We’ll see. What matters is that I’ve resolved to give everything in trying. If I fail, I fail. I have come to be comfortable with being in flux. Chaos does not scare me. With my diary and pen, I have found a way to embrace pandemonium. That is my biggest strength.”

I thought this was about learning to write, but this is much more – it’s about becoming a writer.”

April 21, 2016

Week 5: The Pitch

AIB First Draft is a six-month writers' residency programme where a select group of aspiring writers from all over India are being trained in the craft of screenwriting. I feel thrilled to head this project and design and conduct the course. This post is a part of the series that chronicles all that happens at the course. Click here and read from bottom upwards for all posts related to this.

If our 26-week course has a Three Act Structure, the end of fifth week is definitely when the Set-Up is complete and Act I ends. I say so, because after four weeks of lectures, analyses, movie-watching, discussions, assignments etc. (as discussed in the previous posts), the fifth week was spent only in fine tuning the film/show ideas that the students had come up with. They wrote and re-wrote the ideas, helping each other, and creating their one-page pitch documents, that comprised of log-lines, plot outlines and treatments. And for that the students had a lot of time by themselves.

Of course, we started the week with watching 'The Jungle Book'. This would remain the only movie they would watch this week. No reading screenplays. No field trips or intuition exercises. Just working and reworking their pitch documents. I was amazed by the energy that engulfed them and I deeply admire how the students helped each other develop their ideas. It was as if an exam is round the corner. I too prioritized my life accordingly - trying to make sure that the students received my feedback as soon as possible, and repeatedly. All of us were together and it looked like a massive team-effort. 

Finally, we had two evenings of pitching. On the first evening, fourteen show ideas were pitched. On the next day, fifteen movie ideas. The panel comprised of the four AIB boys - Tanmay, Khamba, Rohan and Ashish, Ajay Nair from OML, my friend/manager Chaitanya from Tulsea, author/screenwriter Ramkumar Singh and my brother and co-director Devanshu. For four hours on both days, the classroom had this wonderful atmosphere where the students pitched their ideas with honesty and self-belief, the panel reacted to the ideas, providing suggestions for improvement and I observed all of them connect through nothing but stories! What an experience it was! Those two evenings were so special that I do not expect anything from 2016 any more. In the end, the panel expressed strong belief and conviction for at least sixteen ideas and spoke to the students to congratulate them for what they have achieved and to inspire them for the immediate future.

Perhaps the most important message that the students got was that they are really good, and they should now stop worrying about what will happen once the course ends. All of them should start professional writing and there is no going back now. Hopefully. 

Wasn't it an irreversible event in the lives of these students? This must be the First Plot Point. And this is how Act I of First Draft ends - with the students knowing which ideas they are going to work on for the next five months. With two days off - for the first time since 15th March, the students partied hard, slept a lot, played FIFA, watched shows and movies and relaxed. And prepared themselves for the very crucial next weeks. The Second Act is always long and tricky. The students know that - with respect to the second acts of their stories and of the course they are in. But like strong, motivated protagonists, they have it in them to go through this and emerge victorious. I wish them all the best with all my heart.

April 13, 2016

Weeks 3 and 4: How to Come Up with Ideas for Shows

AIB First Draft is a six-month writers' residency programme where a select group of aspiring writers from all over India are being trained in the craft of screenwriting. I feel thrilled to head this project and design and conduct the course. This post is a part of the series that chronicles all that happens at the course. Click here and read from bottom upwards for all posts related to this.

Objective: The students were required to come up with original ideas for episodic narrative or shows, write them down in 100 words each and get at least two of those ideas approved during these two weeks.

The third week started with a lecture on how episodic content is different from feature films and what are the different types of fiction shows that have typically been written. It was followed by, over two days, a screening of 1-2 episodes of ten different shows: 'Breaking Bad', 'Fargo', 'The Office', 'House', 'Entourage', 'Grey's Anatomy', 'Californication', 'Modern Family', 'Catastrophe' and 'Man Seeking Woman'. The idea was to observe different styles and formats, compare them with film-writing, and understand the power episodic writing inherently has.

The students read the screenplay of 'American Beauty' and apart from the regular 3-4 hour discussion on it they also discussed the possibility of a show using the characters and situations from the film. 

Over more lectures, we also discussed topics like: Types of Conflict, Types of Protagonists, Scene and its functions and how to fine tune your use of screenwriting format, style and grammar. During the first week, the students had watched 'Khosla Ka Ghosla' and created its Beat Sheet. Now, they reworked on the beat sheet, adding what purpose each scene serves and then they had a group discussion on the same so that everyone understood the practical aspects of "functions of a scene". The students were also introduced to the very useful tool called the 'Table of Everything'.

As an introduction to 'Film History', the students watched 'Hugo', followed by a discussion on the Birth of Cinema and the contributions of the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies. We also screened 'Amdavad Ma Famous' - a mesmerizing National Award-winning documentary for them, followed by a discussion on the film by its director and my dear friend Hardik Mehta.

The students also watched 'Kung Fu Panda 3' on the big screen and two Hindi plays - 'Naqqash' (it was the students' first visit to the iconic Prithvi Theater) and the wonderful musical 'Ishq Aha'.

A significant event of this fortnight was the Guest Lecture by Sudip Sharma, the writer of 'NH 10'. The students read the screenplay of the film one day before the lecture and Sudip broke down the structure and the writing process of the film during his insightful talk. We also had a discussion on his life and journey as a screenwriter and the two hours he spent with us might just be perhaps the most inspiring thing that has happened with AIB First Draft in its first four weeks. With his simple but persistent approach to film-writing, he humbled us. And with his infectious self-belief and love for cinema, he left us insanely inspired. I must thank Sudip for this wonderful, priceless session. Once he left, the students were asked to retire into solitude and reflect on what just happened, indulge in this moment of inspiration and do a one-page free-association writing to let everything out on paper. This was a personal exercise and not to be shared with anyone.

Since we had spent almost twenty days trying to analyse films and screenplays and learn theory and practise what we learnt, the fourth week was spent on indulging in the intuitive and imaginative side of ourselves. The students did several 'secret' assignments, to be shared with no one but themselves. These included going down memory lane and think of a father-daughter relationship they have closely observed as they listened to the song 'Ek Tha Bachpan' from Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 'Aashirwaad'. On the next day, they imagined a graphic and detailed sex scene in the most unlikely of settings. Later one day they indulged in the biggest fear they have - physical fear, or something that totally shatters them. And they would write - without thinking, without worrying about the structure, without trying to impress anyone, but to simply, uninhibitedly indulge in inspiration, nostalgia, lust and fear. They were also asked to spend one day breaking all patterns of daily-life. From food to sleep to the soap they use, they were encouraged to spend the day as differently as possible. And on the last day of the fourth week, we had some 'live' intuition exercises in class. It involved physical imagination of your mind-space and cleaning it, free-association writing of words and, later, visuals. And sharing with the batch their fears and dreams, as well as imagining their lives with some regrets and joys they do not have presently.

Apart from all these tasks, the students worked tirelessly on developing their four 100-word ideas into 300-word outlines. And, of course, they wrote at least one page of a scene, any random scene, every single day, now taking the uninterrupted practice to 27 consecutive days!

The first month at AIB First Draft is over. Within a couple of days, the students will have a Pitch Day, where they will present their ideas to a large panel. By the end of the fifth week, each of the students will know which idea they are going to work on over the remaining 21 weeks. This is getting intense by the day!