Durgesh Singh, Gullak screenwriter: ‘Stories of lived realities amaze me’

What stands out about Gullak is that it has unusually usual characters. Which part of your mind and life do they come from?

Half my life I have been around unusual characters. For example, there was a Pappu bhaiya in my village who remained unemployed all his life. I wondered how someone could afford to be like that… but there he was! I always liked him. He had a Yamaha RX100 bike that he parked near the khatiya where he slept. He told us wild stories – how, once upon time, an eagle grabbed him by his hair and flew away. The eagle took him to Iran via Afghanistan and finally stopped at the top of the Eiffel Tower where they both shared cotton candy (budhiya ke baal). Once he went to Ashok Talkies, the theater near my village, to watch Sholay. After the film ended, I found Gabbar Singh outside the theatre; Gabbar shared a beedi with him and then gave him the tamancha with which he had killed Kaaliya. All of us children believed this story for a long time. He is the biggest storyteller in the world for me. The phrase from Gullak, “Aapko nahi paw” comes from Pappu Bhaiya’s world.

How did your screenwriting journey begin?

It thanks began to advertising. A writer doesn’t get room to write much in 30 seconds. And a story is a story; long stories, good stories, the stories from great writers that make you feel… I wrote short stories for a long time, first for magazines and then for radio, but then I got bored. Boredom always pushes you to do something new. When I got bored with advertising, I began writing Gullak. My screenwriting journey started from there.

As a screenwriter, did you have to make compromises in terms of ideas and money?

For me, screenwriting is a different kind of literature altogether. It is not 100% pure but still close to my heart. I don’t think of it as a compromise, but you are bound to write economically. You also have to be a fighter. You have to fight for your most beautiful ideas. Of course, the person who puts in his money from him will also give his own ideas. But you have to be smart, especially in the Hindi film industry, where finding people with a connection to Hindi is a rarity. You have to fight for this language, for these ideas, for money and this is only possible when you are very confident about your own work.

How has OTT changed life for writers?

OTT has given writers both respect and money. The story of the show starts from the TV series pitch itself. Thanks to the platforms, one-pagers are no longer entertained. There is still a long way to go but OTT has definitely led to rise in demand for writers.

What kind of cinema has influenced you and what kind of work do you intend to do in future?

Human Stories; stories of humans not of machines; Bong Jo Hoo, Asghar Farhadi, Fateh Akin, Abbas Kiorstami, Ursula Meier, Sussanne Bier, Wong Kar Wai – the list is endless.

Within the Indian film industry, I admire Malayalam cinema. I always wait for their new releases because they have lived their stories. They tell their stories out of their lived realities. Like a few days ago, I shot with Nimisha Sajayan (of The Great Indian Kitchen). During our conversations, I discovered that the director of The Great Indian Kitchen, Jeo Baby is a house husband who routinely takes care of household chores. That’s why he was able to tell this kind of story. The writer of Nayattu was an inspector in the Kerala Police and that is why he could tell that story about policing. Stories born out of lived realities amaze me and Malayalam cinema tells those stories wonderfully.

A still from Gullak (Publicity material)

Gullak has garnered great reviews. But is there anything that you think you could have done differently to make it better?

I would have definitely made it in my own way but even now people are showering it with a lot of love. for me Gullak is Episode 3 of Season 3. I think I would have built the show like that only.

You have written and published short stories in the past. Do you see them differently from the ones you write for the screen?

My short stories are really close to my heart, the stories you are watching on screen are very close to the world. Both are different but I am trying to blur the difference between the two. Even going forward, the stories that I write will remain close to my heart. Afterwriting gullak 2my belief that creating something close to your heart will resonate with people has only grown stronger.

Why have you never published your poetry?

I was never able to find the courage; I always thought they were bad poems. What will people say? The poets whom I read or read while growing up were all mesmerizing. Their metaphors, their thoughts were amazing – Alok Dhanva, Kedarnath Singh, Shrikant Varma, Ashtbhuja Shukl, Vinod Kumar Shukl. I believe one’s poetry should be on par with the work of these poets. That’s why I buried all my poems, some in my heart and some in a box somewhere.

When and why did you decide to be a writer?

It all started in my days at Allahabad University. In the Ram Krishna Mission Library of that campus, I came across the beautiful features written in India Today, aha zindagi and Outlook. At that time I aspired to write like that. Later came books. The writers who impacted me the most were Phaneeshwar Nath Renu, Dr Rahi Masoom Raza and Nirmal Varma. These three names changed my life completely. Nirmal Varma’s writing especially left me spellbound. Even now, I can turn to any page, pick any paragraph and start reading his work from him. Then I went to Bhopal. There, Bharat Bhavan played a huge role. My understanding of cinema and literature matured there. I still remember the Sunday, when I watched Kanjeevaram in Bharat Bhavan and met Prakash Raj. That day my perspective towards watching cinema changed.

According to you, what is success for a writer?

To do the work close to his or her heart, to live in the city or village of his liking, to meet his close ones, to plant a mango tree on his land, to water these mango trees, to pluck that mango and just eat it, to watch a bird sitting by the glass window and that bird hitting the glass after seeing her own reflection, to sit by the puliya near the canal and drink whiskey and then dip into the canal for more water. A writer should never leave his roots from him; he should always return to the world from which he came.

How political do you think your writing is or should be?

How can someone write without politics? I know my politics, but that does not mean that I have to shout it loud. You can decipher my political understanding in Gullak 2 and 3. And how can someone do satire devoid of any political understanding? If a writer will not talk about politics then who will she? The politics of relationships, politics of emotions, politics of childhood, politics of adulthood, politics of break ups and affairs, politics of running a house, politics of building a house; the politics of living in this world and the politics of exiting this world. You have to write everything after understanding all these.

Seagulls and devotees at Sangam in Allahabad.  (Arvind Yadav/HT Photo)
Seagulls and devotees at Sangam in Allahabad. (Arvind Yadav/HT Photo)

You grew up in Allahabad which is now Prayagraj. Apart from the name, what else has changed there?

the amrood (guava) are not the same as we used to get before. The quality of bun maska and chai you have degraded to bit. None, I like that city. In our hostel, at daddy used to serve dahi jalebi; she isn’t around anymore. That’s the reason I might like it less now, but I still like the city. Civil Lines bus stand is a bit organized now. The reclining Hanumanhee at Sangam is still reclining. Though the bridge from Chungi to Medical Chauraha was constructed, the traffic is still moving slowly. Thank God some things have not changed.

Screenwriting, short stories, advertising and poetry. How do you see the forms you have handled differently from each other?

Screenwriting is something I am still learning. I was never able to learn poetry. I understood it a bit but I’m still trying to grasp it. I have gained insights into the world through advertising: How do people think? When do they laugh or cry? How do they speak? How do they eat? How do they dress? Advertising taught me that. But I never wanted to get lost in that world; that’s why I left it. Another difference among these forms is that screenwriting is a slightly more restricted territory. Also, it is collaborative. It is amazing to see your writing converted on screen as somebody else’s vision. It’s a unique experience. Short stories, on the other hand, are a much wider area. You can tread through them as you please, with fewer rules and regulations. In advertising, there are different kinds of restrictions and rules at play when you write for a brand. Poetry, as I said, is a mystery to me.

Tell me a little bit about your writerly utopia if you’ve ever imagined one?

The writer within me wants to go to the Czech Republic to meet Nirmal Varma and borrow his overcoat; to take one puff of Mohan Rakesh’s cigar; to bump into Swadesh Deepak on some street corner and to ask him to come to this world, where his anger is needed the most because writers are becoming spineless. I also want to make a film on Swadesh Deepak’s life in my utopia. I don’t want to meet Dharamvir Bharati at all but I want to meet Pummy from Gunaaho ka Devta; I want to ride around Allahabad with Pummy on a bike. My utopia is to stay in that bungalow where Phanishwar Nath Renu and Raj Kapoor lived while writing Teesri Kasam. Why did he not want to stay in that sea-facing bungalow? I want to ask him that. I want to go with Rajkamal Chaudhary to Shankar’s Shahjahan Hotel in chaurangi. My utopia is to make Vinodji (Vinod Kumar Shukl) younger, I want to make him an 18-year-old so he can roam around and see if people can actually understand, ‘Deewar main khidki rehti thi‘.

What do you see yourself doing or writing five years from now?

Maybe you’ll find me teaching somewhere; in some school, college or university. I want to write a big fat novel someday. Maybe in the next five years I will be able to do that.

Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.

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