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In Conversation With Gaurav Solanki: Co-Writer of Article 15 (Movie)

April 13, 2020

Gaurav Solanki (born 1986) is an Indian fiction writer, poet, screenwriter and lyricist. He is an IIT Roorkee alumni and recently won a filmfare for the ‘Best Original Story’ for the much acclaimed film Article 15. In addition to this he has written songs for Ugly, Daas Dev and Veere Di Wedding. Interestingly, in 2012, he was awarded Jnanpeeth’s Navlekhan Puraskar which he refused to accept - read on to find out why. His first short-story collection ‘Gyrahvin-A ke Ladke’ was released in Jaipur Literature Festival, 2018. It was among top 3 Hindi Books in the Dainik Jagran Nielsen Bookscan Bestseller list in its first quarter. Watch Out! scheduled a skype interview with him, the transcript of which is given below.

Watch Out! - At what point in your life did you understand that you wanted to get into writing and wanted to become a poet/lyricist? How did this transition happen, were you interested in writing before college as well?

Gaurav - I wrote my first poem in the 11th standard but at that time, writing never seemed like a career option. I wanted to do something related to films, but I didn’t know how to go to Bombay and reach out to people. We all are very young when we take up these professional courses. I was good at studies, so I got into an IIT. At that point, it seemed like a way to get out of my small town. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor, but this thought went away when I grew older, so it was all very vague. However, something was fascinating about cinema that intrigued me in various ways. In my first year, during the recruitments, I wanted to join the Dramatics section but was eliminated in the last round. There was this tall guy who got selected in the section when one of us had to be chosen. In my teenage angst, I felt like he got selected and I didn’t solely because of his height. (laughs) Otherwise, I thought I was pretty decent. Later, I joined Kshitij and started writing poems and short stories. During the second or third year, I wrote a novel. It was possible because you don’t need any extra accessories or resources for writing. I used to publish poems on my blog and tried to reach out to the publishers in Delhi during my summer vacations, but no one took me seriously. I went to Rupa, Raj Kamal and the like, but no one paid attention. However, I kept on writing. During my final year, I felt I should go to FTII Pune. I took the exam for FTII Pune, but unlike JEE, for which there are tons of books and coaching institutes available, this exam didn’t have many resources, and I didn’t know what would be asked in the exam. I got to know through some seniors on Orkut about the exam. Also, I got placed in a networking company in Gurgaon. I joined the company while I waited for the results of the exam. I cleared the exam and the interview for a course in film direction, but at that point, I felt like I didn’t want to study for another 3-5 years. So, I didn’t join FTII Pune, and also left my job after six or seven months.

Watch Out! - Who were your inspirations, the movies/authors that influenced you when you started writing and discovered your interest in filmmaking?

Gaurav - While I was in college, I read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. That was quite complex but it has this magical realism in it, and I was fascinated by how he dealt with real history and then fictionalized it. It made me think that writing can be approached in different ways. I read a lot of Premchand and Sharatchandra in my childhood. They had their influences on me. I also read Arundhati Roy in college. I also read the works of Nirmal Verma, Vinod Kumar Shukl and Uday Prakash. These writers showed me new possible ways. When it comes to filmmaking, Hindi films were changing. Movies like Maqbool, Omkara, Rang de Basanti, Socha na tha and Jab We Met, which were quite different from the typical Bollywood movies showed me the possibility of a different kind of mainstream cinema. I think these films carved out a path for a lot of people of my generation. People like Anurag Kashyap were making unique films. There used to be a community blog called “Passion for Cinema’’. On this blog, Indie filmmakers, enthusiasts and critics used to write. Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap and many other directors were active there. Neeraj Ghaywan who later directed Masaan, used to write there. I started watching World Cinema after passing out from college. I used to rent movies from a website called “seventymm”. Around that time, I watched the works of Kurosawa, Wong Kar Wai, Almodovar, Truffaut, Bergman and many other filmmakers. A little bit later, I explored some wonderful Iranian directors. All of them gave me a lot.

Watch Out! - What were the difficulties that you faced when you decided not to do an engineering job? Did your parents pressurize you, did you also feel that engineering was the easy way out, how did you overcome it?

Gaurav - It seemed inevitable that I had to leave my job. It was only a matter of time before I moved on. I felt that the more delay there was, the more I’d get used to the job, the salary and everything else in between. I started to feel imprisoned because I wasn’t able to write. My parents used to urge me to write after returning from my job. They didn’t want me to give up on my job. However, I realized that then it would just be a hobby. If you wish to do something professionally, it has to be full-time, whether it’s writing, photography or something else. So, I decided to leave my job. People labeled this decision as ‘brave’, ‘bold’, ‘risky’, ‘stupid’, depending on how they thought. I believed that this is the only way I can live. My parents, however, were shocked. They thought that I don’t understand the real, practical world. I look back and can understand their point of view scarred with their struggles in life. Eventually, I remained tenacious and started writing for magazines and newspapers. I used to write film reviews for Tehelka. Thankfully, it was always clear in my head that I wanted to do this with my life.

Watch Out! - Did you ever feel that there were certain benefits attached with the IIT tag even in the film industry?

Gaurav - Not exactly, but sometimes people take you more seriously and believe that you are sincere because you passed such a tough exam and that you must be hardworking. Some benefits are always there. During the initial days, people show their interest in you and take you more seriously, but since the field is very different, there are no other benefits.

Watch Out! - Writing ‘Article 15’ must’ve been a monumental incident in your life. How did you get that project and what was the inspiration when you started writing it?

Gaurav - I was working on a script with Sudhir Mishra when he introduced me to Anubhav Sinha, who was looking for a writer for a film, which was a different film. We connected and soon I realized that he was trying to change the kind of films he was making. That was the transitional period in his filmmaking career. Both of us shared the anger about a lot of things around us and we wanted to express it through our work. We decided to make it a thriller so that more people can watch this movie because not many people will watch a serious film with a social message and neither did we want to make a cliche ‘issue-based’ film. We did all this for about 4-5 months. We tried to add all those things which we had experienced, heard and seen throughout our lives related to caste, including current situations on various campuses, politics and fight against this discrimination and and how casteism is spreading in cities and villages in new forms. We tried to capture as much as we could.

Watch Out! - ‘Article 15’ is based on a very sensitive topic. While you were writing, did you face any problems regarding what you could and couldn’t portray?

Gaurav - No, not really. Anubhav and I used to discuss this. We took names of various castes as well, including the scheduled castes. Some team members even said that the Censor Board will not approve of it. They said the same thing when we decided to mention the symbols of the various political parties. About these possible objections by the Censor Board, we decided to wait for this to happen in reality instead of censoring ourselves. Interestingly, CBFC didn’t have any problem with these scenes.

We tried to be as objective in our approach as we could and did not think twice about mentioning something. However, about reservation, there was a scene in the movie which originally contained a few lines about reservation. It was the scene in which Ayushmann and others come to meet Nishad. After a couple of rewrites, we realised that if we bring up reservation, it would have to be a lengthy conversation and we can’t be done with it in a single scene. We had to let go of those lines because we realised that we won’t be able to do justice with it within the limited duration of one film.

Watch Out! - About the characters and incidents in the movie, did you draw inspirations from things that have happened to you or around you?

Gaurav - These things never happened to me, but I have seen even in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, it matters to people, it matters to many house owners while renting out their flats and most of the people prefer to marry within their castes. It is more visible in smaller cities and villages. A lot of savarns offer water or tea to a Dalit in different utensils. This takes a brutal form when a Dalit goes to a temple or when they want to ride a horse in a marriage and get beaten or even killed sometimes. They get killed for the smallest of things a human being would want to do. I remember reading many incidents of brutal mob lynching or burning dalit houses in my growing years . They had a deep impact on me. These incidents happen every year. Sewage workers work in very bad circumstances without any safety gear and many people die because of this. Most of them are dalits. So, we come across these incidents everyday, but we develop a habit to ignore them, like ignoring a beggar on the street. Many people even say that the Mafia is behind these beggars and they’re the ones who will gain money from all this. No one has either the time or the determination to do something about this, so we prefer to ignore it. Even the citizens who are conscious about this think that they can’t change the entire society or how the system works. So, there was this anger that we’ll have to do something about this.

Watch Out! - You mentioned that you had a personal anger against the discriminatory practices you saw. Following up on that, how important do you feel is the connection between a writer and the characters they’re writing?

Gaurav - True, such a connection is really important. However, the things you write about don’t need to be your personal experiences. Your life is too short to experience everything. I try to let all the characters live in my mind. Films, videos, books and sometimes talking to or listening to people similar to your characters help a lot. I regularly think about how they might be living their lives. I think it’s important to ‘act inside’, to live all those lives inside you, in order to bring intensity and authenticity to your story. These crucial parts of the story can only be achieved when you feel for the characters. I feel that a writer’s craft is to translate those feelings he has for his story, his characters onto a piece of paper. One has to feel for the character, and have the ability to communicate those feelings, both of them are equally important for a story.

Watch Out! - What was your favourite scene in the movie and Why?

Gaurav - That’s a difficult question, to be honest. It’s a cliche thing to say but it’s impossible to choose one favorite among your own work. There were many scenes, though, which were more challenging than others and to be able to do them was quite satisfying. For example, the scene where Ayan asks everyone’s caste, it turned out to be somewhat funny and was included in the trailer as well. A lot of people talk about that. Another such scene was the one when Nishad returns to meet Ayan, Gaura, Jatav and Mayank. The conversations Ayan has with the CBI officer Panicker nearing the climax, that too.

Watch Out! - Your film has gained widespread popularity and love and has been awarded a Filmfare and other national accolades. Do you think the message you wanted to convey got through?

Gaurav - Many people have seen the film in Cinema halls, on Netflix, so the message has been received by a lot of people. What matters is the number of people who remember the message, and how many stay affected by it. Many times we watch movies purely for entertainment and do not change anything in real life. Take the example of love stories. In our country, love stories have always been popular among the masses, yet love is seen as taboo, much more in smaller cities. I’ve always felt that we’re living dual lives. In cinema, we enjoy it but in our homes, in the same scenario, it is seen in a different light. I have a similar fear for such films and it’s always up to individuals how they choose to let films impact their lives. Cinema can’t bring complete change, it can only inspire, can only be the catalyst to change. If the film does that, I will be satisfied.

Watch Out! - As a follow up to that question, even in elite institutions like IITs, visible or invisible forms of discrimination do exist. How do you feel we can combat that?

Gaurav - I feel that the only solution to this is to talk among yourselves. In social constructs, there are some who face discrimination, then those who do the discrimination. There are people in between, those who prefer to stay quiet. If they start to speak up, engage in discussions and protest, I feel change can be brought about sooner. A discussion between communities, among people of different backgrounds is necessary.

Acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving it. Many of us, mostly from so-called upper castes, say that the caste discrimination is a thing of the past, that it does not happen anymore, while the truth is they are saying this just because they haven’t faced it.

You’ll realise that those from the upper castes have most friends from the upper castes itself, this makes a sort of an echo-chamber, with your friends, neighbours, parents and those related to the parents, all of them belong to the upper castes, so either these ‘neutral’ people don’t know the actual plight of the lower castes or they choose to ignore it because of their privilege, security and indifference. Many in the younger generations never get to know the discrimination prevalent, as they do not talk to those discriminated against. Talking to those different from you, making friends with them, is important, I feel. Even in IIT, I felt that the students who entered by reservation have different groups, general category students have different groups. Due to the decreased interaction, there’s a feeling of discrimination and alienation inherently developed in such students. I feel faculty and all the students must make efforts to mitigate such barriers. There have been many suicides in campuses in recent past because of this inhuman discrimination. So first we have to acknowledge that the problem is far from gone.

Watch Out! - We all know that the Oscar this year went to a South Korean film, Parasite, which relayed the message of social inequality. Why do you think Indian cinema has not been able to make a mark on the global stage so far?

Gaurav - I don’t feel the films we usually send for oscars are our best ones. We tend to send our popular films, which were commercial hits. However, for the awards, those films which have more novelty, more originality, they’re more likely to win an award. Another factor is that we’ve become too obsessed with our box office numbers – 100 Cr, 300 Cr. This is becoming a cultural problem that we keep talking about these numbers in shows, interviews, etc. Kids in schools are talking about the Friday collections. The films that should be made, they would give you some profit, but not necessarily 10 or 20 times the investment.

Still, we keep on making some brilliant films across languages. Some of them are commercially successful too. Many films in the past have made a huge mark on the global stage. Satyajit Ray has been celebrated around the world.

Watch Out! - In 2012, you rejected the prestigious Jnanpith Navlekhan Award. What were your reasons for this rejection?

Gaurav - The people from Jnanpith were giving me an award for my first poetry collection and were also going to publish my short story collection. Maybe it was their politics or moral hypocrisy, they told me after a year that one of my stories had obscenity in it, and asked me to modify or remove this story despite the book being reviewed and selected by multiple senior critics and writers beforehand. To protest this I refused the award, as it felt weird getting an award from someone who sees obscenity in your works. Thus I decided not to take the award. I was disillusioned and disappeared for a while from the literary world. Finally when I published the collection of stories after a few years, I named it after the title of the story ‘Gyrahvin-A ke Ladke’ which they found to be obscene.

Watch Out! - Can you tell us about the future projects you’re working on?

Gaurav - I have written a series for Amazon Prime, a political thriller which will come out sometime this year. It stars Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Sunil Grover, Mohd. Zeeshan, and many others. I’m also working on another film, Freedom, directed by Dibakar Banarjee, which I have co-written with him.

Watch Out! - Any final message to the quarantined junta?

Gaurav - Take care everyone, follow physical distancing seriously, listen to the government and WHO. Help others who are not as privileged. When we come out of this situation, we must look at problems like climate change as well. The problems that we might face in the future because of climate change would be much larger than the current crisis, so let’s live sustainably and take care of our planet. Read, watch movies, spend time with your family. Let’s stay strong and united.