Lessons from Driving Lessons

A couple of years ago a close friend gave me a feature film treatment to read. This was probably the first feature film treatment she had written. It was called Driving Lessons.

This friend was a trained film editor. She was a couple of years junior to me at film school. She had assisted in feature films, made promos for a music video channel, got married to a batch mate of mine, had two lovely kids, and along with my batch mate ran a production house that makes corporate videos and ad films.

It was a decade since we all had graduated from film school. Ten years had passed in a blink of an eye. None of us from my batch and two batches junior had actually made a feature length fiction film for theatrical release, which I think is the ultimate goal of many , if not all aspiring filmmakers.

And now I was reading a treatment called Driving Lessons. Being a professional writer, friends occasionally bounced off scripts and ideas with me. Most of them were genre pieces for ‘multiplex Bollywood’ or for ‘international/cross over’ stuff.

Point is, these were stories set in worlds one had seen before. The issues with these stories were entirely craft related. How to make them scarier, funnier, more thrilling, more romantic etc etc etc. Basically, the idea was to push these scripts into becoming as close as possible to their reference points. Which were commercial successes in the same genre, same budget and same cast options. Each of these films would aspire to be another X or Y film. Or would be Q meet R.

Driving Lessons had no reference point. It was nothing meets anything. It was a new world. It was a new story. And it was not rocket science to understand that my friend knew the world like the back of her palm. Therefore, the treatment had the smell of the hills of Uttarakhand in North India, where she had grown up.

The story was not about ‘poetic’ everyday nothingness. It was not about a city bred young man singing love songs to a pink cheeked coy lass from the hills. This story had no soldiers with Alsatian dogs hunting for terrorists in the hills. Nor was it about some heart broken, dysfunctional French anthropologist researching some goddess cult only to find her spiritual core, with an obligatory climax in the kumbh or on the ghats of Benaras.

This was a story that was woven from organic dramatic-comedic slices of life, quirky, rounded characters and a narrative trajectory that stunningly concealed themes that the author cared about deeply. But then, it was a story/treatment for a script. Now there needed to be a script. And then a film!

I was really curious in seeing how the script would shape up. My friend, not a professional writer who can stick herself to chair and computer, struggled. Over the next few months she kept at it. At times her writer’s block would be acute. I just hoped she would not give up completing the draft, like scores do under the pretext that, “I cannot write” or “I have outgrown the idea.”

After a lull, one day my friend sent me her draft. It was again a time for a pleasant surprise. Here was a script that was neither ‘free flowing with a ‘film studies’ ending’ or did it adhere to the ‘first plot point at page 30’ rule. But the characters were jumping out of the page. The humor, irony and the story beats were all in place. The script was not clever. But it had attitude. It made you want to see the film. And my heart began to sink.

How was my friend going to cast for this film? How would it get financed? How would it get made? Would she be able to recreate on screen, the on-paper magic? Wouldn’t all the corporate film making houses, Indian studios say, “Hey dudette; we do not know where to place this script. Who can you ‘bring’ in to the movie? ” While these questions played in my head, my friend put her head and entire being in to trying to get the script across to producers, not once having doubt ( at least I never saw it), that this is going to be a tough film to get made.

In a few months time, my friend had a producer. Well, it was more of a finance facilitator. And the finance was really tight. I knew the script inside out. The money made available to my friend was almost half of what it would take to do justice to the script.

But my friend fixed a shooting date!

Then I was out of the country for a while. In the meanwhile, my friend shot her debut feature film.

When I returned, I got to know how my friend, fortified by rock solid support from her husband, a technical crew of film school batch mates and the people from a village in Uttarakhad, had all come together to make this film happen. It had been a rather tough, grueling shoot.

Post production began. I got to see two scenes from the film when my 10 year old was called upon to dub two lines in a scene. (Since then he has told everybody that HIS film is coming out soon). I was once again stumped. The scenes looked good enough to eat. Very cinematic, well shot and production value! I was now dying to see the entire film.

I did not have to die. In a few weeks, I had the honor of being the first ‘outsider’ to see the first cut of the film. It was just me and my two friends. The writer director and her husband the creative producer. We saw the cut in their office. The feeling was that of seeing a new born and holding the bundle of joy in your arms.

The film worked and how! It was a rather competent, well made first film on rather tight budget. What struck me most was the superb casting my friend had done from a pool of local actors and non actors. And the visuals were yum. The world and the characters that I had seen on paper were here, in front of me on the screen. My heart was filled with joy and pride. A beautiful child had been born in our community. A first born so to speak.

The child has been christened Daayen Ya Baayen. And mother courage is Bela Negi.

Under her captaincy, a canoe full of really talented and committed technicians, navigated through mist, floods, rain and what have you. This film has the good wishes of a lot… A LOT…of people from the profession and the public who have taken part in the movie and partaken of it. All because…

Daayen ya Baayein (Right or left) is a good film that makes you proud. While its sincerity and honesty are bang on, it’s quiet understated talent at work, for which Ms Bela Negi scores a straight A PLUS.

Speaking of quietness, a couple of months back, I was in the plush cabin of a hot shot screenwriter turned commercially successful director with his debut feature. He has now become a producer too. It was an interview of sorts for a writing gig for his production company. On knowing what kind of films I like and would like to make someday, I was subjected to a one hour patronizing lecture which ended with. Be honest. It’s all about how bigger your budget gets with each project. 

The 40 whatever crore film released this week. It stank and sank. The person in question is definitely not talentless. He has written some neat stuff before. But this pompousness of commercial success turning people into inflated tyres is sad. So, Mr Yacht, I don’t want that yacht. When I grow up and make movies, I want to be Bela Negi! 🙂

Is this blog a plug for Daayen ya Baayen releasing on 29th October in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangaluru, Kolkata, Nashik, Nagpur and few other cities? Yes of course it is! This is a movie that has been made from blood and sweat. It’s been made in an amount that must have been the mineral water budget of Mr Yacht’s film. Let me not even get in to the publicity and PR costs. At the end of it, there are two movies. I have seen both. I can vouch that you offer 250 bucks to a person watching Daayen ya Baayen to walk out, he wouldn’t. And despite paying 250 bucks, I saw people jumping off the yacht with in twenty minutes of a so-called sail.

All those who love engaging well told narrative films that are accessible to everybody, do go watch Daayen ya Baayei in the cinema hall. Buy the DVD when it releases in your city. Make that effort and you will be rewarded with two hours of good cinema. And you would have hugely contributed in creating a viable space for riveting cine-stories that are dying to be told.

OK, we do not have an alternate distribution system. We do not have state funding and grants. We do not have this. We do not have that. Screw it all. Let us work with what we have and keep at it.

These have been my lessons from Driving Lessons.

1) No cribbing.

2) Drilling into head that there is never going to be an ideal red carpet scenario. You gotta earn it.

3) Sit down and don’t get up until the script is done. And then don’t sit down until the movie is in the cinema hall.

Thank you Bela Negi.

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  1. Great piece, Cubbu! And yes, have also seen the film at a preview screening – cute, charming and heartwarming! Such a relief from the usual brain-dead mainstream Hindi cinema.

  2. Lovely, Charu. Somehow, I could see you as if you were speaking in my room. Yes, we’ve all learned something from this film, and Bela. Kudos to her!

  3. Thanks Banno. You been a inspiration too. You made feature in a very tight scenario too. And again, an apathy towards marketing and promotion did not take the movie where it should have gone. Are all these people nuts? Don’t the like the smell of profit? duh! We as a movie making country, are blessed with huge audieneces of varied tastes. Why cant non starrer non mainstream films also be made in to profitable ventures?? beats me totally!

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