From leaving a cushy corporate job to writing Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashma to working in Bollywood to writing Gujarati films, Niren Bhatt shares bits from his life. Have a look at our conversation with the writer and lyricist Niren Bhatt.
Tell us something about you.
This has been the most difficult question in my life. Always got confused when this was asked in interviews. So, I would like to answer it formally. I am sort of perennial fish out of water. Friends jokingly call me one of the most educated writers in the entertainment Industry. I have done M.E. and MBA. I had a flourishing corporate career as a Business Consultant. But I always felt like an outsider there. Finally I left that career to become a writer.
When and how did you decide to become a writer?
I always wanted to become a writer and I always was one, if you write – you are a writer, simple! But to pursue writing as a profession was a tough thing. I had a cushy corporate job but I started realizing that this is not the life I am meant to live. Because even then, I was only interested in cinema, theater and music. Even while working as a Business Consultant I was writing constantly and doing plays. I had a growing fear of turning into a criticizing person in my 50s, who watches films and TV and jibes that “What does this person know!”. What if my kids tell me in return, “What do you know?” I realized that I don’t want to tell my kids, “Your dad also knew this stuff well, just that he didn’t pursue it”. Then you have nothing to prove it because whatever talent you had, you wasted it. That was my instance of realization. I left my corporate career, and became a full time writer. Undermining all the insecurities of the world, I decided to follow my passion.
Let me put it philosophically as well (a writer can afford to do so). I have been a great fan of absurd literature. Specially Samuell Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’, I firmly believe we are all ‘Vladimir and Estragon’s in this theater of absurd. We are mere accidents. We are not born with any great purpose in life. Our existence in itself is meaningless. So we need to find some purpose for our lives and meaning for our existence – something for which we exist, we live.
For me its writing.
How did your journey as a writer start?
A writer’s journey starts with reading. I have always been a voracious reader. That led me to writing. I used to write plays in my school days, it continued in college days where I wrote many musicals and won regional and national awards for them. Gradual progression happened from independent experimental plays to professional plays, and from there to TV and films.
You have worked as a writer in Bollywood, Gujarati cinema and television. What sets all of them apart?
Films and television writing are completely different art forms. In TV you need to adjust to a lot of logistical constraints and you have to abide by the episode timelines, broader story track timelines and episodic hooks. It takes time to learn it and it takes a lot of time and lot of effort to master it. Also with TV you need to connect to the lowest common denominator of the audience. In films you can cater to the niche audiences.
Now coming to Bollywood and Gujarati films. The biggest difference is the star system. If there is no existing star system in a creative industry – it has less commercial constrains and it liberates you as a creative. So the regional film industries that are content driven, specially ones like Malayalam and Marathi, you will see many good films. In Gujarati films, what I have enjoyed the most is the freedom to do whatever I want to do, and to express myself unabashedly, be it screenplay, dialogues or songs. Also the gestation period, for a Gujarati film its very less compared to a Bollywood film, which takes a long long time after the idea is conceived.
Bollywood movies are a different beast altogether. The cost of P&A and release is so high, that it creates great barrier for creativity and doing something new. Because, anything NEW is always Risky. That’s why people prefer to pay more money and make remakes- because they are SAFE. And then there are stars, who come with a huge price tags and their own idiosyncrasies. You need to convince them to do your film, wait for them to say YES, wait for them to give dates and then wait for the film to happen. It’s a long and time consuming process, and many things can go wrong during that, most times it does go wrong and that’s why most of the Hindi films fail.
How was your experience working with Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah.
It has been an enlightening and exhausting experience writing TMKOC. It’s one of the most loved shows ever made in India (perhaps the world). The viewers cut across demographics, geographies and age groups. It also has a huge viewer base of Kids, because parents (including me) trust TMKOC blindly, and think that its harmless and educating entertainment for their kids. So, writing this show also becomes a big responsibility. But of course writing such a show is very exhausting. Comedy is the most difficult genre to write in. So writing TMKOC drains me out mentally, emotionally and physically.
How did you enter in Gujarati cinema? How have your experience been in the industry so far?
My journey in Gujarati cinema started with conceptualizing the idea of Bey Yaar, when me and my partner Bhavesh Mandalia were brainstorming. Then we wrote Bey Yaar and it was very liberating for me as a writer because for the first time I was writing in my mother tongue. As they say, ‘a writer’s purest expression is always in his mother tongue’. We started realizing it as we started writing the dialogues of Bey Yaar. The flair of the language, colloquial words, vernacular slang gave a whole new perspective to the narrative.
My experience in the industry has been wonderful so far, I have worked with a lot of like-minded and passionate people. Also, a Hindi film gets made in silos; where each department does its work separately. But in Gujarati films its all passion, everyone is involved in everything and the synergy brings out the best in each person.
How was your experience working in All Is Well?
With All is Well, I experienced the quintessential Bollywood. I realized how difficult it is to get a film made in this industry, even for people with hits on their back. There are so many variables and each of them has to be right for the film to get made according to your conviction. Juggling dates of stars to match to your schedules, getting the right technicians, right locations, desired music, getting all the logistics and commercials right; everything is a challenge. It takes a superhuman effort and a huge amount of luck on the part of the film maker to get everything right in one go. And the Murphy’s law applies perfectly to the films being made in Bollywood, everything that can go wrong, mostly does go wrong with most of the films. The trick is to transform your vision on to big screen despite of all that.
The best part about film was the stories. Both Abhishek and Rishi Kapoor were full of stories and anecdotes about films, actors, past and present. The kind that you’ll only hear from them.
Tell us about your journey as a lyricist.
I always wanted to be a poet. I was fascinated by poetry since a very early age. By the time I was in college, I boasted of being an encyclopedia of poetry, armed with a couplet or a song for any and every occasion. From Ghalib and Meer to Bashir Badra in Urdu, and from Harivanshray to Dushyant Kumar in Hindi. And from Narsinh Mehta to Ramesh parekh and Manoj Khanderia in Gujarati, I read every poet that came my way. I devoured them. Everything was on the tip of my tongue, I remembered them by heart. All the plays I wrote in school and college days were musicals and I wrote songs for them. I wrote my first music album at the age of 16. I learnt and collaborated with my Mama – Vinay Dave for a lot of music albums in late 90’s and early 2000’s when non-film music was still in vogue.
When I moved to Mumbai, I started collaborating with Music directors for songs. We used to pitch our songs for films. Some got through, but the films got stuck. Some films also got modest releases. First songs came out in the film Fugly with music director and singer Prashant Vadhyar.
Since I wrote the film, I wrote the lyrics of Bey Yaar, and the songs were received quite well. It was a great experience working with Sachin Jigar, and Bey Yaar gave birth to a long term partnership with them. For film music, the composers and lyricist have to have a great tuning. And that shows in your songs. Till date we have done 5 film albums together. Almost all the songs of Bey Yaar and Wrong Side Raju have had tremendous connect with listeners.
I have collaborated with various Music directors like Parth Bharat Thakkar, Monty Sharma, Siddharth Rishi, Darshan- Rahul, Piyush Kanojiya, Maulik Maheta for different films. And I share a special bond with each of them. I believe each of the collaboration has helped me to become a better lyricist. Till date I have written songs for around 15 films.
I have been blessed to have some amazing singers sing my songs. Best and most famous is ‘Satarangi re’ by Arijit Singh. Apart from that super popular and talented singers like Keertidaan Gadhvi, Vishal Dadlani, Shankar Mahadevan, Shaan, Benny Dayal, Jonita Gandhi, Keerthi Sagathiya, Divya Kumar, Darshan Raval, Arvind Vegda have sung my songs, and it’s a matter of pride for me.
Your last Gujarati film won National award for the Best Gujarati Feature film. How does it feel?
It feels surreal. Still haven’t sunk in.
Which film or song do you consider as your best work?
Best is obviously yet to come. But I am very fond of my songs ‘Bey Yaar Tara vina’ and ‘Kathputla’. I believe both are a piece of magic that somehow happened due to raw burst of creativity during the process.
Which are 5 best films according to you?
There are many, many, many of them, in each genre, each language, each country. Can’t compare, can’t pinpoint.
My most favorite screenplay is the Adaptation by Charlie Kauffman.
What is the one thing that you don’t like about Gujarati film industry?
I don’t like when people follow herd mentality and try to follow the successful template. In regional and nascent industry like Gujarati, you have full freedom to bring forth your true and original expression, there is no point being a ‘me too’ version of some other successful film.
What is your message for Gujarati film industry?
Industry is much bigger than any of us and we are no one to give messages to it. But recently I have seen some cynics talking about Industry being in a sad state and predicting its downfall. All I want to tell them is “this is the business of dreams, and people will dream no matter what”. No box office figures, trends will ever be able to stop these dreams. People will keep on dreaming and will keep on making movies, regardless of anything and everything.
What is your message for aspiring writers?
I am still a novice and a beginner, I am no one to give message or advice to anyone. I can only request fellow creatives to follow their instincts and bring out their original voice.
Though artists like all kinds of recognition and awards, I feel artist shouldn’t be in it for awards and praises. I have won Best Writer for Comedy in TV many times, but I enjoy the process of writing more than any award.
What do you think about BuddyBits?
I have been a fan and ardent follower of BuddyBits. I think it’s a great platform and it has the potential to become a national trendsetter in the future. I would personally like to congratulate Nishit and everyone associated, for creating such a wonderful platform. Keep pushing and keep expanding guys!
Thanks a lot for your words. We wish you all the best for all your future endeavors.
(Featured photo courtesy)