A few weeks ago, I learned (web, twitter) about the Chennai International Screenwriting Workshop and decided to apply. The application process is probably one of the most tech-savvy I’ve seen. Everything was run through their website (a modified blog, really). Regular updates kept the masses fed in a very efficient manner. And just a day later than their originally promised schedule, I found out that I got in.
And here we are…
May 29th, Friday, 2009. Day 1.
The day kicked off with an introduction by Mr. Kamal Haasan. He put the entire workshop together to make screenwriting more accessible to aspiring writers. This is the first time I’ve seen the man in person and I have to say that he’s articulate and intelligent. He also seems very self-effacing. Most importantly, he seems really committed to the workshop. I’m writing this at the end of day 2 and he’s been in every session – hasn’t skipped a single one. He also introduced the rest of the presenters for the workshop – Hariharan, Director of the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, Anjum Rajabali, Head of departments of screenwriting at FTII and Whistling Woods, and Atul Tiwari, a professional screenwriter and an excellent dialog writer.
Anjum Rajabali took charge of the next couple of sessions. He’s a very impressive man – funny, engaging, articulate, compelling. An excellent presenter who captures and holds your attention. He clearly loves what he does and he communicates that joy when he talks about his craft. In his first session, he walked through each of the elements of a screenplay – idea, premise, theme, plot, character, structure, scene, dialogue. It was a solid primer and a good grounding on the basics of what’s involved with writing a screenplay. He then spent an entire session on Premise. The key take away for me:Â figure out the Premise early in the writing process in order to ensure you have enough to power an entire feature film.
Mr. Hariharan (feel compelled to say Mister here… Anjum seems like a guy who’d be cool with it if you called him by his name though, so I’m going with it) then led a very detailed session on Characters, Characterizations and Characteristics. And when I say detailed, I mean extraordinarily detailed – pages and pages of detailed PowerPoint, each one filled with great stuff. The best parts of the session were when he took the time to illustrate with examples – he came up with hilarious examples that will stay with me for a long time. An example of one of his examples – “What if you named one of your characters Abithakuchalambal? It immediately embodies the character with certain attributes. Then what if you name the other character Tania? You have an image of an Abithakuchalambal and you have an image of a Tania. Now what if Abithakuchalambal was 20 and Tania was 60?” It’s enough to convince you that you have to have a weed-smoking, goth-styled Abithakuchalambal in your next script, yes?
The day wrapped up with a screening of On The Waterfront. I’ve watched it before and I can honestly say the second viewing of Kazan’s masterpiece was better than the first.
May 30th, Saturday, 2009. Day 2.
Anjum led the session on Structure. This is one of those parts of a workshop that has to be taught (I mean, can you actually say you don’t teach anything about structure in a screenwriting workshop?) but, one that really shouldn’t be applied by screenwriters *as* they write their screenplays. And fortunately, Anjum himself stressed that point – do not think about structure, do not work to a formula. Having learned the basics of screenwriting from the inimitable Mick Casale (head of the writing program at NYU’s Tisch), I was jumping up and down in agreement with that statement.
The next session was on Scene design and Anjum screened and dissected a handful of beautifully constructed scenes including the opening scene from The Godfather, the scene in the car from The Sixth Sense where Cole reveals his secret to his mom, the scene from Satya where Bhiku Matre comes home and exchanges slaps with his wife, and finally the opening scene of Charulata which Mr. Hariharan talked us through.
Despite the fact that we spent a session and a half on Scene Design, I really feel this needs even more time. Creating a great scene is hard and I would love to learn more about the variables in the writer’s toolkit to build a great scene. I’m hoping they can spend a bit more time on this on Day 3.
The last session of the day was led by Mr. Kamal Haasan. He chose to focus on Hey Ram, in which he was the writer, director and actor, and spent most of the session answering questions. A very open and honest exchange despite the occasional, cringe-inducing “question” that was really a verbal love-letter from an ardent fan.
The day’s screening was Ghatak’s extraordinarily depressing Mehge Dhaka Tara, widely regarded as his best film. Even though I like Ajantrik better, one can’t really complain at having to watch any Ghatak film again, especially on a large screen.
Finally, I have to say this is a really well-organized conference. It’s located in IIT, unarguably the best campus in the city, the presenters stick to their times, the food is decent and handed out in a very organized manner and the volunteers are genuinely helpful. When was the last time that happened? Kudos to everyone involved!
Also read: Part 2 – Days 3 and 4