A month ago, just days after her thriller series School of Lies dropped online, Ishani Banerjee was taken by the anxiety of whether it would find its audience. She was certain a slow-burn like the Disney+Hotstar offering would take time in finding its life. Today, the show's co-creator and writer sounds upbeat. The overpouring love and acclaim for her work has left her feeling surprised, validated and hopeful.
"All the frustration and anger that I had before the show has faded away. The show is making a splash, with several publications calling it one of the best series of the year. The idea was to push the boundaries and I feel enthusiastic seeing the audience wants that too," she smiles.
Much like her show, Banerjee's journey in Bollywood has been unrushed. Starting with a terrific debut in director Hansal Mehta's 2015 drama Aligarh, the writer took her time to find her place and pace in the industry. She remained undeterred in the face of delays and rejections, perhaps because she was focused on finding her voice as a storyteller, which contradicted her habits as a viewer. "I grew up on a typical Bollywood diet!" she says.
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In an interview with Mid-day, Banerjee reflects on her eight-year-long journey, her inner battles as a writer, and her expectations from the industry for herself and fellow writers.
Something unconventional is expected of you today, but when you sit to write, are you also conscious of writing a story that's not run-of-the-mill, or would you say unconventional narratives come naturally to you?
It is the latter, because you never start a process saying, âI will do this, I won't do that.' The need to deep dive and bring nuance is inherent to me now. I believe the more inherent it is, the better your writing becomes. It's anyway quite a task to write, because half of the time you are battling with the journey your story has to take. You have to bring in dramatic points and write a gripping story at the end of the day. It can't be a snoozefest. At the same time, you want to tell a story that also affects viewers.
The journey from Aligarh to School of Lies has been long, with gaps in between. Has it been difficult to stick to your belief in certain kinds of stories and storytelling?
It's been extremely difficult. When you are trying to work with the kind of intensity I strive to work with, there are numerous challenges because you have very little support. Creatively, I am stretched out. There are different kinds of shows that are offered to me. I know if I do them, I will probably earn much more. I will have hit franchises under my belt. And I don't have anything against those kinds of shows. But when one is trying to create a body of work, which is very original, when one has a certain kind of approach to writing and you are trying to live with a sense of self-awareness and honesty in a world, which is becoming absurd, it can get very lonely.
When people would compliment me for School of Lies, my anxiety would say, âBut who is watching it?' Of course a lot of people have watched School of Lies. There's been acceptance, which is heartening. But going forward, I want to tell stories that have a more entertaining value so they have a bigger audience, but at the same time maintain a certain standard of writing. That's a mammoth task. At times, I become unkind to myself. I don't know why I want to take that pressure (laughs). But when a stranger comes and tells me that they watched my show and felt cathartic, it's actually me, who has a catharsis hearing that, because we made it for this reaction.
Beginning with a critically-acclaimed film and then waiting for seven years to have your next work (Human, 2022 series) did you feel lost during that time?
I wrote a lot between Aligarh and Human. In fact, I finished Despatch, my upcoming film, even before I worked on Human. But then there were projects that fell apart in the middle. But in my mind, I just wanted to improve my craft, moving from one project to another, whether they saw the light of day or not. That depends on the producers. But I never felt lost because I realised all of this would take time.
Also, when it comes to working on OTT, it's important to know that the development stage is the toughest and the longest. You get the least paid during this stage, which is funny because a writer does the most amount of work during this time. So, it makes no sense. Till this condition remains, it's very difficult for writers to (prosper) in this country. You start getting money only when the project gets greenlit and you start writing the screenplay. But a whole year goes into developing a project, where you are developing the pilot, a platform takes two-three months to read it, then contracts are made. It's a long process.
During that process, to make your living you have to write two-three things. A writer becomes creatively exhausted. So, how is one supposed to remain creatively charged and deliver while struggling to pay bills?
Imagine this, there's a strike going on in the West, and we haven't even monetised the development stage. I have seen junior writers who are asked to write for free. They are paid a meagre token money and told they would be paid when the project is greenlit. These are really bad times. You get the most paid when principal photography of a project begins. But how does that matter, when the writing is already done?
In your experience, have writers tried taking up this glaring disparity with the streamers? Do you think a united front on this level is needed?
We keep having these conversations. But a united front by the writers will only be realised when all of them say they wouldn't sign a project without these aspects. Today, I am in a position to put my foot down, and one can only hope that every writer, who can, does that when a mass movement seems difficult. When I get writers in my writers room, I make sure they are paid even for the pointers they write of a story. One needs to keep pushing. Now, that I have a couple of projects under my name, I try to push for these things in my contracts, I try to do it for junior writers working with me.
You mention you grew up on a typical Bollywood diet. So, how did Aligarh become your first story? How did you realise that your stories as a writer would be far removed from what one describes mainstream?
I don't really know what was the starting point because I never thought I would write movies. Growing up, my only relationship with movies was as a viewer. I was born and raised in Jamshedpur. In the â90s, there wasn't a single decent cinema hall, where a family could go and watch movies. So, going to the theatres wasn't an option for us. I used to watch a lot of mainstream Bollywood films on TV or VCR.
But it was when I went to Delhi in 2007 for graduation in literature, my world opened up to international cinema. I watched David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, German cinema, Iranian films. These films became an escape for me. They used to make me cry, laugh, angry. These feelings became precious to me.
I have always maintained that Aligarh was a fluke. While I was working in Delhi, I wrote an email to Hansal sir after watching Shahid because I was moved by it. In the mail, I also mentioned my story of Aligarh. He answered it. There we began developing it. At that time, I didn't even know what a final draft meant. I didn't know anything about screenwriting. I used to write, but those were just stories. I got incredibly lucky.
But because I got lucky, I also felt guilty, seeing talented writers around me working hard and struggling to get their stories out. So, I felt that because I got this opportunity, I should work very hard. A project can be a fluke, but your entire life can't be just that.
When I came to Mumbai for Aligarh, I realised how difficult as well as magical it is to make movies. I began to gravitate towards films where feeling something was everything. The feeling a film leaves you with, when you are sitting in silence long after the film has ended, that became crucial for me. So, I decided I wanted to do work which leaves one with that feeling, be it of joy or despair. Also, post Aligarh, I started watching a lot of Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray films. These rich narratives left a deep impact on me and became instrumental in shaping my voice.
While one can expect Despatch, headlined by Manoj Bajpayee, to be your next release, are there things you are currently working on?
I am working on a lot of different stuff. One is a black comedy, other is a science-fiction story. My mind is organically gravitating towards stories that I have never attempted before. So, there's also a romantic thriller that I am developing.