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Aarya's Audacious Anu: Screenwriter Anu Singh Choudhary's journey, from Motherhood to Bollywood

Updated on: 18 February,2024 01:56 PM IST  |  Mumbai
Priyanka Sharma |

Aarya's audacious Anu took many detours, even including a brief stay in Mumbai on impulse, and later working in Delhi as a journalist, to finally land where she always felt belonged

Aarya's Audacious Anu: Screenwriter Anu Singh Choudhary's journey, from Motherhood to Bollywood

Aarya's audacious Anu

On a top floor of a building that stands tall on one of the busiest lanes of Mumbai sub-burbs in Andheri are tiny rooms stacked next to each other like Lego bricks that complete a structure, yet are whole in themselves. It’s an office comprising smaller offices, typical of the city that has a big heart but a crunched space for its people. There’s no creativity to absorb walking past these compartments until you reach the last one, a brightly lit room inhabiting a table and two chairs and walls painted in different hues of sticky notes with short paragraphs written on them, resembling a storyboard. That’s screenwriter-author Anu Singh Choudhary’s writer’s room, her heaven.

The stairway to this heaven was 18 year long. The Ranchi girl took many detours, even including a brief stay in Mumbai on impulse, and later working in Delhi as a journalist, to finally land where she always felt belonged. "Yeh shehar chhodke toh nahi jaana," she begins.

The final part of the third season of Sushmita Sen-led thriller drama series Aarya has just dropped. Choudhary has been in its writers' room since its inaugural season (2020). She is currently developing another show for a major streaming platform. 

The writer likes to be all over the place when she is ideating, but when it’s time to put pen to the ramblings in her head, nothing’s better than a quiet place, much like her office. 

“When you are physically sitting down and just writing, you need your quiet time. You need to be fully immersed in what you are writing. Then it doesn’t help if you are doing many things together,” she smiles.

Choudhary has earned this quiet after a thunderous last year, the sound of which, to her delight, lingers on. After all, she had four back-to-back releases, across mediums and formats. Director Hansal Mehta’s Netflix show Scoop released last summer, on which Choudhary was credited for additional screenplay. It was followed by Sajni Shinde Ka Viral Video, starring Nimrat Kaur and Radhika Madan, that released in theatres. Choudhary was one of the four writers on the mystery thriller. Following a couple of weeks, the writer had her dysfunctional family drama Shastry Viruddh Shastry in theatres. In November, the first part of Aarya season three premiered. 

“I want to be a multi-format writer. So, I want do one film, a series and also go back to write the novel that I want to,” she laughs. And when she is not writing, Choudhary through her writers’ retreat likes to nurture those who have an imagination but lack tools to facilitate their ultimate dream, to write movies.

Who better than her to value such a dream. She lived with one herself for almost 20 years, half of her life that is. “At a very young age, I would read Filmfare, film trade magazines… I was very fascinated by cinema. I am an ‘80s kid. So, for us there was no cable, everything was Doordarshan. Just the joy of watching something with your family, calling your neighbours to sit and watch Mahabharat… I knew I wanted to write, express and communicate. But I didn’t know how it would happen.” 

Choudhary has a vivid memory of perhaps one of her earliest realisations that she was destined for the movies. “I distinctly remember being delighted that Rahi Masoom Raza had written the dialogues of Mahabharat because I had read his novel, Aadha Gaon, by then. So, this connection with a writer and to think that a writer could do so much happened very early. I wasn’t more than 10.”

Her face lights up as she shares her biggest influences in cinema, ranging from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s inimitable warm, life-like creations to classic romantic comedies of Norah Ephron. 

“Of course one would enjoy works of Salim-Javed, which were grand, had the angry young man protagonist, even though the women were side kicks. They provided so much entertainment. But it would be Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar’s worlds inspired me, the ones I revisit the most, till date. And of course Satyajit Ray's. Not just their women characters, but all the people in their worlds were fascinating. There was such sensitivity with which they dealt with them. Another filmmaker, whom I absolutely love and would love to have a body of work like, is Nora Ephron. She started as a journalist, graduated to screenwriting, became a director and then producer. She is also one of the finest memoirists I know. Great writers have the ability to make you a part of their world, yet have this detached amusement. That’s the kind of writing I enjoyed,” she beams. 

Her love for these auteurs is palpable in the excitement with which she recollects Mukherjee’s 1980 dramedy Khubsoorat, starring Rekha.

“His films had characters, who were so real, flawed, and yet there was so much warmth. In Khubsoorat. Rekha, wanting to change everything with her rebellion, was flawed. So was Dina Pathak’s character as the matriarch. But they were so endearing that you just couldn’t stop loving them. Being human was so innate to his stories. I am getting goosebumps even while saying this.”

Choudhary’s relationship with cinema, however, remained privately intimate for many years. Belonging to what she describes as an “extremely conventional family” from Bihar, there wasn’t much scope for her to dwell on her cinema pursuits. But her 10-year-old self found another pair of wings to fly, of literature. 

"My association with books happened thanks to my school library, the state library and then the British library. My parents realised I was an avid reader, so they let me be. I grew up in a joint family and nobody around me would get my love for reading. In fact, my parents picked up reading after me."

Inclined more towards Hindi literature, Choudhary found faithful companions in the works writer Ismat Chugtai.

"I say it even today, ‘I want to be become Ismat Chugtai when I grow up.’ She had a huge influence on how I was thinking, how I wanted to write. The humour that she had, the way she imagined women, who are supposedly the oppressed in the society, as an amused audience to what’s going on around them. It would be so ironical, funny and distinct."

It was literature, in fact, that brought her closer to her dream. Even if briefly. By then, Choudhary was seeing journalism as the most accessible means to reach her end, writing. But she was lost. It was author Surender Varma, who showed her the direction.

 "If my professor reads this, they will scold me," she bites her lip nervously and continues, "I was studying journalism at IIMC (Indian Institute of Mass Communication). But I never enjoyed it. It was my media theory class. I would sit at the back and read Surender Varma's Mujhe Chand Chahiye, which was this fascinating novel about a young girl from Shahjahanpur, who comes to Mumbai to follow her acting dreams, and makes it big. I felt, ‘This is it. I want to create characters.’ My entire batch got placed in journalism jobs. I was the only stupid person, who packed her bags and came to Mumbai looking for a job."

Choudhary had always been audacious. And naively so. Even as a child, she was single-minded focused on what she wanted to do.

"I was 10 when one day, I walked into the radio station and asked someone, ‘Where does kids’ show get recorded?’ That person directed me to a lady, whom I told, ‘I write poems and I want to read them on radio.’ She was very kind. She told me, ‘Okay, come on Sunday at 10 am.’ I landed there to read my poetry! And there were six other children. Then I became a regular on Aakashvaani. I used to get Rs 110 per month to read poetry. That was my first salary. My mother had to start a bank account in my name. So, that was the fascination, to be able to communicate."

Mumbai she did come. And the same evening, landed her first gig.

"The morning when I arrived to Mumbai, I happened to read in the papers that Deepak Tijori was going to direct his first feature. I was staying at a relative’s place. I went down to the PCO to make a phone call to my parents back home. And I saw Deepak sir across the road! I hung up, ran to him and said, ‘Sir, I heard about the film you are doing. I want to be a part of it. I want to learn production.’ He looked at me in disbelief and moments later told his guy, ‘Tell this girl where to come from tomorrow.’ And he walked off," she recalls.

Choudhary felt like it was the first day of school all over again. "The film was Oops. I joined as a production assistant and went on to become the associate executive producer at the end of its filming after eight-nine months. Deepak sir gave me so much to learn and I really enjoyed working on the film." It all sounds like a dream.  Coming to Mumbai, bagging first film on the first day of arrival, and a smooth workplace.

But dreams have a shelf life. "Mumbai was a tough city to navigate. Money flow was erratic." Naturally, her family was worried. And that's when Choudhary's brother said something that was to alter her course of life.

"He had visited me, when he said, 'I don’t think this is the right time for you to be in Mumbai. You are too lonely. Go back to Delhi. It’s a safe space. You know people, you have a degree. I promise we will return to Mumbai one day and do something together.'" With a sense of uncertainty continuously staring at her in Mumbai, it felt like the correct thing to do. It wasn't without its emotional bearings, though. 

"I went back. I was depressed for two months. I just didn’t know what to do. My peers were doing so well in their careers." But universe had her back. Choudhary joined a leading television news channel, and thereon her journey as a journalist began. "It was another safe space for me.” the writer immersed herself in the demanding profession, keeping her screen dreams safe and secret in her heart. She had to return to them, but it wasn't the right time.

Choudhary loved every moment of her journalistic career, which offered her a huge canvas to tell stories ranging from political to sports. The profession also gave her a few crucial life lessons too.

"The most important thing that journalism taught me was speed. I was a television journalist. We thrive on breaking news, bulletin to bulletin updates change. The second thing that I learnt was multi-tasking. When you are in the field or editing on desk, you can’t be rigid and say, ‘I will only do this.’ You have to prepared to do many things, like scripting a sports program, working on an entertainment story, to chasing a political story. I worked on all kinds of stories, but they all were at the core human." 

Her journalistic background became one of the reasons why she was hired on Scoop that focused on life of a female news reporter. Her ability to jump beats in journalism prepared her to make smooth transitions between genres, years later, in the film industry. "No experience goes to waste." 

But there was so much more that journalism couldn't help her with. That's where she turned to fiction writing. 

"Sometimes journalism doesn’t allow us to chase, understand our quest for truth. So, how do you that? There could be an emotion, a character, an event or a day in your life that you want to understand, scratch its surface. In order to do that, I would write. That’s how I started writing fiction as well as long form pieces." In 2014, Choudhary made her debut as an author in Hindi literature in with bestseller Neela Scarf, a collection of 12 short stories depicting life across different classes in India. The author's other works include Mamma ki Diary (2015), about a woman trying to make sense of everything that comes along with motherhood, and Bhali Ladkiyan, Buri Ladkiyan (2019), about the adventures of a young girl from Bihar who goes to Delhi for higher studies.

Throughout her published work, Choudhary draws an intimate portrait of the inner worlds of her characters, especially women. What also sticks out is her ability to be relatable and entertaining through the written word. The same qualities Choudhary wanted to exploit in her screenwriting as well. A pursuit, whose time was now. 

She doesn't prefer to dwell on it, but it was a trigger as well as a reminder that she couldn't be away from the movies anymore. Choudhary again packed her suitcase and came to Mumbai, this time forever. "I thought, ‘This is it.’ It was 2018. I stayed with my brother for over two years till pandemic happened. This time, I was more prepared and matured. I was ready to take risks. I didn’t fear anything.  I started reaching out to people, telling them I was now here and looking for work. Many former journalists had already made a transition to the other side. I reached out to them. One of them told me about the Star Writers Program and that’s how my smooth entry into the world of screenwriting happened," she smiles. 

The six-month long program nurtured aspiring writers. Choudhary, of course, was now a well established author. Yet again, literature led her to movies.

"My colleagues at the writers program had seen a lot of my work and they knew I could write. One of them recommended my name to Ram for Aarya." It took Choudhary more than 15 years and less than 15 minutes to land what stands as her biggest project to date. 

"This long journey that I undertook to reach here really helped. When I first met Ram, he presented the Aarya story and how he was seeing its world. I remember I kept talking about being a mother, womanhood, what nobility means, what being noble meant, the privileges of motherhood and yet how those privileges were a vehicle of patriarchy. We wouldn’t have had those conversation if I didn’t have those years behind me. In 15 minutes of our conversation itself, Ram was talking about, ‘How we will do it, how we will write and envisage this.’ So, I said, ‘You haven’t read anything I have written. Should I send you some sample scripts?’ He replied, ‘No. I know this is it.’"

Choudhary wrote the first season of Aarya (2020) with co-writer Sandeep Shrivastava, the next one with Sanyuktha Chawla Shaikh. On the latest season, she collaborated with writers Khushboo Agarwal Raj and Amit Raj.

Her smooth entry in the new stage of her life was preceded by a turbulent exit from Delhi, where Choudhary lived with her husband and two children. "I supposedly had a settled life in Delhi. There was a lot of resistance. People just couldn’t fathom. ‘Who changes cities? What’s the need of doing this at this age?' were the frequently asked questions. A woman moving to a different city for work is not considered normal. Add to it, you are in a profession where you are constantly in the public eye, you are meeting new people. How do you deal with that resistance as a woman? By doing your work. Baatein kam, kaam zyada."

This simple mantra has helped the writer work on as many as seven projects in less than six years of her innings as a screenwriter. Today, she has made a home in Mumbai. And she knows her husband and kids have been her allies like no one else. 

"My kids also had a difficult time. They had to pay, in terms of the friends they lost, a year that they didn’t go to school. But if you ask them, they will tell you that they will not have any other way. They are very happy today." So is Choudhary, who cherishes every moment of creating different worlds with her pen and seeing them transform visually. She now looks forward to the release of Mrs, the Hindi adaptation of the Malayalam feminist drama The Great Indian Kitchen, starring Sanya Malhotra in the lead, and directed by Arati Kadav. 

Having come this far, the writer remembers the words of her first ever director and boss. "It was the screening of Deepak’s second directorial venture at Siri Fort Auditorium back in the day. I had gone there with a colleague, who was an entertainment journalist, to meet Deepak. He kept telling my colleague, ‘Can you not tell your friend she is not meant to be here? Her place is in Mumbai. Tell her to go back." 

After Aarya premiered, Choudhary received a call. It was a familiar voice. "Deepak had seen my name in the credits. I don’t know from where he found my number. ‘I am beaming with pride,’ he said. This was almost 20 years later! That’s the time I took to reach here. But I have no regrets."

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