Dheeraj Sarna had never dreamt of coming to Mumbai or of pursuing a career in films. It was the compulsion of his other actor friends that decided him to give a year of his life to the Film Industry. Already a popular playwright and actor in Jaipur, he landed up in Mumbai not knowing what he was going to do.
After short stints in a couple of TV serials the sturdy young theater actor turned to writing dialogues and realized that he had a way with words.
He auditioned as a writer for Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii and got selected. He went on to write 1500 episodes of the show for the next 7 years. Call it his mantra, craft or the technique; his secret is simple - "I firmly believe that first you as a writer, have to feel it from your heart, then the actor will be able to feel it while delivering the lines and then only it will touch the viewer's heart". Cosnidering his success, the mantra must work, because in a span of 12 years he has penned over a dozen hit shows like Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kutumb, Kkusum, Kahiin Toh Hoga, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi , Kuchh Is Tara, Kaahi Kissii Roz, Tujh Sang Preet Lagayi Sajna, Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki, Parichay (all for Balaji Productions), Saubhagyawati Bhava and Sawaare Sabke Sapne Preeto (both for other production houses). Dheeraj has also written anchor-scripts for non-fiction shows like Rakhi Ka Swayamwar, Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Ratan Ka Rishta and Raaz Pichhle Janam Ka. While Kutumb was a show in which he also acted, his recent show as a dialogue writer is Balaji's, Kya Hua Tera Vaada.
Dheeraj rues the fact that not everything is all right with the working conditions of Daily Soap writers. He laments the absence of an organized system in the TV Industry, especially when it comes to writing. "What is bothersome is that you are made to work for just two hours in a day but you are not told which those two hours would be. You are on standby the whole day. You are called up and asked to write when you are out or when you are asleep or even if you are in a hospital. Then you feel a burnout and need time to relax. Then you wish for a better system", he says.
For Dheeraj, it has taken guts, hard work and sheer commitment towards his work to have been able to withstand all such turbulences and emerge a winner. The small town values can still be seen in him. He even advocates, "Small town youngsters have talent and command over the language. They know their culture which can enrich our serials. They can aim to become writers because we need more of them."
(Excerpts from the interview)
Tell us about your background.
I have been born and brought up in Jaipur and have been living in Mumbai since 16 years. For the past 10-12 years I have been functioning as a writer. I had come here to be an actor and also did a couple of serials. Right now acting has taken a back seat and I have become a full fledged writer.
I studied commerce in Jaipur. I did my B. Com and then finished M. Com. Apart from that, I had been actively doing theater since school. I had that creative streak in me right from the beginning which I nurtured by joining some children theater workshops. I found that I had an inclination towards the medium and the bonding only grew stronger.
I had never thought of coming to Mumbai. I was good with studies and as all parents wish their children to be a doctor or an engineer, I was encouraged to pursue CA. I also had the same intentions but only before I joined theater. After 3- 4 years of doing stage plays came a point when my theater friends were shifting to Mumbai. They encouraged me to join them. I was hesitant but they insisted that I give it a try. I agreed for the sake of friendship. I said to my mother that I would give it a shot for one year and if nothing happens in that period, I would come back to Jaipur. That 1 year has stretched to 16-17 years and I haven't gone back.
I had not come to Mumbai with too many big dreams. I should say that this city has given me much more than what I had expected. It's a city which says ' 'Imagine whatever you can and I will give you more.' It all depends on your talent and luck. The initial 4-5 years were full of struggle. It wasn't easy. I did not have a Godfather, all the people I knew were also struggling. Mumbai taught me a life of independence and managing daily household chores.
I had mostly been an actor but the kind of acting offers I was getting were not sufficient to make ends meet. Some of my friends knew that I also used to write plays in Jaipur. I was asked if I would like to write for Balaji who were about to launch their new show. I did not have the confidence of a professional writer but still gave it a try. I went to Balaji Productions who were making a serial named Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii. I wrote two scenes as an audition which they liked. I got rewarded with work. At that point of time, I didn't take it as an achievement but was just content that it would fetch me some money. So I started writing out of compulsion. That time it was a matter of survival but today I feel I was destined to do it.
I didn't know the technicalities of writing for TV. I would write what I could feel from my heart and got appreciated for the same by Ektaji (Kapoor). Gradually and steadily, things kept happening and then it was just a matter time for me to turn into a professional dialogue writer.
Did you feel the need of any kind of training in writing?
Not exactly. Firstly, writing daily soaps didn't give me spare time. Secondly, I had a firm background in theatre and had even struggled for 4-5 years in Mumbai. So I had had a lot of training on practical grounds. All I now needed to do was to learn from my mistake and go through self-improvement. Then, the biggest schools of learning for me were Balaji Telefilms and Ekta Kapoor. I would learn from her every day and in every meeting. That learning process never ceased. So my training took place on the job.
How do you approach dialogue writing as a craft?
My acting skills helped me as a dialogue writer. I have been an actor for many years. So I also think like an actor while writing dialogues. I ask myself ' Would it be easy enough for an actor to deliver, feel and have a motivation for? Now it's something interesting that when I was an actor, I would enact or 'live' only one character at a time. But while writing I could live the lives of 10-20 characters who populate my show. So while I am Om Agrawal, I am also Parvati and the same time I am Babuji and also Chhaya the sister. That is mentally exhausting but also very gratifying. As I live every character myself all the point of views lie within me. I have to justify and give space to each one of them.
There is another thing which is kind of my motto which I also share with friends. I firmly believe that first you, as a writer, have to feel it from your heart, then the actor will be able to feel it while delivering the lines and then only it will touch the viewer's heart. If you don't feel it from your heart, it won't go beyond. Then it would just be a formality or a scene where information is exchanged. First you have to have the conviction, first it should touch your heart and then it will move the audience. You have to live it.
How do you approach a screenplay before writing dialogues?
In daily soaps, you write episode by episode. We know the broad story, and are aware where we had previously left it. We give attention to the graph of the story and the mental growth of the characters. If a character has wept in the last scene of the previous episode, in the next one he or she will carry that baggage and that will reflect in his or her behavior with other characters. So you go ahead keeping in mind the end notes of the previous episode and you also know where you have to ultimately reach. You follow the characters on their journeys. You take it forward episode by episode and are aware where you have to peak.
How the process is different when you are launching a new show?
It's a bit challenging. In the middle of a show's run you know how your characters look and speak. But initially you start from a blank piece of paper. You first have to conceive them in your mind. You design their language, attitude, body language and give them nuances. After 100 odds episode it's easier to imagine a character but at the start, it's not. You have to really go in depths and ask questions like ' If Mona Singh is doing Kya Hua Tera Vaada, how do we have to portray her? Is she humorous, sensitive and affectionate? What are her equations with her own kids, other kids, mother in-law and other characters? Deciding all that in order to set the character takes time. Only after 25-50 episodes you start to know them properly.
Whom do you interact with more - director or the actors?
We do try to sit with the director and the actors and give them a narration. We make clear what we had thought while writing what we wrote. Whenever we get the opportunity we go to the sets, otherwise we brief them up about certain important scenes over phone.
Has the importance of the director come down in TV?
The involvement of the director has surely come down, but it has not completely vanished. We still have directors who are much respected. What has changed is that today the director doesn't have much time to execute things the way he wants. Since you have to match the deadlines and send the tape for the telecast, you feel very pressurized. Sometimes that does result in the director taking a backseat. But still good directors can make their work speak for itself.
How do you equip yourself to design these characters?
You find things all around in your own life. A good thing for a writer is that he should observe keenly. I had this habit even when I had not started writing. I would take notice of people, their habits, their peculiarities and reactions to things.
I had a Punjabi friend who would exclaim with a 'Hau!' with every sentence. I gave that attribute to Mona Singh in Kya Hua Tera Vada because her character also has Punjabi roots. Likewise, there is another Punjabi word 'Sachhi?' which my mothers and masi use. They reply to every sentence with a 'Sachhi?' and the meaning can't be explained but it rings true with the character. Audience may not notice all this but I pick such nuances from my surroundings and they add a lot to the character.
How do story writer, screenplay writer and the dialogue writer liase between themselves?
Initially we have meetings and story discussions where we all are together. Producers and channel people are also a part of it. We make sure that we all are on the same track and are familiar with the characters and the story progression. Due to deadline and time constraints, we get to meet each other less often once the show starts. But we all know that we are on the same page. We try to meet every two weeks or else, be in touch over the phone and keep confirming that things are going fine. So more or less we are well coordinated.
How creative do you find your work?
It's very creative but since it's for TV, it's also very challenging. You can't go to the hills for a month in order to write. You have to write carrying the whole mountain on your head. There are so many deadlines. The shows run for 5 days a week. Come what may, it won't change. It's a cut-to-cut situation and the competition is severe.
Daily soaps started with Shanti and Swabhimaan. They were story-oriented shows which had a Three Camera Set-up. The story mostly moved from one room to the other. So there was not much of outdoors, blasts, accidents, choreographed sequences etc. Shooting wise, it was easy to churn out five episodes in five days.
But now the scenario has changed. Today you have to shoot a film every day and also match the deadline. You can't complaint and demand more time. You have to give your best within the same timeframe if you have to survive the competition.
Why is there no pre-planning?
We want to. We wish to. But it's five days a week and you hardly get time for any preplanning. Even if you do make an episode-bank, the whole thing is so much dependent on TRPs that a slight fall in the numbers causes huge changes leaving you where you had started.
How do you divide your time?
This is a concern area, I guess for all the writers. You can't decide your own time or working style. TV doesn't give you time or allow you to make plans. I can't plan when I can shop, my work dictates to me when I can. Sometimes you have to write at midnight, sometimes you get up early in the morning to do it. The whole process doesn't let you decide at all. If it could change, it would be a great thing.
Does such indiscipline leave room for creativity?
Honestly speaking, I have now become accustomed to the process. But it's a painful process. I have friends in the TV Industry who say that they have planned to face this torture of working without sleep for 10 years and then would call it a quit.
My question is, why only 10 years? Why can't we continue it like any other job? Why don't I know when I have to work and when do I spend time with my family? Why is everyone trying to run so fast that they know they would not be able to do it forever?
Most of our parents retired after some 40 years of working and they had managed everything else alongside. We have chosen a creative field and we too demand our own time for other things. If we can then all, the writer, the producer, the channel; should chip in to change this scenario. I think it will make life much easier for all of us. Then not only we would give better quality but we would also be able to call it a permanent job. This attitude that ' I will do it just for few years and then I will quit ' should not be there.
What should be done to change this? From top to bottom, everybody will have to make efforts to enforce a systematic process. The moment we plan a show, we should know with how many episodes will go on air and what would be our episode-bank for the future.
We should decide that we would trust our episode-bank, would not panic if TRPs fluctuate a bit and would not make eleventh hour changes. I agree there is competition and that is why change is necessary but there should not be so much panic. We all are together in this. This will benefit everyone and if everyone will get time, overall creativity will improve.
Do you feel a burnout?
Many times, I do. But it's not because I have worked too hard. It's because I am asked to work at all hours of the day. I don't feel exhausted if I have to put my brain for 3 hours in writing a scene. Rather, I feel happy and content. What is bothersome is that you are made to work for just two hours in a day but you are not told which when those two hours will be asked for. You feel troubled the whole day. You are called up and asked to write when you go out or when you are asleep or even if you are in a hospital. Then you feel a burnout and need time to relax. Then you wish for a better system.
If that can change we would be happy to do a 9-5 job just like 60-70 percent of our country's population. We can do that because then we would know we will be getting a day's off every week. Right now, we don't get even a day's holiday. Not a single one.
v What do you do to cope up with that?
Nothing at all, really. We just accept it as something which is common to many of us. As writers we share our grief among ourselves and try to laugh it off. Personally, I like humor and even as a stage-actor I would mostly get comic roles. So I guess humor is the best policy to get over your worries.
Have you also written Screenplay and Story along with Dialogues?
Yes, I started with that. For initial 80 episodes of Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii I wrote the story and screenplay. But at that time I faced a personal problem. I was also active as an actor. It was difficult for me to match the timing of my shooting and the production meetings which are essential for all the story-screenplay writers. So I switched to dialogue writing because it was something I could do from anywhere. I moved to writing dialogues after the 80th episode of Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii and since then it's been 12 years that have been doing the same.
I think Story, Screenplay and Dialogues are equally important in the writing process. Suppose the storywriters think about two characters and what happens between them. Then the screenplay writers take it to another level thinking about their actual backgrounds etc. Dialogue writer comes at the last stage and gives them a language, a thought process and a voice. He sets the dynamics of relationships of those characters with other characters.
Where do you see the Indian TV going?
Television has changed a lot. Some good changes have come about but there is scope for more, more so in the point of view of the audience. The competition is so tough that the result is a common complaint of all the serials looking the same. Everybody starts afresh, but soon every show ends up in the same lane. The basic set-up remains the same. What is happening is that people do try to bring in freshness but they don't get good results from the audience. Therefore, even if you don't want to, you have to come back to the clichs. It makes me feel that whatever is going right now is good enough. TV has gone huge and it's a good sign.
Personally, I miss shows like Buniyaad and Hum log. If we could make such shows twenty years back, when we didn't have much resources and money, then what stops us today? We can make such shows but that would not only require courage from our end but also support of the audience. They should also be ready to welcome changes and appreciate better quality. If that can happen, there can be nothing like it.
Today TV, as a medium, is bigger than films. Not everyone spends 300 bucks on a movie but TV is there for everyone. Therefore we should also aim at delivering some message to the society. We have a very powerful medium at our hands. If we can make a difference to even one life it would be great. I am not saying we should turn preachers but that should happen along with providing entertainment.
Do you still write plays?
I do want to write but honestly speaking I don't get the time. Writing daily soaps have affected me in such a way that I would even run away from writing a simple letter. You wake up in the morning and write episodes till the evening. You can't find time to write anything else.
Within the TV Industry, do you feel you get the respect you deserve?
It is said that TV is the writer's medium. In that light I would say we do not get our complete share of respect. I don't know whom to blame. Moreover, I feel more that more than respect, a writer needs better working conditions where he can channelize his creativity and timely payments. He would be happier with that.
It's not like writers are being insulted. But the issue of writers being neglected in award shows; does crop up from time to time. This should not happen. Behind every popular character or show, it is the writer who toils. If the audience were to see it, they would also appreciate it. So if after giving so much to his work, a writer wants a little recognition, just so his family can speak of him proudly, what is the harm in that?
However, if all of that doesn't happen it's not much of a grave issue. Writer's biggest award is the popularity of his show. On top of that if he gets good remuneration and better working conditions that would be more beneficial in today's scenario.
What is your impression of the newly enforced Copyright Act which promises royalties to the writers?
I have heard about it. When implemented it would be a great thing for all the writers. Writers abroad do enjoy all these rights and get royalties.
And daily soaps already have a problem. In a way they are similar to a newspaper. No matter whatever you write today, tomorrow it's gone in the bin. Films are still remembered for years. So at least if we can get a royalty in return for the daily hard work we put in, it would be welcome.
Alternative writing ' Book, poetry, articles?
I do wish to do that, but as I said, there is no time at all. I don't know when the day turns into night. There is no courage left after that.
Are there enough writers in the TV Industry?
There are so many channels and so many shows. We are obviously short of writers. Even today, the mentality is such that people coming from small towns are all aspiring actors. There are very few people who come here to become writers. I don't think writing is still considered a serious profession. Youngsters from small towns have talent and command over the language. They know their culture which can enrich our serials. So they can aim to become writers because we need more of them.
How can new writers break into TV Industry?
It's good if you can assist a senior writer. I guess that is the best position to be in. Channels and production houses are a bit wary of new writers and that is understandable. So you work with a writer who has been working since a long time and within months or years you start to learn. Then you start making your own contacts as you go for the production meetings. Then you can branch out independently.
Do you also train new writers?
Yes. I have worked with Balaji for 10 years. They had taken an initiative in which they invited young writers from all across the country and made them live here on salary basis. The motive was to educate them so that they can finally handle independent projects.
Among 20-30 such students, all those who were interested in dialogue writing were assigned to me. I trained them. In the process, not only they learnt from me but I also learnt a great deal from them. They were fresh and had their own experience bank. Today, they all are working independently which makes me very happy.
What would you advise such young writers?
It's tough and not at all easy. But if you have the fire, if you can feel things and if you can put all of it down on paper then by all means you should try. To write for TV you need to put in your heart and the technique, both. There are constraints of time while writing scenes and episodes. That can be learnt on the job.
And don't worry if your work doesn't show. For example actors have a benefit that their work, however small or insignificant, comes across visually. It's a plus if you want to be a writer in spite of knowing that you would not be in the lime light. Writer is the base of any show. Actor speaks it out only after the writer has written it.
So go for it if you feel you have the caliber. Also give yourself a bit of time. There are already so many people in the industry. There is an existing set-up. You would require time to get in. But do try because there is so much work that it would ultimately come to you.
What are your future plans?
Like everybody else's dream, I also wish to write for films. I want to write good films and am waiting for the right time and opportunity.
Edited by LoveTVShows - 13 November 2012 at 1:04am