Whoever has not heard of Tanuja Chandra? She was the screenwriter of Dil To Pagal Hai (1997) and directed Dushman (1998) and Sangharsh (1999), all of which I happen to adore and some I have watched more than once. So when I got to know that she has penned down a book, I was all ears. I was also curious to know about her journey from a screenwriter to a director to an author and wanted to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. So here it is.
Me: How did this transition from a film maker to writer come about?
Tanuja Chandra (TC): I was a writer first. In school and college, I wrote poetry as well as small pieces for newspapers and magazines. Even after joining films, I first wrote
screenplays before starting direction. For me it was simple – as a director, I had to be a writer as well. But yes, writing a book took a long time even though I had wanted to write one many, many years ago. I guess it was just too scary! When the opportunity to do it came by, this idea of short stories of Uttar Pradesh which I had nursed for a while, seemed just the most natural thing to do.
Me: Haha, you are right, the idea to pen down a book is downright scary! Where did the idea for Bijnis woman come from?
TC: The stories I had heard from my parents as well as several members of my extended family from Uttar Pradesh, always stayed with me. They were funny, strange, bizarre, touching, but always memorable. Unique tales of ordinary people in specific situations, when life sort of took over. So appealing to me, so interesting, and most importantly, stories that would be lost in the haze of time if they weren’t recorded. Who cares for ordinary people, right? The fact that I was able to do this is wonderful and I feel lucky.
Me: I am glad you could do this because it would give us readers an opportunity to know those stories. Bijnis woman will appeal to which readers?
TC: I would like to think – all kinds! The stories are dramatic and entertaining and very unusual, they’re all about a time gone by – so I would think they would appeal to younger readers who would never be able to experience that kind of life, while for older readers, I imagine the book would be a nostalgic trip. There are several stories about women so I would hope female readers would enjoy and relate to them, but at the same time, there are some really unique male protagonists which I hope would appeal to all kinds of readers.
Me: Wow, that does take into consideration all readers. Does Bijnis woman give a message to the society? What is it?
TC: I didn’t start out writing this with the intention of putting a message out there. However, what is important to me as a writer is to look at the characters in these stories with affection. Even the most annoying, small-hearted, sad sort among us need to be looked upon as human beings, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I suppose this also came from the narrators telling me these stories – they had a tone of affection and that is probably what percolated down to my writing. If I’ve successfully been able to do that, it would be very fulfilling to me personally.
Me: That indeed is a message worth remembering. No matter who we are, we need to be treated as humans. What is your favorite book and why?
TC: IMPOSSIBLE to put down one favourite. But if you were to ask me for three, they would be To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and My Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Interestingly, all three female authors! It’s difficult to say why I love these books – I guess the fact that I can go back to them anytime and come away enriched is the most telling. There are plenty other books I love as well, but there’s something special about these three.
Me: Haha. I know. When I was penning down this question, I was like, Tanuja will kill me! But glad I took that chance. I still have two of them to read. *adds to TBR* What do you think are the prerequisites for becoming a writer?
TC: To live. To feel. And then, to be resilient and hard-working, because the craft of writing is a skill that you can spend a lifetime trying to master, and never be able to master. Thinking about writing is useless, one just has to get down to it.
Me: That is some really good advice right there. It is indeed a skill you can keep improving upon but one must start. Are there any other books in the pipeline?
TC: Yes, a novel which I actually began work on before Bijnis Woman. For me, that one is a bigger struggle because it’s a story that was born inside my own heart, not something I had heard from family. But hopefully, I should be able to finish it soon. (Best laid plans of mice and men!)
Me: Well, I do hope you finish it soon so that I can read it! I have loved your movies so I am sure a story born inside your heart is something I am all ears for. Thank you for being at Reviewing Shelf, Tanuja. I hope to see more of your writing out there.
Here’s an excerpt for you to get a flavour of the book before you dig in.
“They never discovered where Ranvir was through the night; he would step to the front door the next morning, hardly aware where he had been. He slept right through the desperate screams which went on for an hour as his family watched, shamefaced. Thakur Rajpal couldn’t help but feel pity for this girl in her crazed, unhinged state, shouting so
Thakur Rajpal couldn’t help but feel pity for this girl in her crazed, unhinged state, shouting so violently he thought she would faint. The blame would be his to shoulder if something were to happen to her; would she be at his gates still when the sun was up, wasn’t it wrong, shutting his door on a helpless girl, alone in the night? He had never faced such embarrassment. Her inconsolable, unstoppable screams unnerved him, and his own son’s doltish, stupor-filled, insensible state angered him. The family was now gathered inside the second-floor library, watching the scene at the gates below, exchanging troubled looks with pursed lips as a cluster of villagers gathered around Amrita.
All of a sudden, from behind him, Thakur Rajpal heard another loud voice. It was Jwala. ‘If anyone opens the gate for this girl, I will kill myself,’ she yelled. ‘I will kill my children and then I will kill myself. Everything will be ruined. Everything.’
Now, with their backs to the gates, they gawked at Jwala, open-mouthed. This small, frail, nervous girl, to hear whom one had to strain one’s ears even in an intimate conversation, stood there bellowing ultimatums, her body shaking with white-hot anger. ‘Don’t you dare move, any of you! Let her shout till she drops dead,’ she growled. ‘He will never hear her, never!’ And then, they heard the commotion at the gate. Everyone turned back towards it. What they saw made their blood go cold. Amrita had broken through and would soon be riding towards the front door.”