The role of restraint in a good screenplay

Originally published here in Passion for cinema.com.

Consider this situation in a movie. Two commandos are escorting terrorists in a bus to a point of transfer. Terrorists realise that one of the commandos is a Muslim after seeing a thaveez or something in his neck. Consider that you are writing this script. How will you write this scene? Are you sure an argument and a rhetoric about Indian Muslim didn’t come into your mind? Are you sure that your commando didn’t raise his voice about terrorists misinterpreting religion? Are you sure your scene didn’t end with the terrorist and commando clutching at each other’s throats?
Ok lets see how Neeraj Pandey does the scene in ‘A Wednesday.’ (I am writing this down after watching the movie. I have not seen the script)

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Terrorist stares at the thaveez in his neck. Commando is looking out at a distant point. Their eyes meet in between and commando realise that terrorist is staring at his thaveez. He tucks it inside. Terrrorist smiles.
Terrorist : Kya naam hai aapka?
Commando: Zaroori naheen hai.
Terrorist: (smiling) Waqi.

That’s all. Discussion flits on to other issues. That’s what I call subtlety. To write that you need to realize that if you are not careful you would end up writing the mirror copy of hundreds of other similar scenes. Except for the end where Nasirudheen Shah goes into the status epileticus of a speech I think ‘A Wednesday’ is a movie in recent times in which writer has been able to hold on to the reigns.
What is the real temptation behind adding that something extra? I think its because of underestimating the sensibilities of the audience. You feel that if you don’t spell everything out, the audience will not get one particular nuance of the situation currently existing only in your mind.

Now lets take another example. Raaj is proposing to Gaayathri in ‘Bachna Ae Haseeno’. Gaayathri is saying no because she wants to remain independent. How will you write it? This is how its in the movie.

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Gaayathri: I am sorry. Shaayad meine thumhe wrong impression diya.
Raaj: I don’t understand. Gaayatri mein tumse shaadi ki baare mein baat kar raha houn aur tum…
Gaayathri: Mein tumse pehle hi keh chuka hoom. Mein shaadi mein believe hi naheen karti.
Raaj: Par…
Gaayathri: Par thumne socha voh sabh baatein thi. Mein seedhi baat karti hoon raaj. Maine kabhi thumse jhoot naheen bhola. Yeh meri zindagi ka savaal hai or voh mein apni dhang se jeena chaahti houn. Tum mujhe bataao tum meri MBA keliye taxi chalaane dhoge? Naheen na. Roz restaurant mein kaam karne dhoge? Naheen na. Shaayad aaj thum kah behi dhoge ki haan gaayatri mann mein tumko jobi aayegi kiya karo. Mein naheen rokoonga. But lets get real. Par kabhi na kabhi tum zaroor kahoge ki mein itna kamata hoon. Mein tumaari fees pay kar deta hoon. Yeh sab karne ki kya zaroorat hai. Roz late aane ki kya zaroorat hai. Zaroorat hai raj. Mujhe vaise jeena hai jaise mein jeena chahti houn. Mujhe joh karne hai khud karna hai. Apne dham pe karne hai. Kisi aur ki soch mein apne aap ko naheen khona chaahti houn.

Believe me. I don’t have any problem with the volume of dialogue. But I feel that its just ordinary. I have seen those lines before and am going to see it again. Dialogue is exposition of character. And one is not intrigued by the character of Gaayathri coming across with these lines. She may be bold but gives the impression of who is getting carried away by one’s own talk. Consider especially the last 5-6 lines of dialogue. It’s poor repetitive lines. By that place the horses of ideas has toppled the writer from his chariot and he is hanging on for real life.

Now when we talk about restraint its not limited to the dialogue. Consider this situation.
It’s the climax. Protagonist is avenging the murder his wife and child. For that he had to suffer many hardships. Mainly because his target is the son of his godfather who is the most influential criminal lord in the whole city. Protagonist has killed off the godfather realising that as long as he is alive he wont get to kill the son. With that act the focus of power shifts. All the criminal associates now want to get rid of the arrogant son. They negotiate with the protagonist. And he gets the nod to go ahead. Bump him off.
Now how will you write on? Saving the finer details we have seen this situation in lots of our movies. 2 hours culminating in execution of a revenge.

If a writer reaches up to this point he will lick his lips in anticipation. Lot of hard work has been done. Now comes the juicy part. Lot of options. An half hour ballet of action while the villain waits on the balcony.(Remember Lucy Liu in Kill Bill 1?) and after 1/2 an hour he will tell the blood drenched hero, ”Now comes the real fight.”(And slowly removes the coat). If you are more intellectually oriented towards convincing rationalisations, villain can give a lecture on why he had to do what he had done and why everything is linked to karma. He would also point out that he knew from the beginning that his end is going to be this way. Another option (one favorite for our writers) is the villain giving a clap and the side kick emerge with the protagonist’s dear one who is kicking and streaming. Then villain gives an all knowing smile. Or you can add a twist here. A gun appears behind the protagonist while he is about to kill the villain. Oh Ho. Isn’t it the protagonist’s buddy with a malicious grin? Now both villain and buddy(villain) is laughing. Suddenly you have another flashback. It appears that things are not how they appear to be. Buddy has been a real son of a bitch.

Now see how it happens in ‘Road to perdition’. Again I am writing from recollection.

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After the scene where godfather is killed we see the associate who is protecting the son talking on phone.
Associate: All I want is a guarantee that all this will end after that.
Cut to next scene: protagonist walks into the lift where associate’s goons are waiting. No one says a word. Protagonist gets out in to a corridor of hotel rooms. He walks through the corridor taking out his gun slowly (beautiful image!). He opens the door of a suite without making noise, walks to the bathroom, opens it. And through the partially opened door we see him emptying the gun towards ground level. He walks out. The glass door of the bathroom swings giving a reflection of the son lying in his own blood in the bathtub. And that’s it.

I am not saying that we should be after such kind of brevity every time. Length works well for Tarantino. Its because he is able to write good, witty, quirky, eccentric dialogue. But if your characters are just exchanging obscenities without any point, I don’t see the point either.

Its not about the number of pages or the screen time. Its about simplicity of your expression. You use 10 pages to explain the motivations of the hero. You explain why he becomes a criminal. You make it a point to establish that he started stealing because of bad life experiences.(more simplistically stated- because of a villain). He resorts to a speech to show his girl that his heart is made of gold. But are those things really needed?

See the deceivingly simple scenes from Oye lucky, lucky oye.

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Lucky never talks about why he steals. He has no philosophical/sociological/personal explanations for that. His girlfriend specifically states that she never takes stolen money from him. But asks him to put it on top of the fridge. She isn’t either surprised or overtly concerned about his stealing at any point. Lucky doesn’t steal diamonds from laser beam protected vaults. He is happy with TVs and cars. He never jumps from helicopters or get into car chases. He doesn’t get into personal vendettas with old godfathers. He doesn’t challenge the police by informing about the robbery before hand. He doesn’t use sci-fi technology or elaborate plans to rob. Sneaking up the fire exit is good enough for him.

The writer should be writing like a liquor bottle with a tight cork. The trickle, however small it is, is crude and intoxicating. The trick is in the self awareness regarding being in autopilot while writing a script. According to Aristotle there are only 36 dramatic situations. Naturally when you sit to write a situation there are hundreds of movies with similar situations revolving in our head. When we unknowingly copy one of those, the fat and the mud also get inside your script.

The usual dictum regarding writing is that when in doubt, write. If you doubt whether a particular scene or dialogue is required or not, write it down. Its easier deleting a scene than writing it. But no one can help you if never had that doubt.

Good writing is not only about what to write. Its also about what not to write. Yeah, if our film makers were aware of that we would have been saved from lots of melodramatic chunks of dialogue and scenes. And at times even from whole movies.

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2 thoughts on “The role of restraint in a good screenplay

  1. ‘Good writing is not only about what to write. Its also about what not to write.’ My dad used to say too, when I was younger and in the mode for taking advices. 🙂

    The dialogue in bachna.. happened maybe because women tend to talk that way. they forget the content and keep going on and on. 😀 but the scriptwriter forgot we don’t want what we have in real life too!
    Also, I feel they need to remember that a picture is worth a thousand words. so, less is more. 🙂

  2. Nimisha,
    The disadvantage of writer is that fiction has to make sense unlike life.(quote by Tom Clancy). That is if you want to be a marketable writer.

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