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December 1, 2001
'I borrowed big-time from life'
Arthur J Pais and Vivek Fernandes
"I despise science!"
Sabrina Dhawan, hotshot scriptwriter of Monsoon Wedding, hated every minute of medical college. "I couldnít bear to stay or study there any more, so I quit after a month. At that point in my life, I didnít know what I wanted to do -- I only knew what I didnít want to do.
"Somehow, my mother heard my attendance in college was low," Dhawan recalls. "How could it be so, she wondered since I was going to college every day."
Her mother had, of course, not known that Dhawan was chasing movies, old and new at New Delhi's best movie houses, particularly at Chanakya. "I was watching the revival of some of the best films by Hitchcock and other directors," she says.
But it seems like everything turned out just fine. For today, this 32-year-old is the toast of cinematic circles the world over for her script. Monsoon Wedding went on to win top honours at the Venice Film Festival. Not bad for a first timer, eh!
She completed her college education with high grades in literature, earned her master's degree in mass communications from Leicester University, England, and then returned to India to work as a correspondent for Newstrack, besides working for an ad agency, Lintas, in Bombay.
"Then I realised that if I wanted to do films that I would require a degree from a film school. So I applied to Columbia University," Dhawan says.
Daughter of a Punjabi father and UP-ite mother, Dhawan says that she used a lot of real life experiences as references for her first feature script. "I fell back on my experiences of growing up in Delhi when I was writing. I even modelled a few characters with certain family members in mind. In my original draft, I didnít change their names," she says.
"The tent contractor PK Dubey (Vijay Raaz) has traits of an uncle who is known for his shrewdness. But his accent and language is very babuish, which is peculiar to my mumís community," she continues. "The film has its characters flitting from English to Hindi with doses of Punjabi thrown in... thatís the way we speak at home in Delhi, I wanted to stay very true to that. I borrowed big-time from life.
The family secret in the film isn't one that you can joke about. "I had long thought about writing about the abuse of young girls in India by their relatives," she says.
"For many years, I did not have the inclination to do it. Besides, I may not have had the courage to do it earlier. I would have thought, what would my parents think of me writing about a would-be bride having an affair with a married man... Or what would my parents' friends or relatives say about the theme of sexual abuse, especially since it takes place among the rich.
"I deliberately set that issue (of sexual abuse) in a upper middle class family," she continues. "Writing it was very important to me. I have known many instances of sexual abuse involving the relatives. But parents try to suppress the scandals. They were worried about family tradition. The young victims suffered in silence. There was also the denial factor. Many Indians would like to think such things happen in the families of servants or so called lower class people."
But despite the delicate and troubling sexual situations in the movie, Monsoon Wedding is a thoroughly enjoyable film. "I don't believe in downbeat stories," she confesses. "There is a sort of redemption in my story and a happy ending. The climax of the film is very moving and touching.
"We know life isn't always like that. But both Mira and I wanted a happy ending. I would not have wanted the movie to be a downbeat, fatalistic story."
Dhawan was a teaching assistant to Mira Nair when the latter taught a directing course at Columbia University.
"One day I told her that I was very keen on doing a film. I gave her a copy of my thesis, Saanjh - As Night Falls. She called me up the next day and said she loved my work and was keen that I script her next film."
Technically, Monsoon Wedding is not her first film. Saanjh - As Night Falls was filmed starring Nandita Das and Arjun Raina. It was shot on a train in Delhi. The film was nominated for the Studentís Academy Awards and received wide acclaim at The Palm Springs Festival.
Saanjh... also went on to bag the award for 'Audience Impact' at the Los Angeles film fest and walked away with the New Line Cine trophy for the most original film.
But it was Monsoon Wedding that put Sabrina on the map. "I only had a month to work on the script. Thatís a very short time frame to work out an entire script, especially one with so many characters," she says.
"When I started working on the script, it was basically about sexual abuse," she recalls. "Mira, on the other hand, was thinking about a film with the wedding background. The two themes came together in the script."
"Monsoon Wedding was a very hands-on kind of project... it gave me the experience I was looking for. I was present when casting was in progress. I read the parts of the other characters when auditions were in progress.
Three months before the filming began, I came down with Mira to help with the pre-production. I was present during the entire thirty-day shoot. I wanted to polish some scenes, rework character traits."
She admits an entire subplot (the relationship between the groom's parents played by Soni Razdan and Roshan Seth) had to be dropped in order to fit the shooting into the thirty-day schedule.
Mira Nair says she was amazed at Dhawan's ability to fuse several stories into one coherent narrative -- and make the theme of sexual abuse a key element of the film.
Reviewers agree with Nair.
The Indiewire review says: "As clean and intuitive as Nair's direction of her mammoth cast is, the true star of the film is Sabrina Dhawan's shrewd, multileveled script."
Her own choice of Indian movies is quite catholic. She adores Guru Dutt's Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, a tragedy, and she simply loves Gulzar's Angoor, a comedy starring Sanjeev Kumar.
Monsoon Wedding has been Sabrinaís stepping stone. Her next project is a film for PBS studios. Sheís busy scripting a Nisha Gunatra (Cutney Popcorn) film. Besides, Hollywoodís biggest studios are wooing her already.
At present, she has been selected to adapt Manil Suriís Death Of Vishnu for the silver screen. "Itís a challenge because itís such a complex book. I have scarcely begun, so I have a long way to go. But I will take one day at a time," she smiles.
She has no immediate plans to return to India. Will she choose to work with a Bollywood director?
"I will have to choose my projects in America too," she says. "Similarly, I am sure there are indeed directors in Bombay who share my sensibilities.
How about her own wedding?
"Some people in India -- and even here -- would think I am past the age (of marriage). But I don't feel the urgency."
Would she ever go for an arranged marriage?
She pauses. "In Monsoon Wedding, I have written about a NRI character who goes through arranged marriage. But personally speaking, probably not. I can't give a rational explanation. The idea just makes me emotionally uncomfortable. I like to know the person I am going to marry for about two years -- or more. And that is not possible in an arranged marriage, isn't it? "
Sabrina graduates in December and hopes to direct someday. "Directing a script that Iíve written is my ideal project. But that will happen only if someone decides to give pots of money," she laughs.
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