Personal preference

On the conceit of making films drawn from incidents in one’s own life

My heart sank a little when I read in an interview that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is based on the life of its director — Karan Johar. I’ve always found this conceit — drawing from one’s own life to write a story — a tad… unexciting. It’s almost as though the possibilities suddenly get vitiated. There’s no denying that for each of us, the events of our life seem downright sensational. Considering that we are, after all, the protagonists of the film that is our life, it’s only natural. And yet, they’re a bit like dreams, are they not? Remember when you wake up after an enchanting dream, and you’re bursting with the desire to share it with somebody… anybody? And yet, the magic never really gets through to the other person, does it? Even as you talk about it, you realise that somehow, your words don’t brim with the same magic that encapsulated your dream. Surely, you’ve failed with the words, you think. But wait, what if the magic were perhaps just your perception; what if it were just an outcome of your attribution of exaggerated importance?

This isn’t to suggest that good films cannot be made out of personal moments. But surely, when the subject material is as fiercely personal, the artiste is drawn to instinctively resist changes, let alone be able to accept criticism. Years ago, I was invited to a story discussion session by a producer’s son, who wanted to make a film based on incidents in his life. Over one of the longest hours I’ve spent in my life, he narrated in painstaking detail a dull, dull story about three college friends, who separate, and then become friends again towards the end of the academic year. One of the characters was the son of a producer. Soon, I realised it wasn’t so much discussion he wanted, as it was validation. Any suggestions to his story were quickly refuted by numerous variations of “But that’s not what happened in my life.” Let’s just say it’s good for public health that the script continues not to be made into a film.

From a writer’s perspective, surely there’s a lot of joy in discovering new facets of life, of people? I’m looking specifically in the direction of one or two Tamil filmmakers who’ve made a career out of making variations of the same film. Such repetitions, I’d even venture to say, are imaginatively lazy. This is why I have deep admiration for versatile filmmakers who move between genres like restless travellers between destinations. A Fincher who makes The Social Network after The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. A Mani Ratnam who makes Thalapathi after Anjali. A Spielberg who makes The BFG after Bridge of Spies. It’s an incredible feeling to be surprised, to be taken along on their next journey to a place that even they likely don’t know about yet.

Truth, it is said, is stranger than fiction, but someone forgot to add the disclaimer, ‘not usually’. Many lives are exercises in banality, and hardly compare to the limitless possibilities of fiction. A common advice to writers goes, ‘Write what you know’. This has unfortunately come to imply that their lives are deeply fascinating. What it means is, yes, write about what you know, but in case you don’t know enough, could you please work on that first? Ae Dil Hai Mushkil could well turn out to be a great film, but I hope this doesn’t tell another generation of filmmakers that good love stories can be written onlyby drawing from your own.

A version of this column was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.

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