English, August: A Director’s Introduction

English, August: The Shooting Script

A Director’s Introduction

(note for readers of this weblog: This is the introduction to the screenplay of English, August which was published in its entirety in the journal EVAM.)

English, August the script published here is the last printed record of what we have. This was what we left with for our location Vizag district- on the east coast of India. This was the last written document we ever read. After that it was all on celluloid. Looking at it again it was clear that a lot of work had gone into the script while we were on location. This was truly a shooting script; like an explorer’s map with blurred directions, leaving us to find the rest. So here it is- ten years later after the release of the film. Like it’s been pulled out of some time capsule, reading like a document we abandoned in our pursuit to make a movie.

From the time I would leave Modern School in Delhi and hide all afternoon in the American Library (it was air-conditioned and had the largest collection of American Cinematographer magazines) I would always search for final drafts of scripts or shooting scripts in an attempt to try and discover what the director did. What was that final leap of imagination from the written word to the image that was made? Did s/he have a real job other than saying “action” and “cut?” Most often I was disappointed; the scripts were transcripts of the final film and not that critical final draft I was searching for. I was determined that when I did get the chance I would thrust my script- the complete unedited version, warts and all onto the unsuspecting reader. While I was editing the film I would thrust rolls, scenes and clips of film into the hands of Upamanyu and Anuradha- the producer, while I would shuffle, change and re-edit scenes based on the discussion the three of us had just had. It was there that Upamanyu remarked that the film was really being made in the cutting room regardless of what we had written on the page. In many ways it echoed what he had said when we first met. “I have never written a script before. Never mind, you’ll pick it up in four days,” I replied rather cockily. And so began this journey that would take us to this imaginary world of Madna: quintessential small town India and the hallucinatory trip of Agastya Sen.

I tell you, Madna must be one of the unhealthiest places in India. Hot, humid, disease… everything.

For most of the part the opening of the film is quite close to what we had written. Of course in this case the opening got tacked on just a few days before we left for the shoot and quite clearly emerges from the voluminous rejection slips we got from potential producers. The most classic being the NFDC who apart from putting me through a humiliating six months of waiting outside their door finally said, “look we’ve made this film 19 times and there’s nothing new about this.” But I was determined to make this film. At about this point the script won an award from the Swiss Development Cooperation, the French Government stepped in with a grant and co-production deal, an angel from Kodak India gave us the crucial negative (payable when able) to film on and Anuradha convinced the crew to work on a deferred payment plan and was able to put in place the bridge financing.

You’ve gotta have a key British character… or an American, doesn’t matter.

A documentary I had shot in Andhra had me obsessed with the eastern coast. I wanted to make a feature there someday. Upamanyu’s book gives you one critical clue about Madna; it lies somewhere between Andhra and Maharashtra. So Andhra it was and after an extensive search, which lasted months, we found a few towns that would eventually become Madna. Diljeet Arora the chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh was keen that I make not only a film but a TV series as well. “It’s about people who were on the frontiers. You can’t make just one film.” When I told him I had Narsipatnam and the Vizag district in mind he picked up the phone, spoke to the collector there saying, “he’s making a film about us.” That one line opened all doors. Diljeet never got to see the film; a few months before it was completed a truck ran into his car at the Ashram crossing in Delhi.

My writing collaboration with Upamanyu was a strange one. While I was sure I didn’t want anyone else to write this I was also aware of the legendary standoffs between authors and filmmakers. But I plunged into it regardless. We spent about a week discussing the book, the characters and what the story would be. Over those few days the dynamic changed; I was the one reluctant to delete scenes and characters while he was open to change. Mandy an acquaintance from Agastya’s distant past became an amalgam of two characters, we kept the Collector, his wife Malti, Sathe the cartoonist, Shankar the drunken civil servant, Kumar the Police Chief and Multani the freedom fighter. The Englishman John Avery came and went while the surprise of the film was Dadru the frog. Dadru became the corner stone of this story of a man alone in his blue colored room masturbating and listening to his collection of music- his only friend. One of the reviews of the book which Upamanyu often quoted was titled ‘Plotless in Madna,’ I disagreed, the story had a classical narrative and when I read the book it was clear as daylight, a view later confirmed by Amitav Ghosh. The challenge was finding the right cinematic equivalence. What came to mind were the early broadcasts of Doordarshan where every (interesting) program would be interrupted at critical junctures with a title card saying ‘Rukavat ke liye khed,’ (apologies for the interruption). Since for me the narrative was rock solid I thought the aesthetic of interruption seemed to be the right cinematic equivalence to Upamanyu’s writing; a fragmentary, hallucinatory journey in the mind of a young reluctant civil servant. We figured what would work well was an episodic structure revolving around his training as a civil servant. Intersecting this would be the thin through line; his journey to Madna, his coming of age and his return to the city, the narrative so to speak.

Hmm… Interesting… Challenging… Hmm.. But.. I’m afraid ultimately not for us.. You see… we’re looking for a.. a.. Narrative…

No introductions, no information scenes, no explanatory scenes! These were the ground rules I laid out before we set out to write, rules that I try and follow even today. Where was this coming from? A strong reaction to Indian art house cinema of the 70’s which seemed very programmatic and didactic or my natural affinity to the Hollywood cinema, which I had been exposed to during my student days? Perhaps both. We wrote a long passage where Agastya made his journey to Madna followed by his feeling out of place upon his arrival. Arriving and living for a month in coastal Andhra changed the way we looked at the script. When I saw Agastya in his black T-shirt and jeans standing on the platform of the small railway station (Pendurthi) that would be Madna, I knew the image said it all; the wistful look back as the train recedes, the sound of the distant train horn, the buzz of the mosquitoes and of course the blinding sound of the heat; that was Madna. So out went the scenes, which were explanatory and descriptive and in came images, which told his story. The idea of Agastya having to re-visit his home, scenes in Delhi, which echoed the structure of the book just didn’t seem to have a place here. The foreignness and being out of place was clearly evident from the word go. Even the film unit- a smorgasbord of people from Delhi, Bombay, Pune, Andhra, Vishakapatnam, Hyderabad and Madras reflected that.Locations and characters also determined a lot. When we found the Dutch cemetery the character of John Avery suddenly made sense. The Dutch Lighthouse at Bhimlipatnam was stunning and the moment I saw that I knew this was where I’d stage the final scene between Sathe and Agastya. Many years later when some of the unit members and I were driving by we were tempted to stop and revisit the location. We couldn’t spot it. It seemed to have vanished from view. Upon enquiring we were told that a local doctor had it pulled down as it obstructed his view of the sea. We met the doctor who confirmed this quite nonchalantly.

‘This is India, Sen,’ as the Collector would say.

From where we were, the cities of Bombay and Delhi seemed like a distant dream. That’s how I wanted it in the film; the other world of Agastya had to exist in his mind. The film focussed on his stay in Madna and the hallucinatory appearances of his friends and family were our only link to his past and his other world. Some of my favourite scenes which never made it to the final film; Scene 55- Agastya’s ambition to be a stray dog, a moving performance by both the actor and the dog! Sc. 76 where perfect comic timing from Salim Shah as the Collector gave the dialogs an edge.

You see Sen, India has a tradition of bureaucracy, if the country is moving it’s only because of us.

But never keep a scene for a joke and so out they went. (Of course you’ll see them as outtakes on the DVD!) While writing this script we never had an idea of making what was later called “a funny film.” It was just a story about a guy who is “hazaar fucked.” To the extent that after a private screening for the French co-producers and the French Network Upamanyu, Anuradha and I came out in a state of complete depression. “Disastrous, Big Mistake, It’s not even funny, perhaps we should just can this and make another film.” It was only a few weeks later when the film premiered at Toronto that the picture changed. Re-viewing the film as we prepare for a home video release, I wondered if I could cut out some more scenes and get to a shorter director’s version, unlike other directors who like to re-issue their films with extra scenes and in longer “uncut” versions. Would that be, pentimento? Not really, just the familiar film adage, “when in doubt, cut it out!”

In response to questions

In response to all the questions about English, August the never ending saga of the DVD release and future projects I thought I would post an article which I wrote for the journal EVAM. Their inaugural issue had published the entire screenplay of English, August (the shooting script) and an introductory article about the movie.

Read the next post for more.