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Behind the scenes with a Bollywood screenwriter

I GREW UP IN A BOMBAY before television, and my dreams were bigger than the dreams of children growing up in the city today because they all played out on a vast screen, hundreds of times bigger. When I moved to America at age 14 I would watch Hindi movies for nostalgia's sake; it was the cheapest round-trip ticket home, four bucks at the Eagle Cinema in Jackson Heights, Queens. In college and beyond I stopped, finding them increasingly absurd and pointless. Before returning to Bombay in 1998, to write a book about the city that had grown up in my absence I realized I would have to undergo a crash course in Hindi film if I wanted to talk intelligently to the people who make them. In the process, I accidentally became what millions of Indians dream of becoming: a Bollywood scriptwriter.

. . .

One afternoon soon after I arrive in Bombay, I call the writer Vikram Chandra to set a meeting for tea. Instead, he asks if I would like to come along to a story session in Bandra -- the seaside neighborhood where the movie stars live -- with his brother-in-law, a successful director named Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

In collaboration with Vikram and a young Gujarati playwright named Abhijat Joshi, Vinod is writing a film about the conflict in the contested state of Kashmir, where the Indian military and Pakistani-backed separatist militants have been engaged in a 15-year war that has claimed up to 60,000 lives. Sanjay Dutt, a brawny actor who has been jailed for his role in the 1993 bombings in Bombay that killed 257 innocent people, is to play Khan, a Muslim police officer, and the superstar Shahrukh Khan will play Altaaf, a young Muslim militant who wants to avenge the murder of his parents by the Indian army. By the end, the militant will have seen the error of his ways and had a patriotic conversion. Vinod himself is a Punjabi Hindu who grew up in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital; his ancestral house was burned down by militants in the 1990s.

Vinod invites me back the next day, so again I find myself in Bandra discussing plot, character, motivation. Over the next two years, without ever formally signing anything or even making a verbal commitment, I find myself becoming part of the scriptwriting team on "Mission Kashmir."

There are some basic rules to Hindi cinema. The films are, in the best sense, escapist entertainment for an audience that needs escape from ceaseless toil in fields and factories. Most commercial films are musicals, with anywhere from five to 15 songs. Complex dialogue doesn't work, because most of the time the audience doesn't hear it. In an Indian theater, everyone talks at will, often keeping up a running dialogue with the characters. The sound is usually so bad that there can be no whispering in the film, and the score always has to be played at top volume.

The narrative principles that propel the plot are alien to those of, say, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where I spent two years studying fiction writing. When I propose an idea that departs from the standard Hindi film formula, Vinod thinks about it. "We can't do it because if we put it in the film the audience will burn down the theater," he replies. "They will rip out the seats and burn down the theater."

I withdraw the suggestion.

Most Bollywood movies are maudlin sagas that deal with true love in the face of parental opposition. But the number of popular movies that deal with political issues, such as terrorism, has been steadily growing. Many films of recent years are about a vast international conspiracy against the country, headed by a villain whose ethnicity and religion is purposely left vague. There are scenes of bombings, and bearded terrorists, usually in league with politicians in Gandhi caps. It is a simple explanation for the "million mutinies" V.S. Naipaul famously used to characterize modern India: Our problems are all come from outside, from what governments since independence have called the Foreign Hand. If we could only get to the one man who wants to destroy our country, everything would be all right. Somewhere in Pakistan, or Switzerland, sits Mogambo in his fabulous mansion, plotting with his minions to break up Hindustan.

Politically, I am at left angles to "Mission Kashmir." I argue that we need to insert something about the social and economic conditions that go into the making of a terrorist, especially in Kashmir. I talk about visiting the region in 1987 and seeing perhaps the most corrupt state government in India; about the wishes of most of the locals I had spoken to not to be part of the Indian Union; and so on. But I don't push the point.

Vinod wants the film to reinforce in the popular imagination the syncretic idea of Kashmiryat, the age-old ideology that came out of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim roots of the Kashmiri state and allows followers of all religions to pray to whatever god they wish. But he is not blind to the recent history of his troubled homeland. The script carefully presents a full panoply of the political views of the country's Muslims, from Khan, the policeman who favors a secular Indian state; to Altaaf, the militant duped by his jihadist handlers; to Hilal, the troublemaking fanatic from Afghanistan. At one point, a Hindu bureaucrat questions Khan's loyalty. Khan responds angrily: "Mr. Deshpande, it is not the misfortune only of the Muslims but that of the entire country that a soldier who has braved bullets for 21 years must prove his loyalty repeatedly because his name is not Deshpande but Inayat Khan. . .. My love for this country needs no certificates from a bureaucrat."

All along, drafts of the script are shown to police officers and army officers, to check the fictional world against the real one. In Kashmir, Vinod shows the script to a top Intelligence Bureau officer. The officer wonders about the scene where Khan shoots two militants right away, during an interrogation. "You've just blown them away!" he says. "With me, I won't cut a finger off, because it's that much less of the body for me to work with. If I cut an arm off, that's even more lost; if I kill the person, I can't work with anything." To the IB officer, the body is a precious resource, to be conserved for its value as a source of pain.

. . .

About a year after I first join the team, "Mission Kashmir" finally starts shooting. Vinod is fond of quoting Fellini: "The only place where you can be a dictator and still be loved is on the movie set."

The vast set for "Mission Kashmir" in Film City, a 500-acre studio in Bombay, booms with Vinod's amplified voice. "Silence!" The indoor set is fiercely air-conditioned; everyone is wearing a sweater and people are catching colds. Dignitaries visit the set every day. The education secretary's family comes one day, and the admission of Vinod's child to a good school is assured.

Part of the shoot is in Kashmir, in Srinagar, where Vinod moves around in bulletproof cars under armed protection. In the middle of shooting a scene, the crew hears a series of loud pops. "They're fireworks, they're celebrating Dussehra [a Hindu religious festival]," Vinod explains, and asks the cameraman to hurry up. After the shot is finished, he shouts out to his unit to pack up fast and clear the area. The crew now realizes there is no Dussehra in Muslim Kashmir; that was real shooting going on around them. Rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the Government Secretariat, 200 yards away from the set, and four people died. But the shot was completed.

In the end, Vinod decides to eliminate any mention of Pakistan as the villain. In the final version of the film, the conspirators announce, to the camera and to any interested terrorists, gang lords, governments, or academics, "We owe no allegiance to any government. We're an independent group." (Vinod's movies have a large following in Pakistan.) There is, however, a shadowy figure in the foreground, seen only in silhouette, whom everyone answers to. Vinod directs the dialogue writer, Atul Tiwari, to put on a beard. "Osama," he anoints him.

Two-thirds of the way into the shooting, we have to rewrite the ending of the movie. Hrithik Roshan, a formerly unknown actor chosen to play the Kashmiri insurgent Altaaf when Shahrukh Khan backed out of the film, has suddenly become the biggest star in the country thanks to his first movie, "Kaho Na Pyaar Hai" (Say It's Love), which experiences the fastest climb to the top in the history of Hindi cinema. Young women in theaters all over India faint when he comes into the frame. There is even a report of a mass fainting occasioned by his image in a theater in Mauritius.

"There's no way we can let Hilal [the Afghan mercenary who sends Hrithik's character Altaaf on his deadly mission] be killed by the ISI [the Pakistani secret service]," says Vinod. Instead, Hrithik's character must take center stage. The hero of the box office has to be the hero of the movie. He asks me to write a truly heroic climax for Altaaf. I come up with the idea of having Hrithik's character kill Hilal in a climactic confrontation, thus killing what is worst within himself. "He becomes a hero," says Vinod, nodding.

By the time we're ready to film the climax, however, it has become too dangerous in Srinagar. Instead, Vinod constructs a series of burnt-out houses around a man-made lake in Film City. Vast amounts of water are trucked to the set and dumped in a hole in the ground. Fog machines wreath the set in a Kashmiri mist. The brochure for the film tells what happened next: "In the intense heat of the Bombay summer, the organic matter in the water rotted and liquefied and sent up a fierce stink. The director and crew and actors worked for more than a month in this miasma, struggling to control water and fog and wind, until they themselves absorbed a reeking odor that no amount of showering could fully banish."

I take my 5-year-old son to Film City to see the finale: two hundred gallons of petrol and a mighty blast. It is a tradition in Vinod's action films to demolish his work at the end. The houses erected for "Mission Kashmir" go up in a 10-story-high column of fire. Vinod is knocked backward by the force of the explosion. The loudspeakers on the set ring out, demanding, "Ice for Vinod Sahib's backside!" I grab my son and run up the hill next to the lake. We keep hearing explosions as the gas pipes inside the set burst and jets of multicolored flame shoot up. Burning pieces of the set fall from the sky, igniting small fires on the ground. A group of sightseeing bureaucrats and their wives pause in their flight up the hill, turn around, and come back to watch, responding to the inner pyromaniac in all of us.

. . .

Well before "Mission Kashmir" is completed Vinod recovers his costs through sales of the music (a crucial component of any Bollywood deal) and some of the distribution rights. But Hrithik's sudden phenomenal stardom raises hopes that the movie will become a major hit.

The newspapers run dozens of articles about him each day, but Hrithik is modest as always. One day, when he shakes my hand, I notice he has two thumbs on his right hand, a regular one and a smaller vestigial thumb growing out of it. It was not removed at birth because it is reputed to bring luck -- and in this case it certainly has, on a Cinemascope scale.

But the balance of good and bad fortune in the universe is dangerously tilted toward this young man; it has to right itself. And so it is that four days after the release of his first movie makes him the biggest star in India, two young men walk up to Hrithik's father (himself a minor 1970s movie star) and fire six bullets at him with a .32 pistol. One of the bullets lodges in his breastbone, saving his heart and his life. The whole movie industry congregates around his hospital bedside, sympathizing, fearing, and asking, "Why?"

Vinod tells me why. Hrithik is so popular that the gang lord Abu Salem wants him to act in his new film. (Avoided by banks as too risky, Bollywood movies are often funded by organized crime, which is only too happy to see its black money turn into Technicolor dreams.) But the Roshans are not cooperating with the police; they are considering settling with the gangs. It would be quite a twist on the Hindi film formula: A father gets shot, and the son, instead of taking revenge, becomes the star of the killers' film.

Hrithik's fame continues to grow, approaching maniacal proportions. When Pepsi makes a commercial poking gentle fun at a Hrithik look-alike, many of the country's youth boycott Pepsi. After Hrithik posters and souvenirs swamp the classroom, some authorities propose using the star for educational purposes. "For instance, students could be told that the capital of Maharashtra was Bombay, from where Hrithik hails, or the longest bone in Hrithik Roshan's body was the femur," explains one principal.

A month after "Mission Kashmir" is released, a rumor that Hrithik told a television interviewer that he hated Nepal and its people sweeps Kathmandu. The leftist student unions send their followers into the streets. They ransack the theater where "Mission Kashmir" is playing, burn posters and cutouts of Hrithik, and are about to do the same to the Indian embassy when the police intercept the march. They shoot two teenagers dead. Three more people die that night; 150 are injured. The government bans Hrithik's films.

Hrithik goes on the radio, denies making the alleged remarks, and says he loves Nepal and its people. As evidence, he cites the fact that his family has had a faithful Nepalese cook for decades. This fails to mollify the students. Mobs target Indian-owned businesses, setting them on fire. The incident almost brings down the government of Nepal. Sixty of the ruling party's 113 members of Parliament ask the prime minister to resign over the episode, despite Hrithik's denial.

Although the film tapers off at the box office after the first week, Vinod makes a lot of money. He has meetings with Hollywood studios about the possibility of making an English-language film for an international audience. It's a way of hedging his bets, getting out of the country. "In 10 years I don't know if the politicians we are electing will make life worth living," Vinod says. He wants me to work with him on more scripts. "Forget about your book," he tells me. "How many people read books? Millions watch cinema."

Excerpted from "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" by Suketu Mehta. 2004 by Suketu Mehta. To be published in September by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Suketu Mehta's book "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" is published this month by Knopf.

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