You have a story that could be adapted for the screen. But do you know how to turn that plot into a visual experience? And even when you have your screenplay, how do you pitch your script to producers? Novelist and screenwriter Advaita Kala had been through this phase.
Kala spoke to Edugraph about how to start out as a screenwriter and shed light on various aspects of the creative process that you must be aware of.
Edugraph: Which movie did you enjoy writing the most? What did you love about the process of writing it?
Advaita Kala: I think Kahaani fits the bill as it took me back to a particular time in my life and got me back to a particular emotion; it was almost like a coming of age. It was a very impactful time of my life. It felt special when I put pen to paper later and recalled the essence of that period and got transported to a time when I had known vulnerability and yet had an inkling of empowerment.
When you start out on your first job and move to a new city, you feel vulnerable. But you also feel empowered as you make your own choices for the first time in your life as an adult. That was what I wanted to bring to Vidya’s character in Kahaani. I wanted to capture the uncertainty of a young woman who wants to find herself in this vibrant, busy, complicated city and reaches out to people in the world of men. I loved bringing out the interplay between these subtle factors in the screenplay.
Is the growth of OTT platforms creating new work opportunities for screenwriters? How is it impacting their career path?
Advaita Kala: For the first time in a long time, some attention is now actually being paid to content. We have emerged from a very star-driven to a content-driven system largely because of the OTT explosion. Streaming platforms are very conscious of the content they greenlight, the stories they want to tell and the attention they want to pay to story development. Let me illustrate the situation with an example. It took almost a year for me to write the screenplay for Illegal Season 2. The process involved going back and forth with the Voot team. That’s something new as I have never seen that level of commitment to writing from the entire team.
Writers now have a voice in the industry. Young writers are willing to start out as it’s a great time for creative people in terms of financial benefits. The whole work structure has changed. Junior writers have the opportunity to come on board to work on projects with established writers and get their credits on.
How should a young screenwriter proceed at the beginning of their career?
Advaita Kala: Technology has removed physical barriers and broadened the scope of work. I work with people online now. We do Zoom and get on WhatsApp and chats to develop things.
I would advise young writers to register their scripts. Though ideas can’t be registered, they should register their scripts. If you share your work with somebody, make that person sign a basic non-disclosure agreement (NDA) prepared by a lawyer to protect your interest as a writer.
All big production houses have content teams for reviewing material. I would, however, urge young writers to err on the side of caution as screenwriting is still a profession that has its ups and downs. Sometimes there would be a flush of work, and at other times you are waiting for something to happen. That’s why I always tell people to stick to their day job — I’m no exception as I kept working in hotel operations even after Kahaani.
What are the ways for an emerging screenwriter to display their scripts and stories?
Advaita Kala: There are agents who would be willing to represent young writers. I work through an agent who does a lot of pitching for me and that works out well. The writers can also write a book as production houses pick up a lot of books these days. If it’s a good story, people pick up the novel and then reach out to people like me for adapting that book as a series.
It’s important for all aspiring screenwriters to network and check out who are producing different shows. Reaching out to production houses is important as a lot of OTTs are now being flooded by shows produced by these houses.
Before doing all that, I’ll again ask the writers to register their work. Use your email to record when and to whom you have submitted your script/book so you don’t get taken for a ride.
Could you take us through the general process of scriptwriting? What are the basic steps of pitching a script to a production house?
Advaita Kala: The pitch is essentially the story and a log line. The log line is a single sentence or maybe a couple of lines that tell you what this film/series is about. Then you have a synopsis, which can range from one page to a maximum of 10 pages. Then you have the characters including the protagonist, maybe an antagonist and the other crucial ones. After that, you tell a little bit about the world, location, and the whole setting. If you have got to that point, you can even go into episode breakdowns — that’s really your pitch note. Whenever you are reading and can visualise the characters, it becomes much more real. This is basically what you would put together as a docket and send to a production house.
The first step of pitching is to register your story. Then send out a query email, introduce yourself, and mention the work title and genre. Do not send any material till the production house asks for it.
Do you accept student interns and what are the qualities you look for in them?
Advaita Kala: Yes, I accept interns. If anyone’s interested, they can send an email to email@example.com. I look for patient and hardworking people to work with. They must understand that no success can come overnight.
Do aspiring screenwriters need any specific academic qualification?
Advaita Kala: The best thing about being a screenwriter is that you do not need any specific degree. You are born a storyteller. In fact, we can all be storytellers. But to hone your skills, you can do creative writing courses. You can, of course, go to FTII in Pune. But the best way of learning is actually by practising the craft. It’s very enriching to work with other writers.
However, I am somebody who is essentially self-taught. So, I would suggest others watch films, read a lot of books, read screenplays and just enjoy the process.
You’ve had your own experience with Kolkata and one of your most popular films was shot in the city. How does it feel to be a delegate at the virtual Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival (AKLF) 2022?
Advaita Kala: I miss being in Kolkata. With its share of history and heritage, multiple layers of living and textures —from affluence to poverty — the city throbs with life. I lived for about eight to nine months in Park Street, the area I consider to be the heart of Kolkata. As my only opportunity to visit the city now comes with literary festivals, I feel sad that the pandemic has forced this year’s AKLF to be held in virtual mode. The best thing about the festival is the chance to interact with the audience, to meet new people and to meet other writers.