Writer Venita Coelho

Adventure, She Writes

Her first book, Dungeon Tales, was Arabian Nightsesque. Her second, The Washer of the Dead, a collection of ghost stories centred around women, was humanistic rather than scary. Her next, Soap! Writing and Surviving Television in India, a handbook for people writing for the cash-rich but quality-strapped Indian TV industry, drew upon her years of experience in the space. She then wrote a three-book animal fiction series on the trot. Her most recent, Boy No. 32, is about a boy in an orphanage with the name, or rather, number Battees (32). That is, the boy is named 32, not the orphanage, because orphans apparently don’t deserve any better. But his life and luck may be about to change when the orphanage is inadvertently brought crashing down, letting him and his mates loose on the pathways of Mumbai and setting off a series of adventures, rendezvous and discoveries.

Somewhere, Venita Coelho’s life is as varied, adventurous, unconventional and humanistic as the books she writes and the themes she explores. She was born in Dehradun, grew up in then Calcutta, worked in then Bombay, lived in Coimbatore (which she considers home) and presently lives in Goa. She is a single mother to an adopted girl of 10, whom she home-schools and has started taking off with on tours across India in a customized caravan, because she feels that’s the best way to learn geography and history. She also loves animals, due to which she turned vegetarian 20 years ago.

Cover of Soap: Writing and Surviving Television in IndiaVenita started off writing for TV, in the early days of satellite TV, and worked there the longest, before giving it up when the saas-bahu “poison” took over. She returned to front Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahi, but left TV for the second and final time when she saw Jassi too going saas-bahu mode. She wrote a few films, but took a break when none of the three scripts she penned turned out as envisaged. She switched her attention full-fledged to books, and has been quite prolific: seven books in 11 years, with about as many at various stages. She has started looking at films anew and is also interested in the rapid-rising space of web series. And somewhere in the midst of all this action, she has engaged in activism too, being a part of Goa Bachao Abhiyan and having taken on a celebrated writer and a well-known minister (both male) in different forums over different causes.

Irfan Syed spoke to the author whose life reads like one of her books, about her works and her writing motivations and inspirations. Excerpts:

You have written across mediums and genres…

Actually, I’m not a writer – I’m a storyteller. It’s allowed me the freedom of adapting, learning and going from genre to genre, medium to medium.

How easy or difficult is it writing across mediums?

TV is easy. TV is very formula. Once you’ve cracked the formula – 24 minutes, 12 scenes, ad breaks – it’s very easy to write… Film is the most difficult. In film, the universe you create has to be very credible. It takes many minds. It’s also very collaborative – and we as writers tend to be solitary… Easiest is books, because with books, you are the sole person in charge.

Cover of the book Boy No. 32 by Venita CoelhoIt seems the inspiration for Boy No. 32 came from the times you spent with street kids when waiting for the last train back from work during your TV days…

I was always on that last train back to the hostel. All the odds and ends would be on that train: hijras, fisherwomen, some urchin or the other… Because this train was empty, these kids would come and chat. I would have these absolutely fantastic conversations… They would also entertain me. They’d catch those handholds on top and swing from them and do acrobatics… I thought they deserved a book. I thought they deserved for people to look at them as more than just beggars. I wanted people to see them as children.

Were there any other motivations for writing the book?

Boy No. 32 is also about family. That’s what he is looking for. He’s never had family. It also came out of the conversations I had with my daughter about family, because by definition, we are not your standard family: single mom with adopted kid. The fondest, deepest, most loving family can be the family that you choose.

Cover of Dungeon Tales by Venita CoelhoThe book seems to have influences of Salman Rushdie: the telepathic communication between the kids and the various elements of fantastic adventure. You seem to be a Rushdie fan – also evident in your first book, Dungeon Tales. If so, do the similarities creep in subconsciously?

I picked up my first Rushdie when I was in college. I just fell into Midnight’s Children. Not as much for the storytelling, but for that the first time I read a book and said, ‘Oh my god, we can tell our stories and people will take us seriously.’ There was Rushdie using Bambaiya… accents… And he tells a truly Indian story. I was like: ‘I can admire an Indian author – and the world admires him as well.’ So, that’s why, for me, always at the back of all my writing is Papa Rushdie sitting there as inspiration.

The book could so easily make a movie. In fact, many of your books can. Is that your TV and film writing at play?

All the books are the movies that will never be made! Look at my animal rights series – climaxes that involve 250 tigers! So, that’s how I use my books. Because in films, you are trying to write stuff that will get made. But in books, you can write stuff that doesn’t have to ever be made – you can just go mad.

 Most of your books are aimed at children. Do you find it easier to write for children than adults?

Adults have a whole lot of opinions and prejudices that they might not openly show. And a whole lot of thoughts about what is good reading and bad reading. Kids haven’t done that at all. As long as you are telling a good story and in a funny way, they listen to you.

Front cover of Venita Coelho's first animal-fiction book, Tiger by the TailHow did the animal series books come about?

I got so sick of the way people are treating animals. Also because I fell in love with animals. In our family, animals are treated very much as beloved members of family. And I looked around at what we are doing in the world of animals. I said, ‘Animals have nobody to speak for them.’ I said I’m going to do it. And then I decided to talk to kids again – I’m going to tell them great fun stories, and those stories are going to teach them about animal rights, cruelty to animals, the space that animals have in the world and respecting that.

In Soap!, you’ve also talked about the physical problems you had while writing so much, which eventually receded through yoga. Is that you how keep fit and manage to write?

Totally. It saved my life. There is no problem I’ve had that yoga has not fixed.

You don’t intend to return to TV. But any plans to take up a web series, as they seem to be the flavour of the day and are also not saas-bahu?

I hope to do a web series. But what I discovered when I looked at the series that are really popular right now was, I felt I was a bit old and didn’t understand that kind of thinking or – well, not that kind of thinking – that kind of pitch. So, I’ve taken some time off and am just looking at the whole thing: at stuff that’s popular, at youngsters and what they are interested in, at pitch and sur, how it should be different… For me, it’s one more new genre to learn.

Finally, will you be writing on your pan-India trips?

I’ve got all these kinds of offers. ‘Take a camera and shoot it.’ ‘Do a blog.’ ‘Do a series.’ I said no to everything. I said I want to do something just for the fun of it for once. We are doing our tours, meeting people, seeing sights – and eventually I’m sure it will influence my writing. Any kind of adventure you have just deepens you, enriches you and feeds back into your work.

I wrote this piece for the magazine Harmony – Celebrate Age for this month’s issue. Here’s the piece online.

 

 

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B&W image of a man holding half his face in his hands with eyes closed

Tortured Soul

Tortured souls

Are tortured so

Because they listen

Not to the ways of the world

But to the whispers of the soul

Guru Dutt in a scene from Mr and Mrs '55

The Artist, the Humanist

‘What can I say about this great city that hasn’t been said before?’

In Wake up Sid, Konkana Sen Sharma’s character, Aisha Banerjee, is caught up with this deliberation, while planning her debut piece for the magazine where she’s been working a couple months. The monthly, Mumbai Beats, is about the eponymous city in question, and Aisha decides to name her column New Girl in the City, having arrived in Bombay / Mumbai (the city’s referred to by both names in the film) those few months ago. In the end, after several crumpled sheets of paper and some inputs from Sid, she decides to write from a personal place. Her love for the city, she realises, comes from the love she’s found with the guy (Sid) she met on her first night in Bombay.

When planning this tribute piece, I had a similar rumination. ‘What can I say about this genius artist that hasn’t been said before?’ There are over 10 books on him, one feature-length documentary, regular mentions in biographies of his contemporaries, and countless articles and videos on the net. In the end, like Aisha, I decided to pen from my personal perspective.

Cover of Nasreen Munni Kabir's documentary, In Search of Guru DuttLike Aisha to Bombay, I’ve come to Guru Dutt recently, but what I’ve lacked in time, I’ve made up with loads of intensity. I’ve watched all his films (directed, produced and acted, both under his banner and outside) and the documentary at least twice over; read all those books (and also the one on his wife, Geeta); consumed copious content about him on the net. And got consumed in the process.

While I’ve of course come to heart him as an artist (and here, I include all his talents of direction, acting, song picturization, choreography and cinematography), I realised, perhaps just like Aisha to Sid, what drew me to him was something personal: humanism. His own, as well as that of his characters. And in the case of GD (as he is fondly referred to by many), those two universes are pretty much the same.

It’s there right in the opening scene of his most loved and worshipped film, Pyaasa. The poet Vijay is being perfectly poet-like: lying in a field, casting casual glances at the gentle ways and sways of nature. Fittingly inspired, soft couplets emerge from his soul and being, nature acting as the muse and the idol. The poet’s blissful eye then moves to a bumblebee come to grace, or rob, a flower. Soon, heavy and intoxicated with fresh, sweet nectar, the bee decides to lull on the ground… only to be crushed the next instant by an onrushing foot. The poet is devastated by this turn of nature, and decides to hasten back to the real world.

 

Then, the names of his characters themselves. Hardly ever with a surname (be it Vijay of Pyaasa or Preetam of Mr & Mrs ’55), or if so, then of indeterminate community or region (Kalu Birju of Aar-Paar, Suresh Sinha of Kaagaz ke Phool and Ajoy Kumar of 12 O’Clock). Although his parents and he were Karnataka-born, GD was often taken to be Bengali. He had spent his formative years in then Calcutta, could speak the language fluently, had shortened and split his name (from Gurudutt Shivashankar Padukone, which itself was changed from Vasanthkumar Shivashankar Padukone after an astrologer’s advice) to the Bengaliesque Guru Dutt, and of course, got married to Geeta Roy. Notwithstanding his great love for all things Cal and Bengal (evidenced in many of his movies), GD himself is known to have said, “I am part Hindu, part Muslim, part Christian…”

And then, the characters themselves. People either living on the streets or cast onto them through choice or circumstance (the four successive movies from Aar-Paar to Kaagaz ke Phool); working hard and honest to manage a living (from the sweaty fisherman’s cameo in the self-directed Jaal to the simpleton farmer in Bharosa to the earnest professor in his last film, Suhagan); or even if they are presently well-off, have emerged from bare beginnings (from Aslam who comes to eventually reside in a mansion in Chaudhvin ka Chand to the doctor who has toiled to own a house and car in Sanjh aur Savera). And of course, GD’s most celebrated and touching character – the creative soul seeking the artist’s recognition but not through the soul’s capitulation (Pyaasa and Kaagaz).

Screen grab of Waheeda Rehman's name appearing before Guru Dutt's in the credits of Chaudhvin ka ChandAs my discovery of GD deepened, I uncovered further examples of (t)his humanism. Some were right there at the start – in the opening credits of his movies. For all the films he both produced and acted in (through his film company), the name of his leading lady always appeared before his. Be it the lesser-established Shyama in Aar-Paar, the striving Mala Sinha during Pyaasa, the luminous and firmly-established Meena Kumari of Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, or his frequent co-star Waheeda Rehman. This was 60 years before SRK pledged the same in 2013 (to mark 100 years of Indian cinema), starting with Chennai Express.

Screen grab of the supporting cast credits in Chaudhvin ka Chand, with Uma Devi's name as the second in the fourth lineStill on opening titles, this next had me signed and sealed on GD’s side. In most of his movies (again, the ones made by his company), the comedienne Tun Tun, who acted in several of them, was credited under her real name, Uma Devi. In other words, in GD’s films, she was referred to as a lady, rather than a sound.

In an especially lit scene of Mr & Mrs ’55, the high-society women’s activist, Seeta Devi (Madhubala’s character, Anita’s aunt played by Lalita Pawar), both sizes up and sympathizes with the meagre room where Preetam (GD’s character) puts up, and can’t help asking how he manages to live so. Preetam promptly replies that she’s possibly not aware that a good part of India lives this way; his condition, at least, is better than many of them. Piqued by his strident response, she parleys, “Kya tum communist ho?” (“Are you a communist?”). He volleys right back, “Jee nahi, cartoonist hoon.” (“No, just a cartoonist.”) Aunt, and accompanying assistant, then swivel their necks to notice the artworks of numerous cartoons filling up the hovel’s interiors.

To that, this fan / admirer would simply like to add, “And a humanist too.”

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD

Guru Dutt as Vijay toward the end of Pyaasa

Fellowship of the Soul

Love for all things Cal and Bengal.

Love for animals.

Rooted in the middle class.

Deep-rooted.

Introverted.

Complex.

Artistic.

Humanistic.

Holding honesty in great regard.

Not holding money in much.

Creative soul.

Creative soul with an unending thirst for perfection.

And because of all the above, an anguished creative soul.

A feeling of being ahead of one’s time.

Experiences of constantly being misunderstood.

Impassioned personal life.

Imperfect love life.

A yearning to get away from it all.

A wish to give it up all.

Is it any wonder that I feel a fellowship of the soul with… Guru Dutt?

Guru Dutt with a monkey atop his shoulderI have been on a deep discovery of Guru Dutt, both his movies and himself, for some months now. (That’s how I’ve picked up many of the above details.) And find somewhere that we are / were similar souls. From more visible aspects (like our great fondness for Calcutta and Bengal because we spent our early years there) to less tangible ones like humanism. This is the best explanation I have been able to offer to what has drawn me to GD (apart from his movies, of course). And no, this is obviously not meant to put me on the same creative plane as GD. I don’t think I could achieve in several lifetimes what GD achieved in one, that too, a relatively short one. With that feeling of fellowship though, I would have loved to see / meet GD just once in my lifetime. But that, alas, won’t happen in this lifetime either. Until then, there are his movies – filled with his beliefs, ideals, values… and soul.

 

A conceptual image of a couple in small and silhouette sitting within the frame of a plant in the shape of a heart

Greater than Great

If you are lucky, you have experienced love (love, not a crush) once in your life. If really lucky, you’ve perhaps experienced it twice or even thrice. For that, perhaps you need to have lived longer. But if you are really, really lucky – no, fortunate – you’ve experienced great love. All its tumult, all its turmoil, all its tension, all its torture, all its terror, in short, all its tsunamis. And it is a tsunami, or multiple. It gets into you, seizes you, holds you captive, fills your being. And in the process, brings out a tsunami of tears too. For you typically don’t get your great love. That’s why it’s called great: it’s something beyond your bearing. (And also other people’s understanding.) Still, you are better for it. Although you were worse for it when you were in it.

But can there be something greater than great love? Is that possible? Is even just that thought possible? As I said, perhaps it is. If you are the deeply romantic sort – and the highly lucky sort. As it is greater than great love, it also happens in a realm that’s beyond yours: the spiritual, the metaphysical, the sufi sort, and although I don’t believe in religion and just a bit in god, perhaps the divine sort. The closest I can think of is the kind that Meera felt for her lord. But given that both those are pretty much myths, this kind of love is perhaps of mythical proportions too. Because it’s about how a great life should be led, how great a life it could be, how great you could become (for yourself) in this greater-than-great love…

So, what do you call this love that is greater than great love? What else but… great life? And that can only be explained by experiencing it.

A dead body / personal lying on a table sheathed in white

Parting Humanistically

Soon after I came to know of Sridevi’s passing away (through a friend’s notification on WhatsApp) and after I confirmed it (on Google), I turned on the TV (ah, the evolution of broadcast media) to know more. On the first decent (= non-sensational) channel I hit, I heard the presenter announce, “Sridevi’s mortal remains are still in Dubai and will reach India later tonight.” In one day, she had gone from yesterday’s superstar to today’s mortal remains.

Composite picture of Sridevi's dead body / persona and Boney Kapoor lifting her bier

I don’t know if “mortal remains” is better or worse than the other common term for the physical being of a recently deceased person: “dead body”. ‘Mortal remains’ makes it sound like physics at best (you know, right there with dark matter and black hole) and, at worst, just a bit below ‘waste matter’. It also seems to be a TV and media term, probably for euphemistic reasons. Common people prefer ‘dead body’, which is clinical in its own way.

I guess in both the attempt is to seek some distance from the pain of parting. If you see the recently deceased as an object rather than an ex-person, somehow, the pain might seem less, especially as you will shortly be consigning them (back) to the elements, whether quickly (through cremation), gradually (burial), or seemingly grotesquely (through vultures eating the flesh, as happens in one community).

I haven’t lost anyone close so far, but somehow can’t see myself calling the physical being they leave behind as ‘dead body’ or ‘mortal remains’. Given to humanist me, I would prefer something like… ‘dead persona’. With ‘persona’, until you have burnt or buried the deceased, you feel a little bit of the person, their personality, or even aura is still there for you to connect or commune with one last time. Which is perhaps why they leave the face exposed on a bier in one community or have an open casket in another community.

Guru Dutt's dead persona photo in a newspaperI felt so about Sridevi’s dead body / mortal remains / dead persona. I thought some of her original charm, unhindered by make-up, still emanated from her still face. So too with Guru Dutt’s, whose last-stage pic, sigh, I finally ended up coming across on a tribute FB page.

Also, if we can be euphemistic about the person’s passing by saying… passing, can’t we call their earthly form the more humanistic ‘persona’?

So, I shall go with ‘dead persona’. I just hope though there is still some time for me to use it on a personal level.