It’s difficult how to start when – A) you are interviewing a writer and B) when that writer has just managed to change the way writing is perceived in Indian cinema for good. But let me begin with the character sketch: he is lean, tall, wears his black Timberland boots and is just looking like a bloke who got inspired by Mr T. I’m talking about his hairdo. But all said and done, he is one dapper guy I found out when we met at my office for a cuppa coffee. Welcome Akshat Verma – the man responsible for all the late night panic meetings taking place at top film studios in India – or to simply put, the writer of Delhi Belly. I swing in between regarding Akshat as a genius and someone who is now an overnight success (he came, he saw and he conquered). Film should be a healthy marriage of show and tell, visuals and talk – his writing is almost the exact opposite, the extreme end of too much talk or too less. But, the words work so well together that you can close your eyes and just listen to the dialogue. So, either Akshat just wrote the way he did, without any respect for the grammar of cinema (thanks to the swear words) or he understood it so well, saw it so clearly that he could play with it the way he wanted to (it almost always takes a genius to do that). Whichever way you look at it, Akshat Verma’s script for Delhi Belly is a nifty, smooth-scrolling, wise-cracking, often filthy, dirty but edgy dissection of how one idea, several people and a million viewers have turned into the 21st century’s first great cinematic discovery from India. As Steve Jobs puts it, “All overnight successes took a long time”. The room smelled of coffee, success and that thing called Delhi Belly. Oh hang on! I can’t hold it any longer. Over to Akshat!
“I’ve done all sorts of odd jobs like flipping burgers, walking dogs, etc. but my intention to write never changed”
I didn’t move to Mumbai as much as I moved back. I am from Mumbai. I went to the US only to go to the film school. My original plan was to be there to finish my program and maybe be there for two to three years after. But one of the rules (and I say ‘rules’ in the loosest possible sense) you learn in the screen writing program is – you set up a plan in a screenplay and the plan always goes wrong (laughs). That was the plan but it went wrong. I stayed back and started working in advertising for a while and before that happened, I was doing various odd jobs like being an assistant to someone, flipping burgers, walking dogs, etc.
“I wanted to tell stories that weren’t being told in India”
My intention never changed. I wanted to go to the US to get an education, to understand writing and how the form works and to bring that information and skill back to India where I felt that I understand the world a little better. I wanted to tell stories that weren’t being told in India.
“I was searching for my friends in lot of Bollywood films but I couldn’t find them till Delhi Belly happened”
I felt disconnected to the Bollywood films I saw. Anytime I saw films, I was like – Who are these guys wearing these t-shirts with big logos, driving fancy cars, flying off to Switzerland, etc. I asked myself – Where are my friends who used to drive to Moolchand at 3am to get bread omelette and things like that, swearing at each other, were lost, etc. Those were the stories I wanted to tell.
“We had a business plan in place and before we knew it we were flying down to India”
My partner Jim Furgele from the Ferocious Attack Cow is a writer himself. He was with me in the writing program at UCLA. In fact, he was in the workshop where the first draft of this film was written. We went our own ways after the program got over. But along the way when I was trying to set this film up by meeting various producers who’d declined the film back then, out of the blue one day I receive a call from Jim who offered help as a producer. I wanted to jump on board. Two heads were always better than one. Jim is like a breath of fresh air; he is much focused and has a passion for films. He is very particular about stuff. We had a business plan in place and before we knew it we were flying down to India to seek the possibilities.
“In its structure, Delhi Belly is a very western style film”
I’d put Delhi Belly as a ‘Hinglish’ film from India. I don’t want to divide it into English or Hindi. I believe that as Indians we normally, naturally exist in two or sometimes three languages. That’s how we are. A lot of us, to whom the film is directed towards, we exist in times where we are drawing a lot of influences from the West. By being in India, we are virtually consuming a lot of that. Now if you take these influences, there’s a meeting point in the middle where these two things come and you notice that our audience exists comfortably in both these worlds. I felt that I had the freedom to draw from influences in both worlds. So it was very liberating. In its structure, Delhi Belly is a very western style film.
“My first image of Delhi Belly was of a fan coming down and making a hole in the ceiling with a foot sticking out”
To be honest, the absolute first image I had of the film when I was conceiving it was when I was back in India and I still hadn’t flown off to US, whenever I slept at night I was just paranoid of the fact that the fan from my ceiling was going to fall down and smack my skull open in the middle of the night. That thought was carried forward by something quite bizarre. So after the fan comes down, there is a hole in the ceiling and what happens to the people living upstairs? I had this image of the foot sticking out of the hole from the ceiling. That really is the first image of Delhi Belly.
“The first character from Delhi Belly that popped up in my head was that of the landlord”
The first character from Delhi Belly that popped up in my head was that of the landlord. In the first draft, the role that Paresh plays in Delhi Belly, he was being blackmailed and in desperation he was supposed to kill himself. He had hung himself too. But later on I realised that it wasn’t working and fitting well in the story.
“Writers are the only ones in the industry who actually have something to sell”
Writers have absolutely no control. The only control we do have is on our writing. That’s the only thing we can affect. Writers are the only ones in the industry who actually have something to sell and that is our script. That’s astounding. This is the thing that attracts investments, actors, etc. Everything is based on our writing. What we can control is the quality of our writing. Our only duty is to be truthful to our characters and our scenes. If we write the best story and the best screenplay, it is my belief that hopefully the universe will move in ways that other things will happen.
“Say Cheese was the first working title before Delhi Belly“
I had a working title before Delhi Belly and that was ‘Say Cheese’. It came from the fact that Nitin was a photographer and he was this crazy guy. It came to my mind when he was clicking a picture of a dead man and he goes – Say Cheese. I knew it was a working title and it didn’t work because it didn’t embrace the essence of the film. But Delhi Belly title was born from that one incident that changed the whole film. The scene where Nitin buys that chicken from the street vendor and things go haywire was the turning point in the film. Once that happens, everyone’s life turns upside down because of one upset stomach. I also felt that to have an English title would be more reflective of what the nature of the film was.
“When you don’t have a system to produce excellence, it seems excellence is sometimes accidental”
I believe that we don’t have systems in place out here. Amazing things happen accidentally and you are shocked. When you don’t have a system to produce excellence, it seems excellence is sometimes accidental. It should never be that random. I mean, look at the way Pixar works. How can you explain how they do what they do? The way Pixar works is that they give time to their stories and everything comes later. They don’t move forward till they lock their story. Once the story is there, everything else is just execution. Like Hitchcock said that after he finished his story, everything else was mechanical in nature.
“Without Tashi, there won’t be any balance in the film”
All three characters are very important. But I have to point out that Tashi is the character who really holds it together. Without him, there won’t be any balance in the film. He is the one, who not only is the foundation of the characters but he also gives Nitin and Arup room to be crazy. It is a very difficult role to play, especially to keep it straight and let the others do the madness. Vir and Kunaal are the crazy solos on the stage but Imran is like the solid rhythm section in the background that just keeps it tight and keeps it together.
“What defines your career is longevity”
Even though Delhi Belly was going on, I was writing another film, another project. At some point you need to leave the craziness behind to get back to what really makes it happen – writing. That happens only in closed rooms all by yourself with no one to disturb. I am very much based in L.A but after Delhi Belly, I really need to make this divide from L.A to India properly. I enjoy being stuck in two worlds as it gives you distance and perspective and it also gives you influences. The bigger the risks I take, the bigger my rewards and it feels gratifying. What defines your career is longevity. You keep doing good work over and over again and sustain. I hope to God that’s not the case.