Writer Nilesh Maniyar wants us all to learn how to embrace death.
His most recent project The Sky Is Pink, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last month, is a romance drama that’s all about honouring death as a part of life.
Directed by Shonali Bose, the film features Priyanka Chopra and Farhan Akhtar as Aditi and Niren Chaudhary, an average Indian couple fighting for their daughter Aisha's (Zaira Wasim) survival while raising their elder child Ishaan, played by Rohit Suresh Saraf. The film is inspired by the real-life story of a young Indian author Aisha Chaudhary, who was born with an immune deficiency disorder and died at the age of 18.
For Maniyar, who co-wrote the film with his longtime collaborator Bose (Margarita with a Straw), this movie is a small step towards starting a larger conversation about a topic many people find difficult to talk about. We caught up with him to learn more about his inspiration for the screenplay, the joys of writing layered characters and that now famous psychotic breakdown scene in the film.
Excerpts from the interaction:
When did you decide to write the film?
Nilesh Maniyar: Shonali and I met Aditi and Niren for different purposes. I was making a documentary on this family. Because I feel there's so much more to explore. Shonali, having lost her child and being the wiser person that she is, felt the story of this couple and how they stuck through the thick and thin of this journey was very inspiring. So, she started writing the script from that perspective and my documentary was more about Aisha's journey. We were basically making two different films in two different forms on the same subject. It would have been great had they both came out together but on the way Shonali involved me in the film project so I started co-writing with her. It became too much for me to handle the two things simultaneously so now that the film is out I'd be going back to the documentary. But listening to Aditi and Niren and those little moments of lives they lived really counted in making and writing this film.
The Sky Is Pink’s unique take on death explains why we need to embrace the realities of death. How did Shonali and you make sure the emotions didn’t go over the top?
Nilesh Maniyar: It's an aesthetic choice. Shonali and I collaborate closely but I think Shonali's aesthetic is not over the top. She wouldn't know how one would do over the top thing. She would cringe if something went over the top. But fortunately, both Priyanka and Farhan are director's actors. There were times when they resorted to something much more than desired and Shonali would go and whisper something in their ears and things would calm down. I think that's how you look at life and that's how you make movies. You make what you believe in.
Priyanka Chopra at the TIFF premiere of The Sky Is Pink (Jemal Countess/Getty Images/AFP)
Bollywood is mostly a star-driven industry. So, was there any pressure of catering to Priyanka Chopra’s stardom while writing her character of Aditi?
Nilesh Maniyar: Priyanka was not in the scene when we were writing the character of Aditi. Shonali was writing the character initially and I joined in later. I don't think she was thinking, 'Oh, I have to write thinking A-star does a baritone nicely so I will write a dialogue like that.' No, definitely not. Thankfully, there were real Aditi and Niren in front of us and the images were so spectacularly clear. There are some cinematic liberties but not many. When I was listening to Aditi and Niren's story, I had to verify it through their friends and cousins because I was myself constantly wondering, 'Did this really happen?' And I was amazed at how things panned out in their lives and how they handled it. So, the stardom was not the pressure that we were catering to while writing.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced while writing the screenplay?
Nilesh Maniyar: The biggest challenge was essentially how to balance a subject of death with humour, and not humour for the sake of comedy but lightness. For people to find that light through the darkness, it was important for us to have this emotion as much weight as the emotion of sadness. They both are two sides of the same coin and you can't escape either in life. But sadness can definitely dominate and take you to deep dark hole if you can't find light. So to constantly balance that was a challenge.
The scenes wherein Priyanka Chopra’s Aditi Chaudhary experiences a psychotic attack, and Farhan Akhtar’s Niren Chaudhary enters his son’s room not long after Aisha’s passing and has a breakdown on Ishaan’s lap are quite impactful.
Nilesh Maniyar: The beauty of these two scenes is that they both exactly happened as they have been shown in the movie. It's not the imagination of our own head. I remember one beautiful compliment that we got from a friend from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a professor there. When he saw the psychotic break, he said, 'This should be a part of my curriculum in understanding the state of mind of carers and what they go through and how things kind of inch by inch grow and occupy space in their head.' And, that's what happens with Aditi. But the most important part of both these scenes is that they don't have any background score. They don't have music to manipulate your emotions. You just sometimes leave the audiences to experience that moment. You don't need to guide them to feel anything and they can have their own interpretation.
Farhan Akhtar and Priyanka Chopra in a still from The Sky Is Pink
Same applies to the death day when Niren went to Ishaan's room because Aditi was unavailable emotionally for any of them at that time. She was in such denial. So for Niren to not have his life partner available in that moment, it was very difficult to deal with. Hence, he went to his son and they both grieved together. I felt it was such a beautiful moment in their lives and I'm saying 'beautiful' because I don't want to look at death or death day as something that we have to speak with certain amount of stereotypes.
Even though Zaira Wasim’s Aisha Chaudhary and Priyanka’s Aditi are the most-talked about performances in the movie, I found Farhan’s Niren more layered and complexed. How did you approach his character?
Nilesh Maniyar: To perform a character like that you need an actor who has grace and dignity and that's what Farhan has. To be able to take backseat, to be a listener, to wait for your moment as an actor in the scene, to not be insecure, to be a feminist as Niren is, to be supportive-- all these things are really who Farhan is. But I don't get it when people say his role is not an author-backed role. This is the man who he is in real life. He is a man who was a silent fighter while Aditi went all over the place and took charge of everything and was leading it. But had this man not gone to work to make money without breaking down, everything would have broken down. For this man to say, 'I trust you Aditi, whatever you say we're going to do it'; there was so much strength in his being. And, I believe Farhan has done a fantastic job. I do feel it was a very complexed role and for Farhan to bring that out with such subtlety was commendable. I'm a big fan of Farhan's character.
The film has several philosophical moments. While narrating the story, Zaira Wasim’s Aisha compares her father, Niren Chaudhary (Farhan Akhtar), to Indian sprinter Milkha Singh. Aisha also enacts a dialogue from Zaira’s own film Secret Superstar...
Nilesh Maniyar: I think everybody from Priyanka to Sidharth Roy Kapur, what they liked about the script was when Shonali brought the instrument of Aisha's voiceover. She wrote it in English essentially but it was very funny and we all felt, 'Who speaks like this about death?' And that's why everyone came on board. But then the challenge was the Hindi writing of it. And translating English to Hindi was obviously just not going to sound right. So, I was given the job to write Aisha's voiceover. Because I was living with so much documentary material I felt I knew Aisha. I have gone through her most private exchanges on messages and emails with her parents' permission that I felt there was so much daring about Aisha. She could joke on a 40-year-old like her peer and not blink. The part where she talks about her parents' sex life in the voiceover was not in the script but I kind of wrote it because Aisha was a very blunt person. She was ahead of her age.
A still from The Sky Is Pink
Are you satisfied with the kind of response the film has received at the box office?
Nilesh Maniyar: I wanted Margarita with a Straw to make Rs 100 crore. It's because I believe that there are people out there who have evolved enough to watch the cinema that we're making. Having said that, I expected much more at the box office. There are films which give you hundreds of crore in two weeks but there are some films which last for a lifetime. So I feel otherwise about this box office business vis-a-vis this film. I feel we have made a film that will speak not to just our generation but generations to come. I feel there's something so universal about this film that I would want everyone to see it but there are so many things that are not in our hands.
I went to approximately 8-10 theatres and I just stood there in the aisle and saw people coming out in silence; some people were clapping; some people were crying. They were in whole spectrum of emotions which indicated that the film worked for them. I was also reading Twitter and every other compliment on the platform said, ‘I cried bucket load.’ But the moment you say, ‘I cried a lot’, our social upbringing is such that if you laugh it's paisa vasool and if you cry it's not. Now how do I explain that it's good to cry? It’s something beyond my marketing skills. Maybe we as a society need to travel some distance right from our upbringing where children or men are told, ‘It’s okay to cry in public and it is great to cry because that is one way to take out so much that’s going inside you.’
Rohit Saraf, Priyanka Chopra, Zaira Wasim and Farhan Akhtar (L-R) in a still from The Sky Is Pink
Does that also stem from the fact that Bollywood is known for making terminal illness as ambiguous as possible?
Nilesh Maniyar: When you step aside and do something differently, you will face a lot of different bandwidth of responses and only in long run or in future to come can you look back and say whether it worked or not.
Take us through that ending scene where Niren and Aditi finally reunite.
Nilesh Maniyar: It’s a fact that Niren for the longest time couldn’t bear to see Aisha’s pictures. So the thought was inspired from that fact. It’s that one moment where you feel, ‘That’s my parents and that’s us.’ That was the idea-- to put all of them in one room and let you draw your own conclusions of life.
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