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Abhijat Joshi (standing) and Rajkumar Hirani. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Abhijat Joshi (standing) and Rajkumar Hirani. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Rajkumar Hirani & Abhijat Joshi: Two to tango

How Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi found a pulse that connects all kinds of film audiences in India

They never lock a script until the finishing touches of post-production, and prefer narrating their stories to “non-filmi" people. So when I meet Rajkumar Hirani and Abhijat Joshi, the writing duo behind Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) and 3 Idiots (2009), at the fuss-free, white-walled office of Vinod Chopra Films Pvt. Ltd in Mumbai around a month before their film PK releases, the scripting is not over. “We are still thinking about scenes, there is always that last-minute change of a detail that a tweak in the edit can make," says Hirani, to my surprise.

A poster of ‘PK’
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A poster of ‘PK’

The two met for the first time nearly a decade ago at this very office. Hirani, trained as an editor at the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), had already worked for a few years as an editor with a number of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s directorial ventures in the 1990s. At the time, he was working on his second feature after the phenomenal success of his debut film Munna Bhai MBBS (2003)—a satire about the ills of the medical establishment and how the inadvertent intervention of a bumbling bhai, a cardboard Mumbai character, humanizes doctors and make them accessible to the less privileged. Socialist at heart and scathing in its humour, Munnabhai MBBS is Hirani’s finest work.

Joshi was a dilettante screenwriter, collaborating with Chopra. He had just returned from the UK, after staging Shaft Of Sunlight, a play based on his reactions to the post-Ayodhya communal riots in 1992. Chopra had seen it and left his visiting card for him. Joshi, a playwright and English professor in Ahmedabad who had also written a play on the closure of the city’s mills in the 1980s, decided to give screenwriting a try.

“My plays were immediate reactions. Having grown up in Ahmedabad, we were suddenly seeing a different city after the riots. The thinking about what it is to be a Hindu and a Muslim had suddenly changed. It had become a neatly ghettoized city, not the city I had grown up in," Joshi says. He remains close to Ahmedabad and says he draws from his crucial experiences there when he writes for the screen. A couple of years after he started writing for Chopra, including collaborating on the script of Kareeb (1998), he left for the University of Texas, Austin, US, for higher studies, and went to become a professor of English at Otterbein college in Westerville, Ohio.

He continued to work with Chopra, and during one of his visits to Mumbai, attended Hirani’s narration of a script he was planning after Munna Bhai MBBS. Joshi recalls: “I was leaving the next day, and I asked if I could collaborate with him. He seemed extremely reluctant but being basically a polite man, asked me to send an email with my thoughts."

“What he sent was really bad," says Hirani. After courteous but discouraging initial feedback from Hirani, Joshi decided to think differently, and cinematically. An idea that came to Hirani’s inbox was incorporated in Lage Raho Munna Bhai in a climactic scene—in Hirani’s words, “You can kill me, but you can’t kill my thought." For a year, Joshi would wake up to Hirani’s additions and changes to scenes he had written, and he would send his changes for Hirani to go through 12 hours later in Mumbai. Joshi read many volumes of the memoirs of Mahadev Desai, Mahatma Gandhi’s typist and secretary, written in Gujarati, before the first draft of Lage Raho Munna Bhai materialized.

Since the two films became the magic formula—or rather, anti-formula—that unites Indian audiences, Joshi only spends a couple of months teaching at Otterbein. For most of the year, he is working with Hirani, walking, often endlessly—in London, early Sunday mornings at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda and Fort and Mumbai’s Borivali National Park—until a scene fructifies to the satisfaction of both.

Joshi grew up in Ahmedabad and Hirani in Nagpur. Their fathers polished their socialist radar, and how to understand and humanize social realities—Joshi’s father, a man of letters and a playwright, and Hirani’s father, a Sindhi Partition refugee without much formal education. “A lot of my writing and my detailing of scenes are based on my observations of life in Nagpur," says Hirani. “I no longer get to travel that much within India but my life in Nagpur, especially my college years there, still help when I think of ideas," Hirani says.

Rejected for the FTII’s direction course, Hirani studied editing at the institute and continued to find inspiration in the cinema of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai and Guru Dutt while European cinema subsumed a majority of his classmates. “A few of us, including Sriram Raghavan (the director), continued to watch Hindi films and believed in their power over audiences. We were like outcasts," he says.

Despite their success, both Hirani and Joshi retain their Everyman credo and mannerisms, radically different from most directors and writers in the Hindi film world. The films match the writers. They engage with a bigger world of ordinary people and their interactions with societal realities, which Hirani manages to communicate in a sparse cinematic language.

As he says: “I’ve often been asked why my shot-taking is not stylish, why I don’t think about visual statements. The truth is, style is irrelevant. I never think of the shot as much as I think of the characters and what they are saying and doing. I have been in advertising and I know my craft well, but ultimately in cinema every scene has to matter, and that has to do with the writing."

The Hirani-Joshi duo spends years on scripts, to make every scene meaningful in the large scheme of their movies. “Raju has so many tricks as a storyteller, the final film is an amalgamation of all the tricks to propel that one big idea," says Joshi.

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Rajkumar Hirani (middle) directing Aamir Khan and Anushka Shrama on the sets of ‘PK’

In the earlier films, they have taken a social malaise, simplified it and brought out its implications through humour and emotional grist. PK has a similar template. “Both of us have an activist in us, but not being preachy," says Hirani.

Both certainly believe cinema has to entertain.

PK will release on 19 December.

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