Lessons from Satyanshu Singh: How Anyone Can Become A Screenwriter
National-award winning screenwriter, Satyanshu Singh is the heart and brain behind critically acclaimed films like Chintu Ka Birthday, and festival favourite feature Tamaash.
He has also penned the beautiful poems in the movie, Udaan and extends his love for cinema by teaching it to students across university lectures and workshops. With the popular comedic group AIB, he started ‘AIB First Draft’ a writer’s residential course where he provided mentorship on screenwriting.
Stories are clearly Satyanshu’s calling - however, the stories he has lived himself are just as interesting.
Read on to learn more from and about this award-winning writer and filmmaker.
The Trailer of his Works
From Medicine to Movies: His Journey
Coming from a non-filmy background, Satyanshu very early-on had to face the quintessential conflict - duty vs. desire. While he was studying MBBS to become a medical doctor in the armed forces, his heart’s true desires were to be a screenwriter.
His first shot at creating something of his own was a 90 minute farewell video for his medical college batchmates -
“I saw them laugh for 80 minutes and cry for the last 10 minutes.”
That’s when it all clicked for him, however, like any hero’s journey, the obstacles never seemed to end. Pursuing his dreams came at a cost. 15 lakhs exactly. In order to leave his study bond, his friends from school and college, all of whom who supported and believed in him, helped him collect that amount to pay out.
With an almost-finished script in hand, Satyanshu finally moved to Mumbai - a step closer to his dream.
Starting Point with Screenwriting
Screenwriting if put simply, is the art of writing scripts for movies, tv shows or any other content piece. From the character sketch, to the dialogues - a screenwriter bears the responsibility of writing something which is eventually going to be an audio-visual content piece.
Satyanshu Singh has conducted over hundreds of workshops and lectures about screenwriting and has himself, done the screenplay for his film ‘Chintu ka Birthday’.
Let’s first understand, step by step how Mr. Singh approaches this delicate craft of screenwriting with the recurrent example of his film, Chintu Ka Birthday:
Step 1: Begin with an idea - explore the larger theme or genre of your film. Is it a love story?
Is it a thriller?
It is a coming-of-age film?
Which genre does it fit or defy? Chintu Ka Birthday is a comedy-drama.
Step 2: Understand whether your story is plot-driven or character-driven.
Who does the heavy-lifting in the film?
Is the plot at the forefront or the characters?
Chintu Ka Birthday is character-driven.
As we the story focuses more on each of the family characters and the emotional bond between all of them.
A film like Udaan is also character-driven. A film like Dune is plot-driven.
Step 3: Build your characters. What are your characters like?
What are their flaws?
What are their attractive qualities?
What makes them unique and original?
What are their fears?
What are their passions?
Always remember, that the character’s packaging (for example: occupation, physical appearance, mannerisms, upbringing etc) should be unique and fresh but their core traits (values/beliefs) should be universal and relatable.
In Chintu Ka Birthday, the character of Madan Tiwary played by the brilliant Vinay Pathak. What makes him unique? Illegally migrated with his family from a small town in Bihar to war-struck Iraq to earn a better livelihood working as a salesman for a water filter company.
What makes him relatable? His endearing role as a father, who wants to ensure his child celebrates and enjoys his birthday despite all odds - whether they’re financial problems or struck-in-war kinda problems.
“Jo hona hai ho jaye, Chintu ka birthday toh manakar hi rahenge”
“Come what may, we will celebrate Chintu’s birthday.”
Step 4: Before you get into further development of your script - decide your ending. How does your story end?
What lessons do your characters learn?
Decide endings for each of your characters, which indirectly help decide the general ending of your story.
As you’re just in the initial stages of writing, keep few options of how you would like to end your story. Know your ending so you can structure your story well.
Tip: Satyanshu talks about this basic structure in one of his screenwriting sessions with Tanmay Bhat - and the point he emphasises the most on is practising everyday, writing everyday. You must write a scene everyday and give yourself different instances between your characters.
You can also watch this video where Satyanshu breaks down few scenes from Chintu Ka Birthday:
The Structure to Screenwriting
There are different narrative structures that your film can adopt. Whether it’s a play or a feature film - time, place and action are the three main things a screenwriter must look into when fleshing out their story.
These three elements together are known as the ‘Three Unities’ derived from Greek philosopher, Aristotle’s work - The Poetics. These three unities were understood as the rules of ancient storytelling, although, it remains relevant even today, with contemporary playwrights and screenwriters taking inspiration from it for their work.
The three unities are - Unity of Time, Unity of Place and Unity of Action.
Unity of Time: Your story takes place in the course of a single day and night. Unity of Place: Your story takes place in a single physical space/setting. Unity of Action: Your story follows one main action or plot with few to none diversions or subplots. You can watch this video to understand the Three Unities in-depth here.
In Chintu Ka Birthday, we see how Satyanshu, follows these three unities skilfully. Following this thousand year old framework is not a hard-and-fast rule, neither is it ideal for every genre but there’s an important (and logical) reason why as a screenwriter you must befriend this choice - budgeting.
“Restrictions force you to come up with creative solutions.”
As an upcoming screenwriter when you’re pitching your script or planning to produce it independently it always helps when your story doesn’t depend on elaborate sets, exotic locations to be executed.
The whole premise of the film takes place on the day of Chintu’s birthday - from the morning of him getting ready for school, to the attack of the Iraqis in the middle of the day followed to the night into celebrating his birthday.
The film is also set in and takes place in one setting - the Tiwary household in Iraq. The entire story revolves around one action/plot - Chintu’s birthday. While there are many smaller sub-plots, they all work to further this plot line.
Breaking In in the Film Industry
It was at the age of 14, where he watched Ram Gopal Verma’s ‘Satya’ and immediately fell in love with the world of films and grew fascinated with filmmaking. Haven’t we all had a similar moment of realisation, the moment where everything clicked?
It’s then, when you know you want to write for films/tv shows but you wonder, in such a massive industry as the Indian cinema, where do you really start?
For starters, it doesn’t matter where you come from.
While starting out in Bollywood or any industry can seem intimidating, your talent matters more than you where you grew up. Coming from a small town in Bihar, Satyanshu shared similar hesitancies before making his big move to the city of dreams.
His first break after moving to Mumbai was Udaan (2010), where he penned the beautiful poems in the film. It was a beautiful coincidence or as Satyanshu calls it “poetic justice” that he lived a very similar life to that of the film’s protagonist - a young boy wanting to become a writer, but faces the scorn of his father.
“Stop trying to be someone else, play on your strengths and you will be noticed.”
After studying in a competitive field like medicine, Satyanshu moved to an even more competitive industry - the film industry. You might get caught up in the whirlwind of trying to break in here and right there, it is important to trust what you bring to the table. The right opportunities and right people will take notice of this and you’ll get your big break.
Be ready for your fair share of odd-jobs before the big break. Before getting his first break, Satyanshu started off as a writer for ‘Mahua’ a Bhojpuri channel where he wrote the final draft of the screenplay for one the show’s from cassette tapes sent in by the director who was too lazy to do it himself.
When the opportunity is in front of you, you must be ready with the perfect script. The final draft of your work should be at a stage where if you’re called for a narration, you’re ready.
The Art of Pitching Your Script
When you have a script in hand, the next step is to pitch to the right producer/director. Here’s all that you need to be prepared with for that moment!
Along with the final draft, ensure your screenplay has a one page synopsis. In the fast- paced industry such as our Bollywood, chances are that you might get a short meeting with someone who could help you out, in such cases, a short, crisp synopsis would help determine the fate of your script.
You must also have a log line, which is a brief summarisation of your script in a line or two. So when someone asks what is your screenplay about? Your answer would be the log line.
A typical template for your log line would be:
When [CONFLICT] happens, [PROTAGONIST] decides [TO DO ACTION] against [ANTAGONIST].
Here’s a video that will help you better understand how to get your log line right:
While these are more of the tactical things required for your big pitch, Satyanshu also emphasises on getting your attitude right before your pitch. Your approach to the whole process of pitching should start with accepting the challenges and rejections that will come along with it.
Know that there a millions just like you, with the same dream as you, all you need is the conviction to pull through, so when the moment of turning your dream into a reality appears in front of you, you grab it and make the most of it.