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Motti Lerner, the Israeli playwright was recently inIndia. Our TIF team caught up with him in IIT D, where he had come to conduct a workshop on script writing. The workshop was indeed fabulous. After attending it, I understood how scripts actually are made and how all the famous plays are somehow connected. The workshop also cleared some of my personal doubts, like why all Hindi movies are similar.
(In the workshop, he made a story by asking the characters name and description from the audience. It went something like this: A girl, Aish, wants to become a painter but her father, who is an accountant, wants her to be an accountant. Aish tries to explain things to her father but she is not successful. Therefore, she joins the accounting school but secretly attends arts school. Aish is Muslim, she has a boy friend who is Hindu and attends the arts class with her. His dad notices the change in Aish and one day follows her secretly. He gets the whole picture. The same evening her parents confront her. Finally, as in all of Motti Lerner’s plays, Aish gives in and accepts her reality. She leaves her boyfriend and painting dreams and starts attending the accounts school. Her dad goes to drop her at the college and they wish each other goodbye, but inside Aish is dead. She goes on with her society-defined life never questioning anything.)
Although Motti Lerner explained the story in a classic way, but I am sure this will give our readers a brief idea of what happened before the interview was taken.
After the workshop, my fellow partner Sushmita Samaddar and me, asked Motti Lerner for an interview, which he gracefully obliged us with.
Me: During the workshop, you created a wonderful story out of thin air, based completely on Indian characters and theme. That really made script writing look simple. Before coming here, I had read a lot about you and I knew that your plays and scripts usually end with the failure of the character in achieving his or her dreams. And me being a lover of happy endings, I wanted to know why. However, after attending the workshop most of my doubts have been cleared. Now what I want to ask you is, what could be an alternate ending to the story you just created?
ML: I think the ending can happen in many ways. I am just trying to say that it has to end by a failure because if at the end of the play the protagonist gets whatever he wanted, such happy ending would not force the spectator to ponder on it. It would be like an average commercial film.
(I suggest an alternative ending to him, in which the protagonist continues with her accountancy school, becomes an accountant, marries an accountant and finally settles into a life her parents wanted her to live. She has a 10 year old daughter, who is not at all good in maths and one day after seeing her low grades in maths, her accountant father scolds her, to which the little girl replies- “But dad I don’t want to be an accountant. I want to be a painter.” The screen shifts to her mother (our protagonist), her dumbstruck face and the movie ends. (Your classic O. Henry type endings)
ML: That could be a possible ending. However, a play should not take place over a very long period. (In this case, it was atleast 15 years). It will not work. What you could rather do is create Aish living today and then show her past (15 years ago).
Me: In between the play. Like in flash backs.
ML: No, not in between. Flashbacks are stupid. They don’t work. You start with her present, then show the whole story of her youth and then end the play with your ending. Still it will not have that effect on the audience as the sort of effect a sad ending has.
Me: Okay, because a sad ending forces the people to discuss and comment on it. This makes the audience an active part and not just a passive listener. It leaves the audience with a question, isn’t it?
ML: The question is relatively unimportant. What is important is the process through which we reach the conclusion.
Me: Indeed. This brings me to a very important question that I wanted to ask you. You are a playwright. And playwrights create scripts. So you must have a certain plot in your mind. You have an image of how things should be, how the characters should behave and how the story unfolds, etc. However, eventually the director, who is more often than not, a different person, creates the play. So how does he manage to do it? How does he adapt to someone else’s story? From a playwright’s view, how do you feel when a film or play doesn’t go as per you planned it out while writing?
ML: Obviously, there is a gap. There is a huge difference between what you have written and how it is enacted on screen because you don’t know who the actors are, you don’t know how they are going to connect with the characters and how they will express their feelings. You don’t know what their focal points will be. This is why playwrights participate in the rehearsals and take part in the process of creating the film. But you are not there on all the shootings, so then it is in the hands of the director. Sometimes you get frustrated, sometimes you are satisfied and sometimes what the director brings in is much better then what you imagined. That happens many times too!
Me: While working on a play, you must have struck many dead ends. Many people, who are trying to write a novel or script, give up. How do you know when your play isn’t working? How/When do you know the difference between “I’m just stuck, I’ll work through it” and “This play was simply not meant to be.” Moreover, what do you do about it?
ML: That never happened to me. I have been writing for more than 30 years and that has never happened to me. Always when I have difficulty, I know that it is something that I have to work out. I work with even more intense determination. So a difficulty is leveraged to work hard. I never in my life gave up on a script. I never in my life started writing a script and didn’t finish it. 2-3 projects that I did, which were not produced were for many different reasons and not because I didn’t finish them. Political reasons, financial reasons, sometimes I couldn’t find partners or investors, mostly it had to do with money.
Me: You just mentioned that you have been writing for more than 30 years. So how did it all began? Did you always want to become a writer? As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
ML: No, not always. As a child, I was more interested in science and I actually graduated in maths but then I realized that maths was so much separated from my life. Being a mathematician didn’t really apply to your life and I wanted to do something that has to do with the way I live the life I had.
Me: How was the transition from being a maths graduate to eventually a famous playwright?
ML: Well it was not an abrupt one. At that time, I was living with a girlfriend, who was a theatre student. Many catalysts helped me to come to this decision. The decision was mostly taken because I didn’t want to do something that was so disconnected from the way I wanted to live life.
Me: During this long journey, you must have read many plays by many writers. Which were the ones that inspired you the most?
ML: You must not have heard the names of many of my favorite writers. I admire Chekov from Russia, Brecht fromGermany, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill from US.
Me: Do you want to recommend any film to our readers and future writers for inspiration?
ML: I would recommend them to watch “A Street Car Named Desire” starring Marlon Brando. Just watch Vivien Leigh’s performance in it. It is one of the finest that Americahas produced.
Me: Have you seen any Indian movie?
ML: I haven’t seen one till now but yes definitely I am going to watch some now.
Me: What do you think about the Indian culture? Did you like it?
ML: You know I had a great experience here. I came here because one of my plays is being shown in one of the theatres here. I was very fascinated by the way the play was done here. It was a kind of a fusion between the play that comes from a different civilization was done in a kind of traditional Indian way. I was very excited about it.
Me: Let me ask you the last question before we wind up this interview. How long will your visit to India will be?
ML: Well this time I am not staying for long. I came here last year; I was a research fellow at JNU for 3 months last year. I had a great time. But now I came for only 3 weeks and that’s it, I am going back now next week and I hope I come back again.