The Sunflower Seeds

Smriti Dewan – “If you’re not having fun writing, the person reading is not going to have fun either”

“If you’re not having fun writing, the person reading is not going to have fun either”

Most authors start with books and then, if they’re lucky, they get a screen adaptation of their book. 

Smriti Dewan is the opposite. She spent well over a decade working in the television industry and on OTT platform shows. She has been an Assistant Director on Kaun Banega Crorepati and she has worked on projects across TLC, Animal Planet, Discovery ID, History Channel and the National Geographic Channel.  

Her documentary on climate change India 2050 for Discovery Channel won Best Documentary at the Asian Academy Creative Awards.

Her work as a director includes 15 short documentary films for for which she received many accolades and the chance to speak at TEDxHIT Kolkata.

Her fiction writing includes shows like Ashoka on Colours, Lajwanti on Zee Tv.

After all these accomplishments she decided to add another feather to her cap- novel writing.

During the coronavirus lockdown she wrote a book on Urmila from the Ramayana, Laxmana’s wife. Through her perspective, we see what happened in Ayodhya after Ram, Sita and Laxmana left for their exile.

In this scintillating interview, we explore her transition from director to author:

So most authors dream of getting their books to screen and you did the opposite. How did that happen?

So of course I understand everyone’s dream is to go from book to screen. But I went to film school, so I started off in the industry, started off with the screen. And I think what happens is that because screenwriting is such a collaborative process beyond the point you think, “I want to write my own story. I think I want to be the soul of this story. I wanna make all the decisions in this.” 

So there’s no interference, there’s no producer, there’s no budget constraints- it’s just your imagination. So that was like a passion project of mine. That’s something that would be entirely mine with no interference creatively. 

Well, it’s done really well. But did anything about writing surprise you? Was there anything unexpected about the change in medium of storytelling?

The fiction writing process for me started with screenwriting and screenplay writing initially, and I wrote for television. Television has a very episodic sort of format. It’s a very long format, Indian broadcast television, I’m not talking about OTT, so that sort of gave a very good discipline. Writer’s block is not an option there.

Of course, there are some demands from the story, there are some demands From TRP’s, from producers, the directors, the format in general. So when it came to a novel format, that was when I think everything just opened up and you could go anywhere with it. It’s just you and the story on paper and also the privilege to write directly for the reader, which is something you don’t get to do when you’re screenwriting. There are several layers that come on top of your script. So that as a format was so freeing initially when I realised that all that this would sell on would be the power of the story. It’s not going to be a visual, it’s not going to be the actor, it’s not going to be, the set, the budget, etc. And that was as liberating as it was intimidating, because then if it doesn’t work, then it’s solely your writing that is not working, so that is intimidating as well. Novel writing itself is another very long format kind of writing it was very intimidating at first because I wasn’t sure if I could finish one very long story from beginning to end just by myself, because I’ve never written alone. It’s a very long process. It takes 8-9 months, almost a year sometimes and you’re putting on just shooting in the dark and hoping that it sticks. So that was a little bit different because I was used to constant feedback on whether something works or doesn’t. 

But again, as liberating as it was intimidating.

That must have been quite fun then, having to make all the creative choices.

It’s a lot of fun! That’s my thing, if you’re not having fun while writing, then you’re doing something wrong. Every day you get up excited thinking, “Today I’m gonna write this. Today she’s gonna do this. Today Urmila is gonna do this,” 

The Ramayana itself has a lot of heavy values and very heavy lessons so I had to make that a little bit fun and entertaining- for myself also as a writer and for the reader. The modern reader is so impatient today with the number of pages and word count etc. So that itself was a challenge and it was a lot of fun. That’s my belief as a writer that if you’re not having fun writing, the person reading is not going to have fun either.

Which do you think is easier, writing or directing?

I think that depends on the kind of person you are and the kind of strengths that you have. In general, anyone who’s done both will tell you that writing is a lot more difficult because direction is a very collaborative process. You don’t direct alone, you have a whole team. There’s an editor, there are actors, there are set designers, etc etc. 

But writing is a very isolatory. You’re in your own zone, you’re in your own space. Even when you have a writer’s table like you do for series and shows and stuff, even then it’s… I would still say it’s a very lonely process because you are still going back home and doing your own episode.

But for a person like me today I have to say writing comes much easier to me. Also because I have written for say 7-8 years and as a person, the chaos of direction and the unpredictability of direction isn’t something that I can take very easily. Even though there are a lot of people, a lot of my friends, my colleagues, who love that challenge. They love that when you go to go to the set, something might just go wrong and they need to do some firefighting to fix it.

I can fix it, but it takes a lot for me by the end of it, I just wish this hadn’t gone wrong. 

In writing, I don’t have that. In writing, it’s just me. I aspire for perfection, but if it’s not perfect, it’s my fault. If it’s a failure, it’s my failure. If it’s a success, it’s my success. So I like the directness of writing.

If you don’t write every day, it’s almost like if you don’t exercise every day, when you get back to it after many, many days or weeks, months, it’s going to be that much more difficult. But if you continue it, you can always like you know, keep setting the standard a little bit high. So for me that’s what it’s become by now because thankfully I’ve been disciplined enough to continue it over the years, I have not had very big breaks, so at this point it comes much faster to me than direction.

From TV to books, many of your stories try to show women and how they’ve always had a role in ruling and around historical events, even if that’s not always shown on other platforms. Is it your aim to highlight these stories in particular?

So when it comes to history and mythology, (because mythology is something that is too far back in history, if one believes) I think what has happened over the years is that we have been stuck to just one perspective. So even if you look at how countries are governed today, there is no way that there is no female contribution to it, right? It’s just that how recorded history has been written in such a way or has survived in such a pattern that we don’t see much of female contribution. But if you actually go back in time and try to think of how things must have happened, it’s pretty much impossible to not look at the female contribution. It’s just something that has been sort of left out. So I think the whole point to the process is to just bring it back to center. A voice that probably got left out, some contributions that probably got lost in history and retelling with time- it’s just to bring that back in perspective, because practically, it won’t have been possible. 

So even if you look at Indu Sundaresan’s writing, she’s written “Shadow Princes”. One of her books, “Twentieth Wife”, got adapted by a channel into the show called Siyaasat– it’s a story of the Mughal Empire. When you look at that book, when you look at that show that got made out of that book, you see how every decision in the Mughal Empire during Jahangir’s time was influenced by the Haram- the different wives and the politics that was happening. Now, of course, the historians of those times could not possibly have put that in. Also, they have been commissioned by the kings who are male, so the male voice sort of has remained. 

But again, it could not have been possible and I think the attempt is just to just relook at it and maybe just fill the gaps in history. So I think female writers in mythology and historicals like me are trying to do that.

What made you choose Urmila and Yashodhara as your protagonists?

There’s this great writer Maithili Sharan Gupt who has written on both these women and it just happened that I picked up both books on these heroines.

So the plan was to do Urmila first and while researching on Urmila, I chanced upon Yashodhara through Maithili Sharan Gupt’s writing.

The decision to do Urmila was because I’m extremely passionate about mythology and really passionate about Ramayana. Mahabharata is something that I’m extremely scared to touch because it’s just so vast. But when the decision came to do my version of Ramayana and I had to select a character I wanted. For a modern perspective, for a modern readership to understand that world, the values of the characters I needed somebody who’s not a God or a Goddess, because Sita’s perspective would be very elevated because she is somebody who’s quick to make a sacrifice. She’s a goddess, so she sort of has that within her. I wanted someone who is human. I wanted someone who would ask the questions that I’m asking today or who would be asking today about the things that were expected of living in that time. I wanted someone who had fear. I wanted someone who had very human vulnerabilities, insecurities, “Will he leave me? Will my sister forget about me once she leaves? What about my Kingdom? How will I be able to stand up to take responsibility or not?” 

I did not see Ram, Sita or Hanuman or because they are gods and goddesses, and the way their mind is functioning is at some other level. I needed an interpreter, I needed a voice that was asking these questions because you are not. So that is, I think, where Urmila came from. 

The second reason for Urmila was that I always wondered what happened in Ayodhya after these people left. 14 years without a ruler in an extremely politically volatile kingdom that is right at the center! It is not near the sea, it is pretty much surrounded by other kingdoms. So you would need political alliances to keep yourself safe. And when the ruler isn’t there, the heir apparent isn’t there, and another person you know as the de facto ruler has been put in who is not very interested in ruling? You do need somebody who is trying to hold the Fort. Who was holding the Fort because Bharat clearly refused, right? He meditating and everything and that’s not what a ruler does. So that was when I started wondering that there are so many women there, right there, the three wives that are left behind, the three queen mothers that are left behind. What are they doing? How would things be controlled at that point? 

When I was just a reader and not a writer, I honestly just kept waiting for some writer to write this and I thought somebody will. Every time I picked up a book on Ramayana, like a modern retelling or a different kind of retelling or a specific character’s retelling, I was just waiting for that to happen. But everyone was so unfair to Urmila because of the reason that she didn’t leave for the forest like Sita did. The only way to explain that was she was too weak to have survived the forest. She could not have done that, Lakshman told her. She just stayed behind and it was always like she stayed behind in the luxury of the palace when Sita went out to really struggle out there with her husband. But then look at the struggle, it’s not really a life of luxury.  

So I just kept waiting. Is somebody going to talk about it? Is somebody going to do justice to Urmila and and nobody wrote it for years. So I was like, OK, let me just take his opportunity right there. Let me just grab it. So I think that’s where it just pretty much came from.

My Urmila is not the only Urmila out there in the market. There are some other writers who’ve written about her as well.

But I love how you thought of that. How, as you said, everyone would just assume that she’d prefer to stay in luxury. And you thought, but is it luxury living in a Kingdom that’s struggling without a ruler?

Exactly. And the assassinations happening left right and center. 

So in my version, I want people to think about how Laxshman didn’t have to leave. Ram and Sita leaving was is one thing, but Lakshman didn’t have to. Lakshman had a wife, he had someone and he made vows to protect this person.

Nobody says that your brother should be your priority. And once you made that vow of matrimony, your primary family changes. It’s no longer your parents, your brother, your sister, your siblings, etc. It’s now your partner, your wife, your children that you would have. If you think about it, 14 years is literally somebody’s youth! Their years of fertility wasted, which is a very big deal. Producing an heir is a very big thing in a political family especially when you’re ruling. So it’s a thing of security right? If something happens to the heir apparent, we have another one. The heir in the spare. If you don’t have that, there’s literally 14 years of uncertainty. There’s 14 years of vulnerability. There is 14 years of sacrifice when you don’t even have a partner beside you. So that was an angle that nobody was talking about. And I thought, OK, I’ll just leave it to the experts, right? Somebody will pick it up. And then I was like, OK, I think nobody’s picking it up. Let me just do that myself, because that’s when I decided, OK, let me just tell the story that I want to hear.

I’m so glad you took it up because your take on it is so interesting. While I understand a lot of her perspective would have to be conjecture, did you deviate from Valmiki’s Ramayana in any way in the story?

So Valmiki Ramayana is pretty much the loose structure of Ramayana that I’ve taken. And fortunately or unfortunately Valmiki’s Ramayana did not have anything written about the angles that I was taking, which is what happens in the 14 years when they are not here. So that was pretty much a big glaring gap in that story and that gave me a lot of space and honestly, I was glad for it because then I can just go wherever I like.

The brilliance of the original is that there was so much to take from too,  like the Shiva’s bow was broken and I was like, but we need to really bring that back because that is such a powerful weapon and we just left it. 

So I took a lot from the original, the actual trajectory of Ram and Sita’s journey, I left as is. Even Lakshman I left as is. 

The Ram Charit Manas gave a great perspective because that was one perspective that kept Sita in mind a lot and kept sympathising with Sita a lot. And from there, I sort of got my clues for what her sisters would be feeling. What would be feeling? How Mandavi or Shruti would react if Ram sent her back when she was pregnant. It is. She’s not a woman of the streets, right? She was a Princess before she became his queen. Why didn’t nobody come and get her right? Why did her sisters not come? Why did her father Janak not come and get her? So it was that that was where Ram Charit Manas answered a lot of questions and that is where I also took the angle. 

But otherwise because the choice was to take a secondary character and make her a protagonist, there was just a lot of scope, a lot of space for me to do my own thing.

How did you research Yashodhara’s story for your book? 

So Yashodhara was a lot of research because she’s the wife of Gautam Buddha when he was Siddhartha. And the myth and the history of Buddha itself is spread across Jain history, Buddhist history and Chinese history. And a lot of it is myth-making in retrospect- things that don’t actually align with historical facts because it was written by religious followers and rewritten and with lots of details added.

 But even then it’s just so sad that this one woman who was his partner, who was his wife, who was also his cousin, has no mention because she’s that insignificant. 

Historians are not even sure of her name! Was it Yashodhara? It could have been Bhadra Kanchana according to Jain history. So the research was very difficult there because it’s a lot closer in history and it’s also not exactly completely Hindu history or even Indian history because his place of birth is Nepal and there’s a whole lot of mixing of cultures and a lot of China-meets-India that happens culturally over there and the value systems are very different. Their beliefs of gods and divinity and atheism and worship were very different. Things like Mahabharata and Ramayana sort of still exist in a similar realm, but here it wasn’t like that. Values were different, so that was a lot more difficult to research because there was so much contradiction between the different genres itself. 

But beyond the point, I think one just needs to remember you’re not writing the PhD thesis, you are writing a fictional story. So I think as a writer, I have just trained myself to stop beyond a certain point from just drowning in history and research and just start writing. Because beyond a point you have to create your own universe. You have to create your own characters and their values and how they were raised, etc. So yeah, that’s what- I had stop myself from asking more and more questions because there was nothing about Yashodhara. There was still a lot about Siddhartha’s journey. But even the other books that exist on Yashodhara everyone of them has pretty much the same narrative. He left. She was sad. She cried. Then she forgave.

There was a lot that must have happened between, especially because when he returned, wasn’t she a prisoner of war? 

Correct, And when he returned and she meets him, he is the Buddha, he is not Siddhartha anymore, right? He’s not the man that she married. He is not the boy that she fell in love with. This is another divine being, right, whose mind has changed, his philosophy has changed, his perspective has changed, who has pretty much deleted his entire histor and he has moved on literally to a different realm of existence, so she never gets an apology from him. So there’s just no closure there because the Siddhartha doesn’t exist anymore and the Buddha is a different being who never did anything to her and Siddhartha isn’t there. So even though there’s no physical death of that character, it just doesn’t exist anymore. So I thought that was the most tragic thing ever. I mean even if someone dies, there’s a way to mourn that person. This person just left you in the middle of the night and, of course, he had his own struggles, etc. But to never get an apology, To never get the reason will never get closure. How will she ever achieve Nirvana?

That’s a very interesting way of looking at it, because the man she did meet was a different one from the one who left.

Exactly. That’s the conundrum of her life. And you don’t meet people who are in that situation. So there’s like no precedent on how to deal with that. So that’s where the story came from, pretty much.

It’ll be so fascinating to read. My husband left me and became a God. How do I deal with that?

My husband left me, my husband left my child and my husband left his Kingdom. So it was a betrayal at 3 levels. It’s a betrayal of my husband. It’s a betrayal of a father. 

That’s quite sad to see. So both your stories involve people in a way, whose husband went off on a quest and they were just left behind.

Purely coincidental. There’s sort of a pattern there, I see, but purely coincidental.

What advice would you give aspiring authors?

My advice would be to novelists, not poets or short story writers- when you’re writing a novel, just concentrate on your work, on the quality of your writing while you’re writing. Once you’re done writing, only concentrate on the kind of publisher that would be right for your book. And once you are done publishing, please keep a budget aside for promotions because you are going to need it, especially as a debutante writer. And don’t leave your day job thinking that you’re gonna make it as an overnight success- that’s not gonna happen. Just please keep your day job or plan it accordingly. Don’t expect to just get famous overnight and that your book will just sell out.

So just manage your expectations and don’t stop writing.

Who are your favourite authors and how do you feel they’ve shaped your writing?

So many many favorite authors in different categories and genres and languages! But I’ll just tell you the ones that have influenced my writing, whose styles I take a lot from. First being Gillian Flynn, ‘Gone Girl’ was game changer, I feel and the ease with which she switches from author mode to scriptwriter mode and now producer, I think it’s great how she’s pulled that off. 

The second would be Suzanne Collins. The way she wrote Katniss was pretty much the foundation for how I wanted Urmila’s voice to be, because Katniss’s femininity is never an obstacle. It’s not even a factor in the entire process of The Hunger Games, even though it’s a very physical game, it’s a very physical competition. So I loved how she just managed to do that as a contemporary female author with like a heroine-centric narrative, 

Geetanjali Shree is somebody that I have recently discovered. I don’t know how I have never heard about her…primarily because I don’t read a lot of Hindi books and I don’t know a lot of people who do so nobody recommended it. I just came across it while I was on the development team for the production house and we read a lot of books for scope of adaptation, etc. It just came my way after ‘The Tomb of Sand’ had gone out to win the Booker and I chose to read it in Hindi because I didn’t want the translated version.

I just shut it for a while because I just couldn’t. The beauty of her writing! It just came like a wave that hit you. And then after that, you were just questioning everything- you’re just questioning your own writing, like how will I ever write like this? You’re asking God, please tell me if I will ever be able to get where she is today. 

And it’s just so sad that Geetanjali Shree is such a senior writer and Geetanjali Shree did not become Geetanjali Shree overnight, she has been writing since the last 25-30 years. She’s written so many books and we have only just come to know of a genius, that too after like validation from the West. There must be so many writers like Gitanjali Shree in our country out there in regional writing. This is Hindi writing right? And we don’t see them in bookstores, we don’t see them anywhere. You will not walk into an airport bookstore and just see Hindi books over there. It’s just really sad that this is a state of affairs in our own country with so much talent. 

One more writer I have to mention is a Hindi writer, another very senior lady called Malti Joshi who writes short stories in Hindi and the sheer economy of words with which she goes on to tell such complicated stories of relationships in middle-class families of women! She’s as old as my grandmother and she’s still writing and she’s just amazing. I would suggest if anybody can even read simple Hindi, please go ahead and look up Malti Joshi on Amazon. Her books are like ₹80 rupees, ₹70. Mine are ₹499 and I’m just a first-time author and it’s just so sad that this is the state of affairs between English versus Hindi.

So it really, I mean we really should promote our regional languages and just Hindi, our national language, much more.

Would you consider writing in another language?

I have attempted writing in Hindi but just dialogues. I don’t think I need to write a whole long format story. I can attempt a short story if I really want to challenge myself. Thank you for that suggestion. I might just want to do that. Take that up sometime.

Do you have any future writing projects? Do tell us about them if you can

Yeah. So in publishing books-wise “Yashodara”, and I have another modern myth, that is based on Chiranjeevi. 

There are these seven characters who are called Chiranjeevi in Hindu mythology. These are characters who were either cursed or blessed with immortality and it’s believed that they still walk amongst us. So Chiranjeevi are in the modern world and they are sort of trying to save humanity from Kalyuga and destruction and apocalypse- it’s a whole new genre.

That sounds really interesting and I’m sure it resonates with people because it also gives people the hope that all of these entities are still alive amongst us.

Yes. And yeah, I mean exactly after COVID and being so close to an apocalyptic end to the world. Reality became like so fiction like that I think people are more willing to believe in these things now. At least I was- I was waiting for a Messiah. 

It is also a great way to break away from the whole feminist myth mode. I think I’m sort of done with that now. 

So would these Chiranjeevi’s be silently working in the background to keep the world running like a spy agency?

So let’s just say I think these are modern Hindu Avengers trying to save the world.

They will be like superheroes?

Yes, like superheroes with their own conflicts with each other, amongst each other, and out there with the world and in life in general.