Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tamil Screenplay writing - my experience

I just finished a feature-length Tamil screenplay. I could not find many resources for Tamil screen writing in the web. So here goes, for people like me, looking to write feature-length screenplays.

(My new story, a Chola period Tamil historical novella, is at Tamil Story - ஒற்றாடல் )

Note: I have just started approaching people with the screenplay. I have very little knowledge of marketing a screenplay - informed commenters can help here.

Note 2: I am not going into the details of how to form a film-worth story or how to use imagination. I assume that you can form stories and break it into scenes, with drama and dialog.

Screenplays in general
Screenwriters usually write a "Spec" screenplay (for "speculative"). These scripts are not numbered and do not include production information. We are only talking about spec screenplays here.
Spec screenplays are stories - but they are written in a different format than novels or dramas.
At a high level, a screenplay is narrated in scenes that the viewer sees. Each scene has a heading, "action" and dialog.
At a lower level, these elements of a screenplay have to formatted very specifically (at least in Hollywood).
As an example, take a look at the following scene in one of short stories in this blog:
நானும், ராமனும், ரிஷியும் அடர்ந்த வனத்துக்குள் புகுந்த ஓரிரு நாட்களிலேயே சற்றே பயமுறுத்தும் காட்சிகளைக் கண்டோம்.
பாழடைந்த ஒரு பிரதேசம். பாறைகள் அங்குமிங்கும் உருண்டிருந்தன. செம்மண்ணில் வெயில் தகித்தது. அங்கங்கே பெரிய மரங்கள். சில இடங்களில் முள் காடுகள்.
இரண்டு மூன்று இடங்களில் சில மண்டை ஓடுகள் கிடந்தன. ரிஷி சுற்றுமுற்றும் பார்த்தவாறே நடந்தார். நான் ஆவலுடன், "ஏதோ யுத்தம் நடந்த மாதிரி இருக்கிறது?" என்றேன்.
"இலக்குவா, தாடகை என்னும் அரக்கியின் உறைவிடம் இது",என்றார் ரிஷி. அந்த மண்டை ஓடுகளைச் சுட்டிக் காட்டி, "அவளுடைய இரை ", என்றார்.
என் உடம்பு நடுங்கியது. "மிதிலைக்கு இந்த வழியாகத் தான் சென்றாக வேண்டுமா?" என்றேன்.
சற்றுத் தள்ளி கோணல் மாணலாக ஒரு எலும்புக் கூடு கிடந்தது. அதைக் காட்டி, "என் சிஷ்யன் பிங்கலன்", என்றார் ரிஷி.
அன்று இரவு ஒரு பெரிய மரத்தின் மேல் ஏறி படுத்துத் தூங்கினோம்.
மரத்தின் கடினமான கிளையில் படுத்தவாறே நான் வாழ்க்கையைப் பற்றி யோசித்தேன். பல நாட்களுக்கு முன்னால் அயோத்தியில் வில்லையும், அம்பையும் வைத்துக் கொண்டு மாங்காய் அடித்துத் தின்று கொண்டிருந்தோம். இந்த ரிஷி வந்து அழைத்துப் போனார். எனக்கு என் தந்தை தசரத மன்னர் என்னை அனுப்பி வைத்ததில் ஆச்சரியமில்லை. அவருக்குப் பாதி நேரம் எனக்கும் என் இரட்டைச் சகோதரன் சத்ருக்னனுக்கும் வித்தியாசமே தெரியாது. இன்னும் யாரை அனுப்பினோம் என்று அவருக்குத் தெரிந்திருக்காது.
ஆனால் ராமனை, பட்டத்து இளவரசனை எப்படி இந்த தாடி மீசை முனிவருடன் காட்டுக்கு அனுப்பி வைத்தார்? ராமன் மேல் அவருக்கு அடங்காத பாசம். மிகவும் நல்லவன் என்று ஒரு நினைப்பு.

This same scene, in a screenplay will look like this:

வெளிப்புறம் - ஒரு காட்டுப் பகுதி - பகல்
பாழடைந்த ஒரு பிரதேசம். பாறைகள் அங்குமிங்கும் உருண்டிருகின்றன. செம்மண்ணில் வெயில் தகிக்கிறது. அங்கங்கே பெரிய மரங்கள். சில இடங்களில் முள் காடுகள்.
இரண்டு மூன்று இடங்களில் சில மண்டை ஓடுகள் கிடக்கின்றன.
காட்டுப் பாதையில் மூன்று பேர் நடந்து வருகிறார்கள். முதலில் ஐம்பது வயது மதிக்கத்தக்க முனிவர், விஸ்வாமித்ரர், வருகிறார். அவர் பின்னால் இளம் வாலிபன் ராமன், கையில் வில்லுடன் வருகிறான். அவன் முதுகில் அம்புகள் வைக்கும் தூணி தெரிகிறது.
கடைசியில் நம் கதாநாயகன், இலக்குவன், வருகிறான். இலக்குவனுக்கு பதினாறு வயதிருக்கும். அவனும் கையில் வில்லும், அம்புகளும் வைத்திருக்கிறான்.
ரிஷி சுற்றுமுற்றும் பார்த்தவாறே வருகிறார்.
ஏதோ யுத்தம் நடந்த மாதிரி இருக்கிறது?
இலக்குவா, தாடகை என்னும் அரக்கியின் உறைவிடம் இது.
இலக்குவன் மண்டை ஓடுகளைப் பார்க்கிறான். அவன் உடம்பு நடுங்குகிறது.
மிதிலைக்கு இந்த வழியாகத் தான் செல்ல வேண்டுமா?
சற்றுத் தள்ளி கோணல்மாணலாக ஒரு எலும்புக் கூடு கிடக்கிறது.
(அதைக் காட்டி)
என் சிஷ்யன் பிங்கலன்.
வெளிப்புறம் - காடு – இரவு
ஒரு பெரிய மரத்தின் கிளைகள் தெரிகின்றன. அதன் மேல் கிளைகளில், ராமன், இலக்குவன், விஸ்வாமித்திரர் மூவரும் படுத்திருக்கிறார்கள்.

You can see the following about this screenplay format:
1. We are only allowed to narrate what is visible on the screen. Thus Ilakkuvan's "thoughts" go away.
2. We need to narrate whatever is relevant to the story and setting.
3. You can also see the distinct elements here - character names (like Ilakkuvan, Viswamiththirar); action, scene headings (வெளிப்புறம் - காடு – இரவு ), and a paranthetical ( அதைக் காட்டி).

We will understand this weird format better, if we know who the screenplay is meant for.
A screenplay is meant for a director's eye. It is NOT meant for a general audience. Although screenplays should be interesting to read and should follow all correct conventions, it is really a communication from the author to the key production staff.
If you understand this, a lot of the specific requirements for formatting make sense. There are very specific rules on how to write, for example,
1. A Series of Shots
2. Flashback
3. Voice Overs
4. Continuous Action and so on.
Please take a moment now to browse through the excellent Internet Movie Script Database. Look through these scripts:
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Sixth Sense

(Script writing rules even include the number of inches of margin for the dialog or paranthetical.)
While writing my screenplay, whenever I have questions about writing (say) Flashbacks or even showing Superimposed text, I would think about some movie where such a feature is shown, and then refer to the actual script in imsdb.com.

There are also websites available for screen writing format. Please refer to:
How To Format a Screenplay
How To Write a Screenplay

The following items should be avoided in screenplays:
1. Camera Angles (This is for the director to decide); you can refer to POVs (Point-of-Views) though.
2. Acting guidelines (such as - his shoulders shake while crying; that is for the actor to decide)
3. Specific actors (in the Indian context)
4. Songs or song lyrics (in the Indian context)
5. Music suggestions (such as - a lone violin plays in the background; that is for the music composer to decide)

So the idea is to stick to the story and narrate it visually.
An average Hollywood script has 80-100 scenes. An average Hollywood scripts has around a 100 pages. In Tamil, of course, our movies are longer. The thumb rule is that a page of script is a minute's running time. The actual running time, of course, depends on the mix of action and dialog.

Tamil scriptwriting - Technicalities
In Hollywood, because of the specific scriptwriting requirements, many screen writers use software such as Final Draft. These make the writer's job easier. They take care of the formatting. They even prompt character names when you type the first letter. Some such software are so advanced that they can play a line of dialog back to you as a voice (male/female; tenor etc are adjustable). In other words, you can actually have a "staged reading" right in front of your computer.
Unfortunately, none of these work with Indian languages.
I used Microsoft Word. But I also downloaded Google IME from here. Google IME lets you choose Tamil for input into any editor. All that you have to do is choose Tamil in the toolbar and type in Word. When you type, you type in English and it transliterates into Tamil. The Thaadakaa screenplay above was typed using this method. It has some quirks, but is easy to learn.
Now that we have solved typing in Tamil, how do we manage the screenplay format? The correct way is to use a Microsoft Word Template file. There is a file used by English writers called Screenplay.dot, available for download here. Download this file and make it the template for your script, BEFORE starting to write the script. It has to be adjusted for Tamil.
Make this file your template in Microsoft Word (Tools->Templates and Add-Ins).
When typing the screenplay, keep Format->Styles and Formatting panel open and you can easily use the different formats such as Dialog, Character, Action, Paranthetical and so on.

My method
Of course, this was my first screenplay, but I may as well document the method I used.
I first wrote screen summaries on paper; these were sketches of each scene, with some dialog and description. These summaries were for my purpose and so were not formatted.
Then I expanded these and used Word to type in the scenes in some detail.
Finally I rewrote the scenes and formatting to fit what I wanted. The final action scenes were entirely written in Word.
I must have rewritten different scenes several times.
I faced a problem with dialogs; my story was a historical, set in 500 AD. I had to incorporate both humor and a natural flow in such a setting. I found it took much effort to do that.
Action scenes were very interesting to write. I followed the advice of screen writing gurus - I wrote detailed action with very specific settings, including sword fights.

Copyrighting the Script
First, note that when you write something in paper, it is copyrighted to you automatically, by Indian law. In other words, nobody can take that work and claim that you did NOT copyright it; and therefore they are free to take it. The moment you have a work on paper you get copyright.
But, you still need to get a legal copyright in case someone takes your work and claims THEY wrote it. You can read about the details in this website.
There are three methods of copyrighting. I did two of them. The third one is available only after you are actually part of the film industry.
1. Register with Copyright Authority of India. You have to contact a lawyer or law firm for this. They ask for four printed, spiral-bound copies of the actual work. It costs around Rs.5000. The authority sits in New Delhi and it takes them more than an year to deliver a copyright to you. BUT, you will get a temporary ID within 20 days. That is enough for our purposes.
2. Self-Registration - Go to the post office with a sealed envelope containing a single spiral-bound copy of your work. Send it to yourself by registered post. When you receive the envelope, do NOT open it. Keep it somewhere safe. If you get challenged at some point, you can open the envelope in court and prove that you own the copyright earlier.
3. Registering with the South Indian Film Writers Association - The association performs registrations for members ONLY. You cannot become a member unless you are a part of the film industry. But once you become a part of the industry, this registration is useful.
Do NOT share your work without copyrighting - that is the advice given to me by some contacts.

Marketing in Tamil
As I said initially, I am not really familiar with the methods to get attention on a script in the Tamil film industry.
In Hollywood, the agents take care of marketing your script - therefore you first need to impress the agents. Hollywood production houses rely on effective scripts.
The Tamil industry is getting corporatised right now. Usually that is good for screenwriters. But Tamil directors seem to write their own scripts.
Producers do buy scripts, but the original writer rarely gets credits.
In other words, it is not really clear whom to approach - directors? actors? producers?
Only writers of fame, like Sujatha, Jeyamohan, S.Ramakrishnan - who were already famous fiction writers - seem to be engaged by directors for screenplay writing, with credits. I am sure there are many writers out there, but the industry seems to revolve around directors and actors.
I am planning to approach a couple of directors. Let us see how that goes.

(My new story, a Chola period Tamil historical novella, is at Tamil Story - ஒற்றாடல் )