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Q&A: Gyan Prakash, History Professor and screenwriter of "Bombay Velvet"

Last week, “Bombay Velvet” showed at Princeton Garden Theatre as a Prof Picks movie. Street went behind the scenes with Gyan Prakash, a history professor as well as the film's screenwriter and the author of the book “Mumbai Fables.” In this interview, he shares his inspiration for the book, discusses his thoughts on the film and takes us through the screenwriting process.


Daily Princetonian: What inspired “Mumbai Fables”?

Gyan Prakash: The inspiration for “Mumbai Fables” was personal. Mumbai is not my hometown. I grew up more than 1,000 miles away from it. But Bombay, as the city was called until 1995, loomed large in my youthful imagination. It was never just a big city, but a myth, a legend, an object of desire. This desire was stoked by cinema, magazines, novels and newspapers, which together created a fabulous image of the city. The physical distance rendered it a mythic place of discovery and sustained the experience of growing up as a fantasy of exploring what was beyond one’s reach, what was “out there.”

My actual encounter with the city was many years later in 2000, when I spent three months there trying to figure out what to do with my youthful obsession. As I walked around the city, soaking in the sights of streets, buildings and crowds, my fascination with Bombay did not diminish. I became curious to understand the source of Bombay’s allure. I am a historian, so I decided to dig beneath the myths to find out what produced them, what were the backstories behind the stories the city told about itself. As I researched Mumbai’s history over the next eight years, I found myths, aspirations, dreams and nightmares lurking behind the city’s brick and mortar. “Mumbai Fables” became a quest to understand the place of imagination in the city’s history.

DP: What was it like to see “Bombay Velvet” on the silver screen?

GP: “Bombay Velvet” is not an adaption of “Mumbai Fables.” I wrote the original story and the screenplay for the film before I wrote “Mumbai Fables,” drawing on my research for the book. The director and two other co-writers revised my screenplay to create a shooting script. To finally see it on the screen — 10 years after I first wrote the story — was thrilling. All the ups and downs of the intervening years became worthwhile when I saw the story, the acting, the music, the period set design and the cinematography come together beautifully. The film does what it was supposed to do — that is, tell the story of how Bombay became Bombay by selling dreams to people while ruthlessly suppressing those who came in the way.

DP: What was the screenwriting process like?


GP: Script writing was a hard and long learning process, though it was enjoyable. I had never written a script before so the first thing I did was to study examples of other scripts, like “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” Then, I read standard books on script writing. After a lot of preparation, I started turning my original story into a script. The interesting part of it was the timing. I wrote the script in 2008 and 2009 while I was also writing [“Mumbai Fables”]. The book was helped by the discipline and economy you have to deploy in writing a script. I remember deleting pages and pages of writing because they did not meet the standards of narrative clarity and focus that comes from script writing. I think I became a better writer because of writing “Bombay Velvet.” And in writing the script, I drew on the events and characters that I write about in the book. This helped give historical richness and authenticity to the script. I wrote numerous versions of the script before handing it to the director. Looking back, I think it was still too sprawling and too ambitious. The director and two co-writers helped to streamline it and turn it into a shooting script.

DP: What elements from your book did you have difficulty implementing in the movie?

GP: It was not my book but the story I had written in 2004 that I turned into a script. Since the story concerned Bombay’s historical transformation from an industrial city to a postindustrial city of real estate and finance, it had many moving parts. The main challenge was to convey the complexity of this historical change in a compelling fictional narrative. The script, therefore, invented protagonists that were drawn from historical figures, and created a fictional narrative that was based on actual events. This required the script to depart from Bollywood’s conventional storytelling, which relies on melodrama and simple narrative lines. Not surprisingly, most Indian film reviewers, who are not really cinema critics but entertainment advisers and Bollywood’s gatekeepers, reacted negatively. In my view, and that of many others inside and outside India who have seen the film, “Bombay Velvet” is a triumph.

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